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Found 243 results

  1. It's a story we've seen a thousand times: you're chilling at home scrolling through your social media feed when some alien lady bursts through your wall and kidnaps your cat, which leaves you no other option but to fight your way through her robot army to rescue your precious pet. That old tale. Insane premise aside, Super Crush KO leverages all of the experience that developer Vertex Pop gathered from Graceful Explosion Machine to create another delightfully engaging score-chasing action game. There's not a lot of storytelling happening in Super Crush KO—my summary up above pretty much covers everything—but there's still a lot of style and flair packed into the game's brief cutscenes as our protagonist, Karen, pursues her cat, Chubbz, and the space-traveling cat-napper. The end of each level also treats you to a short bit of text that highlights what the characters are thinking, including Chubbz (spoiler alert: it's meowing). The game happily leans into its absurd premise to be utterly charming, cute, and, in the end, rather heartfelt. Super Crush KO is a stage-based side-scrolling action game: each level features a handful of combat scenes where you fight off waves of robots, and these scenes are connected by light platforming sequences and more robot butt-kickin'. The basic goal is to reach the end of the level, but the real heart of the game revolves around racking up a high score by stringing together combos and all of Karen's abilities. In addition to basic punches and a fancy space gun picked up from the alien cat-napper, Karen gradually unlocks a handful of special attacks that deal extra damage and smoothly combo into one another. After Graceful Explosion Machine, the developers seem to have this formula down pat, and the fluidity of Super Crush KO is an absolute blast. Rather than inundating players with dozens of special attacks, the game keeps things simple with just a few, but the effect is still the same: you'll feel like a one-woman robot-wrecking crew when you effortlessly flow from punching one robot, dodging another before uppercutting it, kicking the robot while in mid-air, then shooting a distant robot before it can fire at you. The combat system is immensely satisfying thanks to this snappy combo system that isn't too demanding but still rewards quick reflexes and careful monitoring of the stage as robots spawn in around you. Most importantly, Super Crush KO is about earning a high score, which means stringing together your attacks without taking damage yourself. This is, as you might expect, much more challenging, but it's also what makes the game so wonderfully addictive. The flow of combat is smooth and fairly easy to grasp, so perfecting it can become an obsession as you try your best to maintain a high combo streak from one fight to the next. You're able to share your high scores on an online leaderboard to see how you stack up to other players, which only further incentivizes you to perfect your skills. It's a good thing the game has this incentive too since just running through the game once is a very short experience. There are only twenty levels in the game (four of which are boss fights) and levels are rarely longer than a few minutes. The stage length itself actually feels great—long enough to be challenging to maintain a high score, but not tediously long—it's just a shame that there aren't more levels. The game's formula absolutely does not get old and I easily could have played through another two dozen levels, especially since the game continuously challenges you with new robot enemies with more dangerous attacks and bigger health bars. Bright and colorful with bold shapes but ultimately few details, the look and sound of Super Crush KO is an excellent match for the fast-paced arcade-style gameplay. You don't want any uncertainty about what type of robot you're fighting or whether an incoming attack can be interrupted or needs to be dodged, and the game's clean, bubbly, and relatively minimalist style ensures that you're never confused about what is happening on screen. It's also a really gorgeous color palette, one that gives the game a unique pastel vibe, which is oddly calming despite the action-packed nature of the gameplay. The music is excellent as well; its mellow, groovy style is almost at odds with the gameplay as well, but ultimately the synth sound, punctuated by Karen's punches and kicks, creates a great background for a robot beatdown. Super Crush KO does one thing and does it exceedingly well. The simple goal of score-chasing can be wonderfully engaging, and developer Vertex Pop has once again captured that simple joy, this time in a beautiful pastel package that encourages combos with fast, fluid gameplay. It's a shame the experience isn't longer, but when you take the time to perfect your skills and your score in every level, Super Crush KO is a delightful addition to the Switch library. Rating: 8 out of 10 Cats
  2. Who says work has to be the same ol' same ol' boring stuff every day? It helps to put a little pep and verve into the process, and for Felix the Reaper that means dancing and shimmying his way through the mortal realm, sowing death one person at a time. Part black comedy, part puzzle game, and part love story, Felix the Reaper is a curious collection of seemingly incongruous elements. If every piece of the puzzle fit perfectly it might have been a sleeper hit for the Switch, but the final product actually leaves much to be desired. Felix is a hard-working reaper with the Ministry of Death who is completely smitten by Betty the Maiden from the Ministry of Life. In the hopes of meeting her while on the job, Felix takes on field work to manipulate the mortal world and reap souls, all the while pining for his lady love. The game is unabashedly silly, and putting the grim reaper into a star-crossed lovers story is as odd and entertaining as you might expect. Felix the Reaper also doesn't shy away from dark humor—oftentimes your goal in each level is to manipulate events into an absurd Rube Goldberg machine of death. What's particularly impressive about the writing though is the amount of research that went into exploring the figure of Death in Western culture and art. On the main menu you can read some lengthy articles on the subject, and although it would have been better to frame this research into something a bit more easily digestible (especially for a video game), they're still interesting reads and a neat inclusion. Each puzzle involves navigating a grid-based map while keeping to the shadows (reapers, it seems, can't handle daylight). By moving barrels, crates, and other objects around, you're able to create a path for Felix to move about the map and place the correct object on the indicated square. You may need to move a deer into the path of a hunter's spear for example, or move a barrel of ale close to the same hunter to ensure he isn't too careful about what happens next. You're also able to adjust the position of the sun, so you need to consider where the shadows currently are and will be when the sun is moved in order to create paths. It's an engaging puzzle system that requires a lot of forethought as you plan out each move, and seeing a plan fall into place can be awfully satisfying. That said, not all of the puzzles in Felix the Reaper feel particularly inspired. The core gameplay formula doesn't change much over the short length of the game, which is a little disappointing. The difficulty of each puzzle can vary pretty significantly too. Sometimes there are so few options at your disposal that it's not difficult at all to figure out what to do, and other times there are so many possibilities (but only one correct path) that you can feel totally lost. Thankfully there's a built-in hint system in the game so if you do need a nudge in the right direction you can easily see what steps to take next. One feature that does feel like it's missing though is a quick "rewind" button to undo your most recent actions—at the very least it would save a lot of time when you realize your current plan is leading nowhere. In fact, the controls in general could use a bit of an overhaul. Clearly the game's controls are built for a PC's mouse and keyboard because instead of moving Felix directly you just aim a cursor and click on which square to send him. With a controller this can feel a bit clumsy, and it's only made more difficult by the somewhat slippery camera rotation system that doesn't quite let you pan the camera over the entire stage but instead just rotate around it. When you first start up the game you'll likely be quite thrown by these controls, and it takes several levels to get used to them. Even by the end of the game I'd occasionally find myself annoyed by the tiny white dot of a cursor or the rotation that doesn't quite let me see the angle I want. The awkward controls are only emphasized by the game's focus on speed. You can take however long you need to finish a puzzle, but to earn all three bonus skulls you'll need to finish as quickly as possible with as few actions as possible. It's nice to have something to stretch out the game's length a bit, but really all you're doing is memorizing the correct actions after one or two trial runs and then executing them as quickly as possible—not the most interesting use of your time in a puzzle game. There are also harder versions of each level which can add a lot of play time to Felix the Reaper since these levels can be incredibly tricky (and you don't even get any hints). They can be so difficult, in fact, that they'll probably only appeal to the most dedicated players, but the challenge is there if you want it. And on a more technical note, the game has a real problem with load times. Sure loading screens are simply a reality of modern gaming but they're a bit of a drag here, especially if you finish a puzzle in just a minute or two and then sit through twenty seconds of loading. If there's one thing you can say about Felix the Reaper, it's that it has character. Felix himself is an oddly lovable representation of death, trading a dark cloak and scythe for a tie and a pair of headphones, all on a rather adorably pudgy body. A body that, surprisingly, is capable of stylish dance moves as Felix flits from shadow to shadow. The humans you're reaping are similarly unusual and yet charming—their simple, somewhat grotesque faces can be surprisingly emotive. The soundtrack though, is a bit of a mixed bag. Considering dancing is a major aspect of Felix's character, it's surprising that a lot of the music leans toward light, atmospheric sounds rather than, say, a dance club vibe. It might be suited to solving puzzles but it doesn't seem to fit with Felix himself. However, the soundtrack is actually composed by several musicians and you're able to change songs at any time, so once you find one you like you can stick with it the whole game. Felix the Reaper promises a great deal with its quirky sense of style and humor, but ultimately the pieces don't quite come together for this macabre rom com. The puzzles are clever and certainly challenging at times, but they never quite manage to evolve into more complex or engaging formats. The controls leave a lot to be desired, which can easily wear on your patience during more difficult puzzles, and even the charm of the presentation and dark humor of the writing fail to liven up the atmosphere. In the end it's hard to love Felix's quest for romance. Rating: 6 out of 10 Deaths
  3. At this point it feels like it'd be faster to count the number of Wii U games that haven't been ported to the Switch, though to be fair, few deserve a second chance in the spotlight as much as Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE. This Encore performance adds a few new features—as well as including the DLC released for the original game—but just giving Switch owners a chance to experience the engaging RPG mechanics of the game is treat enough. TMS♯FE takes place in modern day Tokyo and the story revolves around the idol industry of teenagers becoming pop star singers and actors. However, the city is also beset by phantom creatures called Mirages who are attacking people to steal their performance energy. Our heroes, a scrappy group of mostly novice idols, teams up with friendly Mirages to fight back. It's probably not surprising that TMS♯FE leans heavily on anime tropes and such—each character almost feels like a walking cliché, which can make the game's story beats a little tedious. The main protagonist, Itsuki, is particularly disappointing since he's really just a blank slate character to facilitate other characters' development. Still, the characters can be charming at times as well, and if you just let yourself go along for the ride on a light-hearted, campy, save-the-world story, the writing's lack of substance won't matter much. Besides, TMS♯FE makes up for any storytelling faults with a wonderfully engaging battle system and inventive dungeon designs. Scattered throughout Tokyo you'll enter Idolaspheres (dungeons, essentially) in order to battle Mirages, and these Idolaspheres feature some clever and unusual designs. Exploring them is a lot more engaging that simply walking to the exit and battling creatures along the way. The battle system, however, is arguably the star of the show in TMS♯FE. The key feature here is activating Sessions by targeting an enemy's weakpoint with a combat skill, either an elemental weakness or weapon weakness. Each character has a limited selection of skills (Itsuki, for example, uses swords and lightning magic), so you'll need to select your party carefully to effectively deal with the Mirages in the current Idolasphere—don't worry though, you can also swap characters from your reserves to your active party mid-battle if you need to switch things up. Hitting an enemy with a skill they're vulnerable to activates a Session, where every available party member jumps in with their own attack, creating a satisfying chain of damage that can also leap to other enemies in battle as well. Eventually you'll also get the chance to further augment Sessions with special skills called ad-libs and duo attacks, which can lead to some satisfying damage combos. On one hand these massive Session chains can make normal battles a little too easy, but they're still awfully satisfying to pull off. Plus there are always boss fights for the truly challenging moments, and when enemies aren't killed by a single session you'll realize there's more to the battle system and it requires a typical RPG's strategy and planning to survive (and a little luck). Boss fights can be pretty challenging in fact, but thankfully you can save at any time in the game (outside of battle) so as long as you remember to save frequently, a defeat won't result in much lost progress. The other major aspect of TMS♯FE's gameplay revolves around learning skills, which comes from crafting new weapons and using them in battle. Weapons can be crafted from items dropped from Mirages, so it's a nicely cyclical system—fight some Mirages, gather resources, craft new weapons, repeat. The crafting system is rather tedious in TMS♯FE though because you have to leave the Idolasphere and return to your base of operations to craft, and you'll probably want to do this several times in just a single dungeon, so there's a lot of running back and forth that easily could have been streamlined. Speaking of streamlining though, the Encore edition of the game does speed up one aspect of the game. You're now able to speed through Sessions, which is a huge time saver. As mentioned you're going to be triggering Sessions in every battle, multiple times, and by the end of the game Sessions can get ridiculously long. As nice as the animations are, being able to speed through them is a welcome change. Beyond that though, the other new features for the Encore edition are kind of underwhelming. Some of the side characters are able to jump into battle during a Session, and the interface for the game's message system has changed (since you don't have the Wii U Gamepad in hand anymore), but the main new feature is the EX Story, a short dungeon focused on two of the characters. It's great to have a new area to explore but it's ultimately a simple, brief side story that doesn't add too much either story- or gameplay-wise. It's probably not enough to convince you to play through the entire game again if you're on the fence, but fans of the game might enjoy having a bit extra to do. Not that the game's length really needs extending anyway—this is a full-length RPG, so you can expect at least 40 hours or so to finish the game. There are also several side quests with each of the game's main characters, and even though these are technically optional you really shouldn't skip them as they'll give you valuable bonuses and combat abilities. There are still some optional side missions to tackle though, and if you can't get enough of TMS♯FE you can try out New Game+ to keep the performance going even longer. Focused as it is on the Japanese idol industry, the look and sound of TMS♯FE is distinctly poppy: bright, flashy, and arguably overdone at times, but there's still a certain appeal to it all. Each character has multiple costumes you can use (including some from the game's original DLC as well as new ones for this Encore edition) so you can always experiment to find the look you like. Music is, naturally, a big part of a game focused on pop music idols, and there are some catching songs (including entire music videos) but again your enjoyment will largely hinge on your interest in the Japanese idol industry. The game is also fully voiced but only in Japanese which is, to be fair, appropriate for the game's style and setting. Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE Encore isn't much of an overhaul or upgrade from the original Wii U title, but for anyone that missed its first performance this is a great opportunity to find new fans with a second showing. The core RPG elements remain wonderfully satisfying when you pull off long Session chains, and crafting weapons to unlock new skills is completely addictive, even if the crafting process is slower than it ought to be. Switch owners should be pleased to find yet another solid RPG port on Nintendo's hybrid system. Rating: 8 out of 10 Sessions
