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  1. More than just a romantic subplot in a larger story but also not a dating simulator game, Haven dances around typical video game romance tropes to tell a genuine love story. Perhaps more importantly, this isn't a game about two people wooing each other, but two people that have already found one another and are working hard to stay together. It creates an engaging setting but the thin gameplay elements leave a lot to be desired. You play as both Yu and Kay, swapping between the two while exploring and controlling both in combat (Haven also features local co-op). As the game begins, they are exploring an idyllic if somewhat barren planet made up of floating islands, but you quickly learn that they fled here to escape the overbearing control of their futuristic society. Now they'll have to lay low and survive on this strange world to build a new life together. Your enjoyment of Haven 100% hinges upon how much you like Yu and Kay as a couple, because if you aren't quickly invested in them as characters their romantic dialogue will feel clumsy, cheesy, or outright lame. They're both written as lovey dovey and quirky, and while some of their lines might be authentic to a real couple, it comes off awkward to read. To be fair, it's admirable to even have that attempt at authenticity in a game, but it can make some of the dialogue a slog, which is tough when the whole point of the game is a love story. The gameplay blends exploration and combat with RPG progression, though nothing feels particularly polished here. Yu and Kay are able to glide over the surface of the planet thanks to the power of Flow. You can follow these glowing blue lines to build up Flow charge or just skate over the ground in a smooth, ice-skating-like motion. This free-flowing movement is great in wide-open spaces but becomes a hassle when you need to navigate any small, narrow areas or are trying to carefully adjust to move to the side and pick up an item. Still, the gliding mechanics can be a lot of fun when you have the freedom to use them, but they just don't evolve much over the course of the game. On each floating island you'll need to clean up "rust," a red, dangerous Flow artifact, and cleaning it up is as simple as gliding over it. Doing that over and over though, island after island, leads to a pretty repetitive experience. There is exceedingly little variety between islands, and you don't gain much in terms of new abilities. The only thing that tries to spice things up is the combat system, but this can also feel pretty basic and repetitive. You control both Yu and Kay simultaneously, so you can set each one to melee attack, ranged attack, or shield, then you can pacify the monster you're fighting once their health is gone. Some enemies are vulnerable to melee, some to ranged attacks, and some you'll need to time your attacks appropriately to do real damage. The problem is the game does a terrible job of explaining these mechanics, and your healing is quite limited—early on you'll basically need to retreat back to your spaceship to heal—so combat just feels clunky. There's almost something interesting here with the combat mechanics, something that juggles two characters timing attacks appropriately and defending each other, but Haven never really develops its combat system properly, and what is here is confusing and muddled. Haven also has a rough go of it on the Switch. The load times are far too long given that there's a loading screen between every single island. The game is also pretty unstable, even years after its initial release. Crashes, random blank screens—it's hard to just play this game at times. Thankfully the game frequently autosaves at least, but it's still disappointing to see such regular technical issues. This isn't a terribly long game, but even across its 10 hours or so it can get to be pretty repetitive. There's not much in terms of side quests aside from clearing every island of rust, or picking up little artifacts that add more dialogue back at your home base. And although there is RPG progression that levels you up as you play, it's extremely straightforward and simply makes your attacks better and your health higher. Haven is definitely the type of game meant to be played in small, short bursts sporadically, because playing for any extended length of time shows how monotonous the gameplay can be. The presentation is perhaps the saving grace of Haven, specifically the audio. The music is pretty killer and has a perfectly sci-fi aesthetic that almost makes the endless gliding around worth it as you listen to an electronic soundtrack that is airy and energizing. The voice work is also okay, though even decent acting doesn't always make the clunky dialogue work. The stylish color design of the game also makes for a perfect alien world, but the repeating environments and creatures result in a pretty lifeless environment. Haven puts all its eggs in the relationship basket, leading to some overly simple, repetitive gameplay features that make even a 10 hour game feel like a slog at times. There are good ideas here too, but they just don't get the polish they need to shine. Only players truly invested in Yu and Kay's love story will likely enjoy gliding around empty island environments over and over. Rating: 5 out of 10 Floating Islands
  2. Sometimes the protagonist of a game is a great warrior foretold by destiny, and sometimes it's a little grape. Garden Story takes the basic elements of an action-adventure game and weaves it together with a cozy little quest featuring walking, talking food that is just as much about combat as it is gathering materials or growing crops. The result is a charming, light adventure that is a bit too simple at times, but is always wholesome. You play as Concord, a young grape who is made a Guardian in order to help stop the spread of Rot across the Grove, your homeland. By journeying to each of the four towns in the Grove and helping various citizens—including other sentient foods as well as frogs—Concord will hopefully save everyone. It's a charming plot and takes some surprising turns near the end, and frankly having any turns at all in a story like this is surprising enough, since it very easily could have been a completely straightforward plot. Still, as is the case with the game as a whole, there's a nagging feeling that the story could have been more than it is and doesn't do enough to flesh out the Grove or its inhabitants. Garden Story plays like a top-down action-adventure, and very early on you gain a pick to use as a weapon. The game is divided into day cycles, and each day you're given two or three tasks to complete, which either involve defeating Rot slimes, collecting materials, or completing other basic tasks to aid the community. At the end of each day you'll sleep to save your progress then tackle new tasks for a new day. This job structure is novel but quickly becomes just a time-consuming chore. The tasks are never challenging and sometimes they truly do feel like ways to waste time, such as when you need to collect materials that only drop one at a time, which is further complicated by the fact that you can only carry so many items at once, so you'll frequently be tossing away the less valuable clutter in your inventory. There's an unfortunate lack of variety to the tasks as well, making them feel repetitive quite quickly. It's a cute way of integrating Concord's quest to help the community into the gameplay, but it's not a rewarding gameplay loop. Combat is much the same: simple and easy to pick up but never evolves over the course of the game. The main issue is your stamina meter, which limits how frequently you can attack. At first you can barely take a couple swings of your pick without needing to wait and recover, but it's not a terribly engaging combat loop, it just makes combat feel drawn out and gives you no opportunities for strategic variety. It doesn't help that there are only two or three types of enemies in the whole game, so again it will feel repetitive extremely quickly. The boss fights are more engaging at least, but there are only a handful throughout the game. Even when you do unlock more weapons, they're all so similar that it's not really worth playing with anything other than the tried and true pick, especially since you need to upgrade each weapon individually, which takes a lot of time and resources. One of the more successful aspects of Garden Story though is the skill system, which are called memories here. Memories unlock by completing set requirements—defeat X amount of enemies, complete X amount of tasks, etc.—and each new memory can be equipped to grant some bonus effect. The most basic simply grant stat boosts, like more HP or stamina, but others can have more unique effects, such as giving you a burst of speed after you use a healing potion (called dew in Garden Story). It's a neat way of presenting and equipping skills, and there are quite a lot to unlock over the course of the game. Granted, not all of the skills are terribly useful—some are so specific that you'll probably want to stick with the more general ones like stat boosts—but it's still a fun and novel skill/upgrade system. There are a few other features in Garden Story that frankly feel a bit like padding, but if you want to spend more time beyond the 10–15 hours it takes to finish the story they do add some further length and variety to the game. Aside from basic side quests you will also eventually unlock the ability to build objects, which is only used as a story requirement a few times and then becomes purely a cosmetic feature. Gradually, you can unlock the ability to craft things like streetlights or other town features and place them in specific open areas in each town. Again, it's a totally cosmetic, time-wasting feature but it's something to keep you occupied if you want to spend more time in the Grove. And granted, the Grove is a very cute place to hang out. The pixel art is utterly charming, most of all due to the cute little inhabitants of each town. There's a relaxed, light-hearted energy to the whole game that is perfectly captured in the simple, friendly art style. The soundtrack is also a definite highlight of the adventure. It perfectly exudes the cozy vibes that define the game. Garden Story is a cute, chill adventure that is ultimately a little too relaxed. The combat, exploration, and gathering mechanics simply don't evolve over the course of the game, resulting in some disappointingly repetitive gameplay loops. But if you want to spend time in a bright, cozy game that has the elements of action-adventure without ever actually feeling demanding, Garden Story is a charming if flawed experience. Rating: 7 out of 10 Gardens
  3. Not to get too highfalutin right out of the gate here, but there are few things that tap into the human experience like gathering around a campfire to swap stories. Whatever medium it's in, the art of storytelling connects people, whether it's a personal story or an enduring folktale. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine seeks to tap into that collective experience by setting you loose across the continental United States to collect and share stories. It's a beautifully unique concept that unfortunately does not translate well to a video game at all. You play as a wanderer who, after a bad poker hand against a surprisingly well-dressed wolf, is tasked with collecting stories across Great Depression-era America (though the timeline is iffy—you'll also encounter people and stories clearly from a 50s/60s beat poetry aesthetic). Your main goal is collecting the personal story from sixteen key characters. To do that though, you'll need to collect other stories to share with the key NPCs, which causes them to open up to you and share more of their stories. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a story about storytelling, and it's a really cool concept. The stories you share are set loose on the world and will change and grow in the process (which in gameplay terms means they'll be more effective at getting the key NPCs to open up to you). It's a fun way of showing how stories evolve and change, how storytellers and listeners add and subtract what they want out of a story to better align with their desires or expectations. The initial stories you find are simple or basic happenings: a chance meeting on a road, a creepy abandoned farmhouse, a sad story of a family trying to survive, etc. Over time though, these stories evolve into larger-than-life adventures, ghost stories, and tall tales. On top of all this, the key NPCs' stories delve further into personal tales of survival, heartbreak, and social issues that are distinctly American. It's a really fascinating concept for a game. The actual gameplay, however, is kind of a mess. It's understandable that this kind of game would be a bit more of a slow, thoughtful adventure, but Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a painfully slow game. The vast majority of the gameplay involves walking across America, stopping only to pick up a new story or sit down at a campfire with a key NPC. And you walk. Very. Slowly. There are a few options to speed things up but they're imperfect solutions as well: trains are expensive, hopping a train without paying can result in you getting beaten by the authorities, hitchhiking is inconsistent and cars only travel in set directions, and finally whistling while you walk very slightly increases your movement speed but you have to play a little button tapping game the whole time. The experience of playing the game is legitimately boring. Then there's the story exchange system with NPCs. When you're sitting at a campfire with someone, they'll ask to hear a story from your travels, and they'll hint toward what kind of story they want to hear—thrilling, funny, sad, etc. The problem is, your stories aren't organized by their type at all, you have to remember them, and there are over two hundred stories available in the game. Sure some will be obvious—ghost stories are usually scary, for example—but a lot of others are confusingly categorized. You can only tell so many stories during a campfire encounter and you can't tell the same story twice, so it's really on you to keep track of these categories even though the game provides no UI or organizing system. You can also only "equip" so many stories when you sit down at a campfire, and there's no in-game system for reminding you if you've already told a story or not. Sorting/swapping stories is terribly unintuitive, not to mention that all of the menus in the game are a bit clumsy to navigate. Perhaps most annoyingly, you have to share stories with a specific NPC multiple times before his or her personal story is complete, so you have to just do the same thing over and over again. Simply put, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is far too long for how slow and repetitive the gameplay is. If it were maybe five hours long it would be a still flawed but novel story about storytelling, but at twelve to fifteen hours it is truly a slog. Most frustratingly, because of the issues mentioned above, it's a hard game to pick up and play gradually over several weeks since you'll likely forget which stories you've already used, or what category they're in. To be fair, I understand that this isn't necessarily the point of the game. It's a relaxed, meandering experience more than a "video game" challenge, but that experience is just boring more often than not. The game's visuals are somewhat mixed, but the audio department at least does a great job. The 2D artwork seen when you're finding or sharing stories has a beautiful rustic charm to it. It's simple and has a raw, scrawled vibe that nicely matches the tone the game is going for. While you're exploring though, the graphics switch to a 3D view of America that leaves something to be desired. The views are expansive but bland, and certainly doesn't help the monotonous feel of the gameplay. The soundtrack, however, is undoubtedly the highlight of the game. The Americana vibe of the music perfectly suits the wandering adventure you're on. The songs are really the only saving grace for the long periods of time where you are simply walking. And in a neat touch of regionalism, the appropriately titled Vagrant Song will have a slightly different style depending on where you are in America (Southern, Midwest, Northwest, etc.). It's a cool attention to detail that honestly should have been carried over to more aspects of the game. The voice work is also pretty solid overall. The narrator has the most lines and is a definite standout, and while not all of the NPCs have stellar voice work the overall quality is decent. There is, however, one baffling audio decision in the game: the whistling that helps you move a bit faster plays over the soundtrack, and doesn't even match the tune or rhythm of the underlying song. It's such an obvious missed opportunity that it's honestly baffling how the developers ignored matching up the whistle and soundtrack. Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a clever concept that does not translate to an entertaining video game. The gameplay loop of collecting and sharing stories sounds decent enough on paper, but in execution is such a slow, tedious slog that it drains the game of what little energy it has. A strong soundtrack and decent visual style aren't enough to lift up the poor UI design and unsatisfying busywork of sorting your stories and remembering which have been used. Despite having a neat kernel of an idea, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine doesn't evolve into the enduring folktale that it wants to be. Rating: 4 out of 10 Stories
