Friday, August 31, 2018

Review: The VideoKid [Nintendo Switch eShop]


One advantage of being an “elder gamer” is that I got to see arcade titles that broke new ground and did things for the very first time, sometimes with very unique control schemes. One such title I loved was the classic Paperboy, which even had a set of handlebars on the unit that you used to steer. Aside from the controls my favorite element was how you’d try to deliver to subscribers to keep them happy but then for anyone who wasn’t a subscriber the goal was to simply wreck their house however you could. One look at The VideoKid, with its cute voxel art, quickly brought the memories of that arcade classic forward… but though there are some similarities unfortunately they’re limited and the game suffers from the comparison.


In truth the best way to approach this is as a mobile game, sharing something in common with the likes of Crossy Road and its ilk. In that perspective the more simple singular goal of getting to your girlfriend, this being a one-hit-and-you’re-done experience, the very microtransaction-feeling unlockables, and the shallow interpretation of Paperboy’s ideas make a bit more sense. There’s not much room for nuance here, and that’s true from both a gameplay and pop culture standpoint, as in order to help compensate for the middling action the game is awash in 80s pop culture references. Certainly, for people who grew up with these things there are some great “Hey, I know what that’s from” moments, but since these sorts of things in retro titles have become pretty commonplace they can also feel like a crutch.


While I wouldn’t imply that something having a “mobile feel” is inherently bad I use the description to quickly convey some of the game’s issues. There’s no free movement here, you’re pretty well restricted to movement in 3 lanes. This does simplify things a bit, and could even be a positive, but the associated issue is that your character isn’t quite as maneuverable as I’d like. Since you’re not on a bike, but instead of a skateboard, you do have the ability to jump and it’s a crucial element given the obstacles you face. However, it’s pretty stilted and you’re not able to control yourself in the air to switch lanes, inevitably leading to mistakes. For Paperboy fans perhaps the biggest disappointment is that you’re able to spam the videos you throw, and the goal is just to hit everything, completely removing the subscriber nuance from the original, which is a shame.


When reviewing titles I always attempt to make it more about what the game is trying to be than what I wish it was but in the case of The VideoKid its inspirations are so obvious that it’s tough for me not to at least make comparisons. Mentally removing Paperboy from my mind this is a reasonably good arcade-style game that may end abruptly but is well-suited to quick sessions and is lovingly dipped in nostalgia with some “deep cut” references. However, keeping that classic in mind I find it hard not to get distracted by what’s been lost in translation. If you have no idea what Paperboy is, you’ll probably get some satisfaction, but if you’re a fan and were hoping this would rekindle that old flame just understand that there are some major caveats but some of its spirit is still present.

Score: 7

Pros:
  • Well-suited to pick-up-and-put-down play
  • An abundance of 80s pop culture references, including some deep cuts like the family Truckster complete with a still-alive Dinky in tow
  • Some fun to be had knocking over said characters and generally wrecking everything you see

Cons:
  • If you’re hoping for Paperboy reincarnated you’ll be disappointed
  • The 3-lane movement simplifies things but also restricts your ability to save yourself from mistakes
  • Nuance in which houses you only deliver to and which you’re free to destroy has been lost in translation


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Review: The Messenger [Nintendo Switch eShop]


One of the most fascinating elements of the indie movement is the re-emergence of brutally difficult games that are, at the same time, more forgiving and thus accessible than their forebears. Way back in the day you could be expected to grit your teeth, curse, and scream at your screen as you’d get to a major boss battle, get your ass handed to you, and then need to endure a lengthy run to get back to where you had been just to yet again earn an opportunity to shine. These experiences still do exist (I’m looking at you roguelikes, you delicious bastards) but thankfully for people who value their time (and sanity) a kinder, though not necessarily gentler, generation has come to play. The latest game in this vein, mixing very classic action platforming and a steep challenge, is The Messenger which in terms of visuals and feel is reminiscent of the infamous Ninja Gaiden titles but brings some welcome new ideas and surprises to the table as well.


The most talked about element of The Messenger is certainly one that deserves fair praise. At a minimum this feels like 2, but could almost be considered 3, titles in one. Journeying through several distinct and challenging areas, each with a pretty nasty boss fight to top it off, you’ll spend hours getting through the initial very traditional platforming section of the game, initially played in an 8-bit but then transitioning to a terrific 16-bit style. It’s only when you’ve defeated all the game has to throw at you, which feels like it would be the conclusion of lesser games, that everything opens up and changes the style and flow of things significantly. What had been well-designed linear levels are now revealed to have been far more complex and interesting frameworks for a deeper level design, one that you’re then able to explore by manipulating time by going through portals, revealing new pathways and challenges. While the initial run through the stages of the game are pretty amazing it’s really only when you’re able to view the entirety of what they have to offer in this later phase that the brilliance of the complete design come into focus.


What I’d say is the greatest secret concerning the game, and the one that for me takes it from being merely really good to being absolutely great, revolves around the amazing humor you’ll hit throughout. Whether it’s the biting or silly comments from your very busy savior Quarble, the unexpected follow-up discussions with defeated bosses, or the laugh out loud dialogue you’ll have with “the shopkeeper” I was as invested in seeing what these characters would say next as trying to plant my flag on the game as done. In particular I have to commend the people who contributed to this game’s personality, it manages to carefully toe the line between being funny and over the top. It’s specifically the shopkeeper’s stories that I was most interested to catch up on, the time it takes to read them is well worth it as they’re consistently unexpected and fun for a wide variety of reasons. If you’re looking for more than just conquering the challenges within the game for the sake of “beating it” I’d say this dimension is the one that stands out from almost anything else out there and will help the game feel special for a long time to come.


