Thursday, June 28, 2018

Review: Anima - Gate of Memories - Arcane Edition [Nintendo Switch eShop]


When you see games being compared to the likes of Dark Souls or something like Nier they tend to get your attention, but only if the comparisons are favorable. Aiming high and aspiring to create something that can attain those levels of success is admirable but while many have tried it’s hard to put together something in that same league. While it’s obviously trying to swing for the fences, unfortunately Anima: Gate of Memories just fails to inspire in almost any area, making for a frustrating experience.


In the Arcane Edition specifically you’ll have the opportunity to play through 2 different odd stories cut from the same general cloth: One as a young woman known as The Bearer of Calamities and another as a character called The Nameless. I can’t say either of their stories are terribly memorable, it is mostly just the odd details like The Bearer’s talking book that come to mind. That’s not to say that a rich world full of lore wasn’t attempted, just I struggled to find it interesting. A big part of the problem is that the characters’ motivations, as a whole, feel pretty one-dimensional and the often over-dramatic quality of the voice acting made it all a bit silly.


Moving on to the gameplay itself it’s best broken down into exploration and adventuring versus the combat. Starting with the exploration of the world while there can be flair in some of the environments there’s no getting away from how sparse and sterile they are as a whole. Aside from the enemies, some pick-ups, and perhaps some moving blocks that provide for some minor platforming there’s just nothing going on. This gives the world a very last-gen feel to me, even if the style of everything is pretty cool overall. The platorming I mentioned, for the most part is fortunately rare and mostly there to make you work a little harder for a given item pick-up for piece of lore. The camera can really be your enemy in these situations though, as for the most part it’s a struggle to get it into a decent position as you try to make accurate jumps.


Even with the game’s other failings, compelling and tight combat could have been a real saving grace. Unfortunately, not only is the camera generally your enemy in these sequences, but on the whole fighting tends to fly between being pretty generic and repetitive and just outright cheap. Going up against an array of different generic enemies can have its moments, as the various moves you have at your disposal allow for doing things like juggling and showing some personal flair. However, when you’re facing multiple enemies the combat can feel a bit clunky, even if you use the lock-on system. It’s workable but there doesn’t seem to be a flow to it like there can be in other titles in similar situations. Boss battles, though at least a bit more interesting, can be aggravating and inconsistent. It’s not so much that they’re generally overpowered as both their attacks and your means of winning are often so cheap and unsatisfying. Taking a boss down with superior strategy and execution is satisfying, but wearing them down slowly through repetition starts to feel hollow after a while.


Overall, though there’s a fair amount of content between both games and the production qualities are decent on the whole I found Anima: Gate of Memories to be aggravating in both of its forms in this edition. It’s possible I may not somehow be in their target audience but instead I choose to believe that despite whatever lofty goals they had for the title it just isn’t executed very well against its contemporaries. On multiple levels this feels like a game that could have found success one or two generations ago but as titles have broken through and proven what’s possible it now comes up lacking. If you’re interested in the property or are itching for some decent slashing action it has its moments but be warned it can be a bumpy ride.

Score: 5.5

Pros:

  • If you’re into lore there’s quite a bit to be found
  • There are moments where the combat can click with its varied moves and options


Cons:

  • As a whole the camera is troublesome and frustrating whether in combat or while trying to complete platforming sections
  • Boss battles are usually more monotonous or aggravating than engaging and exciting
  • The game world is generally barren and sterile, making it feel last-gen or earlier


Review: Figment [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While there are many genres represented on the Switch, most with quality titles representing them well, something I don’t recall a great number of titles having is heart. If I heard someone marketing a game as being “full of heart” I think I’d probably gag but when you come across a game where it just screams out to you with a certain spirit I think it’s an apt descriptor. Perhaps it’s the parent in me but aside from the gorgeous artwork and inspired original music in Figment it’s the game’s story and isolated moments that made me reflect that will likely stay with me for quite some time.


The game opens with a child and his parents talking while they’re driving somewhere in the rain. Somewhat suddenly there’s a crash and that when you’ll find yourself inside the mind of the father, taking on the father’s reluctant and jaded personification of courage, Dusty. Through his adventure Dusty will face a number of nightmares of various kinds as well as a fair amount of philosophy about existence, loss, despair. The blending of these themes with humor, some original songs, and the various memories you can recover along the way make for a unique experience, but also one that may be hit or miss depending on a number of factors in your own life. I would imagine older gamers, especially parents, will be far more likely to appreciate all of the game’s themes and I applaud the care and effort that went into crafting this unique narrative.


In terms of the gameplay itself for the most part Figment is fixated on puzzles. As you progress through the game’s few worlds, slaying the nightmare bosses in each, you’ll face a variety of challenges. Many are quite straightforward, requiring that you move around batteries or handles around to manipulate various elements in the environment. In addition each zone has its own sort of theme as well, ensuring that throughout you’ll continue to see some variety along the way. None of it is terribly difficult, but to spice things up you’ll see memory fragments off to the side as well, tempting you to put in some extra effort to collect them all as you go as well. Patience and perseverance most often win the day, at times perhaps slowing things down and repeating general puzzle patterns too often, but I generally enjoyed each one along the way. There is some combat but for the most part it is forgettable and serves more to break things up than to specifically challenge. That said, each of the boss fights tended to be memorable and thoroughly different so it at least redeems itself nicely where things are most important.


