Monday, February 18, 2019

Review: Stunt Kite Party [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Here we go with another local multiplayer title that’s pitched as a “fun for all ages” romp. Stunt Kite Party is a bright and generally cheery collection of mini games that all have the same kite-flying base but then change up the formula (for some games more than others) to milk it for all its worth. The result may not be earth-shattering, and its control accessibility may not be as easy as you’d assume, but it still manages to leverage its variety to better ensure people can find some variants they enjoy and it at least isn’t a one-trick pony like many similar budget multiplayer games in the eShop.


Once you get accustomed to the nuances of steering and trying to use thrusts to keep your kite in the air you can begin to focus on the specifics of the various games, some of which are tougher to grasp than others. Collecting honeycomb and to return to a bee without getting hit and dropping them and what amounts to a multiplayer version of Asteroids are both solid games that work pretty well while ones that aren’t very well-explained and play out a bit wonky like a ghost capturing fall a bit more flat. In the case of the balloon-popping game the fact that you can’t merely make contact but need to have some momentum to pop them makes sense conceptually but when playing with younger kids it can also be more frustrating as they struggle to master the controls well enough to be effective consistently.


Aside from the trickier-than-expected controls there are just some quirks with the way the game tries to manage 4 players on the same screen thrusting around in all directions. Sometimes the camera will pan a bit but other times you’ll get thrusts of wind pushing you back but visually it can be tough to take everything in at once so there are times when you’ll seem to just inexplicably lose all of your momentum and fall. Power-ups can help act as wild cards, especially the lightning, but for some their specific effects are difficult to determine, making them a bit inconsistent. While there is a single-player mode that lets you play through a series of challenges talking to different characters in some different locales there’s a good reason that after a few losses it gives you an option to skip, there are some games that are simply aggravating to play against the CPU like the ghost capturing one where the lack of clarity on what you need to specifically do to be successful collides with the AI having no issue cleaning up while you typically struggle.


If you’re looking for something light, non-violent, and relatively easy for anyone to grasp Stunt Kite Party isn’t a bad option. While it’s doubtful that everyone will enjoy every mini game available there’s a pretty good chance at least a couple of them should be both approachable and fun for everyone. Playing without a full group is possible but not really recommended, just be sure to give everyone time to get down the basics and then slowly walk through each game to determine how they work and which are your favorites.


Score: 7

Pros:
  • Full of bright and cheery color
  • A variety of mini games with very different objectives built on the same base
  • In general a very family-friendly experience

Cons:
  • The controls do take some getting used to and are more complicated than you’d assume
  • Some ambiguity in terms of the nuance of some games and power-ups
  • While solo play is possible it’s not very fun


Friday, February 8, 2019

Review: AWAY - Journey to the Unexpected [Nintendo Switch eShop]


When you play through a ton of titles, while gameplay always comes first there’s no doubt that personality counts for something. Throw in some quirk and charm and even if it can’t completely overcome its shortcomings those elements do make an impression and can at least make a game memorable. That’s about where I find myself with AWAY: Journey to the Unexpected. This roguelike first-person RPG hack and slasher isn’t quite like anything you’ve played, whether that will come out to a net positive or not really depends on what you’re looking for.


To say it’s an odd bird would be an understatement. You play the game as a young boy looking for his parents who have disappeared. On your journey you’ll travel through the forest, desert, snowy plains and more fighting an odd assortment of enemies from the relatively cute to the cold and robotic. Since you’re only armed with a pretty weak melee attack that has a limited range you’re going to need some help, and making friends seems to be one the game’s central themes.


Along your adventures you’ll acquire an item that will allow you to add to your party (you can have up to 3 of them). When you encounter one of the oddball denizens out there you’ll then have an opportunity to talk to them and if you make the right choices (or have the right money/item/etc) you’ll be able to enlist their help. Each of these potential allies is quite a bit more powerful than you but making use of their special abilities (these range from firing projectiles to setting traps and more) will drain their energy so you’ll need to be careful in how you use them. Hitting distant or more intimidating enemies will be tempting but some of the game’s bosses will have you wishing that you could do more than try to whack them into submission with a mere stick.


Being true to its roguelike nature you can definitely expect to fail, but fortunately as you continue to get further and do better you’ll accumulate experience which will unlock new traits and perks that kick in permanently to help make further runs a little easier. Experience pays off in general terms as well since you’ll begin to figure out which allies have abilities that best suit your needs and though you’ll still likely take some cheap hits you’ll continue to get a better feel for how to use that weak attack of yours more effectively. Aside from the difficulty there are simply some odd design choices that have been made. You’re given very little initial instruction and working out some of the game’s quirks can take a run or two. I’d also note that many of the areas are inexplicably big and a bit empty, which simply makes next to no sense at all and just needlessly wastes your time in some spots. None of it is crippling but it does make you scratch your head in spots why they implemented things the way they did, or perhaps they’re just a matter of a lack of polish.


