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Pikuniku Review - Tasty Morsel

Tue, 01/22/2019 - 03:00

With its simple character designs and a game world that often looks like a young kid designed it by cutting up and sticking together different bits of colored paper, Pikuniku sometimes feels like a video game adaption of a children's book. It tells a simple story that doesn't always quite make sense, it's pointedly very silly, and there are scenes within it that seem to be based on how a child understands the world. A giant company pays a town by making money rain from the sky; a trendy nightclub will only let you in if you dress "cool" by wearing sunglasses; you play a game someone "invented," but which is, essentially, just basketball mixed with soccer.

But Pikuniku (Japanese for "picnic") never feels like it was designed specifically for children. It's a game about battling a corporate takeover, and the writing has the playful, sarcastically irreverent tone you're more likely to see from someone in their 20s or 30s. But the childish veneer is charming, and while Pikuniku isn't the deepest game around, it's lovely, funny, and engrossing in its own weird way.

At the game's opening, your character--Piku, an entity made up of an oblong red body with dots for eyes and two long spindly legs coming out of it--awakens in a cave, prompted by a ghost to go outside. The opening tutorial doesn't take long, because the controls are simple: You can jump, causing Piku to spin haphazardly as he moves through the air, you can kick in any direction, and you can curl your legs into yourself and roll around in ball form. You spend the rest of the game wandering through the small game world, encountering characters and helping solve their problems until, eventually, you find yourself fighting against Sunshine Inc, a giant corporation that is sending robots all over the land to harvest natural resources from the game's three regions.

Progression rarely requires much thoughtful effort. You explore the world on a 2D plane, talking to as many people as you can, kicking at everything, and solving objectives as they're handed to you. There are platforming elements that require some finesse, especially when you explore some of the slightly more challenging optional side quests that pop up throughout the game. Pikuniku is entertaining rather than challenging, though, and even the hardest areas you'll find are unlikely to trip you up for longer than a few minutes. But this is to the game’s advantage--it’s accessible to inexperienced and young players, and I never felt like the game would have been more enjoyable if it pushed me harder. Piku’s weird, wobbly walk, his awkward jump, and the force of his kicks mean that just moving through the game world is inherently entertaining.

Your ability to kick everything and everyone is crucial, and much of the puzzle solving in the game comes down to kicking an object from one place to another. The kick mechanic is great fun, with objects reacting differently depending on the angle and distance you hit them from, although there are occasional moments of frustration when, for instance, a box gets wedged into a corner and is tricky to get out. Getting stuck for a moment kicking something out of a corner, or dealing with an object that isn’t behaving how you’d like, can interrupt the flow of gameplay.

You can kick every character you meet in the game with no real punishment, which rarely stops being funny. In a few other instances Piku needs to don different hats or use items he has collected to push forward. Again, the mechanics around this are quite simple--if you see a blooming flower, for instance, you know that you need to use the watering can hat on it because a silhouette of that hat will appear above it. This makes it easy to keep track of what you might now be able to do or unlock when you find a new item. It’s not the deepest mechanic, but it means that finding a hat or item can spark immediate excitement when you already know what it’ll do.

Pikuniku throws little minigames and oddities at you among all the platforming to mix things up. At one point early on, you're asked to draw a new face for a scarecrow using the analog stick; later, you need to win a button-matching dance-off against a robot. There's even a Dig Dug parody, which amusingly devolves into a little joke about how some retro games don't age well. There are boss fights, too (there's no combat in the game otherwise), and while they're not super involved affairs they use the game's simple mechanics to good effect.

Pikuniku is a funny game on numerous levels--the script often undercuts tension and plays with tropes in amusing ways, the goofy way you flip when you jump is a constant source of amusement, and the game will often throw you into strange situations without much explanation. Mess with a toaster in someone's house, for instance, and you'll be hurled into the "toast dimension," which is essentially a dungeon area that you can escape by completing the simple platforming challenge within. In another instance, you enter a pottery store that is clearly begging you to smash everything inside it--it's a clear Zelda homage, but the real delight is in the merchant's zen approach to your destruction. Pikuniku is playful and mischievous. Even the soundtrack is wonderfully kooky, and often faintly reminiscent of Koji Kondo's work with Nintendo.

However, Pikuniku doesn't last long. You can jump back in after the end credits, which roll within about three hours, and enjoy the aftermath of everything you achieved, but even mopping up the last few missions and trying to collect all the optional trophies scattered around the game world doesn't add much. The world you're exploring is compact, and it doesn't take long for you to feel like you've seen everything there is to see. Pikuniku is so charming, and so much fun, that I wanted more time with it (even though the ending is great and absolutely bonkers). The game wrapped up before I was ready to leave it behind, and more story content, or another village to explore, would have gone a long way.

Pikuniku also comes with nine two-player levels, as well as a multiplayer version of Baskick, the aforementioned basketball/soccer hybrid featured in the campaign. These levels are divided between co-op challenges where Piku and his identical friend Niku need to work together and competitive levels where you race one another. You can play with two detached Joy-Cons, and the game holds up well on the smaller screen if you're playing in portable mode. This is not a major component of the game, though, so don't expect a whole second campaign. You're unlikely to get more than an hour out of these levels, but its simplicity makes it ideal to play with a younger relative or someone with little gaming experience.

While Pikuniku is a light experience, it's got enough charm and verve to stick with you well beyond completion. From Piku's weird wobbly gait and looping jumps in the opening right through to the game's funny, bizarre ending, Pikuniku is more gripping than its simple aesthetic and playful tone would suggest. It'll make you feel like a kid again.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story + Bowser Jr.'s Journey Review

Mon, 01/21/2019 - 10:37

It’s not every day a hero gets a chance to literally walk around in their mortal enemy’s shoes, which is what made Bowser’s Inside Story such a bizarre but wildly unique concept back in 2009. Even though not much has changed since its original DS release, it's still one of the stronger Mario RPGs, and its innovative gimmick remains exciting on 3DS. The setup here is that a mysterious affliction called the Blorps is spreading across the Mushroom Kingdom thanks to Fawful, an obnoxious trickster who's been handing out poisoned mushrooms. Naturally, Mario and Luigi are on the job, but after Bowser gets suckered into eating one of the mushrooms, he ends up with a surprising side effect: accidentally swallowing everything in his current field of vision, including the Mario Brothers. As Fawful makes a play to take over the kingdom, Bowser heads out to get some fiery payback with some unexpected help from the Mario Bros.

That's where the inventive gimmick comes in. You switch back and forth between controlling Bowser on the top screen (punching enemies and obstacles and burning down trees) and controlling Mario and Luigi in 2D inside Bowser's body (running, jumping, hitting things with hammers, and sliding down what you can only pray are literal pipes). Specific puzzles on Bowser's side require some assistance on the inside from Mario and Luigi, like shocking his muscles to give him more power to push things, and some actions Bowser performs will affect Mario and Luigi--Bowser drinking water will flood the bottom screen. If Bowser uses the mushroom's power to swallow his foes, Mario and Luigi will be responsible for finishing the enemy off internally. There’s an abundance of cleverness in this story--inspired moments where you are, essentially, playing co-op with yourself, and it’s exciting to wonder how it will bend your brain next.

The fundamentals of combat are building off the same-old turn-based Mario RPG mechanics, where attacks have a chance of doing extra damage and you have a chance to defend yourself using carefully timed button presses. There are very few surprises for anyone who played on DS, but a graphical overhaul on 3DS changes the cartoonish watercolors of the original game to something closer to 1996’s Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. It’s not as bright and immediately eye-catching, but there’s a gentle, storybookish beauty to it.

As far as gameplay is concerned, the series always been delightfully accessible, and the only difference here is the minor learning curve of remembering which buttons control which characters (Bowser's actions use X; Mario and Luigi use A and B; specific to this port, Y controls both brothers at the same time). That said, the game does go a bit too easy on you most of the play time. The game never gets truly challenging until the latter third, and by then, if you're playing carefully, you've learned how to counter every enemy and racked up a massive collection of recovery items. As a result, fights quickly become an unwelcome hindrance on the way to more story after a while.

Thankfully, the story and writing do drive you forward. There are body-based jokes at every opportunity, Bowser is humorously angry and obtuse, and the Globins--Bowser's melodramatic cellular structures--frequently try to steal the show with their laments. Even just the bizarre little moments of Mario and Luigi speaking to each other in pseudo-Italian are a joy. The entire concept of Fantastic Voyage-but-Nintendo is ripe with possibilities for outlandish twists and turns and distortions to characters we all know and love. Having that apply to someone other than the usual Mario Bros. crew is a special treat, especially for the more ambitious moments, like having to turn the 3DS on its side to play as a giant-sized Bowser. More than all this, though, it's a chance to get to know Mario's archnemesis in more detail.

This is the rare opportunity that makes the game’s brand new side-story, Bowser Jr's Journey, worthwhile for many of the same reasons. It’s an odd little real-time strategy game that more resembles a wonky sumo match than, say, Starcraft. Bowser Jr. himself is the commander sending waves of baddies across the screen to butt heads with others, dealing damage based on a rock-paper-scissors system of weakness. Like the main game, there isn’t a terrible amount of difficulty in getting through each battle, and these fights are also a lot less interesting and dynamic. There’s a lot more waiting around for enough damage to happen, or for Jr. to accumulate enough points to activate special moves.

There’s an abundance of cleverness in this story--inspired moments where you are, essentially, playing co-op with yourself, and it’s exciting to wonder how it will bend your brain next.

If there’s a redeeming quality to Bowser Jr.’s tale, it’s that it gives us the first real look at familial relations within the Bowser clan in ages. Jr.'s tale takes place after his dad goes off to his sit-down with Princess Peach about Blorps. In Bowser's absence, Jr. takes it upon himself to make a move to take over the kingdom. Unfortunately, his bratty overzealousness ends up earning the ire of the other Koopalings as well as the three wacky underlings Fawful plants in Bowser's Kingdom. And yet, as the story goes along, there's a strangely heartfelt streak to the proceedings, of a kid who really just wants his dad's approval and figuring out that he has to earn it, not throw tantrums for it. Towards the end, you're almost rooting for the little guy, and it makes the interminable nature of the fights worthwhile.

The extra mode certainly sweetens the pot for those who owned Bowser's Inside Story on DS, but fundamentally, it's the same game. If anything, the real drawback is the game coming off as an unnecessary surprise on the 3DS--which can already play the original game via backward compatibility. But the game itself remains one of Mario's RPG best, and it's a cheerful, inventive journey.

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown Review - Sortie It Out

Fri, 01/18/2019 - 16:00

There's more to war than just weapons and politics. Ace Combat is a series that showed us just that, hitting its stride in the early '00s with an enchanting mix of jet fighting and human melodrama. But in the past decade, its entries suffered from putting less importance in its signature stories. It dropped four games' worth of fictional lore in favor of real-world locations, traded pathos for machismo, and attempted to add cinematic blockbuster bombast to the clinical nature of flying jets, all at the cost of losing its identity. Thankfully, Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown brings the series back on course and is a significant return to what it was in its prime: a thrilling interpretation of modern aerial combat that also tells a war story with heart, a conscience, and personal stakes.

The narrative of Skies Unknown dives back into the fictional series universe last seen in 2007 and deals with a conflict between the familiar powers of the Osean Federation and the Kingdom of Erusea. You play a silent, faceless Osean pilot who will go through some changing allegiances, but half of the plot actually occurs in cinematics that run parallel to and separate from your actual missions, and come from the perspective of seemingly minor players around the periphery. It's a war story that pivots with the actions of its small cast of characters as much as it does military victories, and leans heavily into themes of the human condition--the greys of fabricated ideas like nationality, borders, and cultural identity as well as the ethics of advancements in technological warfare.

To be clear, there aren't many nuanced discussions to be had between the pronounced personalities of the cast; this is a drama first and foremost. Radio chatter is filled with bold statements of ideology ("As long as our nation stands the young will carry on!"), and sometimes it feels like there's a naivety in the writing for entirely different, slightly juvenile reasons ("How penal is this penal colony?"). It's regularly hammy and melodramatic, but the entire endeavor is so wide-eyed and earnest, so endearingly heartfelt and ultimately optimistic in nature, that it's easy to let yourself be swept up and moved by it all.

Larger-than-life voices amp you up over the radio when you're flying into a sortie, adding an infectious passion to the affairs. They remind you what you're fighting for and sometimes make you feel bad and question your actions. The overlapping conversation can be a little distracting when you're trying to dodge a missile, but it's that vital human element that keeps you really invested in this game about shooting down planes.

But that's not to say that aerial combat in Ace Combat 7 is anything but superb. The fundamental actions of chasing down enemies at high speeds, out-maneuvering them to line up a clear shot, or banking hard to avoid an incoming missile while your dashboard beeps and flashes wildly at you is enough to keep you on the edge of your seat constantly. Skies Unknown strips away recent mechanical additions to the series seemingly in service of returning to simplicity--gone are the wingman commands of Ace Combat 6: Fires Of Liberation and, thankfully, so are the in-your-face, on-rails close combat mechanics of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.

