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  1. A game released in Japan that never saw a worldwide release is an all too common tale, and although I wasn't familiar with Live A Live before this Switch version, I was excited to see yet another RPG plucked from the past for modern audiences to enjoy. Having grown up on SNES RPGs, I was also particularly interested in experiencing an unknown title from that era. Nothing quite prepared me for Live A Live, though. This unusual, experimental game that plays with genres so much that large parts of the game can't even really be called an RPG truly took me on a rollercoaster of enjoyable highs and confusing lows. But once the ride was over, I knew it was something special. When you start up the game you're given the choice of starting any of the seven chapters, each starring a different protagonist in a different era, from the Wild West to Imperial China to the Distant Future, where you play as a robot. Right out of the gate Live A Live is playing with gameplay and narrative structure, and it's far from the last twist or turn you'll see. Every chapter has unique gameplay mechanics, and some show obvious influences from other games or media. One chapter is essentially a fighting game, a series of boss fights with characters that feel straight out of Street Fighter, while the Distant Future chapter plays with eerie sci-fi and thriller storytelling. I hardly want to say more, because experiencing all of these chapters and their quirky little foibles is a huge part of what makes Live A Live so enjoyable. You never know quite what to expect, and you'll always encounter something a little different. Of course, this quirk has its downsides too. Anyone expecting a traditional RPG might be put off by the unusual mechanics found here. This truly feels like an experimental game, one that blends genres and is bold enough to try new things to keep you on your toes. Sometimes that means locking you into a pretty straightforward path, but other times that means giving you the chance to completely change how you approach a challenge. That said, the game does have some bad 90s game habits, e.g. some very unclear directions at times, as well as a lot of running back and forth just for a snippet of dialogue. The pacing isn't always on point, especially when you're bouncing between these different game styles. Even when I found myself a bit lost or weary though, I always found the overall experience compelling. Live A Live is essentially a collection of short stories, a style/format that isn't often explored in games, and it's not hard to see how this concept grew into Octopath Traveler 20+ years later, another HD-2D game that I adored. The characters here aren't the most deep or well-rounded, but just being able to jump between these short stories and their different settings and tones is a fun novelty. For instance, it's hard to deny the humor and charm of the Prehistoric chapter, with its complete lack of dialogue so the story is strictly carried out in animation and mime. That said, Live A Live does still have some RPG mechanics, and true to the game's style there are some quirky touches here as well. Battles take place on a small grid-based battle screen, where you're free to move around when your action gauge is full. Similar to the ATB of Final Fantasy VI, you can only act when the gauge is full, and using powerful abilities requires yet more charging. The trick here is that when you're moving the enemies' gauges are filling as well, so you don't want to waste time, and sometimes attacks that take a long time to charge aren't worth it. Every attack has a certain range and style—most physical attacks hit one square near you, magical abilities might have more range, and some attacks can hit multiple squares at once. The game kind of throws all of this at you at once, but in practice it's a novel battle system that has some good ideas, and some bad ones. There's a degree of strategy involved—you might want to hit multiple enemies at once, or target elemental weaknesses—and it's even possible to evade enemy attacks by just walking out of the square they are targeting. The difficulty of battles isn't terribly consistent, though. Since you're using a new character in each chapter you're always kind of starting at square one, with fairly weak characters, which either means equally weak enemies, which is a bit bland, or frustratingly powerful ones that require a bit of luck. Only at the end of the game does the combat system feel more balanced out, though by that point you've probably amassed quite a few powerful attacks so it ends up tipping to the easy side again. Regardless, the battle system's unusual grid structure adds a fun novelty to the usual random encounters. Live A Live is also not a typical RPG in terms of length. The chapter system divides up the flow of the game quite a bit, and there's also some significant variety in length. Some chapters are barely an hour long, while others will take at least a few. All told, it's still pretty short for an RPG—maybe twenty, twenty-five hours—but I can't help but give the game credit for embracing its unique structure so thoroughly. I'm a big fan of the HD-2D art style, and it looks pretty good in Live A Live. The visuals don't quite pop as much as Octopath Traveler or Triangle Strategy, though that may be down to the fact that this game is updating and refining visuals from nearly 30 years ago—at times the graphics just don't feel quite as polished as those other games. Still, the HD-2D style nicely walks the line between nostalgia and stylish modern effects and does a great job of bringing so many different locations and scenarios to life in Live A Live. The soundtrack is also phenomenal. All of the songs have been rearranged for this remake and thank goodness the game includes a jukebox because you're going to want to hear these songs more than once. Not surprisingly there's a wonderful variety to the music to suit each chapter, from different music styles to different instruments, and somehow every single chapter walks away with catchy, moving songs. The voice acting is a mixed bag though. There is some effort to match voices/accents to appropriate locations and time periods, which is great, but of course it's the voices that don't quite mesh correctly that stand out as clumsy. Live A Live is a brilliantly unique RPG. It's also one that might not appeal to everyone, not least because the fractured narrative and gameplay structure only truly shines at the end of the adventure. There are some ups and downs in the middle there, especially if you're looking for more traditional RPG mechanics, or lack the patience for obtuse 90s game design. If you stick with it though, Live A Live is something special. It's a game that isn't afraid to take risks, and the payoff is an experience that feels wholly unique, charming, and engaging. If you're interested in trying a game that truly feels different, you absolutely need to try Live A Live. Rating: 9 out of 10 Lives
  2. Monster Hunter Rise was another outstanding entry for the series, continuing the quality of life improvements introduced in World and adding fun new ways to move and fight. It was missing one thing though: the ultimate challenge of g-rank hunts. The recent DLC, Sunbreak, remedies that issue while introducing new monsters, silkbind skills, and types of hunts. Now dubbed master rank, these hunts feature old and new monsters with faster attacks and tougher situations for a true test of your hunting skills. This is exactly the kind of intense action that the Monster Hunter series is known for, and longtime fans will love every minute of it. After solving the crisis in Kamura, your hunter encounters a new problem: a monster not native to the area has appeared. You learn it's from the neighboring kingdom of Elgado, so you set off to help them cull the monster population and get to the bottom of why these beasts have grown more aggressive. Storytelling is never a main selling point in a Monster Hunter game, but Sunbreak does a great job of introducing new NPCs with personality and charm. There are several new cutscenes that make the NPCs feel more directly involved in your adventure, and their dialogue skirts the line between cute and corny, as always. Most importantly though, Sunbreak introduces two new types of hunts, Follower Quests and Support Surveys. These hunts are only for solo players but they let you team up with NPCs in a sort of pseudo-multiplayer experience. This is the kind of addition to the game that I didn't even know I wanted, but loved playing through. Each NPC can equip a few different weapons, so you can sort of build out a team to hunt with, and they do provide actual help during the hunt by fighting, healing you, and sometimes even riding monsters to attack your main target. At the same time though they don't make hunts trivial; the difficulty is still there, and you're still doing the majority of the work, but having NPC buddies along for the ride is an excellent way of making the story and setting feel more involved in the actual gameplay. And yes, hunts are definitely more difficult in Sunbreak compared to the base game, though the challenge rarely feels unfair. In master rank, monsters move and attack so quickly that you have to learn a new flow of battle, which is always an exciting prospect for hunters. At the same time the gameplay still feels overall easier than past Monster Hunter games, so newer players shouldn't feel too intimidated by the increased difficulty of master rank. There'll be some painful learning moments, but every hunter has been there at one point or another. The monsters themselves are a little bit of a mixed bag. The main three additions, The Three Lords, are excellent, both from a design and combat perspective. They have all of the style and intense challenge that defines Monster Hunter. The other new additions though are a little less exciting, with monsters returning from past games or new elemental variants of monsters from Rise. In the end, having any new monsters to hunt is a fun addition, but it feels like Sunbreak could have gone a little further with more new monsters. The DLC also introduces a handy new feature that allows you to swap between two sets of silkbind skills, the movement and combat techniques introduced in Rise. The value of this new feature entirely depends on how you play the game. More variety is good, but some players likely have a set of skills that they already prefer and won't feel much pull to swap around with different sets. More frustratingly, Sunbreak doesn't give you the most interesting new silkbind skills until you've progressed through quite a bit of master rank. Getting the new skills earlier would've helped highlight the value of swapping between two silkbind sets. With two new locations to explore, over a dozen new monsters, and a whole variety of new equipment to forge, Sunbreak adds a substantial amount of content to Rise. There are also planned updates through this year and next to continue to add new monsters and locations, so it's safe to say you get plenty for your money with this DLC. All of this doesn't even factor in the allure of multiplayer hunts or grinding for specific materials. At this rate it looks like Sunbreak can easily last you as long as the base game, and most likely more than that. It also looks and sounds just as good as Rise. The new monsters (and more importantly, the new weapons and armor forged from their materials) look fantastic, the frame rate runs smoothly, and the soundtrack has some excellent tunes for death-defying and thrilling hunts. Monster Hunter Rise: Sunbreak delivers more of the fantastic gameplay established in the base game with more challenging hunts, stylish new monsters, and new features that range from helpful additions to fun new ways to play solo. Hunters will love having even more content to sink their teeth into, and even more challenging hunts to hone their skills and perfect their play styles. Rating: 9 out of 10 Hunts
  3. It's a little hard to believe that it's been four years since this DLC was announced and three years since Cuphead came to the Switch at all, but players finally have a chance to dig into The Delicious Last Course. Was it worth the wait? If you're a Cuphead fan, absolutely: more bosses, more weapons, a new character and tons of opportunities to swear at the TV (in a good way). The Delicious Last Course adds a new island to Cuphead's campaign, which means a slew of new bosses to tussle with (there are no new run 'n' gun levels). Ms. Chalice, the ghostly ally from the main game, tells Cuphead and Mugman that she's discovered a way to regain a corporeal body, but she'll need their help to collect all of the necessary ingredients to make it permanent. Like the main game, this isn't a story-heavy DLC add-on, but it's still absolutely packed with personality and charm. The few cutscenes we do get are delightful and the boss designs and animation once again imbue so much life and energy into these extremely challenging fights. The boss fights themselves are just as inventive and engaging as the main game—perhaps even moreso, because it really feels like these battles are made for experienced players to fully test their skills (or maybe I'm just rusty after not having played Cuphead for a while). Once again the developers have done an amazing job of walking a fine line between challenging and frustrating. There are definitely going to be moments where you let out a curse or two, but the difficulty always feels engaging and encouraging. The new bosses are so wacky that even when you die to each new form it's just fun to see what kind of challenges the game throws at you. Aside from just having new bosses to fight, the main addition in The Delicious Last Course is Ms. Chalice herself. By equipping a new charm you're able to play as her, and she comes with a number of special abilities. For one, she has 4 hit points instead of 3, and veterans of Cuphead will know that just one more hit point is often the difference between success and failure. She can also double jump, and her parry is a dash instead of a mid-air attack, so her movement feels a little different. Finally, she also has an invincible roll that she can use by dashing along the ground, which can be a game changer against bosses that require perfectly-timed dodges. All of this adds up to a fun new way to play Cuphead (since you can also use her in the main game). Overall she's probably an easier character to use than the main two characters, but more importantly she has those unique touches that make her gameplay feel engaging and exciting even if you're already a pro at the original Cuphead. This DLC adds a couple of other bells and whistles: there are additional weapons and charms to purchase that introduce new ways to tackle both old and new bosses, and there's a sort of parry-challenge mode that takes you through five new bosses where you can only parry instead of attack. It's a fun challenge in and of itself but it's also a great reminder of how to play for returning players. As mentioned there are no new run 'n' gun levels, which is a shame, and the quantity of new content does feel a little bit light, but the quality of the DLC is undeniable, and the long years it's had in development have clearly resulted in incredibly polished gameplay, visuals, and audio. And oh boy what a visual and aural feast this is. The original Cuphead is just filled with such gorgeous attention to detail and style, and yet the developers seem to have crammed even more flair and personality into these new bosses. The animation is once again stunning and truly worth the price of admission alone. The soundtrack is also just as catchy, jazzy, and all-around delightful. It's definitely worth just listening to the music at some point, when you can focus on it and not the endless barrage of attacks you need to dodge. Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course is an outstanding continuation of one of the best games released in the last few years. It delivers more of what players loved about the original game while throwing in enough new spices that the gameplay tastes fresh. Anyone that enjoyed Cuphead simply must check out this delicious send-off of Cuphead and Mugman's adventures. Rating: 9 out of 10 Chalices