Even though it’s the art and music that make the game so unique I can imagine results for people in those areas will vary. The visual style should likely impress just about anyone but I can concede that if you’re not enthused about the journey some of the songs may feel a bit silly. There’s a quirkiness to their sound and lyrics that I thoroughly enjoyed but it may not be for everyone and if those elements fall a bit flat they’ll tend to bring the game as a whole down with it. The overall experience is all about the intertwining and appreciation for all of the game’s pieces together, anything that gets in the way of that will just dilute your enjoyment.


In the end I see Figment being the sort of game that may vary wildly in how people feel about it. If you’re in tune with its themes and embrace everything it has to offer it’s really a beautiful and brilliant title, daringly doing everything its own unique way. If some of the elements just don’t pull you in it may play out very differently though. On the strength of its creativity and earnestness I happen to be a big fan and I’d encourage everyone to at least give it a look, it’s a pretty unique experience on the Switch.

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • Unique in terms of its themes, art style, and music
  • Each zone has its own nightmare and themes that lend nicely to variety
  • In general the boss battles tend to be memorable and fun

Cons:
  • The game’s music and sense of humor aren’t likely for everyone
  • Some puzzles can be a little slow to execute solutions for even when you’ve figured them out
  • Younger and less mature gamers are far less likely to connect with the story and themes


Review: Paranautical Activity [Nintendo Switch eShop]


The indie practice of going retro style can be a real tightrope walk, without question. Certainly pulling things back in terms of the overall visual complexity can simplify the development process, whether using pixel art or the blocky voxel style utilized in Paranautical Activity. The issue that arises is that when these simplifications are paired with excellent gameplay and mechanics such cost-saving measures can be forgiven, but when the gameplay struggles as well it can be a bit of a disaster.


The closest visual comparison I can think of for the title overall would possibly be Quake, except with voxels instead of polygons, and the gameplay isn’t nearly as compelling. What’s notable about the environments is how sparse they are and most levels have a pretty low number of enemies, and yet there is a delay loading the enemies as you enter every room. There’s no doubt that in place of numbers the developer opted to shoot for originality, and there’s no doubt that the menagerie of enemies is distinctive, but no matter how silly or odd they may be they’re still not often terribly interesting. Many fire projectiles of some sort, some simply come at you with all they have, and then there are the bosses who can exhibit a variety of aggressive styles generally… but as a whole it all tends to be extremely straightforward.


In order to do battle with these beasts you’ll get to choose between 4 different starter configurations, mapping to the characters you’ll see in the game art. To be honest I really only found the one build to be viable, mixing a shotgun with a cannon. The crossbow is novel but a bit of a pain, as is the grenade launcher. In general melee weapons are novel but not terribly useful, regardless of their theming or visual flair. You’ll sometimes get the opportunity to pick up a different weapon along the way in your run, it having a roguelike style makes things a bit unpredictable, but honestly very few weapons I ever picked up were terribly useful. On the whole the lack of insight into what weapons, or any item pick-ups for that matter, do until you select them can be frustrating, though I suppose it’s just part of the intended experience.


If the gameplay was tight and exciting it would be easier to overlook the above quibbles but unfortunately the action is pretty dull. For all of its flair for unusual monsters and generally non-traditional weapons success boils down to circle strafing in the vast majority of situations you’ll face, making victory more often an exercise than exciting. Once you’re empowered with this knowledge it then tends to boil down to moments where the game gets a bit cheap to defeat you. There really doesn’t seem to be a sense of balancing from room to room and suddenly facing a load of enemies that simply overwhelm you or a boss that has attacks you’re unable to move quickly enough to evade and must simply survive is the norm for death. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a sweet spot of defeating satisfyingly challenging foes, just chipping away at and outlasting big ones and picking off the simpler ones… and then you die.


As with all roguelikes I would imagine there will be a crowd that finds the mix of gameplay in Paranautical Activity entertaining and challenging in some way. Once you get into your groove you can certainly move through multiple levels and find success, with some random elements thrown in along the way so you’re never quite sure how things will shake out. That said in terms of FPS action this is a very shallow and generally dull experience reminiscent of unevolved gameplay from the same era that inspired the game’s visuals. Oddly-themed enemies and being different aren’t enough to save what’s ultimately uninteresting play.

Score: 5

Pros:
  • Many enemies and weapons you’ve likely never seen in a FPS before
  • Roguelike elements keep things from being too predictable

Cons:
  • FPS mechanics as dated as the retro visual style
  • Many weapons are more trouble than they’re worth to use
  • Challenge varies from mind-numbingly easy to outright cheap


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Review: de Blob [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While some have bemoaned the number of ports from other consoles coming to the Switch my opinion has been that as long as they’re of a sufficiently high quality I’m all for it. Especially when well-made games come to the platform there’s a new opportunity to discover a hidden gem you may have missed or simply never had the chance to check out. That’s very much the case for me with de Blob, an extremely colorful platformer with a style all its own that I’d heard positive things about but just never found the time to check out.


Playing through the game as, you guessed it, a blob who is able to take on colored paint, your task is to return vibrant color to your now mostly drab and monochromatic. Invaders have taken over, robbing the city of its personality and culture, and your job is to revitalize it all once more. This is best done by following the pretty simple mission structure which you can activate by going to well-marked checkpoints. Some involve coloring certain areas specific colors, others will feel like a checkpointed race of sorts, and some require you to use a specific color in quantity to restore major landmarks back to their former glory. You’ll need to be careful to be on the lookout for pools of ink or the few types of enemies that are lurking about but in general as long as you remain in tune with where a water source is (to cleanse yourself of the murky ink) you’ll be able to recover when you make a mistake once in a while.