Your focus lies solely on your plane and your surroundings. There's a variety of familiar factors to take into consideration while flying--different air and ground-based threats, the topography of terrain when fighting at low altitudes--but a significant new element is clouds and the tangible risks and possibilities they invite. Juking into a bank of clouds can break missile locks and give you the element of surprise, but come at the cost of reduced visibility, the possibility of icing up your plane and hindering maneuverability, and even things like strong wind currents and lightning strikes messing with your ability to keep control of your jet. Clouds are legitimately useful strategic considerations, on top of just being a pretty thing to admire, and they make the skies of Ace Combat 7 a more interesting place to be.

There's also an impressive variety of distinct scenarios across the game's 20 campaign missions. Generally, the scope of most battles are quite large and require you to split your attention between different kinds of skirmishes across the map with a broader objective in mind. But many missions also come with unique challenges that make for some memorable moments--dogfighting in a thunderstorm at night, stealth canyon runs, and avoiding huge area-of-effect blasts in the midst of a busy battle are some enjoyable standouts. The game's few boss-style encounters are a highlight too, as you go up against impossibly good ace fighters and the game's white whale superweapon--which itself fills the map with a terrifying amount of hostile drones. There are a few scenarios that aren't as exciting, however--hunting for trucks in a sandstorm and chasing ICBMs grew tiring pretty quickly, and the game's final challenge was a tricky exercise in plane maneuvering that feels like it necessitates multiple retries by design, which puts a damper on an otherwise grand finale.

The act of retrying will inevitably come with a pang of resentment, too, since checkpointing in Skies Unknown is sparse. Checkpoints typically only occur only at the halfway point of a mission, and it's common to get 20 minutes into a battle before failing to hit an objective and having to start from the very beginning. This can get frustrating in the tail end of the campaign, where threats are more abundant and more relentless and the overall demands are higher. Granted, there is a light emphasis on score performance, and your mission score persists even if you need to retry from the halfway point, but a little more generosity wouldn't have gone astray.

Ace Combat 7 features a straightforward, peer-to-peer online multiplayer component featuring 8-player Battle Royal (free-for-all deathmatch) and team deathmatch modes. Dogfighting with other human beings is certainly a lot more challenging and frenetic, and because matches are only five minutes in length, they consistently feel fast-paced and full of excitement. The planes and equipment you unlock as part of the campaign carry over to multiplayer and vice versa, but everything has an assigned value and you're able to play matches that have a limit on how much you can bring, which helps keep a level playing field.

Online sorties also feature a weighted scoring system where leading players are clearly marked and have a higher score value attached to their destruction. In my experience, it's an idea that works well in practice, stopping you from being a target if you're doing poorly and keeping you on your toes if you're doing well. It also allows for some great match dynamics too--there were plenty of times where I was falling behind in score, decided to zero in on the leading player, and made a spectacular comeback to take the lead in the last few seconds.

The PlayStation 4 version of Skies Unknown also features an exclusive VR mode consisting of an Ace Combat 4-inspired mini-campaign. There are only three missions, and their objectives are less complicated than those of the main campaign, but even so, the experience of flying from the cockpit of a plane is engrossing. The feeling of speed and height is literally dizzying, the ability to freely look around and track a target with your gaze is terrific, and the act of pitching and rolling your plane is so effective at eliciting a feeling of actual g-force that I personally had a hard time doing more than one mission at once without breaking out into a nauseous sweat. It's a shame that there's no option to play the main campaign in VR--the head tracking and freelook alone would be incredibly useful--but the mode is a great addition nonetheless.

Good aerial combat is important for a game involving jet fighters, but it's a given quality for Ace Combat. Skies Unknown boasts a beautiful photorealistic world, entertaining mission variety, and a reason to get excited about clouds. But most importantly, it carries renewed devotion to the history and stories of its fictional universe, and with that, it brings back the human, emotional center that makes it remarkable. Ace Combat 7 is a fantastic return for a series that is at its best when it wears its heart on its wings.

The Walking Dead: The Final Season Episode 3 Review

Fri, 01/18/2019 - 09:12

The irony of a game about the zombie apocalypse dying an unnatural death only to be resurrected later shouldn't be lost on anybody, nor should the fact that The Walking Dead returns with a story that is very much about the latent humanity present in even the shambling corpses roaming the Earth. It is, for certain, a game worse for wear, limping on to a long-overdue finish, but it's a game full of purpose.

Broken Toys picks things up in the direct aftermath of Episode 2's climactic battle. Lilly and her underlings have taken a few of the Ericson Boarding School kids hostage to be traded and trained as child soldiers. Clementine has Abel--the grungy drifter who's been tormenting her and A.J. since Episode 1--hostage, the only lead as to how to get her new friends back. The interrogation of Abel is the closest Broken Toys gets to well-trod, familiar territory. Clementine has to walk a careful line between presenting a serious threat to a man who's clearly ridden this bloody merry-go-round a few times before and setting the best possible example for A.J.

By way of Abel's distinct character traits, this episode is more introspective and pensive than the series has been for some time. Abel's not afraid of dying; he's afraid of turning for a reason that eventually comes to define Broken Toys as a penultimate turning point and the likely set up for the finale: the idea that there is still something human in the Walkers.

Abel simply doesn't want to become trapped in a zombie body. But to James, the Walker Whisperer introduced in Episode 2, it's also a reason to show mercy and pity towards the Walkers. Naturally, the game gives you plenty of leeway to consider or discard this possibility out of hand. James' proof, after all, is tenuous, presented in a strangely poignant moment where Clementine must walk amongst the Walkers. And yet, the episode's script, credited to Lauren Mee and Mark Darin, does powerful work bringing the idea home to Clementine in other ways.

This is the episode where the theme of the whole series starts to take shape. An older generation full of perpetual fear and greed is making way for one where each others' humanity and ability to adapt and compromise is recognized, acknowledged, and nurtured without the need for bloodshed. The grudges and enmity of the world before Walkers don't seem to apply to these children, or, really, any of the children growing up knowing little to nothing else. We've seen this stretching all the way back to Gabe and Mariana in New Frontier, and, conversely, in Season 2's Sarah, a girl sheltered from the way the world is and mentally shattering when exposed to it.

The standout moment of this episode is right in the middle: an impromptu party for the Ericson kids to remember what they're fighting for before wandering into the lion's den. The kids who were actually students at Ericson before the Walkers all still have delinquency files stored that they start reading off, but after it becomes clear just how many children in the file are dead and how little the people they used to be even matter anymore, the box is put away. They sing. They hold each other. They move on. Together. It's a powerful thing, and presented in stark contrast to what Lilly's people are going through just down the river, rehashing the same old petty fights Clementine's seen her whole life. Clementine's found home and peace with her own generation, one that has known nothing else but death, and the greatness of the episode lies in watching her choose to nest in it, for her and A.J. to feel like there is a future.

This is the episode where the theme of the whole series starts to take shape.

However, that still means one hell of a fight to protect it, and the latter half of the episode is a descent right back into darkness. All the skills acquired from the previous episodes come to bear in the assault on Lilly's boat. The lack of impact from Clementine's bow is still a factor, but it's also much less of a linchpin on the one major Walker battle in the episode. Instead, the action side of things is hampered by some painful dips and judders in frame rate, the likes of which we haven't seen since Telltale's early days. Considering the fraught development history of this episode, it's understandable, but it's nonetheless a hindrance from time to time.

As far as the final stretch of the episode goes, it wouldn't be The Walking Dead without things falling apart for the survivors in horrible ways, and Broken Toys saves the worst for last. The last 20 to 30 minutes are full of double-crosses, horrifying mutilations, a breathless Mexican standoff, and a moment where Clementine must decide the fate of A.J.'s soul faster and with more urgency than anything presented in the series prior--and with devastating emotional fallout.

It's all set up for a finale that, if all goes to plan, hits two months after this one, and finally brings The Walking Dead in for the landing it deserves. But despite the blood and bombast that ends the episode, there's another moment in Broken Toys that does more to show you the light at the end of this bleak tunnel: a dream sequence, flashing Clementine back to the little girl who sat with Lee on a hijacked train in Season 1. She just got her hair cut and learned to shoot because she was worried about the future. In Broken Toys, the voice may be that little girl's, but the words are a woman's. A reluctant leader's lament for all that's been done, the emptiness that could be, and the weariness of what must be done to get there.

And yet, smartly, this ghost of Lee isn't crafted as some all-knowing magical father who tells Clementine exactly what she wants to hear. We're forced to remember Lee was making it up as he went along, that his road to being the person Clementine needs was paved by his--and by proxy, your own--mistakes. But there was love, and there was hope, and for the first time in this series, Clementine being ready to face the uncertain future has nothing to do with being able to shoot or how short her hair is but the fact that she is surrounded by people, a place, and a purpose like never before. Whatever awaits Clementine at the end of this road, she goes there with a full heart. If the finale lives up to the future set up in Broken Toys, so will we.

YIIK: A Postmodern RPG Review - Too Slow for Boston

Thu, 01/17/2019 - 07:24

"Postmodern" is both an intriguing and an intimidating word. YIIK, pronounced "Y2K," comes with the subtitle, "A Postmodern RPG," but what does that mean? Is it a game centred around the tennis matches of Infinite Jest? Or around Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans? Regardless of the intention behind labeling the game as such, the postmodern tag initially seems a little peculiar at first.

However, when you boot up YIIK you're met with a stylish title screen that looks like it was ripped straight out of a retro arcade. The stunning visuals are accompanied by an electro-jazz bass-driven track that immediately asserts the game's homage to '90s pop culture. After a short exchange with a crow named Marlene, you're given control of Alex McHugh, college graduate and spoiled brat. You're also unemployed and spend your time wandering around your town aimlessly until you meet a cat with a Salvador Dali moustache. Shortly afterwards, an ethereal girl goes missing, triggering a chain of events that threaten the very fabric of reality itself.

YIIK plays as a turn-based RPG, but instead of a strength/weakness mechanic that's usually innate to most turn-based systems, YIIK uses a series of minigames to determine how much damage you deal and receive. Alex's basic attack sees him spin his favorite LP on a portable record player, which is lighthearted and amusing at first. However, as more characters and abilities are introduced to the game, the amount of minigames becomes increasingly more daunting.

Basic attacks become ineffective as the game progresses, leaving you to use special abilities that feature minigames spanning myriad genres. These special abilities are necessary to take down mid-game enemies, but because there are no instructions on how to play the minigames, the game's learning curve is both unfair and unsatisfying. Make a mistake and you'll deal no damage, so you'll likely need to die a few times before you get the hang of a new ability. There's a voice that narrates the battle dynamics when you dodge an attack or die that sounds like the aliens from The Simpsons, though, which is a small redeeming factor.

The defense mechanics aren't much better. Sometimes you can dodge if you nail a real-time prompt, whereas other times the most you can do is reduce the amount of damage you receive. One particular kind of attack, for example, targets your entire party of four and hits you like a truck unless you nail three timed prompts in quick succession, which is a lot more difficult to do than it might seem. Since this attack is used more frequently over time, it becomes a frustrating way to engage with combat. The battle pace is slow and the response to your inputs is clunky, making the battles themselves last for an unnecessarily long time. And the further you progress through the game, the more often you have to battle while traversing its many dungeons. Also, the real-time battle prompts are much better suited to a precise mouse-click than a button press, which is an issue on PS4.

The game's leveling system, meanwhile, is tied to the Mind Dungeon, which sounds a lot more intriguing than it actually is. Again, the Mind Dungeon gets maximum style points, quite literally being a dungeon located in the protagonist's head that's accessed by dialing a specific number. In the Mind Dungeon, the camera angle changes to a side-scrolling perspective. In order to level up, you need to select one of four doors on the current floor and choose one of six skills to increase. You then need to enter the room behind that door, which confirms the skill increase. All four doors can be used to increase a skill, meaning that you can increase four skills for every level. After all four doors have been used, you can speak to Marlene the crow at the staircase located on the opposite side to the side you entered on. After confirming the level up, you descend to the next floor, which has another four doors -- and so on.

The actual world of YIIK is stunning, though. Each map (apart from the dreary and awkwardly angled Wind Town) is designed with a gorgeous retro art style that screams '90s Nintendo, and the soundtrack is consistently killer. Hearing that Undertale developer Toby Fox helped with music production wasn't surprising at all, and the late-game vocal tracks in particular set the mood brilliantly. The art style and music set a ‘90s mood that's paired with a lighthearted tone, with the game being genuinely funny for the most part. One particular NPC unleashes a barrage of rubbish jokes, the last of which is, "Are you visiting from Seattle? Say hi to Nirvana for me." It's very silly, but it works in the game's favor.

However, YIIK's attempts at humor can also be very problematic. Characters call each other "spazoids," derived from the highly-insulting term "spastic," as a throwaway insult. At one point Alex even says, "That's our word" about the word "ginger." On another occasion, a character says, "You guys went into an epileptic fit," despite the fact that what actually happens doesn’t even remotely resemble that. These jokes don't land, instead creating an uncomfortable atmosphere. It's one thing to set your game in 1999 and use otherwise outdated terms in context, but it's another thing entirely to gratuitously use derogatory terms for comedic effect. The art style and characters already capture the era perfectly; drawing on the negative parts of the '90s for no reason doesn't add anything.

YIIK has a number of design and technical performance issues as well. The game doesn't perform very well on console for a range of reasons. For one thing, the movement mechanics are a real issue on console. With no invisible barriers, traversing narrow bridges from an isometric perspective with a PS4 controller's analog sticks usually results in falling off the side. Obviously pressing the D key on a keyboard will cause you to move right with precision, but the same can't be said of analog sticks unless you're willing to move at a snail's pace through a game that's already slow.I also encountered a game-breaking bug that could only be resolved by going back three hours to an old save file.

