Monday, March 25

Review: Neon Caves [Nintendo Switch eShop]


A while back I reviewed an odd convert from the mobile space called Toast Time: Smash Up which had some issues with it having been designed for a vertical screen, but it had play mechanics that were at least a bit different. Now, having taken some of the core pieces from that title and given them new direction (and in widescreen), we have Neon Caves. This new entry is better focused overall as a strictly arcade-style title and is certainly challenging, but it may have bitten off a little more complexity than what typical gamers are willing to chew.


Gameplay is focused on shooting enemies flying and floating around within a cave, but you’ll also need to concern yourself with the potential for falling rocks that will damage you as well. Periodically power-ups will appear, offering you invincibility, rapid fire, or bombs to help you out briefly. Getting ready to move on to a new level will trigger a quake, and when that happens you’ll see 4 yellow indicators on the screen which you’ll only have a relatively brief opportunity to destroy before it’s an automatic game over.


The central gimmick, carried over from Toast Time, is that it’s not simply a twin-stick shooter, where you’ll use the left stick to move and the right stick to aim. Instead, your movement is a function of recoil from shooting your weapon. What you end up needing to do is to alternate between shooting to move, and then planting yourself in place to take aim and shoot things up. The result is certainly different, and opens up a new sort of challenge, but it can also be frustrating and a bit disorienting.


Perhaps if moving or being stationary were 100% at your discretion it wouldn’t be as bad, but since you can’t stay in one place for very long before you’ll lose your hold you’re constantly shifting your focus. You basically have a brief window to get set, scope out enemies, shoot at them, and then return focus to your ship to plot out where you’re going next. The mobility issue becomes an even greater problem once you get to level 6 and the space you’re occupying grows larger than your screen. At that point when you’re trying to rush to shoot or run into the 4 targets that can be pretty spread out the task can begin to feel a bit cruel. Add to that stability problems that crashed my game a solid third of the time I got to that point and it’s hard not to walk away aggravated.


In the end I’m not positive why the rules for the game are set this way, or at least there aren’t variant modes that simply change things up a bit. As configured, even where classic arcade games are inherently stacked against you Neon Caves ends up being too much too soon. For there not being much to it in terms of fundamentals, it sort of stumbles on itself when it comes to trying to be fun and even as someone who lives on roguelikes the very random nature of luck often seems more in control of your fate than skill. If you’re up for something different it may be worth a look, but expect some aggravation to go with it.

Score: 5.5

Pros:
  • Definitely forges its own path and is unique
  • If you can get used to the recoil movement method it poses new challenges

Cons:
  • There seem to be instability issues with the launch build (While reviewing it crashed about 6 times)
  • Once you get to Stage 6 and the space gets bigger than what you can see, random luck positioning the targets you need to quickly destroy takes over
  • The action either happens in small bursts as you try to stick and move, or you risk not seeing where you’ll be going when you lose your grip holding you in place

Sunday, March 24

Review: Brawlout [Nintendo Switch eShop]


When Brawlout was initially released it came at a very opportune time for both the developers and Smash-starved Switch fans, offering up a taste of the franchise’s signature chaotic gameplay while people eagerly awaited Nintendo’s new offering. At the time some common complaints revolved around online performance inconsistencies and a lack of fulfilling single-player content. Fast forward to now and the landscape has changed in many ways, with Smash obviously being available and with the release of a 2.0 patch to Brawlout that not only added a new indie darling character (the hero from Dead Cells), but also a new Trials mode as well. Given the new patch and the availability of Smash on Switch, how does Brawlout now stand up?


Starting with the core gameplay it’s clearly inspired by Smash from a concept and controls standpoint but there’s no doubt it targeted a more competitive play experience than a casual one. The first thing any Smash fan will notice about Brawlout is the lack of game-changing items during matches, which will either heighten or dampen spirits depending on where you are on the spectrum of opinion on those. If there’s a criticism to be had with excluding items it’s that without them the multi-tiered and more complex level layouts don’t make as much sense without them. The various looks in Smash stages are geared towards people moving around and often chasing pickups, and typically if people choose to treat it as a straight fighter the dispense with all of that in favor of a standard battleground. I think the flow of play in Brawlout, with the unusual layouts but missing the enticing items, ends up occupying an unusual space and may potentially encourage cheap strategies.