  4. Ikenfell takes place in a school of magic, and we're going to breeze right past any comparisons or references to a certain famous school of witchcraft and wizardry and get right to the heart of this game. With retro pixel art graphics, a cozy soundtrack and a battle system rich with strategic opportunities, Ikenfell balances a classic RPG formula with engaging combat. The cute graphics belie a surprisingly challenging adventure though. You play as Maritte, a girl who journeys to the Ikenfell school of magic because her sister who attends the school, Safina, has gone missing. Maritte is an Ordinary (not a mage), but within the opening moments of the game strange magical abilities awaken within her, and she'll have to battle her way through a school that has become overrun with odd magic to rescue her sister. The story moves along at a brisk, almost mechanical pace—find a new clue, meet a new friend, then explore another part of the school—but the emotional core of the game certainly deserves praise. This is a charming cast of characters who all have their flaws and foibles, and gradually open up to one another in touching ways. There's a lot of realistic representation of personal struggles and coming to terms with identity even within this fanciful magic setting as well as strong LGBTQ+ representation, and it's very easy to grow attached to these characters over the course of a 15 hour or so playthrough. The star of the gameplay in Ikenfell is the battle system. It's turn-based and tactical—characters act based on speed, meaning some could even act twice before another acts once—and takes place on a 12x3 battlefield grid. Characters can move around the battlefield and every attack (or spell) has a certain range or area of effect, so positioning yourself well is key. You may also want to group your characters up so you can cast AoE healing or buffs. At the same time though, this might leave you open to enemy AoE attacks, so there's always a strategic gamble in positioning your characters. Ikenfell also uses a timing system similar to Mario RPGs—by hitting the A button at the right time, you can boost the damage of your attacks or reduce the damage of incoming attacks. These aren't just minor bonuses either. For some spells, missing the timing means there's no effect whatsoever, and with most spells you'll more than double or triple your damage output. It's a wonderfully fresh battle system that makes every encounter engaging, whether it's a long, drag-out boss fight or a simple skirmish with normal enemies. You can't just rush forward mindlessly lest you put a character in a dangerous position, and you have to learn each spell's timing to put them to the best possible use. That added level of engagement makes every battle nicely rewarding, which is especially nice since Ikenfell doesn't have random encounters, so facing an enemy or trying to run around them is always a choice. That said, the timing system might be a double-edged sword for Ikenfell. The extreme difference between a miss and a success can be pretty frustrating, especially early in the game when your healing options are so limited. A successful block might reduce damage down to 1 hit point, but a fail might deal 5 points, a huge chunk of your max health early in the game. It's always tricky encountering a new enemy as well, when you don't know the right timing for all of its attacks. All of this is to say, the difficulty is perhaps not quite balanced perfectly, which may turn off players who don't click with the timing system right away. The good news though is that there are difficulty options to make battles easier. For one, you can just turn on an instant win option to let you basically skip through any encounter. The other, less extreme option is to turn on semi-auto or full auto modes, which automatically give you a "nice" or a "great" rating on any timed button press, respectively (nice increases/reduces damage a bit, great does it a lot). These still feel somewhat like bandaids or at least overpowered options to make the game easier, and the core gameplay should probably have been balanced instead, but they're great options for anyone that just wants to see the story. There is also, naturally, a bit of exploring to do in this RPG. It's not the most elaborate, but there are some fun environmental puzzles here: flip the right switches to open a path, collect the keys, etc. The exploration side of Ikenfell is undeniably light compared to the rich combat system though. There also isn't much in terms of side quests here, which is unusual for an RPG and feels like a small missed opportunity—it's a school of magic, there are endless possibilities for side adventures. The game's retro pixel artwork looks a bit like every other retro pixel art game out there. Most enemy designs are pretty basic and the scenery can feel flat—character portraits in particular are surprisingly repetitive, simple designs—though some of the little touches in animation are particularly charming, like one character swaying her arms back and forth while talking. The soundtrack however is excellent and perfectly captures the energy of the game: cute and cozy at times balanced out with adventurous, mysterious moments. Ikenfell is a charming and engaging bite-sized RPG, perfect for fans of the genre that want a game that won't eat up dozens upon dozens of hours. The strategic combat system and timing mechanics do mean that this isn't quite an adventure for novice players, but if you're able to overcome the high difficulty spikes, you'll be rewarded with a heart-warming RPG. Rating: 8 out of 10 Spells
  5. In 2018, developer Bedtime Digital Games released a charming and surreal adventure on the Switch that let players journey through a mind plagued by nightmares. Now players can return to that world of personified thoughts with Figment 2: Creed Valley. But while the core story is once again an emotional tale, the game's performance on the Switch puts a damper on the whole experience. You play as Dusty, the personification of courage and the same protagonist from the first game. With the help of your bird pal Piper, it's your job to deal with nightmares in the mind, which usually means giving them a good whacking with your wooden sword. This time a two-headed jester is causing havoc in Creed Valley, so you'll need to get to the root cause of the problem and clear up the mind. Like the first game, Figment 2 strikes a nice balance between adventure game and thoughtful reflection on mental health. The themes are perhaps a bit less heavy here in the sequel, but the ultimate message of self-care and self-reflection is one that will easily resonate with anyone, even if it's delivered in a somewhat saccharine way at times. Indeed, the banter between Dusty and Piper is a lot of fun—and packed with puns—but can also be so on-the-nose that it can come off clunky. Still, overall it's a smart and entertaining story that goes beyond the usual "save the world" adventure plot. The gameplay is a blend of action and puzzles across a linear and fairly short runtime. Exploration is normally limited to following the one available path that will reward you with a key that opens up the next area, and occasionally you'll need to beat up some enemies. Combat is quite basic with just a couple of basic sword attacks and a dodge roll at your disposal, even through the end of the game, and more frustratingly your moves feel slow and clumsy. It's not uncommon for enemies to hit you while you're still winding up or recovering from a swing, which is especially a problem when you're surrounded by enemies. There are also only a couple of enemy types to encounter. Battles are thankfully rather short, but it still would've been nice to see more depth to the combat system. Boss fights, at least, add a lot more engaging gameplay and personality to Figment 2. These bigger battles tend to focus on dodging waves of attacks, kind of like an isometric bullet hell shooter, as well as incorporating puzzles into the battle—e.g. the boss might not be vulnerable until you solve a little puzzle in the environment. Most importantly, Figment 2 is a musical just like its predecessor, so boss fights are accompanied by lyrical songs (and there are a few other tunes scattered throughout the adventure as well). Though there are only a few boss fights in the game, these musical numbers are a blast and add a ton of bizarre, surreal charm. The puzzle side of Figment 2 runs a wide but somewhat shallow gamut. The basic ones simply involve finding the right keys, but there is also a good variety of challenges to keep things interesting, including a maze filled with smaller puzzle challenges and even a miniature detective story. It's awesome to have these unique challenges available, but most of them are also pretty simple. A bit more depth to the puzzle gameplay would have gone a long way to rounding out the Figment 2 experience. Furthermore, I ran into a couple of glitches involving puzzles that required restarting the game, which is definitely a bummer to encounter. Even outside of those glitches though, Figment 2 runs pretty poorly on the Switch. It's especially a shame because the surreal, abstract representation of the mind is gorgeous from a design perspective and provides a unique, distinctive visual style to the game, but the frame rate just cannot seem to smooth itself out. It's constantly and noticeably stuttering which spoils the beautiful visuals as well as the timing of moving and fighting. It's just disappointing that the game isn't more stable on the Switch. The audio side of the presentation doesn't disappoint, at least. As mentioned the musical numbers are excellent, and the rest of the soundtrack is great as well. There's also a ton of voice acting that really completes the characters' personalities. As mentioned Figment 2 is quite short, clocking in at under five hours. There are optional memory spheres to collect, and finding a requisite amount unlocks a memory for a bit of backstory, but it's a pretty small reward and finding memory spheres usually isn't much of a challenge anyway. There's also a local two-player mode where another player controls Piper. She only provides some light support so it's not quite a full-fledged co-op experience, but it can still be nice to get a friend in on the adventure. Figment 2: Creed Valley doesn't push itself far beyond its predecessor, but that still means it's an enjoyable adventure through the mind filled with surreal scenery and fabulous musical numbers. The gameplay remains a bit too shallow, both in terms of combat and puzzles, but the game's personality buoys the experience. Unfortunately the game really struggles to run smoothly on the Switch though, so it might be best to give Figment 2 a shot on a different platform. Rating: 7 out of 10 Memories
  6. Who better to recruit into a cult that worships a demonic god than a bunch of adorable woodland creatures? Cult of the Lamb combines a gruesome plot and setting with cute characters and also combines dungeon-crawling roguelike gameplay with a cult-management sim—'cause hey, cultists have to eat while you're out there murdering eldritch abominations. Not all of the pieces fit together perfectly, but the mash up ensures a unique adventure no matter what. You play as a little lamb who, as the game begins, is sacrificed in order to prevent the return of the eldritch god The One Who Waits. However, the god reaches out to you in the afterlife and brings you back to life and grants you his powers to recruit a cult and destroy the four other eldritch gods who sacrificed you. All of this, of course, while you're playing as an adorable cartoon lamb. The combination of the dark plot and cutesy graphics is hilariously incongruous. It's a joke that never gets old as you battle monsters or ritualistically sacrifice your own followers for more power as your other followers cheer you on. Granted, the rest of the story doesn't evolve much beyond the joke, but it's certainly a unique and engaging set up. The gameplay is split in two: on one hand you'll explore randomly generated dungeons to collect gold, materials, more followers, and ultimately try to kill each of the four old gods, and on the other hand you'll return to your base between dungeon crawls to ensure your followers are devout and are generating faith that you can use to upgrade your abilities and the base itself. Early on, the two halves feed into each other a fair bit. You need to explore dungeons to rescue new followers for your cult after all, and most of your base resources will probably come from exploring. Gradually though, the two halves kind of separate, which is a shame. Once you've built up your base enough that you've unlocked some perks for dungeon crawling, it just kind of feels like there are two games being played. It can also be frustrating that things can go wrong at your base while you're exploring and there's nothing you can do about it until you return. It would have been nice to have a little more constant interaction between the two halves of Cult of the Lamb. Each half plays decently though, for the most part. While exploring, there's a fair degree of randomization, and like a lot of roguelikes it sometimes feels like your run is ruined straight from the start due to bad luck. There are only a handful of different weapon types, but you can unlock new effects like a poisoned weapon, vampiric, etc. so there's at least a little variety. You can also find tarot cards to grant special effects during a run, and you'll need to gradually unlock more cards to give yourself more options. Overall though the dungeon exploration feels surprisingly light on content. The developers have and are continuing to add more content to the game, but it almost feels like you've seen everything the game has to offer in just a few hours, which isn't great for any game but especially a roguelike. Combat can also be annoyingly floaty and simple. Some weapons especially make you feel like you're sliding around the screen while attacking, which can be frustrating when fighting small or fast enemies. Each weapon controls a little differently but you still only have a basic attack, so despite unlocking new weapon effects it does kind of feel like the same thing every time. The cult building side of the game requires you to micromanage your cultists a bit, though like any sim game it can be satisfying to see the cult you've built run smoothly. Early on you'll just have them chop wood, mine stone, or pray to generate faith devotion points, but eventually you can give them slightly more complicated tasks. Crucially though they will lose faith while you're not in your base. To raise it again, you can hold sermons and rituals, and you're also given the choice of which rituals to unlock as you progress. Some are benevolent, like holding a feast to raise faith and lower hunger, while others, like sacrificing a follower's life to The One Who Waits, are decidedly less benevolent. Being able to choose between being a kinder or stricter cult leader is a fun bit of customization. In the end though, managing the cult feels perhaps too simple. Oftentimes I returned to my base to see my followers' faith meter completely drained, but after a sermon and a friendly ritual everything was topped off again. There's not actually a lot of planning or strategy needed for managing the cult, which feels like a missed opportunity. Early on it takes some grunt work—like manually cleaning up followers' poop because they will just go anywhere at any time (I guess they are technically animals)—but soon enough it's so automated that checking in doesn't have much meaning anymore, and it's just a to-do list of busywork, like emptying the outhouse (not sure why the cult leader needs to be the one doing it, but okay). Even the more interesting stuff like having a follower start to complain and try to sway others away from your cult can be solved almost instantaneously. In both the dungeon exploration and cult management, Cult of the Lamb could have used more deep, varied gameplay to keep things engaging from start to finish. The game is also not terribly long. You can probably complete the story in about 12–15 hours, and even within that time frame the gameplay starts to feel pretty repetitive. You can continue to play afterward but as mentioned, even with randomized dungeon layouts and weapons the gameplay surprisingly doesn't quite have legs. There are also mini-games and side quests you can tackle, but they don't do much to spice up the gameplay either. Cult of the Lamb also doesn't quite run smoothly on the Switch. The load times are quite long, but more frustrating and noticeable are the dropped frames that makes the action stutter for a second. Oftentimes this can happen during combat, which is particularly annoying. Cult of the Lamb blends its dark subject matter and adorable art style beautifully, but the blend of gameplay elements is a bit less successful. Each half ends up feeling a bit too simple and isolated. Still, for the runtime, Cult of the Lamb is a charmingly gruesome little adventure, just don't expect to become a devout follower. Rating: 7 out of 10 Cultists
