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  1. In Sound Mind jumps on the psychological horror game trend with a puzzle-focused adventure crawling with creepy ambiance and a mysterious overarching plot. Sadly though, the scariest thing about this game is how it runs on the Switch. You play as Desmond Wales, a psychiatrist in a small town, though initially all you know is that you've woken up in the shadowy basement of an apartment building where clearly something is wrong. The psychiatrist angle dovetails nicely into the psychological horror of the game: you're not a soldier or a warrior, and in fact the levels are structured around your patients and their troubles. It definitely establishes a spooky atmosphere early on—like many horror games the best part of In Sound Mind is the first level or two, when you don't know what to expect and have limited ways of fighting back. Around halfway through the game though, the story takes a pretty dramatic turn toward a larger, overarching conspiracy, which to be fair is handled pretty well here but is perhaps not as interesting as the more intimate story of a psychiatrist haunted by the success or failures of his patients' treatments. The gameplay focuses on exploring eerie environments and solving puzzles to progress, with some light combat elements that grow over the course of the game. The environment and puzzle design is on point: each level of the game takes you to a new, sprawling area filled with nooks and crannies to inspect, all of which is naturally covered in shadows, so your trusty flashlight is key while exploring (and of course there's a battery meter, so you don't want to overdo the flashlight either). The huge areas are both a strength and a weakness for In Sound Mind: they're perfect for giving you the feeling that you're never quite safe, and unknown forces can leap out of the shadows at any time, but some of the environments feel big just for big's sake. You end up sprinting from one key object to another with nothing but empty scenery in between, not to mention that you can easily get lost since there's no HUD map. Sure getting lost is kind of the point for a game like this, but it leads to some unsatisfying gameplay moments. The puzzle design, at least, is pretty consistently sharp. Each level introduces some new mechanic or ability that spices up the gameplay, and the environmental puzzle design works nicely to encourage exploration without ever getting too complicated. You might find yourself lost or stuck for a bit occasionally, but given the size of these environments the puzzles are actually pretty nicely contained to individual areas. That said, the puzzle design can be a bit repetitive at times as well, since 90% of the time it's some variation of "find the key," but there are still some satisfying challenges to puzzle out here. The combat, however, leaves much to be desired. You start off unarmed and can eventually acquire a gun plus a couple other weapons. Part of the blame I'm going to lay at the feet of the console port of what is clearly originally a PC game, because aiming is clunky and downright atrocious at times. But even allowing for that, the combat is just dull. There are only a couple of types of monsters in the game and they mostly just run at you—far too quickly to aim smoothly—and even when you do take them out, there's nothing interesting about the threat they pose, certainly not to the level of ingenuity that the puzzle design shows. It's so half-baked that it probably shouldn't have ever been a feature of the game, especially if the developers wanted to lean into the psychological horror angle. The other major misstep of In Sound Mind is the infrequent but consistently frustrating platforming. First-person platforming is always going to be a tricky challenge to nail down, but this game does it particularly poorly. Your movements are just too clunky and awkward—you certainly don't have the grace or precision needed to land long jumps to tiny platforms. And in moments when falling means instant death, you're treated to an entirely too long reloading screen. Thankfully these platforming moments are relatively rare over the course of the game, but you'll dread them any time they appear. However, the true failing of In Sound Mind is its appearance while running on the Switch. The game is so blurry and low-res you'll likely assume this is merely a slightly upgraded port from some 20+ year old game, not a recent release. And although looks aren't everything, the visuals here are so poor that it's almost laughable. Worst of all, they can affect the gameplay to an extent. Sure the environments are supposed to be hazy or shadowy, but it's genuinely hard to see things here, which again makes keeping your bearings a bit of a nightmare. The sound design is at least decently preserved on the Switch. The ambiance audio is appropriately eerie, and the voice acting is decent, though never amazing. In Sound Mind promises a decent psychological horror concept that is brought down by clunky combat and platforming, and then utterly tanked by the game's technical performance on the Switch. The puzzle design is engaging and the story's twists will keep you on your toes, but if you're interested in playing In Sound Mind you'll likely find a much better experience on any other platform than the Switch. Rating: 4 out of 10 Minds
  2. Lots of games boast retro-style or inspiration, but not many games will take you back to the early days of adventure games quite the way Tunic does. Not through pixel graphics or gameplay mechanics, but through the complete mystery of how to progress or what to uncover next. It's also not an open-ended or completely open-world adventure, but it is one that requires you to explore thoroughly to discover mysteries and then puzzle over how to solve them. Tunic is fiendishly clever—and at times, fiendishly difficult—and that sense of organic discovery creates one of the most rewarding adventure game experiences in years. I'm not sure I could accurately explain the story even if I wanted to. Suffice it to say you play as a fox who wakes up on the shores of a mysterious island, and then the adventure begins. Initially armed with nothing, you'll soon find your way to an ornate temple where something is clearly sealed within, but it'll take all of your guile to solve the island's mysteries to reach the prize. Tunic relies heavily on the player discovering things on their own—the vast majority of all in-game text is in an untranslated language—but your one guiding star is the in-game manual, which looks like an NES manual in an absolutely charming ode to old-school games. It's not as simple as hitting the pause button and checking the guide though. Each page of the manual is scattered across the island, and each page you recover teaches you a little bit more about the game's mechanics, making you better equipped to survive the challenges around every corner. It is a frankly brilliant structure for an adventure game and one that makes every little discovery feel so rewarding. This isn't the kind of game to hold your hand in any way, but when things click for you it's wonderfully satisfying. Every little bit of progress is an accomplishment in Tunic, not least because the combat side of the game is rather difficult. The game doesn't pull punches: your initial attacks are fairly weak and the average player will likely die quite a lot on this journey. There's also a bit of Souls-like influence where you drop money when you die and need to find your ghost to recover it (thankfully though you only drop a small amount of money, so it's not as punishing as dying in a Souls game). All that said, the combat also feels pretty fair in Tunic. Sure your little fox character feels pretty weak compared to the monsters on the island, but that means you need to attack carefully, thoughtfully, and use your limited items to their fullest. You also do have a dodge roll with some invincibility frames, and once you've got the basics of the game down you'll be able to play a bit more aggressively. It's challenging but not frustrating, and definitely adds to the sense of accomplishment every time you make a little bit more progress. And if you need an extra helping hand, there are accessibility features you can toggle on. They're arguably a bit too helpful—one just makes you invincible—but Tunic is well worth playing for the mystery and exploration, not just the challenging combat. Exploration walks a very fine edge between guided and directionless. The game will only give you vague instructions on what to do next—usually through the manual pages you've found—and from there it's up to you to explore. You don't quite have free rein to go in any direction, but there's enough wiggle room that it feels like you discover things at your own rate and in your own way. The drip feed of the manual pages also lets you look at the game in a new light every time you find a particularly important page. There will frequently be times where you only discover some mechanic through the manual, which lets you reevaluate all of your previous progress. It's extremely clever game design which is honestly a bit of a gamble since it requires the player to stay relatively in the dark for much of the game, but the payoff as you piece together each little part of the gameplay is exceptionally rewarding. The visual design of the game, in addition to just being a fun art style, contributes quite a bit to the sense of exploration as well. The mostly fixed-camera, isometric view means that there are frequently little details hidden from the player's view that require either thorough exploration or a hint from the manual to uncover. It's a clever way of blending both form and function. And as mentioned the art style is very fun, and very cute. Perhaps a little too cute for how challenging this game can actually be at times, but the simple, stark scenery with strict geometric shapes makes for a charming and colorful game world to explore. Tunic also runs fairly decently on the Switch. Like most multi-platform games it feels a little rough around the edges at times, in a way that probably isn't a problem on other platforms, but there's certainly nothing game-breaking about the performance. Tunic's soundtrack is also lovely. It's the perfect background audio for such a mysterious adventure—there's an ethereal atmosphere to the music that suits the game's puzzling vibes. The entirety of Tunic is a riddle, and the music is exactly what plays through your head as you're trying to piece together each little clue you've found. The length of the game will undoubtedly vary quite a bit depending on how quickly you put together the little hints of the adventure or how easily you get through the challenging combat mechanics as you claw your way to the next checkpoint to replenish your health potions. In general though, Tunic is a roughly 12–15 hour game, with a handful of optional secrets that might take you even more time to discover. Replaying the game with all of your endgame knowledge would be a fun exercise, though like any mystery story it's the first playthrough that's truly special. Tunic is a gem of a game, and a wonderfully unique adventure of discovery. The game's refusal to hold the player's hand in almost any capacity makes for a challenging start, but it also makes victory all the more satisfying. As each piece of the puzzle falls into place and you understand more and more about the game's world it's hard not to be in awe of the care and detail put into the adventure. Few other games make each gradual piece of progress feel as rewarding and engaging as Tunic. Rating: 9 out of 10 Foxes
  3. Shovel Knight's indie game success story continues to roll on as the now easily recognizable shovel-wielding hero expands to other genres. Shovel Knight Dig takes the fundamentals of the action-platformer hero and puts him in a roguelike setting, where every quick playthrough poses different challenges and different opportunities for success. The randomized action here may not be quite the treasure trove that the original game was, though. Dig takes place before the events of the original Shovel Knight, so there are a few familiar faces here alongside several new ones. Drill Knight, along with his band of thieves known as the Hexcavators, have stolen Shovel Knight's treasure bag and are now burrowing deep in the earth to find an even greater treasure below. Shovel Knight naturally sets off in hot pursuit, and that's all you really need to know about the story. It's a decent set-up and not surprisingly there's not much else to the narrative—playthroughs live independently of one another, so there's not an overarching or changing story. There is, however, a hidden "true ending" which is rewarding but also so incredibly complicated and difficult to achieve that only the most dedicated shovelers are likely to see it. The Shovel Knight formula translates pretty well to a roguelike, but not perfectly. Shovel Knight's attacks are still snappy and satisfying, and his recognizable downward stab move naturally fits Dig's vertical oriented game design—you're always moving down here, so keeping your weapon below you makes sense. There's a sort of timer at play here as well since you'll be pursued by a giant drill if you take too long, and adding that sense of urgency poses a fresh and fun challenge. It's also rather satisfying to finally actually dig as a focus of the gameplay in a Shovel Knight game. And yet, it's the roguelike trappings of Dig that seem to fall short. It's so crucial for a roguelike to make every playthrough engaging and varied, and Dig just doesn't quite manage it. Sure the level design and enemy placement is different every time, but Shovel Knight's abilities are a bit too limited to make each run truly feel unique. As you explore you're able to pick up relics (aka subweapons) as well as accessories that grant various bonuses, like reducing spike damage or extending the reach of your shovel attacks. The point of these kinds of random power-ups is to spice up each playthrough, but they're just not unique or exciting enough to do so. It doesn't help that it can be quite time-consuming and costly to unlock new relics and accessories, so your first few hours with the game will be unavoidably repetitive. It perhaps doesn't help that Dig can be pretty punishing. Obviously that's another key aspect of roguelikes—victory should take some effort after all, and you should be perfecting your skills with each new runthrough—but little things are pretty unsatisfying in Dig, like dropping held items (keys, eggs) any time you get hit. The need to not only find a key but hold onto it until you find an opportunity to use it tips into tedious challenge territory. And while it's obviously not a must-have for a roguelike, I would have liked to see more permanent upgrades to aid you or at least contribute to a sense of progress with each failed run. Instead, spending money on the chance of finding a new accessory isn't as engaging. The game does find a sweet spot in terms of playthrough length. It can be disheartening when roguelikes are too long, and failure ends up feeling extremely costly, so thankfully Dig is relatively short, but still long enough to make the journey feel worthwhile. You may even reach the victory screen after only a few hours of attempts, though again that might be an indictment of the game's variety rather than a celebration of its game design. The presentation, at least, is absolutely top-notch. Compared to the original Shovel Knight, Dig boasts a more richly detailed look and it's just lovely from start to finish. The jump from 8-bit to 16-bit works wonderfully, retaining the style that players love while also feeling like a true upgrade. The soundtrack is also, unsurprisingly, excellent thanks to returning composer Jake Kaufman. Its fast-paced energy also naturally fits with the urgent gameplay of Dig as you race to the bottom with a massive drill at your heels. Shovel Knight Dig never quite clicks into that "one more run" appeal of other roguelikes, meaning its staying power is disappointingly brief. Its strengths ultimately lie with the core Shovel Knight gameplay, not the roguelike elements, which means that you may not feel too invested in completing runthrough after runthrough as each attempt feels so similar to the last. Still, it's worth playing Shovel Knight Dig for the shovel-wielding action, it just might not be worth playing over and over like a roguelike should be. Rating: 7 out of 10 Gems