As a single-player experience I think the addition of the Trials mode is a good one, as playing through the old-school MK-style Arcade mode towers tended to get pretty stale. Trials instead throws you through a gauntlet of varying challenges, whether fighting in teams, facing off against multiple opponents, trying to complete skill challenges, or facing off against bosses who’ll knock you out hard if you’re not on top of your dodge game. To add some flavor and incentive to the skill challenges if you complete them you’ll have a choice of 3 one-use perks to help you out in a specific match. In particular against the bosses you’ll need the help but if you fall before you use them they’ll be lost. If there’s a complaint with Trials mode it’s that I think it’s missing an opportunity by being seemingly being locked in for its progression. As a roguelike fan I’d love to see it be a bit different every time, but I think it would be smart to go with a daily, or at least a weekly or monthly, switch-up of how it plays out. That could at least give people an incentive to return, resetting leaderboards and perhaps dangling something new and fun to entice people further.


In terms of multiplayer and online play it’s hard to speak to whether stability has improved, since I can’t contrast it directly with how it was at launch, but in a post-Smash world I think it has a different problem. Hitting up the online lobbies in the evening and at some other times of day availability was extremely limited, especially for the newly-supported unranked play, which made the dodgy experience when I played hard to quantify since I wasn’t even always to find a match-up within my own region. Consider, Smash itself has been criticized for its online play inconsistencies with lag, but a lack of a large enough pool of people to play with can be even more crippling. Local multiplayer is thus a much better option if you have people around, and for the most part the performance stays on top of the action, though when it’s crowded there would on occasion be some struggles to keep up, though they weren’t terrible.


So, all things considered, where does this admitted Smash clone stand up now that the series that inspired it is readily available as well? As is the case with kart racing titles trying to compete on the same system as Mario Kart it’s a tough business to compete with a game that’s clearly at the top of the food chain… though also at a much more premium price. If your heart is set on online multiplayer match-ups, I’d say that given availability even on the heels of a new patch the long-term prospects aren’t good, even if you can consistently get stable performance. Perhaps seeing this and simply wanting to address single-player concerns the patch adding Trials mode was a smart move and definitely helps shore up value, giving you more variety as you try to earn new fighters, skins, and other cosmetic goodies. Brawlout is by no means a bad game, but there’s no denying that it sits squarely in the shadow of its inspiration that’s now also its competitor.

Score: 6.5

Pros:
  • For people seeking the technical side of Smash without any items Brawlout may have core appeal
  • The new Trials mode helps punch up and add variety to the single-player experience
  • Some refinements to online support are appreciated and ideally would help people find what they’re looking for

Cons:
  • Availability of online matches is spotty at best, and has questionable long-term viability
  • The multi-leveled stages can play oddly (and possibly cheaply) without items being involved
  • If the Trials are to remain static as-is there’s a missed opportunity for pulling people back to the game periodically

Review: Assault on Metaltron [Nintendo Switch eShop]


When it comes to strategy sub-niches tower defense is pretty well-represented on the Switch in terms of quality even if not in numbers. You have a title like X-Morph: Defense that manages to blend aspects of a shooter into the mix, both Swords & Soldiers titles that are infused with loads of personality, and even Defense Grid 2 that is more traditional but incorporates an ability to divert your enemies into into your strategic opportunities. Standing next to these titles we now have Assault on Metaltron whose main innovation is… dancing to upgrade units?


Most of the formula behind the game is straightforward to people familiar with the genre. Enemies will originate from one or more spawn points, moving towards the thing you’re defending, in this case a collection of crystals. Your goal is to set up units along the pre-defined path they’ll follow (though as you move on there will be multiple routes to account for) to try to destroy them all before those crystals are all captured. The assortment of defensive units you’ll have to choose from are pretty well standard, including guns, flamethrowers, mortars, something to slow things down, and other weapons that are meant to help eliminate the different enemies you’ll need to deal with, whether fast, armored, flying, etc.


The two areas where the game diverts from what’s typical are in some supplemental support units and an added means to help give you something to do as things play out. There are some special units that aren’t all your typical fare, some providing another way to generate money (aside from knocking units or starting the next wave ahead of the curve) and others offering further support functions. The other change from the norm is the ability for the robot you control to dance next to a unit in order to upgrade it for “free”. By changing which dance it does you’re able to increase damage, range, or frequency without needing to pay. This does manage to at least create a new strategic choice where normally you’d sit and watch things play out once you’ve set up and are being hit by an enemy wave.


In terms of issues there are definitely some oddities. First is that the game’s tutorial is minimal and though you can get info on what each of your units do through an option on the main menu some of them take experimentation to understand well. This familiarization is usually done in the first few levels, providing an insight into their use. No direction for some units like the expensive Ultima Tower feels sloppy. Second, the places you are able to set up units is often just weird. There will be smart spots near turns but sometimes the distance from the track is far to the point that most units you put there have little hope of having an effect. This makes placing supporting units like those that slow difficult at best and often is frustratingly limiting for getting set up the way you’d prefer. Last, between the weird placements and special units the game can feel more like a puzzle at times, where success is more a matter of divining what the developers may have had in mind on a specific level than setting up a more sensible solution. I suppose that may be intended to force adaptation, but you constantly feel like you’re playing with one hand tied behind your back.


