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  1. With its emphasis on creating shortcuts to return to checkpoints more easily, the Souls-like genre has ended up as a natural fit for Metroidvanias, spawning a whole subgenre of its own that has steadily grown in popularity. Ghost Song was originally launched as a Kickstarter back in 2013 though, when the gameplay blend was a little more fresh, and finally saw release in 2022. Perhaps if it had come out earlier its gameplay wouldn't feel quite so derivative. You play as Deadsuit, a humanoid figure wearing armor, or perhaps you're the armor itself, come to life in some way. The opening is purposefully vague and draws players into a narrative of mystery and melancholy as you explore a derelict planet. Eventually you'll find a group of humans who crash landed and need help collecting replacement parts, and it becomes your job to aid them. Ghost Song does a solid job with atmosphere—this is a gloomy world and even the survivors you find have a pervasive melancholy and strangeness surrounding them. The NPCs all have quite a bit of dialogue as well, fleshing out their individual personalities and backstories. The atmosphere and NPC stories never quite coalesce into an engaging narrative though. The mysteries are just a bit too vague and the characters too long winded to create a rewarding plotline, which isn't helped by a rather anticlimactic conclusion. The Metroidvania influence is clear right away: this is a side-scrolling adventure game and you'll gradually gain new abilities that help you explore the planet fully. There are plenty of secrets to uncover as well as optional weapons and upgrades that you can equip. However, Ghost Song also has a no-nonsense Souls-like influence: even normal enemies can be quite deadly, and if you do fall you'll lose all of your NanoGel (necessary for leveling up and buying items) and will need to go back to the place you fell to recover it. You'll even have reduced maximum health until you can repair it at a specific station. Essentially, you're punished heavily for dying so you're instead encouraged to progress slowly and carefully. The one feature that actually feels novel in Ghost Song is the overheating system. Fire your blaster for too long and it'll turn red hot and overheat, reducing its effectiveness for a short time. However, the upside is that your melee attacks are stronger when you've overheated, so ideally you'll balance your ranged and melee attacks to maintain maximum effectiveness in battle. It's a cool concept that is overshadowed by the unforgiving difficulty of the game, though. Since dying is such an issue, you'll probably stick with the safer ranged attacks more often than not, even while overheating. Too often it's just not worth the risk of taking damage yourself to mix it up with melee attacks. This is especially a problem because every single enemy in Ghost Song is a damage sponge. Even the very first enemies you encounter require so much damage to defeat that the flow of the gameplay is sluggish, starting and stopping every time you run into a single enemy. This is even worse for boss fights, which go on and on in unsatisfying tests of patience more than skill. The exploration/platforming side of the game doesn't quite feel ideal either. Your movement is oddly stiff, especially early in the game before you get any kind of upgrades like double jumping. It's another reason why melee combat doesn't feel great: you don't really have the dexterity to run up to an enemy, attack, and dodge away smoothly, so that whole half of the combat system comes off clunky. The biggest faux pax with exploration though is the forced backtracking. Every time you pick up a replacement part for the human ship, you have to bring it back to them. For really no specific reason, fast-traveling is locked during these segments, so you just have to go back on foot. Perhaps if the map significantly changed, opening up/blocking off segments to make things more interesting, this forced backtracking would have felt more engaging, but as it is it kind of just feels like padding. The game's presentation is also a bit mixed. Ghost Song has distinctly detailed scenery that makes for some good environments, but they're also surprisingly repetitive. Despite some color-coding, different regions of the game kind of blend together into similarly blobby caves and corridors. The character and monster design also leaves something to be desired. They're bleak and gloomy, which is appropriate for the setting, but also somewhat lacking in personality. The soundtrack is unsurprisingly moody as well, which again suits the setting but doesn't result in many engaging or memorable songs. Ghost Song is a serviceable Metroidvania but doesn't quite manage to stand out in the increasingly indie-populated genre. Mixing in punishing Souls-like elements doesn't add much novelty to the experience either. The most unique aspect, the blend of ranged and melee attacks, is ultimately underwhelming as the strict penalties for dying mean you're encouraged to take it safe with ranged attacks most of the time anyway. Ghost Song still has decent Metroidvania fundamentals, but it lacks the critical spark to make it a must-play game. Rating: 6 out of 10 Ghosts
  2. As the wait for Metroid Prime 4 stretches on, Metroid fans will have to content themselves with simply replaying one of the best games of all time. Metroid Prime was an absolute shock when it first released in 2002, partially because, not counting the simultaneous release of Metroid Fusion, it had been about eight years since the previous Metroid game (can you imagine waiting such a long time for more Metroid?) and partially because putting the Metroid formula into a first-person adventure seemed unfathomable. The doubters were proven wrong though, and now new players can enjoy revisiting the absolute magic of Samus's premier first-person quest with Metroid Prime Remastered. First, a quick rundown of the original game. As the original foray into first-person Metroid gameplay, you might imagine there were some flaws to work out over time, but the truth is the GameCube original was completely outstanding. The first-person shooting worked nicely even with the more tank-like controls of the GameCube's unique controller, and the opportunity to explore and discover secrets in a 3D world was enchanting. Metroid Prime masterfully translates the joys of Metroidvania exploration into a 3D adventure, with hidden items, backtracking, and massive bosses. Swapping among different arm cannon beams and visors was a smart, fluid way of incorporating familiar Metroid elements while making it all feel natural in a 3D environment. Investigating every little detail and creature with the scan visor was immensely satisfying and added up to a great sense of storytelling and depth while remaining mostly optional for anyone not interested. And of course, the sense of isolation and exploration was perfect. Even without the upgrades that this remaster brings, the core Metroid Prime experience absolutely holds up as an engaging, exciting, and mysterious adventure. And all of the upgrades in Metroid Prime Remastered simply make the experience better. The HD overhaul is the biggest and most obvious change, but it's still hard to overstate how amazing this new version of Metroid Prime looks. Fans of the original will be stunned when they see familiar locations brought to life with more detail, more complex shading and particle effects, notably on Samus's visor. In fact, new players may be shocked that this is all based off of a 20 year old game at all. You'd be hard-pressed to find the "seams," so to speak, that show that this was originally an SD game from three console generations prior. It helps that the game runs at a silky smooth 60FPS, meaning there's no choppy animation and in fact virtually no load times as you move from room to room (a small improvement over the original game). It's also a testament to how excellent the original game's art style and art direction was that it all translates into HD visuals with such stunning clarity. The controls are the other major addition to Metroid Prime Remastered, and no matter how you like to play you'll find accommodations here. Traditionalists will be happy to find a "classic" control scheme that mimics the original GameCube's. It's great to have as an option, though anyone used to the kind of dual-stick FPS controls that have become standard with shooters will be happy to find a more modern control system as well, which allows you to move with one stick and aim with the other, using ZR and R to fire your beam and missiles. Despite not being the original intent for the game, this dual-stick setup works wonderfully and many players will probably prefer it. Finally there are the gyro controls, which inch a little closer to the Metroid Prime Trilogy's IR controls on the Wii. Perhaps if you're a seasoned Splatoon pro you'll be happy with the motion-controlled gyro aiming here, but ultimately it doesn't feel as smooth or natural as it should be. The Wii's IR controls worked beautifully but here the gyro aiming never quite feel natural. There are a couple other small changes that consolidate various little differences between the GameCube and Wii versions as well as the North American and Japanese versions. It's nice to have more little options but they don't fundamentally affect the experience. The only other notable addition is the extended gallery that adds even more lovely concept art to enjoy. Metroid Prime Remastered takes a masterpiece and makes it even better. Upgraded visuals and control options may seem like superficial changes, but they do an excellent job of making Metroid Prime at home on a modern system, and they're well worth the return to the planet of Tallon IV. Even without considering the original game's age, the visuals look fantastic on the Switch and hold up against any other recent release. Metroid Prime was an unprecedented joy when it first released in 2002, and Metroid Prime Remastered keeps that experience alive in a beautiful way. 10 out of 10 Metroids
  3. What do you do when you find yourself overwhelmed by the expectations of others? If you were in The Artful Escape, you'd go on a psychedelic space-trotting adventure to find your own path in the universe. This is a stylish and, despite the surreal alien environments, sincere exploration of self-doubt and self-expression, though as a game it does feel disappointingly simple. You play as Francis Vendetti, a teenage musician who is living in the shadow of his famous folk singer uncle. On the 20th anniversary of his uncle's legendary album, Francis is set to make his career debut at a concert in his small hometown. The problem is, everyone expects him to sing folk music like his uncle, but his heart is set on wild, space opera guitar jams. That's when Francis meets a cosmic rock star and jets into space for a mind-opening journey. It's a well-told story of artistic expression, doubt, the fear of living up to others' expectations and the importance of finding your own path in the world (or universe). The message might feel a bit one note—more time might have been spent on the other characters Francis meets, for example—but it's a worthwhile and meaningful message all the same. In addition to the story, the surreal, psychedelic visuals and rocking soundtrack are the true stars of The Artful Escape. The colors are mind-bending and the alien landscapes are beautifully bizarre, though also familiar enough that they're easily navigable. Not surprisingly there are some excellent tunes to be found here, both emotional folk ballads and slick guitar licks and electronic melodies. The music that you play and have control over is a bit too oversimplified, but the soundtrack still has some awesome songs. The voice work is also top notch and even features some recognizable actors who do a fantastic job of bringing this surreal and story-heavy experience to life. It's good that the story and presentation are so strong in The Artful Escape, because the gameplay is practically nonexistent. There are occasionally some light 2D platforming sequences—Francis can jump, double jump, and play a guitar riff for an extra boost in height—but these are extremely simple and the penalty for failure is minimal. The platforming controls are fine and decently fluid, but there's never any obstacle that will even remotely challenge the player. You'll often face branching dialogue choices, but these are just for flavor. Aside from picking a new name and similar little details, your dialogue choices don't matter. Finally there are the guitar performances, which allow you to hit A, X, Y, L, and R to play different notes on the guitar. Sadly you don't really get to make your own music—sometimes you can freely riff but there's not a lot of variety with five notes—and instead the guitar sections are a simple Simon Says game. Another character (or alien entity) plays a short sequence of notes and you repeat with the aforementioned buttons. And don't worry, it's as much a visual puzzle as an audio one, since there's always an indicator on screen to show what buttons/notes are being hit. These play-and-repeat sections are okay but like the platforming they never grow into anything challenging or complex. Keeping the game accessible to any level of player is all well and good, but it makes for a lackluster gameplay experience. The game also clocks in at a pretty brisk four hours or so, with basically no replay value to speak of. The Artful Escape is a gorgeous and affecting experience that weaves a relatable story around stunning visuals and music. You don't have to be a musician to appreciate the emotional turmoil at play here, nor the importance of self-identity. As a game it comes up lacking by quite a bit, with only the most basic of gameplay elements included, but if you don't mind a gameplay-light experience you'll at least enjoy The Artful Escape's undeniable style. Rating: 7 out of 10 Guitar Solos
  4. One part Diablo and one part rhythm game, Soundfall challenges players to blast their way through enemy-filled stages, but only by attacking in time with the rhythm of the song. It's a concept that sounds good on paper but the final result could use a bit more tuning. You play as Melody, a barista/musician who is suddenly pulled into the magical world of Symphonia, where evil Discordians are trying to destroy the harmony of the land. Melody gradually teams up with other heroes and it becomes your quest to destroy the Discordians and restore balance. The writing's not bad but too much of it is forgettable. The conflict is about as black-and-white good vs. evil as you can get, and the characters are a bit tropey and forgettable. There are plenty of good vibes as they learn to believe in themselves and work together though, so while it gets pretty saccharine at least it's a feel-good story. The gameplay is essentially a rhythm game by way of a twin-stick shooter. You can equip up to two guns and swap between them, but in order to do full damage you need to shoot on the beat (shooting off-beat not only reduces your damage, it can cause your gun to briefly overheat if you're off the mark too often). The most important thing here is to simply listen to the song, but there's also a visual cue on the screen to keep you in time, and the controller rumbles in time with the music as well. There's a fairly wide variety of songs in Soundfall too so sometimes you'll be playing a steady 120 BPM song but other times you'll be blasting away at 200 BPM or going slow and steady at 80 BPM. Mastering the music no matter the tempo adds a significant degree of challenge. Ultimately though, Soundfall has trouble balancing its rhythm mechanics and its shooting/exploring mechanics. Only attacking in time with the beat can feel stifling, especially during particularly fast or slow songs, and the disconnect that you can move and enemies are free to move/attack no matter the rhythm just kind of makes the rhythm system feel too gimmicky. Even when you're keeping the beat well it never feels like a perfectly smooth gameplay mechanic. Maybe it doesn't help that each stage is limited by the length of the song, meaning each stage is at most a few minutes long. It's not quite enough time to make you totally comfortable with the rhythm of the song before you're shuttled off to the next one (with some long loading screens in between as well). Fewer but longer stages might have helped make the gameplay feel more cohesive. Although there are tons of songs to play through, other aspects of the game can feel a bit repetitive. There are only a handful of enemy types, which makes mowing them down fairly repetitive. There's an okay selection of guns—not that many overall, but they have different effects so acclimating to each type is enough of a challenge by itself. Like most looter-shooters though you'll acquire tons of unnecessary equipment and will need to sort through which ones you actually want to bother using. There are also five playable characters and while they can all equip the same guns they do have unique special attacks, so if you get a full group of four to play together (locally or online), you can recreate the feeling of a proper RPG party with different character classes. Ultimately though, it's not quite enough to shake off the feeling of rote repetition that hangs over Soundfall. The game's soundtrack is, not surprisingly, a highlight. With so many levels in the game there's a huge variety to the music, and it's pretty cool to go from thumping electronic tracks to more classic orchestral songs. Maybe not every song is a banger, but there are enough that you'll likely find plenty to enjoy. Soundfall's visual design however is a bit less diverse and a bit less successful. There are some great little details in stages, like the rhythmic bopping of the scenery in time with the music, but this is also a game that reuses scenery a ton, so stages start to look similar and bland very quickly. The character designs and cutscenes are a bit more colorful, but still not quite as polished as the soundtrack. Soundfall is a fun, original concept with a gameplay combo that doesn't quite harmonize in the end. The rhythmic action can feel too limiting at times for a twin-stick shooter, and even when it syncs up well you're faced with stages that frequently end just when they're getting good. If the game does click for you though you'll be treated to hours and hours of content, whether you're jamming out solo or getting a band together to play with friends. Rating: 7 out of 10 Harmonies