As you progress and get to later cities the level of challenge will advance slowly but in general the game’s friendly and extremely forgiving, with an emphasis far more focused on fun and creativity than pressure and deadlines. As you complete each challenge, or recolor blocks of buildings and rejuvenate their inhabitants, you’ll collect additional time on top of the generally generous amount you start with to color enough of the city to unlock gated checkpoints that block your progress. While there are a few variations on modes, including ones you can unlock for multiplayer, it’s really the main story mode that stands out as worthwhile, the rest are more just nice add-ons, with nothing likely holding interest for all that long.


My only objections with the game are relatively minor, though they’re worth keeping in mind if you’re considering picking it up. The first is that the control feels pretty good most of the time but the mechanics with jumping high, wall jumping, and how the architecture can sometimes foul things up does come up on occasion. Overall this can feel clumsy, in one case preventing you from pulling off a move to get higher and in others with you flying a bit wildly off a building when you didn’t mean to. This issue may not have been as prevalent if it weren’t for the camera and its periodic issues with sticking with the action appropriately, even when you’re trying to keep it in place manually. The only other concern is only that the levels can be pretty massive, some clocking in around an hour depending on how you play them. This all can be fine and the game still works well, just some food for thought as otherwise everything about the game clicks quite nicely.


All in all I was very pleasantly surprised by de Blob and its light style and creative play. Even though I wouldn’t consider the vast majority of it challenging, making it pretty ideal for kids, everything still felt fresh and fun along the journey. While I’m hoping the sequel, which I suspect will make it to Switch as well, is able to address some of my relatively minor concerns I’d still consider it a platformer well worth checking out for gamers of all ages and skill levels.

Score: 8

Pros:
  • Vibrant colors, terrific music, and a distinctive art style
  • The skills needed to enjoy the game are pretty basic overall, making it very appropriate for gamers of all ages
  • Missions are generally straightforward and there’s a built-in compass for helping you figure out where to go if you get a bit lost

Cons:
  • Controls can, at times, feel a bit sloppy, particularly when trying to wall jump or use some other more advanced techniques
  • Occasional fights with the camera
  • Levels can be a bit over-long, some clocking in around an hour or more


Review: The Journey Down - Chapter 1 [Nintendo Switch eShop]


As a big fan of the traditional point-and-click adventure genre I’m glad that it has managed to revive itself in general in the indie scene and that it has been so well represented on the Switch. Blending puzzles with some story and often a bit of humor a good adventure can make for a great means to unwind, relax a bit, and just enjoy something more light-hearted and fun. Pretty well checking all of those boxes is Chapter one of The Journey Down, though bear in mind that it has many of the genre’s pain points in varying degrees as well.


The game’s story revolves around the two main characters, Bwana and Kito, who are struggling to keep their marine gas station afloat. When a lovely woman comes to them asking about an old book and having need of transportation via their broken-down plane they see their opportunity to resolve their financial woes and repairing the plan drives the bulk of this chapter of the adventure. Throughout there are hints and discussion around The Underland, which will no doubt play into the further chapters, and that helps to create some intrigue along the way.


For the most part the item management and usage is nicely streamlined, lacking a cumbersome traditional action interface and mostly just revolving around clicking on items or dragging them onto things (or each other) to initiate action. Most of the time conversations with other characters will prompt a course of action so even if you feel you have the right elements to formulate a solution to a problem you’ll likely need to find the right person to talk to in order to put your theory to the test. You’ll need to carefully scan each screen not just for items but sometimes also for different exit points, as there were a few cases where it wasn’t immediately clear where I could go on all screens.


Overall the game’s humor and tone are upbeat and fun, but I’ll admit that what I assume are the its attempts to use non-traditional cultures in the genre come out mixed and somewhat odd. The mixing of what appear to be African tribal masks with characters sporting pretty stereotypical Jamaican accents seems well-meaning but ignorant, though perhaps the inspiration for the accents is the very good-natured and optimistic nature of the main characters. Aside from that most of the complaints fall firmly along the normal line for the genre, puzzles that can be a bit convoluted and rely on trial and error in some cases and occasions where you feel a bit lost in terms of what you need to do next.


All in all the somewhat light and silly tone of the game, its puzzles, and characters make for an entertaining few hours and the stage seems to be set well for the rest of the story to unfold. I wouldn’t say it is the best example of the genre on the Switch, and people who typically don’t enjoy these sorts of games would be unlikely to find this one to be any different. However, if you’re looking for some humor, some oddball puzzles, and the start of what could be a light but interesting story The Journey Down: Chapter One seems to get things off to a promising start overall.

Score: 7

Pros:
  • A light-hearted sense of humor with likable characters
  • Promise of a conspiracy and mystery to come
  • A pretty streamlined puzzle experience overall

Cons:
  • On a cultural level the game swings and misses a bit, mixing things up a bit ignorantly
  • Some puzzle required the proper sequence of dialogue to be solved, not just having the right elements and trying to combine and use them on your own
  • Sometimes devolves into simply trying things to find a solution to a problem


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Review: Lost in Harmony [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Certainly a strength of the indie space is the ability to experiment and mash together different styles to try to do something fresh and interesting. Where larger more traditional outlets would see risk the smaller and more agile people in the industry see opportunity. Of course, a great reason some of these variances in gameplay aren’t attempted is because they’re no guarantee of success and even if the ideas may seem interesting in execution they’re a bit flawed. Such is the case with Lost in Harmony, a music and rhythm game of sorts that somewhat throws the kitchen sink of “different” at you, and has its moments, but ultimately collapses under the weight of trying to manage it all.