I’d generally consider AWAY a bit too odd, inconsistent, and hard for more mainstream gamers but if you’re down to work for your victories it has a certain energy and charm to it. Certainly the first-person perspective and general style of play are a bit on the unique side, the randomness of the dungeons will keep you cautious and often working hard to survive, and the variety in ways that enemies will attack you can take some time to get used to. It is by no means a perfect game but there’s no denying that it has heart and is capable of representing hours of fun if you’re willing to give it a chance and deal with its rough edges.


Score: 7

Pros:
  • It has a certain quirky charm and oddball characters that help it stand out from more generic fare
  • Variety in the enemies in the various zones and the game’s bosses force you to come up with different strategies depending on which allies you’ve been able to enlist the help of
  • The roguelike elements keep things changing up a bit between runs and help add some longevity

Cons:
  • A lack of direction at the beginning and in certain in-game situations can be aggravating when you’re not sure what you should be doing
  • The roguelike elements can sometimes feel a bit extreme between runs, running from too easy to cruelly hard sometimes
  • Weird odds and ends like overly large and empty areas are a bit perplexing


Review: Observer [Nintendo Switch eShop]


It’s always fascinating to see games come to Switch that visually test the limits of what the system is capable of. While a side effect of this is often that at some point the fan on your Switch will sound like it’s trying to take off and some visual muddyness (especially in handheld mode), the ambition is always appreciated. In the case of The Observer, a noir cyberpunk mystery full of bizarre and almost hallucinogenic visions, there’s actually some great cover for the inconsistency though as you’ll question whether it’s the system limitations or the intended visuals. While I wish it was as easy to be as positive about the gameplay experience I’ll credit the game for thoroughly doing its own thing.


You’ll play the game as Dan Lazarski, a sort of cyber-detective operating in a dystopian future world full of augmented humans. Voiced by the spot-on choice for such a role, Rutger Hauer, Lazarski is a bit of a hot mess and once you get further into the game and have seen some of the things he sees you can feel for the guy. Drawn to an apartment building by a call from his estranged son, he finds a dead body (who he desperately is hoping isn’t his son) and embarks on a journey to find out what’s going on before it may be too late.


To help with this effort you’ll learn how to use his various abilities to find clues and get information from people. Various scanners will help him look for both organic and electronic clues, then providing additional information about objects that he focuses on. The more effective tactic, and the one that the game’s hook seems to hinge on, is when you’re able to hack into people’s minds. This certainly leads to the game’s most memorable moments as they’re full of often random and sometimes disturbing visions you see as you navigate their minds.


As interesting as the above can be at times, the game isn’t without its flaws. First, your movement is positively glacial for the most part, though I suppose that helps you take in all of the game’s pretty impressive sights. Second, the controls in general can be a bit on the pokey side and it can be difficult to hone in and identify smaller objects at times as you’re looking for information. My biggest gripe, however, is one to do with game design and it took me back to the 80s. This may be a function of a sort of PTSD but I absolutely hate it when games use mazes. I believe my typical quote when I see one randomly inserted into a game these days is “Are you f*cking kidding me?” Since they happen as you’re in someone’s mind I don’t doubt the argument will be it is a function of exploring their mind but I call it what it is, a cheap method of prolonging the game. Sorry to people who put mazes in their games randomly, but I’ve been burned too many times in my life to have any patience for them.


If you’re willing to overlook some problems there’s no question this is a title that pushes what the Switch is capable of and offers up an experience I’ve not had on the system to date. The setting, the strong voice acting of Hauer, and some of the visions (beware if you’re photo-sensitive, it could potentially be a problem for you) are absolutely things you won’t find anywhere else. Whether or not a somewhat slow-moving cyber-noir mystery with some really trippy and terrifying visuals is what you’re looking for may be another matter.


Score: 6.5

Pros:
  • Visually it’s absolutely impressive on a device you can take with you, just there were compromises nonetheless
  • Rutger Hauer was perfectly cast for voicing this role and elevates the material
  • If you’re into disturbing flashes and sequences that leave you a bit uneasy you’ll more likely enjoy the ride

Cons:
  • Moving through the world is sloooow
  • Getting the controls to cooperate as you search areas can sometimes be a nuisance
  • “Mazes… Why did it have to be mazes?”