  4. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but hybrid farm simulator/action-RPGs have become a subgenre of farm games unto themselves, to the point where even Square Enix is trying their hand at this unlikely genre mash-up. Harvestella combines cozy farm aesthetics with combat and exploration in a not-quite Final Fantasy world, though there are some similarities. There's a decent farm sim here and a decent action-RPG here, but Harvestella might be less than the sum of its parts. You play as an amnesiac protagonist who awakens in a quiet little town. You're quickly (and quite generously) given an entire farm to tend, but there's a bigger issue at hand. The four giant crystals that guide the world, called Seaslights, are in peril, and when a mysterious woman appears (who may actually be a time-traveler), you'll begin a quest to investigate and save the four Seaslights. On top of all this, there's the ominous mystery of Quietus, a period at the end of every season where anything left outside dies (notably, your crops). So that's two mysterious protagonists, giant crystals, the world in danger—it's a lot to take in, on top of the numerous tutorials that you'll face when starting. Once things get going though, Harvestella's writing survives more on the strength of its characters than the overarching plot. You'll meet plenty of party members to recruit, and they all have their own little stories for you to get involved in. They can be a bit tropey and the game has a terrible problem with long-winded dialogue, but they're still likeable characters. Harvestella also has a hard time reconciling its cozy farm sim side with the world-in-danger storytelling. Granted, this sort of ludonarrative disconnect happens in tons of games, but there's something very odd (and honestly rather funny) about facing a world-ending disaster but instead spending several days watering potatoes. And time management is key in Harvestella. Like most farm simulators, you've only got a certain amount of time each day—18 hours in-game, which is roughly 18 minutes in real life—so you need to make the most of growing crops and exploring. Farming works as you'd expect, each crop takes a certain amount of time to grow, and selling them gives you the money you need to buy more seeds. You can eventually craft various mills for your farm to create flour from wheat, juice from fruit, etc. as well as raise animals. The farm side of the game can feel a bit simple but sometimes that's the appeal of farming simulators: it's kind of like busywork that allows you to zone out and just complete some tasks. You don't want to spend your entire day on the farm though, since you'll also need to explore the action-RPG side of the game. You'll start out as a Fighter class, but with each new ally you meet you'll unlock new classes. You can have three equipped at once and swap among them (there's a short cooldown to do so). Each class has its own skills and attack styles: Fighter is obviously a physical/close-range kind of character, but the Mage can attack from long range. Ultimately though, combat in Harvestella is pretty basic. The main strategic element you'll need to consider is attacking monsters' weaknesses (either elemental or things like slashing/blunt), but other than that, battles are actually kind of button-mashy. You don't have a block or dodge ability, so usually you just have to get up in enemies' faces and take their hits while you attack, and each class only has a handful of skills so you can't even customize that aspect of battle. There's just not much nuance to it outside of big boss fights, when keeping yourself sustained through the protracted fight matters a little more. In that sense, both halves of Harvestella's gameplay are kind of about zoning out and just getting little tasks done. The one wrinkle to both farming and combat is the stamina system. Everything drains stamina—including, quite frustratingly, running—so you might have several hours of the day left but find yourself out of stamina. This is the one area where the two halves of the game feed each other. By growing crops and cooking, you can carry around meals that recover health and replenish stamina. Unfortunately you don't start with a kitchen in the game, but even just eating ingredients helps a bit. You'll want to be quite liberal with eating meals, because stamina drains incredibly fast in Harvestella—trying to move around without running is frankly just a waste of time, so you'll want to sprint as much as you can. Early on the stamina system feels frustratingly limiting and it feels like you can hardly get anything done in a single day, but then again that's sort of the point of a farm sim game: getting the most of each day that you can. It forces a certain slow and steady sense of progress though, which can be difficult for anyone looking for a more standard action-RPG adventure. Even if you're trying to be speedy, Harvestella is a lengthy game. You can probably expect around 50 hours to finish the story, but that doesn't even account for how elaborate you want your farm to be (it's actually possible to finish the story without completing one full year, so you might not even see some crops). There are also quite a number of side quests to tackle. Frankly, these side quests are boring. The long-winded writing is particularly egregious here, the actual gameplay usually just involves talking to one person, running to another town to talk to another person, repeat, and many side stories just aren't that interesting. However, it's worth pursuing them anyway since they'll award you money and oftentimes seeds, which might be hard to come by until you've got some serious cash crops growing on your farm. Harvestella's presentation thankfully leans on the action-adventure side of the game to create elaborate, interesting scenery and monster designs. The environments are a lovely blend of familiar and otherworldly, with their crystalline structures and overall hazy, glowing vibe. Character designs are as over-the-top as you might expect from a Square Enix game, with outfits that just don't make any sense, though they certainly look stylish. The music is also on point, with fun tracks for towns and dialogue and more adventurous tunes for battle and exploration. Harvestella is a decent attempt at marrying farm sim gameplay and action-RPG combat, though it falls short of being a great attempt. That said, it still manages to offer an addictive gameplay loop as you try to make the most of each in-game day, whether it's by raking in profits on the farm or exploring further and raising more levels as an adventurer. There's an allure to that simple loop, even if Harvestella never quite manages to elevate this sub-genre of games to much more than repetitive—but decently satisfying—busywork. Rating: 7 out of 10 Harvests
  5. The first Blossom Tales from 2017 was an absolutely charming Zelda-style adventure, complete with pixel art, weapons/items for fighting/exploring, and dungeons to traverse. It relied heavily on the formula from 90s adventure games, but it was a fun and cute game in its own right. The sequel, Blossom Tales II: The Minotaur Prince, is largely a repeat of that formula, which makes for a familiar but perhaps unambitious experience. Like the first game, the story begins with a grandfather telling a story to his two grandkids around a campfire. Lily is once again the heroic adventurer, but this time her younger brother Chrys gets involved as well. When the two of them start fighting, Lily wishes away her brother—Labyrinth style—which causes the revival of the terrible Minotaur King who whisks Chrys away. Now Lily must travel the land to unlock the path to the Minotaur King's castle and rescue her brother. Like the first game the writing clearly doesn't take itself too seriously. There are tons of pop culture references and self-referential humor that makes for a fun, light-hearted adventure, and a nice story about sibling relationships. The best part though is that the real Lily and Chrys often interject into their grandpa's story, insisting on changing details that you can then choose. For example, when Lily receives a magical instrument the children bicker over whether it should be a guitar or an accordion, allowing you to choose the instrument you want. It's always small details like this, but it adds some fun variety to the game. The gameplay has all the trappings of a 2D Zelda game: you start out with just a sword and shield, but you quickly amass a small arsenal of items to use both offensively and for navigating the world. A handful of dungeons hold bigger challenges and boss fights, and the overworld is completely packed with little secrets to uncover, including collectibles and heart pieces. It's a well-used formula that is used well here. There's not a lot that feels wildly unique about The Minotaur Prince, but there's no harm in sticking to a formula that works. With a game like this, all those little secrets to find and items to collect keeps the adventure moving at a brisk pace since there's always something pushing you forward and keeping you engaged. The only area that The Minotaur Prince really seems to push the formula is with collectibles, which is a bit of an unsatisfying gameplay hook. In addition to all the gold coins you'll collect while exploring, you can also pick up dozens of small collectibles—fruit, flowers, fish with your fishing rod, etc. These can be used to brew potions or occasionally traded to NPCs for items like heart pieces or for side quests. It's sort of nice to have a lot to do and collect in an adventure game like this, but it also feels a bit tedious and endless. It comes off as busywork, and in a game about fighting monsters and solving puzzles, collecting 20 flowers for a traveling merchant just isn't exciting. It's particularly disheartening that you might have thousands of coins in your pocket, but to get a new heart piece you've got to go fishing for ten minutes to grab enough carp for the merchant. It's blatant padding, which is particularly disheartening since there are only four dungeons in the game. The game's controls could also be tweaked just a bit. It's understandable that the game is keeping the two-item system of classic Zelda games, but it's also a hassle to be constantly swapping items when there are several buttons on the controller that are unused. At the very least the shield could be equipped at all times instead of being an item. It'd also be nice to be able to organize your inventory screen. You can pick up a lot of bottles to fill with various potions and they end up littering your inventory, making it just a little bit more annoying when you're swapping out your bombs for the bow or other items. The Minotaur Prince's length can vary quite a bit since there's so much optional content. With only four dungeons, the majority of your time will be spent exploring the overworld, which is fun but doesn't quite match the satisfaction of completing dungeons. If you're not going for every heart piece possible (and there are a lot) you can easily finish in under 10 hours. If you do want them, you'll need to spend quite some time turning over every stone. The game's presentation is beautifully retro. It's a bit more detailed than its predecessor, but it still retains the old-school pixel style and it looks great—the characters are cute and the environments are fun, even if they rely on the usual settings for an adventure game. The soundtrack isn't bad, though it's perhaps a little too understated and quiet. Blossom Tales II: The Minotaur Prince is a fun 2D Zelda-style adventure, though it's not bringing much new to the table. If you've played any top-down adventure games before you'll know exactly what you're getting here, with the addition of a lot of collectibles that get a bit tiring. Still, even if it plays things a little too safe, The Minotaur Prince is a charming experience for fans of 2D adventure games. Rating: 7 out of 10 Blossoms
  6. Return to Monkey Island isn't just the return of Guybrush Threepwood—mighty pirate—to point and click fans, it also puts series creators Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman back at the helm, bringing back classic adventure vibes, silly jokes, and most importantly a grand reveal of the true Secret of Monkey Island. Although Return is obviously tailor-made for fans of the series, new players will still enjoy setting sail on waves of charming humor and clever, engaging puzzle design. As the title implies, Guybrush Threepwood's latest adventure is a look back at the quest that started it all. This game aims to finally reveal what is the Secret at the heart of Monkey Island as Guybrush races to claim the prize before his longtime rival LeChuck. The game is packed with other returning characters and plenty of references to past adventures that might go over the heads of new players. Still, even if this is your first voyage to Monkey Island, the game's signature humor and lighthearted charm makes it a joy to play. You'll want to click on every object you can not just for picking up usable items or clues but for the jokes packed into every little detail of the game. The game's sense of humor culminates in an ending that might surprise some players, but ultimately feels quite at home in the world of Monkey Island. One aspect of the game that is not obvious though is the Writer's Cut feature in the settings, which essentially adds a ton of additional dialogue to the game. It seems to have been cut for the sake of pacing, but a huge part of the appeal of Monkey Island games is the humor, so denying yourself all of that extra dialogue, even if it isn't 100% necessary to the story, would be a shame. Return features some classic point and click adventure gameplay, though obviously with some more convenient modern features. You'll need to pick up every item you can, examine everything in the scenery, and come up with clever solutions to unusual puzzles. The difficulty on hard mode feels like the perfect sweet spot for an adventure game like this, though. The puzzles aren't a complete walk in the park, but there also aren't wacky solutions that you'd never come up with on your own. You don't have to combine every item in outlandish ways, you just have to think logically—and granted sometimes creatively—about how to use your limited inventory to progress. It helps that most of the environments are big enough to give you lots to see and do, but small enough that it's not overwhelming to figure out solutions. And if you do find yourself stuck, there's a built-in hint system that also nicely balances the sense of challenge by giving you just a nudge in the right direction without outright telling you what to do next. Plus, you can play the game on easy mode if you prefer, which streamlines some puzzles, i.e. things that might take two or three steps on hard mode only take one on easy mode. It's a nice option if you're not a puzzle fan and just want to enjoy the game's humor. The game's controls also suit the point and click experience nicely with both a controller and touch screen option. The touch screen might recapture the mouse and keyboard experience a bit better, but moving with a control stick is much easier and you can use L and R to cycle through interactive objects in the environment, so you aren't aimlessly trying to click on everything around you. The interface also makes it clear when you can pick up objects, so it's hard to miss grabbing a key item. Return's presentation is also excellent. The colorful, cartoonish graphics perfectly suit the tone of the adventure, and the angular design makes every scene playful and unique. It has an almost papercraft style to it, and looks great in motion. The soundtrack has some great tunes, though the voice acting is the real star of the audio department. Fully voiced lines add a ton of personality to the already great writing and helps make this charming, goofy adventure come alive. Return to Monkey Island is everything fans of the series love about these games. It's witty and fun from the big story beats down to the little descriptions of tiny details in the environment, the characters are varied and charming, and the puzzle design is creative but not tedious. Return leans heavily on the franchise's history, but even if you're a fresh-faced pirate you'll quickly be charmed by the humor and style of Monkey Island. Rating: 9 out of 10 Pirates
  7. Speedrun-focused games can sometimes feel exclusionary since the central theme specifically appeals to the most hardcore, dedicated players. Every now and then though, one comes along that deftly threads the needle on fast-paced action while still catering to players who want more story and substance to the gameplay. Neon White is one of those cases where everything seems to have come together perfectly. Neons are the souls of dead sinners who are given a chance to stay in heaven by competing in the 10 Days of Judgement competition that requires them to kill demons and rise to the top of the ranks. You play as White, a soul with amnesia but impressive demon-killing skills. You quickly encounter other Neons who do remember who you are though, and now you'll have to unravel your past while also reaching rank 1 in the competition. Amnesia stories are a bit overdone, but Neon White makes it work with a nice blend of comedy and drama. The humor is modern without being cheesy, and the mystery of both White's past and the Judgement contest makes for an engaging plot that wouldn't feel out of place in an anime. Most of all though it's impressive that the story works so well when it's told in chunks between the levels. The gameplay is essentially first-person platforming. Each level has a number of demons in it, and you have to kill them all to unlock the goal. Your weapons, however, all appear as cards, which you can collect during a level (you always start with a katana card). So you might find a handgun card, pick it up, and now you can shoot demons with however many bullets the card has. Pretty simple so far, but where Neon White gets interesting is the discard mechanic. By discarding a weapon you'll activate a secondary effect. For example, discarding a handgun allows you to double jump, while discarding an assault rifle shoots a grenade. By using cards both as weapons and for their secondary effects, you'll be able to kill demons and navigate the oftentimes towering 3D platforming stages in the game. Despite the sound of it, the gameplay is actually beautifully streamlined and easy to pick up. There are only a handful of card types—conveniently color-coded so it's easy to see what card you have—so you don't have to memorize an entire deck's worth of effects. Perhaps more importantly, you're limited to whatever cards are available in any given level. When a level only gives you handgun cards, it's pretty easy to figure out what you're supposed to do with them. By the later levels you may need to do a little bit of problem solving, but even by that point in the game the real focus is on getting the best time possible in each stage, so the level design is easily navigable and has a rhythm to it by design. When you know what to do and everything clicks together, Neon White is an absolute blast as you fly through levels rapidly taking out targets and discarding cards to propel yourself forward. It's almost like a puzzle game as well as a platformer as you use your limited tools to the best possible effect. This is also not to say that the game is a totally railroaded experience. Sure you only have the cards available in a given level, but you can try to figure out how to use them in interesting ways to shave time off your score. There are plenty of little shortcuts you can create, and to help you the game will even offer little clues to help you take precious seconds off your time. The relatively narrow structure of each level also helps alleviate the faults of 3D platforming and creates an environment that emphasizes fluid speed. Just moving around the world of Neon White, with the aid of discarding weapons, is a ton of fun and feels snappy and responsive, making each speedrun feel rewarding and earned. Aside from just completing each level with a fast time, you can also replay levels to collect gifts, which can then be given to side characters to unlock additional dialogue and bonus levels. Just collecting gifts adds another layer of challenge to the game since you often need to use each card in the most efficient way possible to grab the gift, truly testing your mastery of the game's mechanics. The additional dialogue and levels are also well worth pursuing, so collecting gifts is a two-fold present for the player. All told, Neon White clocks in at a respectable ten hours or so, though obviously you can replay and practice your skills far beyond that time to try to make the global leaderboards. It's a testament to the game that even ten hours feels like too short of a time to spend with Neon White. The game's presentation is also excellent, and knows exactly when to be stylish and when to be straightforward. The level scenery is overall fairly basic, but that's what you want in a fast-paced game like this—there shouldn't be any confusion about where you need to go, what is an enemy, what is a platform you can stand on, etc. The character design oozes style though, and it's almost a shame that there aren't more Neons for you to meet, each with a unique mask. The electronic soundtrack is absolutely thumping and perfect for both the gameplay and the aesthetic, and the voice work is outstanding as well, perfectly fleshing out that blend of comedy and drama in the writing. Neon White is a stylish and slick action game with just enough complexity to make each level satisfying without ever getting overwhelming. The central card mechanic is perfect for this, giving you enough wiggle room to experiment with the best route through each level but also limiting the number of options so it never feels daunting. Even if you're not perfecting your playthroughs for fast speedruns, Neon White is a must-play action game. Rating: 9 out of 10 Neons
