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Eliwood8 last won the day on October 23

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  1. What if, instead of opening your map to check your position or the distance to your target, you could simply rearrange the map to instantly bring yourself to the target? That's more or less the premise of Carto, an adventure-puzzle game where you play as a young cartographer capable of rearranging a map of the world in order to explore. It's a clever, easy-to-understand puzzle formula complemented by adorable graphics and a cute story in this brief adventure. You play as Carto, a young girl and novice cartographer who is separated from her grandmother due to a storm. The storm also scatters pieces of her map all across the world, and now she must explore to find the missing pieces and return to her grandma. Carto is an awfully cute game with a charming, light-hearted narrative. You meet and interact with a variety of side characters all living their own little lives and oftentimes there's some problem Carto can help them with, but this isn't a typical save-the-world quest. It's a relaxed, casual story brimming with adorable charm that is just all around pleasant and fun to hang out in. As mentioned the gameplay revolves entirely around rearranging the map in order to explore, unlock new map pieces, and repeat. There's an important caveat here though: when map pieces touch they have to match, meaning a forest piece has to touch a forest piece, a mountain piece a mountain piece, etc. This one rule is enough to provide plenty of inventive challenges. Carto isn't a particularly demanding puzzle game, but you'll likely encounter a few head-scratchers that give you a moment's pause. Thankfully, since there are so few gameplay mechanics actually at play, you aren't likely to get stuck for long. Sometimes the puzzle hints are a bit too vague and you may need to rely on trial and error, but if anything these particularly obtuse puzzles help spice up the gameplay a bit. Carto is fairly short—most players will probably finish in around five hours or so, maybe a bit more depending on how quick you are with puzzles or how long you take to read all the dialogue. The premise could probably have sustained a longer game as each new area Carto explores adds new little twists to the map formula, but the game also doesn't feel too rushed. It'd be nice if it were longer but the length works as is. The pleasant, relaxed tone of the story—and really the game overall—is matched by an absolutely adorable hand-drawn art style that is cute, colorful, and cuddly. It's also particularly charming in motion. The animation is simple and cartoonish in the best ways possible that will instantly endear players to Carto and her adventure. The soundtrack matches this atmosphere with a fun but extremely chill sound that can't help but make you relax. All of the presentation has a storybook charm to it that makes the game suited for all ages. Carto is a great example of taking one gameplay idea and fleshing it out into a whole adventure. The map manipulation mechanic is simple and delightful, full of clever puzzle opportunities that make you rethink movement and adventuring in video games. It's a fairly brief, leisurely kind of game but it works beautifully and develops an absolutely charming vibe that puzzle fans shouldn't miss out on. Rating: 8 out of 10 Map Pieces
  2. Super Monkey Ball is a premise that was just crazy enough to work. Adorable little monkeys rolling around in plastic balls as you propel them through increasingly elaborate obstacle courses is simply an insane concept, and yet it spawned 20 years of arcade-style games. Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania fondly looks back on those two decades by collecting levels from the original Super Monkey Ball, Super Monkey Ball 2, and Super Monkey Ball Deluxe and rolling them together into one massive collection. It's a charming celebration of the franchise, though not much of a step forward. Although there is a story mode here, there's not much storytelling happening in Banana Mania outside of some cutesy little cutscenes. Not that that matters much—the focus is obviously on the gameplay, and this game delivers an almost overwhelming amount of content. With hundreds of stages ranging from childishly simple to controller-breaking hard, Banana Mania offers a wealth of physics-based platformer challenges. Narrowly balancing your monkey ball across tiny strips of land or building up the momentum necessary to roll up to a high ledge is almost endlessly inventive and truly difficult at times. They can get frustrating, but they're also incredibly satisfying once you finish them. And if for some reason you need to push yourself with even greater challenges, there are bonus missions you can tackle such as finishing the level in under a certain amount of time or collecting every banana. These definitely aren't for the faint of heart though. In addition to story mode there are challenge levels, party games, and ranked challenges that let you compare your best times against players online. Just finishing every level in the game is a big task, and the replay value pushes things