If there’s a downside to note it’s most definitely that the game is extremely tough and there are some sections and bosses you’re simply going to need to grit your way through. That’s in no way to say anything feels unfair or that there are extreme spikes in difficulty. On the contrary, the level of challenge is pretty consistent. But that’s also what I’d say increases the chances an average gamer may decide to give up on it too soon.The checkpoints are, in general, very fair in their spacing and don’t tend to put you through too much torture before you’re able to save your progress. The thing is, you really need to be on top of every move at your disposal, and be able to utilize them in some creative ways, to ultimately be successful. While games like Celeste provided a way to scale things down so you could still enjoy the experience even if you couldn’t quite hack it there’s no such mercy rule to be had here. If, somehow, you feel like it’s all a bit too easy there are also an abundance of hidden areas you can find with some even more devious challenges. Not all hidden areas mean certain death, some will actually help you out, but keep in mind that some of the tougher challenges are very aware of where the save points are and seem to be put in place specifically for the purpose of tempting you. For the person who loves to dig in this probably all sounds great, but if it gives you anxiety just reading about it understand that the hill to be climbed to enjoy all of these things is high, possibly meaning you’ll get frustrated before appreciating most of it.


Games that are so clearly terrific and special in many ways, but that have a degree of difficulty that makes me concerned not everyone will get a chance to appreciate it, always pose a scoring challenge for me. Unlike, say, a roguelike where some mild progression and sheer luck can give you good runs every once in a while here there are no tricks, shortcuts, or luck to be had. Your options are merely to “git gud” or to stop playing. It’s an approach I find admirable, and given the generally generous spacing of checkpoints I think it’s as fair as it can be without completely compromising. If you’re up to the challenge, or to give it a serious try, this is absolutely a rewarding experience and one that pays off more and more the further in you’re able to go. The evolution of its visual style and gameplay are something I’ve simply never seen before and I think will inevitably be copied, they’re so impressively done. What will be far tougher to have any hope of replicating, and what really sets The Messenger apart, is the game’s tremendous sense of humor and poking fun at itself. The result is one of the most deserving titles of “the hype” I’ve seen in quite some time.


Score: 9.5

Pros:
  • Amazing, challenging, and inventive gameplay
  • Looks absolutely incredible, especially once you unlock the final more open mode of play
  • Tremendously funny writing that compelled me to progress

Cons:
  • Though the checkpoints help to respect your time, ultimately this game is full of challenges where there’s no net or way to avoid what’s kicking your ass
  • No matter how cool elements of the game may be if you’re unable to appreciate them the magic may not be there for you


Review: Blade Strangers [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While in the past few decades my interest in fighting games has fallen off from where I once was (I bought my SNES specifically to play Street Fighter II with my friend) it’s always been a genre I’ve been fond of. While by no means a hardcore player, immersing myself in information on hitboxes and higher order strategies, I like to think I can hold my own among my fellow enthusiasts. The thing I’ve seen with the genre over time is that there’s no guarantee of success, even for established franchises, and at least for me a game either feels good and works or it doesn’t. While I had high hopes for Studio Saizensen’s (care of Nicalis) first venture into the genre, Blade Strangers, I hadn’t expected that they’d do such a great job on their first attempt.


Starting with the basics the game has a pretty distinctive look for its 10 base characters and 4 indie add-ons. Rather than being hand-drawn the characters were apparently modeled in 3D and then converted into sprites, the result looking pretty fluid and fabulous. Power gauge infused special attacks have a great visual flair but also don’t take so long to execute that they ruin any sort of flow, something other series can struggle with. There are some hard edges on the characters, but aside from that this seems to work very well as a technique and even makes some characters with very different core visual styles feel like they belong together on screen. In particular, I was curious about how well the pale and short of stature Isaac or even Shovel Knight would work into the mix but they generally seem to fit right in.


The selection of modes is pretty well standard, with both basic and advanced training modes, an endurance mode, arcade mode which offers the very convenient option of playing while waiting for an online opponent to become available, standard local versus mode, and story mode. The story mode is pretty standard with an overall narrative that you’ll follow each time trying to make sense of why all of these very different characters have been brought together, which I won’t spoil here, but it’s the character to character interactions here that are one of the things I enjoyed the most. While some of the dialogue is more generic or weird it’s how characters react to the gravity-defying Solange and her peculiar armor that absolutely cracked me up. While perhaps they’re a bit rough on the poor Code of Princess star she takes it in stride and has the skills to knock anyone giving her crap on their ass, so that all seems fair.


In terms of shortcomings I’d say that from a purists point of view even though each character’s style of fighting is distinctive their method of play is uniformly the same. This is a boon to more casual players like me, not having to remember very specific motions or controls for every fighter, but I could see where some could consider this a bit more watered down. With very accessible ability to chain combos as well as defensive tactics like counters there’s room for this being a technical fighter, but with it being a new kid on the block it will take far pickier genre fans than I to render the verdict on just how far down the technical rabbit hole it goes. In what limited Online play I was able to get in while it was playable I’d say there’s a detectable lack of fluidity compared to local play, though I wouldn’t say it greatly interfered with my success. Online is always difficult to assess until the game is in full release and more heavily in use so it will remain a bit of a question mark until it gets rolling.