  7. I had an absolute blast with the original Octopath Traveler back in 2018—in fact, it was my game of the year back then. The turn-based combat, anthology-style storytelling, and of course the stunning HD-2D art style completely captivated me. After nearly five years and several HD-2D games since then though, can Octopath Traveler II retain that same magic, and more importantly build upon it? Emphatically, yes, yes it can. Like the first game, each character has their own path to complete. The character you start with will be your leader, and from there you can circle the map of Solistia to collect the other seven and explore every story along the way. The original game got a bit of flak for this anthology structure but I loved it, and it still feels unique and engaging to have eight different little journeys to follow—though it's still a little funny that some stories are deadly serious, like Osvald going to prison after being framed for the murder of his family, while others are incredibly light like Agnea's quest to become a famous dancer. The vignette format allows for that kind of variety though, without breaking the cohesion of the game. Octopath Traveler II has also shaken up the strict four chapter structure of the original so that each traveler's tale can unfold more organically with a few long chapters or more short chapters. You can even sometimes choose between two or three destinations within one character's story, though to be fair the recommended levels will largely keep you on a specific path anyway. Although the overall format is still the same, Octopath Traveler II does weave together the eight characters a bit more than the first. After reaching necessary checkpoints in two characters' stories, you'll be able to play a Crossed Path story that pairs up characters into brief side quests. It's a ton of fun to have the characters interact more directly, and each one feels ripe for character moments, like pairing up the thief Throné with the sarcastic cleric Temenos. In fact, I would've loved to have a Crossed Path story for every possible pairing, though that would be quite a lot of side quests, and keeping the pairings relatively brief helps make them feel special. Perhaps more importantly, the Crossed Paths actually feed into the other major addition to Octopath Traveler II's storytelling: a unified final chapter. The original game had an optional superboss, but now there's a fully fleshed out and storydriven final chapter after you complete all eight main character stories and all Crossed Paths. It's an absolute delight to have all eight characters interacting with each other directly, and it's because this interaction is so sparse that it's all the more exciting to see them together in action. The final chapter's story is also pretty solid and brings together some subtle and some not-so-subtle teasers that build up throughout the game in a satisfying and rather surprising way. Ironically, despite the massive length of the game, some of the plot threads leading into the final chapter feel extremely underbaked, but it's an exciting finale nonetheless. The gameplay has also seen some minor upgrades that can have major effects on how you play. The turn-based and class-based combat system is largely the same: each character has a primary class and you unlock the option of giving them a secondary class. Each class has combat skills as well as passive abilities, so there is a ton of opportunity for experimentation and building unique (or even broken) class synergies. In battle, enemies have shield points that correspond to weapon types and magic elements. By breaking all of their shield points, the enemy will be stunned for one turn and more susceptible to damage. This core combat system shines brightest during boss encounters when stunning the boss is so vital to giving yourself a chance to heal or build up powerful attacks, but even normal battles are engaging as you try to defeat enemies as efficiently as possible. The early parts of the game in particular strike a satisfying balance of challenge and strategy thanks to shield points. This game also has the Boost Points system that allows you to dish out more attacks in a single turn or power up your special attacks into truly devastating blows. Managing your BP economy is also a fun aspect to combat that is usually only important to boss fights, but still, when your little strategies to break shields, rack up BP, and deliver flashy class skills come together, the turn-based combat is immensely satisfying. All of those essential elements were in the first game, though. Octopath Traveler II ups the ante by adding Latent Powers, another special ability unique to each character that will charge up during battle by either dealing or taking damage. Once the meter's full, you can unleash fancy new abilities. Throné, for example, can act twice in one turn with her Latent Power, while Castti the apothecary can mix her concoctions without expending items. Every Latent Power is pretty powerful and it's exciting to have another card in your hand that you can use to turn the tide of a tough boss fight. You don't even have to be too precious about them—Latent Powers charge fairly quickly, and they're so powerful you're better off using them when appropriate rather than holding on for turn after turn. Outside of combat, Octopath Traveler II has also revamped the Path Action ability slightly. Now every character has two actions, one for the day and one for the night. Hikari the warrior, for example, can provoke NPCs into a duel during the day, or he can pay them for information at night. Osvald the scholar can scrutinize people during the day to gain information or he can mug them at night to steal items (Osvald's had a tough time, I'm not going to judge him too much). This overlap of Path Action effects means you don't have to rely on the same characters all the time for certain effects—for example, there are now four ways to gain information or items from NPCs, it just depends on how you want to go about it. Additionally, NPCs will be in different areas during the day or night, so that's also a factor as you try to hunt down info or stolen goods. It's just nice to have more options for interacting with NPCs in Octopath Traveler II and makes every character's Path Actions feel useful. It's also great that Hikari's provoke ability grants him combat skills that he can use in battle, so there's a lot more reason to use it outside of his story chapters. There are a few other small updates to the gameplay, such as traveling by ship, being able to summon Ochette the hunter's captive animals indefinitely rather than a set number of times, or unlocking multiples of each secondary class, so that you can have, for example, a team of four warriors for some truly devastating physical attacks. For the most part, all of these little changes and additions just further expand your gameplay options, which is awesome for those players that love breaking a game with insane strategies. There is one annoying little quirk that has not changed from the first game though: the first character you pick is still your leader until you complete their story, meaning you can't swap them out until then. In a game all about exploring individual stories it feels so oddly limiting to restrict players like this. In the end it's not a huge deal, but it's surprising that this little complaint from the first game wasn't changed. The absolutely beastly length of the game hasn't changed from the original either. Octopath Traveler II can easily last you over 80 hours. Sure you can probably finish the main stories closer to 60, but the game does such a great job of sprinkling in fun NPCs and interesting locations that you can't help but take on the many tangents and side quests available, especially when optional caves and dungeons give you recommended levels, practically teasing you to come back and explore when you're stronger. And yes, there is once again a ridiculously powerful superboss that the most dedicated players can try to conquer. Most importantly, despite the long run time, Octopath Traveler II never drags. Perhaps it's because the entire game is based around building a long adventure out of smaller narratives, but every chapter, side quest, and environment to explore comes in a perfect bite-sized format that makes it incredibly addictive to snack on one after another. Five years hasn't done much to dull the sparkle of HD-2D. The unique blend of sprites and crisp scenery still looks amazing, even after seeing several games with the same style. The format's foibles are perhaps beginning to show their age—I couldn't help but be distracted at times by the massive amounts of light bloom—but overall the visual design is still stunning and lends itself to plenty of gorgeous environments and daunting boss sprites. The soundtrack, meanwhile, doesn't miss a step. The music is once again filled with phenomenal track after phenomenal track, from the stirring new rendition of the main theme to the twangy, jazzy tunes of Partitio the merchant's storyline to the dramatic and somber scenes in other paths. There's truly not a bad song in the bunch, which is all the more impressive considering every location gets both a daytime and nighttime music theme. And finally the voice acting is the cherry on top of everything. With all major cutscenes now fully voiced, the characters come to life beautifully, and I can't help but highlight the adorable charm of Agnea the dancer slipping between her proper performer's voice and her natural drawl in moments of high emotions. The voice work does a wonderful job of capturing all of these varied characters and stories. Octopath Traveler II is a fantastic continuation and refinement of the original game. All of the core elements remain the same, while new gameplay mechanics allow for even more customization and the final chapter of the overarching story ties together all eight paths in a surprisingly engaging way. If you weren't a fan of the original's format and style I can't say that this game will change anything for you, but for the fans that did resonate with the anthology format, turn-based combat, and HD-2D artwork, Octopath Traveler II is a fresh adventure that's well worth the journey. Rating: 8 out of 8 Travelers
  8. Some people feel the call of the wild to get out into nature, leaving behind modern society for a bit and reconnecting with the simple joys and challenges of the great outdoors. Not me, I stay inside and play video games all day, so if you're like me you can get a taste of nature with The Red Lantern, a roguelike survival game about one woman's trek across the Alaskan wilderness with her dog sled team. Although the game establishes a decent setting for an invigorating return to nature, the actual adventure is much less thrilling here. You play as a woman who has left behind the city to pursue a dream of dog sled racing. In the opening moments of the game you'll pick out your team of dogs, then you're off on a majestic, snowy, and rather lonely adventure filled with peril as you struggle to keep your dogs and yourself safe. Although there are copious amounts of dialogue—voiced by Ashly Burch—The Red Lantern is a pretty introspective, thoughtful story about trying new things and testing your limits. It's an engaging theme that isn't really explored fully in the game though, mostly due to clashes with the gameplay. The repetitive nature of a roguelike makes the introspective moments feel a little cheaper since you hear them over and over, and the survival aspect of the game just makes the protagonist seem like kind of an idiot for journeying into the Alaskan wilderness with just three bullets in her rifle and enough tinder for exactly one fire. On the brightside though, each dog is given a slightly different personality and side story, and discovering all of them is a cute touch. The name of the game here is survival. Your goal is your new home, a cabin with a red lantern, but to get there you'll need to spend a few days traversing snowy fields, forests, and even frozen lakes/rivers. As you travel your dogs will tire out, and when you stop to investigate things, collect supplies, hunt wild animals or deal with unexpected predators, your own hunger meter will also decline, forcing you to eventually stop, set up camp, and eat/rest. Balancing your very meager resources can be a struggle at first, but the game mercifully allows for progress between failed attempts (within the story, failed attempts are treated as nightmares the protagonist has before setting out on the journey, which is a pretty clever touch). The more you see/do the more supplies you'll start with on your next attempt, and you can even pick up helpful equipment like a trap for catching animals instead of hunting them and spending bullets. Overall it's a decent roguelike survival formula that forces you to pretty much always be playing on the edge of failure, which adds a lot of tension, but too much of the experience seems to come down to luck. Random events in a survival game definitely keep you on your toes, but it can also be extremely frustrating when you repeatedly cannot find something as simple as tinder for building a fire. You can manage your resources as perfectly as you possibly can, but if you just don't run into animals to hunt you'll inevitably run out of food. Granted, one successful runthrough of The Red Lantern is quite short so you're meant to try and fail a lot and just roll with the punches, but it makes for a pretty discouraging gameplay loop. In other roguelikes you often get further on each attempt because you've gotten better at the game's mechanics; here it feels like you only get further because you got lucky. The element of chance is only exacerbated by the bafflingly odd shooting mechanic. When you do encounter an animal like a caribou, you'll enter a mini-game of sorts where you have a brief window of time to shoot. There will be two circles bouncing across the screen, and you'll want to fire when the two overlap. The only controls you have are to shoot or to hold your breath which slightly slows down one of the circles. It's an obnoxiously clumsy system to begin with, especially in a game where both your bullets and the potential meat you can collect from the animal are so scarce and precious, but there were also times where the circles were lined up just fine and yet I still missed, or I triggered an event where the first bullet didn't kill the animal so I'd have to hope I ran into it again later. That kind of blind luck just doesn't feel good in a game where failure is so common. And even when things are going well for you, the gameplay can feel pretty repetitive. The first several encounters of any playthrough are usually pretty similar and very quickly it feels like you're just going through the motions with The Red Lantern. The game's presentation is at least pretty solid. It has a sort of simple, painterly art style that is beautifully barren, blanketed in snow and lit by the shifting sunlight (you can also continue sledding at night though I have to say that seems like a terrible idea in real life). The developers managed to put a lot of personality into scenery that is relatively undetailed; the emptiness is the point. That said, the emptiness can also get a bit boring after the seventh or eighth attempt. As already mentioned, Ashly Burch voices the game and does a good job of adding personality to the nameless protagonist, though again hearing the same lines every playthrough gets to be pretty tiresome. The Red Lantern offers a uniquely challenging trek across the Alaskan wilderness, but the luck-based, randomized events might be to the game's detriment. It's understandable to make a survival game challenging, but losing a run for what feels like events completely outside of your control never feels good, and the game's repetitive nature makes each run a bit too much like the last. If you really want to pet some virtual sledding dogs you can give this game a try, but the gameplay is unlikely to keep you coming back for more than a handful of playthroughs, which adds up to only a couple of hours. Rating: 5 out of 10 Dogs
  9. Video game fans have known since the days of Rampage at the arcade that stomping around as a giant monster is just plain fun. And yet, there are surprisingly few games that focus on massive kaiju battles as the key gameplay feature. Developer 13AM Games seeks to rectify that with Dawn of the Monsters, a side-scrolling beat 'em up with four playable characters: two kaiju and two giant robot/Ultraman-style fighters. It's a formula that should work on paper but is perhaps brought down by typical beat 'em up pitfalls. In the world of Dawn of the Monsters, giant kaiju called Nephilim have been rampaging and destroying cities for years. The Defense Alliance Worldwide Network (DAWN) is fighting back though, with the aid of two human-piloted giant robots and two Nephilim of their own that are under DAWN's control to fight on the side of humanity. It really does feel like an action movie plotline, for better and for worse. I'm not saying a giant monster beat 'em up game needs to have a perfectly in-depth storyline, but the flat characters and perfectly predictable story twists make even the brief cutscenes before each mission feel like needless filler. The side-scrolling beat 'em up gameplay really does capture the vibe of old monster movies, again perhaps to the game's detriment. The characters are slow and somewhat cumbersome, and like a lot of beat 'em ups it is frustratingly easy to miss an enemy because you are slightly off of the z-axis plane. It's a feature that kind of plagues the genre in general, but in Dawn of the Monsters it can be particularly grating since your attacks are so slow and you can easily get chain-stunned by enemies if you don't hit first. The game is definitely being true to the lumbering movements of old kaiju movies, but it doesn't make for a great gameplay experience. Combat is also fairly repetitive over the course of the roughly five-hour game. There are a handful of different monster types you'll fight, including some mini-bosses with more health and main bosses at the end of each section of the story, but so much of the game plays like every moment before it. Again, this is largely the fault of the genre, not necessarily Dawn of the Monsters, but the few instances where you do have a different objective from just defeating every enemy—surviving for a set amount of time, destroying a large obstacle—only highlights how much the game needs more variety in objectives to keep the gameplay fresh. The four playable characters do play differently from one another, but they're still somewhat lacking in worthwhile variety. Each character has just three special attacks as well as a super move, and it feels like a real missed opportunity to not give them more specials that you can swap in and out. What you can customize though are augments, which are equippable boosts to your stats that also grant special effects, such as increasing your damage for a few seconds when you destroy a building, or stunning nearby enemies when you perform a fancy execution (which also recovers your health). This is the one area where the game provides some actual variety and customization, though even here it would've been nice to see a wider range of effects, especially since the flat stat boosts sometimes feel more valuable than any of the special effects. Although the game is fairly short you can replay levels with different characters or augments and try to earn a high grade. You're ranked on every battle based on your score for defeating monsters and maintaining a high score multiplier chain. The slow movements and attacks tend to work against you here though. Sometimes an enemy spawns on the other side of the screen and you just aren't fast enough to make it there in time before your score chain breaks, which is just plain frustrating. Dawn of the Monsters also supports two-player local co-op which is always a fun feature to see, though doesn't change up much of the game's core issues. The game's art style is pretty striking. The vivid colors and heavy shadows give the whole experience a kind of comic book vibe, which is pretty appropriate for a game about giant monsters duking it out. That said, even with the handful of environments and different enemy designs, the visuals do feel pretty repetitive, and the somewhat slow animation—again, presumably a nod to old kaiju films—isn't exactly the most visually exciting. The audio department is also decent but not too notable. The soundtrack is pretty forgettable and the voice work is fine but doesn't liven up the by-the-numbers story very much. Dawn of the Monsters is an admirable attempt at translating classic kaiju destruction into a side-scrolling beat 'em up, but the end result falls into too many of the pitfalls of the genre. Repetitive levels are only exacerbated by slow, sluggish attacks and movement, and while the augment system adds some much needed variety to the gameplay, it isn't quite enough to spark a ton of excitement here. Still, if you're interested in giant monster fighting & destruction, Dawn of the Monsters is a decent action game, just not a deep one. Rating: 6 out of 10 Monsters