even further. The party games can be hit and miss though, especially because the physics in fan-favorite Monkey Target feel a bit off compared to the original game. In fact, the physics in the game overall don't feel quite the same, and while this does make some levels more challenging, only purists are likely to actually feel the difference. Instead, most players will just notice the high difficulty here. Banana Mania adds a few side features to the core Super Monkey Ball experience, though not all of them work perfectly. There's a helper mode which essentially acts as easy mode—you get more time to complete a level and even get guide arrows to point you toward the correct path. The only problem is that most levels aren't challenging due to time or labyrinthine design. Most of the time the challenge is balance, momentum, or aim, so helper mode isn't all that helpful most of the time. Banana Mania also includes camera controls to help you navigate around those tight paths that define Super Monkey Ball levels, though the camera movement is a bit clunky and can be intrusive in stages with a lot of walls. Banana Blitz's artwork is adorable and frankly pretty basic, but how much detail does a game like this need anyway. It's cute and colorful and fun for all ages, plus you can unlock different outfits—as well as different guest characters—to put your own spin on your monkey pilot. The remixed soundtrack is in the same boat. It's chipper and fun and probably won't stick with you after playing. Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania brings together an incredible wealth of gameplay with hundreds of levels and tons of replay value. Not all of the changes or updates are perfect, but rolling around as a monkey in a plastic ball is still pretty charming 20 years after the first Super Monkey Ball game. Hopefully the developers can keep the ball rolling with a brand new adventure in the franchise's future. Rating: 7 out of 10 Monkeys
  3. Batman, Tom & Jerry, Steven Universe, and Arya Stark—what a truly bizarre collection of characters (also I guess I never realized that Warner Bros. technically has some rights to Game of Thrones characters). I will say that the co-op effects are pretty neat. It's cool to see some actual co-op synergy rather than just "we're both fighting the other team."
  4. I'm not saying anything new here but it continues to amaze me that some of these games can sell 1+ million units in a quarter four years after their initial launch. So much of entertainment—whether it's games, movies, TV shows, etc.—feels so focused on how a product does at launch that I sometimes forget how much these games continue to draw in players year after year. Especially Nintendo games.
  5. - Star Renegades (Switch) Once you get into it and actually understand the mechanics this is a pretty unique roguelike. If only it ran more smoothly on the Switch. - Lost in Random (Switch) Loved it, and it was perfect to play this sort of Tim Burton-y game around Halloween. Also, I appreciate that the card collecting and deck building has some depth but isn't overwhelming—combos are pretty obvious and I never felt like I had to scour the internet to find a proper deck strategy. - Super Monkey Ball Banana Mania (Switch) Decent Monkey Ball game, huge selection of levels. Something about it didn't totally click with me, but it was still a fun time. - Papers, Please (PC) Never played this before, didn't really know what to expect other than it's well regarded. It's definitely a unique experience but I doubt I'd ever come back to it. - Gravity Rush Remastered (PS4) Didn't love the combat but just flying around collecting gems was a lot of fun.
  6. Developer Zoink has carved a delightfully oddball niche for themselves since their 2013 release Stick It to the Man!, a hilariously offbeat adventure full of quirky charm. That sense of style is clearly on display with their latest release, Lost in Random, which has all the trappings of a dark fairy tale told through an unconventional, witty, fourth-wall-breaking lens. Like Zoink's previous games, this feels like a one-of-a-kind adventure whose undeniable style outweighs any nitpicks about the gameplay. The game takes place in the six cities of the world of Random, all of which are ruled by the powerful, foreboding Queen. On a child's twelfth birthday, they are required to roll the Queen's black dice to determine which city they will spend their life in, from the lowly Onecroft to the luxurious Sixtopia. When two sisters, Odd and Even, are separated by the roll of the dice, Even sets off on a quest to rescue her older sister, which leads her to discovering her own powerful dice—named Dicey—that could rival even the Queen's. Even's adventures take her through each city of Random and connect her with all manner of madcap characters presented in this weird, quirky, and delightfully charming story. Like previous Zoink games the humor is a perfect blend of silly and unique, and the world-building in Lost in Random has a fantastically eerie sense of style that is just a touch creepy in the most wonderful way. It's incredibly easy to be pulled into this unusual world, and along the way the game still manages to tell a heartfelt