  4. Back when the original Crash Bandicoot game released in 1996 for the PlayStation, it was at a unique nexus point. The 90s were rife with platformers, but with the PlayStation/Nintendo 64 generation came the advent of 3D visuals and gameplay, and games like Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot represented the bridge between one of the classic gameplay genres and a new dimension of gaming. But while Super Mario 64 set the standard for a lot of 3D platforming mechanics and remains a pretty solid entry in the Mario series, time hasn't been quite so kind to the early Crash Bandicoot games. Although an iconic gaming mascot of the late 90s, Crash feels incredibly dated in 2018, even in the remastered Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy. Let's start with the first game which introduces us to Crash, a bandicoot that has been mutated by the evil Dr. Neo Cortex using his Evolvo-Ray. Although Cortex wanted to make Crash into a powerful animal soldier, Crash escapes the lab, only to start a quest across the Wumpa islands to rescue the other animal captives. Despite its sleek polygonal looks the original Crash Bandicoot was more of a combination of 2D platformer gameplay with 3D visuals. Some levels are viewed from the side like classic 2D platformers but many have Crash running into the foreground or background. Amidst all this there are boss fights and collectibles—all the basic building blocks of an adventure/platformer. Now I'll say here that I never played these games when they were first released, and while I'm sure this sort of gameplay twist was impressive at the time it is kind of a mess now. In fact, the original Crash Bandicoot feels like a crash course in bad 3D game design. You have very little depth perception in these fore-/background running levels, with only Crash's shadow to tell you where you'll land during a jump. And there are some insanely difficult jumps in some of these levels. Crash's movements are also incredibly stiff since, when the game was first released, the PlayStation didn't have analog sticks, so players used a D-pad to control Crash in these semi-3D levels, and Crash's movements remain awkward. And finally, your main attack is spinning into enemies, which requires getting up close and personal with enemies who can kill you just by touching you. All of this makes the original Crash Bandicoot obnoxiously difficult. Stiff controls with an awkward camera angle and unforgiving level design means it's easy to die pretty much constantly. Although there are some clever level designs it's hard to get past how frustratingly clunky and outdated the game feels today. To be fair, some of the clumsy gameplay might be due to this remastering which required rebuilding the gameplay from scratch, so some elements might not have translated well, but anyone that is first playing Crash Bandicoot in 2018 is most likely going to feel like this game is simply a relic that doesn't quite belong on a modern game system. Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back is a marked improvement over the original game. Once again Crash is combating Dr. Cortex (though Cortex pretends to be asking Crash for help to collect powerful crystals) which leads Crash to a wide variety of different levels. There's much better stage variety in Crash 2, though Naughty Dog still loves the format of running into the foreground while something huge chases Crash. Still, Crash's movements are much smoother so it doesn't feel like you're fighting the controls throughout the whole game, and he also has a new attack: sliding. While playing these games back to back it's clear how much of an improvement it is to add even one new mechanic to Crash's repertoire. On the other hand Crash 2 also introduces some jetpack levels which, much like the entire first game, feel like an experiment in 3D game design that comes across as awkward and stiff today. But overall Crash 2 offers a more satisfying and diverse platformer adventure compared to the first game. The third game, Crash Bandicoot: Warped, is when Crash really hits his stride. The basic gameplay premise is the same as the first two (linear platformer levels that often have Crash running into the foreground or background) but the gameplay feels much more polished and, frankly, easier. But the lower difficulty is in part due to improvements to the game's mechanics. Crash moves more fluidly so it's easier to dodge obstacles. The level design is more varied and engaging, including race levels and flying levels. Over the course of the game Crash gains several new abilities, not all of which are always useful (and one of which, the gun, actually makes the game much, much easier) but the variety makes the gameplay feel more exciting from start to finish. There are fewer challenges that require super precise jumps and a lot more enemies that just stand around as obstacles rather than actively attack you, but even if the difficulty is toned down the gameplay is much more enjoyable. Each game contains around 25 levels, but to complete the games fully there's actually a lot of bonus material to cover. In each level of each game there are a number of crates you can break and, if you break all of the crates in a level, you'll be rewarded with a gem. You can also earn a gem from completing alternate paths within levels, which are unlocked by collecting gems in previous levels. In short, there's more replay value here than just blazing through each level once, and collecting every gem unlocks the true ending in each game—a fine reward for completionists. Gathering gems can be pretty tedious, especially in the first game, but it does give you more of a goal than just completing each game once. And finally there is a time trial mode to further pad out the games. There may only be a little over two dozen levels in each game but if you try to do everything you'll have plenty of Crash action here. Naturally this remastered trilogy comes with updated graphics and music, including cutscenes with voice actors from the more recent Crash games. Some of the level design still looks quite dated, which is more a product of the linear structure of each level, but overall the graphics look great on the Switch. The unique style of the Crash games is perfectly preserved while updating the artwork to something that feels more at home on a modern system. The updated music is well done as well, and has the right blend of atmospheric melodies and upbeat action. Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy is a bit of a mixed bag. With the remaster of the first game, this trilogy proves that some games are better off left in the past, when repetitive level design and clunky controls might have been less noticeable thanks to the purely new appeal of 3D platformers. The other two games, however, are far less dated, and even if some of their mechanics still feel notably old-fashioned they're still enjoyable platformers today, particularly Warped. Nostalgic fans may love all three equally but new players might only enjoy the third game, making even the budget price on this trilogy a bit of a stretch. Rating: 7 out of 10 Wumpa Fruits
  5. There was a twelve year gap until we saw a sequel to the offbeat GameCube launch title that put Luigi in the hero's seat instead of his brother, and now it's only taken six years to get a third installment. Hopefully that means another entry will be released even faster, because Luigi's Mansion 3 is another charming adventure of ghost-bustin' and puzzle-solvin' with our favorite green-clad plumber. A few new features put a fresh spin on Luigi's frightful expedition, though some minor issues have a way of draining some of the life out of the adventure. As the game begins, Luigi and friends are traveling to an opulent hotel where they've been invited to stay as VIP guests. You'd think Luigi would be a little suspicious of this kind of invitation at this point, but no, he's happy to make the bus ride (with an arguably dangerously short Toad at the wheel). It's not long after they've checked into their rooms that the facade fades and the ghosts of The Last Resort make their nefarious intentions clear, trapping Mario, Peach, and three Toads inside paintings with only Luigi able to save them. The game really doesn't try to do anything fresh or surprising with its premise, but ultimately that's okay because there's still a ton of charm and personality to enjoy here. It's not a cutscene heavy game but just seeing the ghosts living their best afterlives in one silly room after another is pretty delightful. And it's the kind of spooky setting that is mostly just cute and fun rather than bone-chilling, which feels perfect for Luigi's scaredy-cat adventure. It doesn't take long for Luigi to equip himself with a new model of Poltergust (by the way, Professor E Gadd has been caught in this ghoulish trap as well), and from there the gameplay is classic Luigi's Mansion. The Poltergust allows Luigi to suck up ghosts—after stunning them with his flashlight—and clear a path for himself to explore every floor of the hotel. For better and for worse, the combat system is largely unchanged from past games as catching ghosts is once again a bit of an unwieldy rodeo match as you try to hold on to a ghost without it breaking free. The controls make this a little slippery but it's never too difficult to wrangle a wraith. However, Luigi's Mansion 3 introduces an invaluable new move: the slam. Once Luigi has a hold on a ghost he can slam it into the ground for a nice burst of damage, even damaging nearby ghosts as well. Slamming can deal so much damage that it almost seems to make the game too easy, but on the other hand, ghost-catching can be so tedious that having a quick way of draining ghosts' health is more than welcome. In fact, even with the powerful slam at your disposal, combat can feel mindless at times. There are only a handful of different types of ghosts—though there are also unique challenges when ghosts are carrying shields or avoiding your flashlight—and ultimately catching ghosts is kind of a drag. By the end of the game it just feels like busywork rather than an engaging challenge. The boss fights, however, deliver some fantastic battles that are oftentimes just as much about puzzle-solving as they are about dodging attacks and getting your own hits in. There is a wonderful amount of variety in the bosses—including in their designs—and they almost always deliver a fun and even occasionally challenging match. Though there is one boss roughly halfway through the game that is a huge pain, and that comes mostly down to the game's tricky, somewhat imprecise controls. This fight in particular could have benefited from more precise Poltergust movement to make it less of an awkward chore. The other half of the gameplay comes down to puzzle-solving and exploration. Exploring the hotel is naturally broken up by whichever floor you're on, and each floor features a unique theme (including, somehow, a pyramid in the middle of this hotel? Granted, not the strangest concept in a Nintendo game). Creeping through ominous rooms and sucking up all of the valuables you can find is pretty consistently satisfying, though there are undeniably some sections of the game that feel like padding, e.g. retreading old rooms or just long, drawn out floor plans. Some floors also feel somewhat shortchanged while others drag on—the pacing easily could have been tightened up in parts. Luigi's Mansion 3 also introduces a couple of important mechanics to help you explore. The Suction Cup allows you to shoot out a plunger to help you pull down or destroy objects in the scenery; it's a useful tool that creates some simple but satisfying puzzle scenarios and serves as a good reminder to examine your surroundings carefully. The other major addition to Luigi's adventure is another Luigi entirely—or rather, a Gooigi. Gooigi can be brought in for some co-op gameplay but he's also required to solve a variety of puzzles, such as slipping through bars or grating that Luigi can't squeeze through. You can only control one character a time, but by swapping between the two you'll be able to overcome some unique obstacles. Gooigi seems like a rather silly addition at first—just making another Luigi feels suspiciously low-effort, developers—but his puzzle-solving and occasional combat uses will win you over. Luigi's Mansion 3 isn't a particularly long game, even with the blatant padding in some areas, and racing through the game without focusing on collecting optional gems or hunting down errant Boos will only last about ten hours. Overall it feels like a good length though, and the optional content for completionists helps give the game a bit more meat. Additionally, there are two multiplayer modes: the competitive ScreamPark mini-games and the co-operative ScareScraper that can also be played online. Neither of these side modes are likely to keep you too busy, but teaming up with friends in ScareScraper with objectives like rescuing all Toads can be a nice change of pace from the main game. The first thing that might stand out about the presentation in Luigi's Mansion 3 is the classic, cartoony style of all Mario games, but when you pay attention to the details you'll see that the game is truly gorgeous. There's a lot of technical polish here to make the shadows and lighting effects feel natural and believable, and the animation throughout the game is lovely. It's a shame that there isn't more variety in the basic ghosts you normally fight but there's no denying that their animation is beautifully expressive and charmingly goofy. The soundtrack is solid as well, though the stand out songs are a bit far between, mostly because the typical background audio is subdued and spooky. Luigi's Mansion 3 is a worthy continuation of Luigi's ghost-fighting adventures. It has the right mix of familiar mechanics and fresh features to keep the charm of the previous games while adding some welcome new abilities. Some unfortunate padding and the natural division of exploring one floor after another drags down the pacing of the game a bit, but players will no doubt still love helping Luigi face his fears and rescue Mario for a change. Rating: 8 out of 10 Ghosts
  6. The 2D platformer genre is such a mainstay of the video game world that seeing one as poorly done as Ghost Parade is honestly kind of shocking. The game's intriguing art style and promise of dozens of unique specters initially drew my attention, but it didn't take long for the game's appealing facade to crumble into a series of misguided or outright sloppy design choices. You play as Suri, a young girl who, after she misses the bus home, decides to try a shortcut through the forest, where she finds not just woodland creatures but entire villages of ghosts, ghouls, and apparitions. The ghosts are drawn from Indonesian mythology and folklore which makes for a pretty great source of spooky stories—the main story doesn't get too deep into the dark origins of its spectral characters but you can find a bit more information in the game's journal. Once Suri is over her initial shock of meeting actual ghosts, she learns that they have been trying to scare away humans in order to preserve their home against deforestation and reckless human destruction. The environmentalism plotline is certainly admirable, but it's told with all the subtlety of an after-school special. The writing could definitely have benefited from a few revisions to make it less boring and mechanical. Boring and mechanical is an apt description of the gameplay either. Ghost Parade is a 2D action/platformer with some light Metroidvania elements. Suri can attack with a fairly basic melee strike and call upon her ghost allies for unique abilities, and of course there's plenty of jumping over obstacles, climbing up vines, and some backtracking involved as well. Unfortunately, Ghost Parade struggles to make even the most basic controls feel comfortable or enjoyable. Suri's movements are incredibly floaty which can make some of the platforming elements horrendous. Even with a double jump to help correct your movements it is shockingly awkward to just jump on a platform, much less jump on one while avoiding fireballs and enemy attacks. Thankfully there are frequent checkpoints but that's just a bandage over a wound—actually fixing the game would require overhauling the core movements and animation. That loose, floaty feeling bleeds over into the combat as well, making it all to easy to miss an attack or fail to avoid an enemy's. You can also easily get stunlocked by enemies which is always a pain to see—getting repeatedly juggled by fireballs because there are no invincibility frames and you can't break away with a dodge is beyond frustrating. Even when you're not pulling your hair out over enemies' juggling attacks, the combat in Ghost Parade just isn't fun. Suri's melee attacks are boringly simple while the ghost abilities add only a modest amount of variety. Bosses in particular are terribly tedious thanks to your limited attacks and the few opportunities bosses are even open to attacks. Some of the ghosts in this game must have died from boredom while trying to overcome the Sisyphean task of whittling away at these bosses. Ghost Parade is also plagued with minor design annoyances or other issues. Top of the list is the excessive load time—loading screens are not only long but frequent. Each region of the game is divided up into smaller screens which requires a loading screen, and every time you die (which will likely be quite a lot) you'll have to endure more loading. A not insignificant part of my playtime with Ghost Parade must have been devoted to staring at loading screens. Navigating the game's menus is also needlessly time-consuming, particularly opening the map which you'll probably be doing frequently since there's no mini-map in the game and you'll need to backtrack a few times to progress. For some reason the ghost menu, which allows you to change the ghosts in your current party, is not part of the main menu but is activated by pressing up on the D-pad—I know this sounds like a nitpicky complaint but it kind of exemplifies the odd design choices that make Ghost Parade feel unpolished and untested. The visuals are definitely a highlight of the game—at least at first. The strikingly colorful and unique designs of the ghosts are really beautiful and will certainly draw you in when you first start playing. But soon enough the repetitive environments and enemy designs, along with clumsy animation and an inconsistent frame rate, wears away the shine from Ghost Parade. You may end up cursing the ghosts' elaborate designs as well since they float around Suri and can be rather distracting when you're platforming. The soundtrack has a decently moody/atmospheric vibe for a mostly kid-friendly ghost story, but there's really not much notable about it either. Ghost Parade only takes seven or eight hours to finish but you'll feel every single minute of that playtime. If, for some reason, you do want to spend more time with the game, there are a few side quests and a few dozen ghosts that you can recruit, though experimenting with different ghosts in battle ultimately felt unrewarding thanks to the shallow combat mechanics. Ghost Parade feels like an earnest first draft that never should have been pushed to full release. The unique ghost designs drawn from Indonesian folklore is a great hook for a 2D adventure, but the game fails to deliver on even the most basic platforming mechanics which makes spending any amount of time with the game feel like a chore. Even fans of niche Switch titles will find little redeeming about this one. Rating: 3 out of 10 Ghosts