  10. Hidden in the midst of Bayonetta 3's hectic action and multiverse-exploring story was a short, secret game mode featuring what appeared to be a young Bayonetta exploring a fantastical forest. A few weeks later, the source of this tiny demo was revealed when Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon was officially announced. Bayonetta 3 players only got a small and frankly confusing taste of the gameplay though—the full game is a charming and beautifully animated adventure to lose yourself in. As the game's title suggests, Bayonetta Origins features Cereza as a young witch, not yet a master of the Umbran arts, but she is being trained by Morgana, a powerful outcast witch. The pair live and train on the edge of the perilous Avalon forest, where faeries lurk and lure poor young witches to their doom. You can probably see where things are going: Cereza gets swallowed up by the forest and must use the demonic powers of a demon familiar—whom she calls Cheshire since he's possessing her stuffed cat doll—to escape. There are serious dark fairy tale vibes here, something akin to Alice in Wonderland or classic Grimm's Fairy Tales, and it's an absolute delight. In fact, the whole game is presented as a storybook, complete with a narrator who dictates cutscenes in a charming way. Granted it can be an adjustment to follow a story about a young, less powerful Bayonetta who doesn't have the same sass and personality, and the plot follows a few predictable beats, but ultimately it's the begrudging relationship between Cereza and Chesire and the eerie ambiance of the forest that makes the story compelling. If you're expecting anything like the usual Bayonetta gameplay, you're in for a surprise here. Bayonetta Origins is all built around controlling two characters at once and using them in conjunction to solve puzzles, overcome platformer obstacles, and battle faeries. Cereza's actions are all on the left side of the controller (left stick, L, ZL) while Cheshire's are all on the right. While exploring, you might need Cereza to cast a spell to make vines grow or need Cheshire to destroy an obstacle with his powerful claws. In combat, Cereza can cast a spell to hold an enemy in place for a moment, but it's Cheshire who needs to actually attack and defeat the enemy. Cereza is the one with the hit points though, so you'll also need to make sure she avoids damage during battle. It may sound a little daunting to control both characters at all times, but Bayonetta Origins makes it work nicely. It does help that there are relatively few actions that each character can do, so you're never so focused on some complicated task with one that you forget to move the other. There's a fun balancing act in ensuring both witch and demon are behaving optimally. The game also puts this two-character set up to good use in some puzzle challenges. There are challenge arenas called Tír Na Nóg that are not unlike bonus Verses in the main Bayonetta trilogy. Tír Na Nóg challenges aren't just combat though, and the handful of platformer puzzles show some fun creativity as you navigate with both characters simultaneously, sometimes even racing against a clock. Exploration is also a big part of Bayonetta Origins, thanks to its labyrinthine forest setting and a Metroidvania-like progression system where each new ability allows you to explore further or backtrack to find hidden goodies. The scenery is so beautiful that just wandering around and trying to find every treasure chest is a blast, and the environments are at times so complicated and twisty that it really is easy to get lost in the winding pathways. It's almost frustrating when you can see something just out of reach but can't figure out quite how to reach it, but that kind of tease just keeps you playing and exploring. The biggest problem in Bayonetta Origins is perhaps surprising for longtime Bayonetta fans: this game is entirely too easy for almost the entire adventure. Granted, the game clearly skews toward a younger audience, but it's still a bit of a shame that combat encounters have virtually no threat most of the time, assuming you're actually collecting health upgrades along the way (amusingly, the game is also quick to recommend lowering the difficulty if you do manage to lose, even if it's in a one-hit-kill challenge battle). The bosses also could've used some sprucing up to be more challenging—there are only a handful but it's really only the game's climax that offers truly engaging, threatening battles. And in one more quibble with the game: Cereza's dancing spell is frankly pointless. It's not hard to perform, just time-consuming, and tends to interrupt the flow of exploration. Bayonetta Origins certainly does not disappoint in the audio or visual departments though. It's a big change from the main trilogy, sure, but the storybook visuals with its watercolor aesthetic feels like a stained glass art piece come to life. It's not the first game to use the effect of visual patterns not moving when characters or the camera moves, but it creates a perfect otherworldly effect. Everything feels delicate and ethereal but also foreboding—it completely nails the dark fairy tale atmosphere. It's also a lot of fun to see how different each region of the forest can feel while still seeming like one cohesive environment. The music is also excellent, particularly thanks to an absolutely gorgeous main theme, but in every environment or battle the music adds a ton to the atmosphere. The voice acting is quite sharp as well. It's mostly Cereza and the narrator, and the two of them put a lot of life into each scene. The game is roughly 10–15 hours long, depending on how much time you want to devote to backtracking and collecting upgrades that were previously out of reach. It's a good length for this adventure though, and the optional challenge of finding everything—especially the journals that add backstory—is a nice touch for completionists. You can also replay Tír Na Nógs to perfect your skills, which is the only real area where Bayonetta Origins can get challenging. Somewhat frustratingly, the game does feature a hard mode but it only unlocks after you've beaten the game once. Still, the game is pretty enough that a second journey through the forest might be worthwhile. Bayonetta Origins: Cereza and the Lost Demon is an unexpected delight. The final product is still perhaps lacking in rich combat challenges, but the exploration and sense of haunting adventure is far more engaging than the brief preview in Bayonetta 3 might have suggested. Although it's a lighter experience compared to the main trilogy of witchy action games, Bayonetta fans can enjoy a slightly different take on their favorite witch with Bayonetta Origins, and new players might be drawn into the gorgeous scenery, satisfying exploration, and unique two-character setup much the same way Cereza is pulled into the forest. Rating: 8 out of 10 Faeries
  11. What awaits us when we die? In 8Doors: Arum's Afterlife Adventure, it's a treacherous purgatory filled with deadly spirits, platforming challenges, and a bureaucracy of afterlife guardians who shepard souls through the system. With inspiration from Korean folklore, 8Doors takes players on an engaging though perhaps not very memorable tour of the afterlife via Metroidvania gameplay. You play as Arum, a young girl whose father recently died under mysterious circumstances. Determined to get him back, she travels to the afterlife to find his soul, and stumbles into a conspiracy of missing souls. The Korean influence adds a fun and unique personality to the game, further fueled by the otherworldly afterlife designs of NPCs and creatures. Other than that though, the story feels a bit bareboned. The mystery isn't all that mysterious and more often than not you're just traveling from one objective to another. There are multiple endings though so exploring everything the game has to offer yields a more satisfying conclusion to Arum's quest. The gameplay is pretty classic Metroidvania. As you progress you'll unlock new weapons and abilities to explore more of the map, and although 8Doors isn't quite as difficult as Hollow Knight it definitely feels like it's in the same vein. Save points are fairly spaced out and oftentimes you'll be struggling to just make it to the next checkpoint so that your progress wasn't in vain, and the bosses can definitely be challenging. Part of the issue is just how flat the combat is. Even once you have multiple weapons there are disappointingly few ways to approach any battle. You have a pretty basic combo attack and each weapon has a special attack, some of which are defensive rather than offensive—the umbrella, for example, will block damage from above—but overall the combat is extremely repetitive. Your basic attacks don't do much damage so you always want to try to finish off your multi-hit combo, but oftentimes you're dodging enemy attacks yourself so all you can do is slowly chip away at their health. Even when you do get off a full combo, the bosses have a ton of health which just makes the battles drag on, going through the same motions over and over. The combat system desperately needs something to break up the monotony. Arum also has an upgrade tree that you can customize with skill points, granting special effects like being able to use health potions more frequently or reducing damage from terrain traps. It's nice to have a customization element but the upgrades are pretty lackluster. The majority of them are straightforward upgrades like increased attack or defense, and even then they don't feel like significant boosts to your skills. The skill tree needs something more impactful to make it actually feel rewarding. The platforming side of the game is pretty solid at least, though there's not much else to say about it. It goes through the typical Metroidvania upgrades—double jump, dash, break boulders, etc.—which are always fun to get, but there isn't much that distinguishes 8Doors from the myriad other Metroidvanias out there. There are some tricky platforming challenges, and the aforementioned "just trying to survive to the next checkpoint" feel of the game applies to the platforming just as much as the combat system, but there's not much to wow you here. The game's striking hand-drawn animation and limited three-color palette are quick to jump out at you when you start playing. The afterlife of 8Doors isn't quite fire and brimstone, nor is it a flashy landscape—purgatory is appropriately bleak and foreboding, with rich splashes of red thrown in to highlight dangers and points of interest. The artwork feels maybe too simple at times, but there's definitely personality here. The soundtrack isn't quite as successful. The subdued music might suit a purgatory setting, but it makes for a pretty forgettable audio adventure. The game takes around eight hours to finish, though that can change depending on how much you struggle with the game's tougher challenges and bosses, and of course whether or not you complete everything needed for the alternate ending. The length feels about right and the game doesn't overstay its welcome. However, even with multiple weapons and a customizable skill tree, 8Doors feels lacking in replay value. 8Doors: Arum's Afterlife Adventure is a solid Metroidvania, though it struggles to stand out in a pretty jam-packed genre. The hand-drawn art and Korean folklore influence add some great personality to the game, but the core combat and platforming mechanics are fine at best and pretty monotonous at worst. Die hard fans of the genre might enjoy another take on the familiar gameplay elements, while anyone else probably won't be won over by the game's lack of depth. Rating: 7 out of 10 Souls
  12. After his first foray into 3D platforming with Forgotten Land, Kirby returns to his 2D roots with this remaster of the 2011 Wii title. Kirby's Return to Dream Land Deluxe brings a few new bells and whistles but is fundamentally all about bringing Kirby back to classic solid side-scrolling gameplay that the whole family can enjoy. It feels like a blast from the past in more ways than one, and serves as a good reminder of how fun Kirby's core gameplay formula truly is. Kirby is hanging out on Planet Popstar with his pals when an alien named Magolor crash lands on the planet, scattering parts of his ship across the land. Kirby offers to help repair the ship and off we go on the adventure. It is an understandably story-light game, but the little cutscenes that you do get are pretty cute. Deluxe adds a chunk of new content at the end of the game called Magolor Epilogue that lets you play as him, though it is also not focused on storytelling. Still, the few new cutscenes and text that you get are pretty fun. When the game was originally released on the Wii, it wasn't just a return to Dream Land for Kirby but a return to form. The previous few Kirby games (Epic Yarn, Mass Attack, and Canvas Curse several years prior) had played around with unique gameplay hooks, but Return to Dream Land brought the focus back to Kirby's iconic copy ability. Those core mechanics feel great here: there's a good amount of copy abilities available, they all have multiple uses, and there are the super abilities that grant you screen-clearing powers of destruction which are awfully satisfying, even if the super abilities are limited to specific stages. The core platforming also feels great. It runs through all of the basic platformer tropes—grassland/forest, underwater, ice, etc.—but Return to Dream Land does the classics so well that it's hard to complain. And of course, as a Kirby game, the difficulty is extremely lax, so it's a perfect game for young players or for getting the whole family involved with multiplayer. Deluxe essentially adds a little bit of everything to the game. There are two new copy abilities, Mecha and Sand, which feel so at home with the game that if you didn't know you probably wouldn't even realize that they're new additions. A new even easier mode is available if you need it with Helper Magolor who saves you from dying in pits and increases your attack power. You can also carry an item into any stage as a backup health item or random copy ability as another handy way of easing the difficulty a bit. There are also additional multiplayer mini-games and a whole mode dedicated to them with Merry Magoland, which basically feels like a mini Mario Party. There are some mini-games that return from other Kirby games as well as a couple of brand new ones, and you can play locally or play a limited online competition mode where you essentially compete for high scores. Merry Magoland is cute but unless you're a big mini-game fan it'll feel like a lot of added fluff. The Magolor Epilogue is the most substantial addition to Deluxe, with a brand new adventure that lets you play as Magolor. He doesn't have Kirby's copy ability but he does have a variety of magical attacks that you'll need to gradually unlock by collecting Magic Points, upgrading his skills, and defeating bosses. It's a cool change of pace for a Kirby game—the slight RPG feel of choosing how to upgrade his skills adds a satisfying sense of progression, and tackling the normal Kirby enemies and bosses with a completely different moveset is a fun challenge. You'll also gain bonus Magic Points by maintaining a long attack streak combo, so there's also a different sense of flow to each level as you try to maximize and maintain your combo chain. Magolor definitely feels slower and more clunky than Kirby when you first start out, but it's still a neat change of pace. Magolor Epilogue is sadly pretty short though, clocking in at around two hours, even though it feels like it could've sustained a longer adventure. Kirby's adventure isn't too long either actually—around seven hours or so will get you through the entire story mode. However, there are plenty of extras to keep you occupied as well. Finishing the game unlocks Extra Mode which is essentially hard mode, there's the Arena—a Kirby staple that runs you through a gauntlet of bosses—and there are all of the multiplayer mini-games available as well. If you try to do everything in Return to Dream Land Deluxe, you'll stay busy for a good long while. The game's presentation has also obviously seen an upgrade from the Wii's SD graphics. Everything is smoother, more detailed, and there's a stylish crisp outline around characters and enemies. In short, Deluxe looks great without completely overhauling all of the style and personality of the original Wii title. The soundtrack is also fun and bubbly, perfect for a cute and cheerful adventure with Kirby, and the new tracks for Magolor Epilogue are particularly great. Kirby's Return to Dream Land Deluxe is a trip well worth taking if you missed the Wii original. This is classic Kirby gameplay with a handful of new features for the Switch remaster, including a unique but all too brief epilogue adventure. On their own the Deluxe additions are perhaps only okay, but considering it's been a decade since the original and there's a sharp jump from SD to HD visuals, even veteran players can enjoy returning to one of Kirby's best adventures. Rating: 8 out of 10 Copy Abilities