Review: Access Denied [Nintendo Switch eShop]


With an abundance of puzzle games on the Switch to suit all tastes, including many notable titles from other spaces like The Room in particular, the competition to make a positive impression is getting tough. I specifically mention The Room because Access Denied, without a doubt, was designed with the goal of occupying a similar contemplating state. Given minimal direction and a container that you need to open to progress the idea is that you’ll use trials and error as well as your powers of deduction to figure out a series of puzzles.


It starts out rather easily, with you just needing to manipulate switches or dials into a proper position but relatively quickly it begins to ramp up a little. You’ll need to interpret symbols, use a somewhat hidden key, or experiment with what ends up being audio cues to find a hidden solution among an assortment of other mean. I’ll give it some credit, the variety of ways that you’ll be challenged to determine a solution is at least impressive.


One of the ways it lets you down is certainly in the form of control, and this applies to both using the controller and the touchscreen. The second puzzle, where you need to turn a dial on each side face of the box, was an absolute chore because of the pretty wonky controls in docked mode. When I went to turn the dials I had an awful time rotating them and it felt like they stopped, making me think there was some methodical means of altering each of them a bit at a time to get it to work. It turned out it was supposed to be a very straightforward and easy process but the really poor way the controls were implemented instead made it unnaturally hard. The fact that the intent is to provide minimal direction really amplified the problem as well, because without any guidance the inconsistency of turning the dial was allowed to be interpreted as intentional and part of the puzzle. Thinking that with the touchscreen all would be well was also a mistake, given the number of mobile games where you manipulate 3D objects there are some control norms you’d expect and this game generally implements them poorly. Even when you begin to understand them the pretty janky


The other glaring issue is whether or not the intent of the game was to compete with the likes of The Room and its sequels (still waiting for them on Switch) it’s going to be an inevitable comparison and that isn’t a flattering one. Not only is Access Denied far less polished and visually impressive but its puzzles would only serve as a minor subset of that title’s elaborate and multi-staged solutions. Though the individual puzzles pose their challenges the experience is a bit sterile and lacking in excitement aside from any you may choose to generate for yourself. The game is just very matter of fact when you solve something and generally just moves onto the next challenge with no fanfare. You’ll live but it would be nice to get a little more acknowledgement than that.


As a whole Access Denied isn’t too bad for a budget title but its ambitions seem to be as limited as its pricetag. It gets the job done, and will throw some smart challenges at you, but its sterile and unexciting nature brings it down a notch. Then throw the control issues on top of that and it begins to lose steam pretty quickly. In a pinch you can work your way through the game’s issues, and possibly have some fun, but there’s no denying that it’s simply not a very good or ambitious title overall.

Score: 5.5

Pros: 
  • A lower-budget alternative to the likes of The Room
  • Some of its puzzles are well-conceived and implemented

Cons:
  • A very sterile presentation with no real excitement to act as a motivator or help liven things up a bit
  • Control issues in both docked and handheld modes are a bummer
  • The lack of direction, paired with the control inconsistencies, can lead to you getting mixed messages about what you’re trying to do in places


Thursday, February 7, 2019

Review: Solstice Chronicles - MIA [Nintendo Switch eShop]


As a huge fan of twin-stick shooters the Switch eShop has been a consistent source of joy for me, delivering a pretty wide range of options with different tastes and styles. With there being so much variety already in place when a title comes along with something new and different to offer up it then immediately draws my attention. Solstice Chronicles: MIA absolutely falls into that category, and while it has a bit of a slower pace than I’d prefer it has unique game mechanics that are quite smart and help give the game a feel unlike any other shooter on the Switch.


Starting with the more straightforward, this is a game you can enjoy solo or with a local friend, and has you playing as a marine who has been separated from his unit in the midst of a mutant outbreak and some political turmoil on Mars. As expected, this makes for some crazy-looking enemies and plenty of fodder for some twin-stick shooting fun. However, that’s not the game’s big hook. You’re quickly paired with an AI drone and the early levels attempt to walk you through the game’s unique systems which center around the use of it. However, it may take some experimentation before everything clicks for you since both it and its modes are the real game-changer.


Conceptually most of what the drone does makes sense. You can send it off to scout the level, which will have it bringing you supplies (if you do this early in the level be sure to stop them pretty quickly or you’ll have a pile of ammo and health you can’t use), make use of a shield to help you survive when things get a bit crowded, set off a powerful bomb (that you can survive if you stay in a green band that’s inside the blast zone?), but then you can also choose to taunt the enemy… and that’s where things get more interesting. As you move through the stages you’ll want to keep an eye on the enemy threat level, shown as a gauge on the screen. This represents the potential for enemies to start coming at you en masse. Scouting and setting off the bomb both raise the threat level, but taunting lowers it quickly… just be ready for the onslaught.