Overall, Assault on Metaltron is a pretty frustrating and unusual tower defense game. It somehow manages to be both pretty generic and aggravatingly weird at the same time. It’s almost like it zigs when it should have zagged and vice versa. With both traditional and more innovative play in this subgenre represented well in other titles on the eShop it manages to stand apart from the crowd, but generally not in the direction it intended.

Score: 5

Pros:
  • If you like being forced to work with compromised strategic options it may be appealing as a challenge
  • You can dance to improve your units!

Cons:
  • Run-of-the mill unit selections in terms of weaponry
  • Where you can place units is often just bizarre and makes setting up layered choke points difficult if not impossible in many cases
  • A cursory tutorial and some short descriptions in a main menu Encyclopedia fail to convey intended use of some of the units and their shortcomings, requiring trial and error experimentation in-game

Saturday, March 23

Review: Pinball FX3 - Williams Pinball Pack 3 [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Great news silverball fans, the folks behind Pinball FX3 have lovingly converted another trio of classic Williams tables for you to enjoy. This time we have the high-scoring of Theater of Magic, the rigorous training and brawling of Championship Pub, and the very different Safe Cracker to check out. How does this collection stand up to the outstanding entries before it?


Starting from the top we have Theater of Magic, a table that shouldn’t need any introduction. This mode-heavy table is well-regarded for its fun, generally high-scoring, and accessible play for good reason. Getting your locks and triggering multiball continues to be fun in digital form and each of the modes demanding you nail specific shots helps to provide an element of challenge as well. While I initially liked the added enhancements it wasn’t until I turned them off for a round that I came to really appreciate how well everything flows and works when they’re on, sort of bringing the action together a little more fully. It’s absolutely a terrific conversion of a classic table that should be fun for everyone.


Moving over to a sweaty gym we have the boxing and brawling pin, Championship Pub. Here the central focus is alternatively a heavy bag and a boxer representing the opponents you will face as you try to climb the rankings. While the look of the enhanced boxer initially doesn’t seem to be so different than the well-made prop on the original table the added movements and personality that have been imbued in him really help the table come to life. A focused view on the jump rope and speed bag mini-games also greatly improve the experience while in enhanced mode, all making it easy to see as a preferred way to play. While not as flashy as Theater of Magic it is certainly fun.


The last piece of the puzzle for this edition is Safe Cracker, the table I’m least familiar with but thanks to the enhancements quickly won me over. The playfield is a bit smaller and less elaborate but it’s the board game-esque break in element that sets the game apart. As you try to carefully make your way into the bank you’ll try not to trip the alarms while staying ahead of the guard in pursuit. Even better, once you collect some tokens you’ll then be able to play the game in the multi-ball-only Assault on the Vault mode where you’ll work against the clock to score as many points as you can. Among the more unique offshoot style pinballs I’ve played, it’s really quite a lot of fun.


While none of the tables may quite be at the same hype level as the likes of the marquee tables from the previous packs I’d argue that the overall value proposition with its 3 strong offerings more than makes up for that. While I wouldn’t say any of the previous packs have had outright “bad” tables I don’t think to this point any pack has felt as balanced in overall quality, diversity of play, and fun as this one. Come for Theater of Magic, but stay for the other 2 lesser-known but still great tables.

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • All 3 of the packs entries have distinct style and play
  • Across the board the enhancements for the tables provide more than just visual flourish, they improve the play experience
  • I love the unique Assault on the Vault mode in Safe Cracker

Cons:
  • While all of the tables are great Theater of Magic doesn’t have quite the star power of Attack on Mars or Medieval Madness
  • An occasional performance hitch when things get intense

Review: Peasant Knight [Nintendo Switch eShop]


As someone who has been playing games of various kinds since the dawn of computers, waaaay back to loading up games from cassette on the TRS-80, I’m usually a fan of retro-styled games. Harkening back to simpler designs both visually and in terms of focused gameplay can absolutely still work today, but there are also times when “retro” feels like it is being abused in order to cover for uninspired or even just bad gameplay. After spending more time than I’d have preferred with Peasant Knight I’d say it has fallen firmly into that second category.


Skipping the non-story, since it has no real bearing on anything, the basics are that you’re someone dressed as a knight but who has no weapon. So, weirdly, this is an auto-running platforming game where you’ll be trying to jump or stop short in order to avoid death by a variety of traps, falling to your doom, or simply being zapped because you paused for just a little too long. Keeping in mind you’re a knight with no weapon but you’re wearing armor (which tended to be heavy) in a game involving a lot of jumping. That makes perfect sense...