  13. The original Theatrhythm game on the 3DS came out of nowhere as an unexpectedly delightful celebration of Final Fantasy's musical history, and now Theatrhythm: Final Bar Line on the Switch has done the exact same thing. I never would've expected to see a third entry in this series, not least because switching to a fully button-oriented control scheme (that's right, even on the Switch Final Bar Line does not have touch controls) seemed like a significant issue. There are definitely growing pains when adjusting to this latest rhythmic RPG adventure, but the fun, charm, and yes the unabashed nostalgia of one of gaming's most storied franchises is still perfectly in tune. The core rhythm mechanics are relatively simple. You press buttons in time with the music, swipe the control sticks in the indicated direction, and occasionally do both at the same time. Songs are divided up into either Field, Battle, or Event songs, but the basics are the same in each, and remain pretty simple to pick up even for brand new players. The loss of touch controls is a bit disappointing—although button controls were an option in Theatrhythm: Curtain Call I almost exclusively used the stylus—but after a bit of practice the controller also feels pretty natural. More importantly, the focus on button controls means the developers can now throw even more complex and tricky notes at you, like pressing two, three or even four buttons simultaneously. Arrow notes now sometimes have double triggers, meaning you need to push both control sticks at the same time, which can be fiendishly tricky if you're not ready for it. On top of all this, Final Bar Line introduces a fourth level of difficulty, Supreme, which is, even as a veteran of the previous Theatrhythm games, downright frightening. Without touch controls the skill floor of the game might be a little higher, but the skill ceiling is now also significantly higher, especially with Supreme difficulty, meaning there's a lot more opportunity here for dedicated players to perfect their skills and practice/enjoy these songs over and over. Of course, even playing every song once and unlocking every song in the base game is a pretty huge task. Final Bar Line features 385 songs in the base game, taken from Final Fantasies I–XV, plus spin-offs, alternate versions like the Dissidia or Final Fantasy VII Remake soundtracks, and original remixes from the Theatrhythm games. Curtain Call launched with what I would describe as an overwhelming amount of content, and Final Bar Line manages to take things a step further. This doesn't even get into all of the paid DLC available, some of which has already been released or already announced, nor the Digital Deluxe version that adds more exclusive tracks (although it's quite obnoxious that a few songs that were in the last game are now exclusive to the Deluxe version). Rest assured though, even with just the base game you will have a seemingly endless supply of musical content. Like the previous games, there are light RPG elements here as well, because c'mon, it's Final Fantasy, you gotta have it. You can select up to four characters for your party and level them up to increase stats and unlock abilities. Abilities could be attacks, healing magic, or other special effects that make it easier to clear stages and kill enemies—killing enemies rewards you with more EXP and the chance for treasure, including usable items or collectible cards. This time you can only equip three abilities per character, so you need to be a little more picky about what you give each character. Basically every character will learn a unique ability or two, which are almost always worth using, but otherwise you can try to customize your approach to each song. You can also save up to five parties which is handy if, for example, you want one team that excels at physical attacks and another with all thief abilities to increase the odds of earning treasure. Most importantly, party compositions and abilities have an impact on Series Quest, which takes you through every song in a game's catalogue. Not only is this the main way to unlock more songs, each song has an optional side quest tied to it. Some are as simple as using a specific character, but others can be as complex as beating the boss with a specific elemental attack, in which case you'll want to craft a specific party that makes that possible. Series Quest songs will even sometimes have special effects to further help or hinder you, like making the notes move extra slowly or giving the boss extra HP. These effects and the side quests are great ways to encourage a little more replay value and push you toward putting some thought into your party composition. Of course, if you just want to use your favorite characters and ignore everything else you can, but it's nice to have a little extra incentive at times. The side quest system also ties into Endless Quest mode, a feature that opens up after you "beat" the game by completing the Theatrhythm remix Series Quest and rolling credits. As the name suggests, Endless Quest gives you an endless supply of randomly chosen songs from the entire game catalog (not just the ones you've unlocked). The catch is that, to keep going, you have to finish a song's side quest. Fail three side quests and your Endless Quest is over, you'll have to start from the beginning. Endless Quest is a neat randomizer mode—rather than selecting songs you want to play you can let the game give you a couple of options and an extra challenge with side quests. It is perhaps not quite as robust or satisfying as the Chaos Shrines from previous Theatrhythm games, but it suits Final Bar Line's emphasis on party compositions and abilities nicely. Speaking of side or optional content, Final Bar Line also has an online competitive multiplayer mode if you want to flex your rhythm skills. Win or lose, multiplayer is a great way to collect summon stones, which you can equip to your party (summons are no longer tied to your lead character and can also be summoned multiple times during a song given the right part comp/stats). More importantly, summon stones can come with a variety of effects: increased EXP, increased magic damage, increased chance for treasure chests, etc. It's another worthwhile customization feature and being able to trade summon stones in multiplayer is a great way to collect useful stones. There is also technically a local co-op mode with Pair Mode, which has two players working together on the same song (each one is responsible for certain notes). It's a convenient way of introducing new players to the game, and a couch co-op feature is always a nice option. Finally, there's Simple Mode which reduces the complexity of notes, perfect for anyone that wants to play through these songs but needs a little extra help. Presentation-wise, Final Bar Line's style hasn't changed much from the previous games, but it is cool to see it on an HD screen. The doll-like character designs kind of ride a line between cute and creepy, but the game's tireless sense of enthusiasm and charm makes up for it, especially when you see your favorite characters on screen (although the developers have once again, confoundingly, ignored the perfect character for Theatrhythm, Edward from FFIV). The music is also obviously fantastic—that's kind of the whole point of the game! From the chiptune origins of the Final Fantasy series to the dramatic, orchestral songs of the more recent games, the music is just magical, and transports you back to the days you played these games. And even if you haven't played every title, the songs are well worth listening to. Now, even with such a massive song library I can think of a few minor complaints—some games are frankly underrepresented, there should be more remixes, and the fact that they cut down the length of FFVI's Dancing Mad is just criminal—but as a whole it's easy to love the soundtrack here and to appreciate how much these iconic songs contributed to the success of their origin games. The Theatrhythm series remains an absolutely delightful love letter to one of the biggest video game franchises ever, and is truly made to bring tears to fans' eyes. Theatrhythm: Final Bar Line ups the ante with even more songs, and although the button-only controls might be an adjustment for some, the songs themselves still shine, no matter what difficulty you play on. You might assume this game is only for Final Fantasy fans, but if you enjoy rhythm games this can be a fantastic introduction to these RPGs and may even encourage you to give them a try. Either way though, if you pick up Final Bar Line you can expect nigh endless hours of harmonious nostalgia and entertainment. Rating: 9 out of 10 Notes
  14. The first Aragami was a relatively simple stealth game that got by on its shadow ability mechanics and a stylish presentation that blended UI elements into your shadowy assassin's appearance. Aragami 2, however, seems to have dialed back on the more unique elements of its predecessor. The result is a stealth game that offers plenty of bad guys to knock out or kill, but lacks the stylish hook necessary to make it stand out from any other stealth-based adventure. Like any good ninja/assassin story, the game begins with a violent battle and the death of your player character. However, thanks to your clan's shadowy powers you don't stay dead, and instead can now use the shadows to reap your revenge. There's actually a decent narrative somewhere here in Aragami 2, but it's buried under poor pacing and presentation. The gameplay is mission-based, so you accept a quest, depart to complete it, then return to your home base to talk to NPCs again and move the plot forward a notch. It's really not conducive to a good story and you'll likely find yourself fast-forwarding through these short, dull conversations anyway. Aragami 2 goes for a quantity over quality approach to the gameplay. There are about 50 missions in the game, which is a lot of shadowy ninja mayhem. The downside, though, is that the maps are incredibly repetitive and there's very little variety in terms of enemies for much of the game. You literally return to the same maps for different missions over and over. Granted, there might be some slight changes, like you start on a different part of the map, but part of the appeal of stealth-based games is learning the most efficient paths through any level, and even with some changes in enemy placement, the repetitive maps drain the life out of Aragami 2. The stealth gameplay itself is okay, though rarely exceptional. Early on your options are quite limited, but once you're able to unlock abilities in your skill tree the gameplay opens up a good bit more. Now you can customize your approach somewhat, leaning on pure stealth, combat abilities, or a mix of the two. There are some cool abilities here no matter what your approach is, as well as basic helpful upgrades like reducing the stamina cost of running, jumping, etc. The game doesn't always give you good reasons to use these advanced abilities though. Again, most enemies are pretty basic, and sometimes just sprinting through a level, shadow leaping to ledges/roofs is more than enough to complete the mission. You kind of have to make your own fun by using the abilities that you want, which is a nice display of freedom but also highlights how repetitive and simple the gameplay gets, especially after a few dozen missions on the same handful of maps. If stealth fails you, you can draw your sword for a one-on-one duel, though this is clearly meant to be an emergency or last resort move. Combat feels terrible in Aragami 2—your only real recourse is to wait for enemies to attack, parry them, then hit them a few times until their stamina is low enough for you to do an assassination strike. It's bland, repetitive, and not terribly rewarding to do. Granted, you obviously should avoid getting into duels in the first place since this is a stealth game, but it would've been nice to polish the combat a little more or make it easier to disengage and hide again. The controls are surprisingly slippery in Aragami 2, though sometimes it suits the fast, stealthy ninja action. Leaping from one building to the next and shadow teleporting to a ledge feels great when it's working, but then there are times when the button prompt to attack an enemy just doesn't seem to pop up correctly, or the frustration of trying to leap to a ledge that looks like it should be in-range but apparently just barely isn't. It definitely takes some getting used to. Aragami 2 also runs pretty poorly on the Switch. Multiplatform games always look a little less polished on Nintendo's recent hardware, but the low-res, blurry environments feel particularly cheap here. There's a lot of pop-in as you approach structures/enemies, and for some reason every enemy walks at like 10 FPS if they're more than a few feet from you. It's shockingly clunky, though even at its best the game's presentation leaves much to be desired. Generic-looking and repetitive enemies and environments—without the stylish cel-shading of the original game—makes for a pretty bland visual identity. The music is at least okay, but as a whole the production value of the game comes off poor. As mentioned, Aragami 2 goes for quantity over quality. With so many missions—and if you're going for a particularly stealthy approach—the game can last over 15 hours or more. The monotonous mission structure makes it a real drag though, and you'll feel every minute of that play time. There are also collectibles and an online co-op mode if you do want more out of the game, but I doubt the average player will feel that invested. Aragami 2 is missing a great deal of polish to make its stealth gameplay shine. Even putting aside technical issues, the game's reliance on repetitive objectives, maps, and enemies makes this ninja adventure feel like a slog. Even die-hard stealth fans will find this game hard to sit through. Rating: 4 out of 10 Assassins
  15. Thanks to the franchise's booming popularity, fans are treated to not one but two Fire Emblem games on the Switch now (plus spinoffs). Fire Emblem Engage takes a step into the franchise's future by looking into its past, not unlike Fire Emblem Awakening which marked the turning point of the series's popularity. The result is a blend of fresh ideas, the return of some classic elements, and a lot of love for past games that is sure to charm longtime fans and will undoubtedly create some new ones as well. You play as the customizable protagonist Alear, the Divine Dragon, a powerful being who has spent the last thousand years asleep. In a completely expected video game twist, Alear has amnesia and must relearn everything about the world. There's little time for pleasantries though as the dark followers of the Fell Dragon are also stirring and causing trouble. As the Divine Dragon, you are able to awaken the power of Emblem rings and summon heroes of the past—Marth, Sigurd, Ike, etc.—to aid you in battle and stop the spread of darkness. It's a pretty by-the-numbers plot for Fire Emblem—again oddly similar to Awakening—and honestly a bit of a disappointment after the more ambitious three-perspective war of Three Houses, but it gets the job done. The main plot can be a bit melodramatic and the characters, while fun, can feel flat at times and yield some simple, cheesy support conversations, but Engage still has its charms. Even if the characters are yet again relying a bit too much on each having one silly quirk—and in particular their interactions with Alear get noticeably repetitive—it's hard not to like them all the same. The core gameplay is the strategy-RPG that fans know and love, and right away I'll say I was pleased to not only see the weapon triangle return but to see a new, possibly even more impactful feature. Now when you hit an enemy with a weapon advantage (sword > axe > lance > sword), you can Break the enemy, rendering them unable to counterattack for the remainder of the turn. Of course, enemies can do it to you as well on their turn. This opens up a ton of strategic potential, especially early on when every move counts, and even late in the game getting Broken can have significant consequences that you'll need to be mindful of. Oddly enough though the other big mainstay of the series, weapon durability, has not returned, meaning you're more or less free to use your most powerful weapons whenever you want. There are other factors to consider of course, since a powerful weapon might be too heavy to double attack or have some other undesirable property, but the non-durability Fire Emblem games always have a kind of odd feel to them. It's just weird to miss out on that aspect of strategizing in an sRPG. The main gameplay hook is the Emblem rings, which grant stat boosts, skills, special attacks, and are instrumental for changing classes (Emblems can teach proficiency in other weapons). Overall, the Emblems are a lot of fun to use. They're extremely powerful, at times almost too powerful it feels like, but they add a fun strategic layer to the game in a variety of ways. For one, they almost all come with extremely powerful attacks that can be essential on hard maps or higher difficulty levels. For two, Emblems allow you to use weapon types that you normally cannot, e.g. you can give an archer the ability to use magic—I don't know why you'd want to, but you could. This can be used to cover up a unit's weapon triangle weaknesses or just expand their repertoire. Units can also inherit skills from Emblems to make them permanent additions (you can only equip two at a time) to further add to the customization options of the game. It's a fun new approach to unit skills after having them tied to classes for several games, and it's absolutely packed with strategy gameplay potential. It can actually be a bit daunting and time consuming as you decide whom to equip with rings, what skills to inherit, etc. but it's also a satisfying and engaging task to ensure every unit is nicely decked out. Engage also does the basics of Fire Emblem well. There's a decent variety of map objectives—not all of them are just "rout the enemy" thankfully, although I'd still like to have seen even more of the unique objectives. The maps themselves are overall pretty solid as well. There are some with unique properties, such as one with a tide that comes in and out, limiting your movement, and although the maps don't feel particularly large there's still enough space that you can approach some targets from different angles. It's also fun to see some references to past games within certain special Paralogue chapters—more series fanservice. Engage also brings back the Casual/Classic difficulty split as well as a time rewind mechanic if you want to fix a mistake, features that essentially are series mainstays at this point. There's another recent trend in Fire Emblem games that continues here: non-combat gameplay features. In this case, your base of operations is The Somniel, where you can chat with characters, eat a meal for a temporary stat boost, go fishing, and…pet livestock? Frankly the amount of non-combat features in this series is getting a little ridiculous, but of course you can just skip them if, like me, you're not really interested. Things like exercising at least do grant benefits—again, temporary stat boosts—but they're not really required to survive, even in the more challenging levels. And although you can still chat with your units, the social aspect is tuned way down and you're not really expected to be spending a lot of time handing out gifts and whatnot. Engage is a nice and meaty game without feeling too overstuffed. One relatively quick playthrough will probably still last over 40 hours, and truly seeing everything the game has to offer will last much longer than that. There are also some multiplayer features which are unfortunately a little poorly implemented as of now, but if you coordinate with friends you can try co-op and competitive battles. Rest assured though, even if you never touch these features you're still getting dozens and dozens of hours of gameplay here. Both visually and aurally there's a lot to love about Engage. The art style is vibrant and colorful, and lends itself to a lot of fun, creative, and sure even some odd character designs, but they're still charming. The in-battle graphics are naturally a little less fancy but they still look great, and aside from having some load times that are just a tiny bit long the game runs smoothly as well. The soundtrack has some awesome tracks, perfect background audio while you pore over the map and every little movement of your army. And finally there are a lot of good performances in the voice cast. Even when the writing feels a little goofy or melodramatic, the voice work can sell the characters. Fire Emblem Engage is another excellent entry in the franchise and a charming blend of old and new. Even though looking back on the history of the series has actually been done a couple times now, it's still fun to revisit classic heroes, and the way they are integrated into the combat and strategic gameplay here more than justifies their repeated appearance. The core gameplay is as rich as ever, and the large cast of characters means you'll undoubtedly find some you love and some that are simply indispensable on the battlefield. The story and writing may not be quite up to the highs of the franchise, but the strategy RPG gameplay proves engaging from start to finish. Rating: 9 out of 10 Emblems