Starting with the positives from the standpoint of games as art you can see the ambition. The main game mode plays out in the dreams of Kaito, a boy whose friend Aya is terminally ill. As you follow their story over a span of many months conversations with Aya via text prompt thoughts and feelings that then influence the theming of his dreams. Always riding a skateboard with Aya behind him they ride through a wide variety of landscapes, with obstacles and theming that range wildly from stage to stage. There are times when these sequences do a phenomenal job of blending music with changes in the scenery, producing remarkable moments, it’s just the gameplay itself (or at least the controls) doesn’t hold up nearly as well.


The perspective in the game is roughly reverse of what you’d normally expect, with Kaito riding towards you as you move backwards. The action consists of having to avoid obstacles that come from all sides (when coming from the side or behind you there will be arrow prompts to warn you to move or jump), trying to collect stardust that will move from lane to lane, and then trying to tap or press specific buttons to the beats with 4 lanes of notes that will span the top of the screen from time to time. It can be difficult enough to manage the transitions between focus in some of the earlier stages where it will jump between these types of play but it is when they’re layered on top of each other in quick succession that the serious control problems and outright frustrations begin. The controller simply isn’t as intuitive for the notes quickly coming across the top of the screen and the touchscreen controls are clearly inferior for managing the action on the bottom of the screen. Since you’re unable to effectively use both modes of control at once, using the Switch’s unique combination of features to play the game optimally, you’re instead left to choose the lesser of two evils and that’s really a shame.


The game’s additional mode, instead playing out as a series of shorter levels where you’ll control a robot named M.I.R.A.I trying to make his escape to Earth, is very similar just with different music and environments. Along the way you’ll unlock some minor visual upgrades that will allow you to customize your character’s headphones, hat, and shirt, but these don’t really do much and honestly the clumsy interface for managing them almost makes it not worth messing with. As a whole the game’s soundtrack has a strange set of classical music, some remixes, and appropriately romantic tunes and it all marries well with the visuals through the game’s 30+ stages.


As an exploration of artistic expression Lost in Harmony is a gorgeous and fascinating feast for your senses, blending great music with visual flourishes throughout. I suppose you could find the story of Kaito and Aya to be a touching one but it’s also only used as a vehicle for driving Kaito’s dreams and not much more for the most part. If you’re someone who really wants to master levels and nail their execution, or even tend to get frustrated by unfair or sloppy sequences it’s the controls that will absolutely grate on your nerves. I appreciate what they’re trying to do but the controls simply don’t hold up to the action on the screen. You can work through it and progress but there’s no denying they’re aggravating. All of this makes Lost in Harmony tough to recommend over better-executed genre titles, though there’s nothing else quite like it on the system so that does make it novel.

Score: 6

Pros:
  • Artistically ambitious and impressive in places
  • For its price there’s a fair amount of content and great music

Cons:
  • The controls are muddled and fail to take full advantage of what’s possible on the Switch
  • Many sections in the game clearly point out the control shortcomings and are difficult to master for the wrong reasons


Saturday, June 23, 2018

Review: Lanota [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While people could get an impression from a distance that the music and rhythm genre tends to always follow the beat of the same drummer anyone who has dabbled in more than a few games tends to know better. There are certainly quite a number of more traditional titles in the genre that serve up the standard array of lines with beats you need to match through tapping or holding, but what I love are the games that dare to be a bit different. Fitting into this alternative mold, though perhaps too much so in places, is the wildly different Lanota, whose appearance is unassuming but packs a surprising punch of creativity in its play.


There are two aspects to the game and we’ll begin with the part that’s nice but wasn’t terribly interesting, the narrative. You’ll be very lightly following the journey of two heroes, Fisica and Ritmo, who are seeking to bring music back to the world. While at first you’ll go through some story beats between each track once the full playlist opens up several songs in for the most part the story takes a back seat, and honestly that’s a good thing since this doesn’t tend to be a genre people are seeking a meaningful story from.


That leaves us with the more unexpected and surprising aspect of the game and that’s the rhythm gaming itself. While this title lacks the outright outrageous nature of Elite Beat Agents, one of my favorite games in the genre, there’s a familiar sort of craziness in how the game plays. There are white tiles you’ll need to tap on the beat for, blue that you just need to be in position for, and then directional tiles you’ll need to perform a minor swipe up or down to clear. Where it gets crazy is that instead of having static tracks for the notes to come at you they instead can go in any direction on a circular field. Early on at the default skill level I was actually a bit bored but once things got rolling and I moved up the difficulty the fun really began to kick in… and hard. Whoever set up the gameplay really has a wicked streak to them as they have some outright brilliant moves you’ll need to execute to match the music in places. Expect to have to “hand off” a hold between fingers while the track moves from one side of the screen to the other and beat tiles begin falling, try to figure out how to try to make two tracks cross over each other, and be ready for swiping around the circle in quick arcs to match musical riffs. Even when the game at times was kicking my butt I’d continue to have a smile on my face just for how unique the gameplay is in places.


Aside from the story being somewhat of a weak link (though that doesn’t harm the title much) probably my biggest concern is the relative lack of diversity in the game’s 70+ tracks. That isn’t to say there aren’t flourishes of variety in places but for the most part the soundtrack tends to the more subdued, and the shame is that the crazier tunes tend to be the ones that are the most challenging and fun. Credit to the developers, even for softer classical music they manage to make the most of things, but it’s not as varied in styles as other titles. With the use of the touchscreen being vital also be warned that the game won’t even let you play in docked mode, though with the style of play this is absolutely understood. The default difficulty may trend a bit too easy but if you find it tough there’s actually 4 total difficulty levels and you begin at 2. Crank it up to the highest and you can be ready to lose, it’s quite an onslaught, but on top of that you’re also able to speed up and slow down the tempo as well.


