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  1. I was surprised to see that it's actually been a minute since the last LEGO video game. For a while there it seemed like there were three or four coming out every year, whether based on licensed properties or original content, and all of them sporting the same gameplay formula that has practically become a genre unto itself at this point. But with a bit of time since the last brick-based game, does LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga come off feeling like a more fresh experience? Well, yes and no. Perhaps more importantly though, fans of the LEGO game formula will still be well-satisfied with this one for dozens upon dozens of hours. Skywalker Saga covers all nine of the main Star Wars movies, and you can begin your journey with the first of any of the three trilogies (i.e. episode I, IV, or VII). The game serves as a condensed version of each of these nine episodes, with cutscenes that rapidly take you through the set-up and exposition of each scene and gameplay levels that cover all of the blaster firing, lightsaber dueling, and spaceship battles that Star Wars fans know and love. Especially for having not watched any of these movies in a long while, it was fun to run through them again, even if the game does add the usual LEGO slapstick humor—it's not all bad, but some of the predictable jokes definitely drag on for too long. Each episode includes five main missions which play as like the usual LEGO games, meaning there's some light puzzle solving as you craft objects or use characters' unique skills to help you progress as well as battles with melee attacks, blasters, or space dogfights. At its core, the LEGO formula still has a fair bit of charm. It's rather predictable and obviously skews on the easy side to accommodate young players, but even if it's rarely demanding it's still pretty fun to run around breaking apart LEGO brick objects and exploring. There are even a handful of clever, fun challenges sprinkled throughout the game—not as much as I would've liked perhaps, but it's nice that there's a bit of variety here. The combat also feels a little more engaging this time around with some variety in your attacks. This still isn't exactly an action game by any means but fighting stormtroopers is a bit less mindlessly repetitive. And like past LEGO games there is an insane amount of things to collect, not all of which is possible on your first playthrough since you'll need characters with specific abilities that might not be there during the "canonical" first playthrough. Characters are divided up into categories and each one has unique abilities—Jedi can, obviously, use lightsabers to cut through specific walls, while scavengers like Rey are able to craft items that help them traverse the environment. The main levels are already filled with plenty of things to discover, but the real bulk of the game comes from the sandbox areas between levels that are oftentimes massive and packed with side quests, optional challenges, and collectibles to grab. Finishing just the main missions might take you around fifteen hours or so, but trying to 100% complete this game could easily push it closer to eighty or ninety hours. That absolutely insane amount of content is great for hardcore collectible fans but like a lot of LEGO games it can feel like padding. Most missions and challenges are pretty basic and once you've done a few dozen of them it's a little hard to maintain the energy to keep at them. There is at least a good incentive to gather up those collectible bricks while you progress, though. They can be used to upgrade your characters (increased speed, attack power, health, etc.) which at least gives you a more substantial reason to grab them beyond just trying to reach 100% completion. Considering there are over one thousand collectible bricks in the game, it's good to have a little extra motivation to find them. The presentation in Skywalker Saga is just about everything you'd expect from a LEGO game. The animation wrings a ton of charm out of these blocky characters, and the environments have plenty of polish to them that make them feel fully realized, even when they look like a bunch of LEGO bricks. So much of the dialogue is taken straight from the movies which is a great touch, and of course it's always a treat to hear the familiar Star Wars songs in any context. While the art design is pretty solid though, the technical side of the game leaves a lot to be desired. Frame rate dips are a bit annoying but understandable on a multiplatform game. There were plenty of more severe glitches during my playthrough though, which really soured the experience. Textures sometimes failed to load fully during the opening crawl, leaving the text basically unreadable. A scene transition would fail to load so I'd be stuck staring at a wall of the previous scene, unable to progress without exiting and reloading. Visual effects would sometimes get stuck on the screen, so a blurry effect from being hit by a powerful attack would stick around until I'd finished the entire level. Most frustratingly, there were several crashes which necessitated replaying parts of levels. Beware that the game's technical polish is far from complete and there will likely (and hopefully) be some important patches down the line. LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is a staggeringly massive playground for Star Wars fans to run around in and collect their favorite characters and ships in familiar locales. The usual LEGO formula has a bit of an upgrade here though it's still an undeniably repetitive one, especially if you're hardcore enough to try to collect everything possible in the game. If that sort of thing does tickle your fancy you'll find a wealth of easy but entertaining gameplay here, just be wary of the technical hiccups that will pop up on occasion. Rating: 7 out of 10 Bricks
  2. A throwback to classic side-scrolling beat 'em ups of the 90s, The TakeOver wears its Streets of Rage influence on its sleeve, from genre staples down to some of the character and level design. This game isn't just a copycat though and manages to throw in a couple of novel ideas into a formula that hasn't changed much in decades. But despite those shake ups, only die-hard fans of the genre are likely to dive into The TakeOver. In a story that definitely feels like it came out of the 80s or 90s, the city of Steel Haven has been overrun by crime—taken over by it, you might say. When police officer Ethan's daughter is kidnapped amidst the crime spree, he, his girlfriend Megan, and his friend Connor take to the streets to find her. It's a super generic story told through pretty bland cutscenes. Granted, story-telling isn't usually a priority for beat 'em up games, but the developers might as well not have bothered with any kind of plot in that case. Just have a bunch of cops/protagonists beating up gang members, simple. No need to try to give the final boss some thin motivation literally in the final cutscene of the game. The TakeOver has all the fundamentals of a side-scrolling beat 'em up with one or two notable additions. Instead of a single attack button you've got two: punch or kick. By chaining the two together you can use long combos that oftentimes stunlock enemies into place, which is a nice way of speeding up fights sometimes (though it won't work on every enemy and obviously not on bosses). You've also got special moves that drain health and a super meter that gradually fills as you land hits (and decreases when you take damage) that can be used for a powerful burst attack. Finally there's a rage meter that also gradually fills as you attack and allows you to enter an invincible, super-powered state for a short while. You can also sometimes find melee weapons and every character comes equipped with a gun for ranged attacks, though ammo is limited so you'll need to find it as you progress through each stage. The end result is that The TakeOver's combat has one or two fun wrinkles but ultimately plays like every other side-scrolling beat 'em up. If you're playing a beat 'em up in this millenium that's probably all you want anyway, something that evokes that classic sense of arcade combat and progression, even with all its little flaws like missing an enemy because you're not quite on the right y-axis even though they can hit you just fine. Still though, it would've been nice to have even more new, unique features in The TakeOver, especially since they clearly touched upon a couple of ideas. The game does have a couple of bonus action stages to break up the action, though these are also pretty simple and don't really change the fact that The TakeOver is repetitive, even though it only takes a few hours to play through it all. Even with combos and various special attacks the combat system always feels like the same thing over and over, and it's rarely rewarding, i.e. it doesn't often feel like you win because of skill or planning, you just win by mashing the attack buttons over and over. It's mindless action, which can be fun for a bit but gets stale pretty quickly. Aside from the main arcade mode, there are a couple of other game modes to try, though they don't switch up the gameplay much at all. Challenge mode literally just has you replay individual sections of the game with some side-goal in mind, like not letting your health drop below 50% or never using special attacks. As far as bonus modes go, it's pretty lackluster. There's also Survival mode where you just fight waves and waves of enemies—not a terribly inspired game mode either but at least you know what you're getting right off the bat. You can also play any game mode with two-player local co-op, and although this doesn't spice up the gameplay much either, it is nice to have another couch co-op game out there. The presentation in The TakeOver is a little hard to pin down because, while individual elements do look pretty good—the character design, level design, etc.—the overall style is so busy and has something of a plasticky, stiff feel to it when animated. The cutscenes are played in a stylish 2D comic book, but the artwork is a bit bland and unpolished. And last but not least, the soundtrack is energetic and gives off that 90s arcade vibe, though the individual songs don't stand out much. The TakeOver is, like many throwbacks or revivals of classic video game genres, a good imitation of an older form of gameplay, but doesn't seem to want to push the genre forward at all. Separate punches and kicks with combo chains is a fun addition but doesn't quite break up the monotony of the side-scrolling action formula, and the uninspired writing and visuals aren't switching things up much either. Fans of beat 'em ups might enjoy having another side-scroller to punch their way through, but anyone not already charmed by the genre may feel that The TakeOver is too generic. Rating: 6 out of 10 Takeovers
  3. We've got plenty of stories about a hero rising up to fight monsters and demons, but Skul: The Hero Slayer flips the script. In this game you play as a lowly skeleton soldier on a quest to rescue the Demon King who has been attacked by human warriors. With fast and frantic combat and roguelike randomization and progression, Skul is an addictive adventure. It's a lot of fun to be playing as a "bad guy" undead fighter, rescuing other monsters like witches, trolls and the like. Aside from the premise though, Skul doesn't delve too deeply into storytelling. The first time you reach a new region of the game you're treated to little cutscenes that add some context, but it's pretty minimal and since you only see them once in the dozens (or even hundreds) of times you'll play through the game, they don't leave much of an impact. Skul is a roguelike, meaning that the levels are randomly generated, the items/weapons you find are randomly provided, and when you die you start back at square one to try it all over again. The twist here is that Skul can literally swap his skull for other ones, granting him different abilities. Skulls, then, essentially act as weapons. You can pick up basic sword fighter or archer skulls, magic-user skulls, or more unique ones like rockstar and even skulls that reference other roguelike games. The amount of skulls feels great—there are enough that you can experiment with tons of options, but not so many that you'll get overwhelmed by them, especially since you can't control which skulls you'll find in each playthrough. Skulls can also be upgraded to be stronger (only in your current playthrough) so once you do find ones you like you can keep them and just keep upgrading them to improve your damage output. Aside from skulls, you'll also pick up items on each run that provide various buffs, from basic extra damage to special effects like granting you a temporary shield every so often. Like a lot of roguelikes there is a ton to learn when you first start Skul, so figuring out which items work for your playstyle will take time, and this is all further complicated by the affinities that each item provides. Items have two affinities which grant additional bonus effects which can be stacked, so it might behoove you to have a lot of items with similar affinities to get a bigger bonus effect. Like I said it can feel overwhelming at first and the game doesn't actually do a good job of explaining these little features, but since this is the kind of game that you're expected to play over and over and over, you'll gradually learn what affinities do what and which ones might be most beneficial to your current run. The combat itself is fast, frantic, and satisfying. Some skulls are speed-based and some are power-based, but either way you'll have a blast smashing your way through groups of enemies as you dodge enemy attacks and juggle the cooldown meters of your special abilities. There's a good amount of variety in enemy types so you'll be up against different challenges in each region of the game, though by the end enemies can feel like damage sponges if you haven't carefully curated your skull/item set up. There are also mini-bosses and bosses to truly test your skills, and like all roguelikes it's super satisfying when you get good enough to take them out without much effort. Although the maps are randomly generated you do have some control over where to go next. Most rooms end with two doors and the decorations around the doors indicate what kinds of challenges/rewards await you. You might want to just take on a normal door if you're low on health and are hoping to make it to the next merchant room to buy healing items, or you might want to try a skull door to get a new skull or break it into bone shards that can be used to upgrade your current skulls. There aren't that many different types of rooms but having some control over where you go next helps you plan out your playthrough. Skul features some fantastic 2D artwork as well as a pretty catchy soundtrack. The scenery is incredibly detailed and the sprite-work on the skulls/enemies is sharp. Even though you're going to see these environments and characters over and over, there's a lot of depth and personality here as well as good readability when the screen is filled with chaotic combat. The music does a great job of building up the intensity of the action as you progress as well, and is catchy enough that it doesn't grow stale anytime soon. Skul: The Hero Slayer adds just a couple spins to the standard roguelike formula, but with such a solid foundation those little touches add a good amount of personality. Slowly learning how to efficiently fly through the game is always a satisfying challenge, and although Skul has some particularly obtuse mechanics that will take time to learn as well as a very slow progression system to upgrade your abilities between runs, the core gameplay is polished enough that roguelike fans will enjoy coming back for more, one playthrough after the next. Rating: 8 out of 10 Skulls