  8. Apparently this is the year of the threequel, with Xenoblade Chronicles 3, Splatoon 3, and now Bayonetta 3 all gracing the Switch. And much like how those other games are some of the best RPG and multiplayer experiences you can have on Nintendo's system, Bayonetta 3 is a joyously frenzied action game dripping with Bayonetta's signature style while adding fun new mechanics. How do you top the world-ending conflicts of heaven and hell from the first two Bayonetta games? You go to the multiverse, sending our Umbran Witch heroine across dimensions to battle an entity that is threatening every version of the world. After Viola, a witchy warrior from another dimension crash lands into Bayonetta's world and explains the danger, the two hop across dimensions to collect macguffins that will allow them to take on the big bad in the end. Bayonetta's calm, in-control demeanor is contrasted with Viola's frantic, unpolished, and sometimes slapstick character, and they make a decent duo. It's a fun adventure story but Bayonetta 3 does have a problem with actually explaining anything that's going on, leading to a climax that is a little confusing and somewhat disappointing for seemingly rushing through character arcs—you'll almost think you skipped some cutscenes with how quickly some characters change, or how some don't seem to change at all. In the end, the plot is by far the weakest part of this game, but then again every other aspect is so solid that it'd have some tough competition even if the climax comes off unsatisfying. The core of the gameplay is the same as the previous games in the series: it's a fast-paced action game with an emphasis on perfectly timed dodges that give you an opportunity to counterattack. Each battle (or Verse) is graded based on your combo, time, and damage taken, so even if you stick to just one difficulty level there's a lot of replay value as you try to perfect your skills to earn the highest Pure Platinum award. Across three games the combat system remains intensely rewarding and satisfying. It's snappy and smooth with plenty of challenges for both novice and pro players, and the variety of weapons Bayonetta can equip means you can customize the experience quite a bit. Somewhat disappointingly, this game removes the divide between hand and leg weapons, so you can't mix and match weapons like before, but the variety of weapons still offers a ton of fun. The biggest change to the combat system is the way Bayonetta uses Demon Slaves. In previous games they were only summoned in specific instances, but now you can bring one to the battlefield at any time (as long as you have magic power). Bayonetta will dance while summoning the demon, leaving her vulnerable, but the demons are powerhouses and make cleaving through groups of enemies or bursting down big enemies a breeze. If anything the Demon Slaves are in danger of making the combat a little too easy—Bayonetta 3 is certainly the easiest of the three games—but the demons are so fun and satisfying to use that a drop in challenge feels worth it, and the cost in magic means you can't have them summoned all the time anyway. The game mixes in plenty of special spectacle Verses as well to mix things up, usually as part of the bigger boss fights. These tend to be somewhat simple, but dueling a giant monster with your own Godzilla-sized demon is again just plain fun. Like the series as a whole, these special Verses are over-the-top and a blast to play. Bayonetta 3 also lets you play as other witches, in somewhat limited capacities. Jeanne has her own missions which play completely differently. They're side-scrolling with an emphasis on stealth. Compared to Bayonetta's gameplay these do feel much less fluid, but it's a fun diversion and the levels are pretty short anyway. Viola, however, is a bit more of a mixed bag. Her levels are part of the main story so you'll spend a lot more time with her, but her playstyle just never feels quite as satisfying as Bayonetta's. She's more limited for one, since she only has one weapon and one demon to summon, but she also trades Bayonetta's dodging mechanic to trigger Witch Time with a parry mechanic, which doesn't quite suit the fast-paced action of the game. At the very least it's a significant enough change that every level with Viola requires you to practically relearn how to use her, and the combat doesn't quite match up with Bayonetta's smooth moves. The game's presentation is also, unsurprisingly, top-notch. The gorgeously intricate designs of monsters and demons that the series is known for are once again outstanding in this game, and Bayonetta herself looks fabulous. All of the little over-the-top details in the design just serve to further heighten the insane action happening on screen. The soundtrack is also absolutely killer. I might personally prefer the main themes from the previous games, but that doesn't take away from the quality of the music here. And Jennifer Hale as the voice of Bayonetta does an excellent job, as does the rest of the cast. The game could probably be finished in around 15 hours, but that really depends on how deeply you want to dig into optional Verses or perfecting your scores by repeating stages. Regardless, it's a solid length for a single playthrough, and the action is so addictive that you can easily get pulled in for a second or third run just for fun, not to mention the collectibles or achievements (aka Bewitchments) available. Nintendo publishing Bayonetta games is definitely one of the most surprising moves the company has made in the last decade or so, but it's paid off beautifully with Bayonetta 2 and now Bayonetta 3. This is a stylish, addictive action game that revels in its own over-the-top spectacles and makes every battle thrilling not just for the incredible creature designs and combat options but for the satisfying challenge of perfecting your skills just a bit more with every battle until you're flying through encounters. The story's ending is perhaps a missed shot, but the fun of battling monsters and summoning demons perfectly hits the mark. Rating: 9 out of 10 Bewitchments
  9. Here we go, it's finally time: Pokémon is embracing open-world environments, not just the Wild Area from Sword and Shield or the segmented open areas of Legends: Arceus. There's a lot to live up to here, especially following the aforementioned spin-off from earlier this year. How does Pokémon Scarlet fare in this new open-world setting? Not terribly well unfortunately, though its flaws perhaps aren't enough to spoil the joy of the familiar Pokémon gameplay formula. Scarlet puts its own little twist on the usual Pokémon story. You start off as a student at the Naranja Academy and are soon given the assignment of a Treasure Hunt, which is to explore the region of Paldea in your own way. The game opens up three paths to you: collect eight gym badges and take on the Pokémon League, assist a fellow student in investigating mysteriously huge Titan Pokémon, or deal with Team Star, a group of bullies harassing the Academy. Throughout the majority of the game the story plays out as you'd expect. It's fun and there are quirky characters to meet, but it's mostly the same formula we've seen before. However, once you complete all three paths and reach the final challenge of the game, the writing takes a turn that is both wild and engaging. You'll team up with some of the characters you met along the way, and just having a party of characters livens up the story a ton. The finale is maybe a little too out there—I won't spoil anything but it's kind of a leap from the rest of the game—but still, it shows a ton of potential for Pokémon as a more traditional RPG and almost makes you wish the entire game could be like the last couple hours with more focused character development and storytelling beyond just becoming the best there ever was. The essential Pokémon experience is still here: catch monsters, train them, battle others & become stronger. However, Scarlet and Violet is the franchise's first full push into open-world design, after what were more or less practice runs in Sword and Shield and Legends: Arceus. Being able to pick a direction and just explore, especially with the three main paths of the story, is a fantastic concept. Walking around Paldea and seeing Pokémon running wild that you can battle is a lot of fun and a long overdue evolution of the Pokémon formula. There are no checkpoints or Hidden Machines that you have to unlock to progress, and you can wander to your heart's content. That said, there is one issue with this open-world structure: there's no level scaling. Although you can challenge the gyms in any order that you want, the leaders' Pokémon are set at specific levels, so in the end there actually is a hidden structure to the progression that you ought to follow. Granted, you can tough it out and ignore the ideal route (which more or less involves zig-zagging across Paldea from south to north), but unless you're trying to really challenge yourself you'll probably stay at least approximately along the "correct" path, and that limitation feels like a missed opportunity for a fully open-world Pokémon adventure. Scarlet introduces a few new quirks to the Pokémon formula, foremost of which is the Tera Orb which allows you to Terastallize your Pokémon in battle. This will change the Pokémon's type for that fight, sometimes to something completely different, such as Pikachu becoming a flying type, which you can use strategically to cover up weaknesses. You'll still retain attack bonuses for your original type(s) as well, so there's an opportunity to be sneaky and strategic here. At a glance, Terastallizing just seems like the latest Mega Evolution or Dynamax, but you can only use the Tera Orb once before you have to recharge it at a Pokémon Center, which means you have to be a lot more thoughtful with how you use it, making it much more interesting than previous "just get stronger" abilities in past games. This generation of Pokémon also brings back the Raid Battles from the previous gen, though this time they're Tera Raids. It's still pretty fun to team up with players online to tackle an especially powerful Pokémon, and being able to see raid dens while exploring makes for handy little landmarks or goals to work toward. Perhaps the weirdest addition to Scarlet is the Gym Test system, which is essentially a mini-game you have to complete before taking on the gym leader. Most of the time they honestly feel like a waste of time, as most of them are not very clever or challenging. They could've at least been related to Pokémon gameplay, such as quizzes about type advantages, but instead you have to push a giant olive around an obstacle course before fighting the gym leader. This new generation introduces a lot of fun new Pokémon, though I do want to call out some of the bizarre new ways of evolving Pokémon. Some require you to use the new Let's Go feature, which allows you to walk around with your Poké-pal outside of its ball, and one specific Pokémon requires you to collect 999 of a specific item to evolve it. Pokémon has always had some annoyingly esoteric evolution methods which practically require you to look through a guide, but these new ones are just baffling. The visuals in this new generation have gotten a lot of flak and, well, rightfully so. Personally I'm not super bothered by the noticeably low resolution textures on things like walls—it's bad but not a deal breaker for me—but the game's performance issues are a huge bummer. Stuttering animation, loads of pop-in—sadly it seems like Pokémon hasn't handled the transition to open-world very well. I didn't even run into any of the wackier bugs that people have reported while playing, but the constant performance issues put a real damper on the game. Beyond the technical aspects, Scarlet's presentation is decent. The art style of the Pokémon franchise doesn't lend itself to much more thought than that: it's cute and fun but there's not much wow-worthy stuff in the visuals. The soundtrack is solid though, and lends a lot of the atmosphere to the adventure while the visuals stutter through the open-world environments. With two mainline generations now on the Switch, it seems like the Pokémon franchise is still finding its footing as a home console-based series, which is a bit absurd. The concept of an open-world Pokémon game is fantastic, but there are some caveats with it here in Scarlet. Some new features are fun and play into Pokémon's RPG and battle strategy gameplay, but others feel like filler. There's a fantastic bit of storytelling & exploration, but only at the very end of the game. Still, the one big sticking point here is just the fact that the core Pokémon formula is always fun. Battling, training, finding new Pokémon—it's just a great gameplay loop, and having a new environment to do it in makes for a fun time, especially with a big open-world environment, even without level scaling. Pokémon Scarlet is far from a perfect game, but there are good times to be had here, underneath the technical issues. Rating: 7 out of 10 Terastallized Pokémon
  10. Forget boats or surfboards, in Wavetale you can just run across the water to explore this colorful, compelling world. From developer & publisher Thunderful Games, Wavetale takes players on a unique sea voyage that makes wandering and exploration a complete joy, though the game does hit some choppy waters on the Switch. You play as Sigrid, a young girl living in an archipelago of islands with her grandmother. The two of them take care of a lighthouse that helps ward off the mysterious Gloom that shrouds everything in inky fog and shadows. After a particularly powerful Gloom wave, Sigrid befriends what appears to be a water spirit that allows her to walk on water. Now she's able to run or surf between islands, driving back Gloom and rescuing her neighbors. It's a fun premise further heightened by some great vocal performances and a solid storyline that takes a couple of twists and turns, culminating in a powerful message for real-world issues. The only downside is that the plot can feel a bit rushed and easily could have used another hour or two to flesh out the storyline and even out the pacing instead of having some info dumps near the end of the game. Still, even as is, the writing in Wavetale is fun, cute, and emotionally gripping. The gameplay is more or less action/adventure—you'll visit different islands to assist the locals, usually by collecting Sparks that help power up the lighthouse and drive away more of the Gloom. Oftentimes this involves scrambling up towers and other large structures, which works pretty well. The controls are extremely fluid and forgiving, so you're not required to make precision jumps here. Instead it's more about zipping around the environment, latching onto rails or ledges and all but flying through the scenery, which is exhilarating. That sense of freedom in movement is key to the central aspect of Wavetale: running across the water. There are huge environments here and you get to surf across the waves to reach them, which is an absolute blast. The smooth movement feels wonderful and makes just getting from point A to point B a lot more enjoyable than most games. You can perform short dashes, jump up and dive back down for a small speed boost, or just ride the surf. It's all incredibly satisfying and makes the most fundamental aspect of gameplay, moving around, a lot of fun. Sadly though, Wavetale doesn't run quite as smoothly on the Switch as you might like. It's certainly not game-breaking, but it's clear that the visuals aren't quite as crisp as they should be, and the framerate isn't always as buttery smooth as it needs to be to really highlight the fluid movement mechanics. You'll also need to fight Gloom monsters, though this aspect of the game leaves something to be desired. Combat isn't difficult at all, it's just a bit boring since there isn't a ton of variety in your attacks or in the monsters you face. Despite the game's wonderful movement mechanics, you're not really required to use them at all when fighting, you just walk up and whack some shadowy blobs every now and then. It also feels like a missed opportunity not to tie the combat system into the sparks you can collect while exploring. These sparks act as currency, but they can only be used to purchase outfits for Sigrid. It's cute, but maybe some kind of skill tree for combat would have helped give sparks more value and give the battle system more variety. The game also gets a little repetitive when it comes to side quests. They almost all involve just finding objects for NPCs, and the storytelling that comes with them is pretty basic as well. It's especially a shame since the game is relatively short, maybe five or six hours, and a more robust selection of side quests could have helped round out the game a bit more. The game's presentation is just lovely. The colorful scenery perfectly matches the mellow but melancholy vibes of the story, and the huge spaces are great for surfing around. The color palette flows beautifully with the oceanic setting and the character designs are absolutely charming—the animation on their faces also adds a ton of personality in a cute, quirky way. The soundtrack also has the right peaceful lulls and strong swells to suit both the waves themselves and the gameplay as you go from surfing along the water to battling it out with Gloom monsters. And as mentioned previously the voice acting does a great job of bringing to life Sigrid's youthful defiance, her grandmother's stubborn old ways, and all the other character personalities as well. Wavetale is an absolutely charming experience, one that ends far too soon for how fun it is to just move around. The combat is a bit too basic and the side quests can be repetitive, but the real joy of the game is in surfing around the environment, running up and down waves like they're hills and leaping up onto cliffs and old buildings. Combined with beautiful scenery and a heartfelt story, Wavetale is absolutely worth diving into. Rating: 8 out of 10 Waves Review copy provided by publisher Wavetale is available today on the Switch eShop for $29.99.