  4. Sometimes a little change of scenery is all you need to spice up a game. Clan O'Conall and the Crown of the Stag draws obvious inspiration from the Trine games—swap between three characters, each with unique abilities, to fight monsters and traverse platforming puzzles—but the Celtic setting adds a fresh layer of charm to the gameplay. Before the events of the game, Chief Ardan forges an alliance with the creatures of faerie, but the evil Caoránach, Mother of Demons, is determined to disrupt the peace. When she kidnaps Ardan and steals the magical Crown of the Stag, his three children must work together to stop her and rescue their father. That's more or less the extent of the storytelling here: there's occasionally some dialogue thrown into the game, but nothing like deep world-building. Even if it's a light touch though, it's a fun setting and a decent plot, like a summer blockbuster that you watch for the action rather than the writing. You play as Kilcannon, Haggish, and Clakshot, and you're able to swap between them at any time. Each has special abilities: Kilcannon can float in gusts of air, Haggish is strong enough to break walls, and Clakshot's bow can hit distant switches. If you've played Trine it's a lot like that series—to overcome obstacles you'll need to swap between characters, oftentimes using each one in some combination to progress. Although the adventure starts off relatively simple, Clan O'Conall throws some challenging platformer puzzles at you by the end of the game, especially in areas that are more open so you might need to explore a bit to figure out what to do. That said, none of the puzzles are terribly difficult here, especially since everything is color-coded. Even if you don't have to think too hard about the solutions though, the execution is enjoyable thanks to the smooth platformer controls that are simple and satisfying. You'll also need to fight your way to victory, and the combat is a bit less engaging in Clan O'Conall. Each sibling can fight so you can use any of them to dish out damage, but no matter who you're using, fighting is a bit dull. The monsters don't put up much of a fight, and even when they do it's very easy to dodge them, and there are only a couple of twists to the combat (sometimes you'll need Haggish to break through enemy shields, and sometimes you might want to use Clakshot to hit distant foes). Despite the simplicity of the monsters they have a lot of health, so you have to hack away at them over and over to defeat them. This is especially true during boss fights, most of which aren't too difficult, they just take a long time to defeat. Fighting feels like busy work—it's not actually challenging you and it's just something you need to get through to progress. Clan O'Conall is also a pretty short game—just four or five hours will see you through the whole adventure. The only replay incentive is in collecting every fairy in each level and defeating every enemy. Sometimes it does take a little extra exploration to get everything but it's not too hard, and since doing these tasks earns you points for leveling up your characters you'll want to be sure to do them anyway for the added health, strength, and new abilities. One thing that Clan O'Conall did not carry over from Trine is multiplayer—this is a strictly single-player game. The art style skirts a line between clean, cartoonish designs and artwork inspired by manuscript illustration and ancient Celtic designs. The effect is striking: environments are gorgeous and lush while character designs are fun and a little goofy. Ultimately it's a stylish blend of inspiration, even if sometimes the frame rate seems a little choppy and doesn't quite do the scenery justice. The music, also with a heavy Celtic-inspiration, is fun and lively though oddly there are a lot of levels where the soundtrack is just barebones or minimal. It's weird since the music is clearly well done, but it's not always given its due. Clan O'Conall and the Crown of the Stag is a fun little side-scrolling platformer that takes some smart inspiration from the Trine games and some beautiful inspiration from Celtic lore and art. Although the gameplay likely won't blow away veteran platformers with any unique challenges, it's still a satisfying selection of puzzle-platformer ideas and decent yet repetitive combat. It's also a quite brief adventure, but it's an entertaining one while it lasts. Rating: 7 out of 10 Crowns
  5. Developer Omega Force is on a roll with their mash-up Musou games, from 2014's Hyrule Warriors to their latest title, Fire Emblem Warriors: Three Hopes. Just like 2020's Age of Calamity, Three Hopes takes more detailed inspiration from a specific Fire Emblem game—in this case, Three Houses—for an action-packed experience tailor made for fans of the original game. And like Age of Calamity, it's delightful just how well it works combining Three Houses' unique aspects, including branching storylines and a wide character selection, with the relentless combat of a Musou title. Three Hopes is essentially an alternate universe version of Three Houses: all the major players are back, plus a few new ones, but the war of Fódlan plays out a little differently. You play as Shez, a customizable mercenary who runs afoul of Byleth and Jeralt's Mercenaries. With the help of the mysterious Arval you vow revenge, but your journey takes you to Garreg Mach where you can join one of the three houses to follow either Edelgard's, Claude's, or Dimitri's storyline. Fans of Three Houses will love seeing all the characters again—the best part of both of these games' writing is simply the dialogue where you get to hang out with these characters and see all of their quirky interactions. Shez is also fully voiced so there's more engagement between him or her and the rest of the cast which is a lot more satisfying than another silent protagonist. As for the overarching plot, it's interesting to see a bit more of Fódlan and some of the side character nobles, and there are plenty of ups and downs during the war to keep the conflict active and engaging, but the real draw of the story is in the characters, and in that regard Three Hopes does a fantastic job of respecting the original characters and reinterpreting them in fun ways. Three Hopes also does an excellent job of bridging the gameplay of Musou and Fire Emblem. You're still fighting your way through thousands of soldiers as a one-man (or two-man, with local co-op) wrecking crew, and all the basics of chaining together light and heavy attacks, conquering strongholds, and taking over the map is the same here. Musou games have found a formula that works and really has not deviated much across dozens of games. But all of the little Fire Emblem influences add nice touches to the action and contribute strategy elements to the non-stop combat. For example, even though it wasn't in Three Houses, the weapon triangle is back, and using a sword-wielding character to take down axe-fighters gives you a huge advantage that is hard to ignore, especially early on in the game (there's also a second weapon triangle for magic, bows, and gauntlets so they don't miss out on the fun). Since characters can only use weapons based on their classes you do need to think ahead and keep a balanced army to deal with any threats. Three Hopes also features the class skills and combat arts of Three Houses which provide huge benefits and allow you to customize your characters a bit. Your combat arts are limited by your weapon's durability, so there's a little Fire Emblem influence there as well (though thankfully durability is restored between battles and you don't need to constantly purchase new weapons). Combat arts aren't just flashy, they're vitally useful for wearing down enemies when you're at a weapon triangle disadvantage, and can help you deal with groups of enemies. The weapon triangles and combat arts flow so naturally into the core Musou gameplay that you'll forget that they're Fire Emblem features. The game's progression is also just plain cool: in each chapter you're progressing across the map of Fódlan, and in order to make it to the next major battle you'll need to work your way through various skirmishes. You can choose to fast track your way to the next story mission, but in doing so you might miss out on collecting valuable resources. It's a nice way of making the smaller side chapters feel important, even though they're usually quite easy to play through. On the other hand, there are some ways in which Three Hopes feels like it combines the worst time-wasting aspects of Musou and Three Houses. If you're not the type who enjoys meticulously checking over each character's equipment, skills, and dialogue, then the times where you're at your base camp (much like in Three Houses) might feel a little interminable at times. There are a lot of little details to check on, and especially early in the game it'll feel like you're spending way more time in camp than on the battlefield (and again, that's a complaint that can easily be leveled at Three Houses as well). As time consuming as these moments can be though, Three Hopes might be a little more streamlined than other Musou games—it definitely feels like there are less fiddly weapon mechanics to waste time on than in, say, Age of Calamity—and of course you can always speed your way through these moments and take to the battlefield with a slight disadvantage. It's not like the game won't eat up all of your time anyway. Playing through just one route (and engaging with a decent amount of the between-battle camp features and optional paralogue missions) will probably last you thirty or forty hours. Add the two other routes and all of the little ways you can customize your army and this is a game that can basically consume your life. There's also a new game+ feature to carry over some progress to make subsequent playthroughs faster, but either way you can spend a lot of time here. More importantly, all of that time spent here is pretty enjoyable. Quibbling about the time-consuming side features aside, the core gameplay loop of fighting through hordes of enemies, maneuvering your characters around the battlefield, and swapping to each one as needed is just a blast. It's flashy and action-packed and a little mindless, but it's always fun. On the presentation side of things, Three Hopes looks gorgeous and again does a great job of drawing from the source game. On the battlefield you'll get a good number of enemies crowding around you and elite units are easily identifiable, and as for the playable characters it's fun to see alternate costumes for all your favorite fighters. The environment design isn't going to blow you away, but since that's never been the point of a Musou game it's not a big deal. The soundtrack is solid but is easily overshadowed by the voice work with all of its returning actors once again adding a lot of charm and personality to these characters and all their weird little interactions in the midst of a war. Fire Emblem: Three Hopes is another excellent Musou crossover. The core action-packed gameplay is the same as it ever is, but all of the little Fire Emblem touches add fun new details to how you play and how you build your army. Most importantly though, it's a ton of fun to interact with this cast of characters again, and with three unique routes to play you can spend a lot of time hanging out with your favorites and building up their abilities in various ways. If you're already a fan of Musou and Three Houses this is a no brainer, and if this is your first time with the Musou franchise you'll be starting out with one of its best. Rating: 9 out of 10 Hopes
  6. Eastward has all the signs of a passion project: a small development team drawing some clear influences from classic 2D games with a ton of attention poured into the little details of the adventure. When you're so focused on a project though, you might end up losing sight of larger issues and forget to edit your work into the most polished version it can be. Eastward has some charming, unique ideas, but pacing issues and uninspired gameplay mechanics drag down the experience. You play as silent protagonist John, a stoic miner in an underground town who has adopted a mysterious little girl named Sam. Soon enough Sam begins to exhibit strange powers and the pair are banished from town to the surface world, a post-apocalyptic setting under the constant threat of deadly miasma. From here the duo travel from town to town and gradually learn more about who Sam really is. Emphasis on gradual, because Eastward has an extremely slow, meandering storyline that instead places emphasis on more picaresque interactions in each town. There is a huge cast of side characters and John and Sam are constantly getting involved in their lives. It's an odd structure that puts too much emphasis on side stories at the expense of the main narrative. It's like a TV show with a few too many filler episodes, despite the fact that the central mystery is under-explored. The quirky characters are definitely charming, but Eastward is in desperate need of some editing to tighten the story and mystery into something more cohesive rather than constantly throwing away its own momentum with little tasks like cooking the best possible meal or starring in an action movie. The gameplay is more or less top-down action-adventure, albeit with a very linear structure. John starts off equipped with a frying pan to bash enemies and gradually gathers a few more weapons to attack or solve puzzles, while Sam's powers can also be used for puzzles or for defensive purposes. You can swap between the two and separate them, which is sometimes necessary for puzzles. The combat in Eastward, though, is extremely underwhelming. Even when you've got a couple of weapons/tools at your disposal it never really evolves from "just whack enemies until they're dead." Early on, you can easily stunlock enemies by hitting them, so combat feels completely mindless, then when you start fighting stronger enemies that don't flinch from your attacks you're left with the basic loop of hit, walk away to avoid attacks, hit again. There's no dodge action or blocking mechanic so you're literally just moving away a bit, outside of an enemy's range. Fighting monsters never feels rewarding or exciting, and most of the time just walking around them makes a lot more sense than swinging away with a frying pan. You'll also do a lot of exploring in dungeon-like environments filled with simple switch puzzles or sometimes blockades that require a new weapon to get by. These puzzles are pretty simple as well, with solutions that should feel obvious to anyone that's ever played an adventure game like this, but I can't criticize the game too much for relying on tried and true adventure-puzzle mechanics. And when you need to use John and Sam separately, there are some satisfying challenges to overcome, they're just few and far between. There's also some light exploring you can do in the overworld, though be warned: the game's progression is highly linear and you can't return to previous areas. Try to explore as much as you can early on lest you hit a cutscene that pushes the story forward and you miss out on health upgrades or money. One thing that I do have to point out though: this game loves sending the player on back-and-forth fetch quests, i.e. go from point A to point B and back to point A with the only gameplay interaction being talking to NPCs. This comes back to the game's editing and pacing problems: sure the quirky NPCs are fun, but there are too many long stretches where you're either clicking through cutscenes or are simply walking to the quest marker indicated on your map. Obviously a game doesn't need to be 100% action all of the time, but too often the main path of Eastward just meanders and squanders any sense of urgency or momentum that the core mystery offers. I'll also mention that the game crashed on me fairly consistently every few hours. Turning the game off completely instead of putting the system to sleep seemed to help alleviate the issue at least. Thankfully the game does auto-save pretty frequently, so I rarely lost more than a minute or two of progress, but it was still a constant annoyance while playing. Eastward also features an entire mini-RPG within it called Earth Born. You can play it at specific televisions found in each city and also collect Pixball items to use within the mini-RPG. It's pretty neat to have an entire miniature adventure within the world of Eastward, and it's easy to kill time within it. If you're mostly sticking to the main story though, Eastward should last around 20 hours, more if you're spending a lot of time talking to NPCs and whatnot. The game's presentation is an obvious highlight. Eastward features some of the most beautifully detailed pixel art I've seen, with lovingly crafted scenery that adds so many fun little details to the world-building as well as tons of creative character sprites. The animation is frankly stunning—very rarely do you see such detailed, fluid animation for pixel art, not to mention so much of it. There aren't just a couple of all-purpose character animations here: there are a surprising amount of animations that are only there to add personality, and all of them are fun to see. The soundtrack is also well done with some clear influence from classic games. The music can be a little inconsistent though, and not in terms of quality but just in terms of sound balancing. Sometimes the background music is so understated that you forget it's there at all. Eastward is a clearly ambitious game that tries to explore a unique, detailed world in its own way. The approach misses the mark a bit though, and the game's good ideas are marred by a poor sense of pacing that could have used a lot more editing to tighten up the whole experience. The gameplay leaves something to be desired as well, with bland combat and decent but not terribly inspired puzzle design. The visual design adds a ton of charm though, and if you're willing to sit through a lot of slow, drawn out scenes—both cutscenes and gameplay—Eastward's unique atmosphere has its appeal. Rating: 6 out of 10 Frying Pans