Although some aspects of the game can be called postmodern, YIIK tries a bit too hard to make itself smart, coming off as pretentious more often than not

In general, puzzles that are not complicated ended up being unnecessarily time-consuming. The puzzles in the early parts of the game are quick logic problems that are enjoyable and fit the style of the game like a glove. The later puzzles, however, are resolved with much more arbitrary solutions and, in my experience, are susceptible to bugs. For example, you are taught early in the game that one tool (Panda) is used to hold down pressure plates, while another tool (Dali) is used to activate inaccessible switches. Late in the game, you need to use Dali to activate a pressure plate while Panda is already in use elsewhere. However, you've been explicitly taught that each of the two has a role of its own--it's a bit cheap, really, and when I figured it out I felt dissatisfied, because it didn't fall in line with the logic that the game went out of its way to establish earlier. The solution was neither a clever implementation of the game's established rules nor a smart twist on those same rules.

Although some aspects of the game can be called postmodern--namely the character arcs and the writing--YIIK tries a bit too hard to make itself seem smart, and it instead comes off as pretentious. By self-consciously addressing itself as a game and including lines like, "How can an RPG be postmodern?", YIIK is postmodern in a basic sense, featuring nods to the critique of Enlightenment ideas of self-realization. However, it doesn't use this basis to communicate anything important later on. It never builds on its foundations. YIIK's reliance on the quirkiness of its content--such as Alex attacking enemies with a record player--means that it's not postmodern so much as it is a take on hipster culture.

YIIK opts for pointless "postmodern" jargon about the nature of objective reality and a person's soul over meaningful character development and ambitious experimentation with its form. On top of this, postmodern literary phrases are rattled off in contexts that are completely detached from their meaning, which can be perceived as postmodern in an edgy sense but definitely not an intriguing or challenging one.

YIIK's characters are intriguing at first, but they don't really develop until late in the story, so it's difficult to care about them. At the end of the game, Alex provides a summary of what has happened, and it's genuinely interesting. It's unfortunate that the game managed to kill that intrigue with its slow, tedious, and clunky gameplay. There are two endings, both of which are canon. The one I got is the one that most people will get on their first playthrough, and it's not good. The story doesn't resolve itself in any meaningful way and the last boss is designed as another arbitrary puzzle that's a bit much to be considered clever or fair. Also, the route to the end of the game involves a monotonous grind that feels like not enough butter scraped over too much bread.

Despite YIIK's stunning art direction, kicking soundtrack, and occasionally interesting plot point, it suffers as a result of its clunky combat, tedious grinding, and poor puzzle design. Postmodern texts aren't always enjoyable--Wallace's Infinite Jest features walls of text that list every chemical name for prescription drugs under the sun, spanning pages upon pages at a time. However, Infinite Jest has substance. For the most part, YIIK doesn't.

Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes Review - Short On Heroics

Thu, 01/17/2019 - 01:00

Relentless absurdity and hyper-stylized action have been core tenets of the No More Heroes series. It never cared for making much sense and instead embraced its own ridiculousness with bold self-awareness, a staple of director Suda51. The slimmed-down hack-n-slash spinoff, Travis Strikes Again, hits many of the same notes, but not as hard and with varying degrees of success. Its combat is frenetic, but well worn toward the end. Its story and style is unique, but thin in crucial moments. Its humor lands in spots, but not quite with a punch. But despite a middling delivery of what past games have done, there's fun and charm packed into Travis Strikes Again, and if anything, it is a great example of local co-op action on Switch.

Seven years after the events of No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle, Travis Touchdown has removed himself from the world of assassination. The series' too-cool-for-school protagonist now spends his days playing video games in a trailer nestled away in the backwoods of Texas. The father of past enemy Bad Girl, aptly named Bad Man, tracks him down for revenge, but he and Travis get sucked into an alternate dimension within Travis' possessed Death Drive Mk II video game console. They end up working together to uncover the true nature of the haunted console and its games, and that's how you get the co-op premise where you can play as either Travis or Bad Man in the six Death Drive games that serve as missions.

Charge attacks are satisfying to pull off, especially when Travis unleashes his inner tiger.

Travis Strikes Again primarily plays as a top-down hack-n-slash action game that pits you against hordes of enemies, referred to as "bugs," that look like they're from a digitized hellscape. Travis is still equipped with his trusty beam katana, but can now equip four unique abilities mapped to the face buttons, which can be activated when holding down the left bumper and operate on a cooldown. As you acquire more of these skills, called Chips, combat starts to open up and become more varied; finding what works for you and stringing together attacks with a preferred loadout is satisfying, especially when dealing with tougher enemies that require more than button-mashing to defeat. A personal favorite combo is a lightning strike to immobilize an enemy followed by a sticky bomb, then a "force push" to toss them into a crowd before the bomb goes off. Each of these abilities are also quite effective alone since they deal more damage and create openings. Along with heavy attacks that carry a nice, weighty feel and charge attacks that build up to bring out a literal tiger in Travis, you can't help getting hyped up when powerful enemies like a Sheepman spawn into combat.

Throughout the game, attempts to break up the pace of core combat are half-baked implementations of fun ideas.

There's more than enough to toy with in terms of combat skills, but basic level layouts that move you from one combat arena to another wear thin. The scenery changes and stronger enemies with different movesets show up, but the formula eventually stagnates. Aside from the tail end of the first mission, "Electric Thunder Tiger II," and a late mission we won't spoil, environments tend to be visually bare without much flair to match the over-the-top action. The "Coffee and Doughnuts" mission shifts to a side-scrolling view for a straightforward murder-mystery theme sprinkled with Twin Peaks references, but combat is limited in this perspective and rudimentary platforming doesn't make up for it.

Missions are occasionally broken up with either a minigame or puzzle, but this isn't enough to stave off the repetition perpetuated by the simplistic level design. The "Life Is Destroy" mission that tasks you with rotating pieces of a grid-based suburb to make a path forward adds a sweet puzzle element, but gets hampered by an enemy that chases you around and causes instant death on contact. A drag racing minigame in "Golden Dragon GP" brings along a novel twist, though it's short-lived. Throughout the game, attempts to break up the pace of core combat are half-baked implementations of fun ideas.

There's more than enough to toy with in terms of combat skills, but basic level layouts that move you from one combat arena to another wear thin. The scenery changes and stronger enemies with different movesets show up, but the formula eventually stagnates.

Battles get real spicy when the "Serious Moonlight" chapter rolls around (at the time of writing this review, we're not at liberty to divulge its contents), but even then, the combat arena formula begins to overstay its welcome. And the conclusory mission devolves into a series of tedious mazes and Gauntlet-like fights in empty rooms. In boss battles, it's enjoyable to recognize simple attack patterns and strike when the time's right. But again, they don't quite challenge you in interesting ways or make the impact you'd expect from a No More Heroes game.

Thankfully, the option for local cooperative play is streamlined and allows a second player to jump in at any time. Playing in co-op elevates the thrilling aspects in combat and makes the duller moments a bit more exciting, as you'll coordinate with your partner to pull off skills and efficiently tear down enemies. The already intuitive control scheme also translates effortlessly to a single Joy-Con. Travis and Bad Man don't differ much in combat capabilities, though there are a few Chips unique to each character, and while you'll have to decide who gets to use which of the shared Chips in the early game, there's enough to go around in later missions.

Progression is laid out neatly with each mission concluding in a boss fight followed by a narrative sequence about how Travis acquires the next game. He runs into a cast of quirky characters and bizarre situations in a monochrome screen-style visual novel, and it's surprisingly intriguing. Creative visual representations of characters and places in the green-black color palette are elevated by catchy MIDI-tuned music (including the original No More Heroes theme) and amusing dialogue. It's not without a bad joke or two, or a gag that doesn't land, but the exceptional execution of a seemingly secondary element goes a long way for tying the overarching plot together, as disparate as it may seem.

Here's to hoping we still see No More Heroes 3.

The overtly crude-but-not-clever humor has been toned down this time around, and it's for the better. Profanity-laced lines and toilet humor remain intact along with tongue-in-cheek jabs and references to gaming culture, and frequent fourth-wall breaking; even commentary on the struggles of being a game developer finds its way into dialogue. Travis' brash attitude works most of the time as every other character keeps him in check, including his sassy cat Jeane--who talks and has an anime-inspired portrait in the story chapters--and the game bosses Travis encounters who he expresses reverence for. However, dialogue is rarely spoken, as there's limited voice acting even in the game's scant cutscenes.

As expected, the game is packed with references, purposefully ham-fisted, to drive home the overall absurdity of No More Heroes. It works at times, such as the Chips being named after Gundam (Strike Freedom, F91, and Atlas, to name a few) and a story chapter that uses Suda's own The 25th Ward: The Silver Case as a narrative device. There's even a Jeff Minter stand-in character who's crucial to the plot of finding the original Death Drive developer. A late-game reveal proves to be the boldest of them all, especially for those fond of a particular past Suda51 game. And there's a slew of shirts you can equip with key art from other independent games (like Undertale, Hyper Light Drifter, and many more). As heavy-handed as some references may be, they're at least consistent with the game's personality, and if anything, liven up its tone.

This is not the return of No More Heroes you'd hoped for, but it at least shows signs of a series that still has life in it.

Once you've sifted through the references and callbacks, you have a competent action game with some great ideas that are only halfway there. Slashing through waves of deformed bugs and hardened brutes has its moments, highlighted by a seamless co-op system that makes jumping into the action a breeze, and the minimalist story presentation will draw you into the journey. However, Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes doesn't quite deliver on its potential, relying too heavily on repetitive encounters. This is not the return of No More Heroes you'd hoped for, but it at least shows signs of a series that still has life in it.

Double Cross Review - Combat Woes

Wed, 01/16/2019 - 08:35

There is no shortage of indie 2D platform games out there vying for your attention and money. In order to stand out from the crowd, these games have to try to make themselves unique through visuals, sound, and perhaps most importantly, gameplay. 13 A.M.'s Double Cross does this by mixing a physics platformer with a mild dash of beat-'em-up combat and even a mystery-sleuthing story element. It's an interesting concoction, but sadly, this mix doesn't go down quite as smoothly as you'd hope.

Double Cross has players assuming the role of Zahra, a spunky young lass who works for RIFT, an interdimensional police force. RIFT is in charge of keeping all the various alternate universes out there in check, and Zahra's one of their best up-and-coming agents. When RIFT HQ falls victim to a mysterious attacker, however, Zahra is tasked with combing through multiple dimensions and finding clues to the strange being's identity. This involves some hand-to-hand combat, a bit of evidence collection and investigation, and a lot of swinging about with Zahra's special Proton Slinger.

While the game's tutorial and Zahra's status as interdimensional law enforcement might have you thinking that Double Cross's priority is combat with monsters from different universes, it's actually slanted very heavily towards pure platforming. Zahra makes ample use of her grappling-hook-like Proton Slinger to latch onto objects and propel herself along the game's various environments, using the swings in tandem with a dodging skill to avoid hazards like spikes, fire pits, and security lasers. You'll often be tasked with doing multiple, very precise swings in a row, which can be quite challenging--but thankfully, time slows down when Zahra is aiming her Proton Slinger, making it much less of a pain to do the demanding multi-sling sequences. It feels really satisfying to hit a bunch of tricky sling targets all in a row, especially if you've managed to suss out a hidden path to collect Upgradium, the game's token ability-boosting collectible.

Elements like weird, clingy-bouncy goo walls and switch-activated platforms keep stage design interesting and engaging while providing simple puzzles to solve. It's a good thing most of the stages are fun to bounce around in, because there's not much to them visually--while Double Cross does offer a pleasant color palette and uses camera zoom wisely in areas where it's beneficial, the lack of detail and samey-ness in many of the game's backdrops don't inspire much excitement to explore. You're really playing to see what kind of fun platforming challenge will get thrown at you next. There are a few levels that are just plain bad--the arcade stage with numerous timer-based challenges is a real hair-puller--but they're rare.

However, sometimes those fun platforming challenges are interrupted by combat. While Double Cross tries to make its combat seem meaningful--even offering a nifty custom combat-enhancement loadout system with new skills players can earn and equip--in practice, combat is a boring, mash-heavy slog with little player skill involved. The impact from connecting hits feels weak, enemy variety is nonexistent, and what few enemies there are in each stage are pretty easy to beat: whack the small fries with quick attack chains, stunlock the bigger dudes with heavy attacks, and occasionally use the Proton Slinger to grab and toss a projectile back at a foe.

You can gather energy from felled foes to charge up special attacks like a burst and a projectile, but their use tends to be limited. I got through the game almost never using the burst, instead hoarding my fireballs for when I knew a big annoying enemy wave was coming. Combat-heavy boss encounters, such as the fight at the end of the Reptarria level set, highlight the most glaring flaws of Double Cross' combat: you're up against a huge damage sponge that often doesn't react to your arsenal of primarily short-range strikes in a way that indicates whether what you're doing is right or wrong. Other bosses, like the battle at the end of the Gootopia stages, focus more on clever gimmicks than combat and are far more fun for it.