Without a doubt Lanota was a massive surprise for me, as its unassuming presentation and opening levels completely gave me a different impression of what to expect than what was delivered. Keep in mind, I’m considering that a very good thing though as the gameplay is refreshingly different and sometimes hectic, with the playfield exhibiting a somewhat crazy mind of its own at times moving around the screen and making your life even more challenging keeping up with what it’s throwing at you. If you’ve been feeling like the genre’s in a bit of a rut and are willing to overlook its weaknesses Lanota is a fabulous rhythm game worth checking out.

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • Absolutely terrific and engaging gameplay that continues to challenge you in unexpected ways
  • 4 skill levels and an ability to speed up or slow down the music make it very accessible to players of all skill levels
  • For the quality of play and 70+ tracks the price seems more than fair

Cons:
  • The story elements are completely forgettable and unnecessary, though I appreciate the effort
  • Getting started is a bit of a slog and doesn’t fully do the game justice
  • The tracks aren’t quite as varied as I’d prefer


Review: MUSYNX [Nintendo Switch eShop]


One of the genres that has seen the most benefit from the versatile Switch has been music and rhythm. The ability to play via touchscreen is often preferred for quick combinations but for people who want to put the game on their big screen TV playing with a controller is also an option, even if not quite as ideal. MUYSNX comes to the table bringing a truly massive number of tracks, a very traditional play style, and a fair sense of personality to boot.


Unlike a few of the other titles in the genre on the system MUSYNX is pretty well instantly something people who’ve played a music game can understand. You’ll see multiple tracks on the screen (4 or 6 depending on your difficulty) with notes coming down each of them. At the point they meet the bar at the bottom of your screen you’ll either use the touchscreen or a button to tap or hold to activate it. The more accurate your timing the better the rating you’ll get. Nothing strange, just a straight-up traditional setup that allows you get right down to business. Well worth noting is that as much as I tend to find playing with a controller a fumbly mess the fact that you can remap the buttons very easily was welcome as that at least helped me make playing that way more functional, even if for intense songs I always found the touchscreen to be far easier to be successful with.


That pretty well leaves it to the music and with already more than 90 tracks the game has a simply obscene amount of music and there will inevitably continue to be more added as time goes by. While there is certainly an abundance of J-Pop in the mix there are also tracks that span from classical to techno so there’s no doubt just about anyone should be able to find some tracks they’ll love. In terms of visual presentation tracks are grouped by the look of their interface while the track plays. There’s truly an odd and eclectic mix of these in the game from cheery to futuristic to outright unusual, and in general these help to throw you a surprise every so often. I’m not sure I liked them all, and would have loved an option to just lock into a scheme and stick with it, but I can appreciate the effort.


In terms of criticisms I’d say there’s not too much to complain about, but I do have some observations contrasted against other games in the genre on the system. While the track list is massive and has diversity I’d say it doesn’t feel quite as varied overall in terms of numbers. There are some break out tracks for different genres, they just feel more buried in pop songs in this collection more than in some others. The only other observation may come down to tastes and that’s that MUSYNX absolutely uses a traditional scheme and implements it very well across a boatload of tracks but that’s about it. Other than chasing higher scores there aren’t any real incentives of things to unlock or alternative modes and the controls are only of the tap and hold variety. That can be viewed as both a strength and a weakness depending on your tastes but it is worth noting.


Overall, if you’re down for some very challenging play and an absolute avalanche of tracks to play through MUSYNX is a fair choice. It’s greatest strength is going a more traditional route and nailing the implementation, but if you’re looking for something a little different it may disappoint. Regardless, it is a well-implemented and polished title that will offer hours of enjoyment to music and rhythm game lovers.

Score: 7.5

Pros:
  • Over 90 tracks, with more to be added in the future
  • The touchscreen controls are wonderfully responsive and you can remap your buttons if you want to play with a controller
  • The different track backgrounds can be amusing and sometimes unexpected

Cons:
  • While the soundtrack has some diversity it feels more J-Pop heavy than some of its contemporaries
  • The overall setup may be a bit too traditional for people looking for something a little different


Friday, June 22, 2018

Review: INK [Nintendo Switch eShop]


It’s always interesting to see how a solid and well-implemented idea can elevate what would otherwise be a pretty basic game into something more promising. Indie games, in particular, often are looking for these sorts of tweaks and innovations since they can provide relatively low-effort path to doing something that feels different, even if relatively simple. INK absolutely falls into this category, taking what is honestly a relatively basic and straightforward platforming game and using its colorful and creative splashes to give it an almost puzzle-like vibe.


Going through the basics doesn’t take too long, you’re a square that has the ability to jump and double-jump… and that’s about it. You can thankfully wall jump as well but the most important detail is really that when you double-jump you’ll release some globs of colored ink in a few direction that will stick to any surfaces around you. The reason that this is crucial is that when you start out in every level you can’t see anything in it. Being forced to use your abilities to slowly reveal elements of the level small bits at a time leaves you with the option to go slow and methodical but since there’s really no penalty for dying I found myself more often just leaping into the abyss and hoping for the best.