  4. Which came first, the bomb or the chicken? Thankfully, 2D platformer Bomb Chicken isn't too concerned with such philosophical musings. This game is all about one chicken's desperate adventure to escape a fast-food chain's surprisingly elaborate facilities, using only her wits and a seemingly endless supply of bombs she can lay. Its oddball premise doesn't change the fact that there's some unique and clever platforming challenges to enjoy here. Bomb Chicken's simple controls yields some complex puzzle-platforming. The only two actions you can perform are moving left and right or laying a bomb—this chicken can't even jump, much less fly to freedom. In order to reach ledges or climb over obstacles you can push yourself up by dropping a stack of bombs. To make matters trickier your own bombs can damage you, so after dropping one you have to be careful to avoid the blast radius. The result is a pretty clever twist on typical platforming challenges. Even a small step can prove dangerous since you'll need to push yourself up with a bomb then move away before it can detonate. Add in challenges like enemies, moving platforms, or flaming hazards and you'll find a great variety of unique platformer scenarios that make great use of the simple bomb-dropping mechanic. Seemingly every level presents a new challenge to overcome as there's always an engaging new hazard to contend with. In addition to simply reaching the goal of the level, each stage has a handful of blue gems for you to collect. More than a typical gold coin collectible though, these gems can be used to give you additional hearts. You may die in one hit, but it's not game over until all of your hearts are used up—each stage is divided into several rooms, so dying puts you back at the beginning of the room while losing all hearts sends you back to the very beginning of the stage. Obviously collecting gems is pretty crucial then, though grabbing them can occasionally be more challenging than it seems. There are even secret areas you can uncover that will reward you with gems hidden behind the trickiest challenges. Collecting gems can be a great secondary objective to truly test your bombing skills and give you a handy crutch on the harder levels. The main downside of Bomb Chicken is simply that the game doesn't last that long. There are only 29 stages in the game, and even with numerous deaths/retries the average player isn't going to need more than a few hours to finish the whole game. Collecting all of the blue gems might be a more difficult challenge, but even that won't extend the game's length by much. There's something to be said for keeping the gameplay to a tight, short experience to ensure the action stays fresh and never gets too repetitive, but still, it would've been nice to see even more levels here. The game's presentation mixes some great pixel graphics with only so-so audio. Even if there are only a handful of enemy designs and three different worlds to traverse, the sprite work is top notch, particularly around the chicken's hilarious waddling animation. The graphics may not be too flashy but there's still a lot of personality to enjoy here. The music is less charming though, with little that stands out throughout its repetitive background music tracks. Bomb Chicken presents a fun, unique twist on platforming and manages to get a lot of mileage out of its explosive poultry premise. The game may not last long but there are plenty of clever puzzles and challenges to enjoy, many of which will leave you on the edge of your seat as you narrowly outrun a chain of deadly explosions. 2D platformer fans will have a blast with this one. Rating: 7 out of 10 Bombs
  5. With so many RPGs that take place across huge, sweeping narratives and 50+ hour time commitments, it can be a refreshing change of pace to play one that is smaller and somewhat cozier in scale. The Cruel King and the Great Hero is a storybook adventure about one little girl's dreams of becoming a hero, told through an adorable hand-drawn art style. But while the game's aesthetics are undeniably charming, the gameplay and pacing could use some work. You play as Yuu, a young girl who is being raised by monsters. Her adoptive dad is the Dragon King, a powerful but kind dragon that hilariously watches over Yuu during her adventures by peeking through the background. Yuu aspires to be a great hero like her father and gradually takes on quests to aid the monster village and accomplish great deeds. It's an almost saccharinely cute story and Yuu is an adorable protagonist, always eager to help and lend a friendly ear. The twists are mostly predictable but the game really doesn't present itself as a complex narrative anyway so the relative simplicity of the story doesn't feel out of place. The Cruel King and the Great Hero is a turn-based RPG with random encounters, equipment to find, special skills to learn, etc. At first it's just Yuu on a solo adventure but she soon picks up allies that join her in battle—only one at a time though. The combat system doesn't have many fancy frills. You've got standard attacks, special skills, items, etc. Skills require energy which naturally recovers during battle, so you can't just spam them all the time. It's a pretty easy system to learn but it can also feel too simple at times. Standard battles can get pretty repetitive as you end up using the same tactics over and over. In fact, there aren't that many special skills available in the game, so even that aspect of combat feels somewhat bare. If the story and presentation are anything to go by, The Cruel King and the Great Hero may seem suited for new or young players, so the simplicity of the combat system may seem appropriate. However, the game also has some pretty significant difficulty spikes that can be pretty draining as you devote time to level grinding or just doing side quests to power up a bit. The tone of the game and the difficulty of the gameplay feel at odds with one another, and it can make progress a bit discouraging. It certainly doesn't help that the pacing of the game is as slow as molasses. Yuu walks slowly through some pretty large environments, and the flow of battle, while not terribly slow, isn't exactly fast either. Progress is absolutely plodding in The Cruel King and the Great Hero, and then there's the random encounter system to weigh things down even more. I'm normally not one to gripe about random encounters—they were standard in the RPGs I grew up on, after all—but they can get annoying here. For one thing, your slow walking pace means it feels like you've hardly made progress across the screen before you're thrown into another battle. For another, the "avoid encounters" item that you can use isn't 100% effective, so even when you're backtracking through areas full of weak monsters in order to complete a side quest you'll still have to sit through some battles. And since battles themselves aren't all that interesting, the cycle of random encounters can feel oppressive. It's okay to have a leisurely paced game, but The Cruel King and the Great Hero is almost tediously slow. And the story isn't actually that long, especially by RPG standards, but you'll feel every minute of the game thanks to its slow pacing. You can finish the story in around twelve hours, though there are also a lot of side quests to tackle which can be useful since they'll reward you with rare items, or at least money. The downside is that the side quests are, you guessed it, pretty repetitive, and the constant backtracking gets obnoxious. Even though it's not as much of a time commitment as other RPGs, you have to mentally prepare for how long and slow The Cruel King and the Great Hero feels. The presentation, though, is probably the highlight of the game, and it doesn't disappoint. The hand-drawn art style is gorgeous, like an animated storybook, and even the monsters you fight are just adorably designed. The art style's charm and playfulness goes a long way in boosting the game's personality even when you're walking back through the same areas over and over. The soundtrack is pretty sharp as well with a suitably cute but adventurous tone. The Cruel King and the Great Hero boasts a great sense of style and an adorable little story, but the core gameplay elements will likely leave players wanting. The combat mechanics are decently done but there aren't many new ideas brought to the table, and the noticeably slow pace of the game really stretches out what is actually a very modest run time for an RPG. Players interested in a cute little RPG might want to check out The Cruel King and the Great Hero, but be prepared for surprising difficulty spikes and a sluggish sense of pacing. Rating: 6 out of 10 Heroes
  6. It seems like some stories are just guaranteed to tug on your heartstrings, and To the Moon is definitely one of them. Originally created a decade ago with RPG Maker XP, the game tells the story of an old man's dying wish to go to the moon. The story that unfolds though is beautifully touching and surprising. Virtually every other aspect of the game feels lacking, though. You play as doctors Eva Rosalene and Neil Watts who use a sci-fi headset to enter the memories of patients and can even change or manipulate those memories. For dying patient Johnny Wyles, they enter his mind and implant a false memory of wanting to travel to the moon, thereby allowing him to live out the experience in his mind. It's an awesome sci-fi setup that quickly dives into relatable human experiences. The doctors travel backwards through Johnny's memories, so the most recent ones are of his late wife River, their courtship, then all the way back to his childhood. This backwards narrative for his life story is naturally engaging and intriguing—why is he the person he is in his old age? You'll have to travel farther back to find out. It's not just a clever narrative format—To the Moon is incredibly touching and you can't help but be misty-eyed by the end of the game. It's easy to feel for Johnny and River throughout all stages of their lives. On the other hand though, the two doctors are terribly written. They're meant to be the commentators who react to the memories we're watching, but their dialogue is corny, full of awkwardly inserted pop culture references that aren't funny or charming, and their playful bickering just comes off as obnoxious. In terms of being comedic relief, the doctors fall flat completely. It's also just awkward to have such rapid tonal shifts between the two doctors' clumsy attempts at humor and the often heartfelt scenes unfolding in Johnny's memories. As far as gameplay is concerned, To the Moon is thin, and what's there isn't all that compelling either. This is mostly a visual novel, but you do have to walk around in Johnny's memories and collect tokens or clues that allow you to progress to the next memory. Literally all this means is walking up to any notable objects in the scene and pressing A. Once you have all five clues you have to solve a simple puzzle that feels more like busywork than an integral part of the story or experience. The game is also plagued by stiff controls that will often have you stuck on a corner or you'll think you can walk through a space but you'll hit an invisible wall. All of the actual gameplay or interactive elements of To the Moon feel completely superfluous and oftentimes are more of a hindrance than anything. This is also a fairly short four hour game, but the slow walking speed and slow text speed (which you can't increase, unfortunately) can make it feel longer at times. The presentation of To the Moon is understandably lackluster given its RPG Maker roots. These graphics are cookie cutter, picked out of a basin of pre-made sprites and stuck together for this game. The old-fashioned sprite graphics can still be charming but don't expect anything amazing here. The music, however, is original, and does a fantastic job of elevating the emotional beats of the story. Even if the soundtrack can be slightly repetitive at times, it perfectly sets the atmosphere of traveling through memories of love and loss. To the Moon is a wonderfully emotional story that is well worth reading. It's touching and reflective with a few surprises that keep you on your toes. That said, all of the video game aspects of To the Moon fall flat, from stiff controls to bland, unnecessary interactive elements. The comedic aspects of the writing are also terribly integrated into the narrative, rapidly pulling you out of the more engaging story being told through Johnny's memories. Ultimately To the Moon might be in the wrong medium, but it still tells a heartfelt story. Rating 6 out of 10 Moons
  7. 2022 marks thirty years of the adorable pink puffball's adventures across Dreamland, Planet Popstar, and beyond. Over his storied career, Kirby has dipped his toes into plenty of different platforming mechanics—indeed, for a long time Kirby seemed to be the go-to mascot for testing out unusual game features, whether it was using tilt or stylus controls, yarn-based artwork or splitting into multiple smaller versions of himself to work together. His latest adventure, Kirby and the Forgotten Land, comes with a new ability that is a mouthful and takes place in a 3D environment. No matter what new features or settings Kirby finds himself in though, his games are consistently delightful, and this one is no different. Kirby is minding his own business on Planet Popstar when a mysterious vortex in the sky opens up, sucking him in alongside tons of Waddle Dees (as well as optional co-op character Bandana Waddle Dee). After a rough ride through space and/or dimensions, Kirby awakens on the beach of a landscape filled with crumbling ruins of a forgotten civilization—a civilization that looks suspiciously like our modern world. In order to find a way home though Kirby will have to battle the villainous Beast Pack and rescue captured Waddle Dees. It's a simple, straightforward story elevated by just how cute Kirby and the Waddle Dees really are. Although the settings are in 3D, the core gameplay of the Kirby franchise is perfectly preserved. Kirby can inhale basic enemies and shoot them out, or he can inhale enemies with abilities and copy them, such as fire, sword, ice, etc. There are a couple of new abilities that fit right in with the rest of the classics, and you'll need to use these abilities to fight, explore, and potentially discover hidden rooms or bonus items (or bonus Waddle Dees). Completing a level immediately rescues three Waddle Dees, but scattered throughout each stage are extra ones that require a bit of effort to find, as well as hidden bonus objectives that require more Kirby expertise. These are extra challenges though and not required to simply finish the game. All in all the core Kirby gameplay feels fantastic in Forgotten Land and really exemplifies how simple and well-polished game design can be engaging and exciting even in a franchise with such a long history. The game does err on the easy side, but that just makes it perfect for young or novice players, and Kirby pros will still find reaching 100% completion a worthy challenge. Kirby's fancy new ability is Mouthful Mode, which allows him to (mostly) inhale real world objects and take on their properties. By inhaling a car, he can zoom around crashing into enemies and obstacles. As a traffic cone, Kirby can leap into the air and crash down on the point of the cone to break blocks. Each Mouthful Mode object has just one or two defined uses, but they all make for a fun change of pace when you encounter one, and seeing Kirby stretched around a real world object is hilariously charming (and maybe a tiny bit creepy as well). Like most limited time or limited area power-ups, Mouthful Mode objects provide some fun little puzzles that reward careful and keen-eyed players. The game is divided into levels but between stages you're able to return to Waddle Dee Town, a hub area that hosts all of the Waddle Dees you've rescued. There are a few side features here, like the chance to rewatch cutscenes, collect more figurines through a gacha (aka "Gotcha") capsule machine, and once you rescue enough Waddle Dees new facilities will open up with extra features. The most important part of the town though is probably the copy ability shop, where you're able to upgrade your abilities once you've found a blueprint and have paid the requisite coins/power stones. You'll find coins just about everywhere but power stones come from side levels that are themed around a specific ability or Mouthful Mode ability. They're fun little