  11. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, developer Vanillaware (Dragon's Crown, Odin Sphere, etc.) should be well pleased with Sword of the Vagrant, from developer O.T.K Games and publisher Rainy Frog. But while this game has plenty of undeniable similarities—2D action-RPG gameplay, rich, colorful visual design—it also stands on its own as a combat rich, engaging adventure, notwithstanding a few stumbles along the way. You play as Vivian the Vagrant, a sellsword who, in the opening moments of the game, is shipwrecked and washes up on shore. After a bit of work with a local villager, Vivian becomes entangled in a mage's quest and is forced to assist. At first it seems as though our protagonist is the wandering hero type, stumbling into other characters' stories, but soon enough Vivian's backstory and family history weaves its way into the narrative as well, resulting in a surprisingly lore-rich plot. It's perhaps a little too ambitious as some plot threads end up being a little hard to follow as information is dumped on you in cutscenes, but the developers have definitely created an interesting setting that could easily sustain future games. Sword of the Vagrant is a side-scrolling hack-and-slash action-RPG, which is a long way of saying you walk left and right attacking any beasts or monsters in your path. This kind of gameplay can be deceptively tricky to nail down perfectly—combat needs to flow and feel satisfying while also being challenging and varied. Sword of the Vagrant does a great job with the first half of the formula. Basic light and heavy sword combos feel good to use, the game isn't too persnickety about hit boxes or timing, and even if enemies occasionally feel like HP sponges it's still satisfying to mow them down. The level of challenge can be a bit hit and miss, though. Most enemies pose so little threat to Vivian that it's almost inconsequential when you do get hit. On the flip side, some enemies will combo you into oblivion in seconds, and the environmental traps you'll encounter, though usually destroyable, can be awfully annoying and feel a bit cheap. Getting hit by an enemy and knocked back into a jet of flame which then hits you twice as you're trying to stand up isn't so much a challenge of skill as it is a tedious drain of your potion supply. All that said, the game is also quite generous with recovery items, both the potions you can store and the food items that will heal you instantly, so you at least won't be dying constantly. The game could definitely use a more balanced sense of difficulty though to even out the easy battles and the frustrating traps. In terms of combat variety, Sword of the Vagrant is also a mixed experience. Hacking and slashing may be fun but it's not always enough to sustain 8–9 hours of gameplay. There is a small variety to enemies—flying enemies, enemies with shields that can be broken with heavy attacks—but for the most part the combat does feel rather repetitive. You can find tablets that teach Vivian skills that consume her Rage meter (the equivalent of spells consuming mana) but whether due to the Rage cost or the limited mobility, I found myself gravitating toward just the basic sword attacks. The skills needed a little something else to make them more worthwhile in basic, non-boss fights. Not surprisingly, you'll also be doing a bit of 2D platforming as you explore. The maps themselves aren't bad—they're twisty enough to encourage exploration but also simple enough that you won't get lost every time you try to find a save point or backtrack to a treasure chest once you've found its key. The platforming controls, though, leave something to be desired. Combat may feel smooth, but hopping from ledge to ledge is clunky in Sword of the Vagrant, and those little annoyances like getting knocked back by enemies are only exacerbated when you're knocked off a ledge and have to climb all the way back up. As mentioned, Sword of the Vagrant clocks in around 8–9 hours, which feels about right to keep the gameplay engaging and fresh throughout. There are a handful of optional features, though they don't feel particularly well fleshed out. You can collect ingredients and learn recipes to cook at campfires to recover health and gain small buffs, but there's not a strong incentive to gather lots of different recipes. You can enchant weapons with runes for added effects, but the effects are rather basic and mostly amount to small stat boosts. Swapping runes is also a bit clunky since you have to replace runes with another one in order to remove it from an old weapon, or dispose of the old weapon entirely. Speaking of which, it makes sense that all of Vivian's weapons are swords, but there's not a great variety to them, nor a reason to experiment with them too much. There is a new game plus mode as well as some late-game optional quests, but the game might've benefited from more developed side quest elements throughout the entire length of the game. The art style is easily the stand out feature of Sword of the Vagrant, with its richly-colored dark fantasy world that feels beautiful but foreboding. The environments may be mostly standard fantasy tropes—forests, ruins, icy caverns—but the art design elevates every scene. And although this may be a positive or negative in your book, the character designs are quite fan-servicey (perhaps another nod to Vanillaware's style). The music is also a bit of a standard fantasy kind of soundtrack, but it does it well and gives a nice brooding background vibe to the game. Sword of the Vagrant has a solid concept, engaging gameplay and stylish visuals, but the little flaws do have a way of standing out, such as the clunky platforming. Most of all, the game needs to flesh out its ideas a little further to make them truly unique. Still, the core action-RPG gameplay is satisfying from the first rat to the last demon you kill, whether you're aiming to master the flow of combat or simply want to see more of the hand-painted world. Rating: 7 out of 10 Swords Review copy provided by publisher Sword of the Vagrant is available tomorrow, December 1st on the Switch eShop for $9.99.
  12. Let's be real: Sonic has had a rough go of it in the 3D world. That's not to say there aren't good 3D Sonic games, but there are just as many bad ones, if not more. Sonic Frontiers at least addresses one of the main challenges of 3D Sonic games: by adapting an open-world environment, there's tons of room for Sonic to run around, showcasing his trademark speed. The problem is basically everything else about the game. As the game begins, Sonic and friends are sucked through Cyber Space and wind up on a mysterious island. Now scattered, Sonic must explore the island and reach new islands to rescue his friends. And naturally, Dr. Eggman is up to no good during all of this. Sonic games have had some odd storylines, but Frontiers is a particularly bizarre one. I'm not saying Sonic has to be a simple, kid-friendly story just because it stars anthropomorphic animals, but Frontiers tells such a strangely out of place story for Sonic that I can barely wrap my head around it. There are ruins of a fallen civilization on the islands, a child-like AI antagonizing Sonic, flashbacks/ghosts of the island's natives—it feels needlessly complicated and surprisingly melancholy. More egregiously, it's just kind of boring. Cutscenes plod along and optional dialogue scenes are pretty uninteresting, which is even more disappointing since you have to do a good bit of work to unlock them in the first place. The gameplay is a pretty mixed bag as well, mostly because it feels like the developers threw every idea they had into the bag and shook it up. I'll start off by saying that open-world exploration as Sonic is pretty great. Running around at high speeds and discovering little objects to interact with is a lot of fun, and Frontiers packs in a lot of these little moments. Big, open environments are where Sonic shines, especially when your breakneck speeds are punctuated by a grind rail or series of spring buttons every now and then. However, it's in the finer details where Frontiers starts to crack. Sonic has always had a slightly floaty sense of control, it's arguably the whole point of the Blue Blur to have difficult precision controls in exchange for high speed. And yet, time and again the developers push through precision platforming moments that feel clunky, especially in 3D space where depth perception is hard to judge. And while exploring the island is in itself pretty fun, the absurd amount of collectibles that are actually required to progress is simply tedious. You have to collect gears to unlock levels. You complete levels to gather keys. You gather keys to unlock Chaos Emeralds. You also gather memory tokens to unlock both mandatory and optional cutscenes/dialogue. On top of all these required elements, you can gather attack and defense upgrades and rescue island inhabitants to upgrade Sonic's speed and maximum ring count (and you have to take these to specific NPCs to upgrade your stats, they don't increase automatically). Obviously having things to collect makes open-world exploration more rewarding, but Frontiers takes it to an absurd degree to make the gameplay feel like busy work. Frontiers is also bloated with design ideas. To unlock parts of your map, you have to complete little tasks, which usually amount to basic minigames or even tutorial-style challenges, such as Parry 3 Attacks or Deal X Amount of Damage in Y Amount of Time. These map tasks lose their charm almost immediately, but the game is absolutely filled with them and navigating can be a real pain without revealing a lot of your map. These tasks only serve to pad out the length of the game. There are also occasional mandatory minigames which, again, could work as a way of breaking up the gameplay a bit, but they tend to either be boringly simplistic—corral a bunch of characters into the goal—or insanely tedious, such as the mandatory pinball game that requires you to earn a ridiculously high score while coping with the semi-randomness of pinball. It's like the developers were afraid to throw away any ideas, so all of them ended up in the game, but none of them were properly polished. The combat system never quite finds its footing either. You can unlock a handful of special attacks, but there's arguably not much point in using them when simply mashing the attack button works 99% of the time. The boss fights are pretty flashy at least, particularly the optional mini-bosses scattered around each island. Each mini-boss has slightly different mechanics and actually makes you work for the win. In the end they aren't particularly rewarding, since you just earn a gear or other collectible that's just as easily found elsewhere, but at least the mini-boss concept actually feels thought out. The best part of the game is the Cyber Space levels (which you unlock with gears). These take you to traditional 3D Sonic stages, i.e. a linear stage where you try to reach the goal as quickly as possible. These might be the most polished part of the game simply because these levels are either inspired by or taken directly from past Sonic games. Regardless, they are definitely a high point in Frontiers. The game's presentation leaves a lot to be desired as well. The environments are purposefully bleak, with scattered ruins and even a frequent rainy, overcast weather system, but the scenery is also plain boring. I'll grant that there's a tricky balance to strike here. You want big, open areas for Sonic to run around in, so there can't be tons of obstacles in the way. But when all there is are rocks and barren fields, the scenery ends up bland. The game also suffers from a huge amount of pop-in, which is somewhat understandable for the big, open environments but it also kind of spoils the whole point of such a design when you can't even see some distant objects until you get closer. And as with many multiplatform games, the visuals seem a bit muddy and flat. Sure it's not going to look as good on the Switch as other platforms, but it still could be better polished. Sonic Frontiers is a bold step for Sonic the Hedgehog, but ultimately it stumbles in the attempt. Huge environments make sense for showcasing the Blue Blur's speed, but the endless collect-a-thon game design makes exploration feel more like a chore than an exciting adventure. Although the game is packed with things to do, few of them feel actually rewarding or tuned to Sonic's abilities. There are good ideas here, but you'll have to wade through a lot of mediocre ideas to find them. Rating: 6 out of 10 Chaos Emeralds
  13. Remember when a Mario + Rabbids game seemed like a rumor too ridiculous to be true? The joke was on us though, when Kingdom Battle came out in 2017 and was a surprise delight in a year already packed with fantastic Switch games. Now Ubisoft is back with another tactical-RPG, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope, which sends our heroes (and their Rabbid counterparts) across space. Despite some significant changes to the gameplay, Sparks of Hope is another absolutely delightful crossover packed with strategy gameplay options. The game begins at a peaceful gathering at Peach's castle, but our heroes soon learn the dark cosmic entity Cursa is spreading Darkmess tentacles across the galaxy, and only Mario & friends will be able to stop the spreading evil. Along the way they team up with Sparks, Rabbid + Luma hybrids that grant special effects in battle and in exploration, as well as a few new allies. Sparks of Hope has the same silly Rabbid humor as its predecessor, which once again skirts a line between kind of dumb and kind of charming. Yeah they're not the best jokes in the world, but the way they embrace their juvenile silliness does give the game a certain charm. Surprisingly there isn't that much interaction within your party—maybe the developers feel like they got enough of that out of the first game, so this one is much more focused on the new characters, including NPCs you meet. They're still decently charming, though maybe the Rabbids should stick to physical comedy, which usually comes off much better than the written comedy in Sparks of Hope. Although most of the tactical-RPG gameplay is fundamentally the same—along with all the little things that entails, like managing sightlines, dash attacks, status ailments, etc.—Sparks of Hope switches up a number of features from Kingdom Battle. For one, you now have open environments that you can explore instead of relatively set paths. These open areas allow you to tackle side quest battles in any order you want, and you can even engage in replayable small battles just to earn a little extra EXP and gold. And don't worry, since side quests scale to your level you can play them in any order. The environments are also a fair bit bigger than the first game and contain plenty of little things to discover, so it's a lot of fun to just wander around, collecting coins/items and completing side quests. This open format is also reflected in the battle system, which is no longer grid-based and instead allows for full freedom of movement, which opens up your strategic options a bit. The first game limited you to always have a mix of Mushroom Kingdom heroes and Rabbids in your team, but now there's no restriction, and since you start the game with most of the roster available you can get right into mixing and matching party compositions. More importantly, every character can now equip Sparks to grant both active effects and passive buffs, and there's a huge range of possibilities here as you figure out which Sparks complement each character's natural strengths or are most effective against the enemies in a specific battle. Since each character can only perform two actions per turn they won't feel too overpowered, even with good Spark synergy. In a sense, Sparks of Hope feels less structured than its predecessor, in a good way. You have a lot more opportunity for experimentation and playing your own way, which makes it easy to play around with team compositions, Sparks, and different strategies. Maybe you've been sticking with Rabbid Peach for her healing ability, but now you try a level with a more purely offensive team to crush enemies before they can damage you in the first place. Maybe you want to use items to get the most value out of dash attacks. The flipside is that battles in Kingdom Battle almost felt like puzzles since you were encouraged to beat them with a high rating (fewest number of turns, no party member KOs) for more rewards, and it's a little bit of a shame that this sense of perfect planning isn't present here. Still, it's hard to complain about a game giving you more options for approaching battles in your preferred way. Overall, Sparks of Hope grants a wonderful degree of freedom to the player, though perhaps at the expense of challenge. Kingdom Battle was a meticulous game, partly because of those puzzle-like mechanics, but Sparks of Hope gives you so much freedom in how to play that it's actually pretty easy, at least for Kingdom Battle veterans. There's far less punishment for mistakes since you can recover health with both items during battle and by paying a small fee outside of battle (and you'll probably always have plenty of coins). The new characters bring some incredibly powerful abilities, and the returning characters can also become almost over-powered once you've upgraded their skill trees a bit. No rating system means you can even barely crawl across the finish line without any negative repercussions. The good news is that you can adjust the difficulty at any time, though even hard mode doesn't quite feel at the level of the previous game, unless you just hobble yourself by not using Sparks or abilities. Regardless, even if Sparks of Hope generally feels a bit easy for a turn-based strategy game, it's still a blast to build a team with complementary abilities and then execute strategies where everything comes together perfectly in the end. And there are a handful of different battle objectives—defeat all enemies, survive X number of turns, reach the goal, etc.