  7. After a brief and frankly ill-fated foray into the world of 3D platforming in Trine 3, the franchise is back to its 2.5D roots with Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince. The game once again reunites our three heroes for a beautifully designed and cleverly crafted bit of puzzle-platforming, alongside a few welcome minor improvements to the formula, resulting in yet another must-play side-scrolling adventure on the Switch. The game begins with a brief introduction to each character and their unique abilities as they've been summoned by the Astral Academy for help. Prince Selius has wreaked havoc at the academy thanks to his unchecked magical ability to bring nightmares to life, so now Amadeus the Wizard, Pontius the Knight, and Zoya the Thief are tasked with working together to find the prince before his shadow creations destroy the world. The story itself is rather simple, though not without its charms. The best part of the writing though is in the little moments of banter among the three heroes. It's nothing too elaborate but it's just fun to see these characters interact, especially given their wildly different personalities. Like the first two Trine games, Trine 4 is a 2.5D puzzle-platformer: your journey to the end of each stage is impeded by all manner of puzzles that require one or more of our heroes' abilities to progress. Each character has unique attributes that can be used to solve puzzles, hit switches, or cross gaps. Amadeus is able to conjure boxes to stand on or weigh down switches, Zoya has a bow and arrow as well as a grappling hook, and Pontius's sword and shield are ideal for breaking things or blocking hazards. The core interaction and combination of these three characters is largely unchanged from the original game, and with good reason: combining these three characters/playstyles provides for a seemingly endless offering of clever, engaging puzzles. The variety of approaches is really what gives the Trine series its addictive depth. To cross a gap you might just swing across with Zoya's grappling hook, or you might need to carefully place a box to give yourself just the right leg up to reach the ledge (Pontius is by far the least mobile character but he still has his moments to shine as well). It really is a blast to be able to put each character's abilities to use in unique and novel ways, and to discover those methods on your own. And Trine 4 continues to come up with clever puzzles and obstacles to challenge your puzzle-solving skills, because the solution to crossing a gap is rarely as simple as "swing over it on a grappling hook." The developers have done a fantastic job of coming up with new and exciting challenges for this game, largely drawn from the variety of additional skills each hero gradually unlocks over the course of the game. Zoya, for example, can imbue her arrows with fire or ice to trigger a heat-activated switch or freeze a moving platform in place, while Pontius gains the ability to gently glide down with his shield (I told you he gets his moments). Trine 4 never lets you rest on your successes because there'll always be a new, unique puzzle just up ahead that challenges you to think outside of the box and put each of the three characters' abilities to their full use, oftentimes in unexpected physics-based solutions. It's incredibly satisfying to cross one hurdle after another and ensures you're never bored or complacent while playing. Additionally, multiplayer has always been a key part of the Trine series, and Trine 4 introduces some welcome changes in that regard. For one thing, you can play in either classic mode or unlimited mode. In classic, three players take control of one character each, bu in unlimited, each player is able to freely swap among the three heroes (though technically there is still only one Amadeus, one Zoya, and one Pontius—the others are generic, nameless characters with the same abilities). It's a really nice quality of life change to allow all players to experience everything each character has to offer, plus it allows for even crazier puzzle-solving scenarios when you have three wizards all conjuring boxes. You might think that this would trivialize the difficulty, but the developers are one step ahead of you: the puzzles actually change whether you're playing solo or in multiplayer. Puzzles become more complicated and require teamwork when there are more players, which is a great way of ensuring all players have to work together (not to mention adding some nice replay value). Trine 4 also features both local and online co-op, though the best experience is arguably local co-op—it just feels more natural to work through puzzles with a friend sitting beside you rather than online. Either way though, the dynamic puzzle design makes replaying the game with others worthwhile. The one area where Trine 4 doesn't quite shine is in combat. Occasionally you'll need to fend off the nightmare beasts running loose in the world and these battle screens can get pretty repetitive pretty quickly. It certainly doesn't help that combat feels almost exclusively like a Pontius job. It's satisfying to shoot arrows as Zoya but the slow draw speed means its a bit impractical during hectic fights, and although Amadeus can technically drop boxes on monsters' heads it's an even slower and less practical combat solution. So oftentimes you'll just use Pontius, which makes combat a bit dull. It would have been great to see the same creativity that went into the puzzle design put toward combat as well. Trine's visual aesthetic hasn't changed much over the years, and it remains absolutely gorgeous. The ten years of difference between the first and fourth games means there's far more detail and technical polish in Trine 4, but the style is just as captivating with a beautiful use of color to make every map feel magical and ethereal. There's so much detail in the scenery that you won't even mind getting stumped by a puzzle when you get to have a moment to just drink in the graphics. The music also does a great job of giving the game a magical adventure vibe, though it's frankly a bit overshadowed by the visual design. The game is a good 10–12 hours long depending on your puzzle-solving skills as well as your interest in collectibles. Each stage is packed with pink gems that can be used to upgrade each characters' abilities, plus there are three collectibles in every stage as well. Collecting everything is no simple task since you'll have to carefully scour the scenery to find hidden nooks and crannies, but putting that extra effort in is a fun way of extending your time with Trine 4. Fans of the first two Trine games should be delighted to find that developer Frozenbyte hasn't lost a step when it comes to gorgeous and clever 2.5D puzzle-platforming. Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince is a delightful return to form, one that carries on the spirit of the franchise while making some small but valuable adjustments to the multiplayer experience. Even if you're new to the series, Trine 4 promises top-notch side-scrolling gameplay from start to finish. Rating: 8 out of 10 Puzzles
  8. From the minds behind Slain: Back from Hell comes another heavy-metal-inspired action game, this time mixing swords and guns in a space setting—though still with plenty of blood, skulls, and brutal combat. Some unique ideas help distinguish Valfaris from similar games, but the intense difficulty may reserve this adventure only for the hardest of the hardcore. The fortress of Valfaris mysteriously disappeared from galactic charts and then just as mysteriously reappeared orbiting a dead star, prompting our protagonist, Therion, to explore the fortress and find his father. The game has such a habit of introducing characters or story concepts so casually that I worried there was some lore-filled cutscene that I had somehow missed, but the reality is the story in Valfaris is merely window dressing to the action. It's nice to have some context as to why you're shooting this latest giant monster in the face, but you don't really need to know, and the short introduction to bosses and locations adds little to the experience. Like Slain before it, Valfaris draws inspiration from classic side-scrolling action games, including their punishing sense of difficulty. With both guns and a sword you'll fight your way through hordes of monsters and bosses, and thanks to a fairly small pool of health (and no way to heal yourself outside of hoping for random health drops from enemies), any little mistake on your part will be punished harshly. Enemy attacks and hazards are completely unforgiving, and often you'll have to die and retry before you even understand what you're supposed to do to progress. Since there is no dodge or dash ability it's frustratingly easy to simply get caught repeatedly in enemy attacks, especially particularly large melee swings. The brutal sense of difficulty can be exhausting, though hardcore fans might appreciate the no-nonsense challenge. However, Valfaris does feature frequent checkpoints that alleviate some of the frustration, though there's a unique twist here. In order to activate checkpoints you'll need to use a resurrection idol, which you'll find while playing at a pretty regular rate—typically one idol per checkpoint. The catch is that the more resurrection idols you're holding, the higher your max health and energy are, so there's a bit of a risk/reward in how you use your idols. Do you want to have a handy checkpoint in case you die up ahead? Or do you want to risk going back all the way to the last checkpoint, but with a bit more health to work with? Without knowing what lies ahead—but knowing that death comes easily in Valfaris—it can be a tricky bit of strategy and calculated risks to use your idols effectively. Therion comes equipped with guns, swords, and special heavy guns (which require energy to use), but there's a unique connection between his weapons beyond merely using guns for distance and swords for melee. Killing enemies with a sword strike generates energy which can then be used to fuel heavy guns or your shield, so to make the most of your weapons you have to be able to seamlessly transition between all of them, spending and regenerating energy efficiently. It's a little tricky at first but it's certainly satisfying to find a rhythm of using your different weapons without leaving yourself open to enemy attacks. Valfaris isn't a Metroidvania—it's entirely linear, more like classic Castlevania—but there are still quite a few secrets to uncover. A hidden area might reward you with an idol or you might find a new weapon entirely, or blood metal which is required to upgrade weapons. Even with frequent deaths and retries Valfaris is not a particularly long game, maybe six or seven hours, so trying out different weapons helps add some replay value. Heavy metal is once again the key artistic inspiration for the game. The art style feels ripped straight from a metal album cover, in good and bad ways. There's no denying there's a certain appeal to the crumbling, alien scenery dripping with blood and viscera, though it can also feel a bit overdone at times with too many busy elements competing for your eye when you just need to dodge enemy attacks. The headbanging soundtrack fuels your adventure through these hellish environments, and if nothing else will get your blood pumping for another attempt against the game's fiendish challenges and bosses. Valfaris shows some marked improvements over Slain by mixing up the gameplay with a satisfying blend of weapon styles that play off of one another. The lack of a dodge ability makes the already punishing difficulty even harder to stomach, but fans of extra-difficult action games may enjoy mastering the ins and outs of Valfaris's combat system. Rating: 6 out of 10
  9. Despite a somewhat tumultuous publishing history, the Darksiders franchise is still going strong with the latest entry, Darksiders Genesis, now available on the Switch. Taking place before the events of the previous three games, Genesis features the fourth Horseman, Strife, teaming up with War to settle some unrest stirring in Hell. Like every other Darksiders game, Genesis takes clear inspiration from other video game franchises—in this case Diablo—but still manages to create a unique, addictive, and action-packed adventure. In sharp contrast to any of the other Horsemen, Strife is something of a wise-cracking jokester—though anyone paired up with War's dour demeanor probably can't help but come off as light-hearted. The duo makes for a classic odd-couple adventure, one that never reaches the dire seriousness of the previous Darksiders games but still reflects the personality and lore of the series. It's a delicate balance to maintain but the developers have done a great job of fleshing out Strife's personality (and a bit of War's as well) while keeping the overarching universe of Darksiders just as fascinating and engaging. The actual plot of Genesis mostly just sees Strife and War sent on a series of errands as they investigate demonic plots, which can get a little tiresome and at times a bit disjointed, but overall it's still a hell of a ride. The Diablo influence isn't hard to spot: Genesis is an action game played from a top-down camera perspective, and naturally both series are filled with demons to fight. Genesis is far from derivative, though, with more emphasis on combat and exploration than looting. You play as either Strife or War, each of whom has unique skills for fighting and puzzle-solving: you'll either blast monsters apart with Strife's guns or slash into them with War's sword, neither of which ever seems to get old. The combat system isn't too complicated but still manages to be satisfyingly visceral—you really get to feel like a super-powered demon killing machine. Both Horsemen earn new abilities through the game to keep combat feeling fresh, and having that potential for different approaches (such as using different bullets in Strife's guns) adds a nice degree of customization and experimentation. Perhaps most satisfying is the burst ability which will trigger after you take down several enemies at once, boosting your power for a limited time. There may not be that many different types of enemies in the game, but it's always entertaining to plow through them with powerful abilities. The game also rather cleverly justifies the grind of fighting the same types of enemies over and over with the Creature Core system. Defeated enemies will sometimes drop a Creature Core, which you can then equip to augment Strife and War's abilities (often these are flat bonuses such as increased health or attack power, but sometimes they grant unique bonuses like leaving a trail of fire when you dodge). Collecting multiple cores of the same creature will increase their power, and then you have to find room to equip them in your Creature Core menu in order to maximize their effectiveness. It feels a tiny bit nitty-gritty-RPG-detaily for an action-heavy game like Genesis, but the end result is an engaging bit of RNG-driven character grinding that rewards you for always taking the time to defeat every demon you can and customizing your bonuses to your preference. Strife and War also gain a variety of puzzle-solving abilities throughout the course of the game, which also allow you to reach new areas and suss out more secrets in the environment. There are only a handful of these puzzle-focused items and skills but they're put to good use; you won't find too many brain-stumpers when you're just trying to reach the end of the level, but if you want to be a completionist and collect all of the items and upgrades hidden in each level you'll need to be thorough and thoughtful to reach them all. The light puzzle-solving/platforming aspect of Genesis helps break up the gameplay and prevent the demon slaughter from feeling too exhausting. It's also worth noting that it's just great to see another solid co-op focused game. Whether you're playing locally or online, bringing a friend along can add a nice element of camaraderie that reflects Strife and War's unlikely bond. Of course the game can also be played solo and there's nothing lost by doing so—you can swap between the two Horsemen at any time to try a new combat approach or solve a puzzle—but the emphasis on co-op is great to see. Genesis does suffer from a few technical problems though, which are generally only exacerbated in co-op (and especially online co-op). For one thing, the load times are a bit too long. The environments in each level can be fairly big, granted, but the loading times still weigh on the game, especially if you ever have to go in and out of a building repeatedly. Secondly, the frame rate and resolution really aren't doing justice to the art style of the game. Semi-frequent FPS drops can be a real bummer to see, and they're only more common when there's a lot happening on screen—e.g., you're really letting loose on a whole horde of demons. Finally there are some unfortunate buggy moments in the game, ranging from getting stuck in a wall and having to reload the last checkpoint (which are thankfully pretty frequent at least) to, oddly, dialogue being repeated or seemingly shown out of order. Many of these problems could be touched up in future patches, but they're still obnoxious to see now. Although the format has changed a bit the aesthetic of Genesis is still undeniably Darksiders, meaning lots of intricate demon designs that are, in a word, badass. Unfortunately this game doesn't have as many opportunities to truly show off the stylized artwork—especially if the frame rate is dipping or the resolution starts looking a little muddy—so although the game still looks good it certainly doesn't have the same "wow" factor. The soundtrack at least lives up to Darksiders' history of dramatic, engaging background music, and the voice work is a lot of fun to hear, especially from returning characters. The game clocks in at a solid fifteen hours or so; you could probably rush through the game more quickly, but since part of the game's charm is exploring and figuring out how to reach distant collectibles/upgrades you'd really be doing a disservice to yourself. Genesis also has an arena mode that can be useful to practice your combat skills and earn extra money (which, in the world of Darksiders, means souls), plus there are multiple difficulty levels you could tackle, so there's a good amount of content available if you like being thorough. Darksiders Genesis does an excellent job of translating the franchise's love of hack-and-slash combat into a co-op, top-down action/adventure. Satisfying combat options and engaging exploration mechanics make for an addictive experience, one that is only enhanced by having a friend along for the ride. The game's unfortunate lack of technical polish brings the experience down a bit, but fans of the series will still love saddling up with the fourth Horseman and once again raining down carnage on demonic hordes. Rating: 7 out of 10 Demons