In all, as a part-time fighting game fan, I’ll say that I’m both surprised by and very satisfied with this initial entry into the genre by Studio Saizensen. Feeling more polished and comparable than you’d expect with more established series it seems to have struck a nice balance between accessibility and leaving room for more technical fighters to explore. While it doesn’t have a massive roster the characters are varied and there should be match for pretty well everyone here whether you prefer more traditional or a little off-center. Only time will tell if this can break into the big leagues and gain acceptance from the greater fighting community but if you’re looking for something that feels fresh and plays well it’s a solid package.


Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • The controls are very accessible but leave room for more advanced techniques
  • A varied roster of characters that includes some great indie shout outs like Gunvolt, Isaac, and Shovel Knight
  • The Story Mode shows a sense of humor and self-awareness that made some character interactions far more entertaining than the usual stock comments

Cons:
  • While the character animations look great some people may get distracted by the hard edges on the character sprites
  • Aside from the roster not being as massive as some other titles the diversity in fighting styles isn’t as broad as you can find elsewhere either
  • Online play, though workable, at the moment feels a little less fluid than playing locally


Monday, August 27, 2018

Review: Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Party games and the Switch seem to be a natural pairing. Ever since that first promo video with the now-infamous Karen taking her Switch over to a roof party it’s clear that Nintendo wanted the console to be easy to enjoy with others. Aside from the Jackbox series and a few other notable titles there haven’t been all that many great indie party games to this point, and certainly none of them has been like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. Who knew that the complicated process of defusing the bomb could be fun?


The setup is relatively simple and also quite versatile, especially since ideally only the person trying to defuse the bomb should see the screen. Everyone else participating, which could range from 1 to any number of people you can stand yelling directions, will have their eyes on the 20-page bomb defusing manual that’s absolutely filled with critical information and tips for dealing with the bomb’s many potential sections. Whether it’s clipping wires, completing a maze, or even simply dealing with properly pressing the button to disable the bomb there are rules about just about everything.

This all makes for a situation where careful and clear communication between the defuser and the helpers is critical. Until everyone gets to know the different modules even establishing which set of instructions is the one you need can eat up precious seconds. In order to be a bit more lenient the tendency is to allow 3 mistakes before everything goes up in smoke but it’s amazing how quickly 5 minutes evaporates and how tense everyone begins to get as the timer gets into the last minute.


If you’re looking to have something unique to play at a party, especially if you have some friends or family that are know-it-alls, this could get to be interesting. As a separate thought it would actually make an excellent game to play in workplaces if you’re looking to engage in some team building through communication as well. It’s extremely niche in nature and essentially locked in stone in terms of what it does, but it can still be thrilling and fun to enjoy with others.

Score: 8.5

Pros:

  • Absolutely a unique experience on the Switch
  • Scalable from 2 to as many players as you can stand
  • As long as people have a means to view the manual, which can be accessed over the web, or even simply printed out, it requires very little to play
  • A relatively simple concept very well executed


Cons:

  • Inherently repetitive to a degree, though mixing and matching modules would likely keep it fresh for quite some time
  • Depending on the composition of your group, and how argumentative they can be, it may not end well


Sunday, August 26, 2018

Review: Earthworms [Nintendo Switch eShop]


It seems that in entertainment media going with weird and creepy can pretty easily generate interest. Examples like The X-Files, Paranormal Activity movies, or Supernatural come to mind and these each had their own degrees of success. There are people who are simply drawn to this kind of experience and that seems to be what the otherwise unremarkable adventure title Earthworms was looking to capitalize on.


In it you’ll play the part of a detective who has a history of having disturbing visions who takes an assignment to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Starting out in a small town but soon expanding into some very different places you’ll work in a somewhat typical point-and-click adventure style through puzzles of various kinds to progress. Touchscreen and even one-handed controller support make this mechanically easy, and the art and music have a consistent calm but eerie feel, but it’s the adventuring itself that generally falls on its face.


There’s no doubt that the problem facing all adventure titles is how to make their puzzles feel organic and sensible in some way, this is an issue even for the genre’s best games. Unfortunately, among its contemporaries on the Switch I’d say Earthworms may be the sloppiest I’ve played. Most solutions end up being pretty brute force in some way, a problem added to by the fact that some elements will only work when you’ve triggered the right sequence of events. So that item or element in the environment you may have already checked only then becomes relevant after you’ve done something else. Given the vaguery of most of the direction you’ll get this becomes a bit annoying. Rather than rewarding your intuition in realizing what you should do next it devolves into clicking on everything you can in the hopes it’s essential, which diminishes enjoyment.


As a total package if you’re looking for something with a creepy feel Earthworms may scratch that itch, just don’t come in with modest expectations. If you plan to play it exclusively in handheld mode I’ll warn that some details will get very tiny so that may be problematic. As the game notes in every loading screen an oddity is that there’s no auto-save so you’ll need to be diligent in managing this. Given the fact that I had the game get into an endless loop once in dialogue with an NPC perhaps the concern was that saving at every transition could have had unintended consequences technically. While it isn’t an awful game Earthworms has enough issues that even with its moments of creepy and weird happenings it’s hard to give more than a mild recommendation for.


