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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. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 11 years ago Sonic Colors was a breath of fresh air for the blue blur. It cut back on the rash of gimmicky hooks that had plagued the previous few games and mostly kept Sonic doing what he does best: racing through elaborate levels at breakneck speed. It was a Wii exclusive though (plus a separate Nintendo DS version), so it'd look pretty dated by today's HD standards. Sonic Colors Ultimate fixes that by upgrading the graphics and adding a handful of minor new features to the experience. But after a decade of other Sonic games, does Colors hold up? Well, yes and no. The story in Colors pits Sonic and Tails against their classic rival Eggman as he once again concocts a nefarious scheme to control the world. This time he's built an amusement park in space to hide the fact that he's harvesting aliens called Wisps in order to drain them of their otherworldly energy and power his machines. It's a perfectly bland story full of bad attempts at humor and you won't be missing much by skipping every cutscene. The level design in Colors is undoubtedly the highlight of the game. Stages transition between fast-paced 3D sequences and tricky side-scrolling platformer areas. It's a formula that has worked well for a while now and more importantly it allows for some inventive level design. The 3D sequences satisfy that urge for Sonic speed while the side-scrolling sequences can be elaborate and always reward exploration as you can discover hidden secrets by sprinting off the beaten path. With richly designed levels, Colors caters well to both completionists and speedrunners. The unique hook of Colors is the Wisps, the alien creatures that give Sonic new abilities. These are essentially just power-ups that help the hedgehog explore and reach some of those hidden paths, but the gimmick is far less intrusive than some of Sonic's past adventures. They don't really fundamentally change the gameplay, but they add a little extra flavor, which is probably for the best. All that said, it's hard to shake the feeling that this game design has been done better by some of the Sonic games that have come out since 2010. Colors was an important game at the time for helping remind Sonic's developers what makes the hedgehog's games fun, but now it's clear that it was a stepping stone to bigger and better things, and returning to it simply feels dated. The controls in particular can be frustratingly loose and incongruent with some of the more precise platforming challenges the game throws at the player, and they don't always find the happy balance between revelling in Sonic's speed while also maintaining a sense of player control. Colors isn't a long game and can be finished in around five or six hours, but there's a lot of additional content you can come back to. It's unlikely that you'll find all of the collectibles in each level on your first playthrough, and earning the highest grade on each level is even harder. Colors Ultimate also adds Rival Rush, a side mode that allows you to race against Metal Sonic. It's not a particularly exciting new mode but it is at least more substantial than the new cosmetic customization feature that can be unlocked by collecting large coins in each level. Grabbing coins to change the color of Sonic's gloves is pretty underwhelming. Finally, Colors Ultimate adds the Jade Ghost Wisp which allows Sonic to move through walls. It's a handy way of accessing hidden areas but since it can be hard to find and hold onto the Wisp for later use its application can be pretty limited. The game's presentation has had the most obvious and noticeable upgrade, bringing Colors into HD and adding remixed versions of the soundtrack. You'd never be fooled into thinking the visuals were made from the ground up for a modern HD console, but the original Colors already had great art direction and adding a little polish helps it shine. The original soundtrack was also top-notch, and the remixed songs are just that—alternate versions, but not necessarily better (or worse) than what was already there. I should also note that as of the 1.0.4 patch, I didn't run into any of the severe graphics issues or glitches reported by early reviews of the game. There were a handful of times where the framerate didn't feel as smooth as it should be—which is even more noticeable in a fast-paced game like Sonic—but in general the game ran smoothly. A decade later, one of Sonic's landmark 3D games feels…fine. What was important at the time seems like a given now, and the fact that Wisps have now popped up in numerous Sonic games reduces some of their novelty. More importantly, the original game's flaws, notably in the controls and handling department, feel more stark now and really could have used more of an upgrade rather than a straight port. If you never played the original on the Wii, Sonic Colors Ultimate can be a nice peek into his past, but the "ultimate" version of this game should be more than this. Rating: 6 out of 10 Wisps
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. Point and click adventure games are pretty much the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mainstay of video game design. For as old as the genre is, the core gameplay design has endured with pretty minimal changes over the years. Instead, modern games in the genre tend to highlight unique settings and characters to really sell the experience, and there might not be a better example of that than TOHU. Delightfully surreal, the game is as beautiful as it is bizarre. You play as The Girl and her robotic alter ego, Cubus. The duo live on a floating fish world (to clarify, I don't mean the world is inhabited by fish, I mean the world is a fish) filled with odd creatures like lightbulb bugs and oversized flora. One day a mysterious robed figure starts wreaking havoc and damages the Sacred Engine, which sounds pretty important. The Girl takes off on an adventure to repair the engine by traveling to nearby worlds to find help. It's a wonderfully weird setting that doesn't demand any deep thought from the player—why is anything in this world the way it is? Who knows! That's not important here—and just wandering through the environment is a magical and odd experience. There is some light narration and occasional short dialogue, but otherwise the storytelling is pretty sparse. Ultimately that doesn't feel like a problem though; the scenery is the star of the show here, not the story. Like any classic point and click adventure game, you'll need to solve all manner of environmental puzzles to progress. Sometimes you may need to collect items and bring them from one area to another, sometimes a solution is as simple as clicking around a bit on screen. TOHU has a solid variety of puzzles that will always keep you on your toes. Thanks to the surreal setting, the strange solutions also feel oddly at home—of course you need to launch mole-like creatures out of a bubblegum machine to unlock a door, how else would you open it? The Girl and Cubus also have separate strengths: The Girl can climb objects and talk to characters while Cubus has immense strength and can lift heavy objects. Since you can instantaneously swap between the two, it's easy to explore both of their skill sets to solve puzzles. One of TOHU's biggest strengths is keeping the puzzle solutions inventive but not insane. Part of what helps is that each region of the game is actually quite small, so you don't run into that common problem of point and click adventures where you collect and carry around a dozen items across huge environments, never sure when exactly you'll need to use each one. Instead, many puzzles in TOHU are limited to the immediate area/screen, so puzzle-solving never gets exhausting. That's also not to say the puzzles are too easy in TOHU. You'll still run into some headscratchers, but you don't have to exhaustively explore every illogical idea that ran through the developers' heads in order to solve them. Despite the surreal setting, the puzzle solutions are fairly logical and understandable once you've located the proper items or interactive objects. If you do get stumped though, TOHU features a handy in-game hint system. You'll need to complete a minor lock-picking mini-game to use it, but these hints are mercifully direct so they're quite valuable if you need them. One of the only minor downsides to the game is the control scheme when docked. Moving a cursor around the screen using a control stick never feels particularly smooth, and that's no different in TOHU. It certainly doesn't impede the game though, it's just not quite an ideal control scheme. Also the game's relatively short length, around 5 hours or so, may seem brief to some players, though the brisk pacing never feels rushed and actually suits the game's puzzle progression quite well. The presentation is easily the highlight of TOHU. The artwork is just gorgeously weird—even if you didn't have to take the time to explore what you can click on or pick up you'd probably want to spend time just taking in the scenery. Every detail of the environment is delightfully strange and feels like a beautifully realized quirky children's story. It all looks pretty wonderful in animation as well. The stylish visuals are matched by a lovely, atmospheric soundtrack that is moody and airy—a perfect complement to the surreal art style. TOHU is a charming point and click adventure that finds the sweet spot for puzzles that are both challenging and engaging. Its brief length and small environments prove to be its biggest strengths, as puzzles are never weighed down by juggling dozens of items across multiple scenes. A somewhat simple story doesn't diminish the beauty of this surreal world and its bizarre inhabitants. Point and click adventure fans looking for a short and satisfying game would do well to give TOHU a try. Rating: 8 out of 10 Cubes
  10. Here's a game that needs no introduction. The most highly anticipated Zelda title in years, and the reason millions of people bought a Switch (though it's available on the Wii U as well). The Zelda game that would defy series conventions while also returning to the core element of the original title: freedom of exploration. The Zelda adventure that would trust players to experience however much or however little of the game's world that they chose. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a bold move for a beloved franchise with thirty years of history, so it's all the more surprising to see the developers pull it off seemingly effortlessly. Breath of the Wild hits all the right notes to make Hyrule the sprawling, welcoming, challenging, and magical land that it has always been in the hearts of its fans. One of the many ways in which Breath of the Wild breaks convention with the Zelda franchise–and indeed many games in general–is its approach to storytelling. The game doesn't force you to progress through cutscene checkpoints to fill in all the details, nor is it devoid of plot like Mario platformer games. Instead you are free to discover the story at your own pace (after the prologue portion of the game that introduces the gameplay basics and the base plotline). This easily could have felt like an unwieldy way to tell a story, but Breath of the Wild manages it beautifully. This is largely because the heart of the story is in past events which you can learn about in varied locales around Hyrule, so seeing events out of order doesn't matter. In fact, unlocking these story moments at your own pace allows each player to see the story unfold in a unique way, which is rather brilliant. The emotional journey of the characters is still preserved no matter what order you progress in, and these brief glimpses of the characters only makes you eager to discover more. And there is plenty of depth to uncover, which only adds to the weight and tragedy of what happened prior to the events of the game. Even with this disjointed format and Link's typical silence, Breath of the Wild manages to tell one of the more emotionally affecting stories in the Zelda series. The leap to open-world gameplay might seem a bit odd at first, but once you start playing any apprehension melts away. In typical Nintendo fashion the basics seem familiar to other games in the genre, but soon enough you see the brilliant Nintendo touches that make Breath of the Wild stand out from any similar games. For one thing, freedom of exploration means true freedom here. Link can climb almost every surface you can see–there's no need to find the "correct" path up a mountain, you can scramble up sheer cliffs wherever you want (limited only by your stamina meter). This degree of freedom is intoxicating; it's easy to lose hours of your day simply exploring every nook and cranny that Hyrule has to offer. The truly incredible thing is that this never loses its charm. It is so satisfying to discover things in Breath of the Wild, even a small item like the numerous seeds hidden throughout the world. Indeed, one of the true joys in this game is discovering things at your own pace, from all-important shrines to new ways to battle enemies. And although this is the biggest map of Hyrule yet there is never a lack of things to find. There is a perfect balance of free space to roam and activities in which to participate, so you're always engaged with the game world. Let your feet take you where