Over the course of the game’s 75 levels new elements like some enemies, traps, and occasionally devious layouts will stand in your way but really the game is all about that base hook and whether you find it compelling. The sense of discovery can bring excitement but it’s not all smiles. Probably the worst element of the game is the rapid acceleration you have moving horizontally, I noticed this in particular after doing a double-jump. Simply put you really feel out of control more often than not and trying to land on platforms can be unusually tricky at times. There may not be an outright penalty for death but when you repeatedly die and need to start at the beginning of the level and clear all of the enemies for the third, fourth, or more times simply because the controls get way too touchy it can get grating.


With the exception of the issues with control INK provides a great combination of platforming and puzzling to a degree, offering a fair amount of content for a pretty reasonable price. It isn’t an incredible game but it knows what it wanted to accomplish and, for the most part, executes it well outside of the somewhat wonky controls. If you’ve been looking for something a little different that you can play for a few minutes to clear a new level and then put down for a while it’s not a bad fit.

Score: 6

Pros:
  • In general its simple ideas are implemented well
  • A slow progression in general challenge
  • For the budget price it provides a fair amount of content

Cons:
  • If you’re not impressed by the general hook of painting the level to discover the way the platforming itself isn’t generally too exciting
  • The horizontal acceleration, particularly after performing a double-jump can be aggravatingly sloppy


Review: Pode [Nintendo Switch eShop]


One of the greatest things that the Switch has provided an opportunity for is to rejuvenate local cooperative gaming with its basic design and general philosophy. Already there have been some excellent co-op experiences to be had on the system, but there’s certainly always room for more. With so many games having a heavy action and intensity focus a title like Pode is a welcome arrival, bringing with it a low-pressure, beautiful, and thoughtful experience that is well-suited to couples in particular.


If you’re looking for a story there’s not much to speak of but the basics involve your two characters, essentially a fallen star and a rock, trying to return the star to the sky. In order to do this you’ll need to venture through a series of caves that play out as puzzles, leveraging each character’s skills in a variety of increasingly clever and unique ways to advance. Throughout the game probably the most lovely aspect of play is your characters’ abilities to turn what begin as drab areas into lush and gorgeous ones. Using the power of the sun, and whatever it is the rock has, vegetation and rock formations will appear. Not only do these help the game aesthetically, they also often impart direction on what you may need to do and help reveal elements like platforms you’ll need to use to get around. In the early game you’ll need to be very attentive to the images on the walls as they’ll try to help clue you in on new techniques you can use.


Experimentation, even when you know the basics, is vital to success and you’ll consistently be pushed to look for any visual cues around the screen to find solutions to what are sometimes pretty tricky action puzzles that will require careful coordination. What’s great is that the game is absolutely viable in single-player but works most efficiently with a friend. Working by yourself you’ll just need to switch back and forth between characters, but in another great touch you’re even able to easily switch back and forth when playing cooperatively in the event one of you needs to make a tricky jump or maneuver. Not having to physically hand off the joycon is a great convenience and smart design.


That said you probably will need to be prepared to struggle a bit at times as some techniques may not be immediately apparent given the somewhat limited direction you’re given. This is definitely an area where playing with a partner helps as you can both come up with ideas on what you may need to do next. You could view the challenge as fun and tied to discovery, or you could find it aggravating and a bit obtuse… fortunately there simply aren’t that many actions you can perform so that does help narrow things down. Another struggle my wife and I had in places was pacing as you need to get accustomed to your somewhat sluggish rate of speed. In some regards it’s a help since it prevents being quite so careless, but certainly when you fall somewhere and need to get into place to start all over again it can elicit grumbles. About my only other complaint and warning is to always be mindful that some areas need more than one round of activation. On more than one puzzle we got to a point where we thought we’d done everything and couldn’t figure out what to do next. What you’ll learn is: When in doubt try to activate everything again, there are simply some stubborn plants and elements that don’t like to reveal themselves the first time around.


Overall, if you’ve been searching for a terrific game to play with a non-gaming partner Pode may be among the best options on the system. For people who aren’t hardcore gamers the more casual pace will probably be welcome and as long as one person has at least moderate gaming skills the ability to shift control back and forth will come in handy. Certainly aesthetically it’s delightful, the sense of discovery is a consistent joy, and the generally fair but challenging puzzles have some air of originality to them that’s welcome. Pode is a wonderful game for couples and general puzzle fans alike.

Score: 7.5

Pros:
  • Visually beautiful
  • Well-designed co-op play
  • Some creative variety and uses of skills

Cons:
  • There can be an aggravation factor in places where it can be hard to tell what to do
  • Some platforming sections can be tricky, which mixed with the slow pace is annoying
  • Playable solo but slower-paced and not as fun


Review: Alchemic Jousts [Nintendo Switch eShop]


One thing that the mobile space has done a good job with in the area of experimentation, taking simpler concepts and combining them in some new ways. One of my daughter’s favorite mobile games is Little Alchemy, a title where you start out with 4 base elements and then experiment with combining them in what becomes a massive number of ways to create new elements and eventually even creatures. It’s a great creative concept. Alchemic Jousts starts with that same base and melds it with a bit of strategic combat, providing a result that’s certainly new but that struggles to be very engaging overall.