Your goal on each level is to get from Point A to Point B, and try not to die along the way. The bad news? You run a bit on the fast side and stopping precisely isn’t in the cards, so you really need to anticipate a bit it always seems. In general the precision of your jumping is also a bit dodgy and yet the game insists on you mastering that awful jumping in many sections. If you stop running for any measurable amount of time you’ll get zapped and need to start over just because. The good news? Honestly I’m not sure there really is any.


Overall, I found Peasant Knight to be a pretty unenjoyable exercise in frustration with no real reward. Its over-fast running, under-performing accuracy of control, and utterly bare bones idea of what constitutes gameplay combined to create an experience akin to fingernails scraping a chalkboard for me. Even if its already low-budget price were to get lower it would still remain a bad option for your time.

Score: 3

Pros:
  • You can stop playing it
  • Not technically broken in any way

Cons:
  • Shallow and basic gameplay better suited to mobile devices
  • For as little as there is to the controls they don’t feel responsive enough
  • It quickly just becomes a trial and error test of patience over skill

Review: Azure Saga - Pathfinder [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While it feels a little unusual to say after struggling for a few generations, the Switch has put together a pretty strong collection of JRPGs with the Switch. While not all of them have been winners by any means there’s definitely been a pretty high bar set on average, and that means that even indies need to bring some fresh ideas and fun to really stand out. This is where Azure Saga: Pathfinder stumbles a bit, and though it looks nice it struggles to be interesting overall.


You’ll play the game as Synch, a man on a mission to try to find the mythical Azure in the hopes of saving the remnants of humanity from extinction. Over the course of the game you’ll find new worlds to explore, meet new characters who’ll join your party, and of course fight. Exploration in the overworld is handled in an isometric view that’s generally pretty clean but can sometimes get obscured. In classic fashion aside from more major conflicts you’ll also run into random encounters.


Combat, for the most part, is as expected for a game that goes the turn-based route, but it does things its own way to a degree as well. Rather than attack individually you’ll always plot out your team’s actions all at once. This opens the door to the game’s United Attack that will become the cornerstone of getting through tougher battles as it prompts all of your characters to focus and unleash their power together. As you change the composition of your party the nature of this attack will change as well, encouraging some experimentation to find what works best for you. Aside from that each party member will have their own generic attack as well as a variety of powered skills that adhere to their general class, whether various attacks, healing, or buffs of various kinds.


Where the game struggles, unfortunately, is with a consistent feeling that it’s simply going through the motions. It meets pretty well all minimum expectations but there aren’t many areas where it manages to push the needle past ordinary. The story is serviceable, the characters have some variety but most of them are tropey cookie cutters you’ve seen before, and while the combat can have some flair in bigger battles too often I just chose auto for generic fights as you just would simply grind attacks to avoid wasting your MP on grunts.


Though Azure Saga: Pathfinder does have a pleasant look and some team attacks that are fun its overly vanilla nature as a whole makes hard to get enthusiastic about. If you really love the art style that may be enough to keep you engaged but for the most part it just feels like too many games you’ve played before but without any clear payoff to help it be memorable. If you’re needing a JRPG fix is may get you over the hump, just don’t expect it to stick with you for long.

Score: 6

Pros:
  • Its art looks nice as a whole
  • The team united attacks vary with the composition of your squad and can be fun
  • Some small touches like alternative costumes for your team members are nice

Cons:
  • Ultimately fails to do anything in particular to stand out and be memorable
  • The story is mostly just there to connect things and doesn't leave a lasting impression
  • Generic fights quickly get to be grindy

Friday, March 22

Review: Mercury Race [Nintendo Switch eShop]


When it comes to genres that aren’t very well represented on Switch unfortunately racing is one of those that comes to mind. Outside of kart racers trying to throw a blue shell at Mario and his pals (and utterly failing for the most part) the offerings have been few and far between. Mercury Race is thus at least of some interest, coming onto the scene with a budget price, a neon-lit futuristic look, and an element of shooting to keep things from getting too dull. But how does this all come together?


Starting with the positives the game’s visuals, for being simple, are definitely eye-catching and interesting. Everything plays smoothly in general from a performance standpoint, even when in 2-player split-screen, which may be the best way to play since it introduces some actual competition into the mix. To make things a bit more interesting you have shooting, which is handled with the right analog stick and is generally pretty easy since all you need to do it aim. As a base, this is all on the right track.


You can tackle the game’s 15 tracks one by one solo, with a friend, or you can take them on in a more tournament circuit fashion 5 at a time in the King of the Galaxy mode. As you progress you’ll be able to unlock some new ships, though honestly the nuances in their relative performance don’t feel that substantial so I’d chalk the various ships up to being more of a mere aesthetic choice. Finally, you can then feel free to change your ships colors to show a bit of personality as well.