they may in Breath of the Wild and you'll never be disappointed. As mentioned Breath of the Wild's freedom isn't limited to exploration. Practically every time you defeat a group of enemies you'll find a different tactic that you could have used instead. The gameplay is incredibly varied, and while the direct approach works well there is a wonderful sense of satisfaction in taking on challenges with unconventional tactics. Be sure to engage with your environment when fighting enemies–you'll most likely discover new ways to play. The usual combat elements feel great in Breath of the Wild as well. It's not much more complicated than past Zelda games but it still rewards playing well–dodging at the right time and unleashing a flurry of blows is always satisfying. And the variety of weapons helps keep combat fresh from start to finish. Initially the concept of equipment breaking seems annoying but once you're playing it just keeps you constantly engaged with the world's weapon options, from swords and spears to boulders and steep cliffs. Different weapon types feel genuinely different, and you may just find yourself changing tactics depending upon the enemy you're currently facing. Though it still would have been nice if, once a weapon breaks, Link automatically switched to a new one in your inventory. Selecting a new weapon mid-battle does feel clumsy initially. Two important mainstays of the Zelda franchise have been reworked for Breath of the Wild: items and dungeons. After the prologue Link is equipped with all the items he needs–just four abilities. It's definitely shocking to see a change like this but after a few minutes in the game you'll forget all about it. Link's smaller selection of abilities only encourages the player to experiment and come up with unique solutions to the various challenges the game provides rather than cluttering up the inventory screen with items that are only used in their respective dungeons. Speaking of which, Breath of the Wild is virtually dungeon-less. The four main "dungeons" of this game are hardly dungeons at all, and are instead more like extended puzzle challenges. This is one area where Breath of the Wild might have gone a bit too far with changing the Zelda formula, though. These puzzles are decent but are a little too similar to one another with only modest senses of difficulty, including their boss fights–the absence of traditional dungeons with varied puzzles and combat scenarios is keenly felt. Such massive, engaging temples or caves would not have necessarily felt out of place in this version of Hyrule either. Incidentally the final portion of the game, before the climactic fight, is the one area of the adventure most aligned with a traditional dungeon, and it's one of the best parts of the game–it manages to combine Breath of the Wild's philosophy of freedom with a slightly more intricate environment to explore. The other key dungeons of the game could have used a bit of that blend as well. Breath of the Wild makes up for its limited dungeons with over one hundred shrines which are shorter, themed puzzle or combat challenges. Shrines exemplify the incredible gameplay variety that the developers were free to incorporate into the game, not just for the challenges within shrines but for finding the shrines as well. Many can be spotted while exploring, others have a specific side quest tied to them, and some are a challenge just to reach and instead incorporate environmental puzzles. Not all of the shrines are particularly difficult, and the ones that rely upon motion control can be a little annoying, but the flexibility with which you can approach shrine puzzles and shrine hunting is one of the many joys of Breath of the Wild's philosophy of allowing players to experience the game in their own ways. As far as controls are concerned Breath of the Wild doesn't try to reinvent the wheel. Although there are a lot of controls to keep in mind, a few hours of game time will make all of Link's abilities feel familiar. And while the motion controlled puzzles in shrines can be awkward the other gyro controls are fairly comfortable. Most notably aiming the bow with motion controls can be quite helpful for making slight adjustments to perfectly line up a shot. You can always turn motion controlled aiming off if it's not helping though. The visuals of Breath of the Wild are stunning. The colors are beautifully vibrant and, consistent with the free-flowing open-world nature of the gameplay, there are no harsh outlines around objects. The very graphics of the game flow together, emphasizing the unbroken energy of the entire adventure. Each region of the game has a distinct visual personality, from the snowy mountaintops to the sandy beaches, but the overall style is still consistent with one sprawling world. The scenery is simply gorgeous, and you can't help but pause now and then to appreciate it. The music of the game is beautiful in its own right, and provides a soft, muted, ambient soundtrack for much of the adventure. In fact that ambient music could have been just a bit more forceful, more prominent in the game, as outside of the main theme there are few particularly memorable tracks. Longtime fans will enjoy hearing the musical influences of past Zelda games though, which is a nice treat. And finally, a first for the series, Breath of the Wild includes voice acting. The voice work fits perfectly with the rest of the game, though it's a shame it's only in important cutscenes. The actors did a great job of bringing out the personality and emotions of each character, and it would have been fun to see that in the more goofy and charming characters that you tend to meet in side quests. Perhaps not surprisingly such a vast game has the occasional technical hiccup while playing. Most common are frame rate drops during visually intensive scenes, like having a big fight in the middle of a dense forest area. At times the entire game pauses for a split second as it struggles to keep up with the action. There have been various explanations for these issues but the bottom line is that they do pop up sporadically and can be annoying to see but never actually hinder gameplay. The length of the game is hard to pin down: it can so easily vary from one person to the next, and I don't just mean speed runs that try to finish the game in one hour. Granted there are a ton of collectibles to find which affects the completion percentage you can see once you've beaten the story but even so, Breath of the Wild is an incredibly content-rich game. The biggest challenge of the entire game is finding the willpower to take a break from playing. There's always something else to do here, from the main story to simply gathering ingredients and cooking up a few stat boosting meals, and every single moment of it is a blast. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece. There's simply no other word for it. The game is a masterpiece, an unparalleled experience that draws players into a sprawling adventure with just enough familiarity to keep it accessible. Exploration has never been so free or so rewarding. This wildly different direction for a Zelda game was a gamble that paid off in a huge way, though that's not to discount all the various pieces that come together to make Breath of the Wild so incredible. The depth of the emotional journey for the characters further brought to life by quality voice acting, the beautiful visuals that invite you to explore, the captivating soundtrack–every element of Breath of the Wild combines perfectly into a truly magnificent piece of video game art. Maybe there is one other word to describe it: breathtaking. Rating: 10 out of 10 Korok Seeds
  11. Aside from a little taste of the franchise with Travis Strikes Again two years ago, fans have been waiting a decade for another mainline entry in the No More Heroes series. With creator Suda51's signature sense of outlandish style, No More Heroes III reunites fans with Travis Touchdown, Sylvia Christel, Shinobu and more, along with a whole new collection of enemies to slaughter as Travis once again wields his beam katana on a bloody path of destruction. Perhaps even more than previous entries, No More Heroes III is set to polarize players between those that love Suda51's insane game design and those that want a more conventional action-adventure. Whichever camp you ultimately fall into though, there's no denying that this is a hell of a ride. The game opens with an E.T. style prologue where a young boy discovers a small alien on Earth and helps send him back into space. Twenty years later, that alien returns fully grown and ready to conquer the planet with an army of alien "superheroes." Travis Touchdown once again takes up his beam katana to stop them, though he must rise through the ranks of the top ten Galactic Superhero Rankings before he can take on the leader. It's an insane, bizarre story filled with Suda51's signature charm. Travis regularly breaks the fourth wall to talk about what gamers like and don't like, and the writing is littered with pop culture references and seeming nonsequiturs. Plot points jump around so quickly that oftentimes you'll be left wondering what just happened, but overall it works when you just let yourself go along with the crazy flow of things. That said, it definitely feels like No More Heroes III turns the crazy up to eleven, and even with that in mind it can be jarring at times. The previous games were plenty crazy in their own right, but still had some sense of narrative structure. This game gets so out there at times by introducing and rapidly dropping concepts that it doesn't always quite stick the landing into a satisfying conclusion. Like the previous games, No More Heroes III is a third-person action game with a relatively simple overworld to explore and minigame side jobs to tackle. Fighting with the beam katana feels great. Travis tears through enemies with flashy panache and it's always satisfying to execute a finishing blow or defeat an enemy with a pro wrestling throw. Travis can also use four Death Glove skills to mix up the action further, and you can customize your glove with skill chip buffs such as increased heavy attack power or extra time to counterattack when you execute a perfect dodge. Combat looks wild but it's ultimately pretty easy to pick up and learn, and you'll have a blast dodging enemies and stunning them into a suplex finisher. In some ways it feels like combat has been simplified and it does get a bit repetitive at times, but then again the series was never about memorizing elaborate attack combos so much as the satisfaction of ripping apart enemies with bloody attacks. You'll need to take on a handful of designated matches before you can challenge another boss, but aside from fighting you might also want to occupy your time with side job minigames to earn money and skill points. Like previous games these minigames are intentionally ridiculous—one has you picking up trash in alligator-infested waters while another is literally just mowing the lawn—and having something else to do to break up the action is nice. The downside is that there are only a handful of minigame types that are repeated several times. More variety and particularly more personality in the minigames would have been great. In fact, that is, surprisingly, one of the major faults of No More Heroes III—the environments, the alien bosses, and even the basic missions and minigames don't have as much personality as previous games. The bosses in particular are a bit disappointing. Although each fight is preceded by a short cutscene or two to introduce the characters, they just didn't have that much impact, which is a shame. The assassins of the first No More Heroes game were a bit more grounded and were better for it. In No More Heroes III, the alien "superheroes" are outlandish and so sometimes come off as inconsequential. The battles themselves regularly defy expectations, but I only found myself engaged with some of the alien characters. No More Heroes III is a good fifteen or twenty hours long, depending on how much time you spend on the more repetitive aspects. You do have to dive into them at least a little to earn money for the next boss fight, but thankfully it never feels very grindy. If you want to explore everything the game has to offer though you'll have to settle for these optional battles and mini-games, or taking on a higher difficulty level—there aren't really significant options to change up the gameplay in the post-game or new game+ features. As mentioned the combat is beautifully stylish, sometimes edging on over-designed but still just cool to look at. The colorful yet eclectic art style just works for No More Heroes III—the game oozes style and weirdness in equal parts. The boss designs are unique and flashy, though again don't have quite the same personality as previous games' bosses, but I can at least say that every boss fight is a visual spectacle. The constant pop-in while you're riding around town on Travis's bike is annoying but ultimately doesn't hurt the gameplay. The soundtrack is solid even if there are only a few standout tracks, and the voice work does a fine job of bringing these crazy characters to life. No More Heroes III is exactly what players should expect from a Suda51 game: it's absurd, wild, often confusing, and undeniably stylish. When you're in the thick of combat and especially when facing off against an alien boss, it's a blast to hack and slash away with the beam katana. The game can also vary wildly from those highs to unpolished lows when it comes to minigames or environment design, and occasionally the insanity goes so far off the rails that it's hard to appreciate. Still, No More Heroes fans should enjoy the adventure despite, or perhaps because of, all of the madness. Rating: 8 out of 10 Superheroes