This gives the shooting a very strategic component and can be satisfying. When you find a powerful temporary use weapon or are in a spot where barriers can help slow enemies down it’s time to start taunting so you can pick and choose your engagements and maximize your odds of being successful. This system and managing the balance of the threat level on top of the normal shooting action really sets the game apart and is something I’m hoping we’ll see more variations of in the future as it takes the genre to another level.


Even with that as a major positive that isn’t to say there aren’t any gripes. First and foremost I’d say there’s just something in the movement and fluidity of the game that’s a bit on the slow side. Intensity is what makes these games shine and though you’ll get your crazy gunfights and moments of intensity it feels like you’re playing at only ¾ speed somehow. Another issue is that most of the enemies you face simply feel like cannon fodder and even some larger foes are lacking in impact and personality. There are some bigger things to take down, including bosses, but where a lot of games have done a good job of helping to amp up the excitement when you face certain foes Solstice fails to bring that extra flair so it can feel a bit more generic. RPG-like progression is there, and you’ll be able to unlock new perks and choose your own path to a degree but on a general level it was hard to tell much difference in the overall feel as you progressed, again perhaps just being a matter of presentation and flair to help you feel more powerful as you go.


With its very different approach and some new ideas I’m a big fan of most of what Solstice Chronicles brings to the table. Getting a feel for the most effective uses of your drone in a given situation and knowing when it’s best to bring the pain give the player an unusual degree of control over how things play out and that’s just a great idea. While it struggles a bit more in some of the fundamentals and could do with additional refinement and polish this is a game I’d absolutely love to see a sequel to, as with a bit more work it could turn into a real game-changer in the genre.

Score: 8

Pros:
  • The threat system and degree of control you have over how things play out is interesting and an idea I’d like to see refined
  • Serves up some great twin-stick shooting intensity, and can be even more fun with a friend
  • While the differences in the multiple classes and upgrade choices aren’t as bold and obvious as I would have liked, they do add some variety and replayability potential

Cons:
  • There’s a degree of sluggishness in the overall movement and flow of the game
  • Far too many of the engagements have an intensity to them but could be more exciting if the majority of enemies you face weren’t so generic


Review: City of Brass [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Roguelikes can tend to be one of the most divisive “genres” out there, with it not being unusual to see wide disparities of opinion on the same game. Their degree of challenge is often a stumbling block but their inherent similarities to old school arcade games, with there being an element of repetition for the sake of learning and getting further, can also be a problem for some people. With its first-person view, procedurally-generated areas, and somewhat unique play mechanics City of Brass has a very different feel to it, but I would imagine some of its qualities will also lead to the gaps in opinion I cited, since it isn’t without its flaws.


Carrying a very “Arabian Nights” theme I’d say that the setting is the first thing that that helps to establish this won’t be your typical first-person game. When you then realize your weapons are a sword (later characters will change the weapon, but not its melee nature) and a whip, and this isn’t a shooter, the initial feeling of unease isn’t unusual… this is something new, different, and a bit risky. Probably the best and smartest element of the game is the use of the whip, which proves to be quite versatile. Whether you’re using it to stun enemies, pull them towards you (more on that later), or to grab items and gold from afar it’s really the star of the show. If you keep an eye out, rings higher up are also a very handy means of quick traversal at times, and helping make the whip and its use a lot of fun.


The combat is probably one of the things that will divide people the most. Since this is sort of a first-person hack and slash the flow of things takes some getting used to, especially when the screen gets crowded and you have ranged foes firing on you. Initially this can be frustrating but as you get more used to the mechanics there are a variety of ways to deal with many situations. Throwing objects like lanterns that can catch enemies on fire is a great go-to option, though it can be very tricky to judge the range and that can be a bust. Luring enemies into traps that are often plentiful in most rooms is also a great option. Lining them up and then either shoving them back or pulling them into traps with the whip is very effective and satisfying. Traversal isn’t always possible but can be handy for pulling away from a pack and trying to whittle them down. While you can still run into trouble with the perspective and enemies being able to flank you, with some practice and understanding of the opportunities around you the combat can be quite satisfying.