  5. It's a bit surprising to think that, across the whole history of video games, Mickey Mouse has starred in relatively few titles as a main playable character, or at least hasn't very often in recent years. Disney Illusion Island seeks to change that though, with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, and Goofy all playable in classic side-scrolling platformer action with a Metroidvania structure. Rather than stretching the limits of the genre though, this is a game made for easy-going or new fans to enjoy a breezy, colorful adventure. As the game begins, Mickey and friends have arrived on Monoth Island, each having received an invitation to a picnic that they thought was sent by the others. In reality, a local creature named Toku gathered the four heroes together to help him recover the three lost tomes and save the island. The plot itself is fine, if pretty straightforward, but the writing is elevated by the Disney influence. The cutscenes and dialogue feel like something straight out of a quality cartoon show, meaning there are enough silly jokes to keep kids entertained but enough clever wordplay that the whole family can enjoy it as well. The characters have the recognizable personalities that they've had for years, and the combination still works wonderfully to make some goofy and entertaining cutscenes. Illusion Island is essentially a Metroidvania without any combat. It's focused entirely on platforming and exploration, with each new ability you unlock allowing you to explore more of the island. The game's controls are pretty tight as well, giving characters just enough weight that your jumps have to be purposeful but with enough fluidity that you're not stuck mastering every single little hop to progress. The abilities are pretty standard platformer fare—double jumps, gliding, etc.—but each character gets their own fun animation. Goofy's abilities, for example, all revolve around food, so his grappling hook is actually a chain of sausage links. Again, the Disney personality adds a lot to this game. Which is good, because the core gameplay is actually pretty repetitive. Illusion Island is a solid platformer but it rarely tries to distinguish itself in any way. The long paths of wall jumps, double jumps, etc. feel like they could have been taken from any platformer. More annoyingly, this game has trouble finding the right balance of content. The story itself is only about six or seven hours long, yet it will feel much longer due to the long, repetitive platforming sequences. There's not much to break up the gameplay—there are obstacles/creatures but you can't fight back, and the platformer content stays decidedly basic throughout most of the game, so it's just the same gameplay over and over. That said, Illusion Island is clearly tailor made for young or novice players. With so much repetition even newbies will be able to pick up the platformer gameplay and get the basics drilled into them. There are also a ton of checkpoints so failure isn't very punishing (curiously enough, recovery items are exceedingly rare, so oftentimes dying is the easiest way to recover health). You can also choose your difficulty when you load the game, giving yourself more health—or just plain invulnerability—to make things easier or harder on yourself. Finally, the four-player co-op means veteran players can help sheperd novices through the game, sometimes quite directly. Allies can help each other recover health or even drop a rope to help someone climb up a ledge if they can't quite make it on their own. While the easy difficulty of the game might make it a bit boring for experienced players, these little touches ensure the whole family can easily progress together through the adventure. In Metroidvania fashion, there are plenty of things to collect here, many of which will require you to backtrack for them once you have the requisite ability unlocked. Only Glimts, the shiny blue energy balls, actually provide any gameplay benefit—collect enough and your max health will increase—but scanning each area for trading cards, Mickey memorabilia and hidden Mickeys is still a naturally addictive challenge. The only real complaint here is that the ability to "collect" hidden Mickeys only unlocks a few hours into the game, so you'll definitely need to backtrack a ton if you want them all. Visually and aurally, Illusion Island captures the modern Mickey Mouse aesthetic wonderfully. The characters feel like they've come straight out of a cartoon show, and while the environments get awfully repetitive and can fluctuate quite a bit from delightfully detailed to surprisingly barren, the overall feel is fun and colorful. The character animation in particular is just plain charming and nicely brings out each character's personality. The music is also bright and jubilant in a way that feels right at home with Mickey Mouse cartoons. It is perhaps not the most catchy soundtrack, but as a background setting it works nicely. Disney Illusion Island works nicely as an introduction to new or young players to the art of side-scrolling platforming. Its all-ages approach to gameplay, including repetitive sequences, simple upgrades, and zero combat, makes for a somewhat monotonous experience for veteran players but a charming introduction for children. Ultimately the game plays it a little too safe by not challenging players with more variety, but it's still a charming and colorful experience, especially for kids. Rating: 7 out of 10 Hidden Mickeys
  6. I'll be honest, I've had my fill of fishing minigames at this point. Whether it's an adventure game, RPG, or even a cozy life sim, the cycle of catching fish is a real drag to me anymore. An entire game based around fishing though? There might be something interesting to pull out of the depths there, and Dredge proves it. A relatively simple but addictive gameplay loop and a creepy setting turn a time-draining chore into an engaging experience. You play as a fisherman who, after his boat is shipwrecked on a foggy night, is given a rundown old boat to use. Now you'll need to catch and sell fish to pay off your debt on the boat and earn money for upgrades that allow you to catch more fish and make it easier to explore further. Amidst this core gameplay loop though is an undercurrent of ominous, eerie horror. Some of the fish you catch are dark and twisted, and soon enough you're on a quest to uncover the truth behind mysterious artifacts left behind on the islands. Dredge treats its story with a light touch, which works nicely for a horror tale. There's just enough detail to let your imagination fill in the gaps with something eerie. That said, a slightly stronger throughline might have helped keep the creepy narrative on track a little better—a lot of the NPCs you encounter are just side stories, and having a more consistent core cast might have made the ending hit a little harder. The core gameplay is as simple as you'd expect: catch fish, sell fish, buy upgrades, repeat. There are some wrinkles thrown into the mix to spice things up, but overall Dredge is a pretty zen-like experience, much like actual fishing. To actually catch fish you'll need the right fishing lines (which you can upgrade), and you'll also need to complete a simple mini-game, which is basically just hitting the Y button at the right time. There are also more passive fishing options like crab traps and trawling nets. Your boat has a limited inventory space, so finding room for your catch becomes a bit of a Tetris puzzle. Dredge finds just the right balance of simple fishing mechanics to keep the gameplay engaging but generally not very difficult, which will keep you coming back for more. After the first few hours you have kind of seen everything the game has to offer in terms of fishing mechanics though, so it does get repetitive by the end, but it's still pretty satisfying to rake in a big catch and pocket the cash. Aside from fish you can also dredge up resources and treasures from the depths. Treasures can be sold but the resources are needed to upgrade your boat to both increase inventory space and allow you to install better equipment. Sometimes you need to make a choice about what you're aiming for when you go out fishing: fish or resources. Of course, you can get both, but there's only so much room in your inventory and if you leave the fish on your boat for too long they'll spoil, so you need to get back to a port/trader to sell them relatively quickly. That's the other key aspect that makes Dredge more than just a mindless fishing adventure: time-management. You can go out fishing during the day or night, but at night the eerie fog can start to play tricks on your mind, causing you to hallucinate, or you might even encounter a monstrous sea creature that attacks your boat. On the other hand, some fish are only found at night, so at times you'll need to risk it. Sleeping at a port will recover your sanity, but when you're out in the open waters late at night, you might find yourself in dire danger. Ultimately though, Dredge isn't interested in making things too hard on the player. Although there's a day/night cycle there's no limit to the number of days you can spend fishing, so you can take it slow and steady if you want. You have no means to fight back against the monstrous creatures you encounter, which is a bit annoying at first, but if you upgrade your engine you can instead try to outrun them. A bit more actual urgency might have made the story connect better as well, but as it is Dredge is more about the relaxing, addictive loop of catching fish and resources day in and day out. The game's simple, striking art style is a suitable accompaniment to the grim story and the inherently repetitive, unglamorous life of a fisherman. The environment doesn't often get a chance to shine, but the character portraits have a delightfully grungy vibe. The soundtrack also does a good job of building up the atmosphere: melancholy and haunting, but with a seafaring air. Dredge can easily hook players with its simple but satisfying gameplay loop that sees every catch translate into cash and upgrades. The eerie atmosphere keeps you on your toes, but perhaps could've used a bit more detail to keep the mystery and sense of foreboding strong throughout the entire game, not just the beginning. Still, the core fishing gameplay, while never too complicated, is surprisingly addictive and will keep players well engaged for the 10–12 hours it takes to plumb the depths of this ominous sea. Rating: 8 out of 10 Fish
  7. Back in 2014, the first Teslagrad game was released on the Wii U as a charming puzzle-platformer with challenging but engaging mechanics based around electromagnetism and steampunk vibes. Now, Teslagrad 2 continues the tradition with a slightly more physics-puzzle focus. The result is another engaging platformer experience, but it's not quite as magnetic as its predecessor. Like the first game, there isn't a word of dialogue or text in Teslagrad 2. Instead, you'll pick up the story and the extensive backstory through clues in the environment, the action, and hidden collectible cards. This game might have gone a little overboard on the light-touch storytelling though, because even by the end of the game it feels like there's something missing. The atmosphere is a blast and you'll still enjoy seeing Lumina, the player character, grow stronger over the course of the adventure, but the game is lacking that crucial emotional oomph. At the very least, too much of the backstory is squirreled away in hidden cards that are quite easy to miss—more of them should have been woven into the main narrative instead. Like its predecessor, Teslagrad 2 is a challenging platformer that combines puzzle-solving and physics-based action. There's a bit more of the latter in this game though. Your core abilities revolve a lot around building momentum to propel yourself through the environment in fun, unique ways, whether it's by pulling and pushing against magnetic forces or sliding to build up speed in order to zip up curved surfaces. The game does an excellent job of providing you with simple, understandable tools and then challenging you with a whole host of ways to use them. Despite the focus on momentum and physics-based platforming though, the controls can feel a bit off at times. You'd normally want them to be as precise as possible for this kind of gameplay, and while the controls aren't terrible they're just a bit looser than they should be, leading to plenty of deaths/retries. Still, that kind of frequent retry/respawn gameplay is baked right into the core of the experience, so you'll pretty much always respawn right next to where you died, meaning there's not a lot of tedious backtracking. If anything though, the game actually needs a bit more forced backtracking. It's quite easy to fly through the whole story in just three hours or so, a slightly disappointing length since the gameplay never overstays its welcome, but there's actually a ton of optional content in Teslagrad 2. And it's not just collectible cards that add to the story, but entire hidden abilities and upgrades. You'll need to backtrack and explore quite thoroughly to find them, but without them the game feels a bit too short. Given the relative inconvenience of backtracking (you do unlock some shortcuts, but it's still a fair bit of running around even if you do know where you're going), it wouldn't be surprising if a lot of players miss out on a good chunk of the game, which is a shame. The one area where the high level of difficulty does get a bit tedious is boss fights. This isn't really a combat kind of game so even these battles have a focus on using your electromagnetism abilities for platforming and solving the little puzzle that is defeating the boss, but that doesn't make these fights feel any less tiresome. Repeatedly waiting for the right window to hit back and dodging the boss's attacks feels repetitive and not all that rewarding. The game even gives you a little shield for each battle so you can take one hit and still keep fighting, but you'll still likely need plenty of tries to get through each boss, which doesn't so much feel like solving a clever platformer-puzzle as it does just getting lucky that you made it through eventually. The game's hand-drawn artwork looks great for the most part. The cute and colorful characters contrasted against the dark and often ominous environments makes for great atmospheric storytelling, and the occasional splash of color in an important room or area adds just the right touch to the visuals. At the same time, the scenery can get a bit repetitively gray and dour, and the frame rate can stutter at times, but overall the graphics are stylish. The soundtrack is a fun blend of adventurous and ominous, but ultimately isn't terribly memorable. Teslagrad 2 is a solid successor to the original puzzle-platformer, but not one that reaches new heights. The focus on physics-based puzzles leads to plenty of engaging challenges, even if the overall focus on electromagnetism is a bit less fresh this time around. The short length of the adventure is disappointing, but fans will enjoy exploring all of the optional content found in every hidden nook and cranny of the environment. Rating: 7 out of 10 Tesla Coils
  8. Nintendo's tiniest (and some of their most adorable) characters are back in another charming time-management adventure. With ten years since the last mainline entry in the series, it might seem like Pikmin 4 would be an opportune time for an overhaul of the franchise's core gameplay mechanics, but in reality this is a smart revisit and refinement of the strategic gameplay with just the right handful of new touches to keep the experience feeling fresh. The game begins with you playing as the familiar Captain Olimar, directing a legion of Pikmin around an environment that looks suspiciously human, but that's just the prologue. The real main playable character is a customizable member of a rescue team that is trying to locate Olimar after he sent out an SOS signal. When your team runs into trouble of their own though, you'll need to rescue your crewmates as well as explore the strange planet with the aid of the tiny plant-like Pikmin and collect treasures to power your ship so you can explore further. For fans of the series, the story in Pikmin 4 might be a little strange, since it seems to be a retelling of the original game's story with a slight twist. Ultimately it feels like one of those situations where Nintendo is not at all interested in establishing or maintaining an overarching canon, and you're just meant to enjoy the ride. Story-wise though, Pikmin 4 is far more dialogue/text heavy than previous games. You'll be in constant communication with your rescue team crewmates, and you can talk with the characters you've rescued in a hub area. It's fun to have more faces in a Pikmin game but since they overall add very little to the experience it does feel like a lot of fluff. At least the descriptions of treasures and creatures are still delightfully silly, and always worth a read. The gameplay in the franchise is all about time management. You can only explore during the day, so you need to get as much done as possible before night falls. In 1 and 3, there's also a hard limit on the number of days you can explore, but like 2 you're free to spend as many days exploring as you want here in Pikmin 4. You can also explore caves like in 2, and time barely progresses while you're in one. Pikmin 4 also makes this significantly easier on the player by not respawning monsters each day. These seem like nice compromises for new or novice players but veterans will immediately notice how easy this game is compared to past entries. In the end though, it's still a blast to set your little Pikmin on their missions and watch all of your tasks come together nicely. The game frequently references the concept of dandori, or the art of organizing your tasks for maximum efficiency. Even though the game takes it easy on the player and hardly ever demands serious time management skills, following the concept of dandori is still wonderfully satisfying, and anyone who enjoys seeing their little checklist of tasks get completed