  12. Sometimes all you want out of a game is a serene experience, something with which you can relax and not feel stressed out about. Hoa's vibe fits that bill, with an extremely chill atmosphere and a gorgeously soft, dreamy art style. In this case though, the game might be a little too relaxed, leading to somewhat bland gameplay design. I'll get the obvious out of the way first: Hoa is a beautiful game. The hand-painted artwork is reminiscent of Studio Ghibli's work, and just like many of their animated features Hoa has a wonderfully serene atmosphere that just makes you want to take a stroll through nature. Aside from the gorgeous backgrounds, the game's characters are also delightful, from the tiny fairy protagonist to the massive creatures you'll encounter. The animation is a tiny bit choppy but for the most part it's easy to ignore as you walk, jump and swim through lush environments. The orchestral soundtrack is just as stunning, full of soothing emotion with just a touch of melancholy. At a glance you might assume that this game wouldn't have much storytelling at all, but the creatures you encounter do speak and the first thing you learn is that you've just returned to the land after an unspecified absence. Your goal seems to be to reconnect with the creatures you once knew but the actual story is purposefully vague. Although you're left in the dark for much of the game the ending still has a good impact and a valuable message. Hoa is pretty much purely a platformer—there doesn't seem to be any way to die or fail in the game, and the only enemy you encounter just pushes you away instead of damaging you. What that means is that Hoa is a relaxed, chill experience. When the adventure begins all you can do is jump and you have to find some creative ways to overcome obstacles, but gradually you unlock new abilities that add slightly more complicated platforming challenges. The game is never all that difficult though, certainly not to anyone that has played virtually any platformer before. Jumps, double jumps, pushing rocks—there aren't exactly any breakthrough platformer ideas at play here. To be fair though, even if the game is pretty simple it generally does its simple gameplay elements well, which might make Hoa well-suited to younger players. There are a few flaws and quirks that bring down the experience though. Despite being a fairly simple platformer where all you really do is jump and move around, the controls can be slippery, which doesn't feel great for some of the more precise platforming sequences. The game's extremely short length might put off some players as well. You can easily finish in just two hours, maybe three at most, and since there are no additional or optional regions of the game there's not much replay incentive. Each region is also fairly small and relatively linear; sometimes you might have a choice of going left or right, but in the end you have to go down both paths anyway. Finally, the game did have a glitchy issue on the Switch which almost spoiled my whole playthrough. At one point I fell through the scenery and had to reload the game, but it just put me in a black void (there are also no manual saves, just autosave checkpoints). I fixed it by starting a new game then reloading again which put me back on course, but that was still a pretty sloppy glitch to deal with. Hoa is a gorgeous game with a fantastic soundtrack that doesn't quite have the gameplay to back it up. There's nothing wrong with a short, relaxed platformer, but in Hoa's case some tighter controls and more engaging gameplay elements, whether in abilities or just the chance to explore optional areas, would have done wonders for the experience. If you don't mind the lack of challenge though, Hoa is a beautiful little stroll of a game. Rating: 6 out of 10 Butterflies
  13. WarioWare's unique brand of charming chaos comes to the Switch with WarioWare: Get It Together! Like past entries in the series, the game is made up of hundreds of microgames—extremely short challenges that usually task you with completing one simple goal, but in just a few seconds. The hectic energy that comes from trying to frantically adapt to new gameplay goals every few seconds makes for a madcap experience. Get It Together! spices things up by including two-player co-op which, as you might expect, doubles the chaos. It's good fun for fans of the franchise, even if some new features aren't all that interesting. Story mode (which is actually required to unlock new microgames) begins with Wario and his eclectic group of friends finalizing a new WarioWare game. Unbeknownst to them, the game is riddled with bugs and pulls the entire group into the game itself. Now they'll have to complete microgames to squash the bugs and escape. As usual, each new collection of microgames focuses on a specific character and comes with a short, typically wacky intro video. It's not like anyone is playing WarioWare for the storytelling, but the totally outlandish sense of humor and style is always delightful. This series is clearly Nintendo's developers' opportunity to get weird, and it's always fun to see what they come up with. What makes Get It Together!'s microgames unique is that the characters are participating in the microgames directly, and each one has a different set of abilities. Wario, for example, has a jet pack to move freely around the screen and can hit things with his familiar shoulder bash. 18-Volt, however, doesn't move at all and instead tosses discs to hit objects on screen. So in Get It Together!, not only are you adapting to different microgame rules every few seconds, you're also adapting to different character controls, which makes the action even more chaotic and wacky. The good news is that the controls are never complicated—at most you're just moving and pressing A for some kind of attack/interaction, so every character is easy to pick up quickly. You'll still likely fumble the controls every so often, especially if the microgames are moving at a high speed, but it's hard to stay frustrated at such a clearly silly, light-hearted game. That said, not all of the characters feel totally equal in terms of abilities or value. The ones that move freely are almost always going to feel like the best candidates for any given microgame, while the more unique characters sometimes don't even feel fast enough to complete a challenge. It would be a big task to make sure every single character is perfectly balanced in every situation, and in a way the discrepancies almost add replay value as some characters feel like you're playing on "hard mode," but it's still jarring when you first try these characters out. Co-op is the other key aspect of Get It Together!, and if completing microgames solo is wacky and challenging, completing them with a friend is pure chaos. It's a perfect party game vibe as two players scramble to get something done in just seconds. Once again not every microgame is perfectly balanced around having two players—some become trickier, some just make player two feel like an afterthought—but getting a friend in on the action is still a lot of fun. Get It Together! also features a variety of party games, most of which support up to four players (on the same system or over local wireless). This selection of minigames is pretty underwhelming though. Many of them are fine but rather bland, like a volleyball game, though a couple do shine, including the ones that actually have you competing via the story mode's microgames. None of these four-player games feel like they have the staying power of an actual multiplayer-focused game like Mario Party, but they're still good for a bit of goofy party fun. The only online mode included in Get It Together! is the Wario Cup, a weekly challenge mode that allows you to upload your score to ranked leaderboards. On one hand it's a rather underwhelming use of online gameplay, but the constantly changing challenges can give you a reason to keep playing every week. You can also improve your score by upgrading your characters (which involves buying items with coins you earn by playing the game), which feels like the definition of tedious busywork, but if you want to tackle it you'll have plenty of reasons to come back to the game over and over. WarioWare: Get It Together! boasts the same chaotic fun and energy of past entries in the series, with the added benefit of two-player wackiness. Controlling characters directly is a unique twist that makes the microgames even more challenging and varied, though it's hard not to play favorites when some characters feel objectively better. Even if some of the side modes are underwhelming, the core microgame action is hectic and entertaining—exactly what you'd want from a WarioWare game. Rating: 8 out of 10 Microgames
  14. Hello Neighbor was an inventive but ultimately flawed stealth/horror game about investigating and escaping a creepy neighbor's house. Despite an engaging premise and stylish aesthetic, the gameplay was a bit of a mess. However, the game still did well enough to spawn sequels and spin-offs, which brings us to Secret Neighbor (developed by Hologryph and Eerie Guest Studios and published by tinyBuild Games), an asymmetric multiplayer game where six players attempt to sneak through the neighbor's house, collect keys, and unlock the mysterious basement door. The catch? One of you is secretly the neighbor. Similar asymmetric multiplayer games have flourished recently thanks to the inventive challenge of outwitting your opponents using different abilities or skills. Secret Neighbor has some of that as well—you're able to choose to play as one of several kids, each with a different set of abilities. One can craft items, for example, while another has more inventory space than others, perfect for collecting all the keys necessary to unlock the basement. The keys themselves are randomly placed throughout the various playable maps, so you always have to poke around corners and shelves to find everything you need. Initially you're armed only with a flashlight to further emphasize that sense of eerie foreboding when you don't know who or where the neighbor is. So the premise itself is solid, but much like Hello Neighbor, the game falls apart in the nitty gritty details. The controls are a chore to use and you'll constantly be fighting the cursor to actually pick up the item you want. Sure this adds to the sense of urgent dread but it's also just a pain in the butt and awfully tedious. Like Hello Neighbor, the environments are incredibly stylish but after one or two play sessions you'll realize just how bare each room actually is. For the amount of stuff you can pick up or interact with, there's very little that actually has any value or purpose. Part of that is just to make you sift through junk to find keys, but again that's just not all that fun after a while. The physics can be awfully inconsistent as you try to throw or drop objects, and the default settings are a bit nauseating (thankfully you can tone down the motion blur and head movement, though). The biggest issue with Secret Neighbor though is in balancing. The neighbor is ridiculously overpowered compared to the children. He can pop out of disguise at any time and grab a kid. Once he's got hold of one, he just needs to keep hold for several seconds and the kid is captured or eliminated from the game. There's actually very little that the kids can do in response to this. If all of the other four kids team up to toss objects at the neighbor they can stun him, but it's difficult to aim and arguably more difficult to coordinate with other players. Even when you do manage to keep the neighbor stunned for a while, it's hard to then also search for keys (and leaving just one or two kids to keep an eye on the neighbor probably won't cut it). The neighbor has a handful of tools at his disposal as well, but these are almost unnecessary given how overpowered he is compared to the kids. The experience just doesn't feel balanced or totally thought out, sadly not unlike Hello Neighbor itself. The game definitely wants you to keep playing over and over as much as possible, and offers incentives with a huge variety of cosmetic unlockables for every character (including the neighbor). By collecting coins in the game you can spend them on clothing and costumes. The costs are astronomical compared to how much you earn in a typical match so clearly the developers want you to get hooked, but a compelling gameplay system might have done the job better. Just like Hello Neighbor, Secret Neighbor is an interesting concept that just doesn't seem to be fully thought out. The challenge of working together and dancing around a single dangerous opponent falls flat when the two sides feel so imbalanced. Even just exploring and collecting keys is a bit janky and boring thanks to clumsy controls and a lack of compelling object interaction. You're better off taking the game's advice to heart and avoiding this neighbor entirely. Rating: 4 out of 10 Neighbors Review copy provided by publisher Secret Neighbor is available now on the Switch eShop for $19.99.
