Thursday, January 31

Review: Airheart - Tales of Broken Wings [Nintendo Switch eShop]


One of the best things about covering indie games is that while many of them fall into familiar patterns or genre styles there’s also a consistent flow of titles that refuse easy categorization. Most typically these come in the form of mashups that combine elements to create new experiences. One such case is Airheart, a game that splices together twin-stick shooting, careful exploration, and crafting, but then throws in roguelike unpredictability as well. The result is unique and quite challenging, but also very smart when it comes to technique, making it a memorable journey.


You play the game as Amelia, a young woman determined to prove herself in the world, working from pretty humble beginnings to establish herself as a great pilot and hoping to eventually catch a mythical sky whale. Initially taking to the skies in your somewhat humble starter plane your goal is to try to capture fish (they fly, don’t ask) and then do battle with random pirates and stationary guns peppered everywhere. When you feel like you’re ready to step up the challenge (and potential rewards) you’ll then be able to fly to the next stage and roughly repeat things, just it will be tougher. In each seasonal zone, all comprised of multiple levels, you’ll then encounter a boss that will raise the stakes and difficulty quite a bit. Once you’re able to take them out you’ll not only get quite a reward, but you’ll also gain access to the next seasonal zone and even tougher challenges.


For me it all began to really come together once I’d done a few runs and took out the first boss. Initially I’d gone down the somewhat expensive path of buying upgraded parts and weapons for my plane, a viable choice but one that gets very costly. Since I’d gotten a sort of surplus of new parts as a reward for the first boss I decided to give the crafting system a longer look and it very much paid off. Built on experimentation the interface takes some getting used to. What at first feels a bit random begins to make more sense as you understand how you need to use abundant materials to combine to make slightly better components which you then need to combine to make even more complex ones. Part of the trick is with those mid-tier parts you construct you’ll also need to produce multiples to see new crafting opportunities. The game will only hint at what you have the parts to build, and then using the system of hints that tell you how many parts of each class you’ll need paired with cues on which parts you’re working with are correct and which aren’t you can work out the formula. After a while some elements began to make sense as being relevant to specific builds and that made things go a little quicker but, if you want top weapons and gear investing some time into crafting is vital.


Taking to the air with upgraded parts affords you many advantages. The most obvious upgrade that makes a huge difference is finding an effective weapon that suits you. I happened to settle on a plasma weapon and while I tried some others it really stuck for me. Obviously having more health is very convenient, and perks like having boost or a hull that attracts materials can be very handy. Since you can mix and match parts it really is up to you to find the mix that works best for you. As you play you’ll also hopefully begin to get very handy with your harpoon, which is great for spearing quicker fish, but is also vital for taking on tougher enemies. The ability to spear and pull off their guns or armor is helpful but it’s also fun to outright pull smaller craft around and either shoot them while they’re unable to fight back or even sling them into a wall.


Going higher can mean facing bigger enemies, but sometimes it’s the swarms of smaller ones that will do you in. Especially in the winter zone you’ll need to be wary of small and agile pirate ships that can be a real pain when there are several to deal with at once. Being methodical is really your best bet the higher you go, being careful to circle around the periphery and wearing away enemies carefully. Once you get into a crossfire it’s easy to lose a ton of health in a hurry, so luring out or even harpooning some enemies to take them to the side and dispatch them can be a helpful tactic. If you opt to play the game in roguelike mode it’s also vital to know when to call it quits. While you’re able to opt to go home at almost any time the further you’ve progressed the higher the risk as you fly down through the levels you’ve visited. If you’re just barely holding on a crash will lose you everything, something to keep in mind. In the Normal mode you’ll still take a penalty of materials and parts lost but you at least won’t have to start again from scratch.


The road (or perhaps in this case flightpath) to success will be a challenging one, especially at the beginning as you try to get your bearings. There’s no doubt that both when it comes to the flying action and crafting there’s a bit of a learning curve. While the flight controls do make sense, and once you’ve got them down you can be quite effective, early on you’re likely to be a bit clumsy and perhaps a bit overwhelmed. Similarly, once you’ve got enough material and it clicks, crafting is absolutely vital and makes sense, but at first learning how best to be successful takes a few passes. Part of this ties to the choice to use the B button to advance rather than the typical A. I backed out of crafting more times than I can count just because of this small decision that’s counter to the norm on Switch. It’s something you can get past, but sometimes it’s small details that can be the most needlessly aggravating.


Overall, Airheart is easily one of the games I’ve enjoyed the most since the beginning of the year (which, for me, is still quite a number of games). It’s gorgeous, at times serene, and then knows how to get down to business with plenty of shooting action and nuance if you’re willing to take the time to get skilled at using your harpoon. The Switch version has a value add of a 4-player mode but it’s just that, a nice-to-have for a short while if you have some friends up for trying it out. The main attraction is very much the crazy mix of exploration, “fishing”, shooting, crafting, and a number of situations that will catch you by surprise and challenge you. While perhaps a little rough around some edges, I highly recommend giving it a try.