The other element that will probably aggravate people, and this is in common with most roguelikes, is the degree of challenge. On default, especially in the early going, the game can feel pretty unfair. Healing opportunities are very limited, and the perks and added gear you can buy from various genie vendors peppered everywhere are very random, as are the effects of random potions you’ll find to drink. Mix this with the very trap-heavy layouts of some rooms and it’s a recipe for aggravation at times. To help with that, what you should absolutely do when you are first getting started is make use of the blessings that will tone down various aspects of the game as you get used to it. Added health, trap reduction, cheaper gear, and other options are available, and there should be no shame in using them. As you get further new and unexpected things will happen, giving you slightly better odds of surviving long enough to understand what to do the next time you face them can be vital.


I have no doubt that City of Brass won’t provide an experience everyone will love, but then again that’s not a shock when games try new things. Especially on default difficulty it’s a lot to take in as you get used to the flow of combat and how best to deal with specific enemies and traps you’ll encounter. One detail I appreciate, and worth mentioning, is that the two initial character options you have to play with are a male and female, who play roughly the same. It may seem like a small thing but it’s a great inclusive move and one I felt was noteworthy. It also helps underline the point that the developers obviously put a great deal of effort into making the experience scalable up or down depending on what you’re looking for or can handle. It shouldn’t be about ego early on, take the help as you familiarize yourself with this unique title rather than get aggravated with it. Just like there are blessings there are optional curses as well, so don’t worry, there’s more than enough challenge here for those looking for it.


Score: 8

Pros:
  • Unique first-person combat mechanics and flow
  • The blessing/curse system should help people tune the game to their liking in terms of challenge, USE IT
  • The whip is simply a lot of fun and proves to be very useful in a variety of ways

Cons:
  • Even for experienced gamers getting started on the default difficulty can be tough, as the game is simply not quite like anything you’ve played and takes some getting used to
  • Repetition can be a problem after a handful of runs if the unique combat and traversal don’t grab you
  • In general, even with the blessings and ways you can tune things, the lack of healing opportunities in many runs is a frustration


Review: Odallus - The Dark Call [Nintendo Switch eShop]


If you feel the siren call of earlier days and adventuring in games like Castlevania it’s a pretty great time to be a gamer. Obviously the “Metroidvania” style of gaming has taken the scene by storm in the past few years and it seems everyone is making one. However, if you’re more interesting in going a bit more old school, as in playing something more akin to the early NES Castlevania titles you now may be in luck and want to give Odallus: The Dark Call a look.


Playing as a warrior by the name of Haggis, you’ll be moving through some cursed lands and slaying demons along the way. Working primarily with your old school sword you’ll gain secondary weapons along the way (some of which should feel pretty familiar), some of which will be essential to make use of returning to areas you’ve visited before in search of hidden areas that had been blocked off.


In the early going it definitely tends towards being a bit brutal as you come to terms with the pretty old school controls (not great, but feeling eerily similar to many games of that era nonetheless) but as you get accustomed to things and periodically hit the shops you’ll slowly begin to feel a bit more formidable. That’s a good thing, too, because most of the bosses and even some of the groups of enemies you’ll face will take some work to get through. Some of the problems here have to do with the range of your attack not being great but a lot of it often boils down to you having issues initially and then coming back a bit wiser and better prepared for what’s coming and how best to deal with it. Of course I’ll also note that I experienced slowdown and some glitches in places but I’m hoping an early patch will at least resolve most of those. Until there’s word of a patch there may be enough room for concern to make it worth waiting.


If you’re willing to invest early on and overlook the somewhat rocky start the game gets off to there’s a pretty good retro experience here with hidden goodies like alternative outfits that show respect to the games inspirations and some other surprises. You’ll need to work a bit to earn some of them but they do help better justify getting through the times that drag a bit or can be frustrating. Of special note, like Oniken, please pay attention to the opening photo-sensitivity warning. While most people likely will have no issues the flashing effects featured in the game at times really puzzle me in the modern age. Given the potential for issues I’m not sure why these elements were included, as they offer nothing of significance to the experience as a whole and you also have no option to suppress them. While Odallus may end up having a pretty niche-oriented audience, retro gamers who like the old-school Castlevania feel may appreciate this one in particular.


Score: 7

Pros:
  • If you’ve been craving the likes of the 8-bit Castlevania games these do a fine job of scratching that itch
  • Hidden areas and unlocks provide motivation to explore and discover everything the game has to offer

Cons:
  • The early game is a bit of a tough climb before it begins to feel like your time investment is paying off
  • The combat and controls take some getting used to and aren’t what I’d consider ideal
  • Some slowdown and glitches may make it worth waiting for a patch before taking the plunge
  • Not a fan of the flashing lights and the need to have a photo-sensitivity warning


Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Review: Oniken - Unstoppable Edition [Nintendo Switch eShop]


There’s a pretty major crowd out there who think fondly of classics from eras past and who are looking for something old school in terms of both presentation and challenge. Throw together some platforming, a little slashing action, vary things up with a different sort of action sequence, and then throw in some tough bosses and it’s a party. Happy to oblige, the developers behind Oniken have put together a title that, for me, isn’t specifically reminiscent of any specific title, but certainly has a mentality consistent with those older days.