one by one will love slowly and steadily progressing through Pikmin 4. The game also does a fantastic job of egging you on bit by bit, enticing you with new areas, new Pikmin, and new challenges (even if they're relatively easy challenges). And veterans still have some new ideas to look forward to in Pikmin 4. All of the previous Pikmin types return, plus there are two new ones: Ice Pikmin and ghostly Glow Pikmin. Ice types can freeze monsters and bodies of water, making the former easier to defeat and the latter traversable for non-Blue Pikmin. Glow Pikmin, however, are only found in the new night missions. That's right, in all previous games exploring at night was too dangerous, but now it's required to progress. The slightly bad news though is that night missions are more like side quests that involve defending a vulnerable point until night ends or you defeat all nearby monsters. It would've been nice to have the same freedom of daytime exploration at night, but as it stands these missions can be a fun break from the usual Pikmin gameplay. And they do provide a new strategic wrinkle for players to tackle, since you're never normally on defense in these games, only offense. That little twist alone makes you rethink how to approach enemies and also leads to some fairly challenging, chaotic missions. There's another important, slightly creepy/adorable feature in Pikmin 4: you have a dog! Oatchi the dog can essentially act as your secondary character and direct groups of Pikmin for you or even carry treasures by himself, as well as fight monsters on his own. It's nice to have another tool in your arsenal for deciding how you approach obstacles: do you keep Oatchi with you for the extra combat power, or do you send him off to guide/collect a separate Pikmin team? Oatchi (and your player character) can also get upgrades throughout the game, adding a nice little layer of progression that again maybe makes Pikmin 4 overall easier than previous entries, but is a fun little feature nonetheless. Finally there are Dandori Battles and Challenges, which actually do require a bit of thought, at least if you want to earn a high score. You're limited to a specific number/selection of Pikmin, so you can't brute force them with 100 of your best little buddies. True to their dandori name, you have to actually put a bit of thought into maximizing the efficiency of your Pikmin team, which is pretty satisfying. It's a resource-management puzzle, which is after all what the franchise is all about. You can also play against a friend in local Dandori Battles, which naturally makes things trickier and wackier. The main adventure also technically has a co-op feature, but this is limited to basically an assist mode where you throw pebbles/items at enemies, not a full-fledged co-op experience, which is disappointing. Visually, Pikmin 4 is, not surprisingly, delightful. The core designs of the Pikmin, returning creatures, and humanoid characters are just so charmingly cute, and the quality makes everything look sleek. Sure, Pikmin is not, strictly speaking, the most graphically intense franchise, but like your army of Pikmin themselves this is a visual design made up of tons of tiny little touches that help make the creatures and the environment feel alive and interesting. Every little sway of Pikmin's leaf, every bumbling step of a Bulborb, and all of the polished detail of every trace of a human civilization left behind makes for a beautiful world to explore. The soundtrack is a delight as well and features a lot of dynamic tunes that will change depending on what you're doing. The highlight though, as always, is the little songs the Pikmin will sing or hum together when nothing else is happening. Pikmin 4 is pure charm. Even if a lot of the game feels easy for veteran players, there's something utterly delightful about growing your Pikmin team and watching them work together to build bridges, battle monsters, and collect treasures like rubber ducks and billiard balls (there's also something utterly devastating about seeing these little workers perish, even if they are so easily replaceable). The new features also fold nicely into the core gameplay of the series and ultimately all naturally flows together to keep players well engaged for a roughly 30 hour game, counting the extensive post-game content that is really more of a second chapter than a bonus section. New and veteran players will surely enjoy the addictive charm of this adorable dandori game. Rating: 9 out of 10 Pikmin
  9. As happy as I am that the Fire Emblem franchise skyrocketed into widespread popularity, I always thought it was a shame that developer Intelligent Systems' other strategy franchise, Advance Wars, never seemed to take off in the same way. In fact, the series hasn't had a new game in 15 years, since Days of Ruin on the DS. But now, thanks to developer WayForward, Advance Wars fans have finally gotten some reinforcements, even if it's in the form of a dual-pack remake. For fans of strategy games though, Advance Wars 1+2: Re-Boot Camp is a major victory. Re-Boot Camp combines the first two Advance Wars titles, both originally released on the GBA. In the first game, you play as a commanding officer (CO) in the Orange Star army, who is currently fighting back against an invasion by the Blue Moon nation. After the initial tutorial levels, you only have one CO to choose from, but eventually you'll unlock three total to play as, each with unique strengths and weaknesses. The war brings you to the nations of Gold Comet and Green Earth as well, until you eventually encounter the real enemy, the Black Hole army. In the second game, subtitled Black Hole Rising, they're now the de facto villain and COs from the four other nations work together to repel another Black Hole invasion. The Advance Wars games aren't exactly story-heavy games, but they do have a decent amount of personality and charm. Each CO you encounter has his or her own little quirks, and even though this is generally only expressed through short intros and outros in each mission, it's fun to have these playful characters in a warfare strategy game. Re-Boot Camp also does a decent job of injecting a bit more lively energy into each game. The new animations put a bit more charm into the action, and although the character designs are mostly faithful translations of their pixel art origins, they do have a cute, clean look. This game also features partial voice acting for prominent lines or key catchphrases, which is another light but welcome addition that brings these characters to life. The battle map graphics and soundtrack have also been updated. The new toy-like look of the maps/units is a bit distracting at first for anyone used to the pixelated look of the original games, but it works well for the game's cartoonish approach to combat. The remixed soundtrack is also solid, but it does get repetitive during longer battles. On to the actual gameplay. Your goal is always to defeat the enemy army, but there are a few ways to go about this. The most obvious is to destroy every enemy unit on the map. You can also capture the enemy HQ with one of your infantry units, and then there are special maps during each campaign with unique objectives: survive for a certain number of turns, defeat the enemy in a certain number of turns, destroy a specific structure, etc. Between the two games, there's a satisfying variety of mission objectives. The basic defeat army/capture HQ is the most prominent, but encountering a unique objective every now and then livens up the gameplay nicely and ensures you're exercising all of your strategy skills. Advance Wars is a turn-based strategy game, so you and your opponent—either the CPU or another player in local/online multiplayer—take turns building units in factories, moving them around the map, and attacking enemy units. Your funds are based on the number of cities under your control, so you have to be smart about how you're spending money on building new units. Although there isn't a strict weapons triangle like Fire Emblem, each unit has strengths and weaknesses. Recon units, for example, can move far and do well against infantry, but will struggle against tanks. Tanks, however, don't do well against aerial units like helicopters, so you might build some anti-air units to deal with copters and planes. You need to spend your money wisely and anticipate your opponent's moves to efficiently prepare for each new turn. Oftentimes the campaigns put you up against overwhelming odds, so a smart strategy is crucial, which is also what makes victory so satisfying in Advance Wars games. It's not as nitty gritty as Fire Emblem since your units here are entirely disposable and you can build more, but you need to be efficient and ideally always think two steps ahead. On maps where you're able to choose your CO, you'll want to pick the best character for the job. Eagle, the CO who excels at aerial combat, is the obvious choice for a map with lots of aerial units, but you may also prefer to use Max, the CO with bonus damage on all direct fire units. COs can also use special abilities which charge over time by taking or receiving damage, so you always need to be aware of your opponent's CO meter. On some maps, you'll need to deal with fog of war, limiting your view of your opponents (and severely limiting how you anticipate their movements). Terrain and weather can also affect how units perform. Even with all of these factors to consider, the franchise is a good deal easier than other strategy games, so it's also a perfect entry point to the genre for new or novice players. The CPU can be tricked fairly easily, and the game will even throw out some helpful hints if you do fail a mission. Regardless of your familiarity with the genre though, it's easy to get hooked on Advance Wars. It's immensely satisfying when you see your army, your plans, turning the tide of battle, and it's easy to get fully engrossed in the battlefield. In addition to the two campaigns, Re-Boot Camp also has a ton of side content. There are dozens of standalone maps/missions you can unlock which act as one-off challenges in the War Room or can be used in the aforementioned local and online multiplayer. You can even design your own maps, which is a good lesson in how challenging it actually is to make a map balanced, interesting, and fun. Just finishing the two campaigns can last a good 30 hours or so, but adding on the rest of the game's content (including hard mode campaigns that unlock after you finish each game) can easily extend your playtime by quite a lot. Advance Wars: 1+2: Re-Boot Camp is a delightful revival of a strategy franchise that never should have fallen by the wayside. Even in these early GBA entries, it's clear that the game strikes a satisfying balance of strategy challenges, making it an accessible but still deep and engaging experience. Fans should enjoy re-experiencing this clash of armies, and new players may find themselves quickly hooked on this charming, light-hearted strategy series. Although this reboot isn't a massive overhaul of the franchise, it is hopefully the vanguard advance of further entries in the series. Rating: 9 out of 10 Units
  10. With inspiration from Metroidvania games and Soulslike games, Moonscars takes players on a tough, no nonsense journey through a dark, creepy castle where even a few hits could spell death. This combo is a subgenre of side-scrolling action games that has become increasingly common in the indie game sphere, so what makes Moonscars stand out? Interesting ideas but lackluster execution. You play as Grey Irma, a warrior who was once part of an elite force that battled clayborns—artificial constructs made of clay. With lost/fuzzy memories, she's on a quest to find The Sculptor for answers about her former comrades and how she got here. Not too long into the game though Irma enters a machine that puts her soul into her own clayborn, allowing her to explore, battle, and revive should her clayborn shell die. That's the broad basics for where the story begins, but the way it unfolds throughout Moonscars is awfully confusing. This game loves its cryptic conversations, and early on when you're still trying to just learn the terminology for all the various elements of the game you'll feel completely lost. Ultimately it does come together in a decently satisfying conclusion, but the path to get there could've used some better pathfinding. On the gameplay side of things though, you're encouraged to find your own path since this is a semi-Metroidvania style game. I say semi because there are really only a couple of instances where you'll earn new abilities that allow you to backtrack through former areas in a new way. Platforming is kept to pretty standard basics, including stuff like taking a long circuitous route to open up a shortcut gate that you can use later. Regardless, you've got a castle to explore, and tons of clayborn monsters in your way to prevent you from doing just that. Thankfully, Irma is a seasoned warrior and even has some magic spells on her side. Movement and attacking is smooth and fluid—too fluid perhaps, since it's extremely easy for both you and enemies to slide past each other and miss. Annoyingly, even when enemies slide past you they'll often turn on a dime to continue attacking anyway. Still, I'd usually rather the combat be a little too loose than too rigid since at least you can try to avoid attacks here. And Moonscars is quite challenging even if you can dodge fairly easily. Enemies hit hard and especially when you're facing multiple foes at once it's easy to get burst down quickly. In Soulslike fashion, if you die you'll have to return to where you fell to retrieve your bone powder, which is the currency used in this game to learn new spells and purchase items. The good news though is that bone powder doesn't affect your strength or level at all, so it's not quite as punishing as a Souls game to lose some. The bigger loss is that some relics that you can equip will break when you die, and naturally these tend to be some of the more powerful ones. There are still a lot that are permanent though, and enough to let you customize your gameplay style a decent amount. Moonscars adds a handful of other little features to make this typical 2D action-adventure formula a little more unique. The downside is, it also gets quite confusing. Aside from your main sword you can also equip a secondary weapon, some of which grant passive bonuses to health or ichor (your magic points). The problem is, you are sporadically required to change your secondary weapon. You can spend glands to reselect it, but glands are fairly rare and valuable so it's usually a bad trade. Glands can also be used to turn the difficulty down a bit. After dying enemies can actually get stronger, but sacrificing a gland will reverse this. You also get some small passive buffs as you "level up," but only to a max of five. These buffs are also randomly provided to you (you can pick from three options) and will also disappear when you die. It feels like the developers wanted to add a bit of a roguelike element to the game, but this halfhearted approach just makes the first couple hours of the adventure extremely confusing and convoluted. Dying itself is already punishment, as well as losing bone powder, so these additional features just muddy the gameplay. There's also the fact that sometimes, when you reach a Dark Mirror—which is a checkpoint/warpoint—it'll be corrupted and you'll have to defeat another clayborn version of yourself to unlock it. Interesting ideas, but tedious when combined with the already challenging combat. Using your bone powder to upgrade spells is also weirdly counterintuitive. The spells get stronger but so does the ichor cost, meaning if you upgrade too much too quickly you're just hurting yourself. There are a lot of spells to choose from but not a great variety among them—some just feel like alternate versions of each other. The game's presentation ultimately has a similar mix of cool ideas that could've used a bit more polishing. The pixel art style looks nice and there are some really great touches like Irma's visible breath in cold environments. On the other hand, this is a game where 90% of the scenery is black or gray. That's not to say there aren't cool visuals to be had with just those colors, but it makes every scene of the game look so similar that it gets a little tiresome. You may also see some frame rate drops when there's a lot of action, though simply restarting the Switch should help. Moonscars isn't a bad experience but it's one that lacks punch if you've played any similar 2D Soulslike game. The essential elements are fine—some are even a bit more forgiving than a typical Souslike, which is nice—but the additional features don't add much depth to the core gameplay loop. Die-hard fans of this subgenre of gaming will still enjoy it, but new players probably won't latch on to anything here. Rating: 6 out of 10 Clayborns