Score: 5.5

Pros:
  • Has a creepy vibe about it
  • The music and art style suit the game well
  • In terms of control options it has you covered

Cons:
  • Many of the puzzles are uninspired, some bordering on lazy
  • Too many times brute force is your friend, clicking on things until you find what it was looking for
  • Technical issues with no auto-save and an infinite loop requiring me to close the game show a lack of polish


Review: Spectrum [Nintendo Switch eShop]


The platforming genre casts a wide net as a whole and its representation on Switch has managed to span from the likes of Mario to the very aesthetically different Flat Heroes. Coming in with a look that’s minimalist ala Flat Heroes and a few others, with a style all its own, is Spectrum. With its very clean presentation and engaging challenge it may not scream must-have to the world but if you’re looking for a pretty budget-friend challenge that will keep you engaged for quite a few hours it will do nicely.


The controls in Spectrum are incredibly simple, you’ll be able to move your black glob left and right, and then using the buttons thrust it up and down. The nice surprise it that with these humble controls the game manages to throw a varied set of obstacles and scenarios at you that will force you to keep adapting your techniques. Careful control of your downward movement, knowing when to simply fall and when to boost your way down, can be vital to success.


Timing is certainly everything here, and a fair dose of patience can also be in order in some stages, forcing you to hold up just a few moments between bursts to avoid needing to start over. There are per-stage target times for you to beat as well as leaderboards if you’re feeling like pushing yourself, but if you’re just down for making it through that’s OK as well, you’ll still have plenty of work to do just to complete all of the games 80 stages.


While there’s not much to help Spectrum stand out clearly ahead of the pack on the crowded Switch eShop it certainly deserves a place in the pack of contenders. If you’re a fan of clean and simple aesthetics it should get a healthy boost, but aside from that it’s just a good game without any real flaws, it just doesn’t inspire great deals of enthusiasm. Probably best suited to someone who wants to fully zone out with some chilled out music, engaging play, and lacking busy visuals.


Score: 7

Pros:
  • Very clean aesthetically
  • Great chilled out music and style
  • Solid gameplay with more variety than its pretty simple controls would imply

Cons:
  • While fairly good in all categories, and without major flaws, it’s hard to get enthusiastic about
  • There’s no reward or real incentive to return to levels or beat specified times


Friday, August 24, 2018

Review: Detective Gallo [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Another week, another set of adventure games on the Switch. Fortunately, though the basic formula popularized in the genre’s heyday, mixing humor and funky puzzles, hasn’t evolved much some of its classic frustrations have at least been minimized. Bringing a slightly different style and theme to the table is Detective Gallo, sporting a pretty light and fun feel mixed with a comedic riff on a classic detective noir tale.


Gallo is delivered with a deliberate and mostly straight-laced tone while most of the characters and situations he gets involved with tend towards the odd and silly. This contrast at least provides some entertainment, and when combined with the game’s distinct art style it certainly stands out. Similarly to classic LucasArts titles most of the humor comes in the form of the many dialogue choices you’ll have, though sometimes Gallo’s comments when you try to take certain actions can prompt a chuckle as well.


Aside from the presentation, for the most part this is a pretty stock adventure in terms of both good and bad, with the primary challenge being where to go, what to do, and how to make use of the items you’ll find. In general the game does do an excellent job of helping you know what in the environment can be acted upon, at least cutting down on wasted time and effort clicking everywhere. I’d say that perhaps the pace of simple things like Gallo’s walk are unnecessarily slow so when you need to move through multiple screens things can drag, but on the whole the title does seem to try to respect your time.


With an abundance of adventure options available on the Switch what Detective Gallo has that helps set it apart is the noir theme mixed with the often deadpan humor delivered by the main character. At a minimum the game is easy on the eyes and the voice acting, while perhaps not always perfect, at least generally maintains a consistent level of quality. If you like your protagonists a bit hard-boiled and your humor a bit silly Detective Gallo is a fun choice.

Score: 7.5

Pros:
  • A great art style
  • Consistently funny dialogue and interactions
  • The noir style, sprinkled with humor, isn’t something you’ll find with other titles

Cons:
  • In terms of gameplay it is a pretty boilerplate adventure
  • While some other titles have begun to try to provide effective in-game hint systems you’ll generally be on your own here
  • There’s simply a lot of competition in this space on the console, making it tougher for anything to break out


Review: Kero Blaster [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While there’s an abundance of shooters on the Switch as a whole they have a tendency first to be of the twin-stick variety, sporting 360 aiming whether top-down or even side-scrolling. Older-school side-scrolling shooters with a more traditional style are in much shorter supply and into that gap comes the very retro-looking Kero Blaster, coming from the developer behind the indie darling Cave Story. This time around it’s a much more basic affair but the fundamental gameplay is there if you don’t mind it’s mostly 8-bit era appearance.


The minimal story behind the game is actually a bit off-beat, with you playing as a janitor for the Cat & Frog Company. The bizarre and brief interactions you have with your “boss” and a co-worker are really just there for odd laughs, which is fine since it allows you to dive into the pretty classic action. Played out over several pretty diverse stages you’ll make your way through some varied environments, requiring you to deal with a variety of obstacles and enemies. At the conclusion of each stage you’ll face off against a boss, with each having their own attack style and sense of personality. The reward for defeating each of them is either a new weapon or piece of equipment, with each having something new to add to your arsenal.


Each gun has its own feel, and this is especially true as you upgrade them and they become a bit more powerful. While you’d normally approach games like these settling into a single preferred weapon you then stick with, the good news is that each of these weapons has a pretty distinct benefit and are worth cycling between when appropriate. In particular the bubble gun isn’t necessarily always best for enemies but can be quite handy when under water or you want to clear something out below you. After a few hours you’ll likely have moved through the main campaign and you’ll have the options to play through a remixed mode that offers new challenges or just a repeat of the campaign with the difficulty notched up further.