—so there's still some variety in how you have to approach each level. The game does have one minor flaw that is unfortunately all too common: load times. They aren't terribly long in Sparks of Hope, but opening the character menu to change your team or the map to get your bearings is just long enough that it's noticeable and annoying. Such menus really need to be snappy to maintain the flow of a game. Presentation-wise, Sparks of Hope is just as sharp and stylish as its predecessor—moreso even, if only for the more varied environments that see you traveling from planet to planet. The character and enemy design hasn't changed all that much, but the scenery is lovely, which gives you all the more reason to stop the spread of Darkmess tentacles and restore each planet to its former glory. The music is also quite nice, but the voice acting doesn't quite feel like it's on the same level. Beep-O seemingly has the most lines but it's not the most charming of voices, and the less the Rabbids speak the better. Literally—it's just weird to hear Rabbids talk, even if it's limited to short phrases in this game. Sparks of Hope is a good 20–30 hour game, depending on how you tackle side quests. It's hard to pass them up though. Mostly they just mean more battles, including some of the only truly challenging battles like the secret bosses on each planet, though there are also some environmental puzzles that are actually quite fun to tackle. Unfortunately Sparks of Hope doesn't have a co-op mode like the previous game, but there's still plenty of replay value here if you wanted to run through the game again while focusing on using different party compositions. Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope makes some surprising tweaks and adjustments to its predecessor's formula, perhaps ultimately to the benefit of a wider audience. With the move toward less restrictive, more open gameplay options, the challenge ends up reduced. However, that more welcoming sense of difficulty, paired with a wide variety of strategic options with character choices and Sparks, allows for a wealth of approaches to any battle, which is wonderfully rewarding in its own right. Strategy fans will still love the opportunity to craft their perfect battle plans, and anyone that found Kingdom Battle a little too tricky to master should absolutely give this game a try. Rating: 9 out of 10 Sparks
  14. "Non-stop action" is probably the most succinct way to describe Severed Steel, an FPS game that allows you to acrobatically leap from one enemy to the next, smoothly taking out each one, grabbing their gun, and continuing on your way. For better and for worse, this game is 100% flashy, fast-paced action. You play as Steel, a woman who is missing an arm and wakes up in a mysterious futuristic office building and proceeds to absolutely demolish everything in her path to get out. Beyond that it's hard to say much about the plot, because despite a handful of silent cutscenes it is really not clear what is going on here, story-wise. The cutscenes are vague and although the missions seem to lead you through some kind of quest to destroy the company in the building, nothing is made particularly clear. Severed Steel isn't the kind of game you play for story though, so the weak plot isn't too much of an issue. The gameplay here is all about fast, fluid, acrobatic FPS action that allows players to seamlessly run along a wall, dive off, slide along the ground, kick an enemy to steal his gun, then shoot him with it point blank. Although you're frequently surrounded by enemies, you can't be hit while you're executing these fancy stunts like sliding or diving, so there's a big emphasis on constantly staying on the move to avoid enemy bullets and smoothly moving from one enemy to the next. You can't reload any gun you pick up, instead you have to defeat an enemy and grab theirs, so bunkering down is not an option here. You can also slow down time to help you line up your shot, which is invaluable when you're soaring through the air at insane speeds. Each level of the game throws a different objective at you, but generally they're things like reach the exit, destroy all of the targets (computers, consoles, etc.) or just kill everyone. The environments are also highly destructible (especially with the arm cannon you eventually unlock), so you literally can carve your own path through each level. When you're in the groove, Severed Steel is awfully satisfying—it's like acting out the most insane action movie sequences you can imagine, all in a dizzying first-person perspective. The game really taps into a simple, joyous feeling of badass fighting. That said, Severed Steel isn't exactly an easy game, even on the lower difficulty levels, so while the goal is to seamlessly fly through each level, you're much more likely to be starting and stopping (with plenty of swearing mixed in) as you try to figure out the best path or strategy to each level as enemies constantly swarm you. The problem is that the game's loading times can't keep up with that trial and error gameplay. If you're playing a game where it's possible to die literally seconds into starting a level, you don't want to be staring at a 15 second loading screen every time you reload. It may not be an egregiously long loading time, but it's definitely too long for the kind of game Severed Steel is. Ultimately that's what brings down the experience of Severed Steel: the little things. If you're going to be flying through a level with crazy action stunts, the controls need to be tight and smooth, and movement is just a little too floaty here. The visuals need to be clean and readable in a split-second, not a messy blend of minimalist environments and unhelpful outlines. The game's physics can also get a little glitchy at times with objects or enemies falling through the environment, which in one level necessitated restarting repeatedly as the objective kept floating away before I could destroy it. These are little unpolished moments in Severed Steel, but when the gameplay hinges upon perfectly smooth action, any little bump is going to have a massive impact on the experience. As mentioned the game's presentation is definitely minimalist, with a touch of neon sci-fi flair. On one hand it's good to keep the scenery to a minimum so you can focus on the acrobatic stunts, but it would've been nice to have a little more detail in the visuals. The soundtrack is definitely strong though, with an intense electro vibe that suits the sci-fi setting as well as the nonstop action. The campaign in Severed Steel is fairly short, maybe four or five hours depending on how much you end up dying/retrying each level. There's a decent amount of replay value here though in the form of difficulty levels and mods to add different (sometimes wacky) effects to mix up the experience a bit. These mods are aimed at the kind of player that enjoys mastering a game then replaying it over and over in slightly different ways, so while some of them are fun they're probably not much of a replay incentive for most players. Severed Steel is a flashy FPS that puts stylish stunts above everything else, and when you're perfectly clicking with it, the experience is a blast. The game's smaller faults do add up though, weighing down the intense acrobatic action with some repetitive gameplay, occasional glitchy moments, and load times that don't match the fast-paced nature of the game. But if you can power through those problems and are willing to put in the effort to master the gameplay, there's fun to be had wallrunning, dodging, and sliding through one level after another. Rating: 7 out of 10 Steels
  15. Slaycation Paradise answers the question: what if we could travel to different dimensions, and blow up everything there? With a blend of twin-stick shooter and tower defense gameplay, Slaycation Paradise offers a fun, turn-off-your-brain-and-just-shoot kind of action experience perfect for when you need a little violent vacation. The premise of the game is that mankind has mastered inter-dimensional travel, but due to people invading and pillaging other dimensions it is now limited to only apocalyptic dimensions where essentially everything has gone to hell anyway so there's not much further damage you can do. Tourists can visit these dimensions to shoot, blow up, and destroy everything in sight to their heart's content. It's a hilarious and dark premise, and the idea of either exploiting or destroying the resource of inter-dimensional travel is probably all too real. And although there aren't cutscenes there's a fair bit of irreverent dialogue to be found here, which can get pretty funny. Slaycation Paradise is divided into missions. You pick your destination dimension and which mission to tackle, then you have just a couple of minutes to complete it before the portal opens up and brings you home again. You can equip two weapons—a normal gun and a special weapon—and you can build walls or turrets to fend off the hordes of monsters, zombies, etc. that you'll encounter. Crafting objects requires scrap, so you'll also need to scavenge while you're also shooting zombies, robots, etc. When the portal opens at the end of the level you'll need to survive for 60 seconds before it activates, so that's where the tower defense crafting really shines. Early on the game might seem a little difficult, or at least tedious. When you're armed with just a pistol and can only craft basic walls for defense, the gameplay seems narrow and challenging. Gradually though you'll unlock new weapons and towers, and that's where the gameplay opens up. Shooting zombies with a pistol or shotgun is all well and good, but what about launching a cat that explodes on contact? The wackier weapons add some much needed charm to the game and help break up the monotony of shooting and crafting. And no matter what weapon you're using, it's always satisfying to mow down hordes of enemies. You'll also encounter a handful of different mission types, but every scenario boils down to: shoot things and survive. The sweet spot for Slaycation Paradise kind of falls in the middle of the game. Early on you don't have many options so it's difficult, and in the middle you've got a good amount of options at your disposal and can enjoy more varied missions/dimensions. However, by the end of the game you'll be so overpowered that it's kind of a cakewalk. You can upgrade your weapons with special effects and give yourself upgrades like regenerating health or faster reload speed, so most enemies end up being not much of a challenge at all. The game is built around replaying levels over and over, but the depth of the gameplay doesn't quite warrant it. Still, if you're having fun blowing up zombies or demons you could keep replaying Slaycation Paradise for a long time. The game's presentation is solid, though at the same time leaves you wanting a bit more. The visual design of a top-down twin-stick shooter is never going to be the most robust, and Slaycation Paradise does do a good job within the limitations of this camera perspective. There are some little annoyances though, like how it's difficult to tell what is hitting you when enemies attack from range, or how enemies can spawn pretty much anywhere but they're hard to see sometimes, so you'll walk right into them. The soundtrack is well done though, and matches the bloody action energy of the game nicely. Slaycation Paradise is a surprisingly engaging blend of twin-stick shooting and tower defense gameplay. The game has a bit of trouble nailing down a consistent, smooth level of challenge, starting off quite difficult and ending up quite easy, but becoming an overpowered wrecking ball that destroys hordes of enemies is also part of the game's charm. If you're looking for a chance to just cut loose, Slaycation Paradise offers a nice getaway vacation. Rating: 7 out of 10 Vacations
  16. As the third Xenoblade Chronicles game now on the Switch (after the Definitive Edition re-release of the first game), RPG fans probably know what they're getting into with Xenoblade Chronicles 3. This is a huge action-RPG with enormous environments populated with equally massive monsters, and a real-time battle system that rewards timely combos and quick reactions to the ebb and flow of the battlefield. It's a smart, engaging blend of its predecessors, and it's one that even new players will likely have no trouble falling in love with. The setting of XC3 is one of constant war. Two nations, Keves and Agnus, battle endlessly not for land or resources but for the literal lives of their opponents. Massive engines called Flame Clocks power the colonies of both nations, and it's only by killing and absorbing the life force of enemy soldiers that the Flame Clocks—and therefore, the colonies and all their inhabitants—survive. The people are literally created only for war and are expected to spend 10 years (aka 10 terms) fighting. If they manage to survive all 10 years, their reward is to then die in a "homecoming" ritual with their respective queen. Right out of the gate, XC3 makes a strong impression with this fascinatingly macabre premise that paints a truly morbid picture of war that exists only to sustain itself, an undeniably bleak and brutal concept. Despite its colorful appearance, XC3 isn't afraid to get dark, and fast. You start off as a group of Kevesi soldiers: Noah, Lanz, and Eunie. A chance encounter with a group of Agnian soldiers—Mio, Sena, and Taion—causes all six to be granted the powers of the Ouroboros, a force that might allow them to break the cycle of war, forcing them to team up as outlaws of both Keves and Agnus (BTW, XC3 isn't shy about long cutscenes, so buckle up). This is just the first few hours of a 100+ hour RPG, and you can look forward to tons of plot revelations, twists, and character development for the six protagonists. And it's the characters that truly shine in XC3, both playable characters and NPCs. It'd be hard not to get attached to these guys after playing for hours and hours; they're a fun, likeable mix of people struggling to break out of an oppressive system while still retaining charming character quirks. Seeing them interact with each other and NPCs is always a highlight of the story. The only lowlight of the story might be, well, the actual overarching story. This is an engaging and epic plot, but whether due to having too many balls in the air or just the sheer length of the game, it has trouble sticking the landing. Not all of the character stories feel as fleshed out and satisfying as others, even after pursuing side quests, and the finale leaves more than a few unsatisfying questions about the worldbuilding and certain plotlines in its wake. This is all despite some lengthy, somewhat repetitive cutscenes that kind of go in circles. To be fair, it's not like the previous Xenoblade games don't have their storyline foibles as well, but still, it feels like the end of the story misses its mark a bit. The gameplay has the same rich RPG mechanics and vast environment exploration of its Xenoblade predecessors. Wandering around these massive areas, always with some interesting terrain feature in the distance just beckoning you forward, is just as delightful today as it was 10+ years ago. Like any good exploration-heavy adventure, simply filling out the map in XC3 is awfully satisfying, especially when it's balanced by the frequent danger of hulking monsters, dozens of levels above your own, just milling about in the area. There's a little thrill in sneaking past or escaping conflict with them, and then satisfaction when you return to the region later in the game, leveled up and equipped for battle, and conquer foes that once daunted you. XC3 offers so many little rewarding moments like this that there's really no way of counting them all. The combat system takes a bit of inspiration from both Xenoblade 1 and 2, resulting in a fantastically varied and engaging formula. The crux of combat once again revolves around Arts. Your characters will auto-attack in battle when they're close enough to an enemy, but to do serious damage or to inflict special effects (buffing allies, debuffing enemies, healing, etc.) you need to use Arts. Each character class has its own selection and you can swap around just three to equip at any one time, but soon enough into the game you'll gain the ability to swap classes as well as adding on an additional three Arts from other classes for even more versatility in battle. Classes all fall into one of three categories: Attacker, Defender, and Healer, and having a balance of all three (or at least being aware of their strengths and weaknesses) is vital. You'll also eventually gain the ability to recruit hero characters, NPCs that join you in battle and unlock additional classes. Even with just three broad categories, there's a great variety