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • A unique combination of exploration, action, and crafting
  • The ability to customize your plane with a large variety of components and weapons
  • You have the option to go full roguelike for the toughest challenge or tone it down depending on your tastes

Cons:
  • The crafting system takes getting used to, and the use of B to confirm or advance can be maddening at first since it’s not the system standard
  • As you get further in you’ll still need to start at the lowest layer and move your way up, a system to bypass those lower layers would be nice
  • The action can get repetitive, even though the enemies and overall degree of challenge continues to change


Wednesday, January 30

Review: Bombfest [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Making games that are pretty well meant to be exclusively multiplayer is a tough proposition. While it’s great that the Switch has encouraged the full return of local multiplayer fun it also has an eShop full of options and competition, making the task to stand out even more difficult. In the case of Bombfest it appears the plan has been to aim for simplicity in both concept and controls, and then compliment those with a wide and weird variety of environments and unlockables.


While thankfully if you’re short of the full 4 people that help keep the intensity high and the fun chaotic the AI does a fine (perhaps even too good) job of filling in, this is a game that works best with other people, optimally filling all slots. In terms of control there’s actually very little to know, you’re able to pick up and throw bombs as well as do a sort of leaping dive to either close the distance to grab one before someone else or try to escape a blast. This keeps things light and means that it’s very accessible both to new players and likely people of all ages.


As you’d expect even with humble controls there’s some nuance at play here. When bombs get closer to exploding they’ll flash with a red glow representing their blast radius, blinking faster as the time ticks away. If possible you’ll want to be somewhere else when they go off, especially if they’re in a cluster, since it’s being blasted out of whatever environment you’re in that ends the important part of your round. You’ll then come back as a small bomb that can be controlled still, affording you the opportunity to settle a score, try to keep everyone roughly even, or just create some random chaos. Once 5 rounds are over the scores from each stage will be tallied and a winner will be crowned.


Where the game struggles is with variety and staying power. While the various settings that take advantage of the theme where you’re toys battling it out in oversized real-world environments is novel and cute at first that feeling is also fleeting. Granted, watching the stuff in the environment react and get destroyed by bombs going off everywhere is fun, but once you’ve played the game a bit that wears off. The promise of a stream of unlocks then becomes the focus for replayability with new weapons, stages, and characters, but since the core fundamentals of the game remain mostly unchanged the question is how long the honeymoon for fun can last.


While Bombfest has many elements that can add up to fun, unfortunately unless your group is really taken with the simple but fun nature of things I don’t think it’s likely to hold people’s attentions for long. Granted, this is a problem shared by pretty well all games in this space that are exclusively multiplayer focused. New things to unlock can have an influence on play and make it more unpredictable, but the lack of any other real variety makes it run out of steam pretty quickly on its own merits. Though mileage may vary if you’re a massive fan of the gameplay Bombfest is fine overall, just not terribly inspired.

Score: 6

Pros:
  • Chaotic fun for anyone with simple and approachable controls
  • The gimmick of being toys mixed with some of the settings can be fun
  • In a pinch the AI will challenge you, perhaps a bit too much

Cons:
  • While some specifics in aesthetics and small refinements in play will change the game as you unlock things, the core gameplay never changes or evolves
  • It’s truly meant to be played with other people, and while you can solo against the AI that’s in no way an ideal sustained experience
  • Possible some gamers with less experience will find the action overwhelming and confusing


Tuesday, January 29

Review: Downwell [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Games that start out in the mobile space tend to have a negative stigma attached to them when they come to the Switch, and sometimes I’ll agree that the skepticism is warranted. I think the distinction that needs to be made, though, is that there are games that are inherently geared towards being mobile and those that happened to start their lives that way. Particularly when it comes to control some titles work fine with the touchscreen and may even feel more optimum that way. However, when it comes to a title like Downwell, while I enjoyed it in mobile form using the touchscreen always seemed to be holding it back. Finally, given dedicated controls, this visually simply but very challenging title feels like it has found a great home on Switch.


In principle Downwell is a pretty simple game. As the name implies the entire game is spent moving further and further down into a well as you try to stomp or shoot a variety of creatures or sometimes simply try to avoid everything you can to get to the next level. What makes it interesting is that firing your weapons will shoot at things below you but will also give you a short boost, either slowing your momentum or letting you boost around a bit (keep in mind, your ammo is limited and only resets when you touch the ground). Varying weapons you may encounter along the way can be a blessing or a curse so you’ll need to get accustomed to each choice to know which may be and upgrade and which to avoid.