story about sisterhood. The game's visual style is a huge part of what makes this strange world so engaging. The artwork draws inspiration from stop-motion animation which, combined with Zoink's inimitable art style, makes for lively, bizarre, and exciting imagery. Townsfolk range from humanoid to talking fish, the scenery has pieces of chess, dominoes, and playing cards built into it, and the exaggerated, slightly grotesque character design oozes style. It's a singularly unique look that is gorgeous to see and so much fun to explore. Lost in Random does take some notable technical hits on the Switch as the in-game visuals clearly aren't as smooth as on other systems, but the strong art style makes up for it. The voice acting also does a fantastic job of bringing this oddball world to life with tons of suitably weird voices. The only complaint here is that Even is only voiced during specific cutscenes, which is a shame since the voice work is great and there's plenty of dialogue that could have been voiced when she's talking to townsfolk. The core of the gameplay in Lost in Random revolves around Dicey, cards, and how Even can use them in battle. While fighting the Queen's minions, Even will need to collect dice power from blue crystals in order to roll Dicey, giving her a number of action points. Rolling Dicey pauses the action and allows Even to activate any cards in her hand, including weapon cards, defensive abilities, and "cheat" cards that have some other effect like creating a zone where enemies move slowly for ten seconds. After activating your selected cards the battle resumes and generally plays out as a third-person action game—for example, you might use a card to summon a sword that Even can swing at enemies. The action points limit how much you can actually do during one roll, but you'll gradually unlock more opportunities to expand your playstyle. Lost in Random is technically a deck-building game, but there are actually relatively few types of cards, so you don't have to pore over hundreds of card combo possibilities to perfect your strategy. This battle system is undeniably unique and provides a good balance of strategic depth and chance. You might have big plans when you're filling out your deck of cards, but if luck's not on your side you might not pull the right ones at the opportune moment. Still, it's pretty easy to experiment since there aren't too many cards to learn, and the game's loading screens even include a few combo tips. You also only have 15 cards in your deck, so you should cycle through them quite quickly. That said, combat can get a little too repetitive at times. The big issue is actually the beginning of every battle as you charge up enough dice energy to draw cards and roll Dicey. Breaking crystals (either on enemies or in the environment) can be kind of slow, and at the very least it's just a boring little chore to perform at the beginning of every fight. Diving straight into the action a little more quickly might have prevented some of the battles from feeling too long. There are some battles that change things up with unique rules, but if anything the game could have used more of these moments to break up the monotony a bit. Lost in Random's UI is another notable stumbling block. The biggest issue is the card screen, where you can swap cards out of your deck and review their effects. The cards are gorgeous so it's no surprise that the artwork takes front and center, but reviewing your deck is just a little less convenient than it should be. A deck-building game like this really ought to have some way to save one or more preferred decks for easy access while you're experimenting. The adventure should last around 12–15 hours, which feels like a good length for Even's quest. The combat can feel a bit repetitive at times but exploring each city and talking with the weird inhabitants never gets old. There are side quests you can tackle which will earn you new cards (or at least money to buy new cards), though Lost in Random is a pretty linear game—when you leave a town you can't go back, so you'll need to wrap up any side quests before you head out. Lost in Random is a beautifully unique adventure, from the quirky art style and world-building to the combat system that rolls together the luck of the draw and third-person combat. The relatively low amount of card types keeps the card-collecting gameplay from getting overwhelming, though it can also limit your strategic opportunities. But the real heart of the game is in the joy of exploring a strange, hilarious dark fantasy world. For players excited by eccentric settings and slightly creepy lore, Lost in Random isn't a risky roll at all, it's a sure bet. Rating: 8 out of 10 Dice
  7. 300hp and 3 stocks might have been a little too high ultimately, but having some variation of the rules was nice.
  8. That's right, it's worth calling out the demo, which is pretty dang long as far as demos are concerned. I think I played it for almost 4 hours and it covers the entire prologue of the game, where you're learning the basics. And yeah, the silent protagonist with a cornball assistant isn't anything new but Navirou was particularly grating to me. His voice probably didn't help.