Where things get a bit more tricky is with the racing mechanics themselves. While you’re very good at going fast slowing down is a challenge that becomes more aggravating as you try to push yourself to get further and do better. With barriers and segments of track without railings on the side you do need to watch yourself as once you deplete your ship’s energy it will be game over and back to the start. Since you have no competitors on the track your only reward is beating your own times and perhaps competing on the leaderboards but it doesn’t take long for the experience to get a bit lonely, especially since the variations in the tracks aren’t major enough in terms of layout or aesthetics to prevent them from sort of meshing together in your mind.


There’s an indie spirit to Mercury Race that I appreciate, with the game refusing to strictly to adhere to any specific formula, but the result can be a bit of a letdown as well. The shooting is a fine distraction and keeps you on your toes but it also doesn’t necessarily elevate the game substantially. That’s especially true since the racing itself, while competent, isn’t terrific either. If you’re able to play with a friend in split-screen that’s probably the best way to enjoy the game, with a little competition. Unfortunately, going solo in the end it’s a bit of a lonely experience in the end and going for better times on the leaderboards can only be so engaging for very long.

Score: 6

Pros:
  • Great aesthetics for a budget price
  • Attempts to break out of the mold and do something different
  • Playing it split-screen against a friend it gets to be more engaging

Cons:
  • In terms of racing the control of your vehicle is a bit dodgy, which gets frustrating when you lose when your energy depletes to zero but it’s hard to stay off the walls in some sections
  • With no AI vehicles on the track you’re ultimately only fighting against yourself or the leaderboards, which quickly gets less interesting
  • Though there are 15 tracks their variety is pretty limited overall

Review: Reptilian Rebellion [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Going minimalist can be a tricky proposition when it comes to games. While it can be done correctly and deliver a bite-sized budget experience the risk is that it doesn’t have enough going for it to make a serious impression. Reptilian Rebellion has the right core idea, looking to provide a somewhat mild arcade-like shooting experience. However, issues with pacing and a lack of major depth don’t give it much of a chance to be a serious contender for your time.


In the game you’ll get to choose your character, and this carries a bit of consequence as it will affect not only things like how many lives you get but the type and duration of power-ups and assists you can get. Once you’re in the game the object is pretty simple, shoot things and stay alive. You’ll need to try to be accurate and periodically go to the top or bottom of the screen to pick up ammo refills since otherwise you’ll run dry and be in trouble.


Power-ups are somewhat infrequent depending on your character but welcome. Your biggest threat tends to be periodic planes flying over that will infect you and screw with your controls. The effect isn’t terribly hard to counteract but depending on the enemies on the screen at the time it can end up being fatal. As you find success you can check out your placement on the leaderboards and slowly unlock new characters with different attributes to consider.


While I may be a bit more red-blooded a shooter fan than this game has in mind the biggest issue I have is simply that it lacks and real intensity or urgency. The number of enemies on the screen stays pretty low overall and while some may have shields to make you work a bit harder the pacing is a bit of a bummer. A lack of any combo multipliers or bonuses with regards to scoring adds to the lack of urgency. Finally, the control scheme is just a bit odd, you can only fire to either side and the buttons those are mapped to isn’t explained to you and are just unusual overall.


While it carries a very budget-friendly price, make no mistake, Reptilian Rebellion isn’t going to over-deliver on excitement relative to its cost. Perhaps there will be some people that latch onto its simplicity and will play it for awhile but I would assume most people would burn out on it very quickly due to the lack of excitement and a more complex scoring system that makes climbing the leaderboards more interesting. Considering the strong genre representation on Switch it’s hard to recommend.

Score: 5

Pros:
  • A budget-friendly price
  • Some people may enjoy the voxel graphics look
  • Leaderboard support

Cons:
  • A general lack of intensity
  • The scoring system has no combos or multipliers
  • The controls are odd with regards to the buttons chosen

Thursday, March 21

Review: Apocryph [Nintendo Switch eShop]


It’s time to go old school, grab a weapon, stomp some demons, and listen to blaring metal while you kick some ass. Apocryph channels the feel and many of the elements of classic FPS games from back in the day with a look and feel reminiscent of the likes of Quake and Hexen. That said, the valid questions are whether that style of play holds up, and whether on top of nailing the audio and visual experience what about the art of strong level design? I expect the answers may vary wildly based on tastes and exposure.


Starting with the positive Apocryph has a lot in common with the games it’s looking to emulate and honor. Some crazy-looking demonic enemies of various kinds? Check. Some cool weapons for doing damage? Yes and no, but you do get some cool weapons and are able to bust heads in a variety of ways as you progress. Killer soundtrack? Though I had to turn down the music volume a bit I applaud the selections and energy it helps bring to the table. A challenge? Yes and no, and it varies as you go, but as a whole the game isn’t a cakewalk (and you’re able to set your difficulty up front so you can cater it to your tastes as well).