Another element of Double Cross that disappoints is the game's mystery theming. Zahra's cross-dimensional adventure has her finding evidence related to the attack on RIFT headquarters, presenting it to her coworkers, and using their observations to build a case and go after various bad guys. This sounds like a pretty exciting gameplay element--I mean, who doesn't like the sound of Where In the Physics Platformer Multiverse is Carmen Sandiego?--but in practice, it's simply trial-and-error. You talk and show various items to the characters inhabiting RIFT HQ until one of them reacts. There's no setback for showing the wrong thing to the wrong person--the only thing an incorrect guess does is prevent you from reaching a boss stage until you do get it right. Much like the combat, the detective aspect feels unnecessary and unsatisfying.

Had Double Cross opted to focus more on its strength--fun physics platforming--and de-emphasized things like combat and the tedious mystery-solving element, the game would have been an easy recommendation. But the weak parts of the package drag down the whole, and Double Cross winds up feeling like it's a somewhat undercooked mash of ideas.

Vane Review - In Vain

Wed, 01/16/2019 - 01:00

Vane opens in a storm, as the small child you're controlling is buffeted by strong winds and must figure out the path forward. Invisible walls stop you from going the wrong way, a lot of the debris flying around is clearly floating up through the floor, and the ambiguities of the scene--you’re not told anything about your character or their situation--make it hard to get invested. Vane doesn’t make a strong first impression.

After this brief opening, you're thrown into a new sequence where you're playing as a bird. You take flight and soar through a huge environment, looking for the distant sparkles of windsocks that you need to find and land on so as to meet and unite other birds. This is all communicated wordlessly, and despite the enormity of the environment those sparkles signpost where you need to go and what you need to do. The controls take some getting used to, but it feels great to be let loose on a huge expanse after that earlier, restrained experience. This opening represents the duality of Vane, a game that occasionally feels epic and exciting but which is also burdened by moments of sluggishness, all manner of glitches, and a camera that refuses to behave.

The child you control can, for reasons unexplained, turn into a bird, morphing if you jump off a high ledge. If the bird comes close to the gold dust that appears in several places throughout the game world, it turns back into the kid. This mechanic is used to good effect early on as you fly around various environments switching between the two forms to progress. This is Vane at its best, as you come to grips with the strengths and weaknesses of both forms and figure out the way forward.

But in the game's back half, the bird form is largely put aside. You spend most of your time in human form, moving slower and exploring your environments on foot. Your ability to interact with the world is limited--you can jump, there's a seldom-used interact button, and you can use a "call" button to call to other birds or children as you encounter them.

There aren't really puzzles in Vane, per se--being observant and exploring the environment thoroughly is more important than critical thinking. You're not given much guidance on where to go next, or what your exact objective is, in most parts of the game--it's almost entirely devoid of instruction, beyond the very occasional button prompt. This means that figuring out the way forward usually means just reading your environment, but that's not always easy. The camera in Vane is uncooperative, frequently getting stuck in parts of the environment or not turning as you'd like it to. In bird form, flying close to the ground can make the camera clip through it, which can be very frustrating.

The kid you're playing as is rendered with little detail, as is much of the world. This is clearly an intentional style choice, and for the most part it works well, with the angular visuals and moody synth soundtrack doing a good job of conveying the inherent weirdness of the world. The simple style works in service of a later game mechanic that allows you to morph the world around you--in one section, for instance, you're pushing a giant orb through an environment, and the orb will change parts of the environment it gets close to. If there's a gap between two platforms, the orb might generate a bridge between them.

Unfortunately, this is also the section of the game where I was hit by the most frequent game-breaking glitches--I got stuck in the environment more than once, and at one point the orb disappeared, forcing me to restart at a checkpoint very far back. I was hit by another issue right near the game's end, encountering a glitch during the game's trippy finale that sent me on a maddening goose chase; without getting into specifics of how the game ends, a structure that was meant to grow in front of me simply did not, causing me to go in the wrong direction for several minutes until the game unceremoniously reset me to the beginning of the sequence.

These are issues that could be fixed with patches, of course (the first pre-launch patch made substantial improvements to the camera), but there are also fundamental design issues here. Vane is more committed to mood than storytelling, and by the end of the experience it's difficult to say what, exactly, just happened. There's room for analysis, of course, and the game conjures up what it's like to be a scared and lonely child in a few scenes, but it's all too vague to really feel meaningful. There's value in being mysterious, but Vane could use more payoff.

It's all over very soon, too. This is a short game that constantly feels like it's still gearing up towards something better, a way to tie together all its mechanics. The last sections of the game are quite lackadaisical, simplifying the game's systems right down while relying on an investment in the game's thin lore. It's not just that the game doesn't give you easy answers--it also gives you little incentive to come up with your own. There are moments where you can see what the game could have been--like when you soar through a valley in bird form, or morph the world around you--but Vane lacks a voice and a strong sense of purpose.

The Eternal Castle Remastered Review: Vivid Flashbacks

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 11:00

Memories are notoriously unreliable. We frequently forget things that have happened or embellish our experiences with new details that never actually occurred. The conceit of The Eternal Castle is that it's a remaster of a long-lost classic from the late 1980s. The developers claim, with a nod and a wink, that they wished to preserve the "feel" of the original and keep its memory alive. When I first heard about it there was a moment when I thought, "This looks vaguely familiar. I think maybe I played it on my old 286?"

I should have known better than to trust my memory. The Eternal Castle isn't a remaster at all. There was no game with that name released in 1987--nor, indeed, in any other year of the late '80s and early '90s. Instead, The Eternal Castle, as a brand new game in 2019, is a retro throwback that's at once deeply indebted to the likes of Flashback and Another World while at the same time recognizant of how much game design has evolved over the past 30 years. The result is a cinematic platformer that doesn't quite play as those games actually did but rather feels like our hazy, unreliable memory of them. Cinematic platformers have come a long way since the '80s, but the genre's core tenets of prioritizing animation over input (that is, when you commit to pressing the jump button you have to wait for the complete jump animation to play out before you input another action) and populating its levels with novel set-pieces can be seen running through games as otherwise diverse as the original Prince of Persia in 1989 right up to Limbo, Deadlight and Inside.

The Eternal Castle sees you play as the pilot of a crashlanded spacecraft, exploring a strange planet to recover the items required to fix your ship. The three levels that comprise the meat of the game--there's a fourth and final level unlocked later--transition through some remarkably varied scenarios. One moment you'll be sneaking past horrible creatures in a cemetery as flashes of lightning illuminate the night, the next you'll be climbing up and down the tattered framework of a bombed-out skyscraper. Each of the three levels has a broad theme linking one area to the next, but they don't rigidly adhere to any one setting. Indeed, one of the drawcards is the thrill of discovering what outlandish or perhaps utterly mundane (which I usually found even more memorable) situation you encounter next.

On a mechanical level, these stages are distinguished in terms of the type of experience they offer. One promises "low ammo" while another warns of "poor visibility," thus giving you some idea of what to expect and, crucially, what gear you might need to take with you. You can only carry two weapons at once, ammo is scarce, and clips can't be refilled. Deplete the six-bullet clip on your pistol and you'll have to swap it out for the next weapon you find, and if that's a shotgun with two shells then that's going to have to do the job. Every bullet counts.

This isn't a run-and-gun shooter, but in its weaker moments it can turn into a bit of a mash-heavy brawler. Some areas, and at least one boss fight, favor use of close-range melee weapons like the club, hand-axe or sword. Your moves are limited to a regular attack, block and charge and further constrained by a stamina meter, thus theoretically offering some sort of considered nuance to the combat. But in any instance where I was fighting more than one enemy I found it easiest to simply mash attack until everyone was dead.

However, there were the odd occasions where my progress was blocked by a particularly tricky section, always combat-related whether it was being outnumbered by a group of thugs in a nightclub or being mowed down by some persistent gunners as I attempted to charge across the no man's land of a battlefield. Here I took advantage of the game's structure and backed out of the level to return to the hub and try one of the other two levels. This is effective because throughout the three levels are permanent gear upgrades--a backpack, for example, that allows you to carry more ammo or a bandana that somehow increases your strength and ups melee damage--so you may well find the assistance you need is in another castle.

Indeed, the game's structure is a good example of how this is very much a modern cinematic platformer. Not only can you choose which level to play, thus reducing the likelihood of getting stuck, but your loadout carries over from level to level and any major items you collect stay with you regardless of how many times you die or restart. Of course, if you return to a previously visited level you do have to start from its beginning, but there are convenient checkpoints throughout and you'll rarely lose more than a couple of screens' progress when you die as long as you stay in the level. Similar games of the '80s and '90s could be extremely punitive, forcing you to replay entire levels over and over until you nailed the perfect run. All of that frustration is completely alleviated here, thankfully, and if you're after a stern challenge then the New Game+ mode will provide it in spades.

Part of the reason for my initial confusion over whether I had in fact played the "original" Eternal Castle is that this "remaster" apes the visual aesthetic of a late '80s PC game so well. Every scene is depicted in no more than four colors (black, white and just two others, typically a variation of blue and red) and each character or object within is composed of a collection of chunky pixels, mostly seen only in silhouette. It's not an exact match with the capabilities of CGA at the time--while plenty of games allowed you to boot up into one of the various four-colour modes I certainly don't recall any that switched palettes in-game and from scene-to-scene. And the quality of animation here is inarguably superior, in terms of the number of frames, than even something as revered as Prince of Persia. But the overall effect is uncanny. I felt like I had been transported back in time to a simpler, noticeably more cyan and magenta world.

The Eternal Castle is more than a mere nostalgia trip for aging gamers still hanging on to their 5.25-inch floppy drives. In many ways, it's just as modern as it is retro and more than capable of holding its own against its more illustrious contemporary peers. Luckily it's just my memory that isn't as good as it used to be.

New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe Review - It's-A-Me, Again!

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 20:00

Of all the New Super Mario Bros. games, beginning with the 2006 DS title, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is probably the one least deserving of the "New" moniker. It is, after all, a Switch remaster of the Wii U launch title, and although some new features and the New Super Luigi U expansion are included in this capable repackaging of an already great game, it's getting tougher to justify calling this series New with each passing entry.

There's no doubt the formula works; the 2D Marios continue to boast the best platforming of any game series, with accessible controls and inventive obstacles complementing the best-feeling jump in video games. And as with the Wii U version, NSMBU is inventive from start to finish, with the mid-game Soda Jungle world being one of the best Mario environments ever. However, we've done all this before, haven't we? You start off with a grassy world, then a desert one, then a snowy one, then a water one, repeat ad infinitum.

Once upon a time I found this repetition comforting. But U Deluxe is a victim of its 3D cousins' success: It now exists on the same console as Super Mario Odyssey, which is possibly the finest 3D platformer ever made. By comparison, NSMBU Deluxe feels a little… ordinary. By the numbers. Safe. Where Odyssey confidently transported us to fresh worlds filled with moons and stars and dinosaurs an uncanny valley New York, NSMBU suffers from a lack of originality.

That's not to say it's boring--no, not by any stretch. Within the restraints of a New Super Mario Bros. game, Nintendo does a wonderful job of thinking up new enemies and hurdles for you to overcome, with each level offering a new electrifying critter, weight-limited transport or water-filled safety net. Latter worlds plateau at a satisfying level of difficulty that never becomes frustrating but still gives you a rush when you succeed, while star coins remain available to collect for those who want an extra challenge. Ghost houses can still absolutely get lost, though.

The Switch remaster also adds a new item, the super crown, which transforms Toadette into a version of Peach with special powers. She can double jump, for instance, as well as use her trademark dress to float downwards. Other characters, however, cannot use the super crown, which, as well as denying the internet the Bowsette it so dearly desires, is a strange exclusion. Toadette is denoted as "easy" in the main menu, where Mario, Luigi, and Toad are normal difficulty and Nabbit is "very easy." You can change characters outside of any level throughout the game, but it strikes me as an odd choice--why keep Peach's powers isolated to one difficulty level?

Once you inevitably defeat Bowser--spoilers!--a post-game opens up, offering super-hard levels only unlocked for those who collect every star coin throughout each of the game's eight worlds. From the start you can also access special challenges, such as dodging fireballs for a certain amount of time or triple-jumping to coin glory, as well as the aforementioned New Super Luigi U. The Luigi-led expansion remixes each level from the main game to be shorter but harder, and Luigi himself changes to have a higher jump but slower--and thus trickier--reaction times. NSLU is the most substantial mode outside of the main game, and it's thankfully unlocked from the start for those seeking a challenge.

Despite its aging formula, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is still a great entry in the series, with its typically tight platforming and both accessibility and depth to spare. While it can feel a bit stale for those who have been round the Mushroom Kingdom one too many times before, Deluxe is well worth playing, especially if you didn't get a chance to play NSMBU on Wii U.

Bury Me, My Love Review: Trials And Text Message Tribulations

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 23:46

Take a group of people and you'll find numerous differences between each and every one of them. The one undeniable truth is that they're all human, and yet this fact can be all-too-easily forgotten when that same group of people are refugees. Certain politicians, media outlets, and xenophobic hate groups like to wash that individuality away, painting refugees and migrants in monolithic terms as something to fear. It's a harmful and blatant lie, but this emphasis on fear has proven successful throughout history in shaping people's opinions. Bury Me, My Love, a text-based adventure game from French developer The Pixel Hunt, presents a much more honest and truthful look at the human beings involved in the migrant crisis, taking inspiration from actual refugee stories to tell an eye-opening tale that's equal parts heartbreaking, terrifying, and inspiring.