  7. Time loops and video games go together like peanut butter and chocolate. What better way to frame the inherently repetitive nature of games than with a setting that resets itself? In Treasures of the Aegean, an ancient mystery and fluid parkour-platforming gameplay push you toward exploring more and more with each loop. Despite the natural fit though, this game could have used more polish to ensure each loop stays engaging. You play as Marie Taylor, a treasure hunter exploring the ruins of the ancient Minoan civilization when the island that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption resurfaces. Mixing history, mythology, and time travel, Marie's investigation traps her in a time loop as she tries to figure out what really happened to the Minoans millennia ago (while also grabbing as much treasure as she can). It's a fun premise that is brought down by the bland characters. Every conversation between Marie and her archeologist partner James Andrew is awfully dull, and learning more about Marie's personal backstory also fails to engage. The mystery of the island unfortunately lacks punch as well since you can figure it out long before Marie does, and the numerous typos throughout the game show a real lack of polish. Treasures of the Aegean is a time loop game. Marie has a limited amount of time to explore the island before another volcanic eruption, so your goal is to explore as much as you can in each loop. The island is massive, so trying to see everything in one loop is a tall order—generally you're trying to map out small sections of the island so you know where to go on your next loop. There are treasures everywhere and collecting them adds more time to your next loop as well as your "score," so to speak, at the end of the game. Most treasures are pretty easy to grab so it's not hard to rack up extra time for future loops. More importantly, there are several mysteries on the island that you'll need to solve, each with some manner of puzzle or key. A lot of these add lore to the story but you'll also need to solve the three major puzzles within one loop to unlock the final region of the island and complete the game. Marie is seemingly a parkour master so the platforming is extremely fluid in Treasures of the Aegean: you can run, slide, even climb straight up walls for a short distance. Again the island is huge and the map only fills in once you complete a loop, so you'll need to do a ton of exploring just to keep your bearings. As a bonus wrinkle you start the loop in a different place on the island each time, so early on you'll be dropped into completely foreign parts of the island and will have to explore blindly. The time loop here is inventive but inherently tedious. You're constantly backtracking across areas as you try to figure out what to do with a key you just picked up while the time limit bears down on you. Some of the major puzzles do have shortcuts so you can easily revisit them once you've solved it once, but there's still a lot of repetition here. Thankfully Marie moves fast, and the controls are both fluid and tight, but the platforming isn't quite interesting enough to justify doing it over and over across the same environments. There isn't even much room to learn advanced movement techniques, so you're stuck just going through the same motions every time. The game's length is going to vary a bit depending on how quick you are at exploring the island and uncovering the key puzzles, but you're probably looking at a minimum of five or six hours. Even that feels a little too long for Treasures of the Aegean, though. Running around and grabbing treasure just isn't quite exciting enough to last for several hours. With a striking visual style, the graphics certainly jump out at you at first. The comic book-inspired look and bold, colorful environments make for a good backdrop for this puzzle-platformer adventure, but it's the details that bring down the presentation a notch or two. The character designs are boring and a little amateurish, while the repetitive scenery with only a handful of unique features loses its charm after a couple hours. The soundtrack is minimal and atmospheric, which only makes Marie's exploration feel lonely. Treasures of the Aegean boasts a neat time loop mechanic and smooth parkour-platformer gameplay, but it doesn't quite stick the landing with the most important aspect of the game: repetition. Ensuring each loop is interesting is paramount, but massive environments with a handful of puzzles that are few and far between—and oftentimes require finding scattered keys—just isn't all that engaging. That said, there's not a lot that is necessarily bad about Treasures of the Aegean, but there's also not a lot to hook you in and keep your interest. Rating: 7 out of 10 Treasures
  8. Considering the global popularity of soccer (or football), it's a little surprising that it's taken this long for another Mario Strikers game to come out. But after roughly 17 years, Mario and friends are back in the pitch with Mario Strikers: Battle League, featuring offline and online play as well as a Club system that lets you join up with other players and compete against other clubs online. With relatively few game modes and options though, this game might not be strong enough to take home the cup. There's no story mode or narrative to speak of in Battle League, but there is a cup mode that lets you (and up to four friends on the same console) compete against CPU teams. These cup matches can be a little underwhelming though. Each cup is meant to highlight a different attribute of the character roster (power, speed, passing, etc.) but on Normal mode the CPU isn't all that difficult and you're not really challenged with learning the finer details of the game in order to beat them. Finishing every cup does unlock a harder difficulty mode at least, which is more of a challenge, but not surprisingly the real meat of the game is in the multiplayer modes. Let me backup a bit and touch upon the core soccer gameplay. Like a lot of Mario sports games, Battle League finds a nice balance between replicating the sport, simplifying things enough that novice players can jump right in, and reveling in wacky interactions from special skills or items. Throwing out a giant banana peel to trip up an opponent while they're trying to pass is just good goofy fun, but at the same time if you want to master your timing for effective passing and shooting you can do that too. In true Mario fashion, Battle League is easy to learn but has enough depth that you can really spend time fine-tuning your abilities in some fun ways. The main new feature here is the Hyper Strike. Strike Orbs will randomly appear on the field and if you or one of your teammates grabs it you'll be able to shoot off a Hyper Strike by completing a simple timing-based QTE, similar to powering up a shot in Mario Golf games. A perfectly-timed Hyper Strike is unblockable and even an imperfectly-timed one can get through the goalie sometimes (if you're playing a human opponent they'll get a chance to block by button mashing). They're worth two points so there's a bit of a risk/reward system at play since you need time to charge up the shot. Each character has a unique Hyper Strike animation with a fancy windup and field-shaking effect. Hyper Strikes are fun and flashy but they lose a lot of their value when playing against human opponents that can block or just outright tackle you before you complete the QTE. In a way it's good that they're not so overwhelmingly powerful that they can swing the fate of the match in a single shot, but they're also not quite as satisfying to use as they should be. You're also able to customize each character with gear to change their stats. Every character has strength, speed, shooting, passing, and technique attributes—for example, Peach excels in speed while Bowser is a strength powerhouse—and by buying/equipping gear you can change their stats, such as giving Peach a strength boost. To keep things balanced every piece of gear also decreases some other stat, so you can't just make some kind of unstoppable soccer juggernaut by piling on equipment. It's cool to have a little customization (gear will also change a character's appearance), though it would have been nice to have more varied gear as well as an option to save different gear sets so you can quickly play around with different attributes. Buying gear for every character is also extremely expensive so you'll need to grind the game quite a lot to earn the coins to afford it all. Ultimately though, there's a surprising lack of variety in Battle League. You've got multiplayer matches, cup mode, and online Clubs—that's it. There are a few fields you can choose to play on but they have no effect on the gameplay. The character roster is a little light with only ten characters (though that might be a blessing in disguise if you're trying to buy gear for everyone), so the repetition sets in pretty quickly. The online connection works well and you can jump into a match solo or with a friend, plus you can play 2v2 with three other players online, but otherwise there aren't any gameplay options to speak of, like changing the length of the match or doing a shootout instead of a full match. Presumably we'll see some updates down the line with new character releases and the like, but Battle League definitely feels light right now. Based on other recent Mario sports titles perhaps this bare-boned approach shouldn't be too surprising, but it does seem like a big missed opportunity to not have bonus modes, challenges, or even a more robust single-player campaign. As far as the presentation goes, the visuals are pretty sharp with plenty of colorful flourishes during a match that are stylish and a little chaotic, but in a fun way. Each character also has a couple of victorious or disappointed animations when a goal is scored which add a lot of charm to the game. Peach trying to remain calm while her team is losing doesn't get old. The soundtrack isn't half bad either. It's action-heavy and feels hardcore, but that's what you need when you're tackling Toad and pushing your way toward the opponent's goal. What you see is what you get in Mario Strikers: Battle League. The soccer gameplay is easy enough for new players but has some depth if you put the time into mastering it, and Mario flourishes like items and Hyper Strikes add some wacky effects to the match. The lack of varied content is disappointing, as is the straight-forward and grindy approach to gear customization, but if your goal is to jump into some fun, light-hearted soccer matches with friends either locally or online, Battle League has its charms. Rating: 7 out of 10 Goals
  9. Fair warning: this game will make you desperately hungry for donuts. Freshly Frosted, from developer The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild, is an utterly charming puzzle game centered around donuts. The delicious confections appear on a conveyor belt, and it's your job to get them to the goal with the appropriate toppings. It's a sweet and simple premise that is quickly put toward wonderfully brain-twisting challenges. Freshly Frosted doesn't have a story to speak of, but each level does begin with a short narration that is simply the most pleasant little bit of dialogue that you'll ever hear. This isn't a game about slaying monsters or going on a grand adventure, it's just a cozy little donut-themed puzzler, and the narrator's brief musings on sugary confections makes that abundantly clear. It's also not the most elaborate voice acting out there but it adds a ton of charm to an already adorable little game. Every level has the same basic goal: there's a starting point and an end point, and you have to place conveyor belts to get the donuts to the goal. That's literally the only control input you'll have through the entire game, but naturally there will be increasingly complex donut demands. You'll also need to add the appropriate toppings to your donuts as the stage requires, and there's a specific order in which to add toppings: frosting, sprinkles, whipped cream, and cherries. Early on you might have just one goal for frosted donuts, but how do you handle multiple starting points and multiple endpoints? What if one endpoint only accepts sprinkles, while another requires everything? What about teleporters, or special blocks that separate the donuts? Across 144 levels, divided into 12 boxes of 12 levels each, Freshly Frosted throws plenty of curve balls at you to keep you on your toes. What's great is that the game perfectly finds that sweet spot of challenge and accessibility. Each box introduces a new concept so the first couple of levels are pretty simple to just show you how to deal with the new obstacle. The game is not afraid to ratchet up the difficulty though, and the end of each box has some significant head-scratchers that can easily leave you stumped. However, the game never feels unfair. There's an excellent escalation of challenge that pushes the player but won't throw you into an insane scenario without giving you the basics that you need to succeed. Freshly Frosted is challenging without being overwhelming, and the mellow, relaxed vibe of the game also makes it easy to just hang out for a bit without feeling frustrated. And if you do need help, the game has a couple of ways to put you on the right track. For one thing, you can just skip a puzzle if you're truly stumped. Each box unlocks in order as you complete the previous one but you don't have to finish every single puzzle in a box, so you can jump over one or two and come back later, perhaps with better insight from a later level. The game also has a built-in hint system that reveals part of the solution to you. It's only one piece of the puzzle so it's not like the game just hands you the answer, but oftentimes just having a solid base to start from is a huge help, especially in the more complicated puzzles where it feels like your conveyor belts could go anywhere. It's great to have these in-game assists to guide you while still rewarding you with the final "eureka!" moment. As already mentioned the whole aesthetic of Freshly Frosted is tranquil puzzle solving. From a design standpoint this is a very simple game, but it gives you all the visual information you need with stylish color palettes and a fun variety of donut shapes for each box. The music is wonderfully meditative and will definitely put you in a zen-like puzzle-solving state. It's also a lot of fun to watch your conveyor belt solution unfold as the donuts move in time with the music (and since some of the solutions are pretty dang long, you can choose to speed up or entirely skip the solution-check part of the game). Freshly Frosted is a delightful puzzle game that takes a simple premise and puts it to tons of clever and challenging uses. 144 levels feels like a perfect length with puzzles that are engaging and complex but never wear out their concepts, and the cozy aesthetic, charming narrator, and catchy soundtrack that bounces between zen-like puzzle-solving mode and buoyant solution mode add tons of personality to a stage-by-stage puzzle game. Puzzle fans will love seeing their solutions take off on these donut conveyor belts—just be ready for some sweet cravings after playing Freshly Frosted. Rating: 8 out of 10 Donuts Review copy provided by publisher Freshly Frosted is available now on the Switch eShop for $9.99. Get 10% off as a launch discount, now to 6/7.