  15. Cris Tales has been advertised as an indie love letter to classic JRPGs, and it's not hard to see why. Time travel, unique battle mechanics, gorgeous artwork and music—I'm not describing Chrono Trigger, these are all aspects of Cris Tales, a game that clearly shows an incredible fondness for the genre while still attempting bold, innovative twists of its own. Not all of those quirks work out perfectly, but one thing's for sure: this game is made for JRPG fans. You play as Crisbell, an orphaned young woman who unlocks an incredible power as a time mage. She is able to see the past, present, and future, and even rewrite future events by changing things in the present. As is always the case, there's a terrible threat to the whole world—in this case it's the Time Empress—so Crisbell sets out on a quest to stop her and aid all the people of this beautifully illustrated world. The story and setting are fun even if the writing can be rather cheesy at times. The banter among your characters is a bit tropey and there are some predictable plot twists, but the magical, fairytale quality of Cris Tales still makes it easy to lose yourself in the narrative. Crisbell is a likeable protagonist and it's fun to just go along with the gorgeously designed ride (also there's a talking frog). Crisbell's time manipulation abilities extend to the very appearance of the game. When you're walking through a town, the screen is split by a triangular formation to represent the past on the left, the present in the center, and the future on the right. It's an awfully stylish way of representing Crisbell's time magic and plays into several light puzzles—something you need to progress has been lost in the present, but perhaps you can jump to the past and grab it before it disappears? If anything this time manipulation mechanic is underused over the full course of the game and could have been put to even more inventive uses, but it's still a clever concept that makes for some uniquely striking artwork. Cris Tales is a turn-based RPG with timed actions like Paper Mario—press the A button at the right time while attacking and you'll deal more damage, while defending and you'll take less—but the time mechanics have a unique effect here as well. Your party is always in the center of the screen and enemies appear on either side. Crisbell is able to send enemies on the left side of the screen into the past, or enemies on the right into the future. You can combine this with other characters' abilities for powerful effects: one of your allies, Wilhelm, is able to send out plants that can hit multiple enemies, but they need time to grow. By manipulating time, Crisbell can activate the plant immediately to devastating effect. Changing time will also affect enemies though—a meager wolf pup might not be too dangerous in the present, but sending him into the future causes him to grow into a full-fledged beast. It's a wonderfully unique battle concept that is rife with possibilities. And yet, it doesn't feel like Cris Tales goes all in on its own concept. You'd assume time manipulation would be the key to battle, and certainly the key to most boss fights, but the truth is it's just as easy to fight normally most of the time (granted there are battles where you do have to change time to expose enemy weaknesses). The thing is, changing time is time-consuming. Since Crisbell is the only one to do it, you have to wait for her turn in the battle order to often set up and then execute these combos, and oftentimes that time is better spent just attacking normally. To be fair it might have felt too tedious or repetitive to set up time combos in every battle, and even if you aren't using time manipulation battles are still entertaining, but it's kind of a shame that the most unique aspect of the combat system doesn't feel all that vital. Cris Tales also features some old fashioned JRPG quirks, which may grate on some modern players. Battle encounters are random, so sometimes it feels like you're inundated with them and sometimes, when you just want to level up, it feels like you can't find a monster anywhere. There's no auto-save system sadly, though you can save on the overworld and save points are fairly common in towns and dungeons. Speaking of which, the dungeon design is satisfying when Crisbell's time powers have an effect on the environment, but there are also plenty of dungeons that are just standard mazes—go down this path to find a treasure chest, the other path leads forward, etc. Cris Tales has a solid grasp of JRPG fundamentals, but doesn't always know when to push the envelope forward and really delve into new territory. I do have to mention that the game suffers from some pretty frustrating load times. That old necessary evil, the loading screen, not only pops up frequently but can last a good 10 seconds or more—honestly it feels like an eternity when you're just entering or exiting a battle. The game as a whole is also somewhat slow paced and these frequent breaks just seem to draw things out further. Cris Tales is a decent length but not too long for an RPG. A good 20–25 hours should see you through the whole game, and while there are a handful of side quests available there really aren't too many opportunities to tread off the beaten path and explore. The adventure as a whole actually feels rather compact: enter a new town, discover some problem or concern, traverse a dungeon to fix it, then move on to the next. It's a formula that makes sense, but again it might have been nice to spice things up a bit. Hopefully these screenshots have already made it clear but Cris Tales is an absolutely gorgeous game. Every single screen feels like a beautifully crafted painting, and seeing it all in motion is even better. The fairytale vibes paired with simply stunning character and environmental designs is beautifully unique and truly makes it a joy to explore every new city—plus you get to see the same city in three different time periods for even more incredible detail in the artwork. The art style feels simultaneously whimsical and ornate yet very much founded on geometric shapes for a controlled yet stylish aesthetic that apparently I can't say enough about as I continue to ramble. The soundtrack is equally wonderful, ranging from sweeping piano tracks to heart-pumping battle tunes that perfect the majestic and magical fairytale vibe. The voice work also does a good job of bringing the characters to life—some can be rather melodramatic, but the voice acting does make everything feel more animated. Cris Tales truly is a charming take on the JRPG genre, one that clearly draws inspiration from the classics and yet happily tries new things as well. The stunning artwork is naturally the first thing players will notice, but it's not the only thing that makes the game special. The time manipulation gameplay is clever, engaging, and rewarding, even if it feels like it falls to the wayside at times in favor of more basic story, puzzle, and battle mechanics. A bit more boldness in making its most unique features more prominent would only have bolstered the game. Still, Cris Tales provides a lovely JRPG adventure that is well worth the time. Rating: 8 out of 10 Time Mages
  16. It can't be easy to stand out from the crowd of indie games released every week, but a cyberpunk story told with a comic book aesthetic awash with neon colors is certainly one way to draw the eye. But while Foreclosed promises a stylish adventure at a glance, a closer look only unveils flawed game design and poorly executed gameplay. You play as Evan Kapnos whose identity was recently Foreclosed. In this cyberpunk world, that means he essentially doesn't exist anymore and any rights or belongings he had are cut off—he's stripped of his job, brain implants, and access to the city's cybernetic features. His only hope is to find the cause of the Foreclosure and stop it before he's completely deleted. It's an interesting and compelling premise that immediately puts you in a tense, hurried adventure, but the game does absolutely nothing else interesting with its cyberpunk genre and instead immediately relies on familiar tropes—evil megacorporations, shadowy helpers, etc. What's worse is just how poorly the story is written. The game will throw information at you in confusing, looping dialogue trees that provide far too much detail with little context, and Evan himself is practically a blank slate devoid of personality. There is a solid premise here, but the execution stumbles terribly. Unfortunately that's more or less the issue with the gameplay as well. A blend of stealth, hacking puzzles, and third-person shooter mechanics add up to an incredibly dull action experience. The stealth mechanics are woefully basic and you're never really given interesting tools to use while sneaking around (even in a game filled with cybernetic powers). Being spotted is generally also instant-death so it's a slow, tedious affair to creep through rooms. The puzzles are as bare-boned as possible and even calling them hacking challenges is overstating the game's mechanics. You either punch in a series of directions on the D-pad or just need to find a few nodes in order to open a door. The shooting mechanics are the most frustrating and disappointing though, mainly because this is where the bulk of the gameplay is and can lead to some extremely tedious battles. First off, the aiming controls are pretty awkward and can't find a good balance between small stiff movements or terribly loose wide swings. This can be particularly frustrating since enemies are absolute bullet sponges and you pretty much have to land headshots to take them down with any sense of efficiency. Enemies will pepper you with bullets so quickly though that you have to carefully duck behind cover and peek out for headshots. Enemies also outnumber you massively and often come with a few waves of reinforcements that drag the fight out even longer. These shootouts are challenging for the wrong reasons. You're not pushed to find clever ways to move around or take out targets, you're just popping out of cover to fire off a few shots then ducking back down while your health replenishes. It's terribly repetitive. Throughout all of this Evan only has his pistol, but you can augment it with upgrades as well as cybernetic abilities such as a temporary shield or the ability to telekinetically lift and slam enemies. Sadly these upgrades are not the boon they ought to be and only add the barest amount of spice to the monotonous shooting galleries you're forced to play through. Most of the effects aren't very powerful, or at least aren't more effective than a clean headshot. Not only are the abilities fairly underwhelming, they also come with a costly heat sink system where, if you overheat your cybernetic implants, you're left dazed and vulnerable for a few seconds. It's meant to force you to play thoughtfully, but it really just makes using abilities a chore. On top of all this, I did run into a few buggy problems while playing. One was almost comical—falling from a ledge that I clearly wasn't meant to fall from, landing me in a blank void—except for the fact that restarting required replaying a substantial section. The game autosaves, but not frequently enough to make restarting convenient. The game's presentation is perhaps the one shining aspect of Foreclosed, but even this comes with some significant caveats. The comic book style is cool but if anything underused—there are times where the panels of the "comic book" are tied together in interesting ways, but the majority of the game is just played in a standard third-person perspective. The art design is pretty repetitive as well, with the same generic gunman for all enemies and not much variety in scenery. The voice acting is a real disappointment. It feels like the developers were going for a gruff, gritty protagonist who's curt with his words, but the actual acting comes off as lifeless and dull, which does no favors for the already underwhelming script. Foreclosed has huge style points going for it as you initially boot up this third-person action game, but sadly that style is just window dressing for an unsatisfying mix of shallow gameplay elements. A couple of interesting ideas isn't enough to carry the entire game, and the tedious, uninventive shooting gameplay will only bore you or frustrate you. It's a short adventure, but even three or so hours is perhaps too long to spend with Foreclosed. Rating: 5 out of 10 Foreclosures