Since, in general, no matter how much you play it there’s always a degree of unpredictable challenge where things can quickly go south on you perks and permanent unlocks you get that allow you to change up your style a bit play a bit role in things. Added health, being just a little more floaty, and more are great options for you to choose at the start of each game as you unlock them but they also tend to take something away to maintain balance. In true roguelike fashion your options for perks at the close of each level are random and provide all sorts of different options, some of which you’ll likely find more helpful than others. Just keep in mind once you die you’ll be right back at square one, making Downwell very much a classic arcade experience in many regards.


Aside from the potential for people being turned off by its visual simplicity you’ll want to keep in mind it was originally released in the mobile space and has a vertical display style. If you happen to have a FlipGrip handy that’s no problem, the game can be played in vertical TATE mode and then it truly shines. However, in docked or (worse) handheld mode it unfortunately leaves a lot of empty space on the screen. About my only other concern, though you do get a feel for the control and have the floaty variant option pretty quickly, is that the side to side movement can feel a bit abrupt and like it’s hard to stop precisely. This is usually only a problem in specific situations but in particular for enemies you need to stomp on to kill it can be maddening when you just miss killing them and manage to touch them to the side and take damage instead. Again, something you adapt to but as you get used to it there can be some aggravation.


If you’re looking for something that’s quick to pick up and put down (you know, a great mobile experience) Downwell is a great and challenging option. You’ll continue to push further and further in as you get more used to the nature of the challenges at each level but don’t be surprised if you still manage to bite it in the first zone, there are spots where things simply will snowball on you and you’ll end up dead in a hurry. Getting comfortable on which perks and weapons work best for you is key, and you’ll need to find the balance between taking it slow and knowing when to just try to fall to avoid a nasty situation. As an old-school arcade fan its classic sensibilities make me very happy.

Score: 8

Pros:
  • A great pick up and play game if you’re up to the challenge
  • New unlockable play styles provide some options to make things more manageable, though often at a cost
  • Though generally simple in concept it has a very smart design in many regards

Cons:
  • If you’re unable to play in vertical mode (if you can, it does have TATE support) there’ll be quite a bit of empty space on your screen
  • The side to side controls can take some getting used to as they feel a little lacking in precision for tough jumps and landings


Review: Necrosphere Deluxe [Nintendo Switch eShop]


I have seen a vision of Hell and it has a certain 8-bit aesthetic, a circuitous Metroidvania layout, and only lets you move around using 2 buttons. That’s being a little overly dramatic, but to some degree the sentiment when playing Necrosphere Deluxe falls along those lines, with the exhilaration of getting through a brutal section instantly stamped out by the crushing difficulty of the next. If you’ve been complaining that there simply haven’t been enough aggravatingly tough games on Switch, this will be one for you.


With a story I don’t even know if I can adequately explain the emphasis here is squarely on throwing crazy challenges at you that will demand you nail the timing and execution to get through them. Whether that’s bouncing off of a series of bubbles, dodging fireballs, evading enemies, or navigating a series of quickly-moving platforms you’re really put through the wringer with this one. With checkpoints that are sometimes at an optimum length apart but occasionally pushing into somewhat cruel territory you really need to work on your ability to stay calm as you’re going to die repeatedly and often pretty quickly.


What usually is either the saving grace or the added insult to injury for games that demand this degree of punishing precision is the controls. One of the main elements this title is billed on is the simplified 2-button control scheme. While I initially experimented a bit with different options that happened to map to the left and right once I settled in at first it worked reasonably well, if sometimes just a bit less crisp than I’d like. Unfortunately, at the point you acquire your first skill to leap things began to go downhill a bit more. Having to double-tap pretty quickly simply isn’t optimal and unfortunately I found myself aggravated with the inconsistency and difficulty with precision that this control choice presented. I understand the idea behind keeping things simple but when it ends up making the game harder for the wrong reasons you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.


In the end you’re either someone who relishes a serious challenge, even when the controls may be a bit on the wonky side, or you’re not. For people who like to remain calm and keep their controllers from spontaneously flying across the room Necrosphere Deluxe is probably best to steer clear of. If you’re down for the aggravation, more power to you, this game absolutely delivers that in spades. Just remember you were given fair warning that the two-button controls heap just a little more pain into the mix than I’d have preferred.


Score: 6

Pros:
  • Some great, challenging level design
  • A surprising number of variations in how the challenges come at you considering the limited controls

Cons:
  • Especially once you take on the leap ability the decision to go with a strict 2-button control scheme begins to not seem like such a great idea
  • It can be hard to settle in to which buttons to use, especially with the double-tap being necessary, and overall the controls feel just a little sloppy as a whole
  • The tendency for the map to wrap back into itself more than once you can accidentally end up having to repeat sections you’ve already cleared


Review: Drowning [Nintendo Switch eShop]


With an abundance of titles out there on the eShop and in the indie space in general we’ve seen a slow move away from the traditional or sometimes even things you could call “games” in any way at all. Between interactive novels and some other forms we’ve seen the doors opened to all manner of experiences. Possibly offering up something least resembling a game I’ve played, Drowning pushes in a direction I’ve not seen before, sort of creating a walkthrough story.