While it manages to avoid falling into too many repetitive patterns and stays engaging I’d say the experience has charm on its side more than excitement. It’s a solid traditional game but with the variety that’s out there, though not necessarily all on the Switch, unless that’s specifically what you’re seeking it may not be as appealing. This is more of a light romp initially but if you’re down for a challenge the unlocked modes more than deliver. If you’re itching to shoot things like it’s the old days this may be the ticket for you but if you’re thirsting for more modern sensibilities you may want to look elsewhere.

Score: 7.5

Pros:
  • Has a cute and quirky charm to it in almost every area of its design
  • Delivers a very traditional side-scrolling shooter experience
  • The added remix and hard modes add to replayability factor

Cons:
  • By design lacking in more modern sensibilities, possibly making it more niche in nature
  • Consistent with its style the lack of aiming versatility can be frustrating in places
  • The main campaign isn’t terribly long


Review: Shio [Nintendo Switch eShop]


There’s something to be said for games that have a great art style, lending themselves to a quick glance in the eShop and creating a temptation for an impulse buy. The very polished looks of Shio very much prompt this sort of response, making it easy for it to catch your attention. In practice though, while its gameplay offers a bit of a different flavor of platforming its minor control shortcomings, kitchen sink collectibles, and unusual story beats keep it from quite living up to the promise you see in those still shots.


Starting with the positives there’s no doubt this is an attractive game that generally performs well on the system whether on a big screen or small. If you’re down for a challenge, have no fear. This title may start off on the light side but once it gets cranked up a bit you’ll be retrying levels repeatedly. To the game’s credit you’re pretty well instantly back in action with no delay the moment you die, something critical to minimizing your frustration and not letting you dwell on your platforming mediocrity for too long. The action is mostly driven by your ability to swing your lantern at lights, which will then give you an extra boost, and many levels will have you chaining these actions repeatedly, keeping you aloft for the bulk of the level. As you get further in you’ll have to additionally contend with a variety of obstacles and things like floors that quickly heat up, but the constant is relying on your timing and skill to hit those lights and keep yourself aloft and moving towards your goal.


Speaking of your goal, that’s definitely an area where the game struggles, especially in light of a game like Celeste. For the most part what small bits of story there are tend to be disjointed and even a bit baffling. Honestly, pretty early on I roughly gave up on trying to really understand any of it, instead tending to be amused by how little sense it made. There’s quite a collection of items you can collect as well but in that same vein I didn’t feel very compelled to care about any of it, though if I saw something I’d tend to try to get it out of habit. My biggest gripe with the game though is that for me there’s just a slight delay in your swinging your lantern, at least for it being at its “sweet spot” and giving you your boost. Though double-tapping had no effect it became my consistent habit and when I’d pay attention I’d notice that the delay was roughly the same as the timing of my second tap. This is likely related to the animation itself but while in early levels the minor delay I was feeling didn’t play a major role as the difficulty ratcheted up it did become a consistent aggravation since there’s little room for error.


Those mostly minor issues aside Shio is a well-presented title with high ambitions that simply can’t deliver the polish to make it all work. If you’re willing to work with it you may find that you don’t notice the delay or can compensate for it, and doing so would mostly nullify my misgivings. That said, when execution is so absolutely critical even a split-second can make all the difference, and as I got further into the handful of hours the game offers this became a consistent frustration. For hardcore platforming enthusiasts this will likely be a treat, but for average gamers it may not be something you’ll be able to stick with to the end.

Score: 7

Pros:
  • An outstanding overall look
  • Challenging platforming awaits
  • Each stage builds on the previous challenges and adds new elements, keeping gameplay mostly fresh

Cons:
  • Though I’d consider it to be minor I felt like the swing action/animation was just a little on the slow side, adding an unwanted challenge to the platforming
  • The items don’t really do anything of note and seem to be included just to be there, not demonstrating a great deal of care
  • What story there is comes slowly, in somewhat odd ways, and felt very skippable


Review: Victor Vran - Overkill Edition [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While a certain granddaddy of all action RPGs is making its way to the Switch in the not-too-far future, to this point there’s been nothing even approaching its level of quality or fun on the console. That has all changed with the release of Victor Vran, a title that is certainly aware of its competition and that borrows quite liberally from the Diablo series. However, what’s interesting is that in some regards Vran shares more in common with the original Diablo and its sequel, while Diablo III set out to chart newer territory in multiple areas. This allows Victor and the evil minions he faces to very much stand alone and distance themselves from the admittedly large shadow cast by Blizzard’s heir to their very popular franchise.


Getting right into the nitty gritty of what makes this game work there’s its very console-friendly style of action that is deliberate, often challenging, and carries a pretty visceral feel. While you’re obviously powerful, able to dispatch many enemies with the swing of a sword or the blast of a shotgun, the slight delays between swings and shots help lend a feeling of power when you then deliver them. A normal, strong, and then heavy attack, each with their own appropriate cooldowns, further lend to the ebb and flow of tougher battles as you’ll need to keep moving to evade enemies while your more devastating attacks recharge. However, the biggest thing Vran has more in common with Diablo II than its own sequel is the ability to shift between builds on the fly, and the power to let your gear define how you play more than making an up-front commitment and then being stuck in that lane through the course of the game.