So then on to what isn’t as ideal. What hits you first, and almost immediately, is that there’s no real in-game instruction of any kind. You’re thrown in and there are no prompts or direction. This made opening the first big door I encountered more of a challenge than it should have been. Do I need to clear the area first? Do I just punch it? It turns out there’s a button for that but that isn’t the only control confusion and issue. I didn’t even know I could jump until I hit the second level, and again I just tried every button to find that out. You can get over this hump but it would be a problem easily remedied, which makes it aggravating.


The other thing to note is that while the look and most of the essence of classic FPS gaming is here as a whole the quality of the level design unfortunately didn’t come along for the ride. The most notable classics from that era weren’t only about guns, gore, and craziness, they also often had excellent level layouts that were smart and surprising. There are some surprises here, with doors that will trigger and release enemies on you but as a whole the level layouts tended to be confusing, with it being unclear where to go or what to do at times, and some cases where it leads to cheap and frustrating deaths. This makes a lot of the gameplay taste pretty good but it’s not terribly filling either.


On the whole fans of the classics who are starved for a taste of nostalgia will probably enjoy the hell out of Apocryph, warts and all. Some of my complaints about the controls may seem a bit overblown but accessibility and quickly getting people into the experience are important when there’s so much competition out there so stumbling right as you start the game with something so simple is a letdown. As long as you keep in mind this is more about honoring the past and not necessarily doing anything to advance or modernize it you should get some hours of enjoyment out of this one.

Score: 6

Pros:
  • Looks and sounds a lot like the classic FPS games that inspired it
  • As you get deeper into the game there are some crazier weapons and gear that make for some good fun

Cons:
  • A general lack of instructions and direction make the game less accessible than it could be, which makes for a frustration pretty well immediately when you start out
  • The level design, as a whole, is pretty lacking in creativity or inspiration when compared to most of its source material
  • Lacking nostalgia for the likes of Quake or Hexen there may be limited appeal for this sort of experience

Review: StarDrone [Nintendo Switch eShop]


More often than not when my primary statement on a game to start is “You’ve never played anything quite like this” you can tend to assume good things. Different can be unexpected and exciting, but the flip side is that without a point of reference it can also be a challenge to quantify. That’s where I am with the odd action of StarDrone, an unusual of, as-billed, “arcade action, pinball, and breakout”.


In theory based on that tagline the game would be right up my alley, and to a degree it is, there’s something a bit mesmerizing about watching your small ship flow through increasingly elaborate “tracks” that make up each stage. Your goal is generally to collect as many stars as you can while not dying. That may sound simple but as you move on in levels the “not dying” part can be a particular challenge, and that rests on the shoulders of the more passive control you have over your ship.


Somewhat like in pinball you have the means the alter the course your ship takes, but once it’s in motion headed in a direction you could be in for some trouble depending on your sense of timing. There are gravity beacons positioned around each stage, which look a bit like bumpers, that you’re able to tether your ship to and allow you to exert directional control over your ship by releasing it at the right time to establish a new path. Hopefully that’s in the direction of progress, boost strips, and stars and not walls lined with spikes or mines. Level designs vary pretty wildly from being almost maze-like with a focus on exploration to roughly being concentrated death traps that will test your ability to quickly use multiple beacons to only slightly alter your path to avoid hazards all around you.


Where the trouble arises mostly is in the area of precision. It’s not so much of an issue with the timing to release from your beacon, for the most part that’s something you can get the hang of. The problem is more often than not ensuring you’re grabbing the right beacon. This is something I consistently struggled with, and while you’re able to try to point in the direction of the beacon you want in more concentrated areas you can find yourself grabbing a beacon further away from you leading you to time wasted or worse. Compound this with a general lack of specific direction on what’s a good or bad idea and there can be frustrations. There are spiked walls, mines, and sometimes roving enemies. Which ones do I take damage from in which circumstances and how much? I get points and even combo bonuses when I crash into some of them, am I taking damage slowly and getting points or are they objective? Are the situations where I’m invincible?


Even after playing for awhile across many stages I still don’t feel like I truly know all of the ins and outs of the game and that’s not so good. Yeah, I can go into a level and likely complete it, sometimes with some work, but not really understanding what I should ideally be doing and why is frustrating. Especially since the game has leaderboards and people competing for high scores some clarity on how the scoring systems and combos mechanically work, even in simple terms, would be really helpful but doesn’t seem to be provided anywhere. If you’re looking for something a bit different with a challenge, and maybe a bit of wonkiness, StarDrone may not be perfect but it does manage to set itself apart as being unique even in a crowded Switch eShop.