Similar to games like Little Alchemy you’ll start with some basic elemental skills, which you’ll slowly use to combine and create new ones. Unlike those other games, where the emphasis is simply on that one hook and exploring, Jousts inserts a pretty basic rock-paper-scissors “battle” into the mix. While there are a variety of modes (and levels of difficulty) that will change up your focus and objectives you’re ultimately in a strategic chess game where you’ll need to work to counter your opponent both offensively and defensively to pull out the win. These match-ups will then provide you with what you’ll need to continue to explore and unlock newer skills which you can then use selectively to help yourself be more effective in future battles. This creates a somewhat rewarding loop where you’ll continue to make new discoveries and then experiment with different combinations to find how best to use them to your advantage.


Unfortunately, even with its provisions for variety in the nature of the battles you’ll engage in and the opportunity to discover over 180 different skills, it all ultimately feels about the same so the core loop really needs to be appealing to you to keep grinding through. I give credit to the developer for finding a new way to utilize the base alchemy game model and apply a new concept to it, all with some very cute animations and cool discoveries along the way, but even when you change up the battle modes with some variety their somewhat slow and methodical pacing can feel slow. Granted, there are times when you need to carefully consider what to deploy after your cooldown has expired to try to either defend yourself or try to get a leg up on your opponent, but on the whole the head-to-head portions end up involving quite a bit of waiting. However, if you don’t mind the very casual pace and enjoy relatively light strategy mixed with periodic opportunities for discovery you may find it appealing.

Score: 6.5

Pros:
  • Very much something unique in the Switch library
  • Provides some strategic challenges in a variety of forms
  • Quite a lot to discover and experiment with

Cons:
  • For all of the variety in battle modes the way they play out is ultimately very similar
  • The pacing can feel glacial at times
  • Doesn’t make a great case for needing to be played on Switch


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review: Hexologic [Nintendo Switch eShop]


The classic puzzle game Sudoku took the world by storm for a very good reason, it offered a straightforward set of rules that you could apply to puzzles both big and small and presented a legitimate challenge. Taking some rough concepts that are in that vein, but providing an experience very much all its own, is Hexologic. Its challenge revolves filling in your hex-based board with pieces representing the values 1 - 3 and starts out simple but consistently layers on new rules throughout its 70+ total levels to continue to step up the challenge.


On each level you’ll start with a grid that is empty, only providing you with numbers that you need to match in various directions. In each space you can place a tile that represents either 1, 2, or 3, and the key to solving each puzzle is having your tiles in each line add up to all totals. While this isn’t terrible complicated at first, every 15 levels the game will introduce a new element that steps up the difficulty further, whether in the form of filled in pieces you can’t change or spaces that share the same total in more than one location.


Along the way through the base 60 levels you’ll additionally unlock 3 additional stages per area and these tend to be quite a bit larger and thus more complicated. Strategically, consistent with games like Sudoku, success is best assured by targeting lines that can only be solved in one way, which at least limits the amount of guesswork and will set a foundation you can build on. In particular the spaces that share the same number in multiple locations can be confounding if you don’t work out their correct number early since late changes to them will significantly set you back.


That leads to my biggest criticism for the game, though it’s not crippling, the fact that you’re unable to lock spaces in that you’re positive are correct. Especially in the larger puzzles towards the end it could be a challenge to remember which lines I’d determined absolutely had to be filled in a certain way. Though I doubt I lost much time to this when everything else about the game is so spot-on it stands out as really my only disappointment aside from simply wanting more.


Given the extremely budget-friendly pricing Hexologic is a satisfying way to spend a few hours if you’re a big puzzle fan. I enjoyed the fact that there were multiple methods to make the puzzles more challenging used in different cases. Certainly sheer scale can be intimidating but having the grid broken into multiple pieces and more than one set of shared spaces kept things from feeling too repetitive throughout. I’d love to see even more variations and further substantial puzzles in the future, if the ability to lock space/lines were added I’d be all the happier. Highly recommended for puzzle fans!

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • Clean design
  • Great concept with some variety introduced as you go
  • An appropriate budget price

Cons:

  • Left me wanting more and even bigger puzzles
  • The ability to lock in lines or spaces would have been a great value add


Monday, June 11, 2018

Review: Songbringer [Nintendo Switch eShop]


There’s no doubt that the Legend of Zelda series has had an enormous influence on video games, so when you release a game that seems to universally get compared to it there’s a mixed blessing attached. Certainly being put in the same breath is a bit of an honor, but at the same time being evaluated against such a revered classic has to make you nervous over the comparison. Songbringer has a slashing style and a fair amount in common with the iconic series, but very much breaks off into its own style along the way.


In terms of the fundamentals of combat and the game world itself there are abundant notes that feel familiar and yet at the same time it’s impossible not to quickly notice the differences. Where the adventure in the Legend of Zelda series is meticulously designed and typically either intended or hard wired for you to go through the game in a specific order, Songbringer’s world and dungeons are procedurally generated. While there are weapons and abilities like bombs or your top hat you throw and can grab things with like the classic boomerang, once you get rolling you’ll have the opportunity to combine gear and create some of your own versions of things that can have a variety of effects, allowing you to forge your own path on all levels.


Certainly the option to play it in a roguelike permadeath mode also differentiates it significantly, but until you’ve played it quite a bit and learned the ropes that absolutely wouldn’t be the recommended path to take. In another touch that reminds me of the original Legend of Zelda there’s not a whole lot in the game that is explained to you, for the most part you’ll need to wing it and learn as you go. Know that both secrets and death are around just about every corner and you’ll have the basic gist, but in particular some of the things you’ll find lethal can be surprising at first. This is simply because there’s quite a lot that will will you and not all of it is imposing and obvious, it’s often the little things that can wear you down.