mini-challenges and the power stones you earn are invaluable since upgrading copy abilities is extremely useful. The abilities don't just become stronger, they'll also take on new properties, like turning the basic sword into a massive blade that is slower so it takes a bit more precision. Adding these new little wrinkles to your arsenal of abilities is a blast, plus you can always opt to use the weaker versions if you'd like. There's not actually a huge selection of copy abilities in Forgotten Land, but the chance to upgrade and experiment with the same abilities over and over more than makes up for it. Where Forgotten Lands really shines is in how sharply designed the whole game feels. The main adventure is only around seven or eight hours long, but it never feels like there's a wasted level or a tedious challenge. There aren't actually that many different types of enemies, but fighting them and exploring platforming/puzzle challenges never gets too repetitive. The selection of copy abilities is kept relatively simple but that also means you don't have a ton of different effects to remember—each one is easy to pick up and use immediately. However, if you do want to see everything the game has to offer you'll probably double that seven/eight hour length when you tackle the more difficult post-game levels and challenges, so no matter your Kirby skill level there's something for everyone here. And naturally, Kirby is just so darn cute. The Waddle Dees and enemies are just as adorable—every single one looks like a plush toy that you just want to squeeze—and the juxtaposition of seeing them all in more realistic settings is actually pretty striking. They don't look all that out of place and instead the scenery helps highlight the charm and personality in all of the character designs. The music is also a total delight. It's energetic and exciting and exactly as fun as you want this kind of platformer soundtrack to be. Kirby and the Forgotten Land is another charming adventure for everyone's favorite puffball. Even in the 3D setting the platformer gameplay remains smooth and satisfying, the puzzles aren't brain-busters but they are fun to discover, and the opportunity to upgrade copy abilities adds an engaging sense of progression as you move from one level to the next. Mouthful Mode is delightfully goofy, and while the main adventure is more or less simple enough for novice players there's plenty of extra content to satisfy completionists. However you like to play though, Kirby and the Forgotten Land exudes fun and charm. Rating: 8 out of 10 Mouthfuls
  8. 3D puzzle-platformer Ever Forward takes players on a mysterious journey through imagination and memory as one little girl pieces together fragments of her past. Despite some clever and challenging puzzle mechanics though, Ever Forward's clunky controls and technical hiccups make it a forgettable and occasionally frustrating adventure. You play as Maya, a little girl on a suspiciously idyllic but empty island. Scattered throughout the white sand beaches and green fields are strange corrupted structures that lead her to puzzle arenas. Completing a puzzle grants you a short cutscene, revealing a glimpse of Maya's past with her mother. These scenes certainly tug on the heartstrings but there's not much depth or originality to the story being told. Worse, the scattered structure makes the mystery just kind of bland—it's hard to get invested in the narrative. The puzzles themselves show off some pretty clever game design though. In each puzzle you'll need to reach the goal with a cube that unlocks the goal. Sure enough that task gets more and more complicated in each level, and Maya's limited abilities to interact with the environment means you'll need to be especially clever to overcome obstacles. Most often you'll need to avoid guard robots that will zap you if you're spotted, which is only made more complicated by the fact that Maya automatically walks more slowly near these robots. By the end of the game the puzzles get awfully creative and will treat players to plenty of "eureka" moments when things finally click into place. That said, Ever Forward has some surprising difficulty spikes for what appears to be a fairly casual puzzle-platformer. The good news is that you can collect leaves and spend them on helpful tips during a puzzle. The bad news is that these tips aren't always all that clear, and you're given basically no direction on how to find leaves on the island. It's great to have a built-in help system, but it's not quite as comprehensive as players might want. The real issue with Ever Forward's puzzles though is just down to the controls and core mechanics of the game. Moving, picking up objects, judging distances—everything is pretty stiff and unsatisfying. Maya's slow, awkward movement often makes puzzles more challenging than they ought to be. Lining up precise movements feels clumsy, and late in the game you'll come across timing puzzles that are a real headache. Thankfully you're able to save at almost any time, so sometimes you can slowly creep your way toward progress without having to replay entire puzzles, but in the end Ever Forward's controls and core gameplay mechanics just aren't enjoyable. Ever Forward is also surprisingly short. If you blaze through the game you can finish in just about two hours, and even if you end up stuck frequently you probably won't spend more than three hours on it. There's nothing wrong with a short adventure, but for a puzzle game like this it's a bit odd since there are so many more opportunities for puzzle ideas. It almost feels like the game is only just getting going when it ends. And of course, as a puzzle game there's not much of an incentive to replay it, which makes this one-and-done two-hour adventure a hard sell. The game's minimalist style isn't half bad and certainly fits the ethereal, dreamy quality of the experience, but you can't help but wish there was a bit more to the art style. The real issue though is that even this minimalist style runs pretty poorly on the Switch. It doesn't inhibit the gameplay, but the frame rate can get pretty choppy and the visuals experience some crazy pop-in on both near and distant objects. It's jarring and pretty distracting. The audio doesn't have much more depth than the art style. It's also dreamy and mysterious but somewhat bland, and the voice acting is a surprising touch but also doesn't elevate the story much. Ever Forward presents some promising puzzle concepts, and as soon as things get more complicated the game ends. That brief play time wouldn't be quite as disappointing if the other aspects of the experience were better polished though. Clunky controls, poor frame rate on the Switch, and a minimalist but bland art style leave a lot to be desired in this 3D puzzle-platformer. Rating: 5 out of 10 Puzzles
  9. The original Life is Strange game took me completely by surprise. It came out at a time when episodic story-based games felt done to death so I had few expectations going in, but the supernatural mystery plot, clever gameplay mechanics and emotional narrative pulled me in fully. The second game in the series didn't hit me in quite the same way, but Life is Strange: True Colors has a new developer and, despite still being split into distinct chapters, was released all at once as one big game, so how does it stack up in the world of story-based games? You play as Alex Chen, a young woman who moves to a frankly idyllic small Colorado mining town named Haven Springs in order to reconnect with her estranged older brother. The siblings have some shared trauma from being bounced around the foster care system after losing their parents as teens and haven't seen each other in years. If all that wasn't enough, Alex has the unique power to see and absorb the emotions of people around her, and her imperfect control of this ability has brought her plenty of trouble in the past. Although Alex makes an effort to settle into the new setting, a tragedy at the end of the first chapter launches what is essentially a murder mystery to solve on top of all the other challenges weighing on her mind. It's easy to get invested in Alex's story. The writing is sharp and blends together both comedy and tragedy with charming scenes of small-town life filled with interesting, likeable characters. You'll quickly empathize with Alex's struggles, and the overall message of facing and working through emotions makes for a nice narrative hook. That said, the pacing of the story does feel a little rushed. The mystery doesn't have quite enough time to percolate into a fully engaging enigma, and many of Alex's personal relationships come off as effortlessly simple. It hurts some of the more dramatic moments when you, the player, haven't had time to see how much these scenes actually weigh on the characters. The characters are so likeable that you'll be rooting for them regardless, but a little more time to live with them might have helped give the big scenes more punch, particularly the finale. A big part of the game's charm comes from the stellar vocal performances of the cast, particularly from Alex since you see so much of her and need to understand and empathize with her perspective. The entire voice cast does a great job of bringing the characters to life and adding depth to their animated lives. The soundtrack as a whole, just like the first game, is filled with chill indie songs that reflect the emotions running through both Alex and the entire town. Sometimes the song selection comes off as a bit cheesy but fans of the genre should enjoy it all the same. True Colors runs pretty smoothly on the Switch, which isn't all that common with multi-platform releases. There are definitely some technical hiccups, like textures or colors that are slow to load (making some characters' hair color seem to flicker between scenes) and the load times are a little long, but overall the colorful, painterly effect of the art style looks great on the Switch. The visual design makes the town feel cozy and comfortable even in the face of tragedy and drama. As for gameplay features, True Colors seems to have even fewer interactive elements than previous Life is Strange games. You'll spend the vast majority of the game just looking at objects and talking with characters as Alex's power over emotions has more story uses than gameplay uses. It's still engaging thanks to the strength of the characters and their relationships but it doesn't quite compare to how, for example, Max's time powers in the original Life is Strange naturally fed into the gameplay structure. There are some fun mini-games in True Colors though, and the third chapter in particular plays out as essentially a side-game that is pretty charming. And as always in these games your choices have consequences, so you'll see story beats play out a little bit differently based on what you choose to do, and comparing your choices with other people is always fun. Life is Strange: True Colors is a worthy sequel in the franchise. The narrative design and emotional core of the story are excellent and you'll easily be charmed by Alex and the residents of Haven Springs. Alex's power over emotions may not have the most interesting gameplay uses but it makes for a strong storytelling element. The game's shorter, roughly ten hour length might have hurt it in the end as not all of the dramatic moments are as fleshed out as they could be, but there's still an engaging, emotional story to enjoy in True Colors. Rating: 8 out of 10 Colors
  10. West of Dead: Path of the Crow combines the snappy action of a twin-stick shooter with the tense, ever-changing stakes of a roguelike, all within an Old West setting. It's a stylish and engaging experience while it lasts, but unlike most roguelikes this one might not have the legs to sustain playthrough after playthrough. You're a dead man. You awaken in a mysterious, shadowy realm, Purgatory, and learn that souls aren't being sent to their final resting place in the afterlife, so you take up a pair of guns to get to the bottom of the problem, and you may learn that the source is more closely tied to your past than you realize. It's an undeniably cool setting for a game and the writing does a good job of giving you enough detail while maintaining the curt, gruff vibe of an Old West cowboy adventure. Your character is also impeccably narrated by Ron Perlman, whose recognizable voice adds a perfect layer of gravitas to the story. In some instances it might have been nice to flesh out the worldbuilding a bit more, but in general minimalist approach works well in West of Dead. That philosophy kind of extends to the rest of the game's presentation as well. The visuals are highly stylized like a comic book page, drenched in harsh shadows and bright, jagged artwork. The effect looks great and also serves a gameplay purpose as enemies can hide in shadows and you'll need to light lanterns to reveal your targets. The music is appropriately Old West-y and tends to be understated too. The whistle and guitar audio while you're wandering from gunfight to gunfight definitely puts you in the right Wild West vibe. The gameplay combines twin-stick shooter mechanics and tactical cover usage with the random level design and deadly consequences of a roguelike. You'll start each playthrough with just a basic set of weapons and explore randomly generated rooms, each one filled with enemies, as you collect new guns, abilities, and stat upgrades to aid you on your quest. You'll also pick up a few permanent upgrades that allow you to explore a bit further and open up shortcuts to further customize your adventure. You can also spend the currency you collect—Sins from fallen enemies—to unlock other permanent boosts to make subsequent playthroughs a little easier. So while West of Dead is a roguelike, each playthrough still earns you progress toward a stronger gunslinger on the next run. The game also uses Old West guns to smart effect. These old fashioned pistols, rifles and shotguns don't have quick reload times, so you'll need to use cover intelligently to give yourself breathing room against groups of enemies. It's a simple but satisfying loop of popping up to shoot, ducking back to reload, and maybe rolling toward another piece of cover when the crate you're hiding behind is destroyed by enemies. This formula also lends itself to some intense but fun boss fights, though oftentimes the hardest parts of the game are when you have three or more enemies barreling down on you and you've got nowhere to hide. All that said, West of Dead's gameplay loop struggles to maintain speed from one playthrough to another. There isn't enough variety in each run to keep the game interesting for hours on end, perhaps partially because of how slow it is to unlock new guns and abilities with the Sin you collect. Even the added weapons and regions from the Path of the Crow expansion can't make the experience feel fresh and exciting after a few playthroughs. The actual shooting mechanics are fun but it wears thin far too quickly for a roguelike that expects you to replay it over and over. West of Dead: Path of the Crow combines the right elements of twin-stick shooters and roguelikes in a stylish Old West package, but doesn't quite nail the inherent replayability factor that is so vital to roguelikes. Each playthrough is a little too similar to maintain interest for too long, and the slow pace of unlocking new weapons can be a bit discouraging. It's a fun game for a while but maybe the roguelike formula wasn't the right fit. Rating: 7 out of 10 Sins