The entirety of Bury Me, My Love plays out on a WhatsApp-style messaging app, with your character, Majd, texting back and forth with his wife, Nour, as she makes the perilous journey from war-torn Syria to the relative safety of Europe. There's an immediate sense of familiarity in those texts that's emboldened by Bury Me, My Love's excellent writing. Both characters are wonderfully realised, and the banter between the two feels authentic from the get-go. They'll poke fun at each other, develop in-jokes over the course of the game, argue, lift each other up, and trade selfies. Harrowing moments of prejudice, traumatic nautical journeys, and tense border problems are often broken up by satisfying levity, as Nour excitedly discovers a KFC or teases Majd over his not-so-subtle habit of sneaking historical lessons into their conversations. You might only be witnessing Majd and Nour talk to each other a few words at a time, but their interactions are comfortable and believable, leaving you with no doubt as to the intimacy of their relationship.

While you mostly watch Majd and Nour's conversations unfold, you'll occasionally chime in by choosing between various dialogue options. Some of these might revolve around simply offering moral support by comforting Nour during a particularly difficult situation or encouraging her to push on. Other times she'll ask for advice on practical issues, like whether she should buy a flimsy lifejacket in a local market in case there aren't any available on the boat, or spend her ever-dwindling funds on a hotel room instead of spending the night in a migrant camp during a thunderstorm. However, just because you've offered her advice doesn't mean she's going to take it. You can try to dissuade her from a decision, but if she's already made up her mind there's not much you can do. Because of this, there's a tangible feeling that you're talking to a real person on the other side of this messaging app, and Majd and Nour are both so affable and charming that the constant, foreboding sense of danger is significantly heightened.

There's an immediate sense of familiarity in [text messages] that's emboldened by Bury Me, My Love's excellent writing

The end of Nour's journey is signified by a voice message that's usually haunting and heart-wrenching. There are 19 endings in total, with your dialogue choices shaping how Nour reaches each conclusion. As a result, there's a fair amount of replayability involved, compelling you to go back and explore how your decisions affected Nour's fate and diverged the story. The problem with this, however, is that there are no checkpoints in Bury Me, My Love. You have to start from the beginning each time you want to try alternative choices, and that means reading through the same lines of dialogue over and over again. Having the option to save at certain junctures would alleviate this problem, so it's disheartening that seeing more of the game is as tedious as it is.

The only other issue with the Switch version of Bury Me, My Love revolves around the Nintendo Switch not being a mobile phone. This might sound ludicrous and overly harsh, but the pseudo-real-time nature of the game on mobile adds a significant amount to the experience. On mobile devices, when Nour's being followed by a group of neo-Nazis, it's anxiety-inducing when she suddenly stops messaging for a few minutes and you're left worrying about what happened to her. On the Switch, the real-time delay isn't featured, so you just get the image of a clock rapidly advancing time before you're back in the conversation. Without push notifications and the physical act of using a messaging app on an actual phone, the Switch version loses some of the tension and immersion afforded to its mobile counterpart. You can still rotate the screen vertically in handheld mode and use touch controls to try and capture an ounce of that authenticity, but the touch controls are disappointingly erratic and rarely work.

Bury Me, My Love might share a similar structure to other mobile text-based adventure games like Lifeline and Mr. Robot:1.5.1exfiltrati0n.apk, but the story it tells and the themes it delves into are relatively unexplored within the medium. It shines a light on a situation people are all too eager to ignore and humanizes the stories of those most commonly relegated to ticker text on news reports, and for that reason alone it's an essential experience. That the story it tells is so engaging and believable, with wonderfully well-rounded characters, only elevates its exploration of the realities of war, and it manages to successfully elicit a genuine human connection. Switch might not be the ideal platform to play Bury Me, My Love on, but whatever your system options are, it's well worth following Nour on this all-too-real journey.

Below Review: The Long Way Down

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 12:00

Below, Capy's long-in-development roguelike, has cultivated a sense of mystery across the course of its entire gestation. The question of what Below is, exactly, doesn't go away once you're playing it--the game offers minimal instruction beyond the occasional button prompt, and much of the first few hours is spent figuring out how everything fits together. Your objective is simple enough and spelled out in the game's title--you're on an island, and you need to go as deep below the surface as you can. How you do that slowly becomes clear, although reaching any suggestion as to why you make this voyage takes far longer.

Below opens with a long, slow cutscene of a boat arriving on an island, with no context or explanation. It's a suitable introduction to a game that you'll want to take at a considered pace; from the beginning, there's no instruction, although it won't take you long to find the lantern at the island's apex and begin your journey through the first floor. From there it's a matter of exploring each floor of the island's depths, finding keys to unlock doors that will take you further down, and managing your resources and health as you deal with a series of hardships.

Whenever you die in Below, a different boat will arrive at the island's shore and you'll be given a new disposable character to take up the quest with. The distant camera and simple character designs mean there's not much to differentiate each individual you control: they're not named or unique in any way, and the game never makes it explicitly clear how or whether they're connected. You start each life armed with a sword and hunting bow, which can be used to fend off any enemies you encounter, as well as a single refillable bottle of water that's needed to replenish your character's thirst meter. From there it's up to you to gather the resources you'll need to survive--by defeating enemies, finding chests, and exploring any part of the world that's sparkling--as you delve deeper into Below's world.

Early on, Below can feel generous by roguelike standards. You unlock multiple shortcuts as you go, allowing you to jump to a deeper level from the beginning of your next life, so that you don't need to go all the way back through the whole game every time. Before long you unlock the ability to activate campfires as single-use checkpoints, letting you warp straight back to them with your next character. Resting at campfires will take you into a little room where you can store excess items that your next explorer can collect if need be, although storage space is limited, and if you exit out of the game you'll start right back in the room you left when you start the game up again.

It takes a while to encounter an enemy that can do real damage too, meaning that instant-kill traps are a much greater danger for the first few levels, conditioning you to take a slow, cautious approach. Each time you respawn, the layout of every floor will have changed slightly, with room positions shifting and your map (which helpfully shows which direction you can exit each room from) having reset. It's essential that you return to where you last died when you were carrying your lantern, which provides some challenge--you can retrieve resources from any corpses you leave behind, but your lantern is absolutely vital for progress.

For the first seven or so hours, Below hits a good balance between the intrigue of its atmospheric aesthetic and the punishing nature of its mechanics. Unfortunately, the balance shifts in a major way later on, and the game's increasing difficulty is matched by harshened conditions. While early floors are rich in the essentials, letting you exploit swarms of bats for meat and enemies that drop gems that power your lantern, later floors are more miserly. Gathering resources from chests and defeated enemies is important--there's a rudimentary crafting system letting you combine them to create weapons and items, but which resources you have access to depends on which floor you're exploring. It's not unusual to end up with an inventory full of items that can't be combined or used for anything.

Once you're midway through the game, each new restart is going to involve some early grinding, as jumping right to a lower level without the resources needed to keep your character fed, and without retrieving the lantern from where you last died, can turn the game into a disastrous slog. The areas you can use to gather resources need light so that you can avoid the instant-kill traps planted all over them, and although you can craft limited-use torches, that's not going to do you much good in later stages where the lantern is your main way of fighting back against some of the game's harsher nasties.

Your mileage may vary depending on your patience, but this isn't a case where the game's brutality works in service of its excellent combat and astonishing world. Below's main thrills come from discovering new things, and when you're forced to repeat the same sections multiple times, the game's difficulty feels excessive and unnecessary. Below's combat is simply not interesting enough to make the tough sections feel worthwhile--the rudimentary dash/shield/attack system has little room for nuance, and when enemies can do extreme damage with a single hit (often with a "bleed" effect that requires you to use resources to patch yourself up), death doesn't always feel like your fault.

Later floors ask you to play very differently compared to the earlier ones. Suddenly you need to keep moving constantly, and the slow, methodical exploration that made the early parts of the game interesting is lost. The game's sense of foreboding mystery begins to dissipate as well, as the mechanics reveal themselves to be relatively uncomplicated and the game's art design relies on some tired tropes and enemy designs. Overall, the art design and Jim Guthrie's imposing soundtrack are both excellent but become much harder to properly appreciate when you're suffering through the game's more tedious sections. Below also feels much better suited to PC--the distant camera and tiny characters had me moving closer to the television while playing on Xbox One.

Below's extreme demands for patience and tolerance remain right through to the game's mysterious ending. But despite its assured aesthetic and the initial pleasures of discovery, Below will eventually turn into a slog for all but the most committed of players.

Battle Princess Madelyn Review - Halfway There

Sun, 12/23/2018 - 05:36

Few games wear their inspiration on their sleeve as proudly as Battle Princess Madelyn does. From the moment you lay eyes on its detailed pixel artwork and see the titular armor-clad Madelyn throwing lances at the creeping undead in a murky marsh, you'll immediately have flashbacks to the classic Ghosts 'n Goblins series. That's not a knock against the game--if you're going to take inspiration for your retro-styled platformer, you may as well take it from some time-tested classics. And when Battle Princess Madelyn is at its peak, it really feels like a worthy successor to those games.

Unfortunately, that fiendishly fun and challenging action game is only half of Battle Princess Madelyn. The other half is a botched attempt to shoehorn large-scale levels filled with traps, tough enemies, and tricky platforming into a Metroidvania formula.

Battle Princess Madelyn finds our rough, tough royal recovering from her family being kidnapped by a wicked sorcerer. In the wake of such tragedy, she sets out to find and defeat the fiend… but she's not alone, as the soul of her deceased dog Fritzy is there to fight alongside her and help revive her when she falls in combat. She'll explore creepy crypts, sprawling caves, volcanic peaks, haunted fields, and dangerous waters in her quest to save her loved ones, and it certainly won't be easy. It's a simple premise, but an effective one, and the ghost dog gimmick adds a nice little dash of originality.

There are two play modes in Battle Princess Madelyn: Arcade Mode and Story Mode. Both options follow the same story but present it in a different way. Arcade Mode is short on dialogue and cinematics and long on fierce action, while Story Mode goes far more in-depth, featuring a semi-open world, story beats to progress through, items and secrets to uncover, and NPCs to interact with. Movement and action in both modes are similar, though in Story Mode, Madelyn has to find items needed to progress and gain abilities; in arcade mode, she has the necessary abilities from the start (aside from optional weapon drops from enemies).

Arcade mode is where you can most clearly see this game's Ghouls 'n Ghosts inspiration. The one-hit buffer of your breakable armor, the various weapons like lances and axes, the unending waves of creeping zombies that make it hard to stay in one place for too long--heck, even Madelyn's running animation looks like they referenced several of Arthur's frames. It does improve on the GnG formula in some key ways, though. Madelyn's double-jump is much easier to control, and her life force--powered by Fritzy's ghostly magic--can be replenished by slaying enough enemies. She can also spend a little bit of Fritzy's magic to perform a homing attack on an enemy, which is a great aid in some of the trickier areas. While the game doesn't really explain these controls to you, you should know well what to do, especially if you've experienced simple 2D platforming before.

The Arcade Mode is easily the best part of Battle Princess Madelyn. It's a tough action-platformer that rewards careful, thoughtful play and features memorable environments, tricky platforming, and some really cool encounters with gigantic bosses. Yes, you do have to restart the whole level if Fritzy's life-giving magic power runs dry, but that's part of the old-school experience. At least there aren't limited continues! Rounding out the retro experience is a great chiptune soundtrack that really helps make the game feel like a forgotten relic. (You could change it to an orchestrated version, but why would you?)

While Arcade Mode is a great experience for challenge-seeking action fans, Story Mode is a pretty heavy disappointment in comparison: a fumbled effort at trying to fit a patient, precise platformer into an exploration-based gameplay mold that often fails in incredibly frustrating ways. Unfortunately, Story Mode is also the default mode, meaning that most folks are going to play it first… and likely have a bad taste in their mouth from it.

Story Mode tasks you with exploring several interconnected areas based on similar design concepts to the ones seen in arcade mode, but with very different layouts. Your abilities are extremely limited at the beginning, and in order to progress, you need to scour these sprawling areas to find routes, items, and NPCs that will help you on your quest.

The problems with Story Mode become obvious from an early point, and only worsen as the game progresses. For starters, the extremely large, hazard-laden areas feature little in the way of checkpoints, meaning that losing all of Madelyn's energy results in a complete restart from the area's entrance--a tolerable setback in a linear arcade mode, but infuriating in an exploration-driven game. In addition, a lot of these areas tend to look very samey in terms of props and backgrounds, so unless the level you're in features a very linear path, you may have some serious trouble figuring out how to get back to a specific location.

In addition, a lot of things just aren't hinted at or explained well at all. One way the game tries to guide you is with a bony skeleton hand that will sometimes pop up to point in the general direction of important items, but it's less useful and more frustrating when the means to get to said items are difficult to discern.

Sticking points like this come up often, particularly when you have to start backtracking to reach previously inaccessible areas with new abilities and especially when you have to do quests for NPCs, some of which are necessary to proceed. It's easy to forget what character needs which macguffin, or who needs to be rescued where, and there's no quest log or intuitive way to remind you of what's needed. Compared to the skill-testing action-game challenges of Arcade Mode, Story Mode's challenges are frustrating in a far worse way: they often fail to tell you just what the heck you're supposed to do, leaving you to wander aimlessly through huge, dangerous maps in hopes that you might find or trigger something.