  11. With inspiration from Nordic folklore, Bramble: The Mountain King leads players through an eerie, twisting forest of dark fairy tale vibes, with only simple puzzle-solving, platforming, and a few boss fights to see you through the larger-than-life perils. But while the game nails the atmosphere and aesthetic, the gameplay feels a bit lost in the woods. As the game begins, a young boy named Olle wakes in his bed to discover his sister, Lillemor, is missing. Following her tracks out the window, he ventures into the nearby forest, where groups of friendly gnomes and massive mushrooms belie a much darker and more sinister land of trolls, witches, and monsters. Bramble does a fantastic job of evoking dark fairy tale vibes: there are serious dangers in this forest, and Olle is just a boy, not a sword-wielding warrior, so he's in constant danger. Weaving together pieces of Nordic folklore is also a fantastic way of grounding the story in a bit of history and real-world inspiration. Olle himself is a silent and only mildly expressive protagonist, but his quest to aid a sibling is one that resonates easily with any player. The gameplay in Bramble has a few thorns. In the vein of Inside, Limbo, or the Little Nightmares games, Olle is extremely limited on what he can do and how he interacts with the environment. In fact, most often you're just walking—very slowly I might add—or jumping through some simple platforming sequences. Sometimes this means you're running away from threats, slowly crouching to hide, or dashing from cover to cover, but regardless, the emphasis on just walking around can get a little tiresome. The controls themselves are a bit clumsy and not as sharp and precise as you might want, especially during the more platformer-heavy sequences. Puzzles-wise, Bramble is also a mixed bag. There are indeed some fun puzzles here—novel little challenges that are all the more engaging because the game tells you almost nothing, so you have to figure things out on your own. Thankfully though this is almost never frustrating. The puzzles are simple enough that you can grasp what you need to do even if the game doesn't spell it out for you. On the other hand, there are more than a few sequences of the game that are little more than: pick up a key and use the key. Not every puzzle in a game is going to be a thought-provoking challenge, but it still would've been nice to have a bit more thought put into some of these sections that end up feeling like slow, drawn out padding. Combat in Bramble is generally limited to boss fights, which pretty much encapsulate the game's highs and lows. On the one hand, figuring out how to damage or stop a boss is a fun challenge, and although Olle dies in a single hit, you'll reload fairly quickly and there are checkpoints throughout the boss fights. On the other hand, these multi-checkpoint fights can be a bit of a slog as Olle moves and jumps so slowly and awkwardly that you need to be pretty precise with your timing, and being even a little off will mean death, leading to some extremely repetitive battles. A little challenge is all well and good but virtually every boss fight feels like it overstays its welcome. This isn't too surprising for most multi-platform games on the Switch, but Bramble runs pretty poorly on Nintendo's hybrid system. Muddy textures and some severe pop-in are all too common, and you'll likely see some frame rate dips throughout the adventure. Thankfully there's nothing game-breaking about these technical hiccups, but they do detract from the atmosphere a bit. And otherwise Bramble does a great job with atmosphere. The forest environments are large and imposing—perfect for the perspective of a small child—and have an almost diorama feel to them with their fixed camera angles and careful lighting and shadows. The spooky aesthetic is nicely captured in forests, swamps, and caves, and the monster designs are creepy and grotesque without feeling overdone. The human characters, however, are incredibly odd looking—Olle and Lillemor practically look like dolls. I suppose it's an aesthetic choice but any closeups of the humans and their stiff animation kind of takes you out of the eerie atmosphere. And like most horror games the soundtrack is pretty understated, but the tunes the game does have add a nice touch of energy to the bright parts of the game and a foreboding dread to the creepy parts. Bramble: The Mountain King does a fine job of bringing dark Nordic fables to life in a perfectly eerie way. The gameplay could've been more ambitious though, and even a five hour game feels a bit meandering thanks to Olle's slow movements and combat that can get tedious. Most disappointingly, the game's performance on the Switch doesn't always do justice to the ominous atmosphere that the story and visuals work so hard to build. As such, Bramble is an okay experience on the Switch but most likely a better—or at least smoother—experience on other systems. Rating: 6 out of 10 Trolls
  12. Survival-horror fans rejoice: there's a fresh creepy experience out there that captures the classic vibes of the genre with puzzles, grotesque enemies and a dark, twisting storyline. Signalis brings players back to the experience of 90s and early 2000s survival-horror without feeling like a dated or derivative game. Just be prepared for some confusing cutscenes. You play as Elster, an android—or in this game, a Replika—who wakes up on a crashed spaceship with only one goal: finding her friend. In classic horror fashion you don't have many clear memories so everything is new and confusing, and once you start exploring outside of the ship you'll discover that something terrible has happened, leading to corrupted, monstrous Replikas roaming and attacking at will. Signalis does a fantastic job of building a creepy, ominous atmosphere. The sci-fi setting actually feels quite fresh and engaging—sometimes it can feel like everything has been done in sci-fi, but Signalis has some novel ideas—and the scattered drip feed of information keeps you constantly guessing at what is actually going on. Ultimately it is probably too confusing though, as even at the end of the game it's hard to say exactly what happened, but players that enjoy that level of mystery and intrigue will still appreciate the atmosphere and overall setting that the game builds. The gameplay is pretty classic survival-horror in a third-person perspective (outside of rare first-person sequences that are mostly there to add immersion). Elster starts the game defenseless but you'll be able to grab guns, stun batons, and healing items as you progress. Naturally though, you'll need to balance your limited inventory space with keys and other puzzle items you'll pick up, lest you find yourself running back to a save room storage box over and over again. The puzzle design in Signalis is fantastic. It strikes a perfect balance of complex, intriguing puzzles without being tediously difficult. The game gives you only enough direction to put you on the right path, then it's up to you to scour all of the little memos and pieces of information you've gathered to put together the solution. This is the kind of game you'll want to play with a notebook and pen next to you because you'll need the space to work out solutions. There are some classic puzzle concepts as well, like finding two halves of a key and fitting them together, but this range of puzzle designs only heightens the moments when things get complicated and you need to put some real thought into how to progress. It's an extremely rewarding exploration and puzzle system that will keep you fully engaged from start to finish. Combat, on the other hand, is a bit less successful. The weapon variety is fine, but aiming your gun is far more awkward than it should be. If there are two enemies close together, sometimes your aim will jump between them which is incredibly frustrating as they bear down on you. Shooting the monstrous Replikas just doesn't have the snappy, satisfying action that you'd typically want out of combat. In fact, more often than not it is far easier to simply run past enemies. Unless the monster is directly blocking your way to a key item, it makes a lot more sense to just avoid them. This adds to the tension of course and makes a nice little risk/reward system, but it also highlights how unnecessary the combat feels in Signalis. Ultimately you'll still be required to shoot enemies at times though, and these encounters can be particularly clunky and awkward. Signalis lasts around eight to ten hours, which feels like a perfect length for this adventure. And although there isn't much in terms of side quests or optional content—you generally need to explore every room to pick up every key/clue—there are multiple endings possible to add a bit of replay incentive. The game's unique aesthetics add a ton to the creepy atmosphere as well. The pixelated graphics feel old-fashioned, like a classic PlayStation One era game, but that simplicity helps make all the grotesque little touches all the more unsettling. It does get hard to keep characters straight at times though since they all look so similar (and yeah they're Replikas, but still, it's hard to keep them straight), but that confusion also seems to add to the story. The soundtrack is extremely low key and relies on eerie ambiance most of the time, up until a monster sees you and shrieks, that is. It's an effective touch for a horror game, though. Signalis is an unexpected treat for survival-horror enthusiasts. It harkens back to old school elements of the genre while still feeling like a fresh, unsettling experience all on its own. And while the combat leaves something to be desired, the puzzle design and atmosphere are more than enough to satisfy any fan of the genre. Rating: 8 out of 10 Replikas
  13. Is it too on-the-nose to make a roguelike game, a genre heavily influenced by luck, with literal talking dice and dice rolls? Probably, but I can't complain about Dicey Dungeons' charming take on the genre. This game challenges players with making the best of every roll of the dice, even when the odds seem to be stacked against you. This strategy-rich approach makes for an engaging, addictive, and yes sometimes frustrating experience, but it's hard to say no to just one more roll. Dicey Dungeons takes place in some kind of fiendish game show run by Lady Luck herself. Each "contestant" is transformed into a living die then battles through a short dungeon in the hopes of winning their ultimate wish. It's a great framing device for the game—every new attempt is another appearance on the game show—and although storytelling isn't really a focus of the game there's a ton of fantastic personality added to the game by Lady Luck and the various monsters that inhabit the dungeon. Reading the unlockable character descriptions is also well worth the time to enjoy a bit more charm and humor. That charm and personality truly comes through in the game's presentation. The colorful, cartoony art style is just delightful. In a game where you're generally looking at the same battle screens and monsters in one runthrough after the next, it helps immensely to have such fun designs to spice up the experience. Same goes for the soundtrack—it's exciting, bubbly, and an excellent backdrop to the hours and hours of dice rolling you'll be doing here. In your first journey through the dungeon you play as the Warrior, though there are six total characters to enjoy. Each plays a little differently, but let's go over the basics first. You can equip your character with various cards (limited to the size of your hand) and during turn-based battles you'll roll some dice. You then use those dice to activate your cards. Some are as simple as the basic sword card: whatever number you roll on the dice, that's how much damage you deal. Others can get much more complicated though, such as an attack that is limited to only 1s, 2s, or 3s but allows you to reroll the die. On top of all this, each character has a Limit Break ability that can be activated once you've taken a certain amount of damage, and naturally these Limit Breaks tend to be extremely powerful. Your first journey with the Warrior does a fantastic job of introducing you to the basics of the game, because after that first quest into the dungeon things get complicated. Each character plays a little differently, and the more complex characters can be extremely challenging to master, such as the Witch's "spellbook" that requires specific die rolls to activate cards in the first place. Mastering each character takes a bit of work, but it's extremely rewarding when the dice land in your favor and you're able to demolish monsters while they barely scratch you. Every turn is a gamble as you try to deal the most damage possible with the dice you roll, and seeing your risks come together perfectly is a blast. To make matters even more interesting, each character also has multiple "episodes," which change the rules of how the game works. Maybe in this episode you actually lose health when you level up, or status effects are all swapped around. Strategy is crucial once you get to the more complex characters/rules, and making the best out of whatever dice you roll is the key to victory. There's a great amount of variety to enjoy in Dicey Dungeons that makes every playthrough feel fresh and exciting, which is exactly what you want from a roguelike. It also helps that the game isn't so complicated that it overwhelms you. Yes there's a lot of variety to the characters, cards, and rulesets to spice up the gameplay, but the overall structure of the game is actually pretty simple and easy to grasp. Dungeons are always six floors, the last of which is a boss fight, and there's always a specific number of battles (although you can occasionally choose to skip battles, you probably want to fight every monster in order to level up). There aren't a million cards to learn and memorize, and card combos/synergies are pretty easy to learn. The game will even remind you in every battle if an enemy is vulnerable or resistant to a certain status ailment. Though roguelikes and deckbuilding games can be daunting to new players, Dicey Dungeons makes it easy for anyone to jump right in by keeping things relatively simple but still allowing for a lot of variety and complexity as you grow more familiar with the core mechanics. Naturally though, a game centered around rolling dice is going to run into some frustrating RNG moments. The best strategy in the world can't always cope with just plain unlucky rolls, especially if you're doing minimal damage while the enemy is doing maximum on every turn. Some runs truly are ruined by plain bad luck, which is disappointing. The good news is that each run is only around 40 minutes long, so even dying at the final boss isn't a huge loss of time/progress. The game is also addictive enough that you'll probably just be fired up to try again even when you do fail. You can also turn on Relaxed Mode (which cuts enemy HP by 25%) to make things a little easier on yourself if you need to. With six characters and six episodes each, there's a ton of content in Dicey Dungeons without even getting into the inherent replay value of randomized roguelikes. On top of all that though, as of 2023 there are also free expansions available for even more content. Suffice it to say it's hard to tear yourself away from this game. With easy to pick up gameplay mechanics, a delightful visual and aural style, and a sense of challenge that is nicely balanced by Lady Luck's whims, Dicey Dungeons is a great introduction to roguelikes for new players as well as a refreshingly light-hearted take on the genre for veterans. The episodic design makes it convenient for players to dip into all manner of ruleset variations, but even if you stick to the more basic ones you'll have a blast as you cheer on your high rolls and lament the unlucky ones. Everyone should try their luck in Dicey Dungeons and let the good times roll. Rating: 9 out of 10 Dice Rolls
  14. True to its unusual name, The Knight Witch is a mashup of gameplay genres, blending Metroidvania exploration with shoot 'em up and bullet hell mechanics. You'll fly and float through twisting passages while dodging onslaughts of enemy projectiles, then return fire with your own bullets and magic spells. It's a novel combination of elements that isn't quite as fine-tuned as it should be. The story begins with a bit of a prologue. During a civil war that saw the destruction of the cruel ruling Daigadai Clan, four powerful fighters known as The Knight Witches emerged. With the ability to draw power based on the number of people that believed in and supported them, they defeated the Daigadai. However, the cost of the war made the surface world uninhabitable, forcing the survivors to flee underground. 14 years later, society is enjoying a period of peace, but when a new threat emerges, the secret fifth Knight Witch named Rayne must defend her home. The game's plot is interesting but perhaps over-written. The story beats seem suited to a long RPG, not a relatively brisk 10 hour adventure, so a lot of the story elements end up being rushed through with dumps of exposition that don't actually add much to the core narrative. The characters suffer from this format as well. With rushed cutscene exposition the characters are all pretty two-dimensional, and the game's attempts at humor or charisma don't usually land. The Knight Witch is essentially a bullet hell shoot 'em up in the form of a Metroidvania game. Rather than playing through simple side-scrolling or top-scrolling levels, you explore an actual map of interconnected rooms to progress. You'll want to unlock shortcuts to help you access checkpoints and shops, and like any Metroidvania you'll be able to return to previous areas with new abilities to explore more. It's not the biggest or most elaborate map, but the Metroidvania adventure spirit is still here. The bullet hell gameplay, however, can be extremely challenging, oftentimes to the point of being off-putting. Sure, no one expects a bullet hell game to be easy, but The Knight Witch can be tedious due to some annoying difficulty balancing issues. For one, you move pretty dang slowly and only gain the ability to dash/dodge after a couple hours of playing. That's not to say every shoot 'em up has to have lightning fast movement/dodge mechanics, but Rayne feels kind of plodding and slow and you have very little HP, meaning you'll spend far too much time hiding behind cover, popping out for some shots of your own, then hiding again. Rayne's hitbox is also deceptively large, so you have to be particularly careful. The core, unique gameplay element of The Knight Witch though is the spell system. Spells are far more powerful than your normal bullets so you'll want to rely on them, though there is also an MP system so you can't be too willy-nilly about using them (early on, it feels like enemies are extremely stingy about dropping MP recovery items). The real catch here though is that you have a deck of spell cards that you can customize. The cards are then randomly drawn and equipped to the A, X, and Y buttons. Having a random element like this in a bullet hell shooter sounds like a great way to keep you on your toes, but in practice it is extremely annoying to split your focus on shooting, dodging, and seeing which cards you've drawn. I appreciate the fact that having a deck of cards means you can equip a lot more than just three spells at once, but the trade-off simply isn't worth it. Monitoring your cards is an absolute pain, especially when MP is so precious that accidentally activating the wrong card can leave you bereft of MP for a good while. It's just an unnecessary complication that only makes the gameplay more annoying, not more engaging. It's also worth noting that The Knight Witch is a bullet hell game first and a Metroidvania second. There are some pretty challenging sequences here, especially the final boss which gets a little cheap by just throwing waves and waves of enemies at you all at once. Anyone not patient with bullet hell games will be in for a tough time. The Knight Witch also has some small technical hiccups on the Switch. Load times are extremely long, though they only pop up when you're moving between areas, not just moving between rooms. Unfortunately, there are a couple moments in the story where you'll end up going back and forth between areas quite a bit, which means multiple 40+ second loading screens. The frame rate also suffers a bit when there's a lot happening on screen. Generally this only applies to the most intense moments of the game, though of course those are the moments you want the visuals and controls to be as smooth as possible and any slowdown can feel debilitating. Visually, The Knight Witch has some gorgeous environmental designs. The hand-drawn world looks great throughout the game's handful of different biomes, each with a nice level of detail and personality. The character designs don't have quite the same level of polish and simply look too generic and flat, but overall the visuals are nice. The music is pretty strong throughout and blends the kind of adventurous, calming, or ominous tunes you'd expect while exploring with some surprisingly rock-heavy songs for combat. The dichotomy works though, for the two halves of the gameplay. The Knight Witch is a cool mash up of genres and ideas that doesn't quite blend together perfectly. The magic card system is novel and would be perfectly suited to plenty of adventure games, but combining it with bullet hell action only leads to headaches. The shoot 'em up gameplay is also not as sharp as it feels like it should be, leading to plenty of disappointing and unrewarding deaths. The Knight Witch certainly earns points for originality, but could've used a bit more polishing to ensure a smoother experience. Rating: 6 out of 10 Witches