  9. If you've ever played Monster Hunter and thought "gee I wish I could befriend that terrifying beast that's currently barreling down on me" then boy do I have a game for you. Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin is the follow-up to 2017's monster-collecting RPG on the 3DS, in which players raise and train monsters to fight in turn-based battles. The gameplay loop of Monster Hunter is preserved in a different, gotta collect 'em all kind of way rather than grinding for rare monster drops, but the massive wealth of content remains—for players that enjoy a generous amount of repetition, at least. In the Monster Hunter Stories games you play as monster riders, not hunters, and you build bonds with monsters (aka adorably small Monsties) in order to fight alongside them in battle. In Wings of Ruin, your customizable character is the grandchild of a famous rider and, after learning the ropes of monster riding, you’re entrusted with a special Rathalos egg and set off on a quest to discover the cause of the strange red pits that are opening up across the land, and how the Rathalos egg might be connected to them. There’s a real anime/Saturday morning cartoon vibe to the writing, which is to say it’s cute but toothless. Characters are one-note, the humor is incredibly cheesy, and the overarching story is, not surprisingly, all about the power of friendship. It's a bit of a shame that the spin-off series that really has the opportunity to delve into a more engaging story instead relies on overused tropes, but as usual for Monster Hunter the focus is on the gameplay and perfecting your equipment—or in this case, your Monstie party. The combat in the Monster Hunter Stories games operates on a simple rock-paper-scissors system. You have three attack types: power beats technique, technique beats speed, and speed beats power. The monsters you fight will use one type of attack, so you have to learn (and memorize) their attack patterns and react accordingly (when enraged, monsters will change up their attack type so you have to be ready to adapt). These attack patterns are more consistent in Wings of Ruin compared to the first game, which makes battles way less frustrating and allows you to more easily counter monsters. The flipside is that monsters now have more attacks with unique effects, so you'll still be on your toes during battle. It’s a more simplified system but it’s not fundamentally different from mainline Monster Hunter games: once you learn a monster’s habits, you’ll be able to efficiently counter them. Where things get complicated is that you can’t directly control your Monstie’s attacks. At best you can make them use special skills, though this requires Kinship points so if you're out of points, you're out of luck. The limitation is frustrating but by swapping Monsties during battle you can work around it. Additionally, your weapon type matters during battle. You can target specific parts of the monster to break them (not unlike mainline Monster Hunter games) and different parts are weak to different weapon types (slashing, blunt, or piercing). The game makes it easy to keep track of what part is weak to what type, and it adds another nice little piece of combat to strategize. Even by RPG standards the combat does feel a bit monotonous in Wings of Ruin since, once you know a monster's patterns, you can pretty efficiently avoid damage entirely—aside from those moments when your Monstie or partner just isn't using the right attacks—so battles don't feel particularly rewarding after a while. But that's where experimenting with different Monsties comes in. Aside from fighting, the most important part of your adventure is collecting Monstie eggs. You can find monster dens while exploring or force a monster to retreat in order to find a specific egg, but in short you'll be collecting dozens if not hundreds of eggs during your adventure. For one thing it's important to always keep a variety of power, technique, and speed Monsties in your active party, but if you really want to get into the nitty gritty you'll also want to find Monsties with good genes. You can transfer these genes to other Monsties to give them passive boosts or new skills in battle, and if you're willing to get into it this can be a massive time-sink that could make even a serious Pokémon trainer blush. You don't have to dig into these details too much if you're just playing casually, but a big part of the game's longevity is going to be how much time you spend collecting and perfecting your Monsties. And yeah, just like the mainline games there is a ton of stuff to do here. The story quests alone will last a good 35 hours or so, plus there are plenty of side quests, a ton of post-game content with more challenging monsters to battle, and finally multiplayer modes, both competitive and co-op (co-op is only for side quests though, you can't play the story with a buddy). Wings of Ruin adds more Monsties to raise and train compared to the first game and has seen a steady drip feed of free additional content since the time of release, so anyone looking for a long RPG to sink their teeth into will find the perfect candidate here. It can definitely feel repetitive, but that's the name of the game with this kind of monster-collecting RPG. Seeing the fearsome creatures of Monster Hunter as cute, chibi-fied Monsties is still a bit jarring, but the bright and colorful style of the Stories games is charming in its own way. It is fun to see a different take on familiar monster designs, and the cuteness has actually been toned back a bit in Wings of Ruin—returning characters are now older so everyone seems less baby-faced. The soundtrack's energy propels you through the long adventure, though the voice acting is a mixed bag. Your Felyne companion, Navirou, does a lot of the talking in the game, and his grating personality and sense of humor is pretty tiring. Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin is, for the most part, more of the same from the first game: a Pokémon-style monster collecting game set in the world of Monster Hunter. The combat system is still a bit frustrating thanks to the inherent randomness of not directly controlling your party members, and the story is about as forgettable as they come. However, where the game shines is in the simple loop of collecting, training, and battling with Monsties. It's repetitive, but for completionists it'll be ideal, and may make Wings of Ruin a stepping stone for players to get into the mainline Monster Hunter games too. Rating: 8 out of 10 Monsties
  10. - Metroid Dread (Switch) Love having more Metroid, especially one that is so fast and fluid. The EMMI sections are a bit underwhelming, though. Maybe if they weren't confined to specific areas they'd feel like a bigger looming threat, though they'd also have to tune down the difficulty of escaping them a bit, otherwise it'd end up entirely too tedious. - Greak: Memories of Azur (Switch) Love the animation and controlling multiple characters at once made for some fun puzzle-platforming (and some awkward combat). Game is a bit short though, I was honestly surprised when the credits rolled. Felt like the adventure was just getting started. - Carto (Switch) Extremely cute game, and a really fun, inventive puzzle mechanic to boot! Little on the short side but I still highly recommend it. - Maquette (PS5) Love the puzzle concept but did not like the controls, slow movement, or cheesy, predictable relationship story. Also I thought I was going crazy when a door switch wasn't working. Ended up wasting so much time before I realized it was just bugged and had to restart. - Monster Hunter Stories 2 (Switch) The combat is a little less random than the first game, which is great, but not being able to directly control Monsties or partners still feels weird to me.
  11. The image of two characters just smacking each other with bats as hard as they can but not going anywhere really makes me laugh.
  12. Who can resist a good ninja game? They make the perfect game protagonist: they've got combat training with a variety of weapons, they're lithe and acrobatic, and they're just plain cool. Stick a ninja in just about any setting, such as, say, a retro-styled side-scroller set in a futuristic cybernetic world, and you've got a solid premise on your hands. Cyber Shadow, from developer Mechanical Head Studios and publisher Yacht Club Games, combines retro and modern gameplay elements in a sleek ninja package. You play as Shadow, a cyborg ninja who wakes up in the ruins of Meka City to learn it has been taken over by the mad scientist Dr. Progen. Shadow will need to rescue the trapped souls of his fellow ninjas and put an end to Dr. Progen's machinations once and for all. It's easy to assume that storytelling would be sparse or inconsequential in an NES throwback game, and sure you could ignore Cyber Shadow's cutscenes, but a solid plot line runs through this game with some interesting backstory peppered throughout via cutscenes, text logs, and memories you can find. Sure it's not a massive RPG's worth of storytelling but it makes for a fun setting. For most players, a side-scrolling NES-style ninja game probably brings up Ninja Gaiden as an obvious comparison, but the developer actually cites Shadow of the Ninja as a major influence thanks to its emphasis on precise movement and combat. Especially early in the game, when you're limited to just your sword, you have to approach enemies with some thought. You never have all that much health (even after you find a few upgrades) so you're better off taking things a bit slow and focusing on precise, planned strikes. Precision is arguably the core of most games and Cyber Shadow nails this fundamental aspect with methodical gameplay that rewards players who know how to wait for an opening, get their hit in, and get out. It's a steady and satisfying challenge. That's where the game starts, and as you progress you unlock more and more ninja abilities that kind of evolve the way the game is played. Early on these new abilities are just new attacks, like throwing shurikens, but when you gain the ability to run and strike enemies in a mid-air dash, the flow of gameplay opens up entirely. Unlike most NES-era games, which were understandably repetitive, Cyber Shadow keeps every moment of the game engaging by giving the player new tools to play with and new ways to approach challenges. It's a slow and gradual build-up but it's a blast once you get the full effect with all of Shadow's abilities at your disposal. And don't worry NES fans, even by the end of the adventure Cyber Shadow never lets up on the difficulty. This game has plenty of Nintendo-difficult moments, largely thanks to one-hit kill spike traps or the fact that you get very few invincibility i-frames when you're hit, so you can easily get juggled by multiple