  10. Two years ago, developer Clockstone and publisher Headup Games brought Bridge Constructor Portal to the Switch, delivering a challenging and clever physics-based puzzle game infused with the wit of the Portal series. Now Switch owners have a chance to see where the franchise began with Bridge Constructor Ultimate Edition, the original game in the franchise that first released nearly a decade ago. Though simpler in scope compared to its Portal-partnered sequel, the original Bridge Constructor has weathered the test of time admirably. On the island nation of Camatuga, a devastating earthquake has destroyed every bridge on every island. Your job is to build new ones that can hold together and withstand vehicle traffic. You lay down individual parts of the bridge using clearly demarcated anchor points and reinforce them with real-world physics practices—an early-game hint lets you know that triangles make useful, sturdy structures. To pass a level you'll need to ensure two test cars can make it across, but to earn a higher score you can use heavier trucks for the test crossing, though obviously that means more stress on your bridge creation. To make things a little more complicated, you're given a limited budget and must manage your resources carefully—no needless construction spending on Camatuga. Building bridges that can remain standing under their own weight as well as the weight of test cars gets tricky pretty quickly, and that's where the real heart of Bridge Constructor's appeal lies: meticulously crafting and adjusting your bridges to ensure maximum strength for minimal cost. Bridge Constructor scratches the same itch as playing with LEGOs as a kid, with the added benefit of giving you a goal and score for each level. It's almost meditative; like most puzzle games it's easy to just while away an afternoon by zoning out with the game. And even though you'll be crossing your fingers every time you run a test across one of your slipshod constructions, part of the game's fun is in seeing the ridiculous mess that ensues when your bridge can't handle the strain. The game's physics engine teeters on a nicely balanced edge between realism and cartoonish exaggeration, so it's realistic when a poorly built bridge fails to stand, but the wild ragdoll physics when cars and pieces of bridge shatter adds a pretty funny visual reward even when you fail. As later levels get increasingly more complicated, there are even more opportunities to fail in chaotic, unexpected ways. And the level of difficulty definitely jumps at times, especially since there's little hand-holding as you figure out what kinds of best practices are necessary for longer bridges, but the game's low sense of punishment and relaxed tone makes it easy to simply dust yourself off and try again. What makes this the Ultimate Edition is the inclusion of both DLC expansions. In addition to the 40 levels in the main game—which can be finished fairly quickly if you're good at such physics puzzles, though there's always the opportunity to perfect your score by using as few materials as possible—this version also includes SlopeMania and the Trains DLC. As their names suggest these expansions put new twists on the Bridge Constructor formula. With slopes, you have entirely new consideration to keep in mind as angles and momentum might disrupt your carefully crafted blueprints. With trains, there's a greater weight and strain on the bridge and you can't just get by with a wish and a prayer. Both are excellent additions that offer fun new challenges to tear your hair out over. Bridge Constructor also features three seasonal themed expansions (based on Christmas, Easter, and Halloween) but these are only available during specific times of year, so you'll have to catch them at the right time to try them. For the Switch version of the game you have two options when it comes to the controls: a controller or the touch screen. A touch interface might seem like a natural fit for a construction/builder game, and it certainly makes some things faster such as menu navigation, but in the end I found it slower and more awkward than just using a controller. Your finger can't help but cover part of the screen if you're playing like this, and it makes little errors too easy to make. Using a controller actually works perfectly well, and since there aren't too many construction options (and obviously no pressing time limit while you're playing) nothing is lost with the controller. As the Ultimate Edition though it is perhaps only fair that both options are available at all times. What isn't quite ultimate is the game's presentation, as the graphics and audio seem to have survived largely unchanged from the original 2011 release, but then again Bridge Constructor is fundamentally a puzzle game, and elaborate visuals or music are probably unnecessary. Bridge Constructor Ultimate Edition is a charming addition to the Switch's library of chill puzzle games that you can relax to, even when your brain is working overtime to find a solution. It might be a little hard to go back to a more simple entry in the franchise if you've played the more recent titles in the series, but there's also a certain appeal to its straightforward approach. With both DLC expansions you also have plenty of challenges to enjoy, whether it's from the satisfaction of a job well done or the dark delight in watching a bridge implode on itself. Rating: 7 out of 10 Bridges Review copy provided by publisher Bridge Constructor Ultimate Edition is available now on the Switch eShop for $14.99.
  11. After missing the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, Mario and Sonic are back, perhaps appropriately as the Olympics return to Japan. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 reunites all the familiar faces of both game franchises in another mini-game-packed competition. Like most Mario sports games or mini-game compilations, the crux of the gameplay experience is unchanged here: the local multiplayer options are going to make or break your enjoyment of the game. If, for some reason, you're looking to play Tokyo 2020 purely for the single-player experience, you might be pleased to learn there is an actual story mode. While Mario and Sonic are enjoying the Olympic games, Bowser and Eggman team up to meddle, which leads to all four of them (plus Toad) being trapped inside a video game based on the 1964 Olympic games, also held in Tokyo. Most people probably wouldn't expect much from the story mode of a mini-game compilation like this and…well, you'd be right, but the way the story weaves together the modern Olympic games and the 1964 ones is a fun concept. One of the most interesting aspects of the whole game ends up being the little bits of trivia you can uncover about the Olympics, like learning when Judo was introduced as an Olympic event. Tokyo 2020 also intertwines these fun facts with bits about the Mario and Sonic franchises, so it's a little awkward to go from learning about sports history to learning how many polka dots are on Toadette's head, but overall it's still a fun inclusion. Otherwise the story plays out pretty much as you'd expect, and in a rather disappointingly slow, plodding way (characters will often repeat something you just heard another character say, which really makes these dialogue scenes drag). The story only takes about five hours to get through and it still feels too long and slow. Still, having a story mode at all—and with Olympic trivia—is a nice addition. Tokyo 2020 features an impressive 34 events to partake in. That includes 21 3D events, 3 dream events (which aren't based on Olympic games and have more typical "video game" features like power-ups and obstacles) and 10 2D events that take place in the 1964 Tokyo games. Including a "retro" mode with Tokyo 1964 is a pretty cute concept: seeing 8-bit Mario competing alongside 16-bit Sonic is a mash-up I didn't realize I wanted. With 34 events total there's also a great variety available—some standard events are included like the 100m dash or hurdles, but then there are unique new additions like skateboarding or sport climbing. If you're playing with friends, it feels like there's enough variety that everyone will find an event to excel at (and gloat about). However, the downside to featuring so many events is the need to meticulously explain the controls for each and every one. Moreso than other mini-game compilations like Mario Party, it feels like the controls in Tokyo 2020 aren't particularly intuitive and are maybe a little too complex to grasp in the short amount of time an event typically lasts. The game is also downright bad at introducing and explaining the controls at times. When you first start an event you'll be given a quick rundown of how the basic controls work, but oftentimes there are important advanced controls that aren't explained unless you check the controls in each event. Obviously Tokyo 2020 is a game meant to be played over and over anyway so this is really just part of the learning curve, but it still would've been nice to have better introductions to events. Some of the complexity may even turn off new players in a multiplayer match. The issue with the controls only gets more complicated when you add in motion controls. First I should reassure anyone that dislikes motion controls that every event can be played with standard button controls. However many events also include motion control options with either a single or dual Joy-Cons. The result is mixed at best—there's definitely a novelty to using motion controls to pull back a bowstring or row a canoe, but button controls always felt more comfortable and more precise (not to mention less exhausting). As is often the case in a game like this, motion control is a novelty that you probably won't return to often. There's also the issue that the loading screens are just a little bit too long—not excessively so, but when events take only seconds to complete, a three second loading screen ends up feeling disproportionately long. And it definitely doesn't help that Tokyo 2020 doesn't include any kind of tournament mode to play through several events at once. Instead you simply pick one event, play, then repeat or go back to the selection screen. You end up wasting a lot of time on selection screens in the game, which doesn't foster a great "party game" atmosphere. Depending on your preferences, this next point might be a positive or negative: there's very little to unlock in Tokyo 2020. That means that pretty much everything the game has to offer is available right from the start, but players that enjoy that sense of progression won't have much to latch onto here. Aside from some bonus mini-games unlocked by playing the story, the only other things to unlock are bonus characters for specific events. Although the main roster can compete in any event, specific events might have a guest character available, such as Rosalina who is only able to compete in surfing. It's a little weird to restrict certain characters to certain events, but at least it gives them some opportunity to compete, even if it's a limited one. In addition to local multiplayer, Tokyo 2020 can also be played online. At the time of this writing though I'll say that the online community is pretty meager. You can play in either ranked or casual matches, but in both cases it was hard to find an opponent. The best option for playing online may just be to coordinate with a friend first. The presentation of Tokyo 2020 is typical Mario sports game quality: it's clean and colorful and not particularly exciting, but it all looks good. There simply isn't much opportunity for flashy visuals in a game about Olympic events—especially one that draws from realworld Tokyo locations for backgrounds—so the graphics never feel particularly noteworthy, aside from the aforementioned retro look for Tokyo 1964. The soundtrack is pretty decent as well but ultimately doesn't have many standout tracks either; the presentation in Tokyo 2020 is good but unexciting. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is a fun return to the competition between these two titans of the video game world, though it's not without its issues. It's not a surprise that the game caters to the multiplayer experience, but some small annoying quirks can make casual game sessions a little more complicated than they need to be, while the online community is simply lacking. Still, the variety of events offers a little something for everyone, even if the game's staying power is questionable. Rating: 6 out of 10 Events
  12. Childhood adventure certainly isn't a new theme for game design, but it's not often you see it done so stylishly and sincerely. Knights and Bikes from developer Foam Sword and publisher Double Fine is a co-op adventure starring two young girls searching for treasure buried underneath an unassuming British island. The quest pits them against ancient curses and the disinterest of local residents, but charming co-op game design, stunning artwork, and a heartfelt story await brave adventurers on the Switch. Also there's a goose. Knights and Bikes opens by throwing you right into the action as our two protagonists, Demelza and Nessa, are careening down a hill on their bikes. The game then jumps back to a few days prior to show Nessa arriving on Penfurzy Island, where Demelza lives with her father. The two girls quickly strike up a friendship and join forces to uncover the mythical treasure of Penfurzy, said to be left there by medieval knights. The developers have cited The Goonies as a major inspiration for the game and it's not hard to see: Knights and Bikes has the same sense of childhood adventure, bound together by the sweet and heartfelt bond between the girls. Because while the adventure is cute and goofy in the way a child's idea of a treasure hunt is, the real heart of the game comes from the girls' friendship and their tumultuous adolescent emotions, which is everything you'd expect it to be: sweet, melancholy, and touching enough to stick with you long after finishing the game. What stands out immediately about Knights and Bikes is its striking, chaotic art style. It's 2D artwork in a 3D environment in the style of children's artwork—i.e. pastels, paints, and chalk—filled with bizarre shapes and angles that bursts with personality and imagination, sometimes literally when the characters' ideas are manifested in the world as scratchy child drawings. It creates beautiful screenshots of this charmingly odd little island, but the real icing on the cake is seeing the game in action. The animation of the girls is in constant motion—a perfect representation of the boundless energy of childhood as the pair eagerly sets off on their treasure hunting adventure. It's fantastic to see the art style and animation reinforce the personalities of the characters and their child's-eye view of the world so perfectly. The music also deserves major credit for developing this atmosphere of childhood adventure, and more specifically an 80s childhood adventure. In addition to an excellent opening song that encapsulates the young 80s punk spirit, the sound design throughout the game is subtle but impactful where it counts. Although there are plenty of local co-op games (arguably not enough, but that's a different discussion), many of them end up integrating the second player in a simple, supporting role, like an assistant to the main player. Knights and Bikes, however, is fully made for co-op adventuring. Each player can control one of the girls and there's a heavy emphasis on cooperation throughout the game. Demelza and Nessa have slightly different abilities—in the form of weapons/items—so to solve puzzles or overcome obstacles the two have to work together. For example, Demelza has boots that allow her to stomp on the ground, while Nessa has a flying disc to hit distant objects, and both might be needed to unlock a gate. It's a lot of fun to see this kind of co-op experience be so central to the game and reinforce the theme of friendship. Don't worry though if you don't have someone to play with: Knights and Bikes is also completely playable solo as the AI simply takes over for the other character. You're even able to swap between the two girls to explore everything the game has to offer. The AI is also pretty good at proactively approaching obstacles or enemies so thankfully it never feels like dead weight. The game is really meant to be played with two players though, so if possible it's worth setting up a game day with a friend and sharing the adventure with someone. The adventure itself also errs on the easy side. Puzzles are never too complex, and combat is basic but fairly undemanding. That's not necessarily a negative though. Knights and Bikes is more about the sense of childhood adventure and camaraderie than challenging the player with complicated traps and hazards. The puzzle design may be somewhat simple but the adventure itself is undeniably charming. And I have to point out that the girls heal themselves by high-fiving each other—it's distressingly rare for games to recognize the healing power of high fives, so I commend Knights and Bikes for making it an integral part of the game. After all, how many games have a dedicated high five button? Knights and Bikes lasts a comfortable eight hours or so—not too long, but not too short either. It's long enough for the game's themes to have a satisfying weight to them and for a good variety of puzzles that don't grow stale. There's not a ton of replay value, but each region of the game has a number of hidden treasure boxes for you to find. Boxes hold valuable trinkets such as half-broken figurines, bugs, or bread bag ties—the kinds of things kids would treasure—which can be used to buy cosmetics for your bikes. Treasure is also abundantly found everywhere in the game, including dropped from enemies, so hunting treasure boxes is really more of a pursuit for completionists. I will note that the game suffered from some minor technical problems while I was playing. At one point the frame rate stuttered and dropped noticeably, and in another instance the visuals on the screen became stuck no matter how I moved the characters. Thankfully Knights and Bikes uses an autosave system that refreshes pretty frequently, so these problems were easily fixed by reloading the last checkpoint and losing, at most, a minute of time. Knights and Bikes is a lovingly crafted ode to childhood adventure, and perhaps a good reminder that such adventures aren't just for kids. Wandering around quirky locations and imagining them as grand fantasy structures alongside your best friend makes for an utterly charming co-op game, one that beautifully blends its story, gameplay, and audio/visual design into a clever, imaginative, and heartfelt experience. The chance to play a solid co-op game should be reason enough to pick up Knights and Bikes, but the fact that it's so well crafted will keep you hooked and pedaling. Rating: 8 out of 10 Bikes Review copy provided by publisher Knights and Bikes is available now on the Switch eShop for $19.99.