  15. After Breath of the Wild, who didn't want more open-world exploration, shrine puzzles, and Korok seed collecting? It was a one-of-a-kind adventure, a perfect culmination of the Zelda franchise. But after the incredible experience of playing that game for the first time, could a sequel actually live up to all of the grandeur, adventure, and excitement? Wouldn't returning to the same Hyrule setting feel a little bland at this point? Well shame on anyone for doubting Nintendo's developers, because The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is every bit as magical as its predecessor, and it brings that sense of wonder and joy not only to the land of Hyrule, but to the sky and underground as well. Tears of the Kingdom starts in medias res as Link and Zelda explore a mysterious cavern beneath Hyrule castle. Such caves have opened up across the land, spreading a dark force known as Gloom that is causing people to fall ill. In the cavern, Zelda discovers ruins of the Zonai civilization, an ancient people harkening back to the origins of Hyrule itself. Deep in this underground vault though, Link and Zelda also discover an eerie husk of a body with a strange arm pinning it down. Without delving into any other details, the adventure begins there, as once again all of Hyrule is thrown into peril and only Link can save the day. The storytelling structure in Tears of the Kingdom is the same as BotW: you're given free rein to discover the story at your own pace and in your own way. It was a wonderfully refreshing way of uncovering backstory and worldbuilding details that allowed every player to learn and explore in a slightly different way, and it remains just as charming the second time around. Indeed, the experience is only heightened by the fact that this is the same setting and same characters, so you get to dive into the world faster as you reconnect with NPCs you remember fondly. There are also new characters of course, who are just as charming and engaging as any of the old cast. The open, free-flowing story structure remains wonderfully rewarding. Naturally, that sense of freedom is once again central to the gameplay, just like in BotW. This time though, you're not just exploring the land of Hyrule but the sky above it where floating islands reside, as well as the dark Depths beneath the earth where ominous Gloom billows out. And yes, the underground is just as sprawling as the surface and, thanks to the lack of sunlight, every journey through the Depths is an eerie, foreboding one. Even just exploring the Hyrule established in BotW would be a gargantuan undertaking, but having so much more content in Tears of the Kingdom is staggering. The new environments exhibit the same thought and care as the original Hyrule as well. There are little details to uncover, sweeping open expanses, and you're constantly drawn toward the next goal that is just in the distance. This game is the definition of hard to put down, because you always have another objective just over the horizon, or another toy to play with. And oh boy are there toys in Tears of the Kingdom. Link's arsenal of Sheikah Slate abilities from the previous game has completely changed, and the new ones offer a truly staggering amount of potential. The first and, frankly, most important is Ultrahand, which allows you to stick objects together. Combine a few stone slabs to make a bridge, or a few logs to make a raft. You can also add Zonai devices to create further elaborate constructs. Add a fan to your raft to propel it across the water, or add a balloon and a fire-spewing device to make your own hot air balloon. Ultrahand is the epitome of allowing the player to explore, discover, and interact with the game in their own way, and I truly cannot overstate its possibilities—the things people have created and shared online range from impressive and inspiring to hilariously goofy, and they're all valid ways to play Tears of the Kingdom. The process of discovering your own crafty solutions is just delightful. It captures the essence of every craft-heavy game in its own wonderful Zelda way that propels the action and exploration forward instead of merely being a way to build houses or other static structures. It's also crucial for this level of gameplay freedom to maintain understandable, consistent physics, which this game handles perfectly. Nintendo probably isn't the first developer you think of when you imagine impressive physics in gaming, but Tears of the Kingdom handles it flawlessly because it is perfectly clear and logical how objects will interact, and having that knowledge allows the player to completely let loose in one of the most entertaining digital sandboxes ever created. The other new abilities are also fantastic for letting the player explore, though Ultrahand is really the star of the show here. The Fuse ability allows you to fuse weapons, shields, and even arrows with other objects to make them stronger. Fusing a spear to another spear makes a more powerful and hilariously long weapon, for example. Again, the developers are just inviting the player to play and explore and create their own wild, silly, fun ideas within the game. Attaching a fan to a shield and blowing enemies off of cliffs is an absurd and perfectly viable way of playing the game. And even if you only really use Fuse for its most practical purpose—making weapons stronger—it's still a fantastic idea on the developers' part to make all of those items and weapons you're constantly collecting have a more active use in the game. Finally there's Ascend, the ability that lets Link leap straight up through solid objects, popping out the top like a prairie dog, and Recall, an ability that rewinds time on an object. These abilities are more about exploration and puzzle-solving, but they still give you a brand new way to move through the environment and peek into every nook and cranny of Hyrule. Speaking of puzzles, the shrine system has also returned, providing players with the perfect steady drip of challenge and reward as they explore the world. Overall, the shrines might be a bit more challenging than in BotW, but that might be me misremembering the original or just the fact that Link's abilities demand a bit more creativity to use effectively. Regardless, hunting down shrines and completing little challenges is once again a blast, and I'm also happy to say the larger dungeons have been revamped a bit for Tears of the Kingdom. They are still perhaps not at the level of the franchise's best, and I would have loved to see something even more unique and imaginative rather than revisiting the core regions of BotW, but they are still more imaginative and engaging than BotW's dungeons, and their inclusion is a natural fit into the larger scope of Tears of the Kingdom's story and themes. There's so much more I could discuss about the game, but since discovering these details for yourself is such a central aspect to the experience I will simply say that Tears of the Kingdom is jam-packed with content. Whether it was due to the size of the game itself or some change in my approach to exploring Hyrule, I spent far more time in this game than its predecessor, meaning well over 100 hours in a single playthrough that still didn't see every little piece of what's available. And the greatest compliment I can give the game is that it doesn't get boring after all those long hours. There was always something urging me on, another area or quest to look forward to that kept me absolutely glued to my Switch for weeks. Tears of the Kingdom obviously retains the look and style of BotW, a six years old Switch launch title, so it really speaks to the care and artistry of the developers that it still looks incredible. More importantly, Tears of the Kingdom builds on its predecessor by adding more detail and more little flourishes to the visual and audio design. It's most likely due to the addition of the floating islands in the sky, but the improved draw distance provides stunning views that once again invite players to dive right in and explore. The new characters and monsters also show off even more detail and depth in their designs that is truly a delight to see. The technical side of the game is not without its faults however, as there can be some noticeable frame rate drops during hectic action on screen. A few flaws are forgivable when considering the impressive scope of the game though. The soundtrack has also gotten a bit of an upgrade. Light ambiance music is still the focus of the game's musical identity, but the new tracks and even the remixed old tracks add some gorgeous depth to the experience. Not surprisingly, the main theme and the finale stand out as stunning aural moments for Tears of the Kingdom. The voice acting is once again limited to important cutscenes, but it adds a nice extra layer to the game's storytelling. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom might be a perfect sequel. Everything fans loved about Breath of the Wild has returned in an even bigger setting and unique, clever ways of interacting with the environment. The result is a gargantuan game that invites you to explore and play in whatever way you want to, whether that means battling monsters and completing Shrines or cobbling together oddball inventions to help you wander across Hyrule. Every addition to Tears of the Kingdom over its predecessor expands the pure joy, wonder, and excitement of being let loose on a grand adventure in a magical world. Six years ago Nintendo made a masterpiece, and now they've made a sequel that's even better. Rating: 10 out of 10 Ultrahand Creations
  16. From Giant Squid, the developers of Abzû, comes another stylish yet minimalist adventure game. Originally released on other systems back in 2020, Switch players can now explore this world of vivid colors, sprawling forests, and archery-based puzzles in The Pathless, all with an emphasis on fluid movement mechanics. It makes for an intriguing little game that is surprisingly repetitive through its short run time. You play as The Hunter, an archer who has traveled to the edge of the material and spiritual worlds to investigate a dark curse that threatens all. There she meets a god-spirit in the form of an eagle, who tells her to release four other god-spirits from the cursed influence of The Godslayer, who seeks to consume their power and destroy the world. From there, storytelling isn't a priority in The Pathless, or at least not cutscene-style storytelling. This game is more about ambiance and peppering in light lore elements through bits of information that you can collect. However, their scattered, optional nature and the lack of other NPCs or significant scenery—outside of forests and ruins—does make the lore feel inconsequential. You're not likely to get pulled into this game from its world-building. You may get pulled in due to its exploration mechanics, though. Fast, fluid movement is a focus of The Pathless. You can sprint on land for a limited time thanks to a stamina gauge, but if you shoot floating targets you'll recover stamina and gain a burst of speed. You'll automatically lock on to nearby targets so you don't have to execute fancy trick shots, just keep shooting arrows to maintain your stamina and momentum. The sense of speed is definitely satisfying, though the simplicity of hitting targets does make the exercise feel a little pointless—you're literally just pressing ZR every couple seconds as you run. Still, cruising through the environment thanks to these bursts of speed is pretty fun. Your goal in each region is to free the resident god-spirit, and to do that you'll need to collect spirit tokens. You'll complete various puzzles scattered throughout the environment to earn tokens, then take them to glowing towers to activate them. The puzzles vary quite a bit in terms of difficulty and engagement. Some can be tricky and satisfying to solve, but many are simply time-consuming as you activate various switches to line up the correct arrow shot. While running through the environment is fast and fluid, walking around to move switches into the correct positions is slow and plodding. Sometimes you'll even solve the puzzle early but actually executing the solution drags on and on. The upside to all of this is that there are more tokens than you need available in the area, so if you're truly not enjoying a puzzle you can simply leave and tackle a different one. That freedom of choice nicely reflects the game's freedom of movement. The caveat to all of this running around though is the cursed god-spirit roaming the land. In each region you'll need to be wary of the giant red cloud of evil energy that wanders around the environment (and also teleports sporadically). If you're caught in the cloud you'll need to survive a quick stealth challenge to escape, otherwise you'll lose a bit of the energy you've collected over the course of the game. It's cool to have a roaming threat in the area—there are no other monsters or enemies to speak of—but the stealth sections are almost antithetical to the game's other themes: all you can do is slowly walk to avoid being spotted, and oftentimes the god-spirit will stumble into you anyway and there's little you can do about it. It's a boring, unsatisfying threat that is more of an annoyance as you avoid the red cloud while exploring or sometimes run away from it entirely in what feels like just a way to waste time, not challenge the player. Boss fights are also a bit mixed. There's definitely a thrill to them as you chase down each god-spirit boss and shoot arrows at their giant glowing weak points (classic), but for some reason these fights are really long in The Pathless. After the chase sequence you'll need to shoot the weak points again in a smaller arena battle, and then there'll be a third phase to contend with as well, sometimes another slow stealth sequence. The fundamentals of shooting the weak points never change though and these drawn out boss fights completely overstay their welcome in The Pathless. It's also a bit surprising that a relatively short game can have such long, tedious gameplay moments. It only takes roughly five hours to finish The Pathless, or at most about ten hours if you're chasing down every piece of lore you can find. Even across that short amount of time though, there are some unfortunate repetitive gameplay moments. In terms of presentation, The Pathless is stunning, though its performance on the Switch isn't doing it any favors. The limited but vivid color palette makes for a stylish visual design, even when the environments are pretty open and empty. Sadly though, poor frame rate on the Switch doesn't let the game shine quite as much as it's clearly meant to. The soundtrack meanwhile is pretty solid. Though the music tends to only really pick up during boss fights, even the more light exploration tunes add a ton to the ambiance. The Pathless is a brief and stylish adventure that turns running from objective to objective into a satisfyingly speedy endeavor. The gameplay loop grows repetitive entirely too quickly though, with almost nothing to distinguish the four main areas of the game. Still, if you're looking for a game that takes the thrill of exploration and scrunches it down into a quick one-afternoon or one-weekend experience, The Pathless offers a fun and fairly simple journey. Rating: 7 out of 10 Spirits