What makes Drowning notable is the subject matter, which is depression. Not saddled with it myself but living in a household with multiple people who are challenged by it from a distance I’ll vouch for it trying to represent the topic with some love and authenticity. I could see where for the right people this could provide a benefit, whether validating the feelings people have as being understood, offering people without it some perspective, or perhaps even helping to point out to someone they may be suffering from it without having realized it.


The essence of the “gameplay” is literally walking through the story, moving slowly through a winding path, surrounded by the tranquility of nature, and little by little seeing the story revealed in print as you go. To be plain this isn’t like a walking simulator or other forms, there’s no real interaction or other elements. With the exception of a few alternative paths you can take at specific points that will result in different endings (I suppose replayability is nice but the pacing is slow enough that repeating through quite a bit of it would probably be tedious) there’s nothing to do but always walk forward and read.


Scoring something like this is essentially a nightmare. It absolutely isn’t a game, but it also wasn’t intended to be one. While I appreciate the attempt to shed light on the subject matter I actually question whether this is the best way to reach out to people. The story itself would be quicker and easier to consume in other more efficient ways and I’m not sure what the slow pace and environment are specifically adding to the conversation. I suppose the goal is to reach out and try to share the message with people however you can but we’ve seen games like Celeste manage to tell a story with meaning about personal struggle while paired with compelling gameplay. With the experience being so bland (though perhaps somewhat appropriate to the subject matter in a way) I’m just not sure how many people this will be able to reach.

Score: 5

Pros:
  • It tackles depression with a story steeped in some authenticity
  • A few branching options make for repeated playthrough opportunities to see different outcomes

Cons:
  • In no way can this be considered a game
  • If the goal is to reach a wide audience I’m not sure this is the best way to accomplish that goal


Review: Mages of Mystralia [Nintendo Switch eShop]


I’m always a bit fascinated to see how Kickstarter games, in particular, turn out and overall in the case of Mages of Mystralia I’d say it was mostly a success. That some talented people are able to put together a vision, build a community of support for getting funding, and then bring that idea to fruition is inspiring. While there seem to be an abundance cases of things not working out quite so well, titles like this do show the positive side, especially when some cool ideas come along for the ride.


In this pulled out 3D action adventure you’ll play as Zia, a young girl who finds one day that she’s a mage when she accidentally sets her house on fire. Exiled from her village (things went bad with a former ruler who commanded magic, so you can forgive them to a degree), she sets out on her own and soon meets a fellow mage who starts her on her path to realizing her power. While your initial spellbook is pretty basic, with each of your major skills introduced to you with a mini tutorial it’s once you begin to acquire new abilities that things get much more interesting and the game shines.


As you make your way through your quest you’ll begin to acquire runes that can be applied to those 4 core spells, altering their properties and making them both more versatile and powerful. Initially just with the Move rune you’ll acquire a projectile fireball, which you’ll need, but later you’ll gain further runes you can stack like a homing property, and then even a trigger that will apply an explosive attack when it makes contact with an enemy or surface. Some of these runes you’ll need to work for by finding and solving puzzles that are spread out along your journey (not all of them necessarily useful, like Random, but they can be fun) and for the most part past the initial introduction the game will leave you to experiment and discover the best combinations yourself. Given that the further in you get the more puzzles end up being built on you working with the right combination of spells to complete them, aside from the benefits in combat, and you have a lot of incentive to spend time discovering the combinations that work the best for you.


When it comes to combat unfortunately it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The game’s boss fights, in general, are pretty brilliant and engaging without usually being overly challenging. Oddly, it’s the encounters in between that can be more aggravating at times. The game has a tendency to throw the kitchen sink at you in places, having you take on a variety of both melee and ranged enemies all at once. While you can survive these encounters for the most part, shielding yourself from hits, firing your own projectiles at ranged foes, and taking out your melee enemies in between, it’s also not terribly rewarding since too often it feels repetitive and like it’s acting as filler. I suppose these encounters force you to continue to learn and refine the use of your spells and runes but the run-of-the-mill combat is probably what I enjoyed least in the game due to its frequency and tendency towards overkill, even early on.


In the case of Mages of Mystralia I’d say come for the wonderfully diverse spellbook, exploration, and puzzles, enjoy the terrific boss fights, and live with the more generic combat in between. In sections where everything was clicking, with an emphasis towards the front of the list, I absolutely had a great time with it. Some of the filler sequences in between managed to be a bit more of a chore than fun to just grind through some enemies in a repetitive manner, but thankfully those sections were more the exception than the rule. If you’ve been looking for a solid adventure with ample room for creativity as you build and refine your spellbook this is a title well worth checking out.