  17. It's probably just a coincidence that a game about taking medicine came out during a global pandemic, right? Tin foil hat aside, Vitamin Connection takes players on a microscopic journey inside of living bodies to eradicate viruses and bacteria and help heal the hosts. The big hook of the game though is the co-op gameplay that has two players piloting the same capsule ship in a real test of cooperation and navigation. It's an inventive concept that feels like it could only happen on the Switch. You play as Vita-Boy and Mina-Girl, tiny vitamin personifications that pilot a capsule ship to help heal the Sable family. Your first mission is to cure a little boy so that he can go on the field trip he's been looking forward to, and from there the story gets surprisingly stranger. The game has a strong Saturday morning cartoon vibe, from the rather cheesy interactions with talking viruses and bacteria to the colorful and stylish vignettes of the Sable family. The writing in Vitamin Connection is cute and overall rather forgettable, though the turn toward the end of the game that takes the story into a grandiose sci-fi adventure is something I can honestly say I did not see coming. The gameplay is all about navigating the (mercifully nondescript) innards of your human hosts to cure what ails them. The capsule ship moves forward automatically but you can move around the screen, tilt the ship to squeeze through narrow passages, and fire lasers to defeat harmful viruses. After the first level you'll also gain the ability to grab things with an extendable claw like those maddening arcade games. The navigation aspects of Vitamin Connection feel a bit half-baked. While moving through the body you'll find forks and twisting passages, some of which take you to dead ends, but it never feels all that special to pick a direction and explore. You always have a marker telling you the general direction of where you need to go, and in the end these levels aren't that big anyway so it doesn't take long to check every passage. The unique hook of all of this is twisting and rotating the ship through passages with either the shoulder buttons or physically rotating the Joy-Con. Maybe motion controls have just been on the market for too long but this doesn't feel like an exciting selling point anymore, and though it's used well in Vitamin Connection it doesn't feel noteworthy. However, if you do explore everything and collect all of the stars in a level you are treated to a bonus level, so there is some incentive to poke around as much as you can. The hazards and puzzles you find while exploring aren't too complicated either. Your laser has a cooldown limit so you can't fire it constantly, but it's also not so short that you have to be particularly careful. There are only a couple of enemy types and they're pretty basic, and other hazards aren't terribly complicated either, like breaking through colored barriers with the correct side of the capsule ship. Every time you reach a critical destination, you'll have to clear up whatever is hurting the human by completing a short mini-game. These mini-games vary wildly in quality—some are simple but fun, such as the table tennis one, while others are kind of bland, such as a mini-game where you navigate a short maze by rotating your ship around corners. Far from being exciting challenges or checkpoints of progress, these mini-games just feel like chores. The main selling point of Vitamin Connection is the co-op gameplay though. In co-op, both players pilot the same capsule ship and have to coordinate and communicate carefully to make it through hazards unscathed. When you're trying to aim a laser but your partner is moving the ship erratically, things get a little kooky. It's chaotic but really feels like how the game is meant to be played. Solo these challenges aren't much to speak of, but with a friend even basic obstacles are an opportunity for fun (and perhaps equal parts frustration). Clearing the main story will only take a few hours, but there are several bonus features here. As mentioned you can unlock bonus levels by thoroughly exploring each of the main levels, plus there's a New Game Plus mode that adds some subtle changes so it's more than just a replay option. If you take the time to explore everything the game has to offer you'll be kept decently busy. The visuals of Vitamin Connection are pretty charming—the microscopic characters are pretty cute in their cartoon designs, the scenery is colorful though not super detailed (again that might be for the best given the game's setting) and the cutscenes with the Sable family are delightful. The developers also clearly took special care in building up a robust, chipper soundtrack. There's a mix of J-Pop, hip hop, and more standard video game background music to be found here, and it definitely keeps the energy up in a fun way. Vitamin Connection feels perfectly at home on the Switch thanks to its co-op focus and suspiciously familiar ship design. Like the early Switch eShop games, Vitamin Connection seems to explore a distinctly Switch-based experience. That said, the heart of the gameplay is perhaps a bit too simple, and only the charm/chaos of playing with a friend spices up the experience. But if that co-op experience is what you're looking for, Vitamin Connection is the right prescription. Rating: 7 out of 10 Vitamins
  18. Two humans, a host of demons, and Satan walk into a bar. That's not the setup to a bad joke, it's more or less the premise of Afterparty, another story-driven game from developer Night School, the team behind Oxenfree. Like that game, Afterparty is light on gameplay but heavy on storytelling as the two protagonists try to find a way to escape Hell while hopping from one night club to another, sampling all of the cocktails that demon bartenders offer. It's a unique and witty adventure, even if all of its gameplay elements don't quite land perfectly. You play as Milo and Lola, two childhood friends who have just graduated college and are ready to take on the world…until they die. The pair don't even remember how it happened, but now that they're in Hell they're forced to go through processing to receive the terms of their eternal damnation. However, they come across a lucky loophole: it's possible to escape Hell if you're able to outdrink Satan himself. Thus the two friends set off on a bar-hopping adventure to find a way into Satan's killer party and challenge the big man to a drinking contest. As you might imagine based on the premise, the story is pretty silly and the developers clearly had a lot of fun writing this bizarre setting. Demons are casually drinking with the souls of the damned, cracking jokes and even a few fourth-wall-breaking one-liners. And the humor is actually really solid in Afterparty. It can be hard to make jokes land well in games sometimes but there's some great witty lines here that are genuinely smart, charming, and entertaining. And on the other side of the coin, Afterparty handles its drama quite well. Sometimes there's such a focus on comedy that the drama feels a bit unearned, as in two characters just start arguing seemingly out of nowhere, but overall it has believable weight and will draw you in. It's not hard to care about Milo and Lola, as individuals, as friends, and as humans trying to escape eternal torment. Dialogue is the main focus of Afterparty, and for the most part is the only real gameplay element of the adventure. You always have two dialogue options while talking, but you can also order drinks from the bars that grant new options, typically with wacky effects. One drink might make you talk like a pirate, another will make your dialogue flirty or witty, etc. The idea of altering your dialogue options is fun and provides a ton of replay value, though in practice the alcohol lines in Afterparty are pretty underwhelming. The drunk lines are pretty much just an optional feature—they don't have much real impact on how you progress through the story. It's a bit disappointing, since it felt like the game was setting up the player to have to find the best drink for each situation, but in practice it's just a minor feature. The only other times you have real gameplay interaction are during the drinking games, which are also rather basic and underwhelming. The controls are understandably tricky during these portions—the characters are drunk, after all—but even so, it makes the games kind of obnoxious to play. Additionally, the most recent patch version of Afterparty seems to be a good improvement over the launch version, but it still has some slight technical issues, including long load times, occasional framerate drops and small animation errors. Otherwise the visual design of Afterparty is a fun mishmash of foreboding Hellscapes and dive bar chic. Dark, bleak towers are contrasted next to neon light signs for local pubs, and the effect is pretty funny. The demons are more goofy than threatening, which gives the adventure a ton of charm. The scenery can be a little repetitive since you have to revisit places sometimes, but the aesthetic is still fun. The top notch voice cast is also doing a ton of work to bring out the game's quirky personality, and everyone nails their role. The background music isn't much but that's only because there's so much dialogue that you'll only ever really focus on the voice acting. Afterparty is a smart blend of comedy and drama, wrapped up in a totally unique setting. If anything the game could've explored its own concept more, with more exploration of Hell and more consequences for your choice of drinks, but even so there's an enjoyable adventure and an entertaining story being told here, even if you take only a single 5-hour playthrough and not a second to see all the little options and changes possible. Rating: 7 out of 10 Cocktails