  13. Released in 2018, arguably past the point where toys-to-life games were popular, Starlink: Battle for Atlas had an uphill battle from the start. Needing to separately purchase ships, weapons, and pilots is a big sell, even if manually swapping out your ship's weapons has a unique charm to it. But what Starlink did have on its side—for the Switch version—was a Star Fox tie-in that incorporated Nintendo's familiar space-faring heroes into the game's original story. Even if it's not technically a Star Fox game, Nintendo fans will likely appreciate seeing Fox, Falco, Peppy, and Slippy explore planets and dogfight in space. The story takes place in the Atlas system where your interstellar ship, the Equinox, is attacked by the Forgotten Legion. The Legion and their leader, Grax, are obsessed with the ancient technology left behind by the extinct species known as the Wardens, and are trying to use the long dormant technology for their own nefarious purposes. It's up to you to stop them by traveling to all seven planets in the Atlas system and rallying the residents to fight back. In the Switch version, the Star Fox team also gets involved when they're pursuit of Wolf leads them to the Atlas system. The main plot is a decent space-adventure story, though it feels a little derivative of other well known sci-fi games. Putting aside such comparisons though, the story is a cute if forgettable yarn about good and evil battling it out. The Star Fox side story will be more interesting to Nintendo fans, and although it really is only a small string of side quests in Starlink it's a lot of fun to see Fox square off against Wolf again. Let's address the elephant in the room right now: Starlink was created around the idea that players could buy a variety of toys in order to swap out different ships, pilots, and weapons at will. Although you can purchase these items digitally instead of physically, you do need to buy them to use in-game as there's no way to unlock them just by playing. Purchasing all of these add-ons (plus the main game) represents a significant investment. It's kind of a lame business model—for the player at least—but thankfully it is entirely possible to beat the game with just the basic starter kit. You won't have access to all of the different weapon types, but the game is still playable and enjoyable with only the basics (though having extra ships essentially serves as extra lives if you're ever shot down, so there's a definite benefit to having several). Personally I found myself occasionally wishing I could try different ships to benefit from different tactics or abilities, but I was never compelled to actually buy them. Now on to the actual gameplay. Starlink is a third-person action-adventure game where you pick a pilot, a ship, and two weapons to battle Legion forces either in space or on the surface of planets. Flying into or out of a planet's atmosphere is pretty seamless and really nails the thrill of a space adventure like few other games. Between land-based battles and space dogfights, Starlink offers an intense but ultimately forgiving sense of combat difficulty. Your weapons have a cool down if they're fired too rapidly and there's no lock-on targeting, so you have to adeptly maneuver while keeping an eye on your weapons' energy gauges. The lack of lock-on targeting can make space dogfights a bit disorienting since enemy ships seem to move awfully fast, but these battles feel more natural the longer you play. On the other hand, your ship regenerates health outside of combat, so if you're ever too overwhelmed you can simply retreat, recharge, and try again. The game ends up feeling pretty well balanced and satisfying, making it nicely accessible to any level of player. Though if you do want more of a challenge there are different difficulty levels to try and, since there are light RPG elements in terms of pilot experience level, you can try to keep yourself underleveled to keep things challenging. Outside of combat, the real focus of Starlink is open-world game design. Each planet in the Atlas system is packed with locations and small objectives to conquer, all of which reward you with currency or ship modifications that can bolster your attack or defense. Ubisoft's trademark game design is on full display here: every time you enter a new area (or in this case, a new planet), your map will be filled with minor tasks you can tackle to tick your way to 100% completion. It's great that there's so much to do on each planet but Starlink rather despearately lacks variety. There are only four or five variations of side missions repeated hundreds of times throughout the game, and trying to complete them all seems more exhausting than entertaining. These are, of course, almost entirely optional objectives—you do need to complete a small percentage of them to progress the story—but still, it would have been nice to have side content that felt like more than padding. Starlink also features local drop-in/drop-out co-op (while in docked mode). Not that the game's difficulty ever really requires it, but having a wingman while flying around a dreadnought's defensive cannons in space or clearing out robotic enemies from a satellite array is a nice perk. Despite the split-screen the second player can never get too far away from the main player, but there's enough wiggle room that you don't feel completely tethered to one another. Whether in the depths of space or on the colorful surfaces of Atlas's worlds, the visuals are charmingly colorful while still making these alien environments unique and interesting. Granted, Starlink's art style is distinctly cartoony—its pilot designs and the flora/fauna of the planets feels suited to a summer kids film—but it works for the game. The soundtrack also plays it safe, though in this case a bit too much. The music ends up feeling somewhat generic throughout—not necessarily bad, but not memorable either. The Star Fox music that pops up during their missions however is a real treat for fans of the series. It's a shame that Starlink: Battle for Atlas was tied to the toys-to-life game banner, because even without all of the bells and whistles of multiple ships and weapons, there's an enjoyable space adventure here. Flying down to the surface of different planets and exploring is exciting, though the cookie-cutter approach to side quests and even the main story quests can make progress in the game feel more like a checklist than a journey of discovery. But for the Switch version at least, the presence of familiar Star Fox faces helps add value, and any excuse to jump back into the cockpit of an Arwing is a welcome one. Rating: 8 out of 10 Toy Ships
  14. From developer Double Dutch Games and publisher tinyBuild Games comes SpeedRunners, a fast-paced racing game that combines platformer elements with the chaos of multiplayer for one wild competition. Easy to pick up after a practice race or two, SpeedRunners is a charmingly frantic take on racing games, one that seems tailor made for a friendly (or competitive) party atmosphere. SpeedRunners is clearly a game built around multiplayer, but there is a short story mode that can help you practice leaving the competition in the dust. You play as Speed Runner, a sort of super hero, though his somewhat careless antics while saving the day seems to draw the ire of other costumed heroes, prompting them to challenge you to a variety of races. As far as storytelling is concerned this is incredibly short and basic, though the comic book presentation of backstories (unlocked after finishing each section of the story mode) does add some charm. The gameplay seems to pull inspiration from a number of directions, and the end result is surprisingly original and engaging. Up to four players race each other around a 2D side-scrolling arena where some precision is required to slip through narrow paths or leap over hazards, but more importantly you have to maintain your momentum and keep moving. Rather than simply racing to cross the finish line first, the goal is to continuously outpace your opponents as the screen's focus follows the player at the front of the pack and anyone lagging behind is in danger of getting knocked out. The stage continues to loop seamlessly until only one racer remains, at which point the eliminated players are brought back and the race begins again right from where it left off, which helps give SpeedRunners a feeling of always being in motion. To further put the pressure on (and ensure races don't last ridiculously long), the size of the screen will start to shrink as players are eliminated, pushing the players behind to move a little faster but also reducing visibility for the racer in the front. It's a clever way of ensuring the competition remains intense without unfairly punishing the players lagging behind, which also ensures there's always a chance for an upset win. Races are fairly short and snappy, which makes SpeedRunners a perfect party game. The controls are relatively easy to pick up—though fully mastering them can be a bit more of a challenge than it initially seems—and the quick, chaotic nature of the game makes it easy for everyone on the couch to get in on the action. Though if you do want to play more competitively, there's also enough depth to the gameplay to make serious races satisfying. SpeedRunners is really all about maintaining your momentum, even when you have to change direction rapidly, and mastering this takes some serious skill if the "unfair" difficulty setting is anything to go by. Aside from merely jumping or sliding to avoid obstacles, you'll need to master swinging on a grappling hook to maintain speed, which can be tricky in narrow spaces. There's also a speed burst ability that can be charged by passing over boosters in the stage, and saving these bursts of speed for strategically valuable moments takes some forethought. So although SpeedRunners functions excellently as a slightly wacky party game, serious racing game fans will find some depth to enjoy as well. And speaking of wacky party game elements, SpeedRunners also features items which, as all Mario Kart fans know, bring with them a delightful (and sometimes not so delightful) element of chaos. The items in this game feel pretty well balanced though—the hazards that other players will throw at you can all be dodged with careful timing, so it feels less like a random penalty and more like a punishment for not keeping an eye on the competition. Each item blends well with SpeedRunners' focus on momentum and precision, and of course they also make for some satisfying upsets even when the lead player is far ahead. The wild races of Speed Runner and his competitors take them through a variety of colorful locations, though ultimately the presentation of SpeedRunners is decidedly minimalist. The scenery has some detail but for the walls and floors are always jet black, which allows the characters and hazards to stand out nicely. It's ultimately a case of function over form, and although more detailed visuals might have been nice, there's no denying that the graphics help keep the gameplay clear and readable even at the most hectic of times. The soundtrack also errs on the side of simplicity—there are some good songs but a stark lack of variety which makes the background music a little disappointingly repetitive. As mentioned the story mode is pretty short, so naturally the game's real value comes from multiplayer. SpeedRunners features both offline and online multiplayer so you can enjoy the frantic action even if you don't have anyone close by to play with. The online connection works well, though the game is still so new that you might not find opponents quickly. Besides, the charm of the game works better with friends gathered around the couch. There are also several DLC items available for purchase on the eShop, but these represent only cosmetic additions, not changes to the gameplay. It's a bit disappointing that these add-ons are still being sold separately instead of bundled with the main game considering the game originally launched on other systems several years ago, but of course the DLC is entirely optional and you'll be at no disadvantage while playing if you don't want to pay for more character costumes. What SpeedRunners lacks in depth it makes up for in sheer replay value. The game's simplicity ends up being one of its most charming and defining features, making the game comfortably accessible to new players and ideal for a quick party setting. There's enough depth to keep things interesting after the initial honeymoon period as well, which makes SpeedRunners ideal for racing game fans that love perfecting their skills with handling the chaos of items and competitors. Rating: 8 out of 10 Runners Review copy provided by publisher SpeedRunners is available now on the Switch eShop for $14.99.