  17. More than just a romantic subplot in a larger story but also not a dating simulator game, Haven dances around typical video game romance tropes to tell a genuine love story. Perhaps more importantly, this isn't a game about two people wooing each other, but two people that have already found one another and are working hard to stay together. It creates an engaging setting but the thin gameplay elements leave a lot to be desired. You play as both Yu and Kay, swapping between the two while exploring and controlling both in combat (Haven also features local co-op). As the game begins, they are exploring an idyllic if somewhat barren planet made up of floating islands, but you quickly learn that they fled here to escape the overbearing control of their futuristic society. Now they'll have to lay low and survive on this strange world to build a new life together. Your enjoyment of Haven 100% hinges upon how much you like Yu and Kay as a couple, because if you aren't quickly invested in them as characters their romantic dialogue will feel clumsy, cheesy, or outright lame. They're both written as lovey dovey and quirky, and while some of their lines might be authentic to a real couple, it comes off awkward to read. To be fair, it's admirable to even have that attempt at authenticity in a game, but it can make some of the dialogue a slog, which is tough when the whole point of the game is a love story. The gameplay blends exploration and combat with RPG progression, though nothing feels particularly polished here. Yu and Kay are able to glide over the surface of the planet thanks to the power of Flow. You can follow these glowing blue lines to build up Flow charge or just skate over the ground in a smooth, ice-skating-like motion. This free-flowing movement is great in wide-open spaces but becomes a hassle when you need to navigate any small, narrow areas or are trying to carefully adjust to move to the side and pick up an item. Still, the gliding mechanics can be a lot of fun when you have the freedom to use them, but they just don't evolve much over the course of the game. On each floating island you'll need to clean up "rust," a red, dangerous Flow artifact, and cleaning it up is as simple as gliding over it. Doing that over and over though, island after island, leads to a pretty repetitive experience. There is exceedingly little variety between islands, and you don't gain much in terms of new abilities. The only thing that tries to spice things up is the combat system, but this can also feel pretty basic and repetitive. You control both Yu and Kay simultaneously, so you can set each one to melee attack, ranged attack, or shield, then you can pacify the monster you're fighting once their health is gone. Some enemies are vulnerable to melee, some to ranged attacks, and some you'll need to time your attacks appropriately to do real damage. The problem is the game does a terrible job of explaining these mechanics, and your healing is quite limited—early on you'll basically need to retreat back to your spaceship to heal—so combat just feels clunky. There's almost something interesting here with the combat mechanics, something that juggles two characters timing attacks appropriately and defending each other, but Haven never really develops its combat system properly, and what is here is confusing and muddled. Haven also has a rough go of it on the Switch. The load times are far too long given that there's a loading screen between every single island. The game is also pretty unstable, even years after its initial release. Crashes, random blank screens—it's hard to just play this game at times. Thankfully the game frequently autosaves at least, but it's still disappointing to see such regular technical issues. This isn't a terribly long game, but even across its 10 hours or so it can get to be pretty repetitive. There's not much in terms of side quests aside from clearing every island of rust, or picking up little artifacts that add more dialogue back at your home base. And although there is RPG progression that levels you up as you play, it's extremely straightforward and simply makes your attacks better and your health higher. Haven is definitely the type of game meant to be played in small, short bursts sporadically, because playing for any extended length of time shows how monotonous the gameplay can be. The presentation is perhaps the saving grace of Haven, specifically the audio. The music is pretty killer and has a perfectly sci-fi aesthetic that almost makes the endless gliding around worth it as you listen to an electronic soundtrack that is airy and energizing. The voice work is also okay, though even decent acting doesn't always make the clunky dialogue work. The stylish color design of the game also makes for a perfect alien world, but the repeating environments and creatures result in a pretty lifeless environment. Haven puts all its eggs in the relationship basket, leading to some overly simple, repetitive gameplay features that make even a 10 hour game feel like a slog at times. There are good ideas here too, but they just don't get the polish they need to shine. Only players truly invested in Yu and Kay's love story will likely enjoy gliding around empty island environments over and over. Rating: 5 out of 10 Floating Islands
  18. Sometimes the protagonist of a game is a great warrior foretold by destiny, and sometimes it's a little grape. Garden Story takes the basic elements of an action-adventure game and weaves it together with a cozy little quest featuring walking, talking food that is just as much about combat as it is gathering materials or growing crops. The result is a charming, light adventure that is a bit too simple at times, but is always wholesome. You play as Concord, a young grape who is made a Guardian in order to help stop the spread of Rot across the Grove, your homeland. By journeying to each of the four towns in the Grove and helping various citizens—including other sentient foods as well as frogs—Concord will hopefully save everyone. It's a charming plot and takes some surprising turns near the end, and frankly having any turns at all in a story like this is surprising enough, since it very easily could have been a completely straightforward plot. Still, as is the case with the game as a whole, there's a nagging feeling that the story could have been more than it is and doesn't do enough to flesh out the Grove or its inhabitants. Garden Story plays like a top-down action-adventure, and very early on you gain a pick to use as a weapon. The game is divided into day cycles, and each day you're given two or three tasks to complete, which either involve defeating Rot slimes, collecting materials, or completing other basic tasks to aid the community. At the end of each day you'll sleep to save your progress then tackle new tasks for a new day. This job structure is novel but quickly becomes just a time-consuming chore. The tasks are never challenging and sometimes they truly do feel like ways to waste time, such as when you need to collect materials that only drop one at a time, which is further complicated by the fact that you can only carry so many items at once, so you'll frequently be tossing away the less valuable clutter in your inventory. There's an unfortunate lack of variety to the tasks as well, making them feel repetitive quite quickly. It's a cute way of integrating Concord's quest to help the community into the gameplay, but it's not a rewarding gameplay loop. Combat is much the same: simple and easy to pick up but never evolves over the course of the game. The main issue is your stamina meter, which limits how frequently you can attack. At first you can barely take a couple swings of your pick without needing to wait and recover, but it's not a terribly engaging combat loop, it just makes combat feel drawn out and gives you no opportunities for strategic variety. It doesn't help that there are only two or three types of enemies in the whole game, so again it will feel repetitive extremely quickly. The boss fights are more engaging at least, but there are only a handful throughout the game. Even when you do unlock more weapons, they're all so similar that it's not really worth playing with anything other than the tried and true pick, especially since you need to upgrade each weapon individually, which takes a lot of time and resources. One of the more successful aspects of Garden Story though is the skill system, which are called memories here. Memories unlock by completing set requirements—defeat X amount of enemies, complete X amount of tasks, etc.—and each new memory can be equipped to grant some bonus effect. The most basic simply grant stat boosts, like more HP or stamina, but others can have more unique effects, such as giving you a burst of speed after you use a healing potion (called dew in Garden Story). It's a neat way of presenting and equipping skills, and there are quite a lot to unlock over the course of the game. Granted, not all of the skills are terribly useful—some are so specific that you'll probably want to stick with the more general ones like stat boosts—but it's still a fun and novel skill/upgrade system. There are a few other features in Garden Story that frankly feel a bit like padding, but if you want to spend more time beyond the 10–15 hours it takes to finish the story they do add some further length and variety to the game. Aside from basic side quests you will also eventually unlock the ability to build objects, which is only used as a story requirement a few times and then becomes purely a cosmetic feature. Gradually, you can unlock the ability to craft things like streetlights or other town features and place them in specific open areas in each town. Again, it's a totally cosmetic, time-wasting feature but it's something to keep you occupied if you want to spend more time in the Grove. And granted, the Grove is a very cute place to hang out. The pixel art is utterly charming, most of all due to the cute little inhabitants of each town. There's a relaxed, light-hearted energy to the whole game that is perfectly captured in the simple, friendly art style. The soundtrack is also a definite highlight of the adventure. It perfectly exudes the cozy vibes that define the game. Garden Story is a cute, chill adventure that is ultimately a little too relaxed. The combat, exploration, and gathering mechanics simply don't evolve over the course of the game, resulting in some disappointingly repetitive gameplay loops. But if you want to spend time in a bright, cozy game that has the elements of action-adventure without ever actually feeling demanding, Garden Story is a charming if flawed experience. Rating: 7 out of 10 Gardens
  19. Not to get too highfalutin right out of the gate here, but there are few things that tap into the human experience like gathering around a campfire to swap stories. Whatever medium it's in, the art of storytelling connects people, whether it's a personal story or an enduring folktale. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine seeks to tap into that collective experience by setting you loose across the continental United States to collect and share stories. It's a beautifully unique concept that unfortunately does not translate well to a video game at all. You play as a wanderer who, after a bad poker hand against a surprisingly well-dressed wolf, is tasked with collecting stories across Great Depression-era America (though the timeline is iffy—you'll also encounter people and stories clearly from a 50s/60s beat poetry aesthetic). Your main goal is collecting the personal story from sixteen key characters. To do that though, you'll need to collect other stories to share with the key NPCs, which causes them to open up to you and share more of their stories. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a story about storytelling, and it's a really cool concept. The stories you share are set loose on the world and will change and grow in the process (which in gameplay terms means they'll be more effective at getting the key NPCs to open up to you). It's a fun way of showing how stories evolve and change, how storytellers and listeners add and subtract what they want out of a story to better align with their desires or expectations. The initial stories you find are simple or basic happenings: a chance meeting on a road, a creepy abandoned farmhouse, a sad story of a family trying to survive, etc. Over time though, these stories evolve into larger-than-life adventures, ghost stories, and tall tales. On top of all this, the key NPCs' stories delve further into personal tales of survival, heartbreak, and social issues that are distinctly American. It's a really fascinating concept for a game. The actual gameplay, however, is kind of a mess. It's understandable that this kind of game would be a bit more of a slow, thoughtful adventure, but Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a painfully slow game. The vast majority of the gameplay involves walking across America, stopping only to pick up a new story or sit down at a campfire with a key NPC. And you walk. Very. Slowly. There are a few options to speed things up but they're imperfect solutions as well: trains are expensive, hopping a train without paying can result in you getting beaten by the authorities, hitchhiking is inconsistent and cars only travel in set directions, and finally whistling while you walk very slightly increases your movement speed but you have to play a little button tapping game the whole time. The experience of playing the game is legitimately boring. Then there's the story exchange system with NPCs. When you're sitting at a campfire with someone, they'll ask to hear a story from your travels, and they'll hint toward what kind of story they want to hear—thrilling, funny, sad, etc. The problem is, your stories aren't organized by their type at all, you have to remember them, and there are over two hundred stories available in the game. Sure some will be obvious—ghost stories are usually scary, for example—but a lot of others are confusingly categorized. You can only tell so many stories during a campfire encounter and you can't tell the same story twice, so it's really on you to keep track of these categories even though the game provides no UI or organizing system. You can also only "equip" so many stories when you sit down at a campfire, and there's no in-game system for reminding you if you've already told a story or not. Sorting/swapping stories is terribly unintuitive, not to mention that all of the menus in the game are a bit clumsy to navigate. Perhaps most annoyingly, you have to share stories with a specific NPC multiple times before his or her personal story is complete, so you have to just do the same thing over and over again. Simply put, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is far too long for how slow and repetitive the gameplay is. If it were maybe five hours long it would be a still flawed but novel story about storytelling, but at twelve to fifteen hours it is truly a slog. Most frustratingly, because of the issues mentioned above, it's a hard game to pick up and play gradually over several weeks since you'll likely forget which stories you've already used, or what category they're in. To be fair, I understand that this isn't necessarily the point of the game. It's a relaxed, meandering experience more than a "video game" challenge, but that experience is just boring more often than not. The game's visuals are somewhat mixed, but the audio department at least does a great job. The 2D artwork seen when you're finding or sharing stories has a beautiful rustic charm to it. It's simple and has a raw, scrawled vibe that nicely matches the tone the game is going for. While you're exploring though, the graphics switch to a 3D view of America that leaves something to be desired. The views are expansive but bland, and certainly doesn't help the monotonous feel of the gameplay. The soundtrack, however, is undoubtedly the highlight of the game. The Americana vibe of the music perfectly suits the wandering adventure you're on. The songs are really the only saving grace for the long periods of time where you are simply walking. And in a neat touch of regionalism, the appropriately titled Vagrant Song will have a slightly different style depending on where you are in America (Southern, Midwest, Northwest, etc.). It's a cool attention to detail that honestly should have been carried over to more aspects of the game. The voice work is also pretty solid overall. The narrator has the most lines and is a definite standout, and while not all of the NPCs have stellar voice work the overall quality is decent. There is, however, one baffling audio decision in the game: the whistling that helps you move a bit faster plays over the soundtrack, and doesn't even match the tune or rhythm of the underlying song. It's such an obvious missed opportunity that it's honestly baffling how the developers ignored matching up the whistle and soundtrack. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a clever concept that does not translate to an entertaining video game. The gameplay loop of collecting and sharing stories sounds decent enough on paper, but in execution is such a slow, tedious slog that it drains the game of what little energy it has. A strong soundtrack and decent visual style aren't enough to lift up the poor UI design and unsatisfying busywork of sorting your stories and remembering which have been used. Despite having a neat kernel of an idea, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine doesn't evolve into the enduring folktale that it wants to be. Rating: 4 out of 10 Stories