  11. Beyond a Steel Sky is another blast-from-the-past franchise revival that feels particularly old fashioned thanks to its point-and-click adventure format. This a sequel to Beneath a Steel Sky, a 1994 adventure game set in a dystopian future. Thankfully players won't need to know all the details of the first game to play Beyond, but you'll definitely need a little patience for some of the genre's quirks. In this sci-fi futuristic setting, the world has been ravaged by conflict and humanity has largely consolidated into massive city states. Those less fortunate live in the wastelands between cities, called the Gap, in close-knit tribes. You play as Robert Foster, a Gaplander, who is spurred toward the massive city state Union City when a young child is kidnapped from his community. Robert was also the protagonist of the first game and there are plenty of little details that have carried over, but for the most part new players can jump right in. All you really need to know is that Robert is on a rescue mission in the seemingly idyllic Union City where not everything is as it seems. As a point-and-click adventure the storytelling is obviously hugely important in Beyond a Steel Sky, but the final product is incredibly uneven. The world-building and setting is fantastic: all of the details about Union City that you pick up paint a nicely detailed picture of a utopia being held up with duct tape and deceit. The actual personal story of Robert and the characters you encounter though is awfully flat. Robert is a frankly boring protagonist who, even during dramatic moments, is way too bland. Dialogue can be weirdly repetitive and a little tedious to get through, which is a huge problem in a story-driven game like this. The comedic beats are also not great—too much reliance on tired joke structures means you're not going to get laugh out loud moments, just awkward silences. Learning about the world of Beyond a Steel Sky is engaging, but the actual plot can be slow-paced and even boring at times. Like so many point-and-click adventures, there's a lot of running around to do as you collect a new task then scour every inch of the environment to find items or talk to NPCs to suss out clues about what to do. Despite its old fashioned origin there are actually very few tedious puzzles in Beyond a Steel Sky—you're never forced to figure out a complicated, illogical solution by just clicking on everything around you. The puzzles are pretty well constructed for the most part, and since most of the game takes place in self-contained areas there's not too much running back and forth. There are even a couple of standout puzzle sequences, such as when you're impersonating someone so you need to learn as much about him as you can very quickly. A lot of the game's puzzles revolve around a scanner item that you pick up early on. This device allows you to hack electronics and rewrite their programming, which you can use to open a locked door for example, or reroute a robot in its task loop. It's a fun concept but is perhaps used too much when all's said and done. The actual puzzles with the scanner don't evolve much so they can feel a little repetitive. Perhaps more importantly, when the solution so often involves the scanner it limits the "eureka" moments, when the solution finally clicks for you, that make puzzle games satisfying. Beyond the actual puzzles and puzzle mechanics, Beyond a Steel Sky also leaves a lot to be desired with how the game controls. Even while running Robert moves obnoxiously slowly. Highlighting the right object to interact with is clumsy when there's more than one item next to each other. Robert's movements are weirdly tank-like at times. Obviously this isn't a fast-paced, dexterous game, but little discomforts in the very way that you interact with the game can really weigh down the experience. The presentation is a mixed bag as well. There's a unique colorful style to the setting that is certainly striking, and the comic book influence adds a lot of personality. On a technical level though it lacks soul. The animation is a little too stiff to make the story moments engaging, and the little issues of pop-in on distant objects or low-res textures prevent the setting from fully coming to life. The voice acting is also a bit weird. There's some good work on display here and some colorful side characters but again the voices just don't have the energy that they need, especially for Robert whom you're going to hear the most. Beyond a Steel Sky is quite a mix of old and new. It's a sequel to an over 25 year old point-and-click adventure and yet manages to avoid the kinds of complicated puzzle pitfalls that made old-school games frustrating. And yet, at the same time it still has the slow, plodding pace that drains the energy from a truly interesting world setting, and the puzzles largely end up being a bit too repetitive. Worst of all though, the writing just isn't all that engaging in this story-driven game. Fans of its predecessor may enjoy seeing old friends again in Beyond a Steel Sky, but if you're new to the world that's not a lot to latch onto here. Rating: 5 out of 10 Skies
  12. In a brutal, Medieval-inspired landscape of war and conflict, one prince bears the heavy burden of the crown and fights against ruthless invaders who decimate his people. Also, the prince is a rat and the invaders are frogs. Tails of Iron pairs up unlikely, cartoonish artwork with a grim setting and fiendishly difficult combat system that demands precision and patience. The effect is undeniably unique though certainly not for the faint of heart. You play as Redgi, prince of the Rat Kingdom who awakens on what should be a joyous day. Your father the king has planned a test of combat to prove your worthiness to inherit the throne, but just as you succeed the kingdom is brutally attacked by your people's longtime nemesis, the Frog Clan. Now you'll have to rebuild your forces and fight back against the powerful invaders as well as any other threats that challenge your kingdom. Telling this gritty story with adorable little animal folk is an odd but charming formula. However, that really only applies to the broad worldbuilding. The characters in the game are all pretty one-note, largely because the animals don't talk, they only communicate with little pictograms. Instead there is a narrator who will come in and basically explain everything the characters have just said, which comes off as a weird blend of concepts. Either stick to just pictographs and keep directions/storytelling simple enough that they communicate what needs to be said or just use the narrator—both makes for an awkward middleground of over-explaining ideas while also providing no character depth. Tails of Iron is a side-scrolling action-RPG, though the RPG elements are really just collecting equipment (Redgi never levels up throughout the game). There's a heavy emphasis on precise combat here. Your attacks are fairly slow and basic so you have to strike carefully, especially since you can't hit-stun enemies and you can inadvertently slide past them if you're not positioning yourself well. You also have to be thoughtful about when you attack: some attacks can be parried which allows you to get some hits in while others are unblockable so you have to dodge out of the way. There's a helpful indicator that pops up whenever an enemy attacks letting you know to parry or dodge, but you still need lightning fast reflexes to respond accordingly, so a big part of the game is learning each type of enemy's attack patterns. The downside is that so often you're just waiting for enemies to attack in order to find a small opening, which makes battles reactionary and a bit tedious—even fairly basic enemies require this slow, measured approach. There are some strategic elements to combat though. Your equipment not only improves your attack and defensive stats, it also adds weight which makes your attacks slower. Do you want to load up on the strongest equipment and be a slow, heavy hitter or will you risk it with lighter armor and faster attacks? Ultimately though there's not a wild difference between speed or strength builds, not unless you're using extremely basic, light equipment late in the game. The three weapon types—spears, swords, axes—also feature slight speed differences but again it's not significant enough to make choosing your equipment feel engaging. You'll find a ton of equipment throughout the game but there's not much incentive to play around with different builds, which is a shame. The setting of Tails of Iron is sprawling but not actually too big, and exploration is overall fairly linear. That's not a terrible thing but when side quests keep sending you to the same areas it does get a bit repetitive. Furthermore, "side quest" is a bit of a misnomer. These quests are actually required to progress the game thanks to the gold they reward you with; you can just choose what order to tackle them in. A bit more depth to the game world and actual optional moments would have been nice. Tails of Iron should last you around eight hours, which feels like a good length for the adventure. If there were more variety in enemies and equipment it could have sustained itself longer, but as it is the combat gets pretty repetitive by the end of the game, aside from the extra-challenging boss fights that will likely require plenty of retries to conquer. There's some light post-game content as well as different difficulty levels to tackle if you want to see everything the game has to offer. Although the characters themselves are pretty cute little cartoon rats, the aesthetic of the game certainly matches the grim story being told. Heavy shadows and thick, dark outlines make for a gloomy, bleak setting appropriate for the grisly deaths happening on screen. Again, it's a bit odd to have such brutal scenes carried out by tiny animals that move with a charming paper-doll-like animation, but the contrast certainly makes it feel unique. The soundtrack certainly skews toward the more serious tone with ominous background music when you're exploring murky caves and brighter but still not excessively cartoony music in town. Tails of Iron is an odd but engaging mix of cute animal characters and tough as nails combat, which really just raises the question of who is the target audience here. And even if you do appreciate a precise, difficult battle system you're left with fairly limited options in terms of attack variety or approaches to enemies. If you're willing to challenge yourself though, Tails of Iron is a unique experience and rescuing the rat kingdom through hard-fought battles is certainly gratifying. Rating: 7 out of 10 Rats
  13. Developer Inti Creates continues to keep the spirit of NES-era action games alive with Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2. Like its predecessor, it's a love letter to NES Castlevania games, combining the simple controls and visual style with a few modern twists to spice up the gameplay. The game walks a fine line between nostalgic throwback and tediously old-fashioned, but for the most part stays on the former rather than the latter. Curse of the Moon 2 brings back Zangetsu as the protagonist, a demon-slaying swordsman who is on the trail of a new supernatural threat: the Demon Tower. Like the first game, Zangetsu teams up with fellow fighters—including a dog in a steampunk-style mech suit—which has an impact on how the story unfolds across subsequent playthroughs. Storytelling is still not the focus of the game, though. In true NES fashion there are pretty minimal plot scenes outside of the opening setup, and even when brief dialogue sequences do pop up it's easy to ignore them entirely. The gameplay feels like classic Castlevania, down to the stiff, specific movements of your characters. Each one has a standard attack as well as subweapons that cost energy to use (energy that can be refilled, of course, by destroying lanterns, candelabras, and more). The gameplay feels simple and streamlined, though the reliance on old-school conventions perhaps hurts the game more than it enhances the experience. On standard difficulty you'll get knocked back by any hit, which makes pits incredibly deadly when there's a bat fluttering overhead. Your jumps are also locked to very specific ranges—you can't just adjust your trajectory midair, and you can't even jump forward from a stationary position. If you're after that classic NES feel, Curse of the Moon 2 does a great job of recreating it. Other players might be annoyed by the tedious design though, or at least want to switch to easy difficulty which eliminates the hit knockback. A happy medium between easy and standard would have been convenient, as easy mode eliminates almost all challenges from the game. Both Curse of the Moon games do shirk old-school design with the party system though. You can swap between characters at any time, and each has their own health bar, mechanics, and subweapons (though all subweapons use the same energy). Dominique, for example, jumps higher than other characters and can use her spear as a pogo stick to bounce off of enemies or lamps, which sometimes allows her to reach hidden areas or alternate routes. Playing through the game just once only takes a few hours, but exploring all of these optional areas and truly seeing everything the game has to offer will last significantly longer. Mixing up the standard side-scroller action with unique characters and alternate paths goes a long way toward making these games feel unique and not just imitations of an older era of gaming. Curse of the Moon 2 also introduces 2-player co-op. Having two players gets pretty hectic during platforming sequences but it's an interesting inclusion if you and a friend want to really challenge yourselves. As usual Inti Creates knows how to do a lot with very little, when it comes to the visual design of the game. The pixel art is sharp and bosses look great (even if they can be incredibly tedious to actually fight). The soundtrack isn't half bad either and nicely balances new and old influences to feel both fresh and familiar. Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 is another fine-tuned homage to Castlevania made for fans of those original NES games. The feel of the gameplay is undeniably old-fashioned, but the challenges that that affords will appeal to many nostalgic players, and the variety of characters, abilities, and paths through each level provide a fun modern twist. Just be ready for some frustrating deaths once you start jumping over pits. Rating: 7 out of 10 Moon Curses