One look at the title screen or any of the action and it is clear this is intended to be a retro throwback starting at the visuals. The limited color palette and 8-bit pixel graphics stand out, but there’s are also some modern bits of flair thrown in with abundant parallax scrolling and some assorted screen effects to show off a bit. Complimented by a soundtrack that feels pulled straight out of that era the look and general feel of the game are spot on.


When it comes to the gameplay I think there will be a variety of opinions. For me the balance is too far towards the past, as the controls are just a bit on the chunky and clunky side. Granted, I’d consider many of my qualms with the control to be that they remind me of those classic games this one is trying to emulate but at some point I’m not a fan of adhering too close to the past. Old school looks and play but with tighter controls would be my preference but things like having to press up and a button to throw a grenade when there are plenty of unused buttons on the controller and the inability to remap the controls (I’m not a fan of the defaults and there’s no option to change it) are irksome. The emphasis usually being on keeping your sword power-up and avoiding getting hit so then you can simply wipe the floor with a tougher character who’ll otherwise take a much more substantial effort to beat is also an old school mechanic I could do without. Throw in some flashing lights in the backgrounds and cutscenes that could give people with photosensitivity issues fits and there’s just too much I don’t understand the reasoning behind.


While I enjoy games with some retro flavor when they turn too much into the skid and ignore better and smarter modern game design techniques it feels like the retro label is being used as an excuse more than anything else. You can forgive some of the clunky mechanics from the past when they were developed for far less powerful systems and for the most part nobody knew any better. Decades past that time there’s no great excuse for fully emulating that era from top to bottom, we’ve progressed and when it comes to controls and mechanics shortcomings shouldn’t be thrown aside in the name of “authenticity”.



Score: 5.5

Pros:
  • If you’re thirsting for a top to bottom recreation of the 8-bit era, warts and all, this title delivers
  • Some great music

Cons:
  • In terms of controls and play mechanics the game is stuck in an earlier era, and not in a charming way
  • Having a relative with epilepsy there shouldn’t need to be photosensitivity warnings on modern games as it not only harms accessibility but also risks people getting headaches or having reactions


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Review: Pumped BMX Pro [Nintendo Switch eShop]


There’s always been a bit of a market for a good stunt game, though nothing since perhaps the days of Tony Hawk and a few others have truly broken through. The mobile space has prompted some new players to emerge, one of them being the Pumped BMX series. Though perhaps it will attract some attention from people who like to be challenged and don’t mind the grind, it has a few too many problems to make a major impression.


The gameplay is, for the most part, simple. You’ll move through a hilly course that presents opportunities to catch air. Work to get as much momentum as you can, try to come off the jump perfectly, perform any number of stunt combinations (to the game’s credit there are a ton of them) in the air, and then try to land on an incline in a way that will preserve your momentum for the next jump. As you progress you’ll begin to incorporate more stunts into your repertoire including grinds, manuals, and more. Each course has 4 objectives for you to reach, whether simply completing the course, performing a certain number of a specific stunt, or possibly pulling off a tough trick while a photographer tries to catch a snap of it.


The problems come into play in a few ways. Probably the biggest issue is with trying to maintain momentum, a problem that gets to the point that it becomes almost your entire focus, over even doing stunts. It really feels like you start each run with a maximum amount of momentum you can carry and all you can do is lose it over the course of the run. If you don’t release off the jump just right, or if you bump into something and don’t come down any incline as you land well enough you can forget nailing that next big jump. Nothing you do will get it back, you can pretty well just reset the moment you make a mistake. This often makes you become more cautious and hold back on your stunts and begins to beg the question of what the game’s goal is. It seems to be about stunts and having fun on the surface but somehow it gets mired in also trying to be a technical racer as well. Throw in some of the awkwardness of button combinations, needing to hit the left shoulder button to choose a tier 2 trick, which you then execute with the right analog stick, but then you’re also holding the right Z trigger to do a 360 at the same time? It’s awkward at best and tends to make you disinclined to try to do certain combinations because they’re simply uncomfortable to pull off.