  16. Seems like every other piece of media is getting into multiverse shenanigans, so why not Piczle too? Piczle Lines 2: Into the Puzzleverse by developer Score Studios and publisher Rainy Frog is another logic puzzle game jam-packed with addictive puzzle challenges that can easily eat up all of your free time. The core gameplay may not be changed much, but if it's not broken why bother fixing it. Into the Puzzleverse once again stars Score-chan, Professor Matrix, and their cat Dbug. After Score-chan foolishly used powerful piczle dust as kitty litter, Dbug is now lost in the Puzzleverse, somewhere in the books on Professor Matrix's shelves. To find the cat, you'll need to dive into each one and solve all of the puzzles within. Like other Piczle games from Score Studios, the humor is very goofy, with plenty of 4th-wall-breaking and self-referential jokes. It's a puzzle game after all, the story is never going to be the focus, so why not have some fun with it with comic-book-style cutscenes and a light-hearted tone. Piczles—PICture puzZLES—are logic puzzles that create an image when completed. All you have to do is fill in squares by connecting colored numbers with their corresponding twin with a line. The number indicates how many squares need to be filled in, e.g. a red 6 connects to another red 6 for a total of 6 squares. This is pretty simple for small numbers—there are only so many ways to create a 3 square line—but it can be trickier with larger numbers since there are more ways to connect lines and you need to make sure every line fits. Sometimes you might fill in a line only to later discover that it cuts off another line, so you'll need to erase and reconsider. Finishing the entire puzzle yields a picture—the first set of puzzles in the story mode is pirate themed so you'll get pictures of pirate hats, cutlasses, cannons, etc. Like all great logic puzzles, it's a very simple concept to understand but can be repeated nigh indefinitely with all manner of images. It definitely appeals to the mentality of putting everything neatly in its place, and the more you play the better you'll be at recognizing basic go-to shapes, which is awfully satisfying. It's a wonderfully addictive gameplay formula that truly will burn away hours and hours if you let it. One of the nice things about Into the Puzzleverse is that the story mode kind of assumes you know how to play. There's a tutorial sure, but it doesn't take long at all for the puzzles to ramp up in complexity. It's nice for veteran Piczle Lines fans to be able to jump right into the meat of the game rather than having to quickly rush through a bunch of extremely easy puzzles first. Sometimes the story puzzles do get perhaps too complicated though—spending an hour on a single puzzle is a little tiring. If you do need to warm up to the gameplay a bit, the non-story Puzzle Mode starts off at a much easier pace, which is also perfect if you want to do a couple puzzles without committing too much time to the game. The game also offers a handful of assistance options, including ways to check for mistakes or focus mode which clues you into the next correct move. So even though the puzzles are massive here, beginners can still get through them with a bit of help. There are also several customization options to change the look of the UI and background, as well as achievements to add another little goal to the gameplay. Completing one puzzle after another already creates a nice chain of incentives to keep going, but it's still good to have a couple other reasons to master everything in this game. Given the number of puzzles and their gargantuan sizes, it's not really an exaggeration to say Into the Puzzleverse can keep you busy for 100 hours. Even just completing the story mode should last dozens of hours, not to mention the additional 100+ puzzles in Puzzle Mode. If you still can't get enough Piczle Lines, there are also paid DLC puzzle packs for additional content. Even with just the base game though you're more than getting your money's worth. Presentation is obviously not a priority in a puzzle game like this, but Into the Puzzleverse still looks good. The story mode cutscenes and dioramas are cute and fun and definitely add the Piczle personality to the game. And even within the square-based art of the puzzles themselves, it's kind of impressive to see what kind of art the developers are able to create. The soundtrack is also quite nice. You'll be hearing a lot of it when you play, but it has a nice jazzy sound to it that's perfect for background vibes while you solve puzzle after puzzle. Piczle Lines 2: Into the Puzzleverse is tailor made for logic puzzle fans. Obviously if you enjoyed the previous Piczle Line game you'll obviously feel right at home here, but if you at all enjoy puzzle games like Picross or Sudoku that allow you to just zen out and complete puzzles, you'll find a true treasure trove of content here that will keep you busy for weeks as you are sucked into this game's puzzleverse. Rating: 8 out of 10 Puzzles Review copy provided by publisher Piczle Lines 2: Into the Puzzleverse will be available on the Switch eShop on 2/22 for $14.99. Pre-order now for 10% off.
  17. Lovecraftian monsters and Castlevania gameplay seems like it'd be a perfect match. What better setting to slowly unravel the mysteries of eldritch monsters than a gameplay system that requires scouring every inch of the environment in pursuit of new items and abilities? Elderand, from developer Mantra and publisher Graffiti Games, proves that the combo makes for an engaging adventure, even if it is somewhat by the numbers. True to its premise, Elderand offers a mysterious and creepy world to explore, full of bleak, bloody, and monstrous scenery. You'll need to discover much of the story on your own, through finding notes full of background information and world building that are scattered across the game's map. It's kind of a light touch approach to storytelling but it works well here for the most part—this is a mysterious world, and learning only bits and pieces of its story propels that mystery further. The downside is that when you do get into actual cutscenes or dialogue with NPCs the narrative isn't quite as engaging as it should be since you probably only have a vague idea of what's happening. Elderand adapts the Metroidvania formula pretty precisely: you've got quite a lot of territory in the map to explore, but oftentimes you'll run into gates that require some new ability, so you'll need to keep adventuring and backtrack later. There are a good amount of secrets to uncover, some more obvious than others, so players that enjoy picking apart everything in a game should enjoy the challenge here. Unfortunately you can't mark the map to remind you of out-of-reach treasure chests or other items that require further investigation, but the map is also relatively small enough that racing through old locales isn't too much trouble, especially once you've leveled up a bit and can cut through enemies quickly. The exploration abilities you gradually gain are pretty standard for Metroidvanias, but if it's not broken there's no need to fix it. Double jumps and air dodges may not be new, but it's always satisfying to reach new heights in an exploration-heavy game, especially when you can finally grab that treasure that has been out of reach for hours. Combat in Elderand offers a few different options as well as customization routes. You start off with a standard sword but you'll also be able to use weapons like bows, daggers, and magic staves. Some weapons rely on your strength stat while others use dexterity or magic, and every time you level up you gain another stat point to allocate as you see fit, allowing you to focus on a particular type of weapon or try to give yourself a more balanced character. You can also swap between two equipment sets on the fly, which is particularly useful for keeping a melee set and a ranged set at the ready. There aren't actually that many types of weapons to experiment with, and in fact not even that much equipment in the game in general to really change up alternate playthroughs or playstyles, but there's enough wiggle room that you can try a couple of different approaches and see how they affect your approach to any fight. The main downside here though is that you don't have the ability to respec your stats by default, you have to unlock the ability after a decent amount of time playing. In fact it's possible to miss it entirely, which doesn't seem suited to the game's approach to having only a handful of weapon styles in the first place. Otherwise, combat in Elderand is solid, if somewhat unremarkable. Your attacks have a decent amount of weight to them so you can't go in swinging wildly and expect to block or dodge through every enemy attack—there's also a stamina meter for those defensive actions. Basically any time you encounter a new enemy you'll need to play it cool and play it safe, learn their tells and safe moments so you can get some attacks in yourself, which makes for a very "slow and steady" kind of experience. Dying can be pretty common in Elderand, but the game never really feels discouraging. It's challenging but it's a doable challenge, and one that makes victory, especially against giant horrific bosses, all the sweeter. Elderand's presentation features some quality pixel art that really brings the otherworldly monsters to life—any graphics that are more realistic than this would be pretty grotesque, in fact. The art style is sharp and stylish, and makes for some fun scenery and cool monsters. The soundtrack also does a good job of maintaining a creepy atmosphere, though none of the background music is particularly memorable. Even if you're meticulous about exploring the map, Elderand is not a particularly long game. You can expect around 7–8 hours for one playthrough. However, there's also a decent amount of replay potential for speedrunning or focusing on a different weapon/combat style for a full playthrough. If you're only interested in one run though, Elderand is just a little on the short side for a Metroidvania. Elderand offers an engaging Metroidvania-style game with a creepy, Lovecraftian atmosphere, though perhaps doesn't go far enough to distinguish itself in the genre. The exploration is fun and the combat has a modest amount of customization options to keep you hooked, not to mention a high level of challenge that makes progress particularly satisfying. None of it quite stands out from similar Metroidvanias, but the adventure is still fun while it lasts. Rating: 7 out of 10 Demons Review copy provided by publisher Elderand is available now on the Switch eShop. It is on sale until 2/23 for $16.99 (normal price $19.99).
  18. The original Tales from the Borderlands was a surprise delight—it turns out combining the irreverent humor of Borderlands and the episodic storytelling of Telltale Games was a recipe for success. This sequel, however, is developed by Gearbox Software and, although the story is still divided up into episodes, it was released as a single game. Although New Tales from the Borderlands has its good moments, that original magical combo just isn't on display here. New Tales stars three main characters: Anu, a scientist working for Atlas who is working on creating a device to harness the power of Eridium; Octavio, Anu's adopted brother who dreams of becoming a famous entrepreneur but is currently a small-time thief; and Fran, Octavio's boss and owner of a frozen yogurt shop that is teetering on the edge of failure. In true Borderlands fashion the trio stumbles into a situation that is wildly out of their league and struggles to survive the ensuing chaos. Like its predecessor, New Tales is a story-driven and comedy-focused game, so you can expect a lot of the same humor that you'd see in Borderlands games, i.e. violent explosions and wise-cracking robots. In fact, you'll be inundated with that humor. This game doesn't seem to know when to let a joke breathe, and instead throws in one-liners just about every other sentence. Granted, there are some good jokes here, but the relentless pacing of the humor actually brings the energy down. New Tales goes for quantity over quality and the results speak for themselves. Unfortunately, the dramatic moments of the story aren't much better, which is not what you want to hear regarding a story-driven game. The overarching plot is fine, even if it does feel a little all over the place—episode 3 revolves mainly around the three protagonists going on a parody of Shark Tank to earn money—but the bigger problem is the characters themselves. Their extremely exaggerated and grating personalities might be a "love 'em or hate 'em" kind of situation, but if, like me, you land on the latter, it'll be tough to get through scene after scene of the trio yelling at each other and butting heads. It doesn't help either that Anu and Octavio have an obvious familial storyline to play out, so Fran ends up feeling forgotten half the time. The writers were clearly going for "loveable idiots" with these characters, but they missed the mark. Frustratingly, there are a few interesting side characters, but they're used so sparingly that you hardly get any time with them. Perhaps that's for the best though, to allow them to swoop in with a joke or two then exit the scene without being forced through strained emotional beats. The gameplay is extremely limited, even for a story-driven game. Each episode generally only has one or two free-roam sections where you can interact with objects to pick up more world-building backstory or jokes, and even then you're rarely puzzle-solving or interacting with the environment in a meaningful way. There are also quicktime events, but they're used in the most basic way you can imagine, and it's not like they're particularly challenging either. Instead this is a game all about dialogue choices, culminating in a somewhat awkwardly inserted summary in the final episode that goes back over all your choices, most of which didn't feel very impactful. There are a few slightly different endings possible, but since there's no way to fast-forward dialogue that you've already seen it'd be a bit of a slog to go through the game's full 10-hour length several times. New Tales does feature minigames, but either this is a meta-joke that doesn't quite land or it's a hasty, clumsy way of adding more interactive elements because the minigames are bland. Some of them definitely seem to be jokes about pointless time-wasters in video games, but that's a joke that's sort of funny once, not once per episode. Thankfully you can skip those at least. There's also a battle minigame which is again so simplistic that it might as well not be in the game at all, it's just a waste of time. For all of its other faults, the game's presentation has its impressive moments. The facial animation is shockingly detailed and adds a lot of nuance and personality to the voice performances. On the other hand, the body animation is so wildly exaggerated that it can detract from the writing a bit, but overall the visual design does a good job of bridging Borderlands' stylized look with the highly emotive design that a story-driven game requires. On a technical level, there's an awful lot of pop-in and textures are often slow to load, but again the style of the game works well. As for voice acting, the actors do alright with the material that they're given. The voices are animated and lively—sometimes too animated and cartoonish, but the game's flaws stem more from the writing than the performances. New Tales from the Borderlands proves that maybe the Telltale Games formula was harder than it looked. This Gearbox-developed sequel might emulate the style, but the finer details don't quite come together into a fun, memorable experience, certainly not on the level of its predecessor. The writing needed to be polished both for more clever jokes and more impactful emotional beats, and actual engaging interactive moments—instead of quicktime events and limited exploration scenes—would have at least injected a little more energy into the game. New Tales is fine if you just want more of the Borderlands universe, but it's a far cry from the first game. Rating: 5 out of 10 Tales