It’s then where Vran deviates from the formula and charts its own course that things get more interesting. While you do level up over the course of the game, and there are a variety of stat boosts and perks you’ll gain along the way, you’ll manage your other perks on the fly using a deck of Destiny cards. These, along with your chosen outfit, will allow you to do quite a bit of fine-tuning to help the overall experience suit your own style, whether you’re interested in maximizing your critical hits and damage or being more defensive to help keep yourself alive. The other most significant difference Vran offers, and it is probably my favorite feature of the game, are the stage challenges that accompany each level. These are optional for the most part but rolling with the demand to work through a dungeon faster or kill enemies with specific weapons, among other things, provides a great incentive to keep the action fresh and varied, as well as challenging your skill. As if the base game weren’t enough, this Switch Overkill edition also includes the Motorhead expansion pack, which changes things enough up to provide an entertaining Game+ remix, complete with new monsters, a bonkers story, weaponized musical instruments, and featuring some of their signature tunes.


If there’s a criticism for Vran, the most notable I can think of is that the overall quality of its production values isn’t quite in the same league as Blizzard’s. While Diablo fans will tend to groan or giggle at the mention of the name Deckard Cain, a large part of the reason the phrase “Stay awhile, and listen” is etched into people’s brains is because of how well it was planned and delivered. By comparison Victor’s somewhat noir-feeling, monotone voice does work well enough but also isn’t in the same league. While performance is generally smooth and excellent the visuals do have some occasional rough patches but otherwise aside from the color palette feeling a bit washed out the title has come to Switch without and serious compromises. I would also note that some stages, due to their sheer size, can get difficult to navigate, and can result in you getting lost from time to time as well.


While it’s inevitable for Victor Vran to be compared to the series that obviously inspired it presuming that it is merely a clone or some lesser attempt would be a mistake. It may borrow elements, but aside from having great core gameplay it also does some things very differently, and even as someone who had invested hundreds of hours into the Diablo series I appreciate there being a strong competitor out there that has dared to be different. If you’re seeking some challenging and satisfying action RPG gameplay on the Switch, Victor Vran absolutely delivers.

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • A versatile and satisfying combat system
  • Challenges are a great way to test your skills, encouraging you to adopt different style of play
  • The Motorhead expansion is a fun additional take, providing additional challenging thrills

Cons:
  • The voice acting and story elements, while reasonably well-executed, aren’t consistent in their quality
  • Large stages are nice but you can sometimes get lost in them


Review: State of Mind [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While there have been quite a number of adventure titles of varied themes and styles to date the Switch eShop has just this week added its first 2 futuristic techno-adventures to the mix. Heavily contrasting against the simple pixel art of 2064: Read Only Memories State of Mind goes in a very different direction, delivering some pretty top-notch visuals with detailed environments. Unfortunately, in a similar vein to its futuristic partner it swings pretty heavily into exposition and ends up feeling a bit too much like a static journey on rails where you engage in some small mini games and decisions of questionable consequence along the way.


I’d actually say that it felt like the game got off to a pretty strong start, with you awakening a bit disoriented after being involved in an auto accident. At this stage you seem to share a sense of confusion with your on-screen character as you work to understand and piece together what’s happened in his past and how it connects to him now. This gets even more intriguing when you then wake up as a different person who seems to be living an oddly similar life and has been through similar circumstances. If only from this initial situation it had managed to be more original in some way or allowed for some real player agency it could have made for a pretty good time, unfortunately the more you play the more it falls a bit flat.


Make no mistake, there’s some intrigue here as well as commentaries on a variety of futurist and philosophical topics, unfortunately the more you’ve read or seen books or media concerning these topics the more familiar and even trite it all seems. Some real choices of consequence or compelling things to do along the way may have spiced things up but unfortunately this is a very on-rails experience where you’ll simply go through the motions as the story forces you through its paces. Dialogue trees allow for gaining some extra insight but aside from that are only waiting for you to trigger the right options to move to the next stage. There will be environments to explore and some objects to manipulate but it’s almost all strictly geared to advancing things along, with no side paths or value added interest to go with it. Some moderately fun mini games are peppered throughout, and act as a fine distraction, but are over too quickly and are infrequent.


I can appreciate strong narratives that are designed to tell a story, but if you’re going to go that route you’d better be sure it’s something well worth the ride. Unfortunately, for all of its visual flair and promise you start with the ultimate ride simply doesn’t deliver consistently enough to make it much fun along the way. If you’re looking for a slow-paced reflection on the future, with a little intrigue and perhaps some cliche thrown in, it may well suit you. For everyone else you’d probably be better off enjoying the Blade Runner movies and saving yourself a few hours.

Score: 6

Pros:
  • Really terrific visuals and flair
  • There’s some intrigue to be had, just you’ve likely seen variations on it before
  • Some of the puzzles and mini games, when they do present themselves, are novel

Cons:
  • No real opportunities for player agency or engagement, the game plays out more like a script
  • For as much dialogue as there is in the game it’s a shame much of it is dull
  • In terms of pacing more opportunities for interaction are sorely missed


Thursday, August 23, 2018

Review: Morphies Law [Nintendo Switch eShop]


As a longtime fan of the genre who has played a ton of shooters over the years there’s no doubt that getting them right, especially when you’re trying to do something new and different, is a tricky business. In more recent history Splatoon 2 was probably the biggest surprise, managing to take traditional dynamics and blend in a variety of new ideas that heavily affected mobility and strategy, making the experience much less vanilla. There’s no doubt that the folks behind Morphies Law had some of those same goals in mind, and the foundation of a unique take on gameplay is definitely there, but there’s no denying that for the moment the growing pains in key areas are also very clear.