Battle Princess Madelyn looks and sounds fantastic, and half the game is a delightful spiritual throwback to a beloved action game series. It's a shame that the other half drags down the whole package--and performance issues on Switch like slowdown and stalling when moving through menus don't help, either. There's at least one great game in the Battle Princess Madelyn package, but it's hard to fully recommend it when the game mode that's presented front and center drops the ball royally.

Gris Review - Seeing In Color

Fri, 12/14/2018 - 01:00

Painting Gris as a beautiful adventure is almost too obvious. Even amid the crumbling ruins that hint at better days, every element of this platformer emphasizes its undeniable loveliness. From the wide-angle shots and the ethereal music to the delicate way in which you glide gracefully to a far-off platform, Gris is enrapturing in ways that make it hard to walk away from. Though it takes a mere four hours to reach the ending credits, the time spent with Gris is so captivating that it would have felt greedy to stay with it any longer.

In Gris, a young woman finds herself alone in a desolate world. Ruined buildings and broken pillars dominate the landscape, remnants from a lost civilization. Without saying a word, the woman exudes loneliness, moving forward only to fulfill the aching sense of longing that is now her only companion. The feeling of loss is palpable. You wander through a palace that could tumble with one strong gust of wind. Cracked statues lay before you, all of women. Some stand in poses of power, others of thoughtfulness, but all are only relics of what used to be. Savor the sight because the statues, the buildings, the pillars could all be turned to dust when you return.

Your goal is to obtain fragments of light that complete constellations, allowing you to reach other areas. But the dreamy flow through locations is so subtle that it rarely feels as if you’re completing specific tasks. Rather, you guide the young woman down slopes, across balconies, and through ruins because the call to see what wonders await is impossible to resist. For much of the game, I felt lost as I glided across the serene landscapes, unaware of where I was going but curious to see what lay just outside of my vision. Being lost in Gris is different from other games, though. Whenever I wondered if I was going in the right direction, I wandered into a new location just as beautiful as where I had been, and I set off to wherever it felt like I was being led.

As I drifted through Gris’ world, I collected the odd light fragment, but it never felt like the point of my movement--I just wanted to see where the path led me, and I solved puzzles to reach the fragments along the way. These puzzles are not mind-teasers that demand careful concentration or daring trial-and-error obstacles. Rather, you need only figure out how your given abilities work in a specific area to continue onward undeterred. In the beginning, for instance, I had to learn that I could walk up staircases I thought were only in the background. A little puzzle, yes, but one that brings joy when you realize how simple and delightful the solution is.

Later sections have blocks that appear when a light shines upon them or a wintery wind that casts statues of ice in your image, but none of the puzzles are presented in such a way as to stymie a player. Gris is a game in which its lack of challenge is a positive quality because any frustrating section would have derailed the feeling of peace and serenity that it builds so wondrously as you progress. There’s no combat or death to break you from this trance, just pure pleasure throughout. I wanted to explore this world, to see breathtaking sights and soak in the melancholic score, and Gris welcomed this feeling instead of hiding its charms behind tests of skill.

Despite the ease of the puzzles, there are genuine surprises in how you navigate the world. I gasped when I realized a rippling block wasn’t as solid as I had assumed and there’s a perspective-flipping section that made me laugh with joy. The magic of Gris is that it encompasses the varied move set you’d expect in a more demanding platformer, without expecting impressive feats of dexterity to progress. Instead, it introduces all those navigational twists to draw you ever deeper into this fascinating world. Because of its many surprises, it’s the rare game where I wish I could have my memory erased, to play it once more from the beginning, because few games contain surprises that were so affected.

Gris is joyful and sad, a beautiful ruin, contradictions that make these experiences so exciting. The surprises that lay hidden are not plot twists or unlockable goodies but rather moments when the mechanics perfectly complement the aesthetics. Every element is used to engage your sense of awe. Gris is beautiful, yes, but it uses that beauty like a surgical knife. As you climb to the top of a pyramid, with the sun growing ever brighter and the stars beckoning, it knows to pull back the camera, to show how small you stand against the majesty of the universe.

Don’t dismiss Gris as a game so caught up in its artistic splendor that it forgets what medium it's a part of, though. Strip away the resplendent visual design and enchanting score and Gris would still be enticing because of its sense of movement. The young woman moves with graceful purpose. She’s light on her feet but sure-headed, giving her a weightiness that makes it feel like you’re trying to break free of gravity but can never quite do so. There were sections when I would purposely repeat a series of jumps because it felt so good to skirt against the dreamy sky. New powers are unlocked as you get deeper into the adventure, and all of them add another layer of interactivity that not only expands your horizons but feels good to enact.

Gris understands intrinsically how magical video games can be and continually pushes your imagination until you’re almost bursting with joy. The ways in which it reinvents itself as you gain powers and dive ever deeper into this world is truly special, and just as it knows exactly when to pull back the camera or introduce a new song, it’s keenly aware of when it's time to say goodbye. Like a comet streaking across the sky, Gris is full of wonder and beauty and leaves you with a warm glow in your heart.

Desert Child Review - Burning Fuel

Wed, 12/12/2018 - 03:00

Desert Child is a game of modern ambitions and sensibilities wrapped up in a retro aesthetic. It looks like an early-'90s DOS game rendering of a future where humanity has colonized Mars and built a city that feels like a mix between a Cowboy Bebop planet and modern-day Australia. The game's unique look, chilled vibe, and strong concept make for a great first impression, but unfortunately, by the end of it you'll realize that there's not much more to Desert Child than what you got in those opening minutes.

You play as a young man who leaves Earth in the game's opening, looking to conquer Mars' speeder bike circuit and earn enough money to prove himself in an upcoming championship. At the beginning of the game, you choose between four weapons to have mounted on the front of your vehicle, each with a different difficulty rating depending on how useful they are. All races are one-on-one and play out on a 2D plane viewed from a side-on perspective, which is a strange--but also a strangely enjoyable--way to compete. There are a handful of different tracks, all with unique obstacles, and when you start up a race you'll be thrown into one of them at random. While there are obstacles to avoid, winning comes down to using your boost effectively and firing your weapon at TVs planted around the track. Each TV you take out gives you a speed boost, and to maintain your maximum speed you need to consistently destroy the televisions on the track before your opponent does.

The first few times you race in Desert Child, it's thrilling. Your hoverbike controls well--it's floaty and fast but precise--and blasting away at everything in front of you and timing your boosts well is fun. The game captures the inherent excitement of hoverbike racing, but once it becomes clear that every race is going to be more-or-less the same, that excitement dulls considerably. You can't switch guns mid-game, the tracks all play very similarly, and the only real difference between opponents is that the very last one in the game is more difficult to beat than the others. I couldn't highlight a uniquely cool moment from any of the races I took part in across two playthroughs of the game, or a race where the game showed off a new trick or idea.

Desert Child also has the thin veneer of an RPG system. You spend much of the game's short running time wandering around a Martian city, exploring and poking at its different stores, NPCs, and the odd jobs it offers. There are only a handful of different environments for your unnamed protagonist to mosey through, and while they're lovely to look at the first few times, the game's small scale begins to feel limiting when you realize that the game world never changes in any significant way. After each race or job you take, the day progresses, and while some NPCs shift around and store stocks change, Mars very quickly starts to feel small and static.

Your major objective is to raise $10,000 for a tournament while keeping yourself well fed, your bike in good working order, and not attracting the law by taking on too many dodgy missions in the nightlife district. The goal seems to be to capture some of the tedium of life in this town--there's a lot of walking around, visiting ramen stores, and switching between odd jobs. Some of these jobs are fun, but generally only for the first few times that you play them. For example, you can work as a pizza delivery person, riding a bicycle through one of the game's tracks while shooting pizza boxes at people; you can herd kangaroos, which involves following a group of them through a field and maneuvering your hoverbike behind any slackers so that they don't drop away from the pack; you can enter and intentionally lose a race for the local crime boss.

There are a few different minigames like this, but ultimately none of them really offers anything that feels like a meaningful twist on the existing racing (with the possible exception of the "hacking" minigame, in which you're attacked by floating Windows logos and marble busts--I could not figure out this job's victory conditions). Once you've quickly seen everything Mars has to offer, and especially once you've bought the game's entire soundtrack from the record shop (which is worth doing, because the music is great), there's nothing exciting to find or unlock.

There are a lot of references in Desert Child that will hit harder with an Australian audience. There's a bridge dedicated to the welfare program Centrelink, complete with a job board that you can access different tasks from; the constant casual profanity is very Aussie; and there are little nods to local cultural touchstones dotted around Mars. The "Bring Back Tim Tams" graffiti might not hold the same appeal for all players, but it made me smile.

Before long, your focus will shift to saving up for the tournament, which boils down to racing and completing tasks over and over while storing your earnings in your bank to accrue interest. It's an uninteresting progression model, and the tournament itself is unexciting--you race three times, and if you lose any of them you must start again. You earn huge amounts of money even if you lose the first two races, which lets you buy all your hoverbike's potential upgrades and make things a bit easier on yourself. Winning the third race promptly ends the game, even though, narratively and mechanically, it really feels like things are just getting started.

Desert Child exhibits a number of smaller issues, too. While the numerous misspellings feel like they could plausibly be an intentional part of the game's aesthetic, the lack of a pause option during races feels like an oversight, as does the fact that selecting "New Game" from the menu automatically starts up a new game without warning you that all previous data is going to be erased. Sometimes the equipment I'd put on my bike, like a laser sight for my gun, arbitrarily wouldn't work during a race, and I could never figure out why there were TVs scattered around during the pizza delivery game with seemingly no way to destroy them. Problems like this pop up all over Desert Child, and while most of them are minor, they add up.

Desert Child has a wonderful sense of style, and there are moments when it clicks. When you jet across the water on your bike firing a shotgun blast that shatters several televisions in front of you, or when you first start to wrap your head around the aesthetic of Mars, the game briefly, but brightly, shines. But Desert Child doesn't quite hang together, and by the end of its very brief runtime the things that seemed exciting just an hour prior have lost most of their luster. This could be a lovely proof of concept for a bigger game; as it stands, it's hard not to get caught up thinking about all that it could have been.

Monster Boy And The Cursed Kingdom Review - Thy Kingdom Come

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 13:00

It's difficult to talk about Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom without discussing Wonder Boy III: The Dragon's Trap and its 2017 remake, because despite being produced by an entirely different development team, this game is, in fact, an official successor in the Wonder Boy series. But even though its history might be confusing, Monster Boy is a fantastic adventure in its own right, one that distinctly builds upon the best parts of Wonder Boy and adds some welcome modern conveniences for good measure.

You play as Jin, a blue-haired young man who must stop his drunk uncle Nabu from inflicting curses upon the kingdom's inhabitants and transforming them into animals. Unfortunately, the plot doesn't really expand beyond that initial premise. With the exception of some moments of levity provided by the cast of interesting supporting characters, the story is uninspired and concludes on a final act that feels shoehorned. But where Monster Boy's narrative lacks in imagination, it more than makes up for it with its well-honed character transformation mechanic.

Over the course of the game, Jin unlocks an arsenal of equipment and gains five animal transformations--pig, snake, frog, lion, and dragon--each of whom has their own unique abilities. Jin's human, frog, lion, and dragon forms are also able to equip a variety of weapons, shields, and armor, all of which can be upgraded. Equipping items unlocks new abilities--one type of boots allow you to walk on clouds, while another allows you to double jump, for instance. Quickly swapping between all these different forms to take advantage of their strengths adds a continually enjoyable layer of thought to the platforming experience, and its strengths are regularly showcased by Monster Boy's excellent puzzle design.

You're eased into each new animal form and piece of equipment with some basic obstacles and enemies before being set loose to explore the titular Cursed Kingdom. Puzzles scattered throughout require some thought; on several occasions, you'll be forced to combine the use of several different powers and abilities in creative ways in order to progress forward or reach a treasure. It might be juggling two different animal forms, using particular equipment abilities, or taking advantage of environmental items, and when you eventually figure out how to get there, it always feels rewarding. Puzzles become increasingly complex, the variety of enemies becomes tougher, and the platforming sections feature additional obstacles that require more precise timing as you progress, but the growing challenges are balanced out well by a forgiving number of checkpoints, which help you keep motivated to give things another try.

While the game is primarily linear, the Cursed Kingdom itself is enormous and features several different secret-filled areas (discovering everything will likely blow out your playtime to roughly 15-20 hours), and the variety of puzzles and charming locations that you find in far corners of the world are themselves an attractive incentive to reach. The experience is doubly rewarding when you unearth new paths while revisiting a previously-discovered area armed with a bigger arsenal of animal forms and skills, and Monster Boy even implements a teleportation mechanic to alleviate frustrations of excessive backtracking.

Monster Boy also boasts a brilliant visual and audio presentation that makes the Wonder Boy aesthetic shine, featuring a meticulously detailed hand-drawn art style. Each character is beautifully realized with their own delightful animation--little details, like the pig's sheepish look as he farts after eating a power-up plant or the frog eyeballing some flies as part of his idle animation, adds volumes to Jin's characterization and the game's charm. Every area of the Cursed Kingdom is also visually distinct and beautifully animated, and a couple of superb anime-style sequences that bookend the game help give it a slick, cohesive feel. The game's strong soundtrack helps round out the package and features both original pieces influenced by Wonder Boy's soundtrack, combined with new, rock-influenced arrangements of Wonder Boy's most memorable tunes, making it a great collection of music both new and old.

Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom not only pays faithful homage to Wonder Boy, particularly The Dragon's Trap, but by refining the solid foundations of its spiritual predecessors with modern affordances, it becomes a rich platforming adventure in its own right. With a well-realized world filled to the brim with secrets and excellent platforming mechanics that always keeps things interesting, the Cursed Kingdom is a place you will want to discover every corner of.

Earth Defense Force 5 Review - Another Bug Hunt

Fri, 12/07/2018 - 22:00

Earth Defense Force 5 is a clear culmination point for a series that’s been around since the PlayStation 2, reaching a scale that could surprise even the most hardened of EDF veterans. While it retains many of the familiar tropes from the franchise--four player classes, a huge variety of missions, unlockable weapons and items, and obscenely terrible in-game dialogue that's so bad it’s good--EDF 5 ratchets everything up to 11 and remarkably pulls it off. With bullet-hell style action and massive, open battlefields where every building is destructible, it feels like there’s no better time to get out there and save the world from rampaging space insects and their alien masters.

You play a nameless civilian who gets caught up in the invasion as the giant bugs start pummeling an EDF outpost. As you emerge from the underground base the scale of the attack becomes apparent, with you eventually joining the EDF and rising through the ranks to become Earth’s best hope for survival. It’s a fun, if typical, premise that plays out through the cheesiest in-game dialogue I’ve ever heard. It takes numerous hard turns, culminating in one of the most outlandish and audacious boss fights imaginable. Watching the story weave as it tries to connect the dots is like watching a slow motion trainwreck you cannot take your eyes away from--it’s so brash and ridiculous that you can’t help be charmed by it. Though while the dialogue and story can have you gritting your teeth at the levels of cringe, the action is something else entirely.

Before getting out onto the battlefield, you’re given a choice of playing through each mission with one of four character types, each with different play styles and their own customisable loadouts. The Ranger is the stock standard soldier type and by far the easiest to use in direct combat, while the Wing Diver is fast, good for close combat, and can fly herself out of dangerous situations. While you can play through any missions as any player type, some choices certainly made for an easier time than others. Choosing an Air Raider, a character who can request long-range cannon fire and vehicle drops, for an underground mission isn’t the best use of its skills. But the game will let you do it anyway, happily letting you test things out and work it out for yourself. Loading times are quick, so if you make a poor choice of loadout, it’s only a quick hop back to the menu to change it up before getting back out there.

Fighting the alien hordes can be a completely overwhelming experience. The scale of everything is imposing, especially when faced with a swarm of very angry bugs that are clawing and climbing over not just themselves but apartment buildings, factories, and homes to get at you. The maps are huge, giving you a wide playspace to enact your destruction, and for the most part they use that scale and space well. Calling in a bombing run as an Air Raider will zoom the camera out to show a wide shot of the area, with the sky lighting up bright orange as the bombs carpet the landing zone. Various vehicles like tanks and armored suits can be called in or found scattered around, and although they can feel pretty loose and unwieldy at the best of times, they are at least a good way to move from one side of the map to another or to put some space between yourself and the horde.

Player movement also feels a little sloppy. Moving from a standard run into a dash feels more cumbersome than it should, as does general running about. Thankfully, aiming feels snappy and tight, so regardless of whether you’re in tight space or out on a mountain overlooking a wide-open beachside, combat always feels more rewarding than not.

Replayability is encouraged through battle. As you chew through swarms of giant ants, spiders, carpet bugs and more, blasting them apart in a flurry of brightly-colored blood and chunks, and downed enemies will drop armor as well as weapon and health pickups. While the health pickups heal both you and your nearby AI allies--who you can find out in the battlefield and enlist under your supervision--weapon and armor pickups both manifest after the mission is over, giving you access to new and upgraded weaponry and a higher base HP number respectively. The difficulty level you play will also influence your rewards, with higher difficulties giving you stronger weapons with higher base stats, encouraging you to come back on a higher difficulty level to grind out better gear.

Although the offline single player is fun, EDF 5 and the differing play styles of each character type really come into their own in the cooperative multiplayer, where up to four people can join together and take on the entirety of the 110-mission-long campaign. Although offline and online campaign progress is separated, which annoyingly means you’ll need to play through the missions twice to unlock and access them in each, blasting through aliens with others takes the core gameplay to a new level. In one session, my Wing Diver went down while I was standing atop a large tower while attacking a mob of giant hornets. My co-op partner couldn’t reach me to revive me and instead resorted to destroying the tower, bringing me down with it so I could then be revived. Similarly, a guided missile weapon they were using as a Ranger took on a whole new level of lethality when combined with my laser sight to guide it for them, increasing its range far beyond its normal capability. Classes are balanced so they can helpfully support each other in unique ways, which you simply don’t get in the single-player mode where everything is put squarely on your shoulders.

For everything that’s happening on screen, with bullets, missiles, bodies and debris flying every which way, you might expect EDF 5 to experience frame drops on occasion. But only once did performance slow to crawl during an especially busy scene involving a mothership, a crumbling city, hundreds of enemies and a rainstorm. Some of the grimier textures and character models give it a dated look, though while it’s not the best-looking game around, it has the headroom to handle the sheer volume of things happening around you without severe performance hits when the action gets out of hand.

Despite the series' long-running nature, Earth Defense Force 5 is a standout action game, revelling in its own absurdity while crafting a brilliantly fun and lively action game around it. Its huge battles are a joy to watch play out both from up close and afar, and the wide variety of weapons and play styles with each player type offers plenty of reason to come back for more after the final bullet has been fired.

Ashen Review - Relationship Souls

Fri, 12/07/2018 - 16:00

Telling a story of the cyclical nature of light and dark and possessing both stamina-focused combat and larger-than-life bosses, Ashen is easy to compare to From Software's Dark Souls. However, Ashen establishes its own identity by delivering an experience that focuses on creating a sense of community and trust with those you meet. The weapon system can occasionally take away from some of the more strategic elements of the game's combat when playing solo, but Ashen still delivers an incredible adventure, regardless if you play by yourself or with others.

In Ashen, you start as a nameless nobody listening to the origin of your world, its three races, and how everything became blanketed in darkness after the disappearance of the Ashen--a god-like figure of immense power. When a sudden explosion briefly brings light back to the land, allowing everyone to see clearly for the first time in years, it sparks a search for the Ashen in hopes its return will push the last vestiges of darkness away. Leading the charge, you take over a bandit camp and transform it into an outpost called Vagrant's Rest. From there, you set out into the world in search of people to join your new home, as well as a means of finding the Ashen.

Your journey takes you from one fast travel point to the next within an interconnected series of open environments, and you'll find a diverse assortment of enemies along the way. Caverns and dilapidated castles entice you to explore off the beaten path and enjoy lengthy expeditions for hidden weapons, armor, and treasure. You'll need to sprint and jump your way through most of it at the start, but Ashen's controls are fairly tight and ledge grabs ensure you safely recover most of the time. It never feels like you're unfairly leaping to your death over and over again, and unlocking a fun new navigational ability halfway through the game will see you returning to old locales to search for secrets you couldn't leap to before.

There are very few options for long-range combat in Ashen so for the most part, you're in the thick of things with your opponents and trying to out maneuver each other. Attacking, defending, and dodging all use different amounts of stamina, and carefully managing how much you have left is key to survival. If you've played a good Souls-like game before, Ashen works exactly as you would expect. The controls produce a methodical approach to combat that's enjoyable to just lose yourself in.

On your travels, you'll recruit characters and send them back to Vagrant's Rest to set up shop, where you can interact with them again for side quests and special items. Most will even join you on your adventure whenever you exit camp, aiding you in combat and reviving you if you happen to fall. They can also help with exploration, too, as dungeon doors require two people to open and some ledges can only be reached if a team boosts each other up. As more people join Vagrant's Rest and you complete more quests for them, your settlement will grow. Roads are paved, structures are built, and the community becomes a thriving town. You can't manage how Vagrant's Rest grows, unfortunately, but there are fun little nods to the quests you undergo. Vorsa wears an outfit composed of the pelts from the animals you hunted for her, for example, and Eila constructs a dock so you can ride down the nearby river in a barrel--an activity she speaks of when you first meet her. In a game where enemies are constantly respawning, it's incredibly fulfilling to see your hard work actually having a permanent impact on your corner of the world.

You can forge relationships with other players, too. If you play Ashen online, you enter a shared world where you can encounter people. Other players will appear as the NPCs you've recruited to Vagrant's Rest, and whether or not you choose to interact with them is up to you. With no voice chat, actions define a person's character, and this can form powerful bonds that last for the entire game. For example, seeing a player-controlled Jokell silently step in front of my character and take a spear to the chest when I had a sliver of health has, for me, left a long-standing positive impression for the pipe-smoking explorer. I brought a computer-controlled Jokell along with me every chance I had after that, cheering for him when he did something incredible and dropping everything to revive him when he fell. It's a rather simple example of transference at work when all is said and done, but it's remarkably effective at creating trust (and I imagine distrust in some cases) with the characters you meet.

If working with others isn't really your thing, you can play offline with NPCs or use an early game item that allows you to play completely solo. It certainly ups Ashen's difficulty to play without others and it creates a more traditional Souls-like experience. However, the greater challenge of playing completely by yourself isn't worth losing out on the misadventures you find yourself in when traveling with another character. Even if you play offline with computer-controlled characters, you'll still form bonds with a one or two of them, and that improves Ashen's entire experience. If you really want that greater challenge, there's a mode that lowers your max health and stamina, which is a much better way of making the game harder.

There is one unfortunate wrinkle that becomes apparent when playing with computer-controlled characters, however, and it has to do with Ashen's weapons. Weapons can be one of three types--axe, club/hammer, or spear--but tools from the same class can attack very differently. Some axes use a leaping vertical slam animation that allow you to get the jump on your enemy before they react, while others have a horizontal slash that can more easily hit multiple targets, for example. This adds additional levels of battle strategy other than simply picking whatever in your inventory is strongest. Problems arise when you're playing with NPCs though, as you're unable to choose which weapon a computer-controlled character brings into battle. Pretty much every enemy in Ashen can be tackled with whatever weapon you want, but there are a few locations and one boss battle where a weapon's animation speed has a pretty substantial effect on you and your partner's chances of survival. Not having the choice to pick your partner's weapon introduces an unfortunate element of luck into some battles that should be entirely based on skill. It rarely happens, but it's noticeable when it does.

Despite how you play, boss battles are where most of your deaths are probably going to come from, as each are five- to 15-minute affairs that push you to constantly adapt on the fly. No two bosses behave the same way, and many have a gimmick that can transform the fight. For example, one of the mid-game bosses is a staff-wielding giant woman who uses her magical lantern to deliver devastatingly powerful area-of-effect attacks and buff her health. If you put some distance between the two of you, you can bait her into throwing her lantern at you in frustration and then destroy it. Doing so allows you to carve out larger chunks of her health, but she goes into a violent frenzy and starts attacking you differently once her precious lantern is destroyed. It's up to you whether or not you destroy the lantern, and when you'll do it if you decide to do so.

In some cases, like this example, finding a boss' gimmick makes the battle much easier, but it can also just change how it plays out--which is a wonderful thing for any fight you're struggling with. Instead of feeling like you need to implement the same strategy over and over against every boss and just do it better, you're occasionally rewarded for experimenting and trying something new. It helps dull any frustration that might arise from repeatedly losing to the same foe, too.

Ashen does more than enough to differentiate it from other Souls-like games. Although its combat utilizes the same stamina-focused mechanics, the inclusion of features that promote a sense of community with the game's characters makes for a wholly different experience. It's frustrating to spawn and see that your computer-controlled partner has a weapon that doesn't complement the one you're using. However, even when playing with NPCs, your allies' efforts to assist you in battle cause you to care about the fates of the colorful cast of people you meet on your journey. The relationships you forge define your adventure through Ashen, and helping your new friends is a powerful motivator that drives you forward through the game's beautiful world.

Artifact Review - Play Your Cards Right

Fri, 12/07/2018 - 05:25

Taking nods from a number of design elements endemic to traditional trading card games and combining those with the flexibility and ease of digitized play fields, Artifact brings a uniquely compelling twist to the TCG formula. The bulk of this comes from Valve’s tentpole franchise of late: Dota 2. Artifact remixes many of the core ideas, focusing on the essentials of MOBAs to bring new layers of tactical complexity to great effect. Establishing a broad number of possibilities allows for near-limitless experimentation and development of new and complex styles of play.

Those unfamiliar with the free-to-play behemoth, Dota 2, and its competitors (League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, etc.) won’t need much additional context, but a grasp of the basics can go a long way. As with standard MOBAs, you’ll have three lanes that you share with your competitor. Monsters, heroes, creeps, and items all get funneled into one of these passages and are pit against one another. Each of you will vie for control of all three in succession, starting from left to right, marshaling what forces and powers you can to overpower your opponent and topple the tower sitting at the end.

In essence, the lanes act like as distinct play areas, though you do share a hand across them. Besides that, though what happens in one lane stays there. To win, you’ll either need to claim two of the three lanes, or manage to bring down your foe’s “ancient,” which appears only after you’ve taken a lane.