The result is unfortunately that nothing ends up working very well in any direct. This title is in no way able to compete with the likes of Trials on the technical side and it manages to get in its own way to the point that it isn’t a light and fun stunt game either. Even if you do manage to get the rhythm of it all down the best you can hope for is just course after course with a checklist of tricks for you to do that are often a bit more lame than what you can pull off if you’re in the zone. Why limit yourself to 2 backflips when you can do a 720 Can Can into manual? Pumped BMX Pro just seems to have an identity crisis and should really make a commitment to one style of play or another, the current mix simply isn’t terribly satisfying.

Score: 6

Pros:
  • An abundance of stunts for you to play with and combine in any number of ways
  • A mix of technical play and stunts if that’s what you’ve been looking for

Cons:
  • The ease of losing momentum is a consistent bummer and affects what you’re willing to try to do since if you can’t finish the course none of it counts
  • Ultimately doesn’t end up working well as either a technical or a stunt racer
  • Certain combinations of tricks are simply uncomfortable and impractical


Review: The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 [Nintendo Switch eShop]


With a resurgent adventure genre alive and well on the Switch there’s both good and bad to be found. On the good side there’s a fair amount of variety in styles, whether you prefer something more traditional or outright odd, mysterious or humorous, etc. The bad news is trying to determine which titles may match your preferred tastes when there are so many choices can be a real challenge. In the case of Book of Unwritten Tales 2 you have a very competently put together adventure with plenty of content, mild humor, and at least an attempt at a story. The downside is perhaps it straddles the middle of the road a bit too much, not pushing you with tougher puzzles and not possessing a strong enough personality to stand out against much more daring competitors.


The story takes place in a fantasy world of elves, magic users, and people in search of adventure. You’ll start out with an introduction to a character falling from the sky and needing to enlist the help of a reluctant genie to bail him out. Once you’re able to resolve this situation you’ll then jump to a elven princess who is dreading an arranged wedding coming up when her heart is filled with a sense of adventure. This structure introduces you to different perspectives and fills in the picture but I’ll admit not having played the original it also was a bit hard to understand what my goal was at times. Thankfully the voice acting and interactions are at least decent, if a bit on the vanilla side, lacking the biting sarcasm of traditional LucasArts fare or the outright weirdness of some other titles already on Switch.


In terms of mechanics it is true to the genre as a whole, though at least there was some care trying to streamline the experience for consoles. You’ll still need to walk around looking at and picking up objects but the ability to see everything you can interact with at the press of a button can be efficient and useful. The fact that at times it seems you need to check some things more than once to advance thing can be a bit annoying though, somewhat defeating that argument of efficiency. Puzzles tend to be pretty straightforward, with nary a red herring to be found, for the most part if you see something very specific or can pick it up there’s a purpose of some kind behind it. While that fact helps to avoid you wasting some time it also often makes solutions feel a bit telegraphed and easy, though that isn’t to say that wading through the process to solve all problems is quick.


If anything I’d say that may be the game’s greatest weakness, the pacing, though this may be a matter of the title’s relative age. Rather than solving problems and moving on too often I found myself lingering in the same area a bit too long working out a few too many somewhat uninteresting puzzles. This is where the game’s ample content feels perhaps a bit too padded with filler rather than being focused on keeping things engaging. It’s not that there are major issues, just a sort of sense of blandness on the whole, I suppose because everything feels a bit “safe”.


As a whole Tales is a pretty respectable adventure that gets enough right to make it worthwhile, just I’d warn that its sensibilities are a bit different from most of the titles on the Switch. That fact is a bit of a double-edged sword though as what makes it stand out isn’t always for the best, though I’ll admit that its overall production values are probably a bit higher than the typical fare, so that’s on its side at least. If you don’t mind the pace being a bit on the slow side, and aren’t expecting the humor or the puzzles to blow you away, Tales is a solid adventure that simply plays a bit differently than anything else on Switch.

Score: 7

Pros:
  • The overall production values are excellent
  • NPC interactions, though perhaps a bit too wordy, at least attempt to flesh out the characters
  • In many ways the interface is streamlined to keep you moving and not encumbered by a need to blindly click everywhere looking for something

Cons:
  • As a whole the dialogue is mildly funny but lacking the wit and edge many other titles possess
  • While lacking in red herrings the puzzles often require just methodically exploring dialogue choices or interactions and not necessarily being smart about things
  • In general this is a very middle of the road title in many regards, risking it failing to make a strong impression


Review: Sky Gamblers - Afterburner [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Flight combat / dogfighting games are always interesting to check out since finding a way to make them complicated enough to keep them challenging without tipping too far and detracting from the experience being fun is tricky. Coming over from success in the mobile space Sky Gamblers: Afterburner is meant to be an upcycled title, featuring solid physical controls and support for online play. While it does play reasonably well, and may satisfy for a little bit, it struggles a bit to elevate itself above blandness though.