  10. After all her hard work saving Scuttle Town, Shantae is off on a well-deserved vacation to Paradise Island when, wouldn't you know it, danger strikes and it's up to the half-genie hero to save the day. Shantae and the Seven Sirens puts a few new spins on the dance-based magic that the series is known for, but the core gameplay is the same sleek side-scrolling action. Even if there isn't much evolution to the formula, Shantae's gameplay is just as charming and engaging as ever. Shantae is on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Paradise Island, where several half-genies have been invited for a special celebration. Shortly after Shantae meets the other half-genies though, they're spirited away in a sudden kidnapping, leaving Shantae to rescue them and discover the secrets of the island. The plot is fun and serviceable—you don't need much more motivation in an adventure like this than "go explore a part of the map you haven't been yet"—and like past entries in the series there's a lot of humor thanks to the tongue-in-cheek writing. The new characters are fun but it's the returning cast of allies and enemies where the bulk of the writing's charm lies. Seven Sirens mostly plays more like a traditional Metroidvania rather than being segmented into separate stages like past Shantae games, but the essentials are the same: Shantae can use her hair like a whip to fight, attack with magical items, or transform into animals in order to explore. This game streamlines the dance-magic concept that Shantae is known for. Now she can transform into animals with just the press of a button, and the dance is only for special spells. You also don't have to dance for longer to use a different spell, now you just press a direction on the control stick/D-pad to select what spell to use. Shantae's dance transformations were charming, but the fast-paced gameplay of Seven Sirens feels so much smoother and snappier. Transitioning from a lizard to climb a wall into a frog to swim through water happens in a split second and the flow of gameplay is better for it. More importantly, all of Shantae's transformations and spells feel well used here. Instead of being one-use abilities like in some of her past games, most of her abilities have uses for combat and exploration, making her arsenal more well-rounded and less like a checklist of skills. Seven Sirens also has an entirely new feature: Monster Cards. Defeated monsters sometimes drop cards which Shantae can equip, granting various abilities such as faster climb speed or less magic consumed when using the fireball item. There are fifty cards in all but you can only equip three at once, so you'll need to be choosy. The cards' effects can feel somewhat unbalanced though—some are useful only in specific circumstances while some are so overwhelmingly useful that it seems silly not to use them. Still, a little customization is a nice touch for Shantae. Seven Sirens should only take around eight hours to complete, though like past Shantae games you can challenge yourself to complete the game faster or with 100% item collection for added artwork rewards. Thanks to how smoothly the gameplay flows now, these speedrun challenges feel more manageable. Since its original release, Seven Sirens has received some updates for extra modes as well, including an easy mode, a definitive mode with rebalanced difficulty, and a mode that allows you to equip more than three Monster Cards. Even the definitive mode feels pretty easy though. This game regularly throws healing items and money at you, so outside of the first thirty minutes or so it seems like it'd be difficult to actually die. Perhaps to compensate for this bosses tend to feel like damage sponges, taking dozens and dozens of hits to die and giving you a reason to use up the plentiful health items you've collected. It's not a terrible difficulty balance but it still feels like it could've been handled better. It's also worth mentioning that post-release updates fixed one of the big complaints at launch: the map does a better job of pointing you in the right direction and reminding you of points of interest, specifically caves that often contain health upgrades. You still have to do the work for 100% completion but it's less of a chore now. The game's presentation is as sharp as ever with stunning 2D artwork, charming character/monster designs, and a handful of fully animated cutscenes sprinkled throughout the game. The cartoonishly colorful scenery is the perfect backdrop for a Metroidvania adventure like this, and the bubbly character design and animation gives Shantae her classic buoyant personality. The cutscenes are mostly pretty brief but they add some nice flourishes to the story. The soundtrack is also solid, though it doesn't have quite as many standout tracks like past games. Shantae and the Seven Sirens is another finely crafted 2D adventure from developer WayForward. The little quality of life changes and updates naturally fold into the Shantae formula and help streamline the gameplay without losing any of the personality or charm that the series is known for. The Monster Card system is perhaps not as in-depth as it could be, but an extra little touch of customization is nice nevertheless. In the end, Metroidvania fans will be charmed by the distinctively fun, cute style of Shantae and should love exploring everything that Paradise Island has to offer. Rating: 9 out of 10 Sirens
  11. The hero who saves the world can't always be a predestined warrior of legend—sometimes it's a nobody. Drinkbox Studios (the developer behind the Guacamelee games) puts their hilarious, inventive touch on top-down dungeon-crawling with Nobody Saves the World. Despite some inherent repetitiveness, this adventure oozes charm (especially if you're playing as a slug) and makes for a fantastic time-killing game either solo or with a friend. When the game begins you wake up as a nobody with no memories (or pants). With the aid of a magic wand though you're able to transform into different forms, from a rat to a knight to a zombie, and you'll have to stop the calamity before it engulfs the world. Drinkbox Studios' games are hilariously silly and this one is no exception. It's a dungeon-crawler so you'll spend most of your time just exploring and fighting monsters, but anytime you encounter NPCs in villages or through side quests you're in for a funny, charming time. Swapping forms is the key to Nobody Saves the World: each form has different abilities, so you might need the rat to crawl through small areas or the mermaid to swim across water. Each form has a couple of attacks/abilities and these all have one of four elements (sharp, blunt, light, or dark). Sometimes monsters are only weak to a certain element so you'll need to swap to deal damage. You'll also gain the ability to mix and match abilities across forms, allowing you to do a greater variety of damage with a single form. You can also level up each form by completing form quests. For example, the rat can poison enemies so one quest might be to poison fifty enemies. On top of all this is the dungeon-crawling aspect, with randomly generated dungeons that sometimes have extra challenges like monsters that are immune to status effects. Nobody Saves the World is inherently grindy and repetitive: you enter a dungeon, fight through hordes of enemies, defeat the boss, then explore the overworld to reach the next dungeon. What makes the game so engaging though is the variety of forms and the addictive challenge of completing every form quest. This is really a game for completionists—if you're not challenging yourself with completing form quests, you're not getting the most out of the game. If you try to do everything possible though, you'll have a wealth of tasks to complete, and the little nugget of accomplishment that you get from finishing one task after another is incredibly satisfying. The forms themselves are also well designed and thought out. You've got some classic video game classes like knight and ranger, but then there are wackier ones like horse or bodybuilder. Some forms are harder to learn than others—not every ability is useful in every situation—but there are actually a lot of inventive combat approaches here, and learning to master each one is a blast. Swapping and combining abilities also means you have a ton of opportunities to customize your play style or accommodate a form's weaknesses. Experimenting and discovering effective combos to effortlessly wipe out a screen full of monsters is definitely one of the joys of the game. Swapping forms, despite being a central aspect of the game, does feel a little clunky though. You can open up the menu to swap to any form you've unlocked, or you can quickly swap with a radial menu. However, there are a couple of minor problems with it; opening the radial menu doesn't pause the game, so you have to be fast as enemies attack you. You also can't customize the radial menu, it only shows you the last eight forms you've used. One or the other of these little quality of life issues isn't a huge deal, but both of them make the radial menu a lot less useful than it should be. Nobody Saves the World is a decent length but wraps up before the repetitive gameplay gets too tedious. Even while pursuing every wacky side quest and leveling up each form you can expect around fifteen to twenty hours of game time, which feels like the sweet spot. There's also both local and online co-op. It doesn't transform the gameplay much, but it's still fun to have a friend along for the ride. Finally there's a New Game+ mode which makes enemies and dungeons even tougher, though with the skills you've honed by playing through the game the difficulty level feels pretty satisfying. The quirky, colorful art style is excellent—it feels like it's straight out of a 90s cartoon, just bright and inventive and weird. Even if the environments and enemies are repeated often throughout the game, the vivid color palette and little funny touches to the scenery are just delightful. The soundtrack is fun as well. It's got a chill groove to it to get you in the mindset for fighting through waves of baddies, but always with a low-key vibe. Nobody Saves the World is another excellent game from Drinkbox Studios, filled with their love for vivid, colorful artwork, hilarious writing, and simple but sharp gameplay. The cycle of exploring dungeons and trying out new forms is repetitive but never tedious. Instead, you're always propelled toward completing another form quest, unlocking a new form, and testing out powerful ability combos. And on the Switch, it's perfect for sitting down and diving deep into the adventure or just playing around with different forms on the go. Rating: 9 out of 10 Nobodies
  12. If I didn't know any better I'd say Triangle Strategy was targeted specifically at me. It features tactical-RPG gameplay similar to Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, the lovely HD-2D art style first seen in Octopath Traveler, and the kind of morally gray political intrigue you'd find in modern fantasy novels. So yeah, I'm probably predisposed to liking this game just based on its premise, but the final product really is a delightfully engaging strategy game that challenges your wits and convictions. Just stick with it through the first few hours. The story takes place in Norzelia, where three nations have established a relatively new peace. Each country has control of a valuable natural resource, so open cooperation and trade is vital. Naturally, everything starts going to hell once the game gets started. The main protagonist is Serenoa Wolffort, a high-ranking lord from the kingdom of Glenbrook with close ties to the royal family. Your journey takes you to the other nations as well, the duchy of Aesfrost and the holy empire of Hyzante, where different ways of life offer pros and cons for the people and the ruling class. Ultimately, your choices dictate what kind of person Serenoa is, what his convictions are, and how they align with these three nations and your allies' morals. I have to admit, the game throws a lot of information at you early on. Even as someone who reads a lot of fantasy novels, with endless lists of characters and their relationships with each other, my head was spinning in the first few hours of Triangle Strategy. Thankfully the game provides a handy chronicle of all these details in the menu, so you can always refresh your memory on places and historical events. This is not a game for players that skim through cutscenes, though. The most important hook in Triangle Strategy is the branching paths system. During major decisions Serenoa will consult with his allies and advisors to decide how to move forward, and you can even talk with them to convince them to follow whichever path you prefer. These scenes unfold with a dramatic vote at the Scales of Conviction that weigh each option. Despite being introduced early, the branching paths don't come into play too much until about a third of the way through the story, but once they do, oh boy. You'll be faced with some agonizing decisions, and having to stand by your choices is an intense experience. You'll both dread and anticipate every time the Scales come out, because you know something serious is about to happen. There are plenty of times where you're forced to consider the lesser of two evils rather than a "good" and a "bad" path, which also nicely adds to the game's replay value. It's good to see a game where the choices have some weight and aren't just slight variations of one path. But while the setting is solid and the decision system is engaging, the characters themselves leave a little something to be desired. They're not bad, but most don't quite find the kind of personality and charm found in recent Fire Emblem games. Some of them are pretty flat, or at the very least don't get further fleshed out until you've raised their levels and have used them in battle for hours and hours. The antagonists are also perhaps a little too antagonistic. The whole concept of the game wants you to agonize over whom to trust and what path to take, but some of the villains are moustache-twirling-levels of villainy, so of course you won't trust them. For a game that wants to emphasize morally gray choices, it would have been nice to have more morally gray characters (and granted there are a few standout morally-gray characters, and they're great, but the game could've used more of that). Finally I should get to talking about the gameplay, though maybe that's appropriate since the game can feel a little lopsided at times and weighted toward cutscenes instead of battles. Nevertheless, once you're actually in a battle they are delightfully crunchy tactical challenges, especially by the end of the game. In a lot of strategy games your characters end up feeling like wrecking balls by the late game, but not here. You'll need to carefully plan your moves and weigh each character's strengths and weaknesses. Don't worry though, there's no permadeath so you can be a little cavalier in how you play. Each character has a unique class and unique abilities (you also can't change classes but you can upgrade them to unlock additional abilities). You'll need to consider the standard elements of strategy games—turn order, environment, attack range, etc.