  20. Ikenfell takes place in a school of magic, and we're going to breeze right past any comparisons or references to a certain famous school of witchcraft and wizardry and get right to the heart of this game. With retro pixel art graphics, a cozy soundtrack and a battle system rich with strategic opportunities, Ikenfell balances a classic RPG formula with engaging combat. The cute graphics belie a surprisingly challenging adventure though. You play as Maritte, a girl who journeys to the Ikenfell school of magic because her sister who attends the school, Safina, has gone missing. Maritte is an Ordinary (not a mage), but within the opening moments of the game strange magical abilities awaken within her, and she'll have to battle her way through a school that has become overrun with odd magic to rescue her sister. The story moves along at a brisk, almost mechanical pace—find a new clue, meet a new friend, then explore another part of the school—but the emotional core of the game certainly deserves praise. This is a charming cast of characters who all have their flaws and foibles, and gradually open up to one another in touching ways. There's a lot of realistic representation of personal struggles and coming to terms with identity even within this fanciful magic setting as well as strong LGBTQ+ representation, and it's very easy to grow attached to these characters over the course of a 15 hour or so playthrough. The star of the gameplay in Ikenfell is the battle system. It's turn-based and tactical—characters act based on speed, meaning some could even act twice before another acts once—and takes place on a 12x3 battlefield grid. Characters can move around the battlefield and every attack (or spell) has a certain range or area of effect, so positioning yourself well is key. You may also want to group your characters up so you can cast AoE healing or buffs. At the same time though, this might leave you open to enemy AoE attacks, so there's always a strategic gamble in positioning your characters. Ikenfell also uses a timing system similar to Mario RPGs—by hitting the A button at the right time, you can boost the damage of your attacks or reduce the damage of incoming attacks. These aren't just minor bonuses either. For some spells, missing the timing means there's no effect whatsoever, and with most spells you'll more than double or triple your damage output. It's a wonderfully fresh battle system that makes every encounter engaging, whether it's a long, drag-out boss fight or a simple skirmish with normal enemies. You can't just rush forward mindlessly lest you put a character in a dangerous position, and you have to learn each spell's timing to put them to the best possible use. That added level of engagement makes every battle nicely rewarding, which is especially nice since Ikenfell doesn't have random encounters, so facing an enemy or trying to run around them is always a choice. That said, the timing system might be a double-edged sword for Ikenfell. The extreme difference between a miss and a success can be pretty frustrating, especially early in the game when your healing options are so limited. A successful block might reduce damage down to 1 hit point, but a fail might deal 5 points, a huge chunk of your max health early in the game. It's always tricky encountering a new enemy as well, when you don't know the right timing for all of its attacks. All of this is to say, the difficulty is perhaps not quite balanced perfectly, which may turn off players who don't click with the timing system right away. The good news though is that there are difficulty options to make battles easier. For one, you can just turn on an instant win option to let you basically skip through any encounter. The other, less extreme option is to turn on semi-auto or full auto modes, which automatically give you a "nice" or a "great" rating on any timed button press, respectively (nice increases/reduces damage a bit, great does it a lot). These still feel somewhat like bandaids or at least overpowered options to make the game easier, and the core gameplay should probably have been balanced instead, but they're great options for anyone that just wants to see the story. There is also, naturally, a bit of exploring to do in this RPG. It's not the most elaborate, but there are some fun environmental puzzles here: flip the right switches to open a path, collect the keys, etc. The exploration side of Ikenfell is undeniably light compared to the rich combat system though. There also isn't much in terms of side quests here, which is unusual for an RPG and feels like a small missed opportunity—it's a school of magic, there are endless possibilities for side adventures. The game's retro pixel artwork looks a bit like every other retro pixel art game out there. Most enemy designs are pretty basic and the scenery can feel flat—character portraits in particular are surprisingly repetitive, simple designs—though some of the little touches in animation are particularly charming, like one character swaying her arms back and forth while talking. The soundtrack however is excellent and perfectly captures the energy of the game: cute and cozy at times balanced out with adventurous, mysterious moments. Ikenfell is a charming and engaging bite-sized RPG, perfect for fans of the genre that want a game that won't eat up dozens upon dozens of hours. The strategic combat system and timing mechanics do mean that this isn't quite an adventure for novice players, but if you're able to overcome the high difficulty spikes, you'll be rewarded with a heart-warming RPG. Rating: 8 out of 10 Spells
  21. In 2018, developer Bedtime Digital Games released a charming and surreal adventure on the Switch that let players journey through a mind plagued by nightmares. Now players can return to that world of personified thoughts with Figment 2: Creed Valley. But while the core story is once again an emotional tale, the game's performance on the Switch puts a damper on the whole experience. You play as Dusty, the personification of courage and the same protagonist from the first game. With the help of your bird pal Piper, it's your job to deal with nightmares in the mind, which usually means giving them a good whacking with your wooden sword. This time a two-headed jester is causing havoc in Creed Valley, so you'll need to get to the root cause of the problem and clear up the mind. Like the first game, Figment 2 strikes a nice balance between adventure game and thoughtful reflection on mental health. The themes are perhaps a bit less heavy here in the sequel, but the ultimate message of self-care and self-reflection is one that will easily resonate with anyone, even if it's delivered in a somewhat saccharine way at times. Indeed, the banter between Dusty and Piper is a lot of fun—and packed with puns—but can also be so on-the-nose that it can come off clunky. Still, overall it's a smart and entertaining story that goes beyond the usual "save the world" adventure plot. The gameplay is a blend of action and puzzles across a linear and fairly short runtime. Exploration is normally limited to following the one available path that will reward you with a key that opens up the next area, and occasionally you'll need to beat up some enemies. Combat is quite basic with just a couple of basic sword attacks and a dodge roll at your disposal, even through the end of the game, and more frustratingly your moves feel slow and clumsy. It's not uncommon for enemies to hit you while you're still winding up or recovering from a swing, which is especially a problem when you're surrounded by enemies. There are also only a couple of enemy types to encounter. Battles are thankfully rather short, but it still would've been nice to see more depth to the combat system. Boss fights, at least, add a lot more engaging gameplay and personality to Figment 2. These bigger battles tend to focus on dodging waves of attacks, kind of like an isometric bullet hell shooter, as well as incorporating puzzles into the battle—e.g. the boss might not be vulnerable until you solve a little puzzle in the environment. Most importantly, Figment 2 is a musical just like its predecessor, so boss fights are accompanied by lyrical songs (and there are a few other tunes scattered throughout the adventure as well). Though there are only a few boss fights in the game, these musical numbers are a blast and add a ton of bizarre, surreal charm. The puzzle side of Figment 2 runs a wide but somewhat shallow gamut. The basic ones simply involve finding the right keys, but there is also a good variety of challenges to keep things interesting, including a maze filled with smaller puzzle challenges and even a miniature detective story. It's awesome to have these unique challenges available, but most of them are also pretty simple. A bit more depth to the puzzle gameplay would have gone a long way to rounding out the Figment 2 experience. Furthermore, I ran into a couple of glitches involving puzzles that required restarting the game, which is definitely a bummer to encounter. Even outside of those glitches though, Figment 2 runs pretty poorly on the Switch. It's especially a shame because the surreal, abstract representation of the mind is gorgeous from a design perspective and provides a unique, distinctive visual style to the game, but the frame rate just cannot seem to smooth itself out. It's constantly and noticeably stuttering which spoils the beautiful visuals as well as the timing of moving and fighting. It's just disappointing that the game isn't more stable on the Switch. The audio side of the presentation doesn't disappoint, at least. As mentioned the musical numbers are excellent, and the rest of the soundtrack is great as well. There's also a ton of voice acting that really completes the characters' personalities. As mentioned Figment 2 is quite short, clocking in at under five hours. There are optional memory spheres to collect, and finding a requisite amount unlocks a memory for a bit of backstory, but it's a pretty small reward and finding memory spheres usually isn't much of a challenge anyway. There's also a local two-player mode where another player controls Piper. She only provides some light support so it's not quite a full-fledged co-op experience, but it can still be nice to get a friend in on the adventure. Figment 2: Creed Valley doesn't push itself far beyond its predecessor, but that still means it's an enjoyable adventure through the mind filled with surreal scenery and fabulous musical numbers. The gameplay remains a bit too shallow, both in terms of combat and puzzles, but the game's personality buoys the experience. Unfortunately the game really struggles to run smoothly on the Switch though, so it might be best to give Figment 2 a shot on a different platform. Rating: 7 out of 10 Memories
  22. Who better to recruit into a cult that worships a demonic god than a bunch of adorable woodland creatures? Cult of the Lamb combines a gruesome plot and setting with cute characters and also combines dungeon-crawling roguelike gameplay with a cult-management sim—'cause hey, cultists have to eat while you're out there murdering eldritch abominations. Not all of the pieces fit together perfectly, but the mash up ensures a unique adventure no matter what. You play as a little lamb who, as the game begins, is sacrificed in order to prevent the return of the eldritch god The One Who Waits. However, the god reaches out to you in the afterlife and brings you back to life and grants you his powers to recruit a cult and destroy the four other eldritch gods who sacrificed you. All of this, of course, while you're playing as an adorable cartoon lamb. The combination of the dark plot and cutesy graphics is hilariously incongruous. It's a joke that never gets old as you battle monsters or ritualistically sacrifice your own followers for more power as your other followers cheer you on. Granted, the rest of the story doesn't evolve much beyond the joke, but it's certainly a unique and engaging set up. The gameplay is split in two: on one hand you'll explore randomly generated dungeons to collect gold, materials, more followers, and ultimately try to kill each of the four old gods, and on the other hand you'll return to your base between dungeon crawls to ensure your followers are devout and are generating faith that you can use to upgrade your abilities and the base itself. Early on, the two halves feed into each other a fair bit. You need to explore dungeons to rescue new followers for your cult after all, and most of your base resources will probably come from exploring. Gradually though, the two halves kind of separate, which is a shame. Once you've built up your base enough that you've unlocked some perks for dungeon crawling, it just kind of feels like there are two games being played. It can also be frustrating that things can go wrong at your base while you're exploring and there's nothing you can do about it until you return. It would have been nice to have a little more constant interaction between the two halves of Cult of the Lamb. Each half plays decently though, for the most part. While exploring, there's a fair degree of randomization, and like a lot of roguelikes it sometimes feels like your run is ruined straight from the start due to bad luck. There are only a handful of different weapon types, but you can unlock new effects like a poisoned weapon, vampiric, etc. so there's at least a little variety. You can also find tarot cards to grant special effects during a run, and you'll need to gradually unlock more cards to give yourself more options. Overall though the dungeon exploration feels surprisingly light on content. The developers have and are continuing to add more content to the game, but it almost feels like you've seen everything the game has to offer in just a few hours, which isn't great for any game but especially a roguelike. Combat can also be annoyingly floaty and simple. Some weapons especially make you feel like you're sliding around the screen while attacking, which can be frustrating when fighting small or fast enemies. Each weapon controls a little differently but you still only have a basic attack, so despite unlocking new weapon effects it does kind of feel like the same thing every time. The cult building side of the game requires you to micromanage your cultists a bit, though like any sim game it can be satisfying to see the cult you've built run smoothly. Early on you'll just have them chop wood, mine stone, or pray to generate faith devotion points, but eventually you can give them slightly more complicated tasks. Crucially though they will lose faith while you're not in your base. To raise it again, you can hold sermons and rituals, and you're also given the choice of which rituals to unlock as you progress. Some are benevolent, like holding a feast to raise faith and lower hunger, while others, like sacrificing a follower's life to The One Who Waits, are decidedly less benevolent. Being able to choose between being a kinder or stricter cult leader is a fun bit of customization. In the end though, managing the cult feels perhaps too simple. Oftentimes I returned to my base to see my followers' faith meter completely drained, but after a sermon and a friendly ritual everything was topped off again. There's not actually a lot of planning or strategy needed for managing the cult, which feels like a missed opportunity. Early on it takes some grunt work—like manually cleaning up followers' poop because they will just go anywhere at any time (I guess they are technically animals)—but soon enough it's so automated that checking in doesn't have much meaning anymore, and it's just a to-do list of busywork, like emptying the outhouse (not sure why the cult leader needs to be the one doing it, but okay). Even the more interesting stuff like having a follower start to complain and try to sway others away from your cult can be solved almost instantaneously. In both the dungeon exploration and cult management, Cult of the Lamb could have used more deep, varied gameplay to keep things engaging from start to finish. The game is also not terribly long. You can probably complete the story in about 12–15 hours, and even within that time frame the gameplay starts to feel pretty repetitive. You can continue to play afterward but as mentioned, even with randomized dungeon layouts and weapons the gameplay surprisingly doesn't quite have legs. There are also mini-games and side quests you can tackle, but they don't do much to spice up the gameplay either. Cult of the Lamb also doesn't quite run smoothly on the Switch. The load times are quite long, but more frustrating and noticeable are the dropped frames that makes the action stutter for a second. Oftentimes this can happen during combat, which is particularly annoying. Cult of the Lamb blends its dark subject matter and adorable art style beautifully, but the blend of gameplay elements is a bit less successful. Each half ends up feeling a bit too simple and isolated. Still, for the runtime, Cult of the Lamb is a charmingly gruesome little adventure, just don't expect to become a devout follower. Rating: 7 out of 10 Cultists
  23. I had an absolute blast with the original Octopath Traveler back in 2018—in fact, it was my game of the year back then. The turn-based combat, anthology-style storytelling, and of course the stunning HD-2D art style completely captivated me. After nearly five years and several HD-2D games since then though, can Octopath Traveler II retain that same magic, and more importantly build upon it? Emphatically, yes, yes it can. Like the first game, each character has their own path to complete. The character you start with will be your leader, and from there you can circle the map of Solistia to collect the other seven and explore every story along the way. The original game got a bit of flak for this anthology structure but I loved it, and it still feels unique and engaging to have eight different little journeys to follow—though it's still a little funny that some stories are deadly serious, like Osvald going to prison after being framed for the murder of his family, while others are incredibly light like Agnea's quest to become a famous dancer. The vignette format allows for that kind of variety though, without breaking the cohesion of the game. Octopath Traveler II has also shaken up the strict four chapter structure of the original so that each traveler's tale can unfold more organically with a few long chapters or more short chapters. You can even sometimes choose between two or three destinations within one character's story, though to be fair the recommended levels will largely keep you on a specific path anyway. Although the overall format is still the same, Octopath Traveler II does weave together the eight characters a bit more than the first. After reaching necessary checkpoints in two characters' stories, you'll be able to play a Crossed Path story that pairs up characters into brief side quests. It's a ton of fun to have the characters interact more directly, and each one feels ripe for character moments, like pairing up the thief Throné with the sarcastic cleric Temenos. In fact, I would've loved to have a Crossed Path story for every possible pairing, though that would be quite a lot of side quests, and keeping the pairings relatively brief helps make them feel special. Perhaps more importantly, the Crossed Paths actually feed into the other major addition to Octopath Traveler II's storytelling: a unified final chapter. The original game had an optional superboss, but now there's a fully fleshed out and storydriven final chapter after you complete all eight main character stories and all Crossed Paths. It's an absolute delight to have all eight characters interacting with each other directly, and it's because this interaction is so sparse that it's all the more exciting to see them together in action. The final chapter's story is also pretty solid and brings together some subtle and some not-so-subtle teasers that build up throughout the game in a satisfying and rather surprising