  19. More than any other Zelda game, Skyward Sword felt tied to the console it was released on. The motion controls of the Wii—as well as the enhanced abilities of Wii MotionPlus—were a fundamental aspect of the game that guided both combat and puzzle design. The Switch, of course, also has motion controls, but for the Wii that aspect was always front and center given the unique design of Wii remotes and nunchuks. So it's particularly gratifying to see how well The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD holds up after ten years and a leap to a new console. The focus on motion controls might seem odd and it may not be as revolutionary of a Zelda game as its followup, but the core spirit of adventure is still alive and well. In the somewhat convoluted Zelda chronology, Skyward Sword is the earliest tale and tells the origin story of the Master Sword as well as the earliest incarnation of Link and Zelda's intertwining fates. Zelda has a lot more personality in this game compared to previous adventures (while Link is still a silent protagonist) and there are a couple of standout side characters as well, including the pompous Groose and creepy villain Ghirahim. This still isn't the type of game to bombard the player with lengthy cutscenes, but when cutscenes do pop up they're often filled with charm and gravitas, making this a particularly engaging Zelda story. The fundamentals of Skyward Sword are still classic Zelda, though with the hindsight of Breath of the Wild it's fun to see little examples of how that game's philosophy originated here. This adventure is still linear but there's a bit more emphasis on large environments that give you some opportunity to explore at your own pace. Link has a stamina gauge in this game that forces you to put a little more thought into how you move through an environment and/or attack enemies. Some items are upgradeable with materials you can collect while exploring. Replaying Skyward Sword is a good reminder of how each Zelda game builds off of its predecessor. But enough about Breath of the Wild. Skyward Sword is a wholly entertaining Zelda adventure in its own right thanks to a smart blend of classic Zelda elements and motion controls. On one hand, you have dungeon designs and items that are right at home in most any Zelda game. What makes Skyward Sword unique, though, is how both combat and puzzles are framed around motion controls to add just the right twist to make that game design feel fresh. Slashing your sword with a physical swing of your arm or carefully adjusting the aim of your bow is just as much fun today as it was ten years ago. It also certainly helps that this game features plenty of great dungeon designs, in no small part due to how interconnected the puzzles and overworld are. In many cases just getting to the dungeon feels like half of a dungeon in and of itself, which gives the whole game a nice momentum that makes it hard to put down. There are also some great boss fights (as well as a couple of not so great boss fights) that put the game's motion control-focused items to good use. If there was one small annoyance I had to point out though, it's that flying through the sky still feels rather boring. The aerial portion of the map is just too sparsely populated to be all that engaging to explore, and getting from point A to point B is still pretty dull. Skyward Sword certainly isn't the only Zelda game with this fault though, and a boring minute or two in the sky doesn't diminish the rest of the experience. So what's new with Skyward Sword HD? Well first and foremost is how the motion controls hold up with the Joy-Cons, and ultimately it works rather well. The sensation of swinging a sword still feels solid (though I have to air a small gripe as a lefty: using the right Joy-Con feels off to me compared to using the Wii remote in my left hand) and you're now able to freely move the camera with the right control stick which is a nice little improvement. Skyward Sword HD also features button controls, which don't give you that satisfying level of immersion but still get the job done. You swing the sword by flicking the right control stick which never felt quite as accurate to me as the motion controls, but the game is still comfortably playable with this setup. The downside is that now you have to hold the L button in order to move the camera, which is clunky. The other changes are relatively minor but all of them are welcome. The game now autosaves so you don't have to rush to a bird statue every time you want to stop (though of course you can also just put the Switch to sleep these days), your helper Fi is no longer quite so keen to interrupt you constantly with advice (though she can still help if you specifically ask her to), and you no longer have to sit through an item description every time you pick one up (which was a frankly mind-boggling feature of the original game). It's a lot of little quality of life improvements but they all add up to make the adventure better than ever. Unfortunately, one of the biggest additions is locked behind the Loftwing amiibo, but if you get your hands on one it's a handy way of quickly transitioning from land to sky—another welcome improvement. Like a lot of HD upgrades, the visuals of Skyward Sword HD essentially look like how you remember the original game in your mind: without the jagged edges of pixelated effects of an SD game and instead bursting with color and stylish impressionist-painting visuals. The original game looked good on the Wii, but the transition to HD is an obvious improvement and manages to adapt the art style without losing too much of that cool painted effect. Some of the character models are still a bit blocky, but the style of the game easily outweighs those small technical drawbacks. The soundtrack is also just as much of a blast here as it was ten years ago, with majestic ballads and thrilling adventure tunes galore. Nothing has actually been added to the length of the game, but Skyward Sword is still a solid length Zelda adventure, particularly if you take the time to hunt down all of the optional collectibles. There's also Hero Mode that opens up once you've completed the game once, which is essentially a Master Quest or hard mode. Zelda fans should enjoy the extra challenge though. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD brings a welcome selection of improvements that will hopefully help introduce this 10-year-old game to new fans. Even veterans will appreciate revisiting one of Link's more unique adventures, with its more precise approach to combat and inventive dungeon designs that still cleverly revolve around motion controls. Most of all, the HD facelift makes the colorful art style shine more than ever before. Pop on your green tunic, strap on your sword and leap into another fantastic, whirlwind Zelda adventure with Skyward Sword HD—you'll be glad you did. Rating: 9 out of 10 Loftwings
  20. Can't get your hands on the recent limited edition Game & Watch releases? No sweat, just grab the Piczle Puzzle & Watch Collection for the same experience! Well, digitally, at least. This collection from developer Score Studios and publisher Rainy Frog brings together three puzzle games that look like they're played on old fashioned Game & Watch systems. It's a cute, cheeky concept that is backed up by some excellent puzzle game design. First off, I have to commend the developers for leaning into the concept of this "collection" of Game & Watch titles so much. When you first boot up the game you're treated to an unboxing video of each of the three games, and you can even flip through little instruction manuals. Once you start actually playing, the games are displayed on a faux LCD screen and you can see the surrounding console—the buttons on screen even react when you press the actual buttons on your controller (in fact you can also press these fake buttons using the touch screen). You'll also see the old fashioned "animation" that flickers between two poses on the fake screen. There's a lovely attention to detail which helps balance out the fact that there's not a ton of fancy visual design otherwise. The whole concept of Piczle Puzzle & Watch Collection is pretty charming and definitely scratches an itch for old school fans, even if you can't hold the games physically. The Collection is made up of three puzzle games: Piczle Cross, Piczle Pattern, and Piczle Loops. Cross is a picross or nonogram game, a puzzle format that has had a fantastic surge of activity on the Switch and is, as always, a lot of fun. It's awfully satisfying to just plow through one puzzle after another—it's the perfect game to kind of tune yourself out to the world and just play. There are over 200 puzzles in Cross, all of them are on 10x10 grids, and half of them require fewer than 3 mistakes to beat while the other half won't alert you to any errors you make. It is presumably by design that Cross feels a bit dated in terms of nonogram games—it doesn't have any of the quality of life features that have made picross games a bit more accessible, which is a bit of a shame. Still though, even if some aspects of the puzzle design feel a bit stiff, Cross is still wonderfully engaging and will keep you well occupied. The second game, Piczle Pattern, is a bit more unique. While Cross gives you hundreds of puzzles to tackle, Pattern offers only one, but the catch is that you can keep replaying to try to perfect your skills. The objective here is to turn every square in the grid black, but of course it isn't that simple as you can only "flip" colors in a cross pattern, so you'll often end up turning a few black squares back to white as you try to flip them all. It's another classic puzzle design that would feel right at home in a larger game like Zelda or Professor Layton, and perhaps because of that it feels a little bit shallow. There's not as much replay depth to Pattern compared to the other two Piczle Puzzle games. In some ways it feels like the kind of puzzle you do once and then forget about. There's an alternate mode that starts you off with a random selection of squares already black which adds some variety and challenge, but overall Pattern just didn't grip me. Last but not least there's Piczle Loops, which is another take on a classic puzzle design but one that I wasn't familiar with previously. The goal is to create one long loop around the squares on screen, but the numbers in each square give you a hint about whether or not a line can pass by that square. For example, if there's a 1, only one side of the square will have an adjacent line. It has a bit of a Minesweeper feel to it, and just like picross or sudoku there's an engaging level of depth hidden under the relatively simple premise. It requires forethought to keep all of the little clues in your head, and it's super satisfying when things click into place. As is always the case with puzzle games, the eureka moment when you figure it out is a lot of fun. Loops features 72 puzzles, though by and large they're more challenging than Cross, so you'll probably end up playing both for an equal amount of time. Beneath the slightly goofy premise of the digital Game & Watch console, Piczle Puzzle & Watch Collection is a smart selection of puzzle challenges. Pattern is perhaps not quite as engaging as the others, but Cross and Loops more than pick up the slack with challenging and addictive puzzles that scratch that itch for finishing one puzzle after another. Picross fans would do well to give this a try and perhaps discover a new puzzle obsession with Loops. Rating: 8 out of 10 Puzzles Review copy provided by publisher Piczle Puzzle & Watch is available now on the Switch eShop for $7.99, on sale for $6.99 until August 8.