  19. In Sound Mind jumps on the psychological horror game trend with a puzzle-focused adventure crawling with creepy ambiance and a mysterious overarching plot. Sadly though, the scariest thing about this game is how it runs on the Switch. You play as Desmond Wales, a psychiatrist in a small town, though initially all you know is that you've woken up in the shadowy basement of an apartment building where clearly something is wrong. The psychiatrist angle dovetails nicely into the psychological horror of the game: you're not a soldier or a warrior, and in fact the levels are structured around your patients and their troubles. It definitely establishes a spooky atmosphere early on—like many horror games the best part of In Sound Mind is the first level or two, when you don't know what to expect and have limited ways of fighting back. Around halfway through the game though, the story takes a pretty dramatic turn toward a larger, overarching conspiracy, which to be fair is handled pretty well here but is perhaps not as interesting as the more intimate story of a psychiatrist haunted by the success or failures of his patients' treatments. The gameplay focuses on exploring eerie environments and solving puzzles to progress, with some light combat elements that grow over the course of the game. The environment and puzzle design is on point: each level of the game takes you to a new, sprawling area filled with nooks and crannies to inspect, all of which is naturally covered in shadows, so your trusty flashlight is key while exploring (and of course there's a battery meter, so you don't want to overdo the flashlight either). The huge areas are both a strength and a weakness for In Sound Mind: they're perfect for giving you the feeling that you're never quite safe, and unknown forces can leap out of the shadows at any time, but some of the environments feel big just for big's sake. You end up sprinting from one key object to another with nothing but empty scenery in between, not to mention that you can easily get lost since there's no HUD map. Sure getting lost is kind of the point for a game like this, but it leads to some unsatisfying gameplay moments. The puzzle design, at least, is pretty consistently sharp. Each level introduces some new mechanic or ability that spices up the gameplay, and the environmental puzzle design works nicely to encourage exploration without ever getting too complicated. You might find yourself lost or stuck for a bit occasionally, but given the size of these environments the puzzles are actually pretty nicely contained to individual areas. That said, the puzzle design can be a bit repetitive at times as well, since 90% of the time it's some variation of "find the key," but there are still some satisfying challenges to puzzle out here. The combat, however, leaves much to be desired. You start off unarmed and can eventually acquire a gun plus a couple other weapons. Part of the blame I'm going to lay at the feet of the console port of what is clearly originally a PC game, because aiming is clunky and downright atrocious at times. But even allowing for that, the combat is just dull. There are only a couple of types of monsters in the game and they mostly just run at you—far too quickly to aim smoothly—and even when you do take them out, there's nothing interesting about the threat they pose, certainly not to the level of ingenuity that the puzzle design shows. It's so half-baked that it probably shouldn't have ever been a feature of the game, especially if the developers wanted to lean into the psychological horror angle. The other major misstep of In Sound Mind is the infrequent but consistently frustrating platforming. First-person platforming is always going to be a tricky challenge to nail down, but this game does it particularly poorly. Your movements are just too clunky and awkward—you certainly don't have the grace or precision needed to land long jumps to tiny platforms. And in moments when falling means instant death, you're treated to an entirely too long reloading screen. Thankfully these platforming moments are relatively rare over the course of the game, but you'll dread them any time they appear. However, the true failing of In Sound Mind is its appearance while running on the Switch. The game is so blurry and low-res you'll likely assume this is merely a slightly upgraded port from some 20+ year old game, not a recent release. And although looks aren't everything, the visuals here are so poor that it's almost laughable. Worst of all, they can affect the gameplay to an extent. Sure the environments are supposed to be hazy or shadowy, but it's genuinely hard to see things here, which again makes keeping your bearings a bit of a nightmare. The sound design is at least decently preserved on the Switch. The ambiance audio is appropriately eerie, and the voice acting is decent, though never amazing. In Sound Mind promises a decent psychological horror concept that is brought down by clunky combat and platforming, and then utterly tanked by the game's technical performance on the Switch. The puzzle design is engaging and the story's twists will keep you on your toes, but if you're interested in playing In Sound Mind you'll likely find a much better experience on any other platform than the Switch. Rating: 4 out of 10 Minds
  20. Lots of games boast retro-style or inspiration, but not many games will take you back to the early days of adventure games quite the way Tunic does. Not through pixel graphics or gameplay mechanics, but through the complete mystery of how to progress or what to uncover next. It's also not an open-ended or completely open-world adventure, but it is one that requires you to explore thoroughly to discover mysteries and then puzzle over how to solve them. Tunic is fiendishly clever—and at times, fiendishly difficult—and that sense of organic discovery creates one of the most rewarding adventure game experiences in years. I'm not sure I could accurately explain the story even if I wanted to. Suffice it to say you play as a fox who wakes up on the shores of a mysterious island, and then the adventure begins. Initially armed with nothing, you'll soon find your way to an ornate temple where something is clearly sealed within, but it'll take all of your guile to solve the island's mysteries to reach the prize. Tunic relies heavily on the player discovering things on their own—the vast majority of all in-game text is in an untranslated language—but your one guiding star is the in-game manual, which looks like an NES manual in an absolutely charming ode to old-school games. It's not as simple as hitting the pause button and checking the guide though. Each page of the manual is scattered across the island, and each page you recover teaches you a little bit more about the game's mechanics, making you better equipped to survive the challenges around every corner. It is a frankly brilliant structure for an adventure game and one that makes every little discovery feel so rewarding. This isn't the kind of game to hold your hand in any way, but when things click for you it's wonderfully satisfying. Every little bit of progress is an accomplishment in Tunic, not least because the combat side of the game is rather difficult. The game doesn't pull punches: your initial attacks are fairly weak and the average player will likely die quite a lot on this journey. There's also a bit of Souls-like influence where you drop money when you die and need to find your ghost to recover it (thankfully though you only drop a small amount of money, so it's not as punishing as dying in a Souls game). All that said, the combat also feels pretty fair in Tunic. Sure your little fox character feels pretty weak compared to the monsters on the island, but that means you need to attack carefully, thoughtfully, and use your limited items to their fullest. You also do have a dodge roll with some invincibility frames, and once you've got the basics of the game down you'll be able to play a bit more aggressively. It's challenging but not frustrating, and definitely adds to the sense of accomplishment every time you make a little bit more progress. And if you need an extra helping hand, there are accessibility features you can toggle on. They're arguably a bit too helpful—one just makes you invincible—but Tunic is well worth playing for the mystery and exploration, not just the challenging combat. Exploration walks a very fine edge between guided and directionless. The game will only give you vague instructions on what to do next—usually through the manual pages you've found—and from there it's up to you to explore. You don't quite have free rein to go in any direction, but there's enough wiggle room that it feels like you discover things at your own rate and in your own way. The drip feed of the manual pages also lets you look at the game in a new light every time you find a particularly important page. There will frequently be times where you only discover some mechanic through the manual, which lets you reevaluate all of your previous progress. It's extremely clever game design which is honestly a bit of a gamble since it requires the player to stay relatively in the dark for much of the game, but the payoff as you piece together each little part of the gameplay is exceptionally rewarding. The visual design of the game, in addition to just being a fun art style, contributes quite a bit to the sense of exploration as well. The mostly fixed-camera, isometric view means that there are frequently little details hidden from the player's view that require either thorough exploration or a hint from the manual to uncover. It's a clever way of blending both form and function. And as mentioned the art style is very fun, and very cute. Perhaps a little too cute for how challenging this game can actually be at times, but the simple, stark scenery with strict geometric shapes makes for a charming and colorful game world to explore. Tunic also runs fairly decently on the Switch. Like most multi-platform games it feels a little rough around the edges at times, in a way that probably isn't a problem on other platforms, but there's certainly nothing game-breaking about the performance. Tunic's soundtrack is also lovely. It's the perfect background audio for such a mysterious adventure—there's an ethereal atmosphere to the music that suits the game's puzzling vibes. The entirety of Tunic is a riddle, and the music is exactly what plays through your head as you're trying to piece together each little clue you've found. The length of the game will undoubtedly vary quite a bit depending on how quickly you put together the little hints of the adventure or how easily you get through the challenging combat mechanics as you claw your way to the next checkpoint to replenish your health potions. In general though, Tunic is a roughly 12–15 hour game, with a handful of optional secrets that might take you even more time to discover. Replaying the game with all of your endgame knowledge would be a fun exercise, though like any mystery story it's the first playthrough that's truly special. Tunic is a gem of a game, and a wonderfully unique adventure of discovery. The game's refusal to hold the player's hand in almost any capacity makes for a challenging start, but it also makes victory all the more satisfying. As each piece of the puzzle falls into place and you understand more and more about the game's world it's hard not to be in awe of the care and detail put into the adventure. Few other games make each gradual piece of progress feel as rewarding and engaging as Tunic. Rating: 9 out of 10 Foxes
  21. Shovel Knight's indie game success story continues to roll on as the now easily recognizable shovel-wielding hero expands to other genres. Shovel Knight Dig takes the fundamentals of the action-platformer hero and puts him in a roguelike setting, where every quick playthrough poses different challenges and different opportunities for success. The randomized action here may not be quite the treasure trove that the original game was, though. Dig takes place before the events of the original Shovel Knight, so there are a few familiar faces here alongside several new ones. Drill Knight, along with his band of thieves known as the Hexcavators, have stolen Shovel Knight's treasure bag and are now burrowing deep in the earth to find an even greater treasure below. Shovel Knight naturally sets off in hot pursuit, and that's all you really need to know about the story. It's a decent set-up and not surprisingly there's not much else to the narrative—playthroughs live independently of one another, so there's not an overarching or changing story. There is, however, a hidden "true ending" which is rewarding but also so incredibly complicated and difficult to achieve that only the most dedicated shovelers are likely to see it. The Shovel Knight formula translates pretty well to a roguelike, but not perfectly. Shovel Knight's attacks are still snappy and satisfying, and his recognizable downward stab move naturally fits Dig's vertical oriented game design—you're always moving down here, so keeping your weapon below you makes sense. There's a sort of timer at play here as well since you'll be pursued by a giant drill if you take too long, and adding that sense of urgency poses a fresh and fun challenge. It's also rather satisfying to finally actually dig as a focus of the gameplay in a Shovel Knight game. And yet, it's the roguelike trappings of Dig that seem to fall short. It's so crucial for a roguelike to make every playthrough engaging and varied, and Dig just doesn't quite manage it. Sure the level design and enemy placement is different every time, but Shovel Knight's abilities are a bit too limited to make each run truly feel unique. As you explore you're able to pick up relics (aka subweapons) as well as accessories that grant various bonuses, like reducing spike damage or extending the reach of your shovel attacks. The point of these kinds of random power-ups is to spice up each playthrough, but they're just not unique or exciting enough to do so. It doesn't help that it can be quite time-consuming and costly to unlock new relics and accessories, so your first few hours with the game will be unavoidably repetitive. It perhaps doesn't help that Dig can be pretty punishing. Obviously that's another key aspect of roguelikes—victory should take some effort after all, and you should be perfecting your skills with each new runthrough—but little things are pretty unsatisfying in Dig, like dropping held items (keys, eggs) any time you get hit. The need to not only find a key but hold onto it until you find an opportunity to use it tips into tedious challenge territory. And while it's obviously not a must-have for a roguelike, I would have liked to see more permanent upgrades to aid you or at least contribute to a sense of progress with each failed run. Instead, spending money on the chance of finding a new accessory isn't as engaging. The game does find a sweet spot in terms of playthrough length. It can be disheartening when roguelikes are too long, and failure ends up feeling extremely costly, so thankfully Dig is relatively short, but still long enough to make the journey feel worthwhile. You may even reach the victory screen after only a few hours of attempts, though again that might be an indictment of the game's variety rather than a celebration of its game design. The presentation, at least, is absolutely top-notch. Compared to the original Shovel Knight, Dig boasts a more richly detailed look and it's just lovely from start to finish. The jump from 8-bit to 16-bit works wonderfully, retaining the style that players love while also feeling like a true upgrade. The soundtrack is also, unsurprisingly, excellent thanks to returning composer Jake Kaufman. Its fast-paced energy also naturally fits with the urgent gameplay of Dig as you race to the bottom with a massive drill at your heels. Shovel Knight Dig never quite clicks into that "one more run" appeal of other roguelikes, meaning its staying power is disappointingly brief. Its strengths ultimately lie with the core Shovel Knight gameplay, not the roguelike elements, which means that you may not feel too invested in completing runthrough after runthrough as each attempt feels so similar to the last. Still, it's worth playing Shovel Knight Dig for the shovel-wielding action, it just might not be worth playing over and over like a roguelike should be. Rating: 7 out of 10 Gems
  22. I'm not sure exactly when it happened, but hybrid farm simulator/action-RPGs have become a subgenre of farm games unto themselves, to the point where even Square Enix is trying their hand at this unlikely genre mash-up. Harvestella combines cozy farm aesthetics with combat and exploration in a not-quite Final Fantasy world, though there are some similarities. There's a decent farm sim here and a decent action-RPG here, but Harvestella might be less than the sum of its parts. You play as an amnesiac protagonist who awakens in a quiet little town. You're quickly (and quite generously) given an entire farm to tend, but there's a bigger issue at hand. The four giant crystals that guide the world, called Seaslights, are in peril, and when a mysterious woman appears (who may actually be a time-traveler), you'll begin a quest to investigate and save the four Seaslights. On top of all this, there's the ominous mystery of Quietus, a period at the end of every season where anything left outside dies (notably, your crops). So that's two mysterious protagonists, giant crystals, the world in danger—it's a lot to take in, on top of the numerous tutorials that you'll face when starting. Once things get going though, Harvestella's writing survives more on the strength of its characters than the overarching plot. You'll meet plenty of party members to recruit, and they all have their own little stories for you to get involved in. They can be a bit tropey and the game has a terrible problem with long-winded dialogue, but they're still likeable characters. Harvestella also has a hard time reconciling its cozy farm sim side with the world-in-danger storytelling. Granted, this sort of ludonarrative disconnect happens in tons of games, but there's something very odd (and honestly rather funny) about facing a world-ending disaster but instead spending several days watering potatoes. And time management is key in Harvestella. Like most farm simulators, you've only got a certain amount of time each day—18 hours in-game, which is roughly 18 minutes in real life—so you need to make the most of growing crops and exploring. Farming works as you'd expect, each crop takes a certain amount of time to grow, and selling them gives you the money you need to buy more seeds. You can eventually craft various mills for your farm to create flour from wheat, juice from fruit, etc. as well as raise animals. The farm side of the game can feel a bit simple but sometimes that's the appeal of farming simulators: it's kind of like busywork that allows you to zone out and just complete some tasks. You don't want to spend your entire day on the farm though, since you'll also need to explore the action-RPG side of the game. You'll start out as a Fighter class, but with each new ally you meet you'll unlock new classes. You can have three equipped at once and swap among them (there's a short cooldown to do so). Each class has its own skills and attack styles: Fighter is obviously a physical/close-range kind of character, but the Mage can attack from long range. Ultimately though, combat in Harvestella is pretty basic. The main strategic element you'll need to consider is attacking monsters' weaknesses (either elemental or things like slashing/blunt), but other than that, battles are actually kind of button-mashy. You don't have a block or dodge ability, so usually you just have to get up in enemies' faces and take their hits while you attack, and