  14. The Pokémon franchise has played host to countless spinoffs and side adventures that re-imagine the world of Pokémon, but one that actually changes the core mechanics of catching and battling Pokémon? That apparently took 25 years to happen, but it's arguably worth the wait. Pokémon Legends: Arceus opens up the traditional series gameplay structure into a more open-world adventure where you can walk up to wild Pokémon and simply throw a Pokéball at them. The concept has been a long time coming, but Pokémon fans will undoubtedly enjoy this new take on the Pokémon formula. A new gameplay structure apparently also demands a new story structure. Rather than starting your adventure as a child in a well-established Pokémon world, your player character is mysteriously sent through time and space to the island of Hisui, an old-fashioned version of Sinnoh from generation 4. Here Pokéballs are a brand new technology and most people still live in relative fear and uncertainty about Pokémon. With just one city (your base of operations), you quickly join the ranks of the Galaxy Expedition Team in order to gather Pokémon and discover the cause of the mysterious rift in the sky that seems to be sending powerful Pokémon into a frenzy. The style and tone of the game is still very much the same cute, friendly vibe of the mainline games, but just having a more unique setting for the adventure is a welcome change for the franchise's storytelling. In Legends: Arceus, you'll travel to different biomes to catch and study Pokémon. Within these wide open areas you can see Pokémon milling about everywhere and you can simply walk up to them and throw a Pokéball to catch them. Of course, it's rarely that simple, since Pokémon will flee if they see you so you'll need to sneak up on them or hide in tall grass to get close, but fundamentally this is an incredibly streamlined process that also makes catching Pokémon more mechanically interesting. Approaching cautiously and aiming your throw just right is surprisingly satisfying. You can also still engage in battle in order to weaken the Pokémon for a better chance at catching it, and this too is much faster and easier to dive into than the usual battle screen structure. The core catching, fighting and training structure of the game is still there, but the quick, snappy nature of Legends: Arceus is a blast, especially for players who've spent ages catching Pokémon over the years. In order to still incentivize you to fight and engage with wild Pokémon as much as possible, you need to put in a little extra effort to fill out your Pokédex. Each Pokémon has a variety of tasks to complete in order to fully fill out their Dex entry. Catching them and defeating them in battle are always there, but there are other unique tasks as well, such as catching a Pokémon without alerting it, or defeating it with its type weakness. These tasks are a simple but fantastic way of encouraging the player to fully engage with the world of Legends: Arceus. In past Pokémon games, oftentimes it feels like there's no reason to catch the same type of Pokémon over and over (unless you're shiny hunting or hardcore about catching Pokémon with different temperaments and stats), but this game gives you that little extra incentive to keep tossing Pokéballs even at basic Pokémon. Since it's so fast and easy to catch them, it's a lot of fun and awfully satisfying to just walk around catching every Pokémon you see, and with so many tasks you can keep at it for hours and hours. There's a simple joy to it that personally I haven't felt in a Pokémon game in years. The battle system has also seen a slight revamp. The basics of type strength/weakness are the same (though some Pokémon have new types in the Hisui region), but speed and turn order is now a huge factor in a Pokémon battle. Rather than the typical one turn apiece system, you can actually attack twice if you're fast enough and use certain attacks. Some abilities like Quick Attack will naturally give you a speed advantage, but you can also augment an attack with Strong Style or Agile Style (Pokémon will learn these style options over time). Strong Style boosts the power of an attack but pushes you back in the turn order while Agile Style does the opposite. For normal battles this feels like a mostly unnecessary distinction, but against bosses or other special battles the ability to attack twice makes a significant difference. It's a clever way of injecting a bit of variety into the gameplay without rewriting the battle basics that we're all used to. The downside is that the turn order provided isn't always accurate, so in terms of deep strategy and tactics it's a bit muddy, but having anything change up the usual battle system makes for a fun challenge. Speaking of which, Legends: Arceus does a decent job of making the experience accessible but with opportunities to challenge yourself. All of your active Pokémon share experience points, but if you progress through the game at a steady pace you won't find yourself too over-leveled. In addition to the usual pocket monsters you'll see around Hisui, you can also find Alpha Pokémon, stronger versions that are generally several levels higher than your own team and are harder to battle and capture. They're optional but obviously catching them can be a boon thanks to their higher stats (plus it's just cool to have a fancier Pokémon—this is what shiny hunters must feel like). Like so many open-world games these days you're free to tackle these more difficult encounters as you wish and push your Pokémon skills. You can comfortably finish the main story in around 20 to 25 hours, but since this is a Pokémon game there's a ton of optional content that can occupy your time as well as post-game content. Completely filling out the Pokédex is a time-consuming (but fun) process, plus there are plenty of side quests to take on. The side quest system is one of the few areas that the game falls flat though, simply because it is a needlessly clunky system for tracking multiple quests. You can only have one active quest at a time, including the main quest, which just makes it a hassle to keep track of. There's no reason not to have at least a few active at once, and opening up the map to access the quest menu is a small but bothersome UI issue. Legends: Arceus tries to split the difference between an open-world environment, with the scale and detail that comes with it, and the classic Pokémon art style that relies on simplicity. The resulting blend is overall fine, though far from extraordinary. You'll see some pop-in when approaching distant landmarks, sometimes wild Pokémon have a comically jittery low-frame rate animation as you get closer, and the low res textures on objects are hard to ignore, but on the other hand walking around a forest or coastline or icy tundra and seeing Pokémon in their habitat is just plain cool. Battles have more variety in animation that make the Pokémon feel a bit more alive and diverse, and the sense of scale between Pokémon is generally more accurate than it's ever been. In a franchise known for making baby steps toward new art styles this is yet another small step, but it's at least a step in the right direction. Meanwhile the soundtrack does a great job of adding to the unique ambiance of Hisui in a way that suits the freedom of exploration at play here. Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the shakeup that some fans have waited decades for. The new sense of speed and freedom perfectly plays into the classic Pokémon gameplay loop and actually makes the most basic elements of the series feel fresh and compelling again. Wandering around in a Pokémon game has never been more rewarding, nor the sense of discovery more engaging. Some of the little details aren't entirely up to par with an open world game, but this may well be the most exciting evolution of the franchise yet. Rating: 9 out of 10 Pokédex Entries
  15. It's easy to pick up quick, casual games, the ones that only require a few actions so anyone can quickly learn, but the other kind of games? The ones that make you work to even understand the mechanics of how to efficiently play? Those ones hit differently. They challenge you at every turn and make every little piece of progress feel like an incredible success. Star Renegades, a roguelike with turn-based battles and a unique action speed system is hard to learn and hard to master, but the process of learning it is awfully satisfying. If only the game ran more smoothly on the Switch. Star Renegades takes place in the midst of a galactic war—worse than that, it takes place in a multi-dimensional war. The alien invaders, the Imperium, are conquering planets across dimensions, so it's your job to hop into different realities in order to fight them off. Talk about a brilliant concept for a roguelike game—the whole reason that you fight, die/win, and repeat is baked into the premise of the narrative! That said, the writing itself comes off scattered. The game throws a lot of details at you, a lot of names of people, places, and alien races which can be overwhelming to follow. The actual characters you play as aren't terribly fleshed out either and are mostly two-dimensional warrior types with some scattered backstory that pops up in dialogue which is funny but doesn't always seem to suit the game's setting. But since this isn't a linear, narrative-based adventure some of that writing can be forgiven in favor of the focus on combat. Star Renegades is a roguelike with turn-based battles. You start off a run with three characters and travel to different planets to fight off the Imperium. You can see the whole map but you have a limited number of days to explore, so you have to choose which paths to travel down. Virtually every area includes a battle but they might also feature bonuses, like items, defensive buffs, or DNA which is used to level up your characters. There's a nice sense of strategy at work here: do you want to fight the harder enemies for a chance at finding better items, or do you slowly level up by fighting normal enemies and collecting more modest bonuses? Healing is also limited in Star Renegades so the health of your party is always a major factor. These decisions make for an engaging, thoughtful challenge as you progress through a run. The battle system features its own set of strategic challenges as well, which is fun once you have a grasp on it but honestly pretty hard to follow when you first start up the game and are overwhelmed by information. Granted, there are a lot of details to learn here, but the way the game dumps this info on you will make the first hour or so—and likely your entire first playthrough—fairly confusing. The most important thing to know is that battles are turn-based, and during one turn your characters and the enemies all act across a 60 second span. Some attacks (usually more powerful ones) occur later on that time span, while others will trigger earlier. If your attack lands before the enemy's, you'll gain a critical hit bonus, though the same applies if they attack before you. Most of your attacks have the ability to push the enemy's action later in the turn order, giving you a bigger window to land critical hits. If you push an enemy's attack out of the turn completely, they'll "break" and won't attack at all on that turn. Managing the order of attacks during a turn, both yours and the enemies', is the key to combat in Star Renegades, and once you get a handle on it it's a blast to play with. Some characters might excel at pushing an enemy's action, allowing other characters to follow up with a big critical hit. Because healing is rare, avoiding enemy attacks or tanking them with shields (which regenerate at the end of combat) will be your main defensive strategies. It's a lot to keep in mind while playing but once you find a good rhythm with a balanced team it's incredibly satisfying to direct the entire flow of combat to your advantage. As your characters level up they'll gain access to new attacks and abilities that further allow you to manipulate the tide of battle in unique ways. Star Renegades also features an adversary system similar to Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor. Some powerful named enemies—lieutenants in the Imperium's army—can actually level up if they manage to kill you. The next time you face them (on a new run, potentially with new characters), they'll be stronger. It's an interesting way of further stretching out the replay value of a roguelike, though the effects aren't so major that they'll significantly change the enemy lieutenants. It's more just a fun way to take revenge on the boss that killed you previously. And yes, like all roguelikes there's a huge emphasis on replay value in Star Renegades. Your character choices will significantly affect how you play, the maps and placement of bonuses is always random, the items you get are random, and there are several difficulty levels to test your skills. There are also some permanent boosts you can unlock, like class modifiers that grant extra bonuses for your characters, so there's still a slight sense of progression every time you complete a run. Star Renegades' biggest fault is simply how it runs on the Switch. In a word, it's poor. Frequent crashes which may necessitate replaying parts of a battle (there's auto-save but sometimes it'll take you back to the middle of a battle you just finished), choppy animation and sound even during the opening cinematic, notable loading screens—the whole experience of the game on the Switch just isn't optimized (based on the 1.0.5 version of the game). Even outside of those overt technical issues, the game's UI doesn't feel like a good match for the Switch. Reading all of the information you need during battle—your attacks, enemies' attacks, special effects, etc.—is a hassle and often feels clunky. Even just navigating the menu while examining or equipping your party doesn't feel smooth. The UI may work better on other systems, but on the Switch it's awkward, which is particularly frustrating in a game where you need to monitor a lot of information at all times. Even the game's pixel graphics—which is a fun art style—comes off cramped and cluttered, which really doesn't allow for the visuals to shine. Star Renegades is a unique roguelike whose overwhelming amount of ideas can make it hard to get into, but rewarding once you do. The Switch might not be the right platform for it though, based on the frequency of crashes, choppy animation, and cramped UI that make simply playing the game a challenge, when the difficulty should come from the rich strategy gameplay. There's definitely something fun here for roguelike fans, but the Switch version is probably the wrong place to play it. Rating: 6 out of 10 Renegades
  16. If you're a developer known for porting high-end games to the Switch, what better title to bring over than the legendarily visually intense FPS of 2007? Crysis makes its Nintendo console debut with Crysis Remastered via port developer Saber Interactive, bringing its mix of fast-paced shooting action, stealth mechanics, and detailed jungle island environments. Getting the game to run smoothly on the Switch is itself quite an accomplishment, but maybe the so-so gameplay wasn't worth porting over in the first place. You play as an elite soldier equipped with a special nano suit that can be toggled to increase your speed, camouflage you, or give you armor. Your squad is dropped onto a North Korean island where you're tasked with rescuing a group of American archeologists, and suffice it to say things take a turn for the weird fairly quickly. The story really isn't anything special and I doubt many players were looking for a deep narrative in an FPS that was entirely marketed around its high quality graphics, but it still would have been nice to have something more engaging in the writing than "go here, flip a switch" or "go here, fight some enemies" over and over. Even when the real plot kicks in the storytelling simply lacks oomph. It's probably worth jumping right into the visual design, since that was always the hook with Crysis. And yeah, the game looks pretty slick on the Switch, though it comes with some caveats. The huge environments are rendered nicely and the destructible environments are fun to mess with. The game's art style is a bit bland, but there's only so much you can do with realistic jungles, guns, and soldiers. You'll probably run into some frame rate dips when there's a lot happening, and objects in the distance can look like they're stuttering sometimes, but overall it doesn't interrupt the gameplay much. There are also long loading screens at the beginning of each mission, but on the flip side there are no load screens when you're just running around, and even dying/reloading is super quick. Overall though, it's impressive how the game runs on Switch hardware. Crysis is an extremely open FPS, meaning you can choose to run around and get into big gun fights with groups of enemies, or you can take a stealthy approach using your suit's camouflage abilities, dipping in and out of the jungle foliage like the Predator. The environments are destructible and you can pick up small objects and hurl them at enemies, and you can jump into basically any vehicle—including tanks—and go for a joy ride while taking out every enemy you run across. In principle, this level of freedom is great and allows you to shape your experience with the game however you want. In practice though, neither approach feels great. The gunplay isn't all that satisfying due to some finicky controls and an overall lack of gun variety. Shooting doesn't have the snappy feedback that makes FPS games fun, and even the gyro controls are a bit lacking (you'll probably want to spend a lot of time adjusting the sensitivity of the controls, but even after a lot of experimentation I just wasn't satisfied with what the game offered). Enemies are also so quick to react to you and so accurate that you kind of feel underpowered throughout most of the game, hardly the super-suit-powered soldier that you're made out to be. Stealth isn't much better. Again enemies will spot you from a mile away so you kind of have to overcompensate by strictly sticking to crouching or crawling through bushes. Your stealth suit ability is super useful but the power runs out quickly, so you'll need to duck into a bush and wait for it to recharge. Every weapon can be equipped with a suppressor but you don't actually have many ways of isolating enemies to take them out without anyone noticing. Weirdly enough the most effective strategy tends to be simply sprinting to the objective, completing whatever you need, and running away instead of actually engaging with enemies. A game with a lot of freedom in how you approach problems needs to make sure that every approach is fun and interesting, but that's just not really the case with Crysis. The weirdest part is that all that freedom you've been playing with abruptly stops about halfway through the game as the story pushes you into a more structured, linear path. There's nothing wrong with a linear FPS, but it's a bit jarring to go from a more open-world structure to a corridor shooter. Crysis will only take you around eight or ten hours to finish, and unless you want to challenge yourself on higher difficulty modes or really try to experiment with different approaches there aren't many replay incentives here. Crysis Remastered is an impressive feat on the Switch from a technical perspective, but the actual gameplay leaves something to be desired. The mix of stealth and all-out combat in destructible environments feels like a jack of all trades, master of none situation where neither the stealth nor the gunplay is as polished and satisfying as it should be. Playing Crysis on a Switch, especially in handheld mode, is a neat entry in gaming history, but as an actual game it's maybe not worth the time. Rating: 6 out of 10 Crises