  21. The constant stream of remaking/remastering classic games has now reached all the way back to 1986's Alex Kidd in Miracle World, originally released on the Sega Master System. Alex Kidd was essentially Sega's platformer star for a good few years before Sonic the Hedgehog took that crown, and Miracle World was the game that started it all. Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX recreates the original experience with HD graphics and reimagined music, but the slippery, bland gameplay feels straight out of the 80s. Like most 80s games there's only a basic story to Miracle World DX, but the gist is that a villain named Jaken the Great has taken over the land and you, as Alex Kidd, must use your martial arts prowess to stop him and save everyone. A classic good vs. evil story with few twists or turns. It feels pointless to be too critical of the storytelling in such an old game though—it may not hold up today but it was a good enough background plot at the time. The gameplay in Miracle World DX is classic 2-button platforming. You move, jump, and punch enemies or blocks as you try to reach the goal of each level (which in this game is a piece of food). All the basic platformer building blocks are there—you even have occasional alternative challenges like underwater levels or riding bikes/piloting aircrafts—and yet Alex's movements are so obnoxiously slippery, enemy hitboxes are so frustratingly big while Alex's attacks are so infuriatingly short, and levels are so tediously designed that the game is utterly discouraging to play. The weirdest part is that the game's marketing boasts tighter, more fluid controls, and yet moving and jumping as Alex Kidd feels anything but smooth—too fluid, maybe, as you skid into enemies or into hazardous pits so easily. A big part of what makes Miracle World DX feel tedious can really just be chalked up to the game's 80s origins, when unforgiving difficulty was a conscious choice to ensure gamers kept playing the game over and over and slowly mastered its quirks. Retro purists may enjoy that sense of difficulty here, but anyone not prepared for that kind of cruel difficulty will feel frustrated. The game does offer an "easy" mode alternative that allows you to play with infinite lives and eliminate the concept of game overs, yet this solution goes way too far in the opposite direction. Now the game's difficulty is almost inconsequential—when you die you'll restart at a nearby checkpoint so you'll easily brute force your way through the game. Some sort of happy medium in the difficulty options would have done wonders. There are also a number of just plain odd design choices that again, may be due to 80s game design philosophy, but feel totally out of place in 2021. Bosses aren't just combat encounters, some are rock-paper-scissors games that essentially just feel like raw luck that can eat up your extra lives (if you're not playing on infinite lives mode). It's a quirky design choice that definitely feels unique but also definitely doesn't feel fun or rewarding—it's just made to force the player to replay portions of the game. Miracle World DX perhaps caters too much to the original game and its fans, making the experience feel too dated and esoteric to be fully enjoyable for new players. The graphics are the one area that saw plenty of remastering polish, and the result is admittedly quite nice. There's a lot of cartoony charm in the modern graphics while retaining a classic appeal. There's a somewhat strange hazy effect to the visuals that makes everything seem slightly out of focus, but it's not a huge issue. And easily the coolest aspect of the game is that you can switch to the retro graphics at any time to see how far the visuals have come. It's literally just the press of a button (ZR), so it's easy to hop back and forth anytime you like. The remastered music isn't half bad either—considering the age of the original tunes the overall soundtrack holds up pretty well. Miracle World DX is an extremely short game that only feels longer thanks to the amount of dying/retrying you'll have to do—when you play with infinite lives on, the tiny length of the game is apparent. Still, if you play with the normal difficulty mode you'll end up spending a lot of time mastering the gameplay's frustrating quirks. Finishing the game also unlocks a boss rush mode and a classic mode but neither are huge incentives to dive back into this adventure. Alex Kidd in Miracle World DX is ultimately too faithful to the original game, a game that is woefully dated by modern standards and needed fresh remake features to make the concept shine once again. Rather than polishing and updating the formula, this remake just dusts off a game design that doesn't really work anymore. There are some fun ideas here, such as the variety of vehicle levels, but everything else about the game is just a slog. Anyone that has fond memories of the original may enjoy revisiting the gameplay with shinier graphics, but new players will find very little to love here. Rating: 5 out of 10 Miracles
  22. Is there a better time capsule for the early 2000s than a video game about skateboarding? Best of all, that game is good. Really good. There's a reason the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise spawned such a run of sequels, and it's because it came out of the gate with two fantastic games that found a perfect balance of simplicity and challenge in a stylish package. 20 years later, developer Vicarious Visions has lovingly remade that experience with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2, which is just as sharp, fun, and addictive as it ever was. If you never played the Tony Hawk games back in the day, this remake makes it abundantly clear why they're so lauded. Even twenty years later the games show off some absolutely brilliant arcade sports game design. Pulling off tricks and chains of combos is engaging and challenging but not so tedious that it ever feels discouraging. You're always going to want to get back on the board and give it another try, and then when you pull off that massive combo and watch your score skyrocket it's an incredibly satisfying feeling. There's a good variety of tricks available but not so many that you're forced to memorize long chains of combos. The environments are just the right size—big enough to encourage exploration, but also dense enough that you can find great spots for combos all over. The variety of objectives ensures you're not just holed up in one corner of the map racking up points but are actually encouraged to explore and experience the game to the fullest. THPS1+2 tightens things up with a few upgrades to the originals, and the developers were smart enough to keep them small yet impactful. Things like reverts and wall plants—introduced in later games in the series—make it easier to maintain long chains and feel like natural additions. Most importantly, none of these little tweaks change the fact that the controls are wonderfully responsive and engaging. If you do find yourself struggling, though, there are plenty of assist options as well as a helpful tutorial in case you haven't been to the skate park in a while. Outside of the core gameplay mechanics, the game adds a ton of content to keep you busy. The old guard of skaters is present and accounted for, but there are also a ton of fresh faces to play as. A new challenge system earns you experience points for unlocking items in the store as well as the opportunity to add new tricks to your character's repertoire. You can create your own skate park with a pretty robust editor. And last but certainly not least, you've got the multiplayer options: local split-screen and online competitions with leaderboards can provide a near endless string of one-up-manship as you finesse your skills. With two games in one and so many characters, it'd be a pretty huge—but satisfying—task to really do everything the game has to offer. If you've played any multi platform release on the Switch, you won't be surprised to see that the visuals take a hit on Nintendo's platform. You don't get to enjoy the crisp 4K clarity of the other consoles, but THPS1+2 doesn't look bad at all. The textures are muddier, sure, but that really doesn't impact the experience. More importantly, the soundtrack is well preserved here, with a fantastic selection of punk/ska/rock songs that will take you right back to your childhood, as well as some solid new additions. Even if you didn't grow up with this music, its energy and excitement is the absolutely perfect backing track for pulling off insane tricks and combos in one location after another. It shouldn't be terribly surprising since these games are 20 years old, but it's still a testament to their quality that visual fidelity has zero impact on how fun and addictive Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 is. The gameplay has the perfect balance of simplicity and depth that makes it a blast whether you're dropping into the half pipe for the first time or are already a pro. The incredible amount of things to do between these two games, not to mention the online/multiplayer features, is sure to keep you kickflipping for weeks. Rating: 9 out of 10 Skateboards
  23. You know you have something special on your hands when you're playing a game and thinking "I have no idea what is going on here but I must continue playing." Everhood defies explanation—I'm not even sure how best to categorize it in terms of genres—but it crafts an amazingly bizarre and compelling experience. Most importantly, it's not just weird for the sake of being weird. There's a lot of care and charm put into making Everhood as strange and engaging as it is. You play as Red, a wooden doll dressed all in—you guessed it—red. One of your arms is stolen by a blue gnome on the orders of Golden Pig, some sort of leader/tyrant, which sends you on an adventure across a strange land of odd creatures to make yourself whole once again. Early on, you'll feel like you have no idea what is happening, but just going with the flow of the game can be a lot of fun. One moment you're having a dance battle in a nightclub, the next you're exploring a castle or completing a long trading quest chain. There are definite Undertale vibes in Everhood's tone and aesthetic, but Everhood really stands on its own feet when you uncover the deeper themes of the game and learn more about what's actually going on. And although Red is a classic silent protagonist, the side characters are a joy to talk to and are almost always weird and funny. The game's story is surreal and mysterious and completely compelling; it's the kind of game that is just a joy to lose yourself in and let your mind wander through the possibilities presented to you. The actual gameplay is a fantastically odd blend of rhythm and bullet-hell, with a smattering of other genres thrown in at times (at one point you compete in a cart racing tournament, for example). When you engage characters in battle you'll enter a combat screen that looks kind of like a Guitar Hero fretboard. Rather than hitting the "notes," though, you'll be dodging attacks by moving left and right or jumping over them. The attacks come in time with the music, but your movements aren't necessarily dictated by the rhythm—sometimes you can hang out in one lane for a long stretch of time with only a few attacks coming your way. Overall though, it's definitely a blink-and-you'll-die kind of game since you have to be quick to avoid the constant onslaught of attacks. Though thankfully if you get hit you only lose a bit of health, which will naturally regenerate if you avoid taking more damage, so while the game is challenging it balances itself out with somewhat forgiving recovery mechanics. This is definitely the kind of game you have to play to understand, but when it clicks with you it's an absolute blast to deftly avoid attacks while a frankly fantastic soundtrack of songs plays. There's a simplicity here—just moving and jumping—that is awfully satisfying when combined with the stylish graphics and music. You'll also eventually gain the ability to fight back by absorbing and deflecting enemy attacks, which adds a whole new layer of strategy and intensity to the battle system. When you have to focus on offense as well as defense the gameplay really gets frantic—this is the kind of game that's hard to play for a long stretch of time lest you strain your eyes too much by focusing so intently. As already mentioned Everhood is an aural treat, and the visuals aren't half bad either. The pixel art style combined with the game's quirky aesthetic makes for a lot of fun character designs, and the battle visuals are positively psychedelic (though you'll usually be far too focused on the battle to fully take them in). The environments are super plain, but it suits the game's weird sense of style. It also makes sense that Everhood would have a strong soundtrack given the focus on music and rhythm in its battle system, but what's really impressive is how varied it is. From hard rock songs to more folksy tunes, there's a wonderful breadth of music styles present here, and every single one of them sounds fantastic. Everhood lasts around six or seven hours, which feels like a good length for the adventure. There are different difficulty options that you can change at any time, though these only affect how much health you have and how quickly you regenerate, so you still have to be quick on your thumbs during the harder fights. There's also a New Game+ mode and potentially alternate endings if you take the time to track them down. Everhood is easily one of the most unique games to come out this year, and one that absolutely merits looking into. Playing is believing when it comes to the game's surreal story and intense but satisfying rhythm-based gameplay—any description I can provide won't fully capture the strange and entertaining journey that Everhood will take you on, but if you're willing to try something bizarre this game is a must-play. Rating: 8 out of 10 Songs