way. Ironically, despite the massive length of the game, some of the plot threads leading into the final chapter feel extremely underbaked, but it's an exciting finale nonetheless. The gameplay has also seen some minor upgrades that can have major effects on how you play. The turn-based and class-based combat system is largely the same: each character has a primary class and you unlock the option of giving them a secondary class. Each class has combat skills as well as passive abilities, so there is a ton of opportunity for experimentation and building unique (or even broken) class synergies. In battle, enemies have shield points that correspond to weapon types and magic elements. By breaking all of their shield points, the enemy will be stunned for one turn and more susceptible to damage. This core combat system shines brightest during boss encounters when stunning the boss is so vital to giving yourself a chance to heal or build up powerful attacks, but even normal battles are engaging as you try to defeat enemies as efficiently as possible. The early parts of the game in particular strike a satisfying balance of challenge and strategy thanks to shield points. This game also has the Boost Points system that allows you to dish out more attacks in a single turn or power up your special attacks into truly devastating blows. Managing your BP economy is also a fun aspect to combat that is usually only important to boss fights, but still, when your little strategies to break shields, rack up BP, and deliver flashy class skills come together, the turn-based combat is immensely satisfying. All of those essential elements were in the first game, though. Octopath Traveler II ups the ante by adding Latent Powers, another special ability unique to each character that will charge up during battle by either dealing or taking damage. Once the meter's full, you can unleash fancy new abilities. Throné, for example, can act twice in one turn with her Latent Power, while Castti the apothecary can mix her concoctions without expending items. Every Latent Power is pretty powerful and it's exciting to have another card in your hand that you can use to turn the tide of a tough boss fight. You don't even have to be too precious about them—Latent Powers charge fairly quickly, and they're so powerful you're better off using them when appropriate rather than holding on for turn after turn. Outside of combat, Octopath Traveler II has also revamped the Path Action ability slightly. Now every character has two actions, one for the day and one for the night. Hikari the warrior, for example, can provoke NPCs into a duel during the day, or he can pay them for information at night. Osvald the scholar can scrutinize people during the day to gain information or he can mug them at night to steal items (Osvald's had a tough time, I'm not going to judge him too much). This overlap of Path Action effects means you don't have to rely on the same characters all the time for certain effects—for example, there are now four ways to gain information or items from NPCs, it just depends on how you want to go about it. Additionally, NPCs will be in different areas during the day or night, so that's also a factor as you try to hunt down info or stolen goods. It's just nice to have more options for interacting with NPCs in Octopath Traveler II and makes every character's Path Actions feel useful. It's also great that Hikari's provoke ability grants him combat skills that he can use in battle, so there's a lot more reason to use it outside of his story chapters. There are a few other small updates to the gameplay, such as traveling by ship, being able to summon Ochette the hunter's captive animals indefinitely rather than a set number of times, or unlocking multiples of each secondary class, so that you can have, for example, a team of four warriors for some truly devastating physical attacks. For the most part, all of these little changes and additions just further expand your gameplay options, which is awesome for those players that love breaking a game with insane strategies. There is one annoying little quirk that has not changed from the first game though: the first character you pick is still your leader until you complete their story, meaning you can't swap them out until then. In a game all about exploring individual stories it feels so oddly limiting to restrict players like this. In the end it's not a huge deal, but it's surprising that this little complaint from the first game wasn't changed. The absolutely beastly length of the game hasn't changed from the original either. Octopath Traveler II can easily last you over 80 hours. Sure you can probably finish the main stories closer to 60, but the game does such a great job of sprinkling in fun NPCs and interesting locations that you can't help but take on the many tangents and side quests available, especially when optional caves and dungeons give you recommended levels, practically teasing you to come back and explore when you're stronger. And yes, there is once again a ridiculously powerful superboss that the most dedicated players can try to conquer. Most importantly, despite the long run time, Octopath Traveler II never drags. Perhaps it's because the entire game is based around building a long adventure out of smaller narratives, but every chapter, side quest, and environment to explore comes in a perfect bite-sized format that makes it incredibly addictive to snack on one after another. Five years hasn't done much to dull the sparkle of HD-2D. The unique blend of sprites and crisp scenery still looks amazing, even after seeing several games with the same style. The format's foibles are perhaps beginning to show their age—I couldn't help but be distracted at times by the massive amounts of light bloom—but overall the visual design is still stunning and lends itself to plenty of gorgeous environments and daunting boss sprites. The soundtrack, meanwhile, doesn't miss a step. The music is once again filled with phenomenal track after phenomenal track, from the stirring new rendition of the main theme to the twangy, jazzy tunes of Partitio the merchant's storyline to the dramatic and somber scenes in other paths. There's truly not a bad song in the bunch, which is all the more impressive considering every location gets both a daytime and nighttime music theme. And finally the voice acting is the cherry on top of everything. With all major cutscenes now fully voiced, the characters come to life beautifully, and I can't help but highlight the adorable charm of Agnea the dancer slipping between her proper performer's voice and her natural drawl in moments of high emotions. The voice work does a wonderful job of capturing all of these varied characters and stories. Octopath Traveler II is a fantastic continuation and refinement of the original game. All of the core elements remain the same, while new gameplay mechanics allow for even more customization and the final chapter of the overarching story ties together all eight paths in a surprisingly engaging way. If you weren't a fan of the original's format and style I can't say that this game will change anything for you, but for the fans that did resonate with the anthology format, turn-based combat, and HD-2D artwork, Octopath Traveler II is a fresh adventure that's well worth the journey. Rating: 8 out of 8 Travelers
  24. Some people feel the call of the wild to get out into nature, leaving behind modern society for a bit and reconnecting with the simple joys and challenges of the great outdoors. Not me, I stay inside and play video games all day, so if you're like me you can get a taste of nature with The Red Lantern, a roguelike survival game about one woman's trek across the Alaskan wilderness with her dog sled team. Although the game establishes a decent setting for an invigorating return to nature, the actual adventure is much less thrilling here. You play as a woman who has left behind the city to pursue a dream of dog sled racing. In the opening moments of the game you'll pick out your team of dogs, then you're off on a majestic, snowy, and rather lonely adventure filled with peril as you struggle to keep your dogs and yourself safe. Although there are copious amounts of dialogue—voiced by Ashly Burch—The Red Lantern is a pretty introspective, thoughtful story about trying new things and testing your limits. It's an engaging theme that isn't really explored fully in the game though, mostly due to clashes with the gameplay. The repetitive nature of a roguelike makes the introspective moments feel a little cheaper since you hear them over and over, and the survival aspect of the game just makes the protagonist seem like kind of an idiot for journeying into the Alaskan wilderness with just three bullets in her rifle and enough tinder for exactly one fire. On the brightside though, each dog is given a slightly different personality and side story, and discovering all of them is a cute touch. The name of the game here is survival. Your goal is your new home, a cabin with a red lantern, but to get there you'll need to spend a few days traversing snowy fields, forests, and even frozen lakes/rivers. As you travel your dogs will tire out, and when you stop to investigate things, collect supplies, hunt wild animals or deal with unexpected predators, your own hunger meter will also decline, forcing you to eventually stop, set up camp, and eat/rest. Balancing your very meager resources can be a struggle at first, but the game mercifully allows for progress between failed attempts (within the story, failed attempts are treated as nightmares the protagonist has before setting out on the journey, which is a pretty clever touch). The more you see/do the more supplies you'll start with on your next attempt, and you can even pick up helpful equipment like a trap for catching animals instead of hunting them and spending bullets. Overall it's a decent roguelike survival formula that forces you to pretty much always be playing on the edge of failure, which adds a lot of tension, but too much of the experience seems to come down to luck. Random events in a survival game definitely keep you on your toes, but it can also be extremely frustrating when you repeatedly cannot find something as simple as tinder for building a fire. You can manage your resources as perfectly as you possibly can, but if you just don't run into animals to hunt you'll inevitably run out of food. Granted, one successful runthrough of The Red Lantern is quite short so you're meant to try and fail a lot and just roll with the punches, but it makes for a pretty discouraging gameplay loop. In other roguelikes you often get further on each attempt because you've gotten better at the game's mechanics; here it feels like you only get further because you got lucky. The element of chance is only exacerbated by the bafflingly odd shooting mechanic. When you do encounter an animal like a caribou, you'll enter a mini-game of sorts where you have a brief window of time to shoot. There will be two circles bouncing across the screen, and you'll want to fire when the two overlap. The only controls you have are to shoot or to hold your breath which slightly slows down one of the circles. It's an obnoxiously clumsy system to begin with, especially in a game where both your bullets and the potential meat you can collect from the animal are so scarce and precious, but there were also times where the circles were lined up just fine and yet I still missed, or I triggered an event where the first bullet didn't kill the animal so I'd have to hope I ran into it again later. That kind of blind luck just doesn't feel good in a game where failure is so common. And even when things are going well for you, the gameplay can feel pretty repetitive. The first several encounters of any playthrough are usually pretty similar and very quickly it feels like you're just going through the motions with The Red Lantern. The game's presentation is at least pretty solid. It has a sort of simple, painterly art style that is beautifully barren, blanketed in snow and lit by the shifting sunlight (you can also continue sledding at night though I have to say that seems like a terrible idea in real life). The developers managed to put a lot of personality into scenery that is relatively undetailed; the emptiness is the point. That said, the emptiness can also get a bit boring after the seventh or eighth attempt. As already mentioned, Ashly Burch voices the game and does a good job of adding personality to the nameless protagonist, though again hearing the same lines every playthrough gets to be pretty tiresome. The Red Lantern offers a uniquely challenging trek across the Alaskan wilderness, but the luck-based, randomized events might be to the game's detriment. It's understandable to make a survival game challenging, but losing a run for what feels like events completely outside of your control never feels good, and the game's repetitive nature makes each run a bit too much like the last. If you really want to pet some virtual sledding dogs you can give this game a try, but the gameplay is unlikely to keep you coming back for more than a handful of playthroughs, which adds up to only a couple of hours. Rating: 5 out of 10 Dogs
  25. Video game fans have known since the days of Rampage at the arcade that stomping around as a giant monster is just plain fun. And yet, there are surprisingly few games that focus on massive kaiju battles as the key gameplay feature. Developer 13AM Games seeks to rectify that with Dawn of the Monsters, a side-scrolling beat 'em up with four playable characters: two kaiju and two giant robot/Ultraman-style fighters. It's a formula that should work on paper but is perhaps brought down by typical beat 'em up pitfalls. In the world of Dawn of the Monsters, giant kaiju called Nephilim have been rampaging and destroying cities for years. The Defense Alliance Worldwide Network (DAWN) is fighting back though, with the aid of two human-piloted giant robots and two Nephilim of their own that are under DAWN's control to fight on the side of humanity. It really does feel like an action movie plotline, for better and for worse. I'm not saying a giant monster beat 'em up game needs to have a perfectly in-depth storyline, but the flat characters and perfectly predictable story twists make even the brief cutscenes before each mission feel like needless filler. The side-scrolling beat 'em up gameplay really does capture the vibe of old monster movies, again perhaps to the game's detriment. The characters are slow and somewhat cumbersome, and like a lot of beat 'em ups it is frustratingly easy to miss an enemy because you are slightly off of the z-axis plane. It's a feature that kind of plagues the genre in general, but in Dawn of the Monsters it can be particularly grating since your attacks are so slow and you can easily get chain-stunned by enemies if you don't hit first. The game is definitely being true to the lumbering movements of old kaiju movies, but it doesn't make for a great gameplay experience. Combat is also fairly repetitive over the course of the roughly five-hour game. There are a handful of different monster types you'll fight, including some mini-bosses with more health and main bosses at the end of each section of the story, but so much of the game plays like every moment before it. Again, this is largely the fault of the genre, not necessarily Dawn of the Monsters, but the few instances where you do have a different objective from just defeating every enemy—surviving for a set amount of time, destroying a large obstacle—only highlights how much the game needs more variety in objectives to keep the gameplay fresh. The four playable characters do play differently from one another, but they're still somewhat lacking in worthwhile variety. Each character has just three special attacks as well as a super move, and it feels like a real missed opportunity to not give them more specials that you can swap in and out. What you can customize though are augments, which are equippable boosts to your stats that also grant special effects, such as increasing your damage for a few seconds when you destroy a building, or stunning nearby enemies when you perform a fancy execution (which also recovers your health). This is the one area where the game provides some actual variety and customization, though even here it would've been nice to see a wider range of effects, especially since the flat stat boosts sometimes feel more valuable than any of the special effects. Although the game is fairly short you can replay levels with different characters or augments and try to earn a high grade. You're ranked on every battle based on your score for defeating monsters and maintaining a high score multiplier chain. The slow movements and attacks tend to work against you here though. Sometimes an enemy spawns on the other side of the screen and you just aren't fast enough to make it there in time before your score chain breaks, which is just plain frustrating. Dawn of the Monsters also supports two-player local co-op which is always a fun feature to see, though doesn't change up much of the game's core issues. The game's art style is pretty striking. The vivid colors and heavy shadows give the whole experience a kind of comic book vibe, which is pretty appropriate for a game about giant monsters duking it out. That said, even with the handful of environments and different enemy designs, the visuals do feel pretty repetitive, and the somewhat slow animation—again, presumably a nod to old kaiju films—isn't exactly the most visually exciting. The audio department is also decent but not too notable. The soundtrack is pretty forgettable and the voice work is fine but doesn't liven up the by-the-numbers story very much. Dawn of the Monsters is an admirable attempt at translating classic kaiju destruction into a side-scrolling beat 'em up, but the end result falls into too many of the pitfalls of the genre. Repetitive levels are only exacerbated by slow, sluggish attacks and movement, and while the augment system adds some much needed variety to the gameplay, it isn't quite enough to spark a ton of excitement here. Still, if you're interested in giant monster fighting & destruction, Dawn of the Monsters is a decent action game, just not a deep one. Rating: 6 out of 10 Monsters
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