enemies if you're not careful. These challenges can be frustrating at times but thankfully the game mitigates them with frequent checkpoints. In a neat twist you can also upgrade checkpoints to provide you with extra bonuses, such as recovering all of your health or giving you a free item (upgrading requires in-game currency which you'll probably have more than enough of after dying and retrying a few times). Items disappear when you've been hit three times, but if you can hang onto them items are pretty powerful. Some items have obvious uses—like a floating gun drone that shoots an energy bullet every time you attack—but others are a little trickier and may require some experimentation. It'd be nice if the game did a better job of explaining these to you the first time you see them, but there are only a handful of items in the game so you'll eventually learn how best to use each one. The game's progression is technically linear—and is even divided into chapters—but there are also a variety of hidden upgrades scattered throughout the adventure, some of which may require late-game abilities to access. The trick is that there are teleportation pads at the end of each chapter that allow you to jump back to grab things if you want (and it never hurts to have a little extra health or energy for your special attacks). It's hard to remember exactly where you saw a suspicious ledge or door—there's no in-game map—so it can be time consuming to retread large parts of the game. Just finishing the story should last around six or seven hours though, so adding on another hour or two of backtracking might be worth it for some players. Retro pixel-art presentation has become pretty commonplace in the indie game scene, but it's not often you see authentic 8-bit visuals like this. The sprite work, color palettes, and animation reflect an earlier video game age and they look amazing. The cybernetic setting mixed with the ninja protagonist also makes for cool, unusual set pieces. The soundtrack is just perfect as well, evoking that old-school style while still feeling fresh and engaging. Cyber Shadow is made for retro game fans, but also knows how to mix things up with engaging challenges from start to finish. It's undeniably challenging but rarely feels punishing since Shadow's ever-growing arsenal of abilities gives you exciting new ways to tackle combat and platforming sequences. There are still some areas where the one-hit spike deaths are just a little too common, but overall Cyber Shadow is yet another excellent addition to the world of thrilling ninja games. Rating: 8 out of 10 Ninjas
  13. I'd say yes, you should, but it's not 100% required. Dread quickly recaps the most important story elements. But also Fusion is a great game so you should play it regardless, if you can!
  14. The most important skill Metroid fans have developed since the series began probably isn't shooting, exploring, or even sequence-breaking. It's patience, because how often do fans have to wait 19 years for the continuation of a franchise's story? Clearly good things come to those who wait though, because Metroid Dread is an incredible return to side-scrolling form for Samus Aran. With a combination of classic abilities, exploration mechanics, and intriguing new twists on the familiar gameplay formula, Metroid Dread is well worth the long wait. Samus is back to doing what she does best: investigating mysterious transmissions on dangerous worlds. A video from the planet ZDR reveals that the X parasite, a deadly life form that Samus battled in 2002's Metroid Fusion, may be alive on the planet. The Galactic Federation dispatched a team of powerful E.M.M.I. robots to investigate, but they've lost contact with them. Enter Samus, the one woman uniquely qualified to deal with this threat. Dread takes its storytelling cues from the best of the Metroid franchise. There are engaging mysteries and light cutscenes scattered throughout the game but it never loses that feeling of isolation and exploration that define Metroid games. There's a light touch of world-building at play here and it feels like the perfect amount. Dread also features a fantastic characterization of Samus, not through dialogue or inner monologues but essentially through mime. The way Samus moves through a hostile environment, the way she carries herself, and some small touches during cutscenes paint a picture of a seasoned warrior, perceptive and adaptable, that says so much about her history and thought process without the need for words. Dread's gameplay is exactly the kind of side-scrolling Metroid action you'd expect, and a clear continuation/refinement of the formula that developer MercurySteam established in 2017's Metroid II remake, Samus Returns. Like that game Samus has a melee counter that puts another fast and fluid ability at her disposal, allowing you to efficiently smash through enemies with one sleek counter shot after another. A new slide ability allows her to squeeze through tight spaces or even underneath an enemy's legs, again emphasizing speed and grace in Dread (and don't worry, the Morph Ball is still in the game). There's a real sense of always being on the move in this game without sacrificing the joy of exploring and testing out new abilities to unlock secrets, which really shows how well the developers understand the Metroid series. One of the key features of Dread—and really the source of its name—is being