  15. It took its time, but finally, just a few months ago, the 3D-collectathon-platformer-inspired game A Hat in Time released on a Nintendo system. Originally Kickstarted back in 2013, the game released on other systems in 2017, though sadly did not launch on the Switch at that time and, quite understandably, skipped over the Wii U entirely. But now Nintendo fans have a chance to play a game that so clearly wears its Banjo-Kazooie/Donkey Kong 64/Super Mario 64 inspiration on its sleeve—or hat, as it were. Sadly, Switch owners will have to settle for an undeniably worse version of the game. You play as Hat Kid, a space-traveling girl who uses Time Pieces to fuel her spaceship. When the hull is breached and the precious Time Pieces are scattered across a nearby planet, she sets out to recover them before their time-manipulating power is abused by any ne'er-do-wells. The game ups the stakes a bit when you meet one such ne'er-do-well and have to race to collect the Time Pieces first, but the story is still light in A Hat in Time. It pretty much just sets up your motivation and then lets you loose in the game. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially since the environments and side characters have plenty of goofy, cartoony charm (edging on obnoxious at times, granted) but it does mean that the final battle of the game has fairly low stakes. Anyone that grew up playing 3D platformers on the N64 will no doubt be instantly transported to that time after starting up this game. You've got multiple worlds to explore, each with a number of Time Pieces to collect, and in order to unlock new worlds you need to meet a certain threshold of Time Pieces. Some worlds allow you to freely roam and uncover secrets on your own while others are more linear or stage-based, but the feel of a classic 3D platformer is perfectly preserved, albeit on a much smaller scale since A Hat in Time only has forty Time Pieces to collect instead of the hundreds of stars, moons, or other MacGuffins littering other games. The result is a shorter but more satisfyingly contained experience, one that still lasts several hours but never drags. And completionists will be pleased to know there are optional collectibles as well if you just can't get enough of uncovering secrets. The game also maintains a brisk pace thanks to Hat Kid's quick, fluid movements. There aren't too many moves to learn here but the ones you have make traversing these elaborate 3D environments pretty simple, and it's relatively easy to correct mistakes thanks to the double jump. Hat Kid is also able to craft and equip different hats to gain new abilities, such as sprinting or lobbing an explosive concoction. In order to make a hat you'll need to collect yarn, including yarn of the hat's specific type, but thankfully yarn is pretty plentiful as you explore. You can also equip badges to further augment your abilities. Most of these are merely optional, helpful boosts, but they're great for customizing your playstyle a bit, or adding some challenge with the one-hit-point-only badge. And although the game is relatively short for its genre, there are a lot of great 3D platforming challenges here and a lot of variety in level design. In only the second world things start to get unique with a rivalry plot that puts you in smaller, enclosed levels that test precision more than pure exploration. That said, A Hat in Time is still quite easy overall, partly just thanks to the lack of a lives/continues system. Recovery orbs are plentiful and if you do die you'll find that checkpoints are pretty plentiful too. The only thing that really makes the game difficult is dealing with a finnicky camera system. It's been decades since those N64 platformers were released, and yet the camera in A Hat in Time is distressingly reminiscent of those problematic times, zooming in too close to you so you can't clearly see around you or locking into obnoxious angles that make jumps more difficult than they need to be, especially when you're jumping to a narrow wire or rope and can barely see Hat Kid's shadow below you. Tight corridors can be extremely annoying to navigate as the camera zooms in and obstructs your view. The game overall is still pretty easy, but missing jumps thanks to an uncooperative camera is frustrating. As I hinted to earlier, A Hat in Time has some technical troubles on the Switch. Loading times are noticeably long, which is annoying but not a huge issue by itself since many games suffer from the same problem. What's disappointing is that even with those long load times the game is terribly optimized for the Switch with occasional frame rate dips in well-populated stages, lots of pop-in visuals, jaggy visuals, and frequent textures that don't fully load or even worse are just plain low-res. The images accompanying this review are not at all indicative of my experience with the game as the visuals were never this clear or smooth. It's a real shame since clearly A Hat in Time has some fun, cute visual design, even if it can be somewhat repetitive, but on the Switch you'll barely be able to enjoy the graphics in the first place. The soundtrack is at least pretty well preserved in this version of the game, and there are a lot of good songs that could go toe to toe with some of the greats of the platformer music world. A Hat in Time is a charming take on the 3D collectathon platformer genre, perhaps all the more impressive for being made by an indie studio, but it's hard to ignore the rampant technical issues that the game suffers on the Switch. You really can't help but feel like you're playing an inferior version of the game when the textures are so muddy and the environments so jaggy. If you're willing to overlook these faults though, A Hat in Time offers a short and cute adventure into charming 3D environments begging to be explored. Rating: 6 out of 10 Hats
  16. Developer Playtonic's follow up to their throwback to 3D collectathons takes a step even further back, this time to side-scrolling platformers. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair draws clear inspiration from the Donkey Kong Country games on the SNES, but like the first Yooka-Laylee the game never feels derivative. A unique final level mechanic and two sides to every level gives The Impossible Lair enough character to stand out in the crowd of side-scrolling platformers on the Switch. In this game Yooka and Laylee are once again fighting against the nefarious Capital B, who has captured Queen Phoebee's Royal Beettalion Guard in order to control the Royal Stingdom. You'll need to rescue Beettalion Guards in each level in order to help you tackle the fiendishly difficult Impossible Lair where Capital B is hiding. Like the first game there is a clear love of puns at work here, which gives The Impossible Lair a classic sense of cartoony charm. The gameplay has a classic appeal as well thanks to traditional side-scrolling platformer mechanics. Yooka serves as the main character while Laylee provides support abilities—Yooka can run, jump, and roll into enemies to defeat them, and with Laylee's help Yooka can also twirl in the air for a little extra distance or ground pound through weak obstacles in the floor. The rolling mechanic in particular has a familiar Donkey Kong Country feel to it, especially when you're rolling off of a ledge to gain a bit more momentum so you can reach a distant cannon. What makes The Impossible Lair unique comes down to how hit points work. If you're hit while Yooka and Laylee are teamed up, Laylee will fly off of Yooka's head and flutter about in a panic, not unlike Baby Mario floating away when hit in Yoshi's Island. If you're able to grab Laylee before she flies off for good, you'll essentially "recover" your HP and, more importantly, retain the aforementioned abilities that Laylee provides—Yooka on his own feels comparatively weak. Trying to catch Laylee when she's flapping about is somewhat obnoxious but if you're good at it you basically have an unending ability to take damage and recover immediately (there are also Laylee bells scattered through each level that allow you to recover your bat friend). It certainly helps keep the action of the gameplay moving more than hunting down a mushroom or a handful of rings, and it doesn't make the game too easy since there are still plenty of ways to die and fall back to the last checkpoint. The main levels of the game are admittedly on the easy side of things though, which is what makes the titular final level, the Impossible Lair, so confounding. The bulk of the game is a pretty forgiving take on platformers with plenty of checkpoints and opportunities to skip levels if you're having trouble, but the final level is an unforgiving gauntlet of precise platforming challenges that quickly grows discouraging. The Impossible Lair throws you into various fast-paced platforming sequences as well as several boss fights against Capital B, all of which has to be completed in one run (dying sends you back to the very beginning). To mitigate the challenge somewhat you need to collect the Beettalion Guards from each level, each of whom acts as a hit point inside the Impossible Lair—instead of losing Laylee when hit you lose a guard, and you'll even lose a guard when falling into a pit instead of dying completely. So to be as well equipped as possible to handle the Impossible Lair, you'll want to rescue all 48 Beettalion Guards, though even with a full roster the final level can be maddeningly difficult. It's surprising to see such a jump in difficulty, especially one that can be so tedious since you'll need to trek through the early parts of the level again and again if you die near the end of the lair. Finally, the overworld actually plays a significant part in The Impossible Lair. Instead of merely a map to connect various levels, the overworld is kind of a level unto itself with various puzzles and challenges that you'll need to overcome in order to fully explore the map. Additionally, each level of the game actually has two paths, and to unlock the second path you'll need to solve some kind of puzzle in the overworld, such as flooding an area to turn a normal level into a water level, or literally turning the level upside down. The changes within the levels are significant, and figuring out how to trigger them in the overworld is a fun challenge that gives a lot more depth to the overworld than a typical platformer hub. Your play time with The Impossible Lair could vary wildly depending on how you play. Like Breath of the Wild you're actually able to jump straight to the final level immediately. It is, like the title suggests, a nearly impossible task to complete without the benefit of the Beettalion Guards, but the challenge is there if you want to test your skills. More likely you'll spend 10 to 12 hours completing every level to collect all Beettalions, and truly dedicated players will take the extra time to collect all coins and tonics in the game. Coins are needed to unlock gates in the overworld so you'll have to grab a percentage of them, but tonics are strictly for the benefit of augmenting the experience with buffs or new challenges. The inclusion of tonics is novel but the limited use of a vast majority of them makes collecting them a fairly underwhelming pursuit. Yooka-Laylee's colorful and cartoony art style translates well to the 2.5D setting of The Impossible Lair. There aren't many truly interesting visual designs in the game, but nor is there anything lackluster about them. Plus the game runs at a nice smooth frame rate, though the trade off seems to be some tediously long load times, especially when you first boot up the game. Still, a bit of waiting is far preferable to choppy graphics. The soundtrack meanwhile is undoubtedly a highlight of the game—not surprising with the likes of David Wise and Grant Kirkhope involved—and certainly does most of the heavy lifting to give The Impossible Lair a charming sense of personality. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair puts a unique hook on classic side-scrolling platformer gameplay, and even though that hook can be a little tedious thanks to a surprising spike in difficulty, the overall experience still captures the fun and charm of old-school platforming. A small set of abilities for Yooka and Laylee provides a wide variety of platformer challenges, all of which is buoyed by the addictive nature of exploring an in-depth overworld full of secrets to uncover. Even though it's such a change of pace from the first game, The Impossible Lair is a strong continuation of the Yooka-Laylee series. Rating: 7 out of 10 Beettalion Guards
  17. Both 2D adventure games and roguelikes are a dime a dozen, so maybe the best way to stand out from the crowd is to combine the two into one experience, complete with pixel art and a charming soundtrack. Sparklite draws solid ideas from both genres, but the final result could have used a more unique spin to keep things engaging. In the land of Geodia, everything is powered by Sparklite, a glowing blue ore that serves as the lifeblood of the planet. But an evil overlord named the Baron has been hoarding Sparklite to power his war machines, and the pollution is causing plants and animals to mutate into dangerous monsters. Our hero Ada crash lands in Geodia and quickly sets off on an adventure to stop the Baron before his plans destroy the planet itself. It's a classic hero adventure, complete with a silent protagonist with a helpful assistant (in this case, a robot, not a fairy). The story is pretty bare-boned but there's a lot of charm in the side characters you meet, not least of which is a musician that asks you to help her rescue small birds that have gone missing in Geodia. Sparklite's writing may not stand out but what little there is is endearing. The gameplay feels like a mid-point between a traditional adventure game and a roguelike. The map is procedurally generated every time you leave your base of operations, but you don't lose equipment or story progress when you die (aside from minor consumable items which are usually easily replaced). This makes Sparklite much less punishing than a typical roguelike; even though you have to explore the map again every time you set out, the map is conveniently divided into five sections and each area isn't too large. It's also worth taking the time to explore since you'll be able to collect Sparklite which is the game's currency for everything, including valuable upgrades. Even if you reach a boss and die, the Sparklite you collected on the way will stay with you, helping you fuel future attempts. The downside is that the cost of upgrades is pretty high, and a typical journey to the surface of Geodia will probably only yield enough Sparklite for one or two upgrades. This is where the game's exploration gameplay loop comes into play, but it can't help but feel like padding out the game's short length. Exploration is fun the first few times, but when you need to do it over and over just to be able to afford to increase your health it feels like busywork. It doesn't help that the procedurally generated map drains some of the character from the environment—you can't have unique set pieces when everything needs to be able to fit together randomly. The combat in Sparklite also leaves something to be desired. Ada can use her wrench to smack enemies, and that's basically all there is to it. Attack, dodge away when the enemy winds up their own attack, repeat. There's little depth or excitement to the battle system, though you can unlock items like a crossbow or floating bombs to change things up a little. The only problem is that these items are so slow to use that they aren't very effective in the heat of combat. And with recovery items being surprisingly rare, it's usually not worth taking the risk to whip out a fancy item or gadget. Boss fights unfortunately aren't much better. They're certainly flashier but they're even more beholden to the basic pattern of attack and dodge, just with larger and more predictable attacks from the enemy. The game is at its best when it leans a little more toward a traditional adventure game. Scattered throughout the map you'll find vaults that are filled with simple puzzles and reward you with a new item (though you have to spend Sparklite to actually unlock it) and you'll occasionally find monster lairs filled with enemies or other challenges. Once again the randomly generated design of the game hurts the overall experience—these vaults and lairs are fun but feel disappointingly basic. Perhaps if the game wasn't randomly generated there would have been more opportunity to better flesh these out. One area where the game does not disappoint though is the presentation. There is some beautiful pixel artwork here, notably when it comes to the charming side characters you meet or the massive, imposing boss battles. The retro look may be old hat by now but it still looks fantastic. The music is also excellent with a lot of fun, lively songs that match the sense of adventure. Even if retreading randomly generated maps gets old, the soundtrack never does. Sparklite finds a comfortable niche between traditional 2D adventure games and roguelikes, but the end result might be less than the sum of its parts. The randomly generated elements of the game ultimately feel like padding while the classic sense of exploration and combat feels too basic. There's still an enjoyable adventure to be had in Geodia, but it doesn't quite live up to its potential. Rating: 7 out of 10 Sparks