Score: 8

Pros:
  • The rune system, which allows you to supercharge your base spells into much more powerful variants
  • Quite a lot of satisfying exploration and puzzle-solving
  • In general, the boss fights are terrific

Cons:
  • With so many eventual combinations of runes I could see some people getting frustrated or overwhelmed, just wanting to play the game and not spend time experimenting
  • Filler combat as you explore, often throwing both ranged and melee enemies at you, isn’t very satisfying and feels like it’s just there to slow you down at times


Review: Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Remasters of various kinds, ranging from full-blown to merely updating the assets and some tweaking, have become quite popular these days, often bringing experiences many people may have missed to new audiences. Typically you’d see this happening with titles that were well-known at their time but you can also sometimes end up with games that someone must have seen enough merit in to invest the time on. I’d consider the latter to be the case for Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy, a game that I wasn’t positive was a remaster until I started playing it. While it certainly offers up some varied and decent 3D action platforming, it’s also impossible in places not to notice that it still plays like it’s from another time. Whether that’s a pro or a con in your book may well define how much you’ll enjoy this adventure.


Starting out as the title Sphinx you’ll be charged with obtaining the Blade of Osiris, trying to avoid the attention of beam-firing evil castle that is feeling very Eye of Sauron. This sequence serves as a tutorial of sorts, getting you on board with some of the game’s basic mechanics, but it also struck me as a bit odd by not making the best first impression with what I’d consider wonky progression. To get up to a ledge there’s suddenly a giant lizard that pops its head out from the lava and since there’s nothing else that looks promising you’ll just to over to it, assuming that’s tied to solving your problem.


Once you’re through that sequence and gain the Blade the game will somewhat abruptly jump over to having you play as Prince Tutankhamen, who’ll soon serve as the title Mummy. While Sphinx is more suited to combat and action, when you play as Tut things shift over to more exploration, stealth, and puzzle solving. I appreciate how this can help break things up and reduce the risk feeling one note, but at least initially since there was no narration I was wondering what the hell was going on.


The chief concern with the game, and something that’s a function of when it was made, is the often-wonky camera. It’s implementation is likely no worse than almost anything else from that era, but when you’re used to more modern games it can be aggravating, especially when tackling some platforming sections. That frustration paired with save points that are inconsistently spaced can boil over into outright aggravation in a few cases, but most of the time as long as you’re not being reckless you should be able to get through most challenges reasonably well.


I’d say the value proposition with Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy would be tied to how much nostalgia you have for 3D action platforming from a few generations ago. Even with the inconsistencies and flaws it also has a certain charm and feels like settling into an old pair of shoes in a way. If you’re a fan of that era and feel like taking on a challenge that has a distinctive old school tilt to it you might find this satisfying.

Score: 7

Pros:
  • Offers a mix of 2 very distinctive style of play
  • Should have some appeal for people nostalgic for action platformers from that former era

Cons:
  • Dated mechanics and camera issues very much rear their head
  • The spacing of save points, paired with the quirks of the game, may prove to be a source of unneeded aggravation


Monday, January 28

Review: My Memory of Us [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Given the abundance of puzzle-filled adventure titles of all sorts on the Switch eShop (a fair number of them being pretty good) it can take some effort to stand out. My Memory of Us takes on this task by having a great and distinctive visual style, mostly in black and white and set in the past against the backdrop of a robot-dominated version of World War II. Oh, and as icing on the cake when you first hear the voice of the narrator you’ll likely ask: “Is that Patrick Stewart?” Why yes, it certainly is.


Opening with a short sequence with a young girl who is looking for something special to occupy herself with, she stumbles onto an old book that stands out from the rest and takes it to the bookkeeper. Inspired in part by the girl and then by pictures he finds inside he decides to share a story about his past and a girl who helped save his life back in those times. Played out through a series of puzzles that are solved in some creative ways, you’ll need to alternate between the boy and the girl to use each of their strengths to succeed.


In this version of the past the Nazi regime is replaced by a Robot King who is set upon conquering what very much seems to be a European city. Working to avoid capture or even death the boy and girls’ skills aren’t very extensive but the puzzles are generally well-designed to make them work in a variety of scenarios. He’s adept at sneaking around and nabbing objects, she’s able to run and make use of a slingshot. For the most part by merely being observant or working through some trial and error you’ll be able to find a solution but, as always, there may be some snags where you may need the help of the intarwebs if you end up going down the wrong mental path and get stuck.


Overall, this is yet another great visually-impressive puzzle adventure to add to the Switch library. The art and the narration of Stewart peppered throughout are absolutely the highlight, but there’s also an abundance of small and quirky details in the kids interactions with others that amused me as well. Despite the dire circumstances they found themselves in, their teamwork and determination saved the day and created a meaningful bond between them. If you’re looking for a new adventure that will challenge your mind and leave a lasting impression with its story, this will be a terrific fit.