  24. Mario and friends return to the links once again with a handful of new gameplay modes in Mario Golf: Super Rush. Sometimes it feels like Mario sports games are released constantly, but it's actually been seven years since the last golf game, and 18 years since the last console Mario Golf game. Has all of that time between entries led to a massive overhaul of the gameplay structure with innovative new features? Well, no, not really. Super Rush does contain a story adventure mode where you play as a Mii character who joins a golf club in the Mushroom Kingdom. There is an RPG-like progression that allows you to level up your stats as you compete with familiar Mario characters and take on unusual golf-based challenges. This provides a good introduction to the game's mechanics, but too often the adventure is tediously slow and repetitive. For example, you may be required to do a practice run on a course before you're allowed to compete on the full 18 holes, so you're just forced to repeat the same holes, sometimes multiple times. Maybe the game just wants to ease players into things but it's excessive. What's worse though is when the difficulty goes in the opposite direction. There are a couple of shocking spikes in difficulty due to novel new gameplay mechanics like cross-country golf (or XC golf). Despite the slow, repetitive nature of adventure mode the game really doesn't prepare you for these sudden challenges. There are also a few seemingly half-baked ideas thrown in that aren't so much difficult as just jarring and unusual inclusions, and the way side characters enter and rapidly exit your Mii's story is unsatisfying to say the least. Ultimately the adventure mode has some interesting ideas but doesn't develop them fully and instead focuses on more boring aspects of the golf gameplay. Like most Mario sports games, the golf gameplay finds a happy medium between detailed mechanics and outright cartoony design. You've got stuff like Pokeys mucking up the fairway and special shots that can blast opponents' balls into the rough, but the core gameplay is a solid take on golf video games. You have a good amount of control over how to hit the ball and observe the course, but not so much nitty gritty details that it ever feels overwhelming. In this game hitting at full power is always a bit of a risk as your ball has a higher chance of hooking or slicing, but that might be a risk you're willing to take to gain a few extra yards. The power/aiming mechanics feel a bit simplified from past games but there's still room for strategy, even if it does feel tuned for an inexperienced golfing audience rather than the pros. Super Rush does introduce a few wacky game modes though, in true Mario sports game fashion. There's Speed Golf where you're scored on your time, not strokes (though each stroke adds to your time), so the focus is on fast, precise shots and not taking too long to line up your swings. Every player plays concurrently so it's also possible to mess with your opponents by purposely trampling over their ball and knocking it into a hazard. It's fun to see a focus on speed in one of the most leisurely sports around, though all the time you spend running to the ball can be tedious after a while. There's also Battle Golf which is similar to Speed but takes place in an arena with multiple holes. By being the first to sink a shot in a hole you claim it, and first to claim three holes wins. Again, it's cool to see a wacky, active take on the golf formula, and Battle is even more directly competitive than Speed so it can make for some truly outrageous multiplayer moments. It does feel like Battle isn't as fleshed out as it could be, though. Only one arena—with a couple of rules options—limits some of this mode's replayability and variety. In fact, the game as a whole feels like it could use a bit more variety, and that may be because there are already free updates planned to add more characters and courses. Additional free content is great, but it would have been even nicer if the base game felt a bit more fleshed out. Super Rush includes both traditional button controls and motion controls. As you might imagine, the motion controls feel like a novelty—fun to play around with, but not something you're likely to devote a whole afternoon of play time to. Still, it's nice to have the option when you want to mix things up a little bit. Story mode will last you around seven or eight hours, but of course a Mario sports game is defined by its multiplayer replay value. In Super Rush's case that includes online modes, which are fairly stable for the most part and are off to a decent start in terms of community size. Of course it wouldn't be a Nintendo online experience if there weren't annoying little quirks like forcing you to kick everyone out of your lobby when you want to change your selected rules, but for the most part it works smoothly. Super Rush has the carefully curated, glossy visual style you'd expect from a Mario game. The courses look good—not many standout elements, but good—but the clear winner for visuals is the costume design. Wario and Waluigi are looking dapper as all get out, while Toad's sweater vest is an ace choice. In fact, it's almost weird that there is so much less detail in the scenery compared to the costumes, but maybe that's too much to ask for from a Mario sports game. The music, meanwhile, runs an impressive gamut of catchy songs that help keep up the energy of the wackier game modes. Mario Golf: Super Rush hits par, but can't quite sink a birdie. The slightly adjusted golf mechanics still work well, and the addition of Speed and Battle Golf makes for some entertaining multiplayer mayhem, but an underwhelming story mode and good but not great course design leaves the experience feeling mild. Super Rush is a perfectly serviceable Mario Golf game, but a more ambitious hole-in-one attempt might have made for a more interesting time on the links. Rating: 7 out of 10 Clubs
  25. Part visual novel, part action/platformer and, frankly, entirely bizarre, World's End Club takes players on a supernatural journey with a group of elementary school students. Originally released on Apple Arcade, the game is now available on the Switch with additional content. An extended ending doesn't change much about the game's tedious writing or gameplay flaws, though. You play as Reycho, a member of the Go-Getters Club. The group of students is on a school trip when disaster strikes their bus and they're all knocked out. When they wake up, they're in an abandoned amusement park where a creepy clown named Pielope tells them they must play a Game of Fate against each other to survive. Somehow the story manages to get weirder from there. For most of the game you've just got to be along for the ride because there are so many crazy ideas stacked on top of each other here that each new plot twist feels like it's completely out of left field. That sense of uncertainty can keep you engaged for a while, but ultimately World's End Club just feels like too many ideas stuffed together without a strong cohesive element to keep you invested. In theory that cohesive element is meant to be the characters, the club members who often talk with one another, argue about what to do next, and have their own intertwining backstories. Early on they all feel like cliché character tropes that can be seen in similar games or media, but by the end of the game…well, they haven't developed much. At least, most of them go through predictable small moments of character growth, but overall it's just not that interesting, especially when contrasted with the bizarre setting and larger story playing out that is too often pushed to the backburner in favor of children discussing their crushes. The game is also long-winded and repetitive, which makes the visual novel portions awfully hard to sit through at times. However, World's End Club does feature some more traditional gameplay elements. Occasionally the game becomes a side-scrolling action/platformer, complete with enemies, puzzles, and even some stealth sections. Although Reycho generally feels like the main character, you get to control others as well, and each one eventually unlocks a unique special ability. Reycho, for example, can pick things up and throw them, thereby defeating enemies or knocking loose unreachable objects. These action sequences feel completely terrible. I might assume the main issue stems from the game's origins on a different platform, but that couldn't be the sole reason that the movement feels so uncomfortably slow and stilted, or how your jumps are stiff and awkward, or how special abilities feel clumsy to use most of the time. Granted, the visual novel side of the game is clearly the focus, but if a game is going to include these kinds of action sequences they should at least have some basic competency, especially when one hit will kill you on normal mode (you do restart fairly quickly, at least). This also all culminates in boss fights that are as tedious as they are boring. All of the platforming and action elements of the game feel sloppy and drag down the experience. At some points in the story you're able to choose your path as the group of students decides to split up. In a rare show of competent game design, World's End Club gives you some agency and your choice feels like it has an impact. That is, until you reach the end of the game and discover that, in order to reach the true ending, you have to go back and replay all of the branching paths anyway. It's very strange that the game negates the concept of choices there. Ultimately World's End Club clocks in at around nine or ten hours, and like most story-heavy games there's not much replay value here. The game's presentation is at least one area that feels solid. The colorful art style does look good, at least for the main characters who all get to enjoy fairly distinct designs. And the contrast of cute chibi characters with a fairly bleak and bizarre story definitely gives the game a unique atmosphere if nothing else. The scenery can be pretty bland at times and the inherent repetitiveness of the characters just standing around talking to each other can be tiresome though. The voice acting does give the cast of characters some personality, but much like the writing the voice work leans too hard on cliché, played-out themes. The soundtrack isn't half bad though and has some solid music choices. World's End Club is a strange mishmash of ideas, none of which is fully baked. The visual novel elements at least make sense as a game, even if it doesn't always make sense as a story, but the action/platformer segments are completely ill-thought out and would be disappointing to play in a game 30+ years old, much less one released this year. Its okay presentation isn't nearly enough reason to sit through the clumsy gameplay and a story that never feels like it reaches its potential. Rating: 5 out of 10 Clubs
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