  18. How much of an action-adventure game can you finish in sixty seconds? As it turns out, a whole lot! Minit takes classic 2D adventure gameplay and puts a unique time limit on the player: every sixty seconds, you'll die and have to restart from the last safe house. Simplicity and speed is the name of the game here, and rather than feel like a restriction, it proves to be a wonderfully inventive way of framing an adventure. The story begins with your character (some sort of duck, maybe?) waking up in his house and wandering down to the nearby beach where he picks up a cursed sword that causes the sixty second time restriction. From there your goal is to find a way to break the curse while also helping out any townsfolk you encounter. Minit is not a story rich game, and in fact the sixty-second restriction can be a real hindrance to story-telling since it limits your ability to really soak in the plot or lore of the environment. Regardless, Minit doesn't offer much plot anyway, and instead has plenty of personality and charm from your brief interactions with other characters, most of which offer short, goofy bits of dialogue as well as helpful hints. Minit's sixty-second lifespan might sound a lot more confounding than it actually is. The truth is, you can get quite a lot done in sixty seconds when you don't dawdle, and obviously the game is built around the limitation as well, so there's very little fluff to waste your time. You might end up wandering a bit as you look for your next objective, but that's really the core appeal of Minit: see how much you can get done before you're pulled back to the last safe house and have to start over. You're given only vague directions on what to do next, so exploration is the real core of the game Plus, there are several safe houses over the extremely short length of the game, so you're never too far from your last checkpoint. It's also important to note that anything you accomplish is saved when you're revived—you don't need to grab key items again, they'll stay with you. The exceptions are monsters or breakable/moveable objects, such as cutting down bushes, but that's no different from a normal adventure game anyway. And as mentioned, Minit is designed to let you make the most of your minute, with the only truly tricky, multi-part puzzle being the final approach to the end boss. The developers clearly know their adventure game formulas—there's something familiar about the kinds of tasks you accomplish in Minit, but the time limit lets you see them in a fresh, challenging light. The result is a uniquely addictive adventure: every time you restart you'll want to make the most of the brief time you have. It's no surprise that Minit would employ a fairly minimal, simple visual style as well. The black and white visuals are striking, and also serve a valuable gameplay purpose—everything on screen is so clearly laid out that your eyes never have to hunt for what to interact with or focus on in any given area. It's another clever way of cutting out the fluff of game design to let the player focus on the most crucial elements. And on top of all that, Minit still manages to have a cute, quirky art style thanks to the odd little creatures that inhabit this world. The music is excellent as well. Thankfully it's not quite as minimalist as the visual design, and the handful of songs found in the game are delightfully catchy. The one area Minit might be lacking is in sheer amount of content. Sure it makes sense that the overall length of the adventure would be fairly short given the sixty-second time restriction, but it's still shocking just how quickly you can finish Minit—easily under two hours. However, the game is filled with little secrets to uncover, and you'll likely finish the game the first time with well under 100% completion, so players that enjoy seeing everything a game has to offer will still get plenty of replay value out of Minit. There's also a second quest mode that adds even harder restrictions—including just forty seconds per life instead of sixty—so there's at least a modest amount of replay value to enjoy. Minit cleverly distills the adventure formula down to its most essential parts, and puts pressure on the player to make the most of his or her time. The result is an extremely addictive experience—like any game where dying/retrying is common, you'll be eager to try again every time the clock restarts in order to explore a little further, see what else you can find under the time limit, and progress just that much farther into the adventure. Perhaps by its very nature the game is disappointingly brief, but that short time spent with the game is awfully unique and clever. Rating: 8 out of 10 Minutes
  19. After hitting the ground running with a stellar first year, the Swtich seems to have become port central, with tons of games originally released on other platforms getting a fresh start on Nintendo's hybrid system. A lot of these ports are high-profile titles, but every now and then a surprising little game will slip in as well—though in this case, the game also had the benefit of extensive screen time on Nintendo's E3 Treehouse stream! New Super Lucky's Tale from developer Playful Studios draws clear inspiration from the classic 3D platformers of yesteryear with colorful critter characters, tons of collectibles, and plenty of platforming challenges. It's a gameplay style that still feels timeless, though Lucky may not be bringing many new ideas to the table. You play as Lucky, a brave young fox who is assisting his older sister protect the Book of Ages, a powerful magical artifact. When a nefarious cat named Jinx attempts to steal the book, Lucky is pulled into the universe of the book and must traverse various worlds to collect missing pages before Jinx's gang, the Kitty Litter, is able to get their hands on them. It's a classic good guy/bad guy adventure, and even if it feels a bit cliché it should be perfect for the kid-friendly audience that the game is clearly geared toward—kids will certainly love the simple, silly puns and humor as much as we all did in games like Donkey Kong 64 or Banjo-Kazooie. As already mentioned, Lucky's Tale is structured in pretty much classic 3D platformer fashion—across multiple worlds you'll jump into individual levels with the main goal of reaching the end, plus three side goals which will earn you additional pages. There's some great level variety at work here: some levels are fully 3D and let you explore at your pace, some are side-scrolling, and a few operate under unique control schemes, including bonus levels where you might need to solve sliding block puzzles or navigate a maze by tilting the scenery. What Lucky's Tale definitely does well is keeping things compact. There's a lot to see in each world but it never feels overwhelming or drawn out—the levels are just long enough to keep things engaging and varied without overdoing it. There are also some fun challenges created around Lucky's limited moveset, which notably includes burrowing through the ground to uncover hidden objects or slip under fences. The mix of 3D and side-scrolling levels also helps to keep each level feeling fresh, even if the core gameplay is still clearly built around the typical tropes and challenges of 3D platforming. This is also a fairly short game, or at the very least it's not the same kind of experience as huge collect-a-thon platformers. There are just five worlds (plus a bonus post-game world) and you don't even need to complete every level in a world in order to unlock the boss fight and progress. If you wanted to zip right through the adventure, it's only a few hours long. Of course, this type of game is made for 100% completion players, so you can expect a decent six or eight hours to collect everything the game offers. That still feels a little on the short side but the trade-off is few levels of fluff or padding. That said, Lucky's Tale also has a few problematic quirks. Camera angles can be a little funky at times, notably during boss fights when it's even more important to ensure you have a clear perspective on where you're moving and jumping to avoid attacks. Lucky's moves in the side-scrolling levels can be a little tricky as well. These stages generally require a bit more precision than their 3D cousins, but Lucky's double jump and particularly his burrowing movement can feel a little imprecise. Thankfully extra lives are pretty plentiful in Lucky's Tale so you're unlikely to run out completely. In fact, even with these small control quirks the game is quite easy—again, clearly aiming at a younger crowd—so a few awkward deaths thanks to the controls isn't terrible, but it is annoying. Lucky's Tale also has some slight performance issues on the Switch. For one thing, load times are just a bit too long for comfort, particularly on the short puzzle levels that can be completed in under 30 seconds but then you have to sit through a lengthy load screen before and after. The game's frame rate is also not quite as smooth as it should be. Frame rate dips aren't too common though, and thankfully never interfered with the gameplay, but they were noticeable. Even if the game has some technical hiccups, the actual art style of the game is delightful. In the same way that the gameplay doesn't necessarily push the medium of 3D platformers forward, the visuals don't seem to be doing anything particularly new or unique. That's okay though, 'cause Lucky and his friends are still pretty adorable, as is the Kitty Litter gang. And although there are few stand out moments or scenes, the background design for each stage is still pretty fun. The music isn't half bad either, and definitely captures the vibe of late 90s/early 00s 3D platformers, though, again, there aren't likely any tracks you'll keep humming after the game is over. New Super Lucky's Tale relies upon some tried and true platforming mechanics to deliver a charming, pleasant little adventure. The game clearly skews toward a young audience which means there are few truly engaging challenges and it may not have the same depth as similar 3D platformers, but that doesn't make Lucky's adventure any less enjoyable. Anyone looking for a quick, light, cute platformer should be well satisfied with New Super Lucky's Tale. Rating: 7 out of 10 Tales
  20. A combination of The Legend of Zelda and Crypt of the NecroDancer is a mash-up I absolutely did not know that I wanted until I saw it revealed in the Nintendo Direct earlier this year, but seeing both Link and Zelda exploring Hyrule in the rhythmic pattern of Crypt immediately sold me on the premise. I hadn't realized how smoothly the two franchises would blend together though, drawing the best ideas of both into a game that is instantly familiar yet delightfully unique. Cadence of Hyrule is a game that might initially perplex Zelda fans with its rhythm-based gameplay but should win over new fans for Crypt of the NecroDancer. As is so often the case, something is amiss in the land of Hyrule. A man named Octavo has used a magical lute to put Link, Zelda, and other prominent individuals into a deep slumber, but Cadence is mysteriously transported to Hyrule where she helps the heroes put things right while looking for a way back to her own world. It's a solid if relatively by-the-numbers storyline, though the recently released free DLC focusing on Octavo might help add some depth to the plot. Regardless, it's fun to see these characters meet and set the stage for an unusual adventure through Hyrule. The game starts with a quick tutorial on how the gameplay of Crypt of the NecroDancer works, which is particularly helpful for new players because it does take some time to get used to it. In Cadence of Hyrule (and Crypt), the environment is divided into a grid and everything moves to the beat of the music, including you. There's a helpful visual along the bottom of the screen to show you the rhythm which is useful initially, but after a bit of practice you'll be able to feel the rhythm without keeping an eye on the bottom of the screen. So the challenge of the game is maintaining the rhythm while still moving and attacking enemies. You attack by standing next to an enemy and moving into them, but you have to be careful that you don't get hit yourself by enemies moving into you. Each enemy has different attack patterns, so for example a basic Bokoblin will simply move into you from an adjacent square, but a Tektite will attack diagonally, and some enemies have long range attacks. You have to move carefully to dodge attacks and get your own hits in all while keeping to the rhythm of the music. It sounds far more confusing than it is, and although you might struggle at first, the sense of flow and rhythm in the game quickly becomes second nature—getting into the groove of things is awfully satisfying. Cadence of Hyrule is also the type of game that becomes much easier the longer you play. Once you know each enemy's attack pattern, it becomes easier to avoid them. Once you've made a bit of progress and picked up some pieces of heart to increase your health, you won't be as worried about making a mistake and taking a hit or two. Once you have better weapons (including my personal favorite, a spear that allows you to attack from two squares away instead of just one) the game feels much more manageable. This is all to say: don't be discouraged by the early parts of the game. Like Crypt, Cadence of Hyrule has a steep learning curve initially, and the fact that you lose some items upon dying might seem frustrating. However, Cadence of Hyrule is actually much easier and more forgiving than Crypt—the majority of items you actually keep even after dying, including all of the most important things like weapons and classic Zelda items. I should also mention that if the rhythmic movement really isn't your thing there is Fixed Beat mode where nothing moves until you do, giving you ample time to plan your movements and attacks. It's definitely a crutch, but one that many players might find helpful, at least until they've mastered some of the basics. And once you're in the groove of things, the game is incredibly addictive. It makes sense since it follows the basic structure of a Zelda game—explore, collect items, complete dungeons—but the inherent rhythmic structure of the game really makes it hard to put down. Exploring every little cave and clearing enemies from one screen after another while keeping your rhythm the entire time has an almost hypnotic appeal. It's also great to see how much of Cadence of Hyrule is a Zelda experience just with a unique control scheme. The items are a blast to use and have some clever uses that work within the context of this rhythm adventure. That said, I would have preferred even more focus on items since they really are an iconic part of Zelda. It makes sense since the rhythmic nature of Cadence of Hyrule makes it hard to incorporate item puzzles—even just using them without losing the beat can be tricky—but it still would have been nice to see some of them in dungeons. Another aspect of Crypt that has carried over here is the infinite replayability of Cadence of Hyrule. The world map and dungeon layouts are randomly generated, so every time you start a new game you're faced with a fresh challenge. You can also choose to play as either Link or Zelda who each have some unique attacks—Link can use his classic spin attack while Zelda can use magic—which further incentivizes multiple playthroughs. There's also drop-in/drop-out co-op if you want to get another player into the mix, and finally there is the recently released free update to add another playable character. It's great that there are so many reasons to journey through the game repeatedly especially since one playthrough can actually be pretty short—just five hours or so, depending on how often you die. Where would a rhythmic adventure game be without a stellar soundtrack? Composer Danny Baranowsky did an amazing job of blending classic Zelda tunes with the high energy melodies of Crypt, and the resulting soundtrack is truly delightful. It has the clear rhythm and beats you'd want for the gameplay structure while also providing some fantastically catchy tunes while you're exploring. And if this game introduces more players to the glory of the Shopkeeper's dulcet tones, all the better. The game's visuals find a perfect blend between the styles of the two games as well, combining the charming animation of Crypt enemies with the familiar looks of Bokoblins, Moblins, Darknuts, and more. It's an ideal merging of form and function as their attack patterns become clearly recognizable while still retaining the style of Zelda's visual design. Cadence of Hyrule may draw some confused reactions from fans of only Zelda, but it is absolutely worth giving this game a spin, even if you aren't already familiar with Crypt of the NecroDancer. The developers have done an amazing job of bridging the gap between these two franchises to create a unique, fresh adventure in the land of Hyrule, something that only could have come from this unique partnership between Nintendo and developer Brace Yourself Games. Cadence of Hyrule is a fantastically hypnotic, rhythmic adventure, one that will keep you moving to the beat for hours. Rating: 9 out of 10 Beats