—and manage each character's TP, which allows them to use skills. Another key feature here is the follow up attack system, which allows you to deliver an extra attack if you surround an enemy with two of your characters in a pincer formation. Beware though, because enemies can do the same to you. Since each character acts independently in the turn order based on their speed, you may inadvertently put a character into peril by pushing them forward without backup. On the other hand, clumping up makes you an easy target for magic attacks. At every second you'll need to consider these kinds of challenges. Triangle Strategy does a great job of gradually raising the stakes on you. Early on, while you're still learning the basics, the game takes it easy on you, and risky plays aren't punished. But around the same time that the story takes off the gameplay takes off the kid gloves and you'll need to carefully consider how to approach each map. There's a good amount of variety in maps and encounters as well, so you're not just defeating every enemy in each battle, which makes every chapter feel like a fresh challenge. Sometimes caution is key and sometimes the game won't give you the luxury of moving forward slowly, so you'll need to adapt to each battle. For a strategy fan, the whole gameplay structure is excellent. There's enough meaty tactical thinking involved to get your brain churning, but it's also not so tedious that you need to exhaustively track stats or things like accuracy and terrain effects. It's very easy for a strategy game to be unwelcoming to players, but Triangle Strategy finds a nice balance while still pushing you with challenging and engaging encounters. Like a lot of strategy games, the roster of characters is far larger than the number of units you can actually bring into battle, so you'll inevitably leave some back at camp, never leveling up. Since each character has unique abilities there are actually tons of strategies you can come up with, though admittedly it's hard to not use the more basic characters you get early on—they're just useful in virtually every scenario. Of course, that means there's plenty of replay value if you want to try out each character, plus you can obviously replay the game to experience the branching paths and multiple possible endings. It's also nice that one playthrough of the game isn't terribly long—around thirty-five hours or so if you're fighting optional battles to ensure your main characters are properly leveled—so playing through each path isn't an overwhelming time commitment. As I already mentioned, I was excited to see the return of HD-2D sprites, like those found in Octopath Traveler. The art style is a little less diorama-y in Triangle Strategy than that previous game, and since the enemies are mostly human characters you don't get quite as much variety of sprite-work as in a standard RPG, but the blend of classic 2D artwork and modern HD sensibilities still looks great. The soundtrack is also excellent and helps hammer home the grand drama of both your political and combat maneuverings. The voice work, however, isn't quite up to par. The dialogue is written in a somewhat formal, stilted way, perhaps to convey a feeling of courtly dealings, but the effect doesn't quite land. The voice work seems to have been given the same direction—a lot of the delivery is stiff or just unnatural, and just doesn't quite bring the characters to life. It's a minor complaint though, and the voice acting is still good, just not necessarily great. Triangle Strategy is a satisfyingly balanced tactical-RPG experience. Though it comes across as dialogue heavy and strategy light in the first few hours, the story progresses in engaging ways that force you to make hard decisions while at the same time evaluate and perfect your combat strategies. There's enough depth here to satisfy strategy fans but enough wiggle room that you don't have to be a master tactician to get the most out of the game. And with the wealth of strategic approaches and replay value found here, players may grow to become tactical masterminds just by exploring every branching path that Triangle Strategy offers. Rating: 9 out of 10 Strategies
  13. Sometimes you just know a game is going to tug on your heartstrings. Arise: A Simple Story is an emotional journey through one man's memories of life, played out in puzzle-platformer stages and propelled by a sweeping soundtrack. This game serves as a good reminder that oftentimes a simple story can be the most impactful. The game begins with the main character's death, and shows his journey through a snowy mountaintop afterworld. Here he revisits chapters of his life, starting with his youth, and leading through joyous and sorrowful memories. Arise knows how to tell an affecting story even without any writing or dialogue, because the emotions that this reflection on life elicits are so universal. You don't need an exhaustive backstory to be swept up in this man's life story, or be moved by the highs and lows he experiences. It's a sweet, gentle, and beautiful tale. Since there is no dialogue or writing, a lot of that emotional storytelling comes from the game's presentation. Notably, the soundtrack does an outstanding job of sweeping you up in the emotional heart of the game, whether it's in a fun, light-hearted memory or a dark one. In every instance the music is soulful and rich. The simple but stylish art design also does an excellent job of letting the emotions of the game speak for themselves. Simple shapes and strong colors convey so much with so little. Arise features a fairly unique and simple gameplay mechanic. Within each memory you, as the old man, run and jump and climb through various environments, but with the right control stick you're able to manipulate time. In each stage this means something different—in one instance it allows you to raise or lower the level of rain/water, allowing you to reach high or low areas. In another, it allows you to time the lightning to the point where you can see and are safe from whatever lurks in the dark. There's a short length that you can move time back or forward, plus you can pause it if you need to hold it on a specific moment. It's a great gameplay hook because it's so easy to understand and still allows for a good amount of variety and inventive interaction. Just exploring the environment becomes more engaging when you have such a unique tool at your disposal. That said, the platforming controls in Arise are a bit clunky. It's not enough to spoil the experience, but the protagonist's movements are somewhat slow and lumbering, and the button commands for scaling a cliff or swinging on a rope don't quite feel snappy and satisfying. It's especially odd since the time manipulation mechanic feels pretty decently thought out. Again, it doesn't impact the game terribly, but the controls could be smoother. Arise is only about four hours long, so it definitely feels like a quick one-and-done kind of game (though the emotions of the experience will still linger with you). There are optional collectibles in each stage which you really ought to pursue, both because the game will feel even shorter if you just run through each level and because the collectibles provide adorable artwork that further fleshes out the narrative. Sometimes these images feel even more central to the story than the main game's storytelling. Arise also features a co-op mode where one player controls the old man and another controls the flow of time. It's a bit of an odd set-up—and ripe for the time-controlling player to troll the other player—but the option is there. Arise: A Simple Story tells you exactly what it is in the title. It's a simple story about one man's life, but what makes it resonate so well is the universally relatable journey of emotions, a journey of empathy. It's a simple story because it's a human story. The game also offers a clever take on time manipulation, even if the controls feel a bit clunky. In the end though, the main reason to check out Arise is to experience a simple yet beautifully told story of life. Rating: 8 out of 10 Memories
  14. I was surprised to see that it's actually been a minute since the last LEGO video game. For a while there it seemed like there were three or four coming out every year, whether based on licensed properties or original content, and all of them sporting the same gameplay formula that has practically become a genre unto itself at this point. But with a bit of time since the last brick-based game, does LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga come off feeling like a more fresh experience? Well, yes and no. Perhaps more importantly though, fans of the LEGO game formula will still be well-satisfied with this one for dozens upon dozens of hours. Skywalker Saga covers all nine of the main Star Wars movies, and you can begin your journey with the first of any of the three trilogies (i.e. episode I, IV, or VII). The game serves as a condensed version of each of these nine episodes, with cutscenes that rapidly take you through the set-up and exposition of each scene and gameplay levels that cover all of the blaster firing, lightsaber dueling, and spaceship battles that Star Wars fans know and love. Especially for having not watched any of these movies in a long while, it was fun to run through them again, even if the game does add the usual LEGO slapstick humor—it's not all bad, but some of the predictable jokes definitely drag on for too long. Each episode includes five main missions which play as like the usual LEGO games, meaning there's some light puzzle solving as you craft objects or use characters' unique skills to help you progress as well as battles with melee attacks, blasters, or space dogfights. At its core, the LEGO formula still has a fair bit of charm. It's rather predictable and obviously skews on the easy side to accommodate young players, but even if it's rarely demanding it's still pretty fun to run around breaking apart LEGO brick objects and exploring. There are even a handful of clever, fun challenges sprinkled throughout the game—not as much as I would've liked perhaps, but it's nice that there's a bit of variety here. The combat also feels a little more engaging this time around with some variety in your attacks. This still isn't exactly an action game by any means but fighting stormtroopers is a bit less mindlessly repetitive. And like past LEGO games there is an insane amount of things to collect, not all of which is possible on your first playthrough since you'll need characters with specific abilities that might not be there during the "canonical" first playthrough. Characters are divided up into categories and each one has unique abilities—Jedi can, obviously, use lightsabers to cut through specific walls, while scavengers like Rey are able to craft items that help them traverse the environment. The main levels are already filled with plenty of things to discover, but the real bulk of the game comes from the sandbox areas between levels that are oftentimes massive and packed with side quests, optional challenges, and collectibles to grab. Finishing just the main missions might take you around fifteen hours or so, but trying to 100% complete this game could easily push it closer to eighty or ninety hours. That absolutely insane amount of content is great for hardcore collectible fans but like a lot of LEGO games it can feel like padding. Most missions and challenges are pretty basic and once you've done a few dozen of them it's a little hard to maintain the energy to keep at them. There is at least a good incentive to gather up those collectible bricks while you progress, though. They can be used to upgrade your characters (increased speed, attack power, health, etc.) which at least gives you a more substantial reason to grab them beyond just trying to reach 100% completion. Considering there are over one thousand collectible bricks in the game, it's good to have a little extra motivation to find them. The presentation in Skywalker Saga is just about everything you'd expect from a LEGO game. The animation wrings a ton of charm out of these blocky characters, and the environments have plenty of polish to them that make them feel fully realized, even when they look like a bunch of LEGO bricks. So much of the dialogue is taken straight from the movies which is a great touch, and of course it's always a treat to hear the familiar Star Wars songs in any context. While the art design is pretty solid though, the technical side of the game leaves a lot to be desired. Frame rate dips are a bit annoying but understandable on a multiplatform game. There were plenty of more severe glitches during my playthrough though, which really soured the experience. Textures sometimes failed to load fully during the opening crawl, leaving the text basically unreadable. A scene transition would fail to load so I'd be stuck staring at a wall of the previous scene, unable to progress without exiting and reloading. Visual effects would sometimes get stuck on the screen, so a blurry effect from being hit by a powerful attack would stick around until I'd finished the entire level. Most frustratingly, there were several crashes which necessitated replaying parts of levels. Beware that the game's technical polish is far from complete and there will likely (and hopefully) be some important patches down the line. LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is a staggeringly massive playground for Star Wars fans to run around in and collect their favorite characters and ships in familiar locales. The usual LEGO formula has a bit of an upgrade here though it's still an undeniably repetitive one, especially if you're hardcore enough to try to collect everything possible in the game. If that sort of thing does tickle your fancy you'll find a wealth of easy but entertaining gameplay here, just be wary of the technical hiccups that will pop up on occasion. Rating: 7 out of 10 Bricks
  15. A throwback to classic side-scrolling beat 'em ups of the 90s, The TakeOver wears its Streets of Rage influence on its sleeve, from genre staples down to some of the character and level design. This game isn't just a copycat though and manages to throw in a couple of novel ideas into a formula that hasn't changed much in decades. But despite those shake ups, only die-hard fans of the genre are likely to dive into The TakeOver. In a story that definitely feels like it came out of the 80s or 90s, the city of Steel Haven has been overrun by crime—taken over by it, you might say. When police officer Ethan's daughter is kidnapped amidst the crime spree, he, his girlfriend Megan, and his friend Connor take to the streets to find her. It's a super generic story told through pretty bland cutscenes. Granted, story-telling isn't usually a priority for beat 'em up games, but the developers might as well not have bothered with any kind of plot in that case. Just have a bunch of cops/protagonists beating up gang members, simple. No need to try to give the final boss some thin motivation literally in the final cutscene of the game. The TakeOver has all the fundamentals of a side-scrolling beat 'em up with one or two notable additions. Instead of a single attack button you've got two: punch or kick. By chaining the two together you can use long combos that oftentimes stunlock enemies into place, which is a nice way of speeding up fights sometimes (though it won't work on every enemy and obviously not on bosses). You've also got special moves that drain health and a super meter that gradually fills as you land hits (and decreases when you take damage) that can be used for a powerful burst attack. Finally there's a rage meter that also gradually fills as you attack and allows you to enter an invincible, super-powered state for a short while. You can also sometimes find melee weapons and every character comes equipped with a gun for ranged attacks, though ammo is limited so you'll need to find it as you progress through each stage. The end result is that The TakeOver's combat has one or two fun wrinkles but ultimately plays like every other side-scrolling beat 'em up. If you're playing a beat 'em up in this millenium that's probably all you want anyway, something that evokes that classic sense of arcade combat and progression, even with all its little flaws like missing an enemy because you're not quite on the right y-axis even though they can hit you just fine. Still though, it would've been nice to have even more new, unique features in The TakeOver, especially since they clearly touched upon a couple of ideas. The game does have a couple of bonus action stages to break up the action, though these are also pretty simple and don't really change the fact that The TakeOver is repetitive, even though it only takes a few hours to play through it all. Even with combos and various special attacks the combat system always feels like the same thing over and over, and it's rarely rewarding, i.e. it doesn't often feel like you win because of skill or planning, you just win by mashing the attack buttons over and over. It's mindless action, which can be fun for a bit but gets stale pretty quickly. Aside from the main arcade mode, there are a couple of other game modes to try, though they don't switch up the gameplay much at all. Challenge mode literally just has you replay individual sections of the game with some side-goal in mind, like not letting your health drop below 50% or never using special attacks. As far as bonus modes go, it's pretty lackluster. There's also Survival mode where you just fight waves and waves of enemies—not a terribly inspired game mode either but at least you know what you're getting right off the bat. You can also play any game mode with two-player local co-op, and although this doesn't spice up the gameplay much either, it is nice to have another couch co-op game out there. The presentation in The TakeOver is a little hard to pin down because, while individual elements do look pretty good—the character design, level design, etc.—the overall style is so busy and has something of a plasticky, stiff feel to it when animated. The cutscenes are played in a stylish 2D comic book, but the artwork is a bit bland and unpolished. And last but not least, the soundtrack is energetic and gives off that 90s arcade vibe, though the individual songs don't stand out much. The TakeOver is, like many throwbacks or revivals of classic video game genres, a good imitation of an older form of gameplay, but doesn't seem to want to push the genre forward at all. Separate punches and kicks with combo chains is a fun addition but doesn't quite break up the monotony of the side-scrolling action formula, and the uninspired writing and visuals aren't switching things up much either. Fans of beat 'em ups might enjoy having another side-scroller to punch their way through, but anyone not already charmed by the genre may feel that The TakeOver is too generic. Rating: 6 out of 10 Takeovers