Score: 8

Pros:
  • A fabulous hand-drawn art style set in black and white with well-used highlights in red
  • Narration by Patrick Stewart helps convey the emotion throughout the journey
  • Some inventive puzzles throughout

Cons:
  • Inevitably a puzzle or two may stump you, consistent with the genre
  • There are some sequences that move to a more action-oriented feel and in those situations the controls are a little too muddy for the task
  • A few special puzzle interfaces may not be immediately intuitive for everyone

Review: When Ski Lifts Go Wrong [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Just in the past few weeks I was reviewing another bridge-building game and, though it played pretty well, was internally bemoaning the fact that even with Bridge Constructor Portals fun variations this physics-based sub-genre had gotten a bit comfortable. Sure, there have been some variations on theming and specific elements but as a whole nothing has felt very fresh. As if they were thinking the same thing the people behind When Ski Lifts Go Wrong have come up with a fresh take, hitting the slopes to provide new ideas and some mildly entertaining action in places as well for extra flavor.


As the name implies rather than building bridges here you’ll be charged with taking care of construction at a ski resort. Thankfully not limited to straight-up lifts, over the course of the game you’ll tackle making ramps and jumps, supporting much heavier gondolas, and even some summer variants to keep you on your toes. This means you won’t just be trying to get passive skiers up to the top of the hill, for the projects that lend themselves to extreme sports you’ll also then take control of the snowboarder / motorcyclist / etc trying to execute a big jump or trick as well. Though the controls are pretty simple for these elements it’s still something a little different and something I appreciated.


Early on you’ll go through some tutorials that explain how to make these structures, what elements are necessary, and how to make effective use of triangles to shore up your structure properly. These can sometimes be a bit tough or confusing at first themselves, depending on how well you pick up the core concepts, but with some patience, experimentation, and observation you’ll likely get the idea soon enough. Past that point you’ll be charged with keeping your construction costs within your budget, making sure the structure survives people using it, and if you want some extra challenge you can try to pick up a medal on each course as well. Most of the time getting these isn’t too much extra trouble, more often than not they were just a bit outside the optimum line and you’d just need to be sure to keep your budget over control.


The game performs well using both the controller and the touchscreen, which works better will probably vary from person to person. Most of the shortcuts like Undo/Redo and turning auto triangles on and off are nice quality of life features but there can be a lot of buttons and usually when I’d start back into the game after a break I’d need to familiarize myself once more. As per the usual the difference between collapse and success can often be a minor difference, and at least the game does a fair job of showing which pieces of your structure are bearing the most strain, helping you identify where to make a change. The action controls are often little more than the ability to crouch, choose direction, accelerate, and rotate but I did look forward to trying to get my little character over their stunt safely, though I’ll admit I tended to chuckle at times watching them faceplant or ragdoll down the side of the mountain.


When Ski Lifts Go Wrong represents the innovation the physics-cased construction genre has been in need of. There’s more out there than mere bridges that can be fun to play with and it’s great that the scope of what they shot for was pretty wide, encompassing a number of different activities that kept it all from beginning to look the same too quickly. Granted, if you’re not into these physics construction games in general this likely won’t change your mind, but if you’ve gotten any enjoyment from the satisfaction of building structures that can withstand a substantial load effectively this should have plenty of variety to keep you entertained.

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • A change in focus and venues makes this a breath of fresh air
  • Periodic challenges that then charge you with controlling a rider add to the diversity and fun
  • Even some summer slope activities are included in the mix to help you from getting into a rut too quickly

Cons:
  • In the end if the physics-based construction sub-genre doesn’t interest you this probably won’t be enough to change your mind
  • The controls work fine but have enough complexity that they can take time to get accustomed to
  • Controlling the rider is something I enjoyed, but the simplistic nature of the controls in these mini sequences may aggravate some players as well


Saturday, January 26

Review: Holy Potatoes! We're in Space?! [Nintendo Switch eShop]


What do you get when you mix together turn-based combat in space, some resource management, quite a lot of pop culture references, and a team of starchy spuds? Holy Potatoes, it would be one helluva strange game! While it can take a little time to get the hang of things at first, (the tutorial’s advice actually threw me off a bit) once you get rolling it’s a silly and relatively light-hearted time, but you’ll need to think ahead and make wise investments to be successful and not shredded for tater tots.


The story centers around a certain Captain Cassie, on the run from the powerful Eclipse, and her crew as they search the galaxy in hopes of finding her grandfather Jiji… or something along those lines at least. You’ll be jumping from galaxy to galaxy, exploring and completing objectives, developing your crew, improving your ship, and always trying to stay a few steps ahead of the Eclipse, who are always on your tail. Throw in an odd assortment of characters you’ll meet along the way, random events, and quite a lot of shipt-to-ship combat and you get a general idea of what to expect.