Starting with the positive visually it has some tricks up its sleeve that, when viewed without looking too closely to see some lower-quality textures, look reasonably impressive. As long as you don’t pay too much attention as you fly close to the ground it looks pretty great. Elements on your HUD make sense and work well without being too intrusive, and controls may be a bit on the basic side but that’s fine since the goal seems to be to skew towards an arcade-like feel. The fact that there’s online support is commendable, I suppose, but simply from experience with indie games online tends to be a ghost town aside from the initial launch period so the fact that you can’t at least dogfight against bots while you wait is a misstep and will at least contribute to it being more empty.


Starting with a massive issue no matter how many times I completed missions my progress was never saved, meaning I can’t speak to what happens when you level up. Granted, this is a bug that will no doubt get fixed, but it is unfortunate. Possibly more concerning is just no matter whether I moved up the difficulty to Hard or took off auto-aiming, in general the aerial combat just never got very tense or exciting. Part of the issue simply may be the era and speed you’re flying at. Your challenge is to create some distance and then come back around to do a run on more stationary targets and to try to bob and weave when dealing with ones in the sky. Taking out your target provides some satisfaction but overall it’s a bit on the sterile side. You’ll need to deploy your flares to try to minimize being hit with missiles, so you can take damage and get taken out, but I just never got that adrenaline rush I look for when playing this sort of game.


Throw in the somewhat bare bones production values tied to stringing together the story and Sky Gamblers: Afterburner may be somewhat satisfying for people looking for an arcade dogfighting experience but it has issues that hold it back. While most of its competition is space based, and nothing else is set in the same era, unless you’re really craving modern flight combat there are simply better options on the system. Hopefully with some refinement and perhaps even moving back to an earlier era we can see better results next time.


Score: 5.5

Pros:
  • Looks pretty good with some varied environments to fly in
  • For the most part while the controls are simplified they work well

Cons:
  • A bug that prevented me from keeping earned experience to level up
  • Aerial combat tends to be a bit sterile and lacking in excitement
  • While online support is nice in theory the lack of bots to fill things in make it likely it will mostly end up being unused based on experience with indie online titles in general


Monday, February 4, 2019

Review: Glass Masquerade [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While there’s novelty to a typical “digital jigsaw puzzle”, the approximation of an activity you could enjoy as easily in analog doesn’t tend to be terribly satisfying. What it would take to make this sort of game really shine would be to still have puzzles, but let them involve completing images that are somehow unique. That’s what Glass Masquerade has done, trading classic jigsaw pieces for much more varied and intricate shapes made of stained glass. This makes the puzzles far more challenging, but also much more visually rewarding when they’re completed.


The first thing that makes these puzzles a bit more challenging is that you don’t go in with any idea what they look like. You start out with a little bit of assistance in the form of a handful of designated pieces that go along the edge, and you’ll be clued in to their positions with a small indicator. Once those are in place, you’ll need to work out the rest on your own. It tends to be pretty methodical business, flipping over a piece and then trying to figure out where it goes. Thankfully you won’t need to rotate them, as the pieces continue to get smaller and more intricate that would have gotten a bit out of hand. Little by little you’ll then fill everything in and the result will be a spectacular image.


With these very simple mechanics there aren’t many details to stumble on, but I’d say that not everything is quite perfect. In the case of some individual pieces the scaling as you try to determine where things go, visually comparing the piece to the puzzle below it, can throw you off at times. In a similar vein not all of the edges or details quite match up so it can sometimes be a bit confounding as you’ve passed the right spot a few times since your eyes swear it won’t quite match up correctly.


Finally, and perhaps most worth pointing out for people who’d like to play this with a touchscreen, those controls do work but I don’t consider them viable. The issue is having to use your finger the details of the piece you’re working with end up being obscured. Perhaps when you pick a piece it should let you control the piece on an offset so you can clearly see where it goes. Thankfully the controller support is fine, though every once in a while a piece will run away on you due to the way the movement accelerates.


While I pointed out some relatively small issues I’d still absolutely recommend Glass Masquerade to anyone who enjoys playing mellow casual games on their Switch. The artwork is fantastic, the music is calming, and the entire experience tends to make the minutes simply melt away. It certainly won’t thrill you by any means, but it’s an excellent casual experience.

Score: 8

Pros:
  • Outstanding artwork
  • Challenging puzzles with increasingly-intricate pieces
  • Thoroughly mellowing and satisfying

Cons:
  • Touchscreen controls functionally work but are impractical as pieces get smaller
  • Some pieces don’t look like they’ll fit in their designated spot due to scaling or odd edge issues