  16. We've got plenty of stories about a hero rising up to fight monsters and demons, but Skul: The Hero Slayer flips the script. In this game you play as a lowly skeleton soldier on a quest to rescue the Demon King who has been attacked by human warriors. With fast and frantic combat and roguelike randomization and progression, Skul is an addictive adventure. It's a lot of fun to be playing as a "bad guy" undead fighter, rescuing other monsters like witches, trolls and the like. Aside from the premise though, Skul doesn't delve too deeply into storytelling. The first time you reach a new region of the game you're treated to little cutscenes that add some context, but it's pretty minimal and since you only see them once in the dozens (or even hundreds) of times you'll play through the game, they don't leave much of an impact. Skul is a roguelike, meaning that the levels are randomly generated, the items/weapons you find are randomly provided, and when you die you start back at square one to try it all over again. The twist here is that Skul can literally swap his skull for other ones, granting him different abilities. Skulls, then, essentially act as weapons. You can pick up basic sword fighter or archer skulls, magic-user skulls, or more unique ones like rockstar and even skulls that reference other roguelike games. The amount of skulls feels great—there are enough that you can experiment with tons of options, but not so many that you'll get overwhelmed by them, especially since you can't control which skulls you'll find in each playthrough. Skulls can also be upgraded to be stronger (only in your current playthrough) so once you do find ones you like you can keep them and just keep upgrading them to improve your damage output. Aside from skulls, you'll also pick up items on each run that provide various buffs, from basic extra damage to special effects like granting you a temporary shield every so often. Like a lot of roguelikes there is a ton to learn when you first start Skul, so figuring out which items work for your playstyle will take time, and this is all further complicated by the affinities that each item provides. Items have two affinities which grant additional bonus effects which can be stacked, so it might behoove you to have a lot of items with similar affinities to get a bigger bonus effect. Like I said it can feel overwhelming at first and the game doesn't actually do a good job of explaining these little features, but since this is the kind of game that you're expected to play over and over and over, you'll gradually learn what affinities do what and which ones might be most beneficial to your current run. The combat itself is fast, frantic, and satisfying. Some skulls are speed-based and some are power-based, but either way you'll have a blast smashing your way through groups of enemies as you dodge enemy attacks and juggle the cooldown meters of your special abilities. There's a good amount of variety in enemy types so you'll be up against different challenges in each region of the game, though by the end enemies can feel like damage sponges if you haven't carefully curated your skull/item set up. There are also mini-bosses and bosses to truly test your skills, and like all roguelikes it's super satisfying when you get good enough to take them out without much effort. Although the maps are randomly generated you do have some control over where to go next. Most rooms end with two doors and the decorations around the doors indicate what kinds of challenges/rewards await you. You might want to just take on a normal door if you're low on health and are hoping to make it to the next merchant room to buy healing items, or you might want to try a skull door to get a new skull or break it into bone shards that can be used to upgrade your current skulls. There aren't that many different types of rooms but having some control over where you go next helps you plan out your playthrough. Skul features some fantastic 2D artwork as well as a pretty catchy soundtrack. The scenery is incredibly detailed and the sprite-work on the skulls/enemies is sharp. Even though you're going to see these environments and characters over and over, there's a lot of depth and personality here as well as good readability when the screen is filled with chaotic combat. The music does a great job of building up the intensity of the action as you progress as well, and is catchy enough that it doesn't grow stale anytime soon. Skul: The Hero Slayer adds just a couple spins to the standard roguelike formula, but with such a solid foundation those little touches add a good amount of personality. Slowly learning how to efficiently fly through the game is always a satisfying challenge, and although Skul has some particularly obtuse mechanics that will take time to learn as well as a very slow progression system to upgrade your abilities between runs, the core gameplay is polished enough that roguelike fans will enjoy coming back for more, one playthrough after the next. Rating: 8 out of 10 Skulls
  17. Which came first, the bomb or the chicken? Thankfully, 2D platformer Bomb Chicken isn't too concerned with such philosophical musings. This game is all about one chicken's desperate adventure to escape a fast-food chain's surprisingly elaborate facilities, using only her wits and a seemingly endless supply of bombs she can lay. Its oddball premise doesn't change the fact that there's some unique and clever platforming challenges to enjoy here. Bomb Chicken's simple controls yields some complex puzzle-platforming. The only two actions you can perform are moving left and right or laying a bomb—this chicken can't even jump, much less fly to freedom. In order to reach ledges or climb over obstacles you can push yourself up by dropping a stack of bombs. To make matters trickier your own bombs can damage you, so after dropping one you have to be careful to avoid the blast radius. The result is a pretty clever twist on typical platforming challenges. Even a small step can prove dangerous since you'll need to push yourself up with a bomb then move away before it can detonate. Add in challenges like enemies, moving platforms, or flaming hazards and you'll find a great variety of unique platformer scenarios that make great use of the simple bomb-dropping mechanic. Seemingly every level presents a new challenge to overcome as there's always an engaging new hazard to contend with. In addition to simply reaching the goal of the level, each stage has a handful of blue gems for you to collect. More than a typical gold coin collectible though, these gems can be used to give you additional hearts. You may die in one hit, but it's not game over until all of your hearts are used up—each stage is divided into several rooms, so dying puts you back at the beginning of the room while losing all hearts sends you back to the very beginning of the stage. Obviously collecting gems is pretty crucial then, though grabbing them can occasionally be more challenging than it seems. There are even secret areas you can uncover that will reward you with gems hidden behind the trickiest challenges. Collecting gems can be a great secondary objective to truly test your bombing skills and give you a handy crutch on the harder levels. The main downside of Bomb Chicken is simply that the game doesn't last that long. There are only 29 stages in the game, and even with numerous deaths/retries the average player isn't going to need more than a few hours to finish the whole game. Collecting all of the blue gems might be a more difficult challenge, but even that won't extend the game's length by much. There's something to be said for keeping the gameplay to a tight, short experience to ensure the action stays fresh and never gets too repetitive, but still, it would've been nice to see even more levels here. The game's presentation mixes some great pixel graphics with only so-so audio. Even if there are only a handful of enemy designs and three different worlds to traverse, the sprite work is top notch, particularly around the chicken's hilarious waddling animation. The graphics may not be too flashy but there's still a lot of personality to enjoy here. The music is less charming though, with little that stands out throughout its repetitive background music tracks. Bomb Chicken presents a fun, unique twist on platforming and manages to get a lot of mileage out of its explosive poultry premise. The game may not last long but there are plenty of clever puzzles and challenges to enjoy, many of which will leave you on the edge of your seat as you narrowly outrun a chain of deadly explosions. 2D platformer fans will have a blast with this one. Rating: 7 out of 10 Bombs
  18. With so many RPGs that take place across huge, sweeping narratives and 50+ hour time commitments, it can be a refreshing change of pace to play one that is smaller and somewhat cozier in scale. The Cruel King and the Great Hero is a storybook adventure about one little girl's dreams of becoming a hero, told through an adorable hand-drawn art style. But while the game's aesthetics are undeniably charming, the gameplay and pacing could use some work. You play as Yuu, a young girl who is being raised by monsters. Her adoptive dad is the Dragon King, a powerful but kind dragon that hilariously watches over Yuu during her adventures by peeking through the background. Yuu aspires to be a great hero like her father and gradually takes on quests to aid the monster village and accomplish great deeds. It's an almost saccharinely cute story and Yuu is an adorable protagonist, always eager to help and lend a friendly ear. The twists are mostly predictable but the game really doesn't present itself as a complex narrative anyway so the relative simplicity of the story doesn't feel out of place. The Cruel King and the Great Hero is a turn-based RPG with random encounters, equipment to find, special skills to learn, etc. At first it's just Yuu on a solo adventure but she soon picks up allies that join her in battle—only one at a time though. The combat system doesn't have many fancy frills. You've got standard attacks, special skills, items, etc. Skills require energy which naturally recovers during battle, so you can't just spam them all the time. It's a pretty easy system to learn but it can also feel too simple at times. Standard battles can get pretty repetitive as you end up using the same tactics over and over. In fact, there aren't that many special skills available in the game, so even that aspect of combat feels somewhat bare. If the story and presentation are anything to go by, The Cruel King and the Great Hero may seem suited for new or young players, so the simplicity of the combat system may seem appropriate. However, the game also has some pretty significant difficulty spikes that can be pretty draining as you devote time to level grinding or just doing side quests to power up a bit. The tone of the game and the difficulty of the gameplay feel at odds with one another, and it can make progress a bit discouraging. It certainly doesn't help that the pacing of the game is as slow as molasses. Yuu walks slowly through some pretty large environments, and the flow of battle, while not terribly slow, isn't exactly fast either. Progress is absolutely plodding in The Cruel King and the Great Hero, and then there's the random encounter system to weigh things down even more. I'm normally not one to gripe about random encounters—they were standard in the RPGs I grew up on, after all—but they can get annoying here. For one thing, your slow walking pace means it feels like you've hardly made progress across the screen before you're thrown into another battle. For another, the "avoid encounters" item that you can use isn't 100% effective, so even when you're backtracking through areas full of weak monsters in order to complete a side quest you'll still have to sit through some battles. And since battles themselves aren't all that interesting, the cycle of random encounters can feel oppressive. It's okay to have a leisurely paced game, but The Cruel King and the Great Hero is almost tediously slow. And the story isn't actually that long, especially by RPG standards, but you'll feel every minute of the game thanks to its slow pacing. You can finish the story in around twelve hours, though there are also a lot of side quests to tackle which can be useful since they'll reward you with rare items, or at least money. The downside is that the side quests are, you guessed it, pretty repetitive, and the constant backtracking gets obnoxious. Even though it's not as much of a time commitment as other RPGs, you have to mentally prepare for how long and slow The Cruel King and the Great Hero feels. The presentation, though, is probably the highlight of the game, and it doesn't disappoint. The hand-drawn art style is gorgeous, like an animated storybook, and even the monsters you fight are just adorably designed. The art style's charm and playfulness goes a long way in boosting the game's personality even when you're walking back through the same areas over and over. The soundtrack is pretty sharp as well with a suitably cute but adventurous tone. The Cruel King and the Great Hero boasts a great sense of style and an adorable little story, but the core gameplay elements will likely leave players wanting. The combat mechanics are decently done but there aren't many new ideas brought to the table, and the noticeably slow pace of the game really stretches out what is actually a very modest run time for an RPG. Players interested in a cute little RPG might want to check out The Cruel King and the Great Hero, but be prepared for surprising difficulty spikes and a sluggish sense of pacing. Rating: 6 out of 10 Heroes