pursued by the E.M.M.I.s. These deadly efficient robots have, naturally, turned to hunting Samus, but her weapons can't pierce their thick armor plating. E.M.M.I.s are confined to specific "hunting grounds" but every time you enter one it's awfully tense. You only have one small window of opportunity to counter if a robot grabs you, and it's a truly tiny, precise window that is pretty hard to master, so your main hope is to outrun or hide from these robots. Samus will also gain new abilities specifically to help avoid these mechanical menaces, adding some fun new twists to the familiar Metroid gameplay. Especially early on these E.M.M.I. sequences are intense and stressful, and they give the player an interesting opportunity to focus on evasion instead of firepower. However, the stakes of escaping an E.M.M.I. are actually kind of low, which is both good and bad. If you're caught it's game over, but the game autosaves every time you enter an E.M.M.I. area so you lose very little progress. That kind of spoils the stakes a little bit though, and by the end of the game these E.M.M.I. challenges are a little more tedious than they are exciting and stressful. The autosave is definitely preferable to backtracking to a save point though, so even if it's imperfect it's maybe an appropriate solution. The rest of the game certainly doesn't coddle the player, though. Recovery stations and save points are fairly generously sprinkled throughout the game but enemies hit hard—you're clearly not expected to get hit often—and even more importantly boss fights can be pretty difficult. However, it's a good sense of challenge. Boss attacks are often well telegraphed and you'll even have opportunities to recover health and missile ammo during the fight. Any of your mistakes will be thoroughly punished, but it keeps the battle exciting and engaging without being too overwhelming. Dread may be one of if not the most difficult Metroid game, but it never feels unfair. Most players will probably clock in around ten hours on their first playthrough of Dread, though of course this game is made for speed-running and testing the full extent of your skills. It feels like just about the perfect length for the adventure—there are twists and turns and depth to the gameplay but the brisk pacing ensures the action never grows stale. There's also a hard mode if you need even more of a challenge, and naturally there are tons of hidden upgrades scattered throughout the planet. The game makes tracking these collectibles easier than ever—not only does the map light up when there's a hidden item in the area, it even tells you what percentage of hidden items you've collected in the region. It's perhaps a little too easy, but then again sometimes it's hard to figure out how to actually reach an item even if you know it's there, and there are some incredibly tricky ones that fully test your Metroid skills. Completionists should have a lot of fun figuring out what are essentially Metroid puzzles. These screenshots don't really do justice to Dread's visuals. The gameplay seems to emphasize speed and fluidity, and that's reflected in the sharp art design, smooth animation, and intriguing environments that have just enough detail to get your imagination going without cluttering the screen as Samus whips past. And as previously mentioned Samus's movements and animation say so much about her, both in cutscenes and outside of them, that really shows a wonderful attention to detail. The soundtrack is sharp as well: intensely atmospheric, as you might imagine, and provides a perfect backdrop for exploring a mysterious world as well as battling deadly enemies. Metroid Dread is a thrilling continuation of Samus's adventures. Developer MercurySteam proved they had the chops for working on established Metroid concepts with Samus Returns, and now they've proven they can go a step further and help lead the series forward in engaging new directions. Combat is satisfying, exploration is engaging thanks to the tools at your disposal—and the steady rate that you unlock new abilities—and the intense challenge of massive boss fights provides wonderful moments of triumph and accomplishment. Hopefully we won't have to wait years for another adventure with Samus, because as Dread proves, the quality of the series hasn't lost a step. Rating: 9 out of 10 Metroids
  15. In the pantheon of unlikely but highly demanded game sequels, a follow-up to Square Enix's The World Ends With You was up there with the best of them for well over a decade. Which is why it was such a delight to see NEO: The World Ends With You announced. Not a port, not a retouched rerelease, but a brand new adventure through the stylish streets of Shibuya with new characters tangled in the deadly Reapers' Game. NEO has some awfully big shoes to fill to compete with the 2008 original on the DS, and thankfully the game seems to know exactly when to play to nostalgia and when to blaze a new trail. Just like the original game, the story of NEO revolves around the Reapers' Game. Our protagonists Rindo and Fret are enjoying a day in the Shibuya district of Tokyo when they find themselves forced to participate in a game where failure means death. Over seven days they tackle challenges and gather allies in a desperate bid for survival. One of the big strengths of the original TWEWY is the cast of characters, and NEO features an equally engaging scrappy bunch of protagonists (and antagonists). Their personalities and growing bonds will easily charm you over the course of the game, which is particularly important since this is the kind of RPG that will frequently douse you in dialogue sequences. Granted there's a lot happening and a lot that needs to be explained, but NEO can be a little too long-winded at times—early on it feels like it takes ages for things to happen as characters discuss things in circles. Aside from those occasional slow points though the story will easily keep you engaged, culminating in an exciting climax that will be particularly rewarding to fans of the first game (but don't worry new players, NEO will fill you in on the important bits). Gone is the complicated (but satisfying) battle system from the original game that made full use of both of the DS screens. NEO instead finds another inventive use of button combos. Each character equips a pin to attack, which is assigned a button (X, Y, L, R, ZL, or ZR). During battle you tap or hold the respective button to attack and each attack has a limited use before being put on cool down. However, the more important combat tactic is chaining together "Drop the Beat" combos in order to build up your Groove meter which, once filled, allows you to use powerful super attacks. Battles almost feel like rhythmic exercises as you swap between characters to make the best use of combos—in addition to just maintaining a combo, you might need to knock a flying enemy out of the air with one attack before following up with another. There's a nice sense of organized chaos to the battle structure. There's a lot of flashy action happening on screen but by experimenting with different pins you can find your groove throughout it all, resulting in a nicely engaging action-RPG system that is as fun in normal battles as it is in boss fights. There's also a great amount of customization available. The pins you equip determine your attacks so you'll constantly be collecting, leveling up, and evolving new pins to use, but you also have quite a bit of control over how battles are carried out at all. Most of the time you can actually choose to just ignore random encounters, and when you do fight you can choose to chain together enemies for greater rewards and a better chance at earning rare pins. You can also adjust the game's difficulty to the same effect and even lower your experience level (that's not as scary as it sounds, it actually just affects your HP, and your attack and defense are only changed by eating food in the many available Shibuya restaurants). It's nice to be able to adjust the game's difficulty on the fly and make your grinding experience as deep or as light as you want it to be. Juggling level grinding, leveling pins, eating food, and grabbing new clothes for stat bonuses gives you plenty to do and think about on the busy streets of Shibuya without feeling overwhelmingly detailed. There are also a ton of pins to collect and unlock, so completionists will be incredibly busy with NEO. You can also tackle side quests which have the added benefit of expanding your social network, which unlocks various bonus effects or sometimes rare clothing options. Side quests are limited to specific days but the game's story bakes in a handy excuse for revisiting the past so you won't permanently miss anything. Jumping back to a previous day to pick up a side quest you missed then returning to the point you left off is also quite convenient. The average player is probably looking at 40 hours to finish NEO, but completionists will have many more game hours ahead of them if they truly want every last pin. The street art-inspired look of the original returns and it looks glorious on a big screen (no offense to the DS). The art design is slick as hell and just oozes a hip, fashionable sense of style that is distinctive and just plain fun to see. Cutscenes are mostly static images but the art looks so cool that you probably won't mind, even when you see the same character poses again and again. The frame rate takes a few hits in handheld mode when there's a lot happening, but while docked there are no egregious issues. One thing does stick out though—the load times are a touch too long, especially for entering and exiting battles, which is something you'll do countless times over the course of the game. It's a constant, annoying little flaw, but ultimately not a terrible one. NEO also has an undeniably hip soundtrack, one bursting with seemingly boundless energy that will keep your head bobbing, your foot tapping, and your ears glued to the sounds of Shibuya. The voice work also does a fantastic job of bringing the characters to life and making you care about them, dialogue quirks and all. 2008's The World Ends With You is such a singularly unique game that its successor would have its work cut out for it to deliver a similarly engaging plot and stylish design, but NEO: The World Ends With You almost makes it look easy. The vibe is perfectly preserved here while the change in the battle system not only makes sense given the change in hardware, it also allows for its own unique and entertaining challenges that are rewarding and addictive. Fans of the original will be thrilled to see such a worthy sequel here, and new players should love getting their first taste of the inimitable style of The World Ends With You. Rating: 9 out of 10 Pins
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