While you’ll certainly need to keep focused on the objectives in each galaxy that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to do your own thing and explore a bit. As you find and collect resources, blueprints, and opportunities to add crew members you begin to have numerous choices put in front of you. Do you throw your money and resources into weapons? Do you focus on developing very specific traits in your crew or try to diversify in the hopes of discovering new helpful abilities? Once you’ve crippled your enemies in combat do you let them pay you off to spare them or simply blow them out of the sky? I actually was surprised and very pleased by the degree of choice in things, at least feeling like I was plotting out my own course even if perhaps the outcomes in any case may not have varied greatly.


That said, there are some small things to take into account that don’t work so well. Early on it can be a bit overwhelming trying to grasp all aspects of combat and ship management at once. It doesn’t take long to come around but it does require some experimentation to sort things out. One part of the reason for the confusion is that honestly the controls are a bit over-complicated and not necessarily intuitive. There are some attempts at helping with on-screen prompts for some actions but even once I’d gotten further into the game I would still struggle a little in the ship management screens at times trying to remember how to shift between stations versus switching out crew, versus changing loadouts. Finally, while I do appreciate the pop culture references personally they’re going to be a bit hit and miss for people depending, and the game may lean into them a bit too much for its own good since if they fall flat for some people that may make them a liability. I think it works out well but when specific jokes rely on people knowing the source material too often it’s a risk and can alienate people when they feel left out.


In the end I was a bit slow to warm up to the game’s charms but once I hit my stride I began to really have some fun with it. As strategy games go it is pretty light, but that also makes it quite approachable. I believe that having a plan and investing your money and resources wisely makes a difference but on the whole I’m also not positive you couldn’t do pretty well simply stumbling through things at many points as well. If you’re down for some silliness mixed into your casual strategy it’s a pretty good fit and it seems very reasonable for the asking price as well.

Score: 8

Pros:
  • Generally light and fun strategy mixed with planning to build up your ship and crew
  • Pop culture references and silliness abound
  • While I’m not positive the choices you make radically change your chances for success I do appreciate how many independent decisions you get to make concerning your crew and your ship overall

Cons:
  • Initially all of the screens and concepts can be a lot to take in all at once
  • The controls do work but are a bit cumbersome and complicated
  • Pop culture references can be fun but they’re used in a way that almost feels like a crutch in this case and could risk alienating some players


Review: Swords & Soldiers [Nintendo Switch eShop]


When people think of more casual strategy gaming tower defense is usually what comes to mind, but I’ve seen a growing number of titles that invert the formula a bit, going more for tower offense. While many of the same principles apply, collecting resources, creating units, and carefully managing your battlefield with whatever supplemental control you have, adding a little more aggression to the mix can be fun. In the case of Swords & Soldiers the silly and colorful characters, consistent but manageable challenge, and engaging combat make it a great pick for gamers of all ages and skill levels.


I’ll admit that particularly in docked mode I initially struggled to figure out what precisely I was supposed to be doing since there’s really no tutorial or explanations, but once I understood the use of ZL for managing anything consuming gold and ZR for anything consuming mana it clicked. In most cases early on you’ll need to focus on building units for gathering gold, quickly researching some basic units and skills, and the perhaps getting an exploratory unit going while you’re getting your gold reserves and abilities established.


In the early stages you can somewhat stumble your way to victory as you learn the fundamentals of what role each unit fulfills and proper spell use to help them out. Whether in the form of targeted healing or zapping or slowing enemies you’ll want to make smart use of your mana reserves, not always intervening but perhaps choosing critical moments to lend help. I found my favorite use of mana was for triggering my ground units to rush to the front lines quicker. So much of the time as you roll along success if built on grouping your units to maximize their impact, so this skill plays a major role in beefing up the punch of your attacks. Of course this means you’ll need to keep moving back and forth between your base and the front lines, but it beats simply being an observer and watching your units get squashed.


With campaigns spanning 4 different factions, each with their own units, skirmishes that allow you to tee up whatever showdown you’d like, and even multiplayer options there’s quite a number of hours of fun in this budget package. It plays well in docked mode but probably shines the best in handheld mode, with everything working quickly and intuitively once you’re on board. While it may lack a hardcore challenge if you’re not showing some smarts it will push back on you pretty hard, making this a solid choice for some casual strategy fun.

Score: 8

Pros:
  • Generally light strategic play but it will push back if you’re not playing smart
  • A silly bunch of characters and story beats that are thoroughly odd and fun
  • Multiple factions, each with their own units, keep things from getting too stale

Cons:
  • For experienced strategy game fans it may not pose enough of a challenge
  • No initial direction on controls in docked mode made for a bumpy start


Review: Achtung! Cthulu Tactics [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While there have always tended to be tactical turn-based RPGs on consoles, for the most part classic tactical strategy games like X-Com have tended to exclusively be in the PC realm. While Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle did a great job of introducing Nintendo fans to elements of that style, the Mario license and more lighthearted tone may have turned some people away as well (though, make no mistake, it is excellent despite its colorful looks). Tonally moving in a very different direction, mixing Nazis with an ancient evil, we have Achtung! Cthulu Tactics, a game that feels much more consistent, at least visually, with that classic PC strategy franchise.