  19. It seems like some stories are just guaranteed to tug on your heartstrings, and To the Moon is definitely one of them. Originally created a decade ago with RPG Maker XP, the game tells the story of an old man's dying wish to go to the moon. The story that unfolds though is beautifully touching and surprising. Virtually every other aspect of the game feels lacking, though. You play as doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts who use a sci-fi headset to enter the memories of patients and can even change or manipulate those memories. For dying patient Johnny Wyles, they enter his mind and implant a false memory of wanting to travel to the moon, thereby allowing him to live out the experience in his mind. It's an awesome sci-fi setup that quickly dives into relatable human experiences. The doctors travel backwards through Johnny's memories, so the most recent ones are of his late wife River, their courtship, then all the way back to his childhood. This backwards narrative for his life story is naturally engaging and intriguing—why is he the person he is in his old age? You'll have to travel farther back to find out. It's not just a clever narrative format—To the Moon is incredibly touching and you can't help but be misty-eyed by the end of the game. It's easy to feel for Johnny and River throughout all stages of their lives. On the other hand though, the two doctors are terribly written. They're meant to be the commentators who react to the memories we're watching, but their dialogue is corny, full of awkwardly inserted pop culture references that aren't funny or charming, and their playful bickering just comes off as obnoxious. In terms of being comedic relief, the doctors fall flat completely. It's also just awkward to have such rapid tonal shifts between the two doctors' clumsy attempts at humor and the often heartfelt scenes unfolding in Johnny's memories. As far as gameplay is concerned, To the Moon is thin, and what's there isn't all that compelling either. This is mostly a visual novel, but you do have to walk around in Johnny's memories and collect tokens or clues that allow you to progress to the next memory. Literally all this means is walking up to any notable objects in the scene and pressing A. Once you have all five clues you have to solve a simple puzzle that feels more like busywork than an integral part of the story or experience. The game is also plagued by stiff controls that will often have you stuck on a corner or you'll think you can walk through a space but you'll hit an invisible wall. All of the actual gameplay or interactive elements of To the Moon feel completely superfluous and oftentimes are more of a hindrance than anything. This is also a fairly short four hour game, but the slow walking speed and slow text speed (which you can't increase, unfortunately) can make it feel longer at times. The presentation of To the Moon is understandably lackluster given its RPG Maker roots. These graphics are cookie cutter, picked out of a basin of pre-made sprites and stuck together for this game. The old-fashioned sprite graphics can still be charming but don't expect anything amazing here. The music, however, is original, and does a fantastic job of elevating the emotional beats of the story. Even if the soundtrack can be slightly repetitive at times, it perfectly sets the atmosphere of traveling through memories of love and loss. To the Moon is a wonderfully emotional story that is well worth reading. It's touching and reflective with a few surprises that keep you on your toes. That said, all of the video game aspects of To the Moon fall flat, from stiff controls to bland, unnecessary interactive elements. The comedic aspects of the writing are also terribly integrated into the narrative, rapidly pulling you out of the more engaging story being told through Johnny's memories. Ultimately To the Moon might be in the wrong medium, but it still tells a heartfelt story. Rating 6 out of 10 Moons
  20. 2022 marks thirty years of the adorable pink puffball's adventures across Dreamland, Planet Popstar, and beyond. Over his storied career, Kirby has dipped his toes into plenty of different platforming mechanics—indeed, for a long time Kirby seemed to be the go-to mascot for testing out unusual game features, whether it was using tilt or stylus controls, yarn-based artwork or splitting into multiple smaller versions of himself to work together. His latest adventure, Kirby and the Forgotten Land, comes with a new ability that is a mouthful and takes place in a 3D environment. No matter what new features or settings Kirby finds himself in though, his games are consistently delightful, and this one is no different. Kirby is minding his own business on Planet Popstar when a mysterious vortex in the sky opens up, sucking him in alongside tons of Waddle Dees (as well as optional co-op character Bandana Waddle Dee). After a rough ride through space and/or dimensions, Kirby awakens on the beach of a landscape filled with crumbling ruins of a forgotten civilization—a civilization that looks suspiciously like our modern world. In order to find a way home though Kirby will have to battle the villainous Beast Pack and rescue captured Waddle Dees. It's a simple, straightforward story elevated by just how cute Kirby and the Waddle Dees really are. Although the settings are in 3D, the core gameplay of the Kirby franchise is perfectly preserved. Kirby can inhale basic enemies and shoot them out, or he can inhale enemies with abilities and copy them, such as fire, sword, ice, etc. There are a couple of new abilities that fit right in with the rest of the classics, and you'll need to use these abilities to fight, explore, and potentially discover hidden rooms or bonus items (or bonus Waddle Dees). Completing a level immediately rescues three Waddle Dees, but scattered throughout each stage are extra ones that require a bit of effort to find, as well as hidden bonus objectives that require more Kirby expertise. These are extra challenges though and not required to simply finish the game. All in all the core Kirby gameplay feels fantastic in Forgotten Land and really exemplifies how simple and well-polished game design can be engaging and exciting even in a franchise with such a long history. The game does err on the easy side, but that just makes it perfect for young or novice players, and Kirby pros will still find reaching 100% completion a worthy challenge. Kirby's fancy new ability is Mouthful Mode, which allows him to (mostly) inhale real world objects and take on their properties. By inhaling a car, he can zoom around crashing into enemies and obstacles. As a traffic cone, Kirby can leap into the air and crash down on the point of the cone to break blocks. Each Mouthful Mode object has just one or two defined uses, but they all make for a fun change of pace when you encounter one, and seeing Kirby stretched around a real world object is hilariously charming (and maybe a tiny bit creepy as well). Like most limited time or limited area power-ups, Mouthful Mode objects provide some fun little puzzles that reward careful and keen-eyed players. The game is divided into levels but between stages you're able to return to Waddle Dee Town, a hub area that hosts all of the Waddle Dees you've rescued. There are a few side features here, like the chance to rewatch cutscenes, collect more figurines through a gacha (aka "Gotcha") capsule machine, and once you rescue enough Waddle Dees new facilities will open up with extra features. The most important part of the town though is probably the copy ability shop, where you're able to upgrade your abilities once you've found a blueprint and have paid the requisite coins/power stones. You'll find coins just about everywhere but power stones come from side levels that are themed around a specific ability or Mouthful Mode ability. They're fun little mini-challenges and the power stones you earn are invaluable since upgrading copy abilities is extremely useful. The abilities don't just become stronger, they'll also take on new properties, like turning the basic sword into a massive blade that is slower so it takes a bit more precision. Adding these new little wrinkles to your arsenal of abilities is a blast, plus you can always opt to use the weaker versions if you'd like. There's not actually a huge selection of copy abilities in Forgotten Land, but the chance to upgrade and experiment with the same abilities over and over more than makes up for it. Where Forgotten Lands really shines is in how sharply designed the whole game feels. The main adventure is only around seven or eight hours long, but it never feels like there's a wasted level or a tedious challenge. There aren't actually that many different types of enemies, but fighting them and exploring platforming/puzzle challenges never gets too repetitive. The selection of copy abilities is kept relatively simple but that also means you don't have a ton of different effects to remember—each one is easy to pick up and use immediately. However, if you do want to see everything the game has to offer you'll probably double that seven/eight hour length when you tackle the more difficult post-game levels and challenges, so no matter your Kirby skill level there's something for everyone here. And naturally, Kirby is just so darn cute. The Waddle Dees and enemies are just as adorable—every single one looks like a plush toy that you just want to squeeze—and the juxtaposition of seeing them all in more realistic settings is actually pretty striking. They don't look all that out of place and instead the scenery helps highlight the charm and personality in all of the character designs. The music is also a total delight. It's energetic and exciting and exactly as fun as you want this kind of platformer soundtrack to be. Kirby and the Forgotten Land is another charming adventure for everyone's favorite puffball. Even in the 3D setting the platformer gameplay remains smooth and satisfying, the puzzles aren't brain-busters but they are fun to discover, and the opportunity to upgrade copy abilities adds an engaging sense of progression as you move from one level to the next. Mouthful Mode is delightfully goofy, and while the main adventure is more or less simple enough for novice players there's plenty of extra content to satisfy completionists. However you like to play though, Kirby and the Forgotten Land exudes fun and charm. Rating: 8 out of 10 Mouthfuls
  21. 3D puzzle-platformer Ever Forward takes players on a mysterious journey through imagination and memory as one little girl pieces together fragments of her past. Despite some clever and challenging puzzle mechanics though, Ever Forward's clunky controls and technical hiccups make it a forgettable and occasionally frustrating adventure. You play as Maya, a little girl on a suspiciously idyllic but empty island. Scattered throughout the white sand beaches and green fields are strange corrupted structures that lead her to puzzle arenas. Completing a puzzle grants you a short cutscene, revealing a glimpse of Maya's past with her mother. These scenes certainly tug on the heartstrings but there's not much depth or originality to the story being told. Worse, the scattered structure makes the mystery just kind of bland—it's hard to get invested in the narrative. The puzzles themselves show off some pretty clever game design though. In each puzzle you'll need to reach the goal with a cube that unlocks the goal. Sure enough that task gets more and more complicated in each level, and Maya's limited abilities to interact with the environment means you'll need to be especially clever to overcome obstacles. Most often you'll need to avoid guard robots that will zap you if you're spotted, which is only made more complicated by the fact that Maya automatically walks more slowly near these robots. By the end of the game the puzzles get awfully creative and will treat players to plenty of "eureka" moments when things finally click into place. That said, Ever Forward has some surprising difficulty spikes for what appears to be a fairly casual puzzle-platformer. The good news is that you can collect leaves and spend them on helpful tips during a puzzle. The bad news is that these tips aren't always all that clear, and you're given basically no direction on how to find leaves on the island. It's great to have a built-in help system, but it's not quite as comprehensive as players might want. The real issue with Ever Forward's puzzles though is just down to the controls and core mechanics of the game. Moving, picking up objects, judging distances—everything is pretty stiff and unsatisfying. Maya's slow, awkward movement often makes puzzles more challenging than they ought to be. Lining up precise movements feels clumsy, and late in the game you'll come across timing puzzles that are a real headache. Thankfully you're able to save at almost any time, so sometimes you can slowly creep your way toward progress without having to replay entire puzzles, but in the end Ever Forward's controls and core gameplay mechanics just aren't enjoyable. Ever Forward is also surprisingly short. If you blaze through the game you can finish in just about two hours, and even if you end up stuck frequently you probably won't spend more than three hours on it. There's nothing wrong with a short adventure, but for a puzzle game like this it's a bit odd since there are so many more opportunities for puzzle ideas. It almost feels like the game is only just getting going when it ends. And of course, as a puzzle game there's not much of an incentive to replay it, which makes this one-and-done two-hour adventure a hard sell. The game's minimalist style isn't half bad and certainly fits the ethereal, dreamy quality of the experience, but you can't help but wish there was a bit more to the art style. The real issue though is that even this minimalist style runs pretty poorly on the Switch. It doesn't inhibit the gameplay, but the frame rate can get pretty choppy and the visuals experience some crazy pop-in on both near and distant objects. It's jarring and pretty distracting. The audio doesn't have much more depth than the art style. It's also dreamy and mysterious but somewhat bland, and the voice acting is a surprising touch but also doesn't elevate the story much. Ever Forward presents some promising puzzle concepts, and as soon as things get more complicated the game ends. That brief play time wouldn't be quite as disappointing if the other aspects of the experience were better polished though. Clunky controls, poor frame rate on the Switch, and a minimalist but bland art style leave a lot to be desired in this 3D puzzle-platformer. Rating: 5 out of 10 Puzzles
  22. The original Life is Strange game took me completely by surprise. It came out at a time when episodic story-based games felt done to death so I had few expectations going in, but the supernatural mystery plot, clever gameplay mechanics and emotional narrative pulled me in fully. The second game in the series didn't hit me in quite the same way, but Life is Strange: True Colors has a new developer and, despite still being split into distinct chapters, was released all at once as one big game, so how does it stack up in the world of story-based games? You play as Alex Chen, a young woman who moves to a frankly idyllic small Colorado mining town named Haven Springs in order to reconnect with her estranged older brother. The siblings have some shared trauma from being bounced around the foster care system after losing their parents as teens and haven't seen each other in years. If all that wasn't enough, Alex has the unique power to see and absorb the emotions of people around her, and her imperfect control of this ability has brought her plenty of trouble in the past. Although Alex makes an effort to settle into the new setting, a tragedy at the end of the first chapter launches what is essentially a murder mystery to solve on top of all the other challenges weighing on her mind. It's easy to get invested in Alex's story. The writing is sharp and blends together both comedy and tragedy with charming scenes of small-town life filled with interesting, likeable characters. You'll quickly empathize with Alex's struggles, and the overall message of facing and working through emotions makes for a nice narrative hook. That said, the pacing of the story does feel a little rushed. The mystery doesn't have quite enough time to percolate into a fully engaging enigma, and many of Alex's personal relationships come off as effortlessly simple. It hurts some of the more dramatic moments when you, the player, haven't had time to see how much these scenes actually weigh on the characters. The characters are so likeable that you'll be rooting for them regardless, but a little more time to live with them might have helped give the big scenes more punch, particularly the finale. A big part of the game's charm comes from the stellar vocal performances of the cast, particularly from Alex since you see so much of her and need to understand and empathize with her perspective. The entire voice cast does a great job of bringing the characters to life and adding depth to their animated lives. The soundtrack as a whole, just like the first game, is filled with chill indie songs that reflect the emotions running through both Alex and the entire town. Sometimes the song selection comes off as a bit cheesy but fans of the genre should enjoy it all the same. True Colors runs pretty smoothly on the Switch, which isn't all that common with multi-platform releases. There are definitely some technical hiccups, like textures or colors that are slow to load (making some characters' hair color seem to flicker between scenes) and the load times are a little long, but overall the colorful, painterly effect of the art style looks great on the Switch. The visual design makes the town feel cozy and comfortable even in the face of tragedy and drama. As for gameplay features, True Colors seems to have even fewer interactive elements than previous Life is Strange games. You'll spend the vast majority of the game just looking at objects and talking with characters as Alex's power over emotions has more story uses than gameplay uses. It's still engaging thanks to the strength of the characters and their relationships but it doesn't quite compare to how, for example, Max's time powers in the original Life is Strange naturally fed into the gameplay structure. There are some fun mini-games in True Colors though, and the third chapter in particular plays out as essentially a side-game that is pretty charming. And as always in these games your choices have consequences, so you'll see story beats play out a little bit differently based on what you choose to do, and comparing your choices with other people is always fun. Life is Strange: True Colors is a worthy sequel in the franchise. The narrative design and emotional core of the story are excellent and you'll easily be charmed by Alex and the residents of Haven Springs. Alex's power over emotions may not have the most interesting gameplay uses but it makes for a strong storytelling element. The game's shorter, roughly ten hour length might have hurt it in the end as not all of the dramatic moments are as fleshed out as they could be, but there's still an engaging, emotional story to enjoy in True Colors. Rating: 8 out of 10 Colors