to the classes that helps each one feel unique and useful in specific circumstances. Naturally, learning how to combine the best aspects of multiple classes is also a key part of the battle system's depth. Finally there are Chain Attacks and Interlinking, additional tools in your arsenal. Interlinking allows two characters to combine into a transformer type of being with their own sets of attacks. Your characters are immune during this so it's a handy way of temporarily saving at-risk characters (though you can't recover health while Interlinked). Interlinking is also invaluable when fighting multiple enemies at once, since even relatively weak enemies can get overwhelming when there are 5+ of them attacking you. Chain Attacks, meanwhile, allow you to essentially pause the battle and execute a series of powerful strikes, and if you order your attacks strategically you can make the chain a bit longer. This is one of those super powerful abilities that you'll generally only use in bigger boss fights, but it's supremely satisfying to watch those damage numbers skyrocket into seven figures territory. Ultimately, the most important aspect of XC3's combat system is that the game gives you a ton of fun tools to use and lets you discover interesting uses and combinations in your own way. It's incredibly satisfying and comes to a head in those heated boss fights when you really are using everything at your disposal to overcome the odds. Taken all at once, the combat system sounds more complicated than it is. The game smartly eases you into things (you might still be unlocking tutorials dozens of hours into your playthrough) and also streamlines a lot of the nitty gritty aspects, namely gems and accessories. Each character can only equip a maximum of three gems and three accessories, and early on you're limited to just one of each. That might seem limiting at first, but when you're swapping a character's class constantly, going from an Attacker to a Defender to a Healer, it's a big help not having to meticulously update every little piece of equipment that you might have in other RPGs. You also only have to craft each type of gem once, then anyone can equip it simultaneously—another convenient little feature. XC3 is, of course, a massive RPG with a play time that can easily run into the triple digits. If you truly wanted to rush through the story you could probably do so in around 60 hours, but skipping the side quests would be a real shame. Sure there are some duds here, some side quests that feel more like busy work, especially the ones that require you to fast travel back and forth between areas repeatedly. But there are also a ton of excellent side stories to discover, stories that further develop the protagonists that you've likely grown to love after playing for a while, and further flesh out the recruitable heroes and other NPCs you meet. The actual gameplay challenges of the side quests are fun, but it's the additional storytelling that makes them worth pursuing. Oh, and if you make it through the game and feel like that still wasn't enough time with XC3, there are post-game quests and a New Game+ feature, as well as current and future DLC, including challenges, heroes, and expanded stories. In terms of presentation, the Xenoblade franchise once again knocks it out of the park with XC3. As already mentioned, the sprawling environments are gorgeous and promise adventure around every corner, and while there are plenty of monster designs that get reused over the course of the game, they're all inventive and fun to see as well. And although you start out in some pretty typical grasslands/desert environments, pretty soon you'll discover those magical moments of wonder and awe in your surroundings, the kind that made the first Xenoblade so special. Most importantly, Nopons have never looked cuter. The soundtrack is also flawless, with a frequently used flute motif that's important to the story and manages to get more emotionally gripping and rich every time you hear it throughout the game. The music list truly feels as sprawling as the environments, and plenty of tracks have that same sense of wonder and charm to them. The voice acting is also quite well done and is the perfect touch to fully capture each character's personality quirks (even if some of the repeated voice lines feel like they'll be stuck in your head forever). As the third game in the numbered trilogy, Xenoblade Chronicles 3 feels like it combines the best of both worlds from its predecessors. All three games have a wonderful sense of wide-open exploration and adventure, but the combat system that began with Arts management in 1 and expanded to swapping characters/Blades in 2 finds a happy balance in 3 with its nigh endless battle options of Arts and recruitable heroes. It's a system made for player experimentation and is all the more rewarding for it, especially during the massive boss fights against seemingly impossible odds. It's crazy to think there was a time when we didn't know if players outside of Japan would get a chance to play the original Xenoblade Chronicles, because now it feels like no Switch game collection is complete without all three. Rating: 9 out of 10 Terms
  17. In most games you aren't looking to fish up a tire or an old boot out of the water, but that's exactly what you want in Trash Sailors, a hectic co-op focused adventure that mixes the plate-juggling aspect of a game like Overcooked with some survival mechanics of something like Don't Starve. On top of all that you've got a delightfully weird art style that makes trash floating in the ocean look good. But while Trash Sailors makes for a decent wacky co-op experience, the nitty gritty aspects of the game could use some cleanup. When the world is flooded by a trash tsunami, your only hope of survival is setting sail on a raft that can transform trash into useful fuel and replacement parts so that you might find safe, dry land to live upon. It's a hilariously dark premise (and hopefully not a premonition on the world's current issues), though the game never really uses it as more than a backdrop. Even as you unlock new characters or explore new regions, the storytelling is pretty nonexistent in Trash Sailors. The goal of each level is to reach the end with your raft intact and with enough fuel to keep moving. You'll also need to grab maps in bottles in order to unlock new levels (maps may seem like bonus objectives but they are actually required). In order to keep moving you'll need to fish out trash from the water, convert it in your trash grinder, then use it to fuel the engine. You don't want to just grab any trash though—sort of like Overcooked you'll have an "order" to complete, such as a chair, a painting, and a blender, and by feeding the trash grinder the correct items you'll get a lot more resources to fuel the engine or to repair the raft when you (inevitably) crash into things. Basically Trash Sailors is a hectic "keep your head above water" kind of game where there are constant needs to be met, whether it's fishing, repairing, steering, or refueling. As a co-op game, Trash Sailors tries to hit that sweet spot between frantic and fun. There's always something to do on the raft so it's easy to get some friends (up to four players local or online) and just dive right into the fray. However, the game never quite has the same charm as other hectic co-op games. Part of the problem is that Trash Sailors isn't particularly rewarding. With the goal of just surviving each level you don't get, say, a ranking to hang your hat on, which can make it feel like you're just trudging through the levels. Most importantly, the actual gameplay isn't terribly well polished. Collecting the right trash to fill an order is a fun concept but it's hard to see when the order changes, plus you're not really guaranteed to have the necessary trash in the ocean. It's possible to grab trash and just leave it on the raft until you need it, but that becomes a whole other issue I'll discuss in a moment. Steering is also frustrating at best. You can't stop once the engine gets going, so you're just kind of careening toward obstacles endlessly. It's also, frankly, the most boring aspect of the game. It's cool that there are a variety of hazards to face—waves that will wash you off of the raft, enemies that attack you or damage the raft—but they also feel repetitive after a while. It truly does feel like you're just tackling chores on a raft, and the relentless pace of fishing, steering, and fighting off anything that attacks your raft doesn't really carry a sense of accomplishment. I never felt proud of clearing a level, I was just glad it was over. The online system also leaves something to be desired. It'll already be tricky to coordinate with players without speaking, but then trying to navigate the murky waters of poor online connections just makes this voyage doomed from the start. And although it is possible to play the game solo, I wouldn't recommend it. Handling all of the raft's needs by yourself (plus a robotic buddy that the game provides) will only make your head spin. Couch co-op is arguably the only way to play this game. Ultimately though, it's the controls that make Trash Sailors so frustrating. Virtually every action is mapped to the A button: fishing, picking up trash, loading cannon balls, climbing the mast to turn on the light, etc. This is a tiny raft and you will inevitably pick up or interact with the wrong thing since everything uses the same button. It is incredibly annoying to be trying to pick up the right piece of trash on the deck of the raft and you keep grabbing the wrong object, taking so long that the order for the trash grinder changes. Why the controls couldn't use more buttons is beyond me. Although the gameplay and controls suffer through some rough waters, the game's presentation is a definite high point. The 2D art is weird and charming, funky and stylish. It has a slightly "grimy" feel which is perfect for a game about fishing trash out of the ocean. It's really in the graphics where all of the game's charm lies, though granted it can be a little annoying sometimes, when you have a lot of trash piled up on the raft, and it's hard to pick up a specific one you want, though again that's just as much the fault of the controls as the 2D graphics. The concept of Trash Sailors is weird and funny, and a decent attempt at a frantic co-op game, but it doesn't quite come together in the end. The frustrating controls only highlight the game's real problem: maintaining the raft and collecting trash is a hectic game concept but it's not particularly rewarding. The game lacks that special touch to make repetitive actions entertaining. Without that spark, you're better off tossing this one back into the water. Rating: 5 out of 10 Pieces of Trash
  18. I missed out on playing XIII on the Gamecube back in 2003, despite the fact that its comic book art style always stood out to me in Nintendo Power previews. It took almost twenty years but I finally got a chance to try the game with the Switch remake, and I can confidently say that this one was not worth waiting for. The story begins with a presidential assassination and your player waking up on a beach with no memory of what is going on. Soon enough though you're thrown into a gunfight and it's clear you are somehow involved in an espionage conspiracy where people go by numbers as codenames. The narrative promises a lot of intriguing twists and turns and then delivers on almost none of them. It's based off of an 80s graphic novel and it kind of feels like the developers took the outline of the story and rushed through a handful of major scenes. In the game you're constantly thrown from one scene/level to another with very little context about what is happening or why, NPCs come and go and it's obnoxiously difficult to keep them straight or even know if they're on your side or not, and the actual conspiracy is so muddled that it's really not clear what was meant to be happening even by the end of the game. There's definitely a good spy-thriller story here somewhere, but it's told so poorly that you'll never be able to find it. Even considering the fact that XIII is a nearly twenty year old game, the gameplay is fairly underwhelming. There are definitely some cool ideas present here, but they're not fully explored, leading to a lot of basic "shoot everyone around you" kinds of levels with some pretty uninteresting environmental design. For example, there are stealth levels in the game, and there's even a way to grab someone to use as a hostage as you back away, but the actual gameplay mechanics are so clunky that these ideas come off as half-baked. Enemies become alerted almost instantly to your presence so stealthing is oftentimes more trouble than it's worth, and holding a target hostage severely limits your ability to fight enemies while they continue to crowd around you (they just won't shoot as long as the hostage is between you and them). You can also attack with found objects, like a chair or a broom, but outside of one or two instances there really is no incentive to try it. So although XIII tries to add some gameplay mechanics that shake up the usual run-and-gun formula, none of them are done particularly well. And that's not to say the run-and-gun formula is done well either. As mentioned the level design isn't particularly interesting, and there aren't optional missions to make exploring or trying out different paths feel worthwhile (there are collectibles to find, at least). Most of all though the AI is just bizarre. It is simultaneously incredibly dumb and incredibly deadly. Enemies will stand out in the open, sometimes right next to cover, and simply walk toward you, allowing you to effortlessly take them out. At the same time though, their accuracy is shockingly good, especially with long range weapons like sniper rifles or rocket launchers. Essentially it feels like a cheap way of making the game challenging. Instead of AI that actually encourages you to move and attack strategically, they are simply incredibly deadly when they spot you, and it's not a terribly rewarding feeling to take out hordes of these kinds of enemies. The controls also leave something to be desired. Granted the slight clunkiness to the controls most likely stems from the fact that this is an older game, before the annual Call of Duty releases more or less standardized the FPS controls formula, but aiming doesn't feel very smooth in XIII—in fact hip firing often feels more accurate than aiming down the sights—and there's an obnoxious delay whenever you reload, so the controls are missing the snappy sense of action that is so crucial to a game like this. And although this version of the XIII remake is allegedly polished up from the version that was released a couple of years ago on other platforms, I did still run into more than a few technical issues. The most frustrating was having the game crash and having to replay the whole level, despite mid-level checkpoints. I also encountered bugs where something didn't trigger correctly so I had to reload a checkpoint. But the janky movements of NPCs and frame rate slow down when there are more than a couple of enemies on screen were the most common issues, and highlight that the game still doesn't quite have the polish it needs. The campaign is about six or seven hours long, which is more than enough time to spend on this game, however XIII also has both local and online multiplayer modes. These are so bareboned that it almost feels like the developers needn't have bothered though. Online has only one mode, deathmatch with first to thirteen kills, but good luck finding opponents (there's no specific way to find friends either but maybe if you all hopped online at the same time you could find each other to play?). Local multiplayer isn't much better, with just deathmatch or team deathmatch for up to four players, and only three maps and four playable characters. A little bit of old-school split-screen multiplayer might have salvaged some of the experience here, but sadly XIII falls short of the mark here as well. The game's graphics at least look decent. The cel-shaded art style isn't a bad modern update from the original's more comic book-heavy artwork—some of the charm is lost, but the graphics fit the modern aesthetic a little better. The actual character design and environment design are quite boring, but at least the cel-shading looks okay. The voice work, however, really shows its age. Despite boasting some high profile actors, only some (Adam West) actually sound decent, while others (David Duchovny) sound like they were sleepwalking through their recording sessions. XIII didn't make a big splash when it was originally released in 2003, and playing the remake in 2022 makes it clear why. Putting aside some of the old-fashioned FPS concepts and mechanics, the game just feels like a rough draft. The scant unique ideas aren't fleshed out at all, and a poorly told story with sloppy voice acting doesn't do the game any favors either. Such a game might have been able to slip by with mediocre ratings twenty years ago, but today it's a completely unappealing experience. Rating: 3 out of 10 Conspiracies