each class only has a handful of skills so you can't even customize that aspect of battle. There's just not much nuance to it outside of big boss fights, when keeping yourself sustained through the protracted fight matters a little more. In that sense, both halves of Harvestella's gameplay are kind of about zoning out and just getting little tasks done. The one wrinkle to both farming and combat is the stamina system. Everything drains stamina—including, quite frustratingly, running—so you might have several hours of the day left but find yourself out of stamina. This is the one area where the two halves of the game feed each other. By growing crops and cooking, you can carry around meals that recover health and replenish stamina. Unfortunately you don't start with a kitchen in the game, but even just eating ingredients helps a bit. You'll want to be quite liberal with eating meals, because stamina drains incredibly fast in Harvestella—trying to move around without running is frankly just a waste of time, so you'll want to sprint as much as you can. Early on the stamina system feels frustratingly limiting and it feels like you can hardly get anything done in a single day, but then again that's sort of the point of a farm sim game: getting the most of each day that you can. It forces a certain slow and steady sense of progress though, which can be difficult for anyone looking for a more standard action-RPG adventure. Even if you're trying to be speedy, Harvestella is a lengthy game. You can probably expect around 50 hours to finish the story, but that doesn't even account for how elaborate you want your farm to be (it's actually possible to finish the story without completing one full year, so you might not even see some crops). There are also quite a number of side quests to tackle. Frankly, these side quests are boring. The long-winded writing is particularly egregious here, the actual gameplay usually just involves talking to one person, running to another town to talk to another person, repeat, and many side stories just aren't that interesting. However, it's worth pursuing them anyway since they'll award you money and oftentimes seeds, which might be hard to come by until you've got some serious cash crops growing on your farm. Harvestella's presentation thankfully leans on the action-adventure side of the game to create elaborate, interesting scenery and monster designs. The environments are a lovely blend of familiar and otherworldly, with their crystalline structures and overall hazy, glowing vibe. Character designs are as over-the-top as you might expect from a Square Enix game, with outfits that just don't make any sense, though they certainly look stylish. The music is also on point, with fun tracks for towns and dialogue and more adventurous tunes for battle and exploration. Harvestella is a decent attempt at marrying farm sim gameplay and action-RPG combat, though it falls short of being a great attempt. That said, it still manages to offer an addictive gameplay loop as you try to make the most of each in-game day, whether it's by raking in profits on the farm or exploring further and raising more levels as an adventurer. There's an allure to that simple loop, even if Harvestella never quite manages to elevate this sub-genre of games to much more than repetitive—but decently satisfying—busywork. Rating: 7 out of 10 Harvests
  23. The first Blossom Tales from 2017 was an absolutely charming Zelda-style adventure, complete with pixel art, weapons/items for fighting/exploring, and dungeons to traverse. It relied heavily on the formula from 90s adventure games, but it was a fun and cute game in its own right. The sequel, Blossom Tales II: The Minotaur Prince, is largely a repeat of that formula, which makes for a familiar but perhaps unambitious experience. Like the first game, the story begins with a grandfather telling a story to his two grandkids around a campfire. Lily is once again the heroic adventurer, but this time her younger brother Chrys gets involved as well. When the two of them start fighting, Lily wishes away her brother—Labyrinth style—which causes the revival of the terrible Minotaur King who whisks Chrys away. Now Lily must travel the land to unlock the path to the Minotaur King's castle and rescue her brother. Like the first game the writing clearly doesn't take itself too seriously. There are tons of pop culture references and self-referential humor that makes for a fun, light-hearted adventure, and a nice story about sibling relationships. The best part though is that the real Lily and Chrys often interject into their grandpa's story, insisting on changing details that you can then choose. For example, when Lily receives a magical instrument the children bicker over whether it should be a guitar or an accordion, allowing you to choose the instrument you want. It's always small details like this, but it adds some fun variety to the game. The gameplay has all the trappings of a 2D Zelda game: you start out with just a sword and shield, but you quickly amass a small arsenal of items to use both offensively and for navigating the world. A handful of dungeons hold bigger challenges and boss fights, and the overworld is completely packed with little secrets to uncover, including collectibles and heart pieces. It's a well-used formula that is used well here. There's not a lot that feels wildly unique about The Minotaur Prince, but there's no harm in sticking to a formula that works. With a game like this, all those little secrets to find and items to collect keeps the adventure moving at a brisk pace since there's always something pushing you forward and keeping you engaged. The only area that The Minotaur Prince really seems to push the formula is with collectibles, which is a bit of an unsatisfying gameplay hook. In addition to all the gold coins you'll collect while exploring, you can also pick up dozens of small collectibles—fruit, flowers, fish with your fishing rod, etc. These can be used to brew potions or occasionally traded to NPCs for items like heart pieces or for side quests. It's sort of nice to have a lot to do and collect in an adventure game like this, but it also feels a bit tedious and endless. It comes off as busywork, and in a game about fighting monsters and solving puzzles, collecting 20 flowers for a traveling merchant just isn't exciting. It's particularly disheartening that you might have thousands of coins in your pocket, but to get a new heart piece you've got to go fishing for ten minutes to grab enough carp for the merchant. It's blatant padding, which is particularly disheartening since there are only four dungeons in the game. The game's controls could also be tweaked just a bit. It's understandable that the game is keeping the two-item system of classic Zelda games, but it's also a hassle to be constantly swapping items when there are several buttons on the controller that are unused. At the very least the shield could be equipped at all times instead of being an item. It'd also be nice to be able to organize your inventory screen. You can pick up a lot of bottles to fill with various potions and they end up littering your inventory, making it just a little bit more annoying when you're swapping out your bombs for the bow or other items. The Minotaur Prince's length can vary quite a bit since there's so much optional content. With only four dungeons, the majority of your time will be spent exploring the overworld, which is fun but doesn't quite match the satisfaction of completing dungeons. If you're not going for every heart piece possible (and there are a lot) you can easily finish in under 10 hours. If you do want them, you'll need to spend quite some time turning over every stone. The game's presentation is beautifully retro. It's a bit more detailed than its predecessor, but it still retains the old-school pixel style and it looks great—the characters are cute and the environments are fun, even if they rely on the usual settings for an adventure game. The soundtrack isn't bad, though it's perhaps a little too understated and quiet. Blossom Tales II: The Minotaur Prince is a fun 2D Zelda-style adventure, though it's not bringing much new to the table. If you've played any top-down adventure games before you'll know exactly what you're getting here, with the addition of a lot of collectibles that get a bit tiring. Still, even if it plays things a little too safe, The Minotaur Prince is a charming experience for fans of 2D adventure games. Rating: 7 out of 10 Blossoms
  24. Return to Monkey Island isn't just the return of Guybrush Threepwood—mighty pirate—to point and click fans, it also puts series creators Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman back at the helm, bringing back classic adventure vibes, silly jokes, and most importantly a grand reveal of the true Secret of Monkey Island. Although Return is obviously tailor-made for fans of the series, new players will still enjoy setting sail on waves of charming humor and clever, engaging puzzle design. As the title implies, Guybrush Threepwood's latest adventure is a look back at the quest that started it all. This game aims to finally reveal what is the Secret at the heart of Monkey Island as Guybrush races to claim the prize before his longtime rival LeChuck. The game is packed with other returning characters and plenty of references to past adventures that might go over the heads of new players. Still, even if this is your first voyage to Monkey Island, the game's signature humor and lighthearted charm makes it a joy to play. You'll want to click on every object you can not just for picking up usable items or clues but for the jokes packed into every little detail of the game. The game's sense of humor culminates in an ending that might surprise some players, but ultimately feels quite at home in the world of Monkey Island. One aspect of the game that is not obvious though is the Writer's Cut feature in the settings, which essentially adds a ton of additional dialogue to the game. It seems to have been cut for the sake of pacing, but a huge part of the appeal of Monkey Island games is the humor, so denying yourself all of that extra dialogue, even if it isn't 100% necessary to the story, would be a shame. Return features some classic point and click adventure gameplay, though obviously with some more convenient modern features. You'll need to pick up every item you can, examine everything in the scenery, and come up with clever solutions to unusual puzzles. The difficulty on hard mode feels like the perfect sweet spot for an adventure game like this, though. The puzzles aren't a complete walk in the park, but there also aren't wacky solutions that you'd never come up with on your own. You don't have to combine every item in outlandish ways, you just have to think logically—and granted sometimes creatively—about how to use your limited inventory to progress. It helps that most of the environments are big enough to give you lots to see and do, but small enough that it's not overwhelming to figure out solutions. And if you do find yourself stuck, there's a built-in hint system that also nicely balances the sense of challenge by giving you just a nudge in the right direction without outright telling you what to do next. Plus, you can play the game on easy mode if you prefer, which streamlines some puzzles, i.e. things that might take two or three steps on hard mode only take one on easy mode. It's a nice option if you're not a puzzle fan and just want to enjoy the game's humor. The game's controls also suit the point and click experience nicely with both a controller and touch screen option. The touch screen might recapture the mouse and keyboard experience a bit better, but moving with a control stick is much easier and you can use L and R to cycle through interactive objects in the environment, so you aren't aimlessly trying to click on everything around you. The interface also makes it clear when you can pick up objects, so it's hard to miss grabbing a key item. Return's presentation is also excellent. The colorful, cartoonish graphics perfectly suit the tone of the adventure, and the angular design makes every scene playful and unique. It has an almost papercraft style to it, and looks great in motion. The soundtrack has some great tunes, though the voice acting is the real star of the audio department. Fully voiced lines add a ton of personality to the already great writing and helps make this charming, goofy adventure come alive. Return to Monkey Island is everything fans of the series love about these games. It's witty and fun from the big story beats down to the little descriptions of tiny details in the environment, the characters are varied and charming, and the puzzle design is creative but not tedious. Return leans heavily on the franchise's history, but even if you're a fresh-faced pirate you'll quickly be charmed by the humor and style of Monkey Island. Rating: 9 out of 10 Pirates
  25. Speedrun-focused games can sometimes feel exclusionary since the central theme specifically appeals to the most hardcore, dedicated players. Every now and then though, one comes along that deftly threads the needle on fast-paced action while still catering to players who want more story and substance to the gameplay. Neon White is one of those cases where everything seems to have come together perfectly. Neons are the souls of dead sinners who are given a chance to stay in heaven by competing in the 10 Days of Judgement competition that requires them to kill demons and rise to the top of the ranks. You play as White, a soul with amnesia but impressive demon-killing skills. You quickly encounter other Neons who do remember who you are though, and now you'll have to unravel your past while also reaching rank 1 in the competition. Amnesia stories are a bit overdone, but Neon White makes it work with a nice blend of comedy and drama. The humor is modern without being cheesy, and the mystery of both White's past and the Judgement contest makes for an engaging plot that wouldn't feel out of place in an anime. Most of all though it's impressive that the story works so well when it's told in chunks between the levels. The gameplay is essentially first-person platforming. Each level has a number of demons in it, and you have to kill them all to unlock the goal. Your weapons, however, all appear as cards, which you can collect during a level (you always start with a katana card). So you might find a handgun card, pick it up, and now you can shoot demons with however many bullets the card has. Pretty simple so far, but where Neon White gets interesting is the discard mechanic. By discarding a weapon you'll activate a secondary effect. For example, discarding a handgun allows you to double jump, while discarding an assault rifle shoots a grenade. By using cards both as weapons and for their secondary effects, you'll be able to kill demons and navigate the oftentimes towering 3D platforming stages in the game. Despite the sound of it, the gameplay is actually beautifully streamlined and easy to pick up. There are only a handful of card types—conveniently color-coded so it's easy to see what card you have—so you don't have to memorize an entire deck's worth of effects. Perhaps more importantly, you're limited to whatever cards are available in any given level. When a level only gives you handgun cards, it's pretty easy to figure out what you're supposed to do with them. By the later levels you may need to do a little bit of problem solving, but even by that point in the game the real focus is on getting the best time possible in each stage, so the level design is easily navigable and has a rhythm to it by design. When you know what to do and everything clicks together, Neon White is an absolute blast as you fly through levels rapidly taking out targets and discarding cards to propel yourself forward. It's almost like a puzzle game as well as a platformer as you use your limited tools to the best possible effect. This is also not to say that the game is a totally railroaded experience. Sure you only have the cards available in a given level, but you can try to figure out how to use them in interesting ways to shave time off your score. There are plenty of little shortcuts you can create, and to help you the game will even offer little clues to help you take precious seconds off your time. The relatively narrow structure of each level also helps alleviate the faults of 3D platforming and creates an environment that emphasizes fluid speed. Just moving around the world of Neon White, with the aid of discarding weapons, is a ton of fun and feels snappy and responsive, making each speedrun feel rewarding and earned. Aside from just completing each level with a fast time, you can also replay levels to collect gifts, which can then be given to side characters to unlock additional dialogue and bonus levels. Just collecting gifts adds another layer of challenge to the game since you often need to use each card in the most efficient way possible to grab the gift, truly testing your mastery of the game's mechanics. The additional dialogue and levels are also well worth pursuing, so collecting gifts is a two-fold present for the player. All told, Neon White clocks in at a respectable ten hours or so, though obviously you can replay and practice your skills far beyond that time to try to make the global leaderboards. It's a testament to the game that even ten hours feels like too short of a time to spend with Neon White. The game's presentation is also excellent, and knows exactly when to be stylish and when to be straightforward. The level scenery is overall fairly basic, but that's what you want in a fast-paced game like this—there shouldn't be any confusion about where you need to go, what is an enemy, what is a platform you can stand on, etc. The character design oozes style though, and it's almost a shame that there aren't more Neons for you to meet, each with a unique mask. The electronic soundtrack is absolutely thumping and perfect for both the gameplay and the aesthetic, and the voice work is outstanding as well, perfectly fleshing out that blend of comedy and drama in the writing. Neon White is a stylish and slick action game with just enough complexity to make each level satisfying without ever getting overwhelming. The central card mechanic is perfect for this, giving you enough wiggle room to experiment with the best route through each level but also limiting the number of options so it never feels daunting. Even if you're not perfecting your playthroughs for fast speedruns, Neon White is a must-play action game. Rating: 9 out of 10 Neons
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