The hook in Morphies Law is that as you shoot your enemies those shots will land on specific body parts, and for each hit they take you’ll begin taking on additional mass for that same body part. This explains why they shots of the action in the game tend to be a bit weird, with characters running around with massive heads on tiny bodies and other odd combinations. Across 3 distinct game modes and some pretty diverse stages you’ll engage in variations on genre staples. Morph Match is a straight-up Team Deathmatch, Head Hunt is a funky variant of Capture the Flag, and Mass Height is a great mix of Territory Control and Capture the Flag concepts that marry heavily with the mass-stealing concept. Here you’ll need one team member to stand on one of 3 designated pads that allow you to shoot the other team’s massive avatar and steal mass from it. You’ll then need to get to an ever-moving shrine to give up that mass and essentially contribute to your team’s score. This mode in particular can take on a heavily strategic component if you’re with the right crew, and feels very unique. It’s worth noting that on top of local play, local play against AI bots, and normal online play there’s an option to play online with people against AI bots. I appreciate the option and it can be a bit less intimidating as you learn the ropes.


Of course the key to enjoying a shooter is having reasonably good controls. Focusing only on the controls themselves I was pleasantly surprised how great they feel, I’d say roughly on par with the likes of Splatoon 2 in making proper use of motion controls for fine aiming on top of the dual analog sticks to move and turn more quickly. While it can be tricky to connect, especially from a distance, the crosshairs will change to bones when you’re hitting someone, which is a great visual aid and enables you to do some pretty long-range shooting even without a scope. Conceptually the mass stealing mixed with shrinking and growing is a good one, but I’ll admit that unlike the mechanics of Splatoon’s swimming in paint that allow for extreme and creative mobility, the similar attempts here tied to your size don’t feel fully fleshed out. Small doorways or tubes will only allow smaller players to get around more quickly, while bigger jumps may only be accessible to larger ones, but in a typical match I didn’t find these options usually came heavily into play either. More often the ability to “boost” your jumps and fly around tends to be the ideal way to get around quickly. The ability to remix your guns, though it takes too long to unlock enough variety, is also nice and allows players who’ve leveled up a bit to fall into roles, providing support on offense, defense, or simply being a pain to the other team.


When it comes to missteps for the moment the list is unfortunately a bit on the long side, but I’d say that in general the potential is all there, the game just could really use some tuning. The foremost problem, one that the developer is obviously aware of and looking to address, is that the online experience can still get janky. When things are working smoothly it can be a good time but when you hit problems with lag in particular any shooter will always be aggravating. Another area that could use addressing is the rate and way player customization is handled. Currently it feels more like a mobile game, with you grinding for currency, and getting some random drops through a pinata you’ll earn for every level you complete. I understand the desire to make certain enhancements more rare but even having played many games that have progressive customization unlocks this one feels unnecessarily slow. Tied to that same concern is how long it takes to get access to more variety in the base gun types. There’s just too much grinding involved to get past the generic base machine gun (though the secondary enhancements more quickly available are nice), and it’s currently possible people could get tired of the lack of variety in weaponry before they gain access to more. This is all aside from the challenge involving the community that will form around the game and the quality of competition and cooperation they’ll provide. The more strategic modes
can be a blast if people work towards the objectives but if people insist on only playing everything as a Deathmatch the quality of play suffers in a hurry.


On the whole there’s quite a lot to like about Morphies Law and the ways it has played with the shooter formula. The mass stealing and jump boosting mechanics can provide for unexpected situations and some fun, though there’s definitely a learning curve to making the most of it all and becoming accustomed to some of the game’s quirks. Consistent online play is probably it’s weakest element, followed by the unlock and progression rate, but hopefully these can be addressed in patches in the near future. The potential for greatness is certainly there, and when everything clicks into place it can be a good time, but until it all gets refined it may be a bit too early for everyone to jump on the Morphie train just yet.

Score: 7

Pros:
  • An interesting take on traditional shooters
  • Character customization is extensive, though perhaps a bit too gated at the moment
  • Eventually, once you level up enough, there’s a fair variety of weapons and enhancements to choose from
  • Online play against a team of bots is a great touch

Cons:
  • Online play can still be pretty janky at times
  • Progression and unlocks currently feel too slow, earlier available variety could help it from feeling so one-note earlier on
  • Enjoyment hinges heavily on who you’re playing with, always a risk with online games of this sort


Review: Nightmares of the Deep 2 - The Siren's Call [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While there are many puzzle and adventure games on Switch there aren’t that many that blend the 2 genres together quite as thoroughly as Nightmares from the Deep 2. Much like the other title already available on the system from Artifex Mundi, Enigmatis 2: The Mists of Ravenwood, Siren’s Call deftly blends together a pretty wide variety of challenges and styles into one package. While the result is decidedly casual in nature, perfect for portable play using the Switch’s touchscreen, that isn’t to say it can’t be fun for the right crowd by any means.


While this is the second title in the series, some quick mention of a previous adventure is about all you need to understand. Once the plot gets rolling you’ll understand enough that things are just fine. Scary shark-headed villain wants and artifact that will let him take control of the mythical Kraken, you need to rescue a mermaid he has abducted to save the day. Check. Really, the story is just there to connect it all together, and the characters you encounter along the way lend a little bit of flavor as well with some middle-of-the-road voice acting and somewhat dated but creative visuals.