  19. THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD is one of the most iconic arcade shooters ever made, but can THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD: Remake give the franchise new life on modern consoles? With a slight visual upgrade, one or two new gameplay options and the Switch's gyroscopic controls for aiming, the answer is: no, not really. You play as Agent Thomas Rogan (and his partner G, in co-op mode) who is investigating the mansion of Dr. Curien, more or less your classic mad scientist who is bioengineering undead creatures. You'll need to shoot your way through all manner of monsters to rescue innocent scientists, including Rogan's girlfriend, Sophie. It's a totally bare-bones story told through extremely simple, cheesy cutscenes, but the goofy simplicity is kind of charming. As an arcade rail-shooter, the only thing you need to focus on while playing THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD is shooting whatever monster pops up in front of you (and avoid shooting scientists). You don't need to move, though it is possible to take different paths through some of the levels by hitting switches or even killing the enemies in a certain way. Since this is an arcade game that you're meant to feed quarters into, monsters will appear like crazy, often jumping out at you for a quick attack that you'll need sharp reflexes to handle. This remake does feature a kind of "quarters" system in that you've got ten free continues, then after that your score will be docked every time you die and retry. THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD is classic arcade fun, with a good sense of challenge even if it is a bit repetitive over the short time it takes to finish the game. However, this remake has a glaring problem that brings down the entire experience: the controls. Arcade light gun games benefit from simple, intuitive controls that can be lightning quick if you've got the reflexes to handle them. In this remake though, you're either dealing with a control stick to aim or the gyro controls, and neither is ideal. Control stick aiming is simply never going to be as fast or fluid as motion or gyro aiming, and this game is entirely built around fast reflexes. Gyro controls might seem like a decent replica of a light gun, but they're just not as smooth and, more importantly, the calibration seems to waver after literally every shot. I was constantly required to recenter the cursor, and being even a little bit off in a game like this is a huge hassle. You don't want to be constantly battling the controls in any game, much less a fast-paced rail shooter like this. At best you'll have to really fine tune the sensitivity in the settings to get it to a point where it feels smooth, and even then the calibration issue remains. I will note that there is one nice feature for left-handed players: if you're playing with split Joy-Cons you can aim with the left Joy-Con which feels more natural for a lefty like me. The remake also adds a new game mode called Horde, which is essentially the exact same game but with a lot more enemies on screen. It's a great challenge once you've mastered the main game and its various difficulty modes, though again the imprecise controls can make fending off dozens of zombies way more frustrating than it is satisfying. And no matter what game mode you're playing, the remake has some tediously long load times. Thankfully they only pop up when starting a game and between chapters, but it's still noticeable and annoying. The game's presentation is fine. That's really all that can be said about it—the developers have updated the graphics with better textures and moody lighting, but everything is still essentially in that late 90s arcade style, with pretty bland character and environment design. The cheesy voice acting is the cherry on top, though the game doesn't have that charming self-aware cheesiness of other big dumb action games. THE HOUSE OF THE DEAD: Remake is a fun trip down memory lane for anyone that pumped quarters into the arcade machine back in the day, but the fundamental control problems put a damper on the entire game. The pick-up-and-play charm of an on-rails light gun shooter just isn't quite here—maybe the arcade experience just can't be revived as easily as a zombie horde. Rating: 5 out of 10 Zombies
  20. It's hard to think of something more quintessentially 80s than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Anthropomorphic animal mascots, "cool teen" energy, a healthy bit of martial arts violence—the turtles are just made for that time period, and that includes rapidly churning out some repetitive action games. I say repetitive but these side-scrolling beat 'em up games are absolutely charming as well, even if you didn't grow up playing them. And putting 13 of them into a single game makes The Cowabunga Collection one shell of an experience. You might assume there are some pointless additions with a 13 game lineup, and…yeah you'd be right, at least a bit. With three versions of TMNT: Tournament Fighters (NES, SNES, and Genesis) you really have to question what was the point of including all of them. SNES and Genesis might make sense since there are roster differences between the two, but is anyone really all that interested in diving into a 2D fighting game on the NES? Still, it's an interesting move to include all of them, and shows how comprehensive this collection is really meant to be. Aside from the fighting games you've also got the classic arcade beat 'em ups, the original and Turtles in Time, as well as their adaptations on home consoles. There's also the infamously difficult TMNT game on the NES, and the three Game Boy games which arguably hide the hidden gem of this collection, Radical Rescue, which is more of a Metroid-style adventure game rather than a straight-forward action game. So although the majority of The Cowabunga Collection is beat 'em ups, there's a bit of variety that helps round out the package here. All of the games play great as well—or at least, they play as you remember they did, whether it was on an arcade cabinet, console, or handheld. The experience is well preserved here and it really does feel like stepping into a time machine when you've got some friends together on the couch, beating up wave after wave of Foot Clan mooks. This collection also adds some content though, in arguably the best possible way for a retro collection like this. You're able to turn on enhancements to tweak the experience, such as reducing the slow down lag that happens when there are a lot of enemies on the screen in the older games, as well as turning on easy or god mode settings for many of the games. You can also save at any time in each game and even rewind several seconds to fix any little mistakes that might have cost you a precious life. It's wonderful that The Cowabunga Collection is able to cater to both die-hard old school players as well as new ones in this way. If you want the classic experience it's all here, but if you just want to make it through the game without throwing your controller through the television, you can turn on enhancements like infinite lives to make the stiff, clunky mechanics of late-80s/early-90s games more bearable (and the NES game is still incredibly difficult even with these enhancements, so there's still a point of pride in beating it). The other major addition is online play for four of the games: both of the arcade games, Hyperstone Heist on the Genesis, and the SNES version of Tournament Fighters. It seems like your online experience will vary quite a bit depending on your own connection and other players'. Playing with just two players is mostly okay, but when you turn it up to three or four the game becomes a lagfest. It's still a nice feature if you're lucky enough to not face too much lag, but the couch co-op experience will always be the definitive way of getting four turtles together. Finally there are all of the bonus materials included in the collection, which is a treasure trove of turtle content. You've got old box art and concept sketches from the games' developments, screencaps of the cartoons (both the classic 80s one and newer ones), comic book covers—it's an awesome little museum of the turtles, and best of all it's all available as soon as you boot up the game, you won't need to unlock it by playing. When it comes to repackaged re-releases of retro games, The Cowabunga Collection may be one of the best based on the breadth of content and gameplay options. Even if some games are technically repeated, 13 titles is a huge value, plus all of the bonus content provided, and most importantly the enhancements that make these tough-as-nails classics a little more manageable for modern players. The online experience isn't quite up to par, but get some friends together and order a pizza and you're in for a radical Friday night with The Cowabunga Collection. Rating: 8 out of 10 Turtles
  21. 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
  22. It's incredible to see how far an IP that was brand new in 2015 has come. Even with the Nintendo brand backing it, it's not easy for a new IP to take hold to this extent, especially with the unique blend of online shooter and cartoonish charm that Splatoon has. But playing the game makes it clear why it's so popular now, and just how it came out of Nintendo. Sure it's an online multiplayer game, but it's also beginner-friendly, stylish, and just plain fun in every moment, win or lose. It's that abiding fun-first philosophy that has kept Nintendo going for decades and made Splatoon such a hit. So how do they keep it going with the third installment? By polishing up small aspects and adding a few new features to make Splatoon 3 the most frantic, engaging, and fun it can possibly be. The story mode here has a lot more in common with Splatoon 2's DLC, the Octo Expansion, than it does with the previous story modes. Levels are generally centered around one kind of challenge, such as only using a specific type of special ability or making it to the goal with only one tank of ink, no refills. There are still a few of the more generic "just make to the goal" kinds of levels, but overall Splatoon 3's story mode offers far more variety in challenges, and you may even pick up some helpful tips that apply to multiplayer mode as you learn the ins and outs of specials and weapons. As for the story itself, you're once again assisting Captain Cuttlefish, though this time it's because of a mysterious fuzzy ooze that turns anything it touches hairy. It's not a deep, elaborate narrative but it's a fun time, especially with Agents 1 and 2 getting involved again. As for the multiplayer side of the game, the basics are the same: the main mode is Turf War, a 4v4 match that emphasizes inking the ground rather than taking out opponents (though that certainly helps give you free rein to ink). All four Ranked Battle modes return but they're now called Anarchy Battles, and they come in two flavors. Open mode lets you jump into a match even with friends and rewards (or subtracts) a small amount of rank points. In Series mode though you have to queue solo, and by paying an "entrance fee" of ranked points you'll play a series of matches. Win five and you'll earn a ton of ranked points, but lose a total of three and the series ends. The good news is you'll still earn some ranked points based on your wins and your individual performance, so it's not exactly the gamble that it seems, it's just a slightly higher stakes version of Anarchy Battles. And those battle modes (Splat Zones, Tower Control, Rainmaker, and Clam Blitz) remain just as intense and exciting as ever. Splatoon 3 also adds a few new maps alongside returning ones, and there are naturally some new weapons and gear to try out, including a new bow-type weapon and a katana-type weapon, but overall the core experience is unchanged, including some of the more annoying quirks like two-hour map rotations that can see you playing on the same map seemingly over and over. If you already enjoy the Splatoon formula though this should be good news. The maps do feel a little too homogenized, with pretty similar narrow layouts that don't show as much inventive design as past games, but that also ensures the action stays pretty centralized and frantic. Online matches still nicely skirt a line between slightly goofy and intense competitive action (maybe a little more on the competitive side during Anarchy Battles), and the fast-paced action still oozes charm and light-hearted fun, like a summer camp water gun fight. It's fast-paced, matches are pretty short at just three minutes, and the whole vibe of the game just feels like the experience is meant to be joyous (though we all still have the occasional salty moments while playing online). Your online experience will differ depending on your connection, but overall mine has been okay, one or two dropped connections aside. The majority of changes in Splatoon 3 seem to come from little additions or improvements. Salmon Run, the co-op mode introduced in Splatoon 2, is now available 24/7 instead of in semi-random shifts, which is great news since the mode is a blast (and extremely challenging when you get to the higher levels). There are new bosses to fight as well as a new superboss called a King Salmonid that shows up occasionally to make your job even more challenging. It's a fun fight but it'd be nice if he appeared a little more frequently, since sometimes it feels like you have to grind just to get him to show up. The lobby between matches (both normal and Salmon Run) now allows you to run around and practice a little before the next match starts, which can be a nice way of loosening up for the battle. There are two new abilities that you can use in any mode: the Squid Roll allows you to rapidly turn and dodge enemy attacks while the Squid Surge lets you leap up vertical walls, after a short charge time. Both add some valuable new maneuverability techniques, though their usefulness can be situational. There are also new ways to spend all the cash you'll accumulate: you can decorate a locker with items and stickers, and players online will be able to see your locker in their lobby. It's strictly cosmetic but it's nice to have something else to spend money on, especially after a few months when you've locked in your favorite weapons and clothes. Finally there's Tableturf Battles, a card-based minigame that translates the Turf War experience into a two-player card game. At the moment you can only play the CPU but there are plans to add a PVP option here in the future. Essentially you play cards to claim turf, and you can't "ink over" turf that has already been claimed. Whoever has the most turf in the end wins. It's not a bad diversion and again it's something else to collect in-game, though if you're not usually the type to get hooked on card-based minigames I doubt this one will change your mind. It's cute but lacks the energy or engagement of an actual Turf War match. On the presentation side of things, it's also a variety of small improvements and polishing. Between the excellent art direction that previous games established and some new little touches like fresh hairstyles, locker decorations and a new plaza, Splatoon 3 looks fantastic. The ink is still satisfyingly globby and viscous, the clothes are stylish, and the weapons are inventive. Most importantly, the frame rate is buttery smooth and never impedes the action. And of course there are already some great songs to enjoy, including the Splatfest audio from the three new hosts (and yes, that means 3-team Splatfests, such as the one happening this weekend!). Splatoon has always been a game that is dripping in style, and Splatoon 3 is no different. Splatoon 3 isn't exactly a leap (or squid jump) to a new level for the series. There are improvements for sure, not least of which is just making the game more convenient to play, whether that's through 24/7 Salmon Run, partying up with friends, or the split Anarchy battles that provide more options even with the usual limited map rotation system. But for the most part this is the Splatoon we know and love with a fresh coat of ink, and for millions of squids/kids, that'll be enough to dive back into the fray and start splatting away with their favorite weapons. So if you're already a Splatoon fan and are itching to get back out there to compete in Splatfests and collect golden eggs in Salmon Run, you'll love Splatoon 3 for being a nicely polished take on a familiar formula. Rating: 9 out of 10 Booyahs