  23. West of Dead: Path of the Crow combines the snappy action of a twin-stick shooter with the tense, ever-changing stakes of a roguelike, all within an Old West setting. It's a stylish and engaging experience while it lasts, but unlike most roguelikes this one might not have the legs to sustain playthrough after playthrough. You're a dead man. You awaken in a mysterious, shadowy realm, Purgatory, and learn that souls aren't being sent to their final resting place in the afterlife, so you take up a pair of guns to get to the bottom of the problem, and you may learn that the source is more closely tied to your past than you realize. It's an undeniably cool setting for a game and the writing does a good job of giving you enough detail while maintaining the curt, gruff vibe of an Old West cowboy adventure. Your character is also impeccably narrated by Ron Perlman, whose recognizable voice adds a perfect layer of gravitas to the story. In some instances it might have been nice to flesh out the worldbuilding a bit more, but in general minimalist approach works well in West of Dead. That philosophy kind of extends to the rest of the game's presentation as well. The visuals are highly stylized like a comic book page, drenched in harsh shadows and bright, jagged artwork. The effect looks great and also serves a gameplay purpose as enemies can hide in shadows and you'll need to light lanterns to reveal your targets. The music is appropriately Old West-y and tends to be understated too. The whistle and guitar audio while you're wandering from gunfight to gunfight definitely puts you in the right Wild West vibe. The gameplay combines twin-stick shooter mechanics and tactical cover usage with the random level design and deadly consequences of a roguelike. You'll start each playthrough with just a basic set of weapons and explore randomly generated rooms, each one filled with enemies, as you collect new guns, abilities, and stat upgrades to aid you on your quest. You'll also pick up a few permanent upgrades that allow you to explore a bit further and open up shortcuts to further customize your adventure. You can also spend the currency you collect—Sins from fallen enemies—to unlock other permanent boosts to make subsequent playthroughs a little easier. So while West of Dead is a roguelike, each playthrough still earns you progress toward a stronger gunslinger on the next run. The game also uses Old West guns to smart effect. These old fashioned pistols, rifles and shotguns don't have quick reload times, so you'll need to use cover intelligently to give yourself breathing room against groups of enemies. It's a simple but satisfying loop of popping up to shoot, ducking back to reload, and maybe rolling toward another piece of cover when the crate you're hiding behind is destroyed by enemies. This formula also lends itself to some intense but fun boss fights, though oftentimes the hardest parts of the game are when you have three or more enemies barreling down on you and you've got nowhere to hide. All that said, West of Dead's gameplay loop struggles to maintain speed from one playthrough to another. There isn't enough variety in each run to keep the game interesting for hours on end, perhaps partially because of how slow it is to unlock new guns and abilities with the Sin you collect. Even the added weapons and regions from the Path of the Crow expansion can't make the experience feel fresh and exciting after a few playthroughs. The actual shooting mechanics are fun but it wears thin far too quickly for a roguelike that expects you to replay it over and over. West of Dead: Path of the Crow combines the right elements of twin-stick shooters and roguelikes in a stylish Old West package, but doesn't quite nail the inherent replayability factor that is so vital to roguelikes. Each playthrough is a little too similar to maintain interest for too long, and the slow pace of unlocking new weapons can be a bit discouraging. It's a fun game for a while but maybe the roguelike formula wasn't the right fit. Rating: 7 out of 10 Sins
  24. Beyond a Steel Sky is another blast-from-the-past franchise revival that feels particularly old fashioned thanks to its point-and-click adventure format. This a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky, a 1994 adventure game set in a dystopian future. Thankfully players won't need to know all the details of the first game to play Beyond, but you'll definitely need a little patience for some of the genre's quirks. In this sci-fi futuristic setting, the world has been ravaged by conflict and humanity has largely consolidated into massive city states. Those less fortunate live in the wastelands between cities, called the Gap, in close-knit tribes. You play as Robert Foster, a Gaplander, who is spurred toward the massive city state Union City when a young child is kidnapped from his community. Robert was also the protagonist of the first game and there are plenty of little details that have carried over, but for the most part new players can jump right in. All you really need to know is that Robert is on a rescue mission in the seemingly idyllic Union City where not everything is as it seems. As a point-and-click adventure the storytelling is obviously hugely important in Beyond a Steel Sky, but the final product is incredibly uneven. The world-building and setting is fantastic: all of the details about Union City that you pick up paint a nicely detailed picture of a utopia being held up with duct tape and deceit. The actual personal story of Robert and the characters you encounter though is awfully flat. Robert is a frankly boring protagonist who, even during dramatic moments, is way too bland. Dialogue can be weirdly repetitive and a little tedious to get through, which is a huge problem in a story-driven game like this. The comedic beats are also not great—too much reliance on tired joke structures means you're not going to get laugh out loud moments, just awkward silences. Learning about the world of Beyond a Steel Sky is engaging, but the actual plot can be slow-paced and even boring at times. Like so many point-and-click adventures, there's a lot of running around to do as you collect a new task then scour every inch of the environment to find items or talk to NPCs to suss out clues about what to do. Despite its old fashioned origin there are actually very few tedious puzzles in Beyond a Steel Sky—you're never forced to figure out a complicated, illogical solution by just clicking on everything around you. The puzzles are pretty well constructed for the most part, and since most of the game takes place in self-contained areas there's not too much running back and forth. There are even a couple of standout puzzle sequences, such as when you're impersonating someone so you need to learn as much about him as you can very quickly. A lot of the game's puzzles revolve around a scanner item that you pick up early on. This device allows you to hack electronics and rewrite their programming, which you can use to open a locked door for example, or reroute a robot in its task loop. It's a fun concept but is perhaps used too much when all's said and done. The actual puzzles with the scanner don't evolve much so they can feel a little repetitive. Perhaps more importantly, when the solution so often involves the scanner it limits the "eureka" moments, when the solution finally clicks for you, that make puzzle games satisfying. Beyond the actual puzzles and puzzle mechanics, Beyond a Steel Sky also leaves a lot to be desired with how the game controls. Even while running Robert moves obnoxiously slowly. Highlighting the right object to interact with is clumsy when there's more than one item next to each other. Robert's movements are weirdly tank-like at times. Obviously this isn't a fast-paced, dexterous game, but little discomforts in the very way that you interact with the game can really weigh down the experience. The presentation is a mixed bag as well. There's a unique colorful style to the setting that is certainly striking, and the comic book influence adds a lot of personality. On a technical level though it lacks soul. The animation is a little too stiff to make the story moments engaging, and the little issues of pop-in on distant objects or low-res textures prevent the setting from fully coming to life. The voice acting is also a bit weird. There's some good work on display here and some colorful side characters but again the voices just don't have the energy that they need, especially for Robert whom you're going to hear the most. Beyond a Steel Sky is quite a mix of old and new. It's a sequel to an over 25 year old point-and-click adventure and yet manages to avoid the kinds of complicated puzzle pitfalls that made old-school games frustrating. And yet, at the same time it still has the slow, plodding pace that drains the energy from a truly interesting world setting, and the puzzles largely end up being a bit too repetitive. Worst of all though, the writing just isn't all that engaging in this story-driven game. Fans of its predecessor may enjoy seeing old friends again in Beyond a Steel Sky, but if you're new to the world that's not a lot to latch onto here. Rating: 5 out of 10 Skies
  25. In a brutal, Medieval-inspired landscape of war and conflict, one prince bears the heavy burden of the crown and fights against ruthless invaders who decimate his people. Also, the prince is a rat and the invaders are frogs. Tails of Iron pairs up unlikely, cartoonish artwork with a grim setting and fiendishly difficult combat system that demands precision and patience. The effect is undeniably unique though certainly not for the faint of heart. You play as Redgi, prince of the Rat Kingdom who awakens on what should be a joyous day. Your father the king has planned a test of combat to prove your worthiness to inherit the throne, but just as you succeed the kingdom is brutally attacked by your people's longtime nemesis, the Frog Clan. Now you'll have to rebuild your forces and fight back against the powerful invaders as well as any other threats that challenge your kingdom. Telling this gritty story with adorable little animal folk is an odd but charming formula. However, that really only applies to the broad worldbuilding. The characters in the game are all pretty one-note, largely because the animals don't talk, they only communicate with little pictograms. Instead there is a narrator who will come in and basically explain everything the characters have just said, which comes off as a weird blend of concepts. Either stick to just pictographs and keep directions/storytelling simple enough that they communicate what needs to be said or just use the narrator—both makes for an awkward middleground of over-explaining ideas while also providing no character depth. Tails of Iron is a side-scrolling action-RPG, though the RPG elements are really just collecting equipment (Redgi never levels up throughout the game). There's a heavy emphasis on precise combat here. Your attacks are fairly slow and basic so you have to strike carefully, especially since you can't hit-stun enemies and you can inadvertently slide past them if you're not positioning yourself well. You also have to be thoughtful about when you attack: some attacks can be parried which allows you to get some hits in while others are unblockable so you have to dodge out of the way. There's a helpful indicator that pops up whenever an enemy attacks letting you know to parry or dodge, but you still need lightning fast reflexes to respond accordingly, so a big part of the game is learning each type of enemy's attack patterns. The downside is that so often you're just waiting for enemies to attack in order to find a small opening, which makes battles reactionary and a bit tedious—even fairly basic enemies require this slow, measured approach. There are some strategic elements to combat though. Your equipment not only improves your attack and defensive stats, it also adds weight which makes your attacks slower. Do you want to load up on the strongest equipment and be a slow, heavy hitter or will you risk it with lighter armor and faster attacks? Ultimately though there's not a wild difference between speed or strength builds, not unless you're using extremely basic, light equipment late in the game. The three weapon types—spears, swords, axes—also feature slight speed differences but again it's not significant enough to make choosing your equipment feel engaging. You'll find a ton of equipment throughout the game but there's not much incentive to play around with different builds, which is a shame. The setting of Tails of Iron is sprawling but not actually too big, and exploration is overall fairly linear. That's not a terrible thing but when side quests keep sending you to the same areas it does get a bit repetitive. Furthermore, "side quest" is a bit of a misnomer. These quests are actually required to progress the game thanks to the gold they reward you with; you can just choose what order to tackle them in. A bit more depth to the game world and actual optional moments would have been nice. Tails of Iron should last you around eight hours, which feels like a good length for the adventure. If there were more variety in enemies and equipment it could have sustained itself longer, but as it is the combat gets pretty repetitive by the end of the game, aside from the extra-challenging boss fights that will likely require plenty of retries to conquer. There's some light post-game content as well as different difficulty levels to tackle if you want to see everything the game has to offer. Although the characters themselves are pretty cute little cartoon rats, the aesthetic of the game certainly matches the grim story being told. Heavy shadows and thick, dark outlines make for a gloomy, bleak setting appropriate for the grisly deaths happening on screen. Again, it's a bit odd to have such brutal scenes carried out by tiny animals that move with a charming paper-doll-like animation, but the contrast certainly makes it feel unique. The soundtrack certainly skews toward the more serious tone with ominous background music when you're exploring murky caves and brighter but still not excessively cartoony music in town. Tails of Iron is an odd but engaging mix of cute animal characters and tough as nails combat, which really just raises the question of who is the target audience here. And even if you do appreciate a precise, difficult battle system you're left with fairly limited options in terms of attack variety or approaches to enemies. If you're willing to challenge yourself though, Tails of Iron is a unique experience and rescuing the rat kingdom through hard-fought battles is certainly gratifying. Rating: 7 out of 10 Rats
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