Score: 6.5

Pros:
  • Absolutely a unique combination of elements that combine to make for a new experience
  • Relatively fast and kinetic play
  • The variety in stages and challenges is surprising

Cons:
  • In terms of some of the mechanics and how scoring works too little is explained
  • Control in some areas can be tricky and imprecise as you try to grab beacons to change your direction
  • As stages get more elaborate some of the details can be tougher to make out clearly in handheld mode

Wednesday, March 20

Review: Block-a-Pix Deluxe [Nintendo Switch eShop]


When it comes to pixel art puzzlers the Switch indie scene absolutely has you covered. With multiple variations on the classic Picross style to more unique varieties like Piczle Lines, and a few more as well, making pixel art pictures has never been quite as fun or challenging. Straddling somewhere between the classic pixel point and lines styles we now have Block-a-Pix Deluxe as well, which will have you using blocks of various sizes to complete your puzzles.


Playing somewhat similarly to their earlier effort Fill-a-Pix which was sort of a Minesweeper variant, Block-A-Pix has colored numbers positioned around the grid. These all represent a single pixel in a larger block-shaped piece, keeping in mind here a line qualifies as a block as well. What then follows is slowly using your powers of deduction based on the numbers and colors to fill in key pieces and then continue to block out the rest from there.


On the whole that sums things up, and in general though the interface is clean and simple it’s on the unrefined side depending on your tastes. That said, even with larger puzzles everything remains pretty smooth as you scroll around and everything feels pretty sensible so it’s easy to pick up and enjoy. With 120 puzzles it has plenty to offer, and if you want to check it out before you buy be sure to download the available demo on the eShop.


Score: 8

Pros:
  • Has a very reasonable number of puzzles for the price
  • The interface is clean and performance is generally quick and smooth, even with larger puzzles
  • Offers a variation on the normal pixel puzzles that hasn’t been offered yet on the platform

Cons:
  • At the end of the day it’s just another pixel art puzzler, and it doesn’t make any radical changes to the formula
  • Among its peers its presentation is the most lacking in flair if that’s a consideration for you

Review: The Princess Guide [Nintendo Switch eShop]


When mentally reviewing the many beat-em-ups that have graced the Switch I’m not sure any of them stand out as being more unusual than Penny Punching Princess. With its somewhat distinctive play, abundance of stat-boosting screens and options, and system where you could bribe enemies to fight on your behalf it was interesting, though admittedly the control mechanics were messy to say the least. I mention PPP because the same team behind that title have now delivered The Princess Guide, a game that shares many similarities with it but that doesn’t have all of its flaws. Unfortunately, it’s still hard not to get a bit baffled by its kitchen sink approach to things, which we’ll discuss.


You’ll be playing the part of a veteran warrior whose job is to take a Princess under his wing. Your initial choice of 4 Princesses will lead to variations in play style and aesthetics but as you journey on you’ll get the opportunity to try working with the others to keep things fresh. Combat in principle isn’t very complicated but you wouldn’t know that when trying to get the hang of everything. Though the tutorial attempts to help you make sense of everything I’ll admit I played quite a bit of the game feeling like most of the time I was merely remembering which combinations of buttons would give me attacks of what relative power and I’d keep working them though wondering if I was doing something wrong.


To make the game a bit more strategic, and not merely about button-mashing, there’s an overworld map view of the area and you’ll need to plan and execute your missions there. Whether simply eliminating enemy units, getting to a spot in a certain amount of time, or escorting another unit to keep them safe these provide some variations but generally will always go back to roughly the same combat situations, just with new enemies and getting harder as you go. I suppose there are opportunities to move specific units and deal with threats in different ways potentially but I didn’t find it added much to the game in the end, or at least could have been simplified.


There are more elements to the game that allow you to customize and improve your characters but honestly the menus and all of the options began to blur together for me. You can praise or scold your protege when she does certain things, and there will sometimes be associated bonuses, but the idea overall seems half-baked and more often than not just feels weird. An option to somehow be Pervy in the opening menu and the tendency for the princesses to jiggle around almost constantly as they talk contributes to the “Huh?” factor further, overall I suppose you could just chalk it up to a “Japanese thing” but it still continued to find new little ways to leave me perplexed.


On the whole The Princess Guide isn’t a bad game, it just feels like a bunch of ideas thrown at a wall in the hopes some will stick, and some do. The balance of everything that slowly slides down the wall, which includes some elements of the game’s combat, is unfortunately a bummer though. Perhaps with a bit more time and an attempt to streamline the experience a bit the game could improve, as is stands I’d say it is more of a novelty than anything, and your enjoyment would more likely be in spite of the game’s issues rather than specifically because of what it does right.