Starting with what works each of your squad members has a general role based on their weapons and abilities. You’ll need to pretty quickly get accustomed to who best fulfills which function as it can be embarrassing to put a unit with a shotgun at range to cover their allies. As you progress you’ll get opportunities to further fine tune your units to better suit your overall style in the form of skill and weapon upgrades but the upgrade path feels mostly linear, not really allowing for much tactical variety.


Gameplay consists of your squad exploring territories until you get close to an enemy squad, at which time the game moves into a tactical battle mode. Each unit has their own action points, which you’ll need to keep an eye on as you plot out your movement and general plan of attack. In addition there’s a squad-wide pool of momentum points that you’re able to use at your discretion, whether that’s to get in some extra movement, finish off an enemy with a sidearm, or use a more substantial attack. While eventually the theme gets a little more interesting and crazy you’ll spend quite a lot of time knocking out pretty generic units. It would have been nice to see a little more of that flavor earlier on but I suppose the goal was to save the surprise for dessert.


Since this game is so blatantly inspired by X-Com it invites comparisons, and in a few areas that’s a bit brutal. The first weakness is with your pretty static squad composed of the same characters throughout, and who are pretty well locked into their roles. The threat of losing units in X-Com is pretty consistent, whether for a few battles or permanently, but the other strength it has is that you’re able to take some risks by playing with the combinations of unit types to better suit your style of play. Consistent with X-Com it can be maddening how you’re somehow able to get one of your squad members right on top of an enemy and manage to miss, but I suppose that’s just the nature of the genre. Perhaps a bit more unforgivable is the weak AI that will allow an enemy unit to show some smarts by flanking you but then utterly failing to capitalize on it the majority of the time. Enemy unit diversity, especially early on, is certainly lacking as well, and the lack of a research mechanic means the game doesn’t consistently challenge you to take risks like getting up close to incapacitate a deadly enemy for the sake of taking them back to be poked and prodded for intel.


As a first draft attempt to represent the tactical strategy genre Achtung! Cthulu Tactics does a decent job of setting a foundation. For people who aren’t so familiar with the likes of the X-Com series it may actually be pretty satisfying since you wouldn’t necessarily then see the missed opportunities. For veterans and the genre, though, while it has elements that work pretty well it will probably feel a bit too easy and shallow to be very satisfying.

Score: 6.5

Pros:
  • Once it gets further in and a bit more crazy it begins to come together
  • For tactical strategy novices it’s a pretty easy-going introduction to the genre
  • On the whole it gets the feel and strategy elements like finding cover right

Cons:
  • Overall it’s too easy and you don’t feel the threat from permanently losing squad members
  • The loss of a major research component removes meta strategies and high risk high reward elements from missions
  • A little too much generic Nazi and not enough Cthulu


Review: Heroes Trials [Nintendo Switch eShop]


When you’re talking about budget titles on the Switch I often find myself torn on my approach. Putting up a game made by a limited team that is priced in the impulse buy range against titles with more substantial budgets and asking significantly more can be a bit unfair but at the same time there’s a need for some standard and consistency in scoring. As many indies on Switch have proven, budget doesn’t have to mean bad. It’s when I hit a title like Heroes Trials that it gets tougher though, and it isn’t so much for the lackluster looks and overall structure, it’s just that the gameplay simply isn’t all that interesting or fun.


Working from the baseline in the game you’ll be on a quest where you’ll be able to move between controlling either the Warrior brother Zoel or his spellcasting sister Elia. In order to earn the honor of becoming their community’s new guardians they must prove themselves in a series of trials, working against the clock to complete objectives by solving some puzzles and taking out some enemies along the way. As you go you’ll acquire a few enhancements, though nothing terribly exciting or game-changing, mostly just a little different.


The big issue holding the game back is simply that it’s uninspired from top to bottom. Even games made on the cheap can sometimes have an interesting hook or a new take on things that help carry the day but Heroes Trials is just content for you to work through and is for the most part joyless. The combat is extremely bland, the puzzles aren’t inspired, and the segmented and generally dull objectives you need to meet just aren’t interesting. If you’re looking for a way to kill time for a few hours, have a limited budget, and don’t have very high standards perhaps you can eke out some enjoyment but in general the trial here is in the playing unfortunately.


Score: 5

Pros:
  • It has a budget price
  • There’s a fair amount of content to play through

Cons:
  • Combat is stilted and dull
  • Generally unremarkable and bland in pretty well all areas