  23. Pac-Man will always be one of the most important and recognizable figures in video games, but as a 3D platforming star? Maybe not. Originally released in 1999 on the original PlayStation and now updated with visual upgrades and a handful of gameplay adjustments, Pac-Man World Re-Pac is a strange little piece of gaming history, and is perhaps a good reminder that not every video game character needs to make the jump to different genres. As the game begins, Pac-Man's whole family is setting up a birthday party for the yellow dot himself, but the jealous Toc-Man sends out ghosts to kidnap Pac-Man. The ghosts mistakenly take everyone in the family but Pac-Man, so he sets off on a quest to rescue them. Classic basic story for a video game, but it is nice that it's told through some (again, pretty basic) cutscenes. I want to jump straight to the presentation, because there's a baffling decision here but you can fix the issue if you play the game yourself. By default, the game is in resolution mode, meaning the visuals prioritize crisp images and you're left with a noticeably choppy frame rate. It's not quite enough to spoil the gameplay experience but it looks terrible and is honestly a little headache-inducing at times. However, in the options menu you can swap to performance mode instead, prioritizing smooth frame rates at the cost of the resolution. The odd thing though is that the resolution basically doesn't change at all, at least not to a noticeable degree, but the frame rate is significantly smoother—still not quite perfect at times but it won't strain your eyes. Maybe the benefits of resolution mode would be more clear on a different TV, but to me there is absolutely no reason to use resolution mode and you need to change it immediately if you play the game yourself. Aside from this issue though the game's visuals and audio are fairly uninteresting. The game obviously has a more polished look that it must have had back in the day, but the art design, character models, and soundtrack just never quite pop. They're not necessarily bad, but they do feel generic and forgettable. With that out of the way, Pac-Man World comes from the early days of 3D platforming, and that means it has some pretty simple, slightly sloppy ideas about platforming. It's a fixed-camera game, but you can still move on a 3D plane, i.e. left and right but also toward the screen and away from it. There are definitely times where you have very little sense of depth, and lining up a jump is frustratingly clumsy, especially with Pac-Man's slightly floaty jumps. The bright side is that this remake has added a Yoshi-like flutter-jump to Pac-Man's skills, so you have a small chance to correct any missed jumps. You'll still probably die plenty of times though, it's just that kind of platformer. The good news is that there are also plenty of checkpoints in each level, and you'll pick up plenty of extra lives on your journey. There are also collectibles in each level that help add some depth to the gameplay, because if all you're doing is rushing to the end of the level there's not much interesting game design here, at least nothing that hasn't been seen in plenty of 3D platformers by now. It might have been more fresh when it was first released on the PS1, but today the platforming feels bland. Back to the collectibles though: you can collect letters to spell out "Pac-Man" in each level, plus one of Pac-Man's family members is trapped in each world, so you'll need to find their cage and a key to free them. Like I said, it's good to have some collectibles to give you more reason to explore every inch of each stage, but it is a little weird that so many of the collectibles require backtracking. For example, there are locked doors that require fruit to open, but oftentimes the fruit you need is somewhere in the level ahead of you, so you need to grab it then return to the door. The strangest thing is that the fruit often isn't far ahead or even hidden at all, you just need to spend a little time to grab it and backtrack. It feels like it's explicitly designed to fill time which, sure, maybe the game needed, because even while doing all of this backtracking, Pac-Man World is a roughly five or six hour game. It's a shame that a game that short can feel so repetitive though. Aside from the 3D platforming, Pac-Man does take some time to get back to his roots in this game. There are bonus levels that play like a classic Pac-Man board, with ghosts chasing you and pellets to collect. Pac-Man World adds a variety of new hazards as well which provide some interesting twists, even if the core action is always the same. Classic Pac-Man mazes are just timeless fun, so it's nice to see them included here. Pac-Man World Re-Pac is a perfectly decent little trip down memory lane, I'm just not sure who was clamoring to go on this trip. The dated platforming design isn't necessarily bad but it's not terribly exciting either, and even a handful of revamped features don't change the slightly floaty controls, clumsy sense of depth, or bland visual design. Pac-Man World Re-Pac isn't exactly a missed classic nor is it such an oddity that it warrants attention, but if you're looking for a middle-of-the-road 3D platformer, this game fits the bill. Rating: 6 out of 10 Power Pellets
  24. Where better than a video game to play with the very nature of storytelling? 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim doesn't tell a linear story—in fact it tells one of the most non-linear stories I've seen in a while, allowing players to pick and choose which of the 13 protagonists' interconnected stories to follow. Along the way you're left to piece together the sci-fi narrative through plenty of labyrinthine twists and turns, resulting in a unique, engaging, and confounding experience. Oh, and there are mech battles against giant robots. First off let's be clear: 13 Sentinels is, for the vast majority of the game, a visual novel. There are mech battles that are required to progress, but for the most part you'll be spending your time in what the game calls "Remembrance." Here you can choose which protagonist's story to watch unfold through lots of dialogue. The 13 characters are high school students with their share of teen drama, but very quickly the game thrusts you into an elaborate sci-fi adventure across different time periods that practically requires a flow chart in order to follow. The real joy of the game is watching the story unfold in your own way, since you can choose to follow this character for a while, then jump over to another one for a bit. There are gates, i.e. you might need to progress character B's path to unlock the next scene in character A's, but overall there's still a good bit of freedom in how you approach the story. I'm not sure I could even succinctly summarize the plot if I wanted to, but it's best to just dive in and explore for yourself. Although the protagonists' stories do overlap at times there isn't too much repeated content (and you can also fast-forward through any dialogue you've already seen). Each story also has its own quirks. One character is essentially an investigator, trying to track down a missing person. Another starts off with amnesia, a gun in his hand, and a dead body on the ground. Another thinks she's in a quirky, E.T. kind of story. Despite these differences the stories ultimately weave together nicely, and they all still feel connected thematically thanks to some excellent world building that leaves you with a lot of questions, urging you to keep playing. All that said, the real strength of 13 Sentinel's writing may be in the way it's presented rather than in the content itself. There are definitely some fun stories here, but there are also some fairly repetitive ones, some bland characters, and a bit of over-reliance on teenage dating drama. The game's visual novel elements can also be a bit boring. The branching paths within one character's story don't actually matter all that much, since you'll eventually explore all of them, and sometimes it can feel like all you're doing is pressing A over and over for an hour to progress slow, circuitous dialogue that neither progresses the story nor bolsters the characters' developments. In fact, the overarching sci-fi narrative probably wouldn't have as much impact if it were told linearly. However, because it is told in such a unique and organic way, the story will keep you riveted throughout the adventure. Now on to the RTS mech battles (aka "Destruction") side of 13 Sentinels, which is again only about one third of the actual playtime of the game. I use the term "RTS" loosely here since you're able to pause the action every time you choose one of your characters' actions, and the combat feels more like tower defense at times. Here's the gist: with up to six mechs in your party, you'll need to defend a terminal point against incoming waves of Kaiju (giant robots). The 13 protagonists are divided up into four generations of mechs, and each character has slightly different attacks, strengths, and weaknesses. The 1st-gen mechs, for example, excel at close-quarters combat, while 3rd-gen mechs are built for long range strikes, and each of the three 1st-gen mechs have slightly different attacks available to them. You're able to select which characters to use, customize their attacks, and eventually upgrade specific aspects of their stats, giving you a good amount of control and variability over the course of combat. Although basic attacks do not cost any resources, the most powerful attacks—and your bread and butter during combat—require EP (this game's version of energy, mana, etc.) so you'll need to be thoughtful about how you use it. There's a decent amount of information to keep track of, but since the game pauses whenever you select a character it's not that difficult to take your time learning everything. In fact, the combat in 13 Sentinels is actually pretty dang easy. As long as you're maintaining a fairly balanced team and upgrading attacks when you can, the normal difficulty doesn't pose much challenge. The good news is that you can change the difficulty settings to hard (or easy) at any time, plus you can challenge yourself by not leveling up your characters' attacks. Even if the battles aren't particularly challenging though, the combat in 13 Sentinels is pretty fun—after all, isn't it always satisfying to blow up giant robots? And since it generally isn't too difficult you can experiment with attack loadouts and whatnot to spice things up. Alternating between Destruction and Remembrance also provides nice palate cleansers for each aspect of the gameplay. All told 13 Sentinels should last around 25 hours, though since so much of that time is just reading dialogue it can feel a bit slow at times. The good news is that the mech battles offer a decent bit of replay value if you want it. Change the difficulty level, change the characters you use, change their attacks—these differences are enough to approach each battle with a new perspective, plus you'll be rewarded with experience points to empower your characters. It might also be worth it to spend some time in the Archives replaying parts of the story just to clear up some of the more confusing parts of the narrative. This is a Vanillaware game, which means the characters and backgrounds are all drawn in exquisite detail, as if someone made an entire game out of a concept art book. On the other hand, the battle graphics are disappointingly basic, and the scenery of the story does get recycled quite a bit over the course of the narrative, but there's still something magnetic about Vanillaware's art style (even though they just can't seem to resist putting some fan-service cheesecake into their games). The story is also nicely acted with voice work in both English and Japanese. The one weak link here is the soundtrack, but a few mediocre background songs aren't going to pull you out of the narrative experience. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim is the kind of unique experience that everyone ought to play, though the heavy focus on Visual Novel storytelling will be a drag for some. Still, the characters are pretty likeable and the sci-fi mystery at play should intrigue anyone. The mech battles might disappoint anyone looking for strategy-rich gameplay, but as long as you approach the game thinking of the mech battles as a sort of side mode for the real heart of the experience, the intricately twisty story, you'll appreciate the battles as quick breaks from the odd and fascinating storytelling system of 13 Sentinels. Rating: 8 out of 10 Sentinels
  25. It's just a fact of nature that small things are cute. Baby animals, miniaturized decorations, and now Tinykin, a game developed by Splashteam and published by tinyBuild games. Navigating a normal house as a bug-sized person with the aid of tiny alien creatures puts a delightful perspective on common household objects and opens up plenty of possibilities for satisfying platforming. This little adventure has a lot of charm. You play as Milo, a space-farer who has finally rediscovered Earth after humanity long abandoned it. Fascinated with the past, he lands there only to find that he is tiny compared to the structures left behind, and there aren't any other humans around. Now he'll have to enlist the aid of friendly insects and Tinykin, small alien creatures, to help him discover the truth of what happened and return to his spaceship. The core concept is a lot of fun but the real charm of the story comes from all of the ants, beetles, and other insects you talk to. Even though most of the dialogue is optional, there is a ton here to enjoy and almost all of it is filled with humor and references. It's well worth taking the time to chat with every creature you meet to experience more of this adorable little world. As Milo you're not able to do too much. You can run and jump, and soon enough you're given a bar of soap that acts like a skateboard, but it's the Tinykin that actually get anything done. You'll encounter a handful of different types, and each one helps you explore the house and complete tasks for the insect residents, which gets you one step closer to building a transportation device to leave the house. The first Tinykin you encounter help you carry things or push heavy objects, but you'll also find ones that explode when thrown or ones that stack up like a ladder, allowing you to reach new heights. The one major catch here is that Tinykin cannot move between rooms, so every time you enter a new area you'll need to build up your Tinykin army again from scratch to continue exploring. Comparisons to the Pikmin series will be unavoidable, but Tinykin takes a different path with the "hundreds of tiny alien helpers" concept. There's no combat in this game so it's really all about exploration and you don't need to worry about preserving your Tinykin (thankfully you also don't have to worry about your Tinkin's pathfinding skills as they'll just warp to you). Finding more Tinykin is as much of a core aspect of the game as using them. You'll find them in color-themed egg sacs, and since you start at zero in each new room there's always an initial challenge of building up your forces to fully explore the area. You might find a heavy object but you don't have enough strong Tinykin to carry it, or you want to reach a ledge but you don't have enough ladder Tinykin. It's a simple system but it encourages you to poke around every tiny nook and cranny that you can to strengthen your exploration possibilities. Each room is essentially a sandbox, and you're given the freedom to explore it in your own way. Because of this, Tinykin makes just wandering around a really fun experience. There's always a main quest to tackle in each room that will ultimately reward you with another piece for your transportation device, but there are also side quests to tackle, or bugs to chat with. Oftentimes just exploring and opening up new paths is incredibly satisfying—you might climb all the way up a bookshelf and then unlock a rope that allows you to come back up whenever you want. These tiny progression elements quickly add up and make it feel like you're always discovering something new. Milo also has the ability to glide (as long as he has a bubble around his head) so there's also a satisfying degree of freedom in how you move through the environment. When you have a lot of Tinykin at hand to assist you, it's wonderfully rewarding to just wander and enjoy the environment around you. Much like Super Mario games, it's fun to just move and exist in this world. A big part of that charm also comes from the familiar yet foreign scenery. Like the Pikmin games, it's a lot of fun to see everyday objects from a different, tiny perspective. This isn't just some mountain to climb, it's a stack of books and VHS tapes. Piles of kitchen sponges become fields for growing grain. The bugs throwing a pool party are doing so in a bathtub. Little touches like these add so much personality and joy to Tinykin. The game also uses a cute and striking art style of 2D characters in a 3D environment. It's a cool look and has the added benefit of making characters stand out, so even at a distance you know there's a bug over there that you want to go talk to. The soundtrack is similarly playful and energetic. The music is bubbly and adventurous, well-suited to an exploration game like this. Tinykin isn't a terribly long game, but it's not too tiny either. A good seven or eight hours should see you through the whole adventure, though that can vary a bit depending on how much time you put into side quests and general exploration. There are also achievements as well as collectibles that get put into a museum for you to peruse, plus the option to upgrade your bubble ability for more comfortable exploration. If anything the game is too short though, and I would've loved to have an even bigger house to explore. Tinykin is a playful and joyous exploration adventure, one that allows you to take your time and see everything that the game has to offer in your own way and at your own pace. Without any combat or really any serious failstate (falling from a great height or drowning in water just reloads you right back to where you were), this is a relaxed game that still engages you and encourages you with more to see around every corner. Tinykin may also be particularly suited to the Switch as this is the kind of game you'll love to pick up and play in quick, little bites. Rating: 9 out of 10 Bugs Review copy provided by publisher Tinykin is available now on the Switch eShop for $24.99. A demo is also available.
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