Score: 6

Pros:
  • There are mechanics in the combat that work and can be fun
  • Each of the Princesses does play a little differently

Cons:
  • Too many systems and menus going on that aren’t adequately explained
  • Combat too often devolves into button-mashing since it works and grasping all aspects of combat is a challenge
  • Some of the dialogue and situations are just kind of creepy

Tuesday, March 19

Review: Fate/EXTELLA Link [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Having never previously dipped my toe in the musou style of gameplay before, which are roughly large-scale hack-and-slash extravaganzas, I had no expectations coming into Fate/EXTELLA Link. I’d heard they’re sort of a fast food experience where they’re fun in the moment but can also get repetitive and aren’t necessarily very satisfying. After a number of hours with the title I’m unable to speak to it in comparison to the other series out there that are like it but I was pleasantly surprised by it and can understand where they have an appeal.


To open I won’t even try to explain the storyline in any detail as it is a bit odd and full of technobabble. With the voiceovers purely in Japanese you’ll need to read along but I’d imagine the dialogue being delivered in English wouldn’t make it any less silly. The gist is that the combat is all happening virtually and that you’ll effectively be taking the control of a warrior who’ll act as your avatar as you slash your way through mobs of low-level enemies, mid-tier warriors who are a bit tougher, and tougher bosses who can be a bit more lethal, especially as you crank up the skill level. You can play solo, co-op, and even online (always a tricky prospect long-term) which offers a variety of modes and options.


What the experience boils down to is the combat and while there’s a fair amount of button-mashing going on at times sustained success is dependent on making smart use of your many special attacks as well. Initially it’s all a bit overwhelming in the tutorial as you’re quickly run through the gauntlet of everything you can do, but with some time and experimentation you’ll be able to pick up on what to do how and when to get the best results. Your mid-tier attacks that are on a cooldown are very much your bread and butter and understanding how best to work with the options you’re given for each character as you level up and gain access to new skills can be vital when things get tougher. Of course then there’s the big kahuna of your attacks, your charged Noble Phantasm attack that simply decimates everything on the screen with a visual flair that reminds me of Final Fantasy VII. Over the top but also satisfying (and never terribly long). Of course, there’s not just a single battlefield, you’ll also be challenged to keep an eye on your mini map and try to manage the overall battle which is taking place on multiple fronts, requiring you to move around and try to keep your enemy from getting the upper hand. Again, you get to the point where you understand what you need to do with this but it’s all thrown at you pretty quickly so there’s a lot going on to digest.


Outside of the odd story, the repetitive nature at the core of the gameplay, and the learning curve I think my biggest sort of complaint about the game is that the degree of customization and possible through multiple overlapping systems and choices ends up being overkill. You can equip skills that you discover, craft equipment that will give you added bonuses, work to build relationships and better affinities with specific characters… but I would be hard pressed to tell you what real effect any of it had from battle to battle. Especially when you take into account the 26 hero characters you’ll slowly gain access to and will undoubtedly want to put through the paces to see how they stack up, spending a ton of time tuning your warrior feels like time taken away from simply enjoying what they game has to offer. Streamlining, removing some layers and screens, and focusing on changes that are easier to see and feel would make more sense. While I poked around and did my best to set things up in a way that would help me be successful it all felt like fluff that was tweaking my percentages up and down incrementally. But ultimately how well I performed in combat I felt was more dependent on making smart use of my abilities and managing the battlefield effectively. I don’t doubt if you take the time to understand it all it would be helpful, and probably when you crank up the difficulty it might be vital, but I’d still argue that making your character management more focused and simpler would help improve the overall experience.


While there’s quite a lot to understand about Fate/EXTELLA Link in the end your enjoyment is likely to hinge on the frantic and crazy combat. The number of characters and how their style of combat differs is pretty impressive and made the game far more interesting than I’d expected based on how this style of play has been portrayed. If you just take the time to experiment and work through all of the game’s hero characters, getting a feel for how they each play differently, there’s already a ton of content to enjoy. Throw in the odd story and its branching choices, extra missions that are a bit more challenging, and options for multiplayer and if you like cutting through waves of enemies with style this should provide for hours of fun.

Score: 8

Pros:
  • With 26 characters who each have their own personality and special attacks there are likely to be a few that suit your style
  • The combat is very “fast food” in nature, fun and pretty exciting in the moment, but it’s also not terribly deep for the most part
  • As complex as you want it to be

Cons:
  • With all of the intensity the game occasionally suffers in handheld mode
  • There’s simply a lot going on in the game with a variety of different systems and things to manage, but most of it doesn’t feel like it affects much in play, leaving you with wasting too much time on a bunch of screens instead of having fun
  • The tutorial throws a whole of of information at you all at once, and it can take a little time to get accustomed to how everything works