  17. For me, Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl is a momentous release. I played Gen I and II back when I was a kid, but fell off the Poké-train and didn't pick the series up again until Gen V. In 2014 I had the chance to see what I missed in Gen III with the Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire remakes, and I've finally caught up on Gen IV as well. Now I've played every mainline Pokémon generation, as well as plenty of spin-offs (I'm a long way off from catching 'em all, though). Was Shining Pearl worth the long wait I took with the franchise? Well, for better or for worse, it's a lot of the same Pokémon experience that trainers have seen for decades now. As is tradition, Shining Pearl opens with customizing your character and picking a starter Pokémon to begin your quest to be the very best, like no one ever was. Your first meeting with the Pokémon professor plays out a little bit differently than usual, but ultimately the formula is pretty well preserved—collect badges, battle a nefarious group (in this case, Team Galactic), challenge the Elite 4 and become a champion. It's not until the later generations that the villainous team or your rival get much more than a basic personality, so don't expect much depth from the writing in Shining Pearl. Still, there's a certain charm to the simplicity of these cookie cutter characters. Catching, training, and battling Pokémon is as engaging as it ever has been in Shining Pearl—there's definitely something addictive about leveling up to the next Pokémon evolution, or claiming another badge on your road to become a champion. And of course all your training and experience can be put toward multiplayer battles if you wish, or you can just trade Pokémon with players all over the world to fill out your Pokédex. The core gameplay is virtually unchanged, and it's still pretty dang fun. These remakes of Diamond and Pearl include some extremely convenient quality of life upgrades, not least of which is changing the HM system. Like the most current Pokémon games, you no longer have to force Hidden Moves upon your Pokémon in order to explore. Once you have the HM (and the appropriate gym badge level) you'll actually summon a random Pokémon to use the ability for you, which is kind of hilarious to picture. Shining Pearl also allows you to access your PC box from anywhere which is super convenient and makes it much easier to have a larger "active" party of Pokémon instead of just sticking to the same six all the time. EXP Share is also on by default in this game which is nice, though somewhat obnoxiously there's no way to turn it off, so you'll likely find yourself completely overleveled for most of the adventure (especially if you're catching/training a lot of pocket monsters). There's also an autosave feature—plus you can save anywhere—so there's a big safety net to ensure you don't lose any progress. Overall these new features significantly help shake off some of the old quirks of the early Pokémon games and align the experience with something a modern player would expect. That said, Shining Pearl does feel a bit old fashioned at times, seemingly because this is a pretty faithful remake. Sometimes the familiar Pokémon formula loses its charm when it's just: visit new town, defeat gym leader, fight Team Galactic a bit, move on, repeat. It doesn't help that there's a pretty weak variety of Pokémon here, meaning you'll see the same ones over and over, both in the wild and in the hands of trainers/gym leaders, so the monotony really gets laid on thick. Something else about the game could've used some fine-tuning to make the experience feel a bit more fresh, aside from the quality of life improvements mentioned above. Of course, if you do get hooked on the Pokémon formula, there's a huge amount of content to enjoy in Shining Pearl. The road to becoming a champion will likely only last 20 hours or so, but as usual there's a ton of post-game content to enjoy as well as all of the multiplayer options. Of note is the Grand Underground system which essentially gives you a massive environment to explore and catch Pokémon—not too dissimilar from the usual gameplay loop, but being able to find themed areas and see Pokémon in the environment instead of running into them in random battles helps spice things up a bit and provides a great opportunity to catch some rare Pokémon. The Underground kind of feels like Pokémon distilled down to its most essential components, which really just shows how fun those components are. Shining Pearl trades the original game's sprite graphics for squat, chibi 3D models that feel appropriate for the Pokémon franchise's cute, friendly style. It doesn't have the same variety of the most recent generation, Sword and Shield, but the chibi artwork tries to find a happy medium between the original's look and modern graphics, and in that sense it does succeed. The soundtrack stands the test of time quite well and has that satisfying sense of adventure mixed with bright, friendly charm that is found in so much of the series. Pokémon Shining Pearl is a solid if rather unambitious remake. It's not here to completely overhaul Gen IV into something modern Gen VIII will recognize, but it still adds some valuable quality of life improvements that help make it more accessible. Despite that, many aspects of Shining Pearl feel stuck in the past, which is fine if you're here to enjoy a trip down memory lane (with some visual upgrades) but some Pokémon trainers might not want to revisit some of the more finicky aspects of the older generations. Still, the franchise has endured as long as it has because catching and training Pokémon seems to always be fun no matter what kind of packaging that experience is placed in, and for many Pokéfans that will be enough to journey through Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl either once again or, like me, for the first time. Rating: 8 out of 10 Gym Badges
  18. Take some Zelda gameplay inspiration, sprinkle in some precise combat mechanics, and put a sword in the hands (wings?) of a crow and you've got the formula for Death's Door. But the most important thing to know is how sharply polished this action-adventure game truly is. Though the fundamental building blocks seem familiar, Death's Door is a charming and wonderfully engaging experience from start to finish. You play as a cute little crow who works for the Reaping Commision Headquarters, a bureaucratic afterlife office. Your job is to enter the land of the living through special doors, reap souls, and return to headquarters. As soon as you've harvested your first soul though something goes wrong and you're pulled into a quest to collect three extra-powerful souls to open up the massive Death's Door. The game's writing does a lot with very little. This isn't a story heavy game but every time a piece of dialogue or lore pops up it's clever, interesting, and fleshes out the world in a fun way without providing exhaustive lines of text. And the further you get through the game the more that the quirky, funny writing shines. Death's Door is an isometric action-adventure. Armed with a sword (or other melee weapon, including an umbrella) you'll cut your way through enemies and explore a mostly linear but densely interwoven world. You don't have the freedom to go anywhere, but within each region you'll often be unlocking shortcuts that allow you to travel from checkpoints more quickly. That's especially helpful in Death's Door since you'll probably be dying a lot. This isn't an overwhelmingly difficult game but it can be challenging, and the limited healing options mean that every time you get hit it's a problem. The good news though is that if you do die you won't lose progress, you're just sent back to the last checkpoint with any items, unlocked shortcuts, and experience points (i.e. souls) retained. So sometimes exploration feels like a slow, twisty process, but it's also pretty satisfying when you've mentally mapped out the whole region and unlocked everything possible. It helps that there's a charming simplicity to Death's Door's exploration system. In each region of the game you gain a new ability that lets you explore and uncover secrets, but since there are only three abilities there's nothing super fancy going on here. Fundamentally Death's Door feels like a lot of other action-adventure games, but it does the formula so well that it's hard to complain about it. Lighting torches to unlock secrets, blasting weakened walls with bombs—it's all stuff that's been seen before, but this game knows how to do them well and keep the player engaged with plenty of little secrets to uncover. Most importantly, the souls that you collect act as experience points to level up your abilities, so you're always making some degree of progress even when you're wandering. The combat system might be where Death's Door shines the most though. Again there's nothing really fancy at work here. You've got a few weapons that have slightly different properties, but mostly combat is all about knowing enemies' openings so you can get some hits in and dodge away. It's simple, satisfying, and quite challenging, as anyone that plays Soulsbourne games can attest. What's so important though is the smooth, snappy controls in Death's Door which give you a good sense of weight and balance that makes every hit feel earned. And again the game doesn't feel unfairly difficult—in fact your dodge roll has significant invincibility frames, so even though you do need to know your timing well it's not so precise that you'll be tearing your hair out trying to master it. The flow of combat feels great and will easily pull you into the adventure. Death's Door lasts a good eight to ten hours, which feels about right. Nothing about the adventure drags nor do your accomplishments feel unearned. Completionists will enjoy finding every little secret that the game has to offer, and there might be a little extra post-game content for particularly dedicated players that want to do everything possible in the game. The presentation in Death's Door is just as charming as the writing. When it comes to art design, less is more here, as the player crow is pretty adorable despite not having much detail and the environments feel mysterious and deep even without much ornamentation. The character design is easily the best part of the game, though it's a shame that there are really only a handful of characters throughout the whole adventure. The soundtrack is also pretty sharp. It adds to the moody atmosphere of the exploration gameplay and helps elevate the intense boss fights. Death's Door takes the action-adventure formula and polishes it to a perfect shine. The exploration is rewarding, combat is satisfying, and the story moments, though infrequent, provide a ton of personality and charm. The difficulty level can be challenging, but for this little crow's adventure, it's worth taking the time to master your combat skills and to explore every nook and cranny possible. Rating: 8 out of 10 Souls
  19. It doesn't seem easy to come up with an even cuter Pikmin-style game, but developer Moonlight Kids manages it with their adventure/puzzle game The Wild at Heart. Commanding a small army of adorable little critters in a colorful forest makes for one charming experience. You start off the game as Wake, a young boy running away from home with his best friend Kirby by journeying into the nearby forest. He ends up lost though, and stumbles into the strange, magical realm of the Deep Woods, where friendly guardians battle against nefarious night monsters. Eventually Wake meets up with Kirby and the two use helpful forest creatures called Spritelings to explore and fight back against the evil monsters. The Wild at Heart isn't super story-heavy but when you do encounter dialogue scenes there's a lot of charm and heart to the writing. It's cute, friendly and funny without getting too silly, and the optional diary logs you can find do fill in a richer backstory lore that helps the world feel more alive. If you've played Pikmin you'll have a basic understanding of The Wild at Heart's gameplay. Your main method of interacting with the world is commanding your Spritelings to clear obstacles, pick up items or battle monsters. There are five types of Spritelings each with a specific use—the first type you encounter is immune to poisonous hazards, another type is able to break crystals, etc.—and by the end of the game you'll need to use all five in concert to fully explore and collect everything you need to fight back against the darkness. Additionally, Wake is able to use a supercharged vacuum to clear away piles of leaves or pull in distant objects, while Kirby uses a magical lantern to dispel hazardous materials. Both kids can command or throw Spritelings but they can also take damage, so you'll need to be careful when monsters appear. Essentially, it's an adventure game by way of puzzles. In order to explore, you'll need to use your Spritelings cleverly to clear obstacles or battle monsters, and early on you'll be limited by what types of Spritelings you have. Sometimes you'll need to split up Wake and Kirby and alternate between the two to overcome puzzles, and sometimes you'll need to throw a whole heap of Spritelings at a monster to take it down (Spritelings can die sadly, but you can also grow more). For the most part though the game world is pretty open and you can explore in any direction that tickles your fancy, which gives the game a nice feeling of freedom. Perhaps most importantly though, you're limited by how much you can get done in a single day. At night, powerful monsters appear and you'll need to make it to the safety of a campfire to survive. This simple loop of exploring a bit further each day and returning to a camp at night is incredibly satisfying and will keep you fully engaged with the game, since every time you return to camp you'll be thinking about what else you can do the next day. Anyone with an explorer's heart will love wandering the woods here. You'll also need to collect a lot of resources in order to upgrade the kids' abilities, the number of Spritelings you can control at once, and various other features at the main camp. Resource collecting can be a little bit tedious at first but it feeds into the gameplay loop of doing a little bit each day and gradually building your way up to something bigger. Combat is also a little dicey in The Wild at Heart. Your Spritelings are, frankly, a bit dumb and not great at fighting or self-preservation. You'll have to keep a close eye on them if you want them to survive, and once you have the resources to craft potions that make them temporarily stronger or immune to damage those potions are practically a necessity to make it through some enemies. It's also a bit annoying that there's no option to just send all of your Spritelings into battle at once—you can only throw one at a time and even if you make your whole army idle they won't take the initiative to attack by themselves. Thankfully defeated monsters don't respawn for a couple of days so even slow combat won't interrupt your steady progress too much. On a technical level, The Wild at Heart does have some loading issues on the Switch. Everything else about the game runs perfectly well, but the loading times when you move between areas are pretty long. If that's the cost of large areas with delightfully colorful graphics though so be it, because The Wild at Heart has an awfully charming art style that perfectly matches the magical forest vibe of the story. The 2D graphics are just delightful and it really captures a childlike sense of whimsical adventure. The presentation is capped off with a beautiful soundtrack that is moody and atmospheric while exploring as well as fun and bubbly while hanging out with side characters. It sets just the right tone for this exploration adventure. You can expect to spend around 10 hours exploring the Deep Woods and finishing the main story, but there are also a lot of optional areas to explore, and fully upgrading everything possible will take significantly more time. The game also has sort of a slow-paced vibe anyway, so this isn't really the kind of game you should try to rush through, but one you should relax with and just enjoy exploring. The Wild at Heart is an absolutely endearing game that perfectly evokes the childlike wonder of exploration and the fantasy of stumbling upon a magical forest. The similarities to Pikmin are far from derivative and this game adds plenty of unique features of its own to make the adventure feel fresh and unique. Anyone feeling that explorer's itch will enjoy befriending Spritelings and losing themselves in the colorful forest. Rating: 8 out of 10 Spritelings