Another piece of the puzzle that requires some time to work out, and not entirely for good reasons, is that the challenge isn’t just a procedurally-generated map but also trying to read it. The map is helpful to a degree but in particular when you’re in dungeons trying to navigate is tough enough, not understanding what the various symbols and markings on the map mean can add to your woes. This same screen includes another area that’s not ideal and that’s your item management interface. Switching out which items are equipped in which slots is workable but very cumbersome and not terribly intuitive. It isn’t hard to accidentally move from your inventory and back to the mini map without meaning to do so. This is something that you can get used to but it is certainly a rough spot.


If you’ve ever wondered what a procedurally-generated roguelike Zelda could look like Songbringer takes a fair shot at it, just be warned that it can be a little rough around the edges. The option to up the stakes and play in Permadeath mode is an interesting one but should only be undertaken once you’ve taken some time to get used to how things work. Your ability to explore and get into areas that are a bit beyond your capabilities is exciting but could also make for frustration if death means having to start all over again before you’ve really gotten your feet wet. That said, it has a gift for the unexpected and you truly never know what you may encounter next.

Score: 7.5

Pros:
  • Some classic gaming beats reminiscent of classics like The Legend of Zelda
  • Plenty of personality and ideas of its own, like an ability to combine items/skills for new effects
  • Permadeath and the ability to share your game seed with others are great options to have

Cons:
  • There’s a learning curve for how things work and what is lethal, with the game providing limited guidance
  • The mini map and inventory system are a bit clunky
  • In terms of difficulty be aware it trends above average as a whole, though that may be a product of the procedural generation so it may very well vary from seed to seed


Saturday, June 9, 2018

Review: Shaq Fu - A Legend Reborn [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Putting together a sequel to possibly one of the most mocked titles in video game history isn’t for developers lacking in ambition or guts. While perhaps delivering something that’s at least better than the original shouldn’t be too difficult it’s an effort that also carries some baggage with it. Certainly Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn makes a smart move by ditching the weak fighting game setup of the original, opting for a brawler / beat-em-up instead. Unfortunately, on the whole, for each step forward it makes it also takes at least a half step back with issues of its own creation.


Through a set of circumstances I’ll leave for you to discover (wouldn’t want to give away the story, for what it is) in this game world Shaq has grown up an orphan in China who has been bullied for being too big. Sympathetic to his plight an elder master, Ye-Ye, decided to take him under his wing and teach him the ways of Wu Zing. But, since Shaq has a particular mark on his neck, it turns out he’s the Chosen One from a prophecy and that means conflict must ensue. Deciding to take the fight to the people who are after him this sets Shaq on the path to his destiny, and through a truckload of stereotypes and juvenile humor.


Before getting to that detail we’ll review the action itself, which for the most part is adequate if a bit on the button-mashy side. In general throughout you’ll be working with a basic attack that builds up a meter that allows you to use a strong attack featuring Shaq’s massive feet or a powerful ground punch that knocks out anything in the immediate area. The Z shoulder buttons can sometimes be used for a counter, a finisher, or to pick up weapons when they’re available. The regular shoulder buttons enable a dash. If you’re using the joysticks (though I wouldn’t recommend this since at key moments it can be inconsistent at best) the right joystick will have you do a roll vertically on the screen but if you’re using the D-Pad you can just double-tap. As a whole the controls are relatively good aside from the occasional issues with the joystick when trying to break a stun by some characters which requires you move back and forth. Sometimes the joystick will work, but sometimes it just won’t register well and you’ll die for nothing.


Getting into the areas of concern I want to address the weak tea defense I’ve seen for what passes as humor in the game. It’s not “politically incorrect”, it is sophomoric, shallow, and lazy. Some things that start semi-humorous like the blatant advertising for Icy Hot and Gold Bond are run into the ground and get tired through sheer repetition. Then there’s the “fun with stereotypes” humor that’s run into the ground with Asians and homosexuals as the primary targets that feels at least a decade out of place. Throw in some pretty sad “celebrity” bosses like someone meant to be Kim Kardashian who, I kid you not, turns into a giant thong-wearing butt that harms you with flatulence and you get the impression some teenage boys were in charge of providing their “best material” for this effort. Don’t forget a whale that looks like Michael Moore. Get it? He’s fat… so he’s a whale! Oh, how they really skewer these celebs with that biting commentary!


What you’re left with, in the end, is an adequate brawler that tends to vary between too easy (while the enhanced Big Diesel and Shaq-tus modes are cute they’re not very challenging) to tough for the wrong reasons (control issues breaking out of stuns). Through each of the areas you visit enemies can be cosmetically different, and have some nuance, but they’re still a bit cookie cutter and all come from roughly the same 5 core types. This makes for finding patterns you’ll follow to success and, for the most part, there’s not much of a need for more than some basic strategies to stay alive until you get to the boss and need to figure out their patterns. The result is just a run-of-the-mill beat-em-up that seems to be using its “humor” to compensate. If that all sounds great to you, enjoy.

A copy of the game was provided by Saber Interactive and Big Deez Productions for coverage purposes

Score: 5.5

Pros:
  • The choice in genre this go-around is a better fit
  • There are moments that break out of the generic beat-em-up groove the are fun, though usually not terribly tough
  • If your sense of humor aligns with teenage boys (or you are one) perhaps it’ll be funny

Cons:
  • Peddling in cultural stereotypes and kiddie-pool-depth “caricatures” of celebrities feels woefully out of date and gets very tired quickly
  • Some of the boss fights mistake being cheap with upping the challenge
  • Once you remove all of the trappings it mostly plays as a merely generic beat-em-up