What you’ll really want to dig into will be the puzzles, and for fans who appreciate a pretty wide variety of challenges these titles consistently shine. While hidden objects used to be the bread and butter of these games over time those have become just one of many that are available. Even when you do encounter hidden object puzzles they will tend to have multi-tiered objectives that change up the formula a bit and feel fresh. Mosaic picture puzzles and various brain teasers will keep you on your toes, and at times you’ll even have the choice to go with a game of mahjong if you’d like as an alternative. Then, as you complete each individual challenge, the reward is typically an object that will help advance the more traditional adventure story that is layered on top, requiring you to explore and use your inventory items to overcome obstacles in your way. It all meshes together quite nicely.


Whether you’re a more casual gamer who’s looking for some variety or someone who normally prefers intensity but is interested in something to cool down and relax with Nightmares from the Deep 2 is a great option. Though its production values can get a little weak in places the diversity and quality of puzzles it offers more than compensates. Throw in a well-implemented and simply hint system that recharges and will help keep you from getting lost and it stands out as a great choice for some laid back enjoyment.


Score: 8

Pros:
  • Terrific variety and quality in its various puzzles
  • The hint system is well-implemented and keeps you from getting too lost
  • Love the inclusion of mahjong as an option in certain cases

Cons:
  • Some of the production values feel a bit dated
  • The story is fine to connect it all together but is a bit cliched


Monday, August 20, 2018

Review: Next Up Hero [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While by the end of the year there will be quite a lot of representation of action RPGs on the Switch to this point there’s no clear title that stands above the rest. With a somewhat light and cute approach, mixed with procedurally-generated levels Next Up Hero has come to the scene looking to take its shot at glory. Unfortunately, its somewhat aimless nature, balancing and technical issues, and overall utter vanilla-ness stand in the way of it making a serious positive impression.


Stocked with a variety of both ranged and melee characters the basics Next Up offers aren’t bad. There’s some variety, with classes that are all about in-your-face action or accuracy as well as some that are a bit more forgiving, allowing you to do things like construct a turret to do some of your work for you. You’ll choose your character and then select a venture to challenge yourself with. There are generally already a great deal of existing ones you can check out but you can also opt to make some selections for size, difficulty, and environment and have one made randomly for you. As you progress you’ll also be able to more actively dictate the setup and level types to create your own personal venture.


The ventures themselves are a very mixed bag, with special level types that dictate the style of play, different monsters, and random rare monsters that can show up as well. On a general level your goal will be to move through each stage trying to eliminate all of the monsters but along the way you may see fallen heroes that you’ll be able to revive as ghosts to fight by your side to a limited degree. With enough of them you’ll also have the option to sacrifice them to summon Ancients that can temporarily help you out in a variety of ways. So kill monsters, collect prestige points and monster tokens, and try to survive as long as you can. Then inevitably die, slowly work on leveling up your character, and try again more powerful than ever, perhaps playing with someone else online to be even more effective. At least that’s the theory.


There are actually so many misgivings large and small that I have with the game it’s hard to keep track. Both local and especially online co-op play are often hit with slowdown and performance problems. The game has no concept of healing (at best some Ancients can temporarily shield you or give you a boost, not nothing permanent) so essentially the health you start your run with is all you have. Certain types of monsters, and especially bosses, even on Easy, turn what felt like a reasonably good run into a sudden death. Melee classes can be fun, but the fact that damage is far harder to avoid up-close makes them a horrible choice for the most part. There are some ways to enhance your character but the effect of enhancements are very small bumps at best and for the most part their limited set of attacks is all you’ll ever have, making gameplay get pretty repetitive, even if you find you enjoy it. In order to get those said incremental enhancements you’ll also need to do quite a lot of grinding, and yet even once you unlock them their effect doesn’t always feel like your time getting them was justified. Finally, the attempts to periodically tell some kind of external story to go with the action are pretty well pointless as the tiny bits of story feel so disconnected they may as well have been for another game.


At its base there are definitely things about Next Up Hero that make sense and work. Its art style and general flow of gameplay aren’t bad, and the variety of character attacks are interesting and worth trying out to see what suits you. Unfortunately, it’s pretty much everything from that point on that falls apart. Truly, this feels like a collection of game ideas thrown together in the same basket without the care to get any of it to be cohesive. Progression is slow, there are entire modes for levels that plain aren’t fun and make no sense (including one where you take damage for collecting prestige points, pretty well guaranteeing your melee fighter is screwed as they fall when an enemy dies), enemy damage is all over the place, and the story feels more like an excuse to have some out of synch character art to include in the package than anything else. I would like to enjoy it for what it does right, but the avalanche of issues it has make it seem like it wasn’t ready for release.

Score: 4

Pros:
  • Great art style
  • Varied character classes to play as
  • The basic flow of gameplay can be fun

Cons:
  • Too much grinding for incremental rewards
  • Performance issues with slowdown and though online co-op works it can be very laggy
  • A hodge podge of gameplay concepts that feel thrown together and lacking in cohesion
  • Even on Easy boss fights and even some fights against rare monsters are incredibly hard and unbalanced
  • No ability to heal over the entire course of your venture is a design decision that simply makes no sense, especially when coupled with the balancing issues
  • Game modes that seem to penalize the player with no discernable upside
  • Melee classes are completely impractical due to all the above