These basics are sticky to explain, but mercifully, pretty easy to grasp once you see them in action. Artifact offloads a good chunk of its calculations to computers, allowing it to be a lot more complex than a traditional card game. By taking some of that extra grunt work off of you, it broadens the possibility space beyond anything comparable. Because any number of monsters or heroes can be in each lane, it's possible that you’ll end up with 10 combat rounds or more across three lanes in a turn. That sounds like a lot, but Artifact offers up battle previews, detailing what will happen if you don’t respond. Likewise, the playable cards in your hand will glow a gentle blue, so you can save time and consider the ramifications of the play instead of burning your thoughts attempting to figure out what you even can play on top of what effect it would have.

Play proceeds in a series of rounds, where you’ll pass over each lane and resolve whatever relevant cards in sequence. Between each, though, you’ll have a chance to buy items and equipment to help in the next go around. Each creep you take down yields one gold, whereas an enemy hero yields five. Neither are necessary objectives in themselves, but creeps and heroes guard the towers, so most of the time you’ll need to be chipping away at them anyway, and the extra payout is a useful bonus that will--on occasion--affect which lane you choose to press through and when.

In truth, there’s a litany of micro-decisions like those that Artifact relies on to build itself into a fully fledged and shockingly nuanced trading card game. The fineries of play will take quite some time to master, and not because they are obtuse or particularly convoluted, but because of the tension between where, how, and when you choose to play. It can be to your advantage, for instance, to make one big push through a single lane if you don’t believe you can spread your forces effectively enough to nab two. But, even then, you’ll still need a capable defense to prevent your towers from being overrun.

All of this is covered in the tutorial, but developing a genuine sense of the game takes quite a while, simply due to the nature of its play. Normally this would be a positive trait, and the fact that learning nuances over time is encouraged is a helps create a satisfying, growth-oriented style of play. But that clashes a bit with Artifact’s pricing structure.

Buying the game gets you a starting deck as well as several booster packs to round out your starting set. But from there, you’ll either need to trade and sell cards on the real-currency marketplace to fill out your decks, or compete incredibly well to win them. Competing would be fine, too, but the number of matches you need to win and the rewards you get from there are scant enough that most new players will need to put in some extra cash.

The fineries of play will take quite some time to master, and not because they are obtuse or particularly convoluted, but because of the tension between where, how, and when you choose to play.

This has been helped somewhat by the post-launch addition of a free draft mode (previously it had been behind a paywall). Here you can play all you want and experiment with whatever cards come up in the draft. Players looking to build their actual decks, though, may be disappointed. I say may because the market’s prices are extremely variable, shifting quickly as the market gets more and more rare cards and the metagame evolves. It isn’t clear, however, at this stage, what developer Valve will be doing in terms of restricting card rarity to keep prices stable down the line--or if there are any such plans at all. It may be that in two weeks’ time, competitive decks are dramatically cheaper to field. As it is, Artifact is dramatically cheaper than high-end Magic or Hearthstone, but it may feel less welcoming to passive fans who want to avoid any significant financial investment.

In aggregate, though, Artifact works far more often than it doesn’t. While the volatility of the market is one thing, play on its own is more challenging and engaging than many of its contemporaries. Play moves remarkably fast, too, shuffling between the lanes and then back to the start sometimes in under a minute. It’s a lot to keep track of, but it’s put together well enough and propped up by enough card playability hints and subtle calculations that it rarely ceases to delight.

Production and animation help a good chunk with that, too. Play will frequently shift between the board as a whole and the specific play space on which you’re focusing. Between lanes, though, you’ll have a fluttering imp that manages your deck, carrying it seamlessly to the different play areas between rounds. They don’t affect play, only adding to the aesthetic presentation of the game and the visual language of how your deck and hand move across the board to each miniature arena, but they’re a nice touch. Similarly, the crack of a spell or the soft trickle of the stream that runs the length of the board are engrossing touches that bind the field together and give the game an added visual flair.

All-told, Artifact is a capable reimagining of modern trading card games. It plays quite a bit differently than just about any of its contemporaries--digital or not--and while the marketplace is volatile to say the least, there’s little evidence that the pricing is straight-up predatory. Just note, however, that the game is not free-to-play and be prepared to spend some additional bit of money coming in. It would be nice to see some more extensive options for those wanting to play by themselves or in non-competitive settings, but beyond that, Artifact is a great showing.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review In Progress

Fri, 12/07/2018 - 00:00

The idea of what the Super Smash Bros. games are, and what they can be, has been different things during the series' 20-year history. What began as an accessible multiplayer game also became a highly competitive one-on-one game. But it's also been noted for having a comprehensive single-player adventure, as well as becoming a sort of virtual museum catalog, exhibiting knowledge and audiovisual artifacts from the histories of its increasingly diverse crossover cast. Ultimate embraces all these aspects, and each has been notably refined, added to, and improved for the better. Everyone, and basically everything, from previous games is here--all existing characters, nearly all existing stages, along with the flexibility to play and enjoy those things in different ways. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a comprehensive, considered, and charming package that builds on an already strong and enduring fighting system.

If you've ever spent time with a Smash game, then you likely have a good idea of how Ultimate works. Competing players deal damage to their opponents in order to more easily knock them off the stage. The controls remain relatively approachable for a competitive combat game; three different buttons in tandem with basic directional movements are all you need to access a character's variety of attacks and special abilities. There are a large variety of items and power-ups to mix things up (if you want to) and interesting, dynamic stages to fight on (also if you want to). You can find complexities past this, of course--once you quickly experience the breadth of a character's skillset, it allows you to begin thinking about the nuances of a fight (again, if you want to). Thinking about optimal positioning, figuring out what attacks can easily combo off of another, working out what the best move for each situation is, and playing mind games with your human opponents can quickly become considerations, and the allure of Smash as a fighting game is how easy it is to reach that stage.

Complexity also comes with the wide variety of techniques afforded by Ultimate's staggeringly large roster of over 70 characters. Smash's continuing accessibility is a fortunate trait in this regard, because once you understand the basic idea of how to control a character, many of the barriers to trying out a completely new one are gone. Every fighter who has appeared in the previous four Smash games is here, along with some brand-new ones, and the presence of so many diverse and unorthodox styles to both wield and compete against is just as attractive as the presence of the characters themselves. In fact, it's still astounding that a game featuring characters from Mario Bros, Sonic The Hedgehog, Pac-Man, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, and Street Fighter all interacting with each other actually exists.

On a more technical level, Ultimate makes a number of under-the-hood alterations that, at this early stage, seem like positive changes that make Smash feel noticeably faster and more exciting to both watch and play. Characters take more damage in one-on-one fights; continuous dodging is punished with increased vulnerability; fighters can perform any ground-based attack, including smash moves, immediately out of a running state; and short-hop aerial attacks (previously a moderately demanding technique) can be easily performed by pressing two buttons simultaneously. Refinements like these might go unnoticed by most, but they help define Ultimate's core gameplay as a tangible evolution of the series' core mechanics.

A number of Ultimate's more superficial changes also help Smash's general quality-of-life experience, too. Some make it a more readable game--additions to the UI communicate previously hidden elements like meter charges and Villager's captured items, a simple radar helps keep track of characters off-screen, and a slow motion, zoom-in visual effect when critical hits connect make these moments more exciting to watch. Other changes help streamline the core multiplayer experience and add compelling options. Match rules can now be pre-defined with a swath of modifiers and saved for quick selection later. Stage selection occurs before character selection, so you can make more informed decisions on which fighter to use.

On top of a built-in tournament bracket mode, Ultimate also features a number of additional Smash styles. Super Sudden Death returns, as does Custom Smash, which allows you to create matches with wacky modifiers. Squad Strike is a personal favorite, which allows you to play 3v3 or 5v5 tag-team battles (think King of Fighters), and Smashdown is a great, engaging mode that makes the most of the game's large roster by disqualifying characters that have already been used as a series of matches continues, challenging your ability to do well with characters who you might not be familiar with.

The most significant addition to Ultimate, however, lies in its single-player content. Ultimate once again features a Classic Mode where each individual fighter has their own unique ladder of opponents to defeat, but the bigger deal is World of Light, Ultimate's surprisingly substantial RPG-style campaign. It's a convoluted setup--beginning as Kirby, you go on a long journey throughout a huge world map to rescue Smash's other fighters (who have incidentally been cloned in large numbers) from the big bad's control. Along the way, you'll do battles with Spirits, characters hailing from other video games that, while not directly engaging in combat, have taken control of clones, altered them in their images, and unleashed them on you.

Though there is some light puzzling, the world is naturally filled with hundreds upon hundreds of fights--there are over 1200 Spirit characters, and the vast majority have their own unique battle stages that use the game's match variables to represent their essence. The Goomba Spirit, for example, will put you up against an army of tiny Donkey Kongs. Meanwhile, the Excitebike Spirit might throw three Warios at you who only use their Side+B motorbike attacks.

It may seem like a tenuous idea at first, but these fights are incredibly entertaining. It's hard not to appreciate the creativity of using Smash's assets to represent a thousand different characters. Zero Suit Samus might stand in for a battle with The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater by donning a silver-palette costume and fighting you in a flower-filled Final Destination, but she also stands in for the spirit of Alexandra Roivas from Eternal Darkness by using a black-palette costume and fighting you in the haunted Luigi's Mansion stage, with a modifier that makes the screen occasionally flip upside down (Eternal Darkness was a GameCube horror game whose signature feature were "Sanity Effects", which skewed the game in spooky ways to represent the character's loosening grip on reality). If I knew the character, I often found myself thinking about how clever their Spirit battle was.

Defeating a Spirit will add it to your collection, and Spirits also act as World of Light's RPG system. There are two types of Spirit: Primary and Support. Primary Spirits have their own power number and can be leveled up through various means to help make your actual fighter stronger. Primary Spirits also have one of four associated classes, which determine combat effectiveness in a rock-scissors-paper-style system. These are both major considerations to take into account before a battle, and making sure you're not going into a fight at a massive disadvantage adds a nice dimension to the amusing unpredictability of this mode. What you also need to take into account are the modifiers that might be enabled on each stage, which is where Support Spirits come in. They can be attached to Primary Spirits in a limited quantity and can mitigate the effect of things like poisonous floors, pitch-black stages, or reversed controls, or they can simply buff certain attacks.

There are a few Spirit fights that can be frustrating, however. Stages that are a 1v4 pile-on are downright annoying, despite how well-equipped you might be, as are stages where you compete against powerful assist trophies. On the flip side, once you find yourself towards the end of the campaign, there are certain loadouts that can trivialize most stages, earning you victory in less than a second. Regardless, there's a compulsive quality to collecting Spirits, and not just because they might make you stronger. It's exciting to see which obscure character you run into next, feel validated for recognizing them, and see how the game interprets them in a Spirit battle. There's also just a superficial joy to collecting, say, the complete Elite Beat Agents cast (Osu! Takatae! Ouendan characters are here too), even though these trophies lack the frills of previous Smash games.

Some hubs in the World of Light map are also themed around certain games and bundle related Spirits together to great effect--Dracula's Castle from Castlevania, which changes the map into a 2D side-scroller, and the globe from Street Fighter II, complete with the iconic airplane noises, are personal standouts. Despite the dramatic overtones of World of Spirit's setup, the homages you find within it feel like a nice commemoration of the games and characters without feeling like a pandering nostalgia play. One of the most rewarding homages of all, however, lies in Ultimate's huge library of video game music. Over 800 tracks, which include originals as well as fantastic new arrangements, can all be set as stage soundtracks as well enjoyed through the game's music player.

There is one significant struggle that Ultimate comes up against, however, which lies in the nature of the console itself. Playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate in the Switch's handheld mode is simply not a great experience. In situations where there are more than two characters on screen, the view of the action often becomes too wide, making the fighters too small to see properly, and it can be difficult to tell what you or your opponent is doing. The game's penchant for flashy special effects and busy, colorful stages doesn't help things at all, and unless you're playing a one-on-one match, you'll likely suffer some blameless losses. This is a situational disadvantage and may not affect all players, but it puts a damper on the idea of Smash on the go.

The need to unlock characters also has the potential to be an initial annoyance, especially if your goal is to jump straight into multiplayer and start learning one of the six brand-new characters. In my time with the game, I split my attention between playing World of Light (where rescuing characters unlocks them everywhere) and multiplayer matches, where the constant drip-feed of "New Challenger" unlock opportunities (which you can easily retry if you fail) came regularly. I naturally earned the entire roster in roughly 10 hours of playtime, but your mileage may vary.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate also features online modes, but they were not active during Ultimate's pre-launch period. The game features skill-based matchmaking, private lobbies, and voice chat via Nintendo's smartphone app. It also features a system where defeating another player will earn you their personalized player tag, which can be used as a currency to unlock spirits, music, and costume items for Mii fighters. I'll begin testing these features once the service launches with the game's public release and will finalize the review score once I've had substantial time with the matchmaking experience.

Situational downers don't stop Super Smash Bros. Ultimate from shining as a flexible multiplayer game that can be as freewheeling or as firm as you want it to be. Its entertaining single-player content helps keep the game rich with interesting things to do, as well as bolstering its spirit of loving homage to the games that have graced Nintendo consoles. Ultimate's diverse content is compelling, its strong mechanics are refined, and the encompassing collection is simply superb.