  20. How often does a video game RPG actually allow you to get into the nitty gritty details of role-playing a character? The RPG genre has ended up meaning something vastly different from its tabletop game origins, but clearly the developers behind Disco Elysium: The Final Cut weren't content with that division. This story-heavy game feels far more like an actual tabletop RPG experience, the kind where every little action can inform who your character is, his thoughts, motivations and values. It's a frankly staggering work of storytelling, so rich in worldbuilding backstory that you'll feel like this all takes place in a fully realized world. It's just a shame that it runs so poorly on the Switch, though. Disco Elysium starts you off with a slightly cliché amnesic protagonist. After what appears to be one hell of a bender, you wake up with a hangover so severe that you can't remember a single detail about…well, anything really. The city you're in, the state of the world, and even your own name is a mystery, but from here on out every dialogue choice that you make informs your character. If you get into a political conversation with someone you can choose to lean toward communist, nationalist, liberal, or other philosophies. How you react to other people can inform whether you're a hothead or a bit of a sad sack. As you progress you'll also unlock thoughts that you can add to your mental filing cabinet that will also inform your personality and belief system (as well as improve your stats for gameplay purposes). It's one of the most organic, rich, and satisfying ways to develop a role-playing character that I've ever seen in a video game, and it's an absolute blast to not only see how your playthrough develops but to then compare with friends on what kind of personality they nurtured. All of this is made possible by the impeccable writing throughout the game. To call Disco Elysium text-dense might be an understatement—there's almost nothing but text in this game, and all of it is fantastically written. The dialogue is consistently engaging with tons of surprising humor sprinkled throughout a lot of dark, heavy topics. The worldbuilding is just incredible; the game takes place in a fictional world fully populated with nations, political ideologies, etc. Sure that's not so uncommon in the world of video game fiction, but the level of care taken to make all of that backstory fully realized is absolutely impressive. It's also, granted, pretty confusing when you first start, but for anyone that enjoys reading fiction and learning everything they can about a new setting, Disco Elysium is just the perfect experience. I should finally get to the actual plotline of the game. Your character may not remember most details about himself, but what you do know is that you're a detective in the city of Revachol and you need to solve a murder. Complicating matters is a conflict between a workers union and their corporate employers as well as a long history of downtrodden individuals in Revachol, all of which seems to be blurring the facts of the case. As you might expect, solving this case is anything but simple, and mystery fans should love the freedom of picking over every little clue or lead in pursuit of the truth. Since your investigation follows your gameplay choices it's fun to see how you might pick up a hot lead and go on an investigative tear, then hit a roadblock and end up meandering for a while. It's an engaging and constantly surprising mystery story, and like any good detective you'll need to pull information from plenty of uncooperative individuals. This is largely where the actual gameplay mechanics of Disco Elysium lie. Key dialogue options or interactions require a skill check based on your player stats. You'll choose your starting skill stats when you first begin the game, but you can also increase them by leveling up, equipping clothing, or unlocking new thoughts to internalize. For example, you may need to pass an Empathy check in order to talk to a character, or there might be a physical challenge that requires a Physical Instrument check. Early on you may find yourself constantly stymied by difficult skill checks, but exploring everything that the game has to offer to gradually build up your skills is central to the game's progression and is ultimately quite rewarding (failing a skill check will often lead to a hilarious scenario as well, and most of the time you can retry the skill check again). This is a slow burn kind of game after all, and building up your character's skills plays into the measured, thoughtful progression of the story perfectly. Sadly, Disco Elysium hasn't made a great transition to the Switch. Aside from slightly clunky controls which could be better optimized for a controller, the game has some fairly significant technical issues, including frame rate and audio dips when you're in a busy outdoor area, long, 30+ second load times every time you move in and out of buildings or between floors, and pretty frequent crashes during loading screens. The autosave feature isn't terribly reliable either so I'd end up saving every time I had to move in or out of a building, which is just tedious. The game itself is 100% worth playing, but the Switch might not be the right platform to do it. When the game is actually running smoothly you'll be treated to one stylish experience. The artwork of Disco Elysium is as unique as its story and setting. The design reflects the bleak and slightly depressing tone of the story, but there are still these occasional bursts of color and painterly artwork that just shine in the dreary setting. The unkempt, raw vibe of the art design feels perfect for the story being told. The soundtrack is excellent as well, similarly atmospheric and moody, though the star of the audio is definitely the incredible amount of voice acting that brings this story-focused game to life. Even if reading the text is always faster than listening to the voice work, I'd often feel compelled to just listen to the characters talk and further immerse myself in the game. My complaints with Disco Elysium: The Final Cut fall almost entirely on how the game runs on Switch hardware, which causes long load times, frame rate stuttering, and relatively frequent crashes. The actual content of the game though is incredible, a unique and engrossing journey with engaging characters and more worldbuilding than you can likely even take in via one playthrough. Best of all, the fantastic writing and dialogue is complemented by a simple yet oddly exciting skill check system that makes every little conversation a fun challenge. Anyone that enjoys a story-rich game owes it to themself to give Disco Elysium a try, though maybe on a platform other than the Switch. Rating: 8 out of 10 Skill Checks
  21. How does an indie side-scrolling action-platformer stand out in a sea of similar titles on the Switch? How about with beautifully hand-drawn artwork and unique gameplay mechanics that lend themselves to satisfying puzzle design. Greak: Memories of Azur will easily turn heads with its art style, and a closer inspection will reveal a charming and engaging little game as well. You play as Greak, a boy searching for his two siblings, Adara and Raydel, in the war-torn land of Azur. The siblings are from a race called Courines who are being decimated by a violent rival race called Urlags. The very land is being destroyed in this conflict, prompting the Courines to flee but not before Greak finds his siblings. There's a surprisingly decent amount of lore and storytelling here, though the game doesn't always do a great job of introducing you to the backstory. There's a fair bit of jargon to parse early on while you're still getting your bearings, and some of the more direct explanations of the plot are held until nearly the end of the game. Still, there's something particularly charming about a story about siblings looking out for each other, and even if you don't follow all of the names being thrown around the good vs. evil setting is simple enough. Memories of Azur plays like a side-scrolling action game, but the catch here is that you can control all three of the siblings at once, either as a group or separately. Early on you only use Greak, then you'll find Adara, and finally Raydel for the last third of the game. Each sibling controls a little bit differently: Greak has a sword to fight with and can crawl through tight spaces, Adara uses ranged magic and can float short distances, and Raydel is equipped with a sword, shield, and grappling hook but cannot swim. You can move the whole team together at once by holding ZL (though I highly recommend changing the control settings to toggle instead of hold) or you can use just one or two at a time. When you're just controlling Greak the game feels like a fairly standard action-adventure—you'll need to fight monsters and solve simple platformer-puzzles—but once you get Adara the gameplay opens up and becomes far more interesting. As you might suspect you'll need to swap between characters to solve puzzles and open up pathways. Sometimes it's as simple as needing two characters to press two switches, and sometimes you'll need to use each character's unique abilities to overcome hazards. It's a fun mechanic and put to good use with puzzles that are clever and engaging but never too tedious. The final sequence of the game is essentially one long puzzle as you move the siblings around a large interconnected area to make use of their skills and it really highlights the potential of this system. Where the multi-character system stumbles though is with combat. Fighting feels a bit tedious as the siblings have very little HP and even basic enemies take several strikes to bring down, and that really becomes tricky when using multiple characters at once to attack. It's great to dish out more damage at once but it's frustratingly easy for one sibling to get hit and/or pushed out of sync with the others. Most healing items are not instantaneous and you'll need to open up a little menu to use one (which will not pause the game) so healing mid-battle is a dangerous prospect. These quirks can make basic enemies a bit annoying while prolonged boss fights become especially frustrating. Granted, the solution is sometimes to just send one sibling in at a time so you can easily keep track of their attacks, dodges, and healing, but this will also really drag out battles. Combat just never feels quite as fluid and satisfying as it should in Memories of Azur. The game has a few other little quirks that feel unpolished. The map isn't much of a map at all since it doesn't show any detailed account of your surroundings, just the general region (forest, caves, etc.). The world isn't so big and elaborate that you need a map too much, but it definitely would have helped with some of the necessary backtracking. There's a cooking system in the game where you can collect recovery ingredients and make dishes that will provide better healing, but the limited inventory size makes the whole exercise a bit underwhelming. One of the most surprising aspects of Memories of Azur, for modern gamers, is the lack of any auto-save system. Thankfully save points are plentiful, but if you ever end up dying, especially in a boss fight, it's a little annoying not to have a faster restart system. Finally the controls are somewhat complicated when you're controlling multiple characters and you're likely to fumble them even with a bit of practice. Memories of Azur is a relatively short game, clocking in around six to eight hours, which actually feels too short. It seems like the story and lore is building up to a longer adventure, but then it ends somewhat abruptly. The gameplay really gets going once you have all three siblings, but that's in the last third or less of the game. There are side quests as well as a quest tracking system, but only a handful of optional side quests throughout the whole game. It's a shame since the premise and story probably could have supported a longer adventure, at least a few more hours. The hand-drawn artwork of Memories of Azur is gorgeous. The visual aesthetic strikes a nice balance with atmospheric backgrounds and slightly more colorful, cartoonish characters and enemies that are adorable. Best of all, the character animation is fantastic and imparts a ton of charm on the world of Azur. The orchestral soundtrack is also lovely, though too often seems to take too much of a background, subtle approach. The music is solid and could have stood out a bit more than it does. Greak: Memories of Azur puts a fun spin on the familiar 2D side-scroller formula with its simultaneous protagonists. Controlling multiple characters at once in an action-platformer is tricky and doesn't always make for a satisfying combat experience, but it does allow for some fun environmental puzzles. The game is a little bit too short for its own good, but it's an engaging adventure all the same. Rating: 7 out of 10 Memories
  22. The great thing about the point-and-click adventure game genre is that it can so easily work with any premise. From heroic quests on behalf of kings to dramatic tales filled with hard choices, any story background fits with the relatively basic gameplay formula, including the hilarious reptile-filled world of Later Alligator. Simple puzzles, stylish animation, and a ridiculous amount of puns await players in this charming alligator adventure. It's a beautiful day in bustling Alligator New York City, but Pat the Alligator has one little problem: he fears his entire family is planning on killing him tonight. Thankfully you, a helpful alligator stranger, agree to help Pat by playing the part of investi-gator and speaking to his extensive family to solve the murder mystery before the big event takes place. As a point-and-click adventure, Later Alligator lives or dies by the quality of its writing, and I'm happy to say this game is hilarious. It's goofy and unique in the best way possible, positively packed with wacky dialogue, sight gags, and puns, good lord the puns. Each mini-game puzzle you play has a punny title and some of them are so hilariously specific that I really have to question whether the mini-game came first or the title (take, for example, a puzzle involving putting together the torn pieces of a photo on behalf of a trolley driver named "A Streetcar Maimed His Flyer"). Truly sharp comedy can be difficult to land in a video game format but Later Alligator makes it look easy. And the game's adorable, quirky art style plays a huge part in selling the humor. Later Alligator was co-developed by Pillow Fight Games and SmallBu Animation, the latter being an award-winning studio that has worked with some major names in cartoons and animation. That talent is on full display in this game: the 2D animation is bursting with personality and charm. Each new character you meet is a delight and the variety of alligators that the animators are able to create is hilarious. The real cherry on top of it all is the delightful soundtrack by 2 Mello that perfectly matches the oddball energy and charm of the animation. It's not just quirky background music either—there are some great tunes here, they just happen to exist in an anthropomorphic alligator setting. As for the actual gameplay, you'll have to track down each member of Pat's family in the city to chat with them and try to suss out details about the big event later for that evening, which usually requires completing some sort of puzzle or mini-game. These are typically classic puzzles, like sliding blocks or even just a quick round of the card game Old Maid. While the mini-games don't truly test your wits or dexterity, they are fun little diversions and add a lot of variety to a game that would otherwise just be walking around and hearing alligator puns (as fun as that would be). It is possible to fail a mini-game though, so to truly 100% the game you'll need to complete each one. And even if you aren't usually the completionist type, you'll want to do everything you can in Later Alligator. For one thing, a single playthrough is quite short, just a few hours. For another, you're timed while playing and it's not actually possible to find all of Pat's family members in a single playthrough, so you won't really get the full experience if you just stop the first time you see the credits roll. Finally and most importantly, there are multiple endings that build upon one another, so you'll definitely want to find every family member, complete every mini-game, and fully finish the adventure to see the true conclusion to Pat's tale. This may be a goofy, pun-filled game but there's still a little mystery and intrigue that will keep you playing through all those playthroughs. Besides, as mentioned each playthrough is quite short, so 100% completion should only take five or six hours. Later Alligator is a prime example of creative minds coming up with a specific vision and then delivering on that concept with real heart and charm. The unconventional and stylish animation, the simple yet engaging mini-games, and the seemingly endless supply of puns and wordplay makes this short adventure a delight from start to finish. Players looking for something fun, funny, and punny could hardly ask for more. Rating: 9 out of 10 Alligators
  23. One-man developer Tom Happ has followed up his critically-acclaimed 2015 indie Metroidvania with a brand new side-scrolling adventure, Axiom Verge 2. But despite the name, this isn't quite a direct sequel to the first game. New characters, new settings, and new gameplay mechanics provide a fresh pixel-art experience that emphasizes exploration in a sprawling, labyrinthine environment. It's a thoughtful, rich world to explore, even if your initial introduction to it all starts off a bit slow. You play as Indra, a billionaire CEO who visits an Antarctic research station after receiving a mysterious message that her estranged daughter might be there. The base seems to be completely empty though, and after a bit of exploring Indra is pulled into a cryptic parallel dimension filled with dangerous robots. There's clearly a lot of rich backstory lore sprinkled throughout the game—some of which may connect to the first game, but you'll have to do a good bit of exploring and dot connecting to find them—and the concept is ripe for sci-fi storytelling. It's a bit disappointing, then, that the story is so hard to follow. The basic plot is simple enough, but the lore, told through scattered logs and notes that Indra can find, throws so much jargon and anchorless terminology at you that you probably won't understand most of it your first time through the game, or at least not until you're near the end and can reread everything to understand it. A little mystery is fun but when you can't even decipher the clues it gets a bit tedious. The gameplay has the same slow-start issue as the story. The beginning of the game is pretty standard side-scrolling Metroidvania stuff, bordering on stiff and repetitive. Initially, Indra's only weapon is a melee-range ice axe, which feels pretty inefficient to use against fast-moving robots or enemies with ranged attacks (it's also a little annoying to constantly have to crouch to hit small enemies). In fact, combat never feels particularly satisfying in Axiom Verge 2, though the silver lining here is that you never really need to fight. There are no required boss fights (there are large enemies but you can just avoid them. You will be rewarded for defeating them though) and more often than not just dodging little enemies is more efficient. It's a bit weird to de-emphasize combat so much in a game like this, but since hitting enemies is a little clunky to begin with maybe that's not such a bad thing. Gradually you'll unlock more abilities and find new items that expand the scope of the gameplay significantly, particularly the exploration side of the game, and that's when Axiom Verge 2 starts to shine. You'll gain the ability to pilot a little drone and send it into the Breach, an alternate map with its own enemies and hazards, and by navigating the Breach you can open up new paths in the main map as well. It's a clever way of significantly expanding an already elaborate map filled with little nooks and crannies to explore, and it comes across fairly naturally. The game provides very little direction while you're exploring, but that opportunity to wander is one of Axiom Verge 2's greatest strengths. You'll definitely get lost at times, and it's a little too easy to overlook little spots on the map that end up being the key to progressing, but once you have multiple traversal abilities there's a lot of fun in just running around and seeing where you can end up. That said, Axiom Verge 2 maybe throws too many abilities at the player that end up only being useful in narrow scenarios. The de-emphasis on combat means a lot of the weapons you find don't feel all that useful overall, and some features, like hacking enemies and objects, are easy to overlook when just running away is far more effective. Balancing the selection of items and abilities might have helped make some of them feel less superfluous. Even if you end up getting lost for a while, Axiom Verge 2 isn't too long. You can finish the adventure in under 10 hours, though if you're going for 100% completion you'll really need to spend time checking every corner of the map. There's also an entire speedrun mode available so naturally speedrun fans should enjoy finding the most efficient routes through this maze of a map. The game's presentation is stunning, not surprising after the rich pixel art design of the first game. That old school vibe is back in Axiom Verge 2, complete with stylish backgrounds and impressive mechanical enemies (particularly all those monstrous bosses that are actually optional). The art design does a great job of balancing the mystery of a parallel world with understandable and navigable environments. The soundtrack is also wonderful. It's otherworldly and a little haunting but encourages you to dive into this adventure and explore. Axiom Verge 2's Metroidvania formula puts the emphasis on exploration rather than combat, and by doing so delivers a rich world to explore. Most importantly, balancing on-foot exploration with drone exploration expands the possibilities of wandering and rewarding the player with little secrets. The combat is lackluster and almost feels included merely out of obligation, but the sense of adventure—including those moments when you're lost and are just poking around the corners of the map—will still easily pull you into Axiom Verge 2. Rating: 7 out of 10 Axioms
  24. How do you improve upon an arguably perfect puzzle game? Tetris is a household name for gamers and non-gamers for a reason: it's a beautifully simple and addictive game that challenges players to not only plan ahead but to be ready to roll with the unexpected, like when the line piece just refuses to show up. It's hard to tear your eyes away from the game and, if you're like me, you'll start seeing Tetris patterns in tiled floors and walls before long. This perfect gameplay formula was nailed down decades ago, so can a few new modes and stylish visuals of Tetris Effect: Connected really impact the experience? Yes, they absolutely can. Easily the most unexpected aspect of Connected is the Journey mode, which acts as a sort of single-player adventure or story mode. Obviously there's not really a plot to this Tetris game, and even calling it an adventure might be stretching things since it's just a series of stages where you have to hit the requisite number of lines cleared to move on to the next one, but Journey might be the perfect introduction to Connected. First and foremost, it takes you through all of the gorgeous backgrounds and styles that the game has to offer. Even though your time in each background is brief, this is a great way to see them all in a mostly continuous journey. And even though there isn't a plot or quest to conquer here, the game really does take you on a beautiful journey. A huge amount of the praise for Connected has to go toward the visuals and audio design. The scenery is stunning and provides so many gorgeous environments that your brain just kind of melts into the visual effects as you're focused on lining up blocks. More importantly, the sound effects tied to your actions—dropping blocks, "clicking" them into place—add a fantastic layer of immersion and improvisational energy to the game. It's so satisfying to notice how your actions jazz up the already phenomenal soundtrack. Even though at higher speeds your brain is probably fully focused on survival, just having that added touch to the game's atmosphere is beautiful. Connected uses the modern Tetris formula, meaning you can spin blocks almost indefinitely and can bank one block to swap in or out at an opportune moment, but it also adds another new touch. Clearing lines builds up your Zone energy, which you can use to pause the flow of Tetriminos and manually drop them for an added layer of precision. When the Zone effect ends, you'll be rewarded with a nice score bonus. A Tetris snob might say that this is yet another way that modern Tetris makes things easy for the player, but it really is a fun way of incorporating new features that don't fundamentally alter the way the classic Tetris experience is played. Of course, Connected isn't just about Journey mode. There are several other single-player modes to tackle, including standards like marathon or score attack, as well as more unusual challenges that throw unique rules at you. There's a nice bit of variety here and even if you don't love the more stylized game modes the standard Tetris experience is just as fun as it ever was. For many players—particularly Tetris 99 fanatics—Tetris isn't just a single-player game. Connected features several multiplayer modes for online or local play, including modes with modern or classic rules. That's right, you can go all the way back to 80s Tetris here with a head-to-head score attack challenge with no infinite spin, banked Tetriminos, or Zone effects. It's actually really fun to change things up on yourself every so often, just be careful not to get too stuck in one rule set and forget how to play the others. The Connected subtitle also comes from the most unique multiplayer mode, a co-op challenge where three players team up to fight a series of computer-controlled bosses. The name comes from the fact that, once you've built up the proper Zone energy, all three players' boards connect into one massive Tetris board to deal garbage block attacks to the boss. Cooperative Tetris is an entirely different beast and super rewarding when you and your teammates are working in sync. Perhaps best of all, all multiplayer modes feature cross-platform play, so it's pretty easy to find opponents (or allies) for every game mode. The best recommendation for Tetris Effect: Connected is actually just playing the game yourself and seeing how the psychedelic visuals and audio blend together into a gorgeous Tetris experience. I'm going out on an extremely short limb here to assume you already know what Tetris is and are well aware of how engaging and addictive it is, both solo or competitively. Connected is no different, and the gorgeous visuals and new game modes let players see that classic, fantastic puzzle game experience in a whole new way. Rating: 9 out of 10 Tetriminos
  25. What if, instead of opening your map to check your position or the distance to your target, you could simply rearrange the map to instantly bring yourself to the target? That's more or less the premise of Carto, an adventure-puzzle game where you play as a young cartographer capable of rearranging a map of the world in order to explore. It's a clever, easy-to-understand puzzle formula complemented by adorable graphics and a cute story in this brief adventure. You play as Carto, a young girl and novice cartographer who is separated from her grandmother due to a storm. The storm also scatters pieces of her map all across the world, and now she must explore to find the missing pieces and return to her grandma. Carto is an awfully cute game with a charming, light-hearted narrative. You meet and interact with a variety of side characters all living their own little lives and oftentimes there's some problem Carto can help them with, but this isn't a typical save-the-world quest. It's a relaxed, casual story brimming with adorable charm that is just all around pleasant and fun to hang out in. As mentioned the gameplay revolves entirely around rearranging the map in order to explore, unlock new map pieces, and repeat. There's an important caveat here though: when map pieces touch they have to match, meaning a forest piece has to touch a forest piece, a mountain piece a mountain piece, etc. This one rule is enough to provide plenty of inventive challenges. Carto isn't a particularly demanding puzzle game, but you'll likely encounter a few head-scratchers that give you a moment's pause. Thankfully, since there are so few gameplay mechanics actually at play, you aren't likely to get stuck for long. Sometimes the puzzle hints are a bit too vague and you may need to rely on trial and error, but if anything these particularly obtuse puzzles help spice up the gameplay a bit. Carto is fairly short—most players will probably finish in around five hours or so, maybe a bit more depending on how quick you are with puzzles or how long you take to read all the dialogue. The premise could probably have sustained a longer game as each new area Carto explores adds new little twists to the map formula, but the game also doesn't feel too rushed. It'd be nice if it were longer but the length works as is. The pleasant, relaxed tone of the story—and really the game overall—is matched by an absolutely adorable hand-drawn art style that is cute, colorful, and cuddly. It's also particularly charming in motion. The animation is simple and cartoonish in the best ways possible that will instantly endear players to Carto and her adventure. The soundtrack matches this atmosphere with a fun but extremely chill sound that can't help but make you relax. All of the presentation has a storybook charm to it that makes the game suited for all ages. Carto is a great example of taking one gameplay idea and fleshing it out into a whole adventure. The map manipulation mechanic is simple and delightful, full of clever puzzle opportunities that make you rethink movement and adventuring in video games. It's a fairly brief, leisurely kind of game but it works beautifully and develops an absolutely charming vibe that puzzle fans shouldn't miss out on. Rating: 8 out of 10 Map Pieces
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