  21. Developer Simogo labels their latest title a "pop album video game" and I'm not sure there's any more perfect description of Sayonara Wild Hearts. It reflects the game's rhythm-focused gameplay of course, as well as its stylish, eye-catching visual style, but referencing pop music is also particularly apt for the game's emotional resonance. Everyone has that one album that they just can't get enough of—every time you put it on you get swept up in the music and lyrics and feel transported to another world. Music, in particular, has that effect, and Sayonara Wild Hearts is a game built upon its soundtrack's ability to sweep you off your feet. The story follows a heartbroken young woman who is transformed, with the help of a diamond butterfly, into a new version of herself called The Fool who then battles other Tarot-card-inspired characters through psychedelic environments. There's no need to get too bogged down dissecting the literal events of the game—Sayonara Wild Hearts is clearly open to interpretation, which is just another part of its charm as it allows you to focus on the emotion and artistry of the visuals and audio. To that end, it's hard not to drawn in to the emotional journey that is aptly summed up in the final level of the game. By that point, Sayonara Wild Hearts will have firmly embedded itself in your psyche. Obviously, a huge part of the game's appeal is its visual style and soundtrack. Screenshots don't even begin to capture how stunning the game looks in motion thanks to silky smooth animation even when roadways and obstacles are hurtling past you at incredible speeds. The generally simple shapes and consistent, vivid color palette allow your eyes to focus more on the surreal landscapes that seamlessly transform from one incredible scene to another. Sayonara Wild Hearts is an insane feast for the eyes, one that is truly mesmerizing to play. The only thing more important than stylish visuals is a soundtrack that you can lose yourself in, and the electro-pop music on Sayonara Wild Hearts is phenomenal. It treads a fine line between being emotive—especially around the theme of heart break—and still being fun to play, but the composers and singer nailed it. It's a soundtrack that sticks with you in a beautiful way, and it's a soundtrack that absolutely bears listening to again and again. The actual gameplay of Sayonara Wild Hearts is pretty simple: it's a rhythm game, so as you're speeding through brightly colorful landscapes your goal is to collect hearts to increase your score and avoid obstacles. Each level moves at breakneck speeds, and there's a wonderful variety to the types of settings you'll be riding or flying through. The scenery is consistently surprising and always engaging. The game doesn't explicitly tell you this, but picking up hearts builds up your score chain, and hitting obstacles resets the chain, so earning a high score requires careful play—not easy when you're careening through surreal landscapes on a motorcycle before leaping off to fly through a canyon. What's great about Sayonara Wild Hearts though is how forgiving it actually is when it comes to gameplay challenges. There are frequent checkpoints within each level, so even if you're not earning the highest score possible you can still make it through a level with several mistakes. It's even possible to earn a gold rank with one or two mistakes, assuming you're still able to maintain a long score chain for the majority of the level. There's no limit on dying/retrying, and in fact the game will even ask you, should you die repeatedly in one section, if you want to skip it and just move on. Sayonara Wild Hearts has the makeup of a rhythm game but it's really about the journey here, not just score chasing. Anyone can—and should—experience the musical journey on display here, regardless of video game skills. On the other hand, to really get the most out of the game, you probably want to perfect your skills and chase those high scores, because the one problem with this game is how short it actually is. A single playthrough of Sayonara Wild Hearts can be as short as an hour, which is a real shame because the gameplay, visuals, and music absolutely do not get old in that time frame. It can also be a little disappointing when you realize just how short most of the levels in the game are—just when you're getting into the groove of a song the stage ends. It's a testament though to the wonderfully inventive variety of level designs that no part of the game feels tedious or repetitive. So to really make the most out of your time with Sayonara Wild Hearts, you'll probably want to take the time to master each level and earn a gold rank, as well as collect the big diamonds within each level. And for anyone that really can't get enough of the game, there is a kind of achievement system with the cryptic zodiac riddles in the game's main menu that can point you toward additional challenges. A normal playthrough probably won't yield any of these achievements, so pursuing them might be a good way to spend even more time in this world. Sayonara Wild Hearts is an experience. The gameplay may not be as meticulously nuanced as other rhythm games, but that's not what the game is going for anyway. This is a musical journey through emotions, represented in surreal landscapes popping with beautifully vibrant colors and an enchanting, dreamlike sense of movement. And of course, this is all topped off with a truly phenomenal pop soundtrack. Your time with Sayonara Wild Hearts may be brief, but it will absolutely leave a lasting impact. Rating: 9 out of 10 Wild Hearts
  22. Pokémon Sword and Shield are landmark games in the franchise. No, not because of the controversy surrounding the fact that the total number of Pokémon has been significantly pared down (though that is an important change for the franchise, considering the series is inching closer and closer to Pokémon number 1,000). Generation VIII is the first time a core Pokémon game has graced an HD home console—and yeah, despite its dual nature the Switch counts as a home console. Presumably, unless Nintendo surprises us all with the Nintendo 4DS, this will be the new standard going forward for the series, so Sword and Shield represent the start of a new era of Pokémon. How does that new era look so far? Well, an awful lot like the past twenty years. I'm not going to pretend like Pokémon has ever been a series that's too concerned with storytelling, but even by the standards of the franchise the plot of Sword and Shield feels a bit simple. You've got your quest to become the new Pokémon Champion, your rival following alongside you every step of the way, and a bothersome team of ne'er-do-wells—in this case, Team Yell—popping up along your journey, but it feels like the stakes of the story are lower than ever before. It honestly feels like the developers simply felt obliged to include these familiar elements out of habit, especially since the best parts of the game's story is the way the quest to become Champion has been revamped. The entire Gym Challenge is presented as more of a professional sports event, with Gym Leader battles taking place in stadiums packed full of cheering fans. It may not seem like a huge change from past games but it truly gives the whole concept of Pokémon battling a more grand and social vibe—in Galar these battles are an event, a facet of society, and the energy and excitement that comes with that is infectious. If the story/writing of Sword and Shield shows anything, it's that the future of Pokémon needs to move away from the tropes that have defined past generations and find new, novel hooks for future games. Similarly, the gameplay is a mix of the familiar and the new. After your initial choice of a grass-, fire-, or water-type starter (in my case, the water-type Sobble) you're let loose on the Galar region to catch, train, and battle every Pokémon you come across. The loop this represents is as addictive and entertaining as ever—it's always particularly satisfying to watch a weak Pokémon grow into its much more powerful evolved form. The major addition in Sword and Shield is the Wild Area, an expansive region in the middle of Galar that operates a little differently than the typical routes. You can find Pokémon in the tall grass like usual, but you'll also see them wandering around freely along the paths (these are generally more powerful, evolved Pokémon). Being able to see the Pokémon just wandering around is a fun change in and of itself, but having the freedom to find such a wide variety of Pokémon, including evolved forms, adds a real novelty to the experience. You're not just seeing the same monsters over and over along one narrow route (though, incidentally, there's a lot of that in Sword and Shield as well). The Wild Area feels more organic, especially because of the way the selection of Pokémon changes with the weather, which makes it a much more interesting place to explore and revisit throughout the game. It also makes the task of catching 'em all a little bit easier since so many monsters are collected into one area, which is great for anyone hoping to find a particular favorite. The Wild Area represents such a welcome change for the Pokémon franchise that it's kind of a shame that it's only one part of Galar, and the rest of the game still has you exploring traditional, linear routes. Additionally, there are also special dens in the Wild Area where you can take on a Max Raid Battle either solo (with AI companions) or with friends online. Raids put you up against a single, powerful Dynamaxed Pokémon, which is a pretty fun way of adding a social, co-operative element to traditional Pokémon battles. Dynamax is essentially Sword and Shield's version of Mega Evolution, though Dynamax lasts only three turns and turns all of a Pokémon's abilities into more powerful versions, often with special effects like changing the weather or affecting stats (though the attacks also lose any special effects that they originally had, such as status ailments, duration, etc.). Sure, in some ways Dynamaxing is just the latest flavor of Mega Evolution—kind of like how Z-moves were in Sun and Moon—but it's undeniably fun to watch your Pokémon grow to a humongous size and dish out extra-powerful attacks. Dynamaxing during Gym Leader battles is pretty much always a thrilling moment in the match—as mentioned above, it adds a feeling of spectacle and excitement that perfectly encapsulates what it feels like to play Pokémon as a kid. Sword and Shield also includes a variety of small additions and adjustments, most of which are welcome improvements. For example, you're now able to access your Pokémon Boxes from anywhere, which is such an obvious convenience that it's almost surprising that it wasn't added to an earlier game. Similarly, you can now make Pokémon forget/remember attacks from any Pokémon Center for free—another welcome quality of life change that makes experimentation so much easier. A slight negative for Sword and Shield though is the fact that Experience Share is now always active. It doesn't really make sense to make something that was once optional now mandatory, especially since this generation is pretty easy to begin with. There's also a new side mode for interacting with your Pokémon called Pokémon Camp that lets you set up a tent and play with the critters in your active party. You can even cook curry for them in a short mini-game. It's cute and silly, though cooking does have a valuable benefit—eating will restore a portion of every Pokémon's health, and even grant some extra experience points. Players that enjoy connecting with the Pokémon will find camping a cute pastime. The main adventure in Sword and Shield feels a bit shorter compared to past generations, but you can still expect around twenty hours or so on your journey to become the Pokémon Champion. There is of course plenty of post-game content as well, including battling and trading online, or just catching 'em all in the Galar region. Finally, I feel like I should address the National Dex controversy that has plagued discussion of Sword and Shield for the past few months. Several hundred Pokémon have been cut from the roster, for 400 creatures in total (including 81 new Pokémon and 13 regional variants). Personally I don't have a dog in this race, as completing the National Dex has never been a priority for my Pokémon adventures, so I can only say that the smaller number of Pokémon in Sword and Shield in no way affected my experience or enjoyment of the main adventure. The selection of monsters feels perfectly fine as is, with a balanced selection of interesting Pokémon and useful type combinations. With the HD fidelity of the Switch, Pokémon looks bigger and better than ever. Okay, it's still Pokémon, and the familiar art style of the series isn't exactly pushing the limits of the console's hardware, but Sword and Shield really do look great—the visual of a packed stadium watching a Pokémon Dynamax into an enormous size is exciting every time it happens. The game's frame rate does lag at times, notably in the Wild Area, but overall the game runs well. The soundtrack, however, is never disappointing. There are a ton of fantastic songs here, but my highlight has to be the Gym Leader battle music. When the crowd gets amped up and starts chanting and cheering—it's enough to give any Pokémon trainer chills. (Seriously it's worth just listening to it right here) Putting aside all of the controversies surrounding Pokémon Sword and Shield, at the end of the day it's still the Pokémon game we know and love. That's both the upside and downside here. Catching, training, and battling pocket monsters is as fun as its ever been, but anyone looking for a drastic change thanks to the leap to a home console will be a little disappointed. Aside from some new bells and whistles, most notably the Wild Area, this is simply another Pokémon game—for many aspiring Pokémon Masters that will be enough, but anyone hoping for a significant leap forward for the franchise may be disappointed. Still, Sword and Shield may ultimately be a step in the right direction for the Pokémon series, but time will tell. Rating: 8 out of 10 Dynamax Pokémon
  23. Sometimes it feels like the "save the world" scenario has been done to death in video games—how many more ways can a plucky hero save the planet from global destruction? Well, how about an old man and a young girl teaming up to liberate the earth from an invasion of space dragons? EarthNight from developer Cleaversoft puts this wonderfully surreal premise to good use, combining it with meticulously painted artwork and endlessly replayable autorunning gameplay thanks to its roguelike mechanics. It's one of the most unique games to hit the Switch this year, and it's also hypnotically addictive. In the story of EarthNight, the planet has already been conquered by massive space dragons. The human race has been subjugated, but an old man named Stanley and a young girl named Sydney refuse to take this lying down, and instead fight back by skydiving from their orbital space ship to defeat dragons in the atmosphere and sky before reaching the big boss near the surface of the earth. It's such a delightfully bizarre premise that you can't help but be charmed by it—it's truly imaginative. Outside of the game's opening cutscene, storytelling isn't much of a priority in EarthNight, but there's still some personality and humor in the character of the (mad?) scientist who assists you on your dives by creating and upgrading power-ups. It's not much, but it keeps the game's off-kilter sense of personality alive when you're diving into the atmosphere again and again. EarthNight is an endless runner, so you only have control over a few actions. When you're on the back of a dragon you can hold left on the control stick to slow down a bit or push right to speed up, but either way you're always moving forward. More importantly you can also jump, which is pretty key since you defeat enemies by bouncing on their heads and you're able to reach platforms and other hidden paths to collect power-ups or junk items. Your ultimate goal is to reach the head of the dragon to slay it, but along the way you can pick up junk which will be converted to valuable water on your ship or grab temporary power-ups that grant things like a double jump or speed boost. Overall, the premise of the game is pretty simple: you're always moving, so avoid damage and reach the end of the dragon in one piece. However, EarthNight doesn't make that so easy on you. Like most roguelike games you're expected to fail and retry for a while until you master the basics, which will let you get a little farther before you die, which will help you get better little by little, over and over. It's a simple but addictive formula, one that EarthNight manages well by making the gameplay feel challenging but still surmountable. This game doesn't have the discouraging sense of failure that other roguelikes sometimes get stuck in, and even though you do end up dying over and over the game always feels engaging. There are a couple of important aspects at play here. For one, a full run-through of EarthNight is actually pretty short. If you're able to survive it, less than thirty minutes will see you through the enitre journey, so dying halfway and losing fifteen minutes of progress doesn't feel like a huge loss. For two, the power-up system and the ability to upgrade power-ups by using valuable items picked up from each type of dragon means there's always a sort of side quest in the back of your mind while you're playing. So even if you failed to reach the end, you might have been able to collect the three red dragon eggs you needed to upgrade your double jump boots, so the run-through still feels like a win. Breadcrumb goals can be pretty important in keeping a roguelike engaging from one attempt to the next, so it's great that EarthNight keeps the player invested. And the fact that each level is procedurally generated, changing the placements of platforms, power-ups, and valuable items like dragon eggs, means you always have to focus on what's ahead of you—you can't be too complacent while playing. The sense of discovery in finding new platform paths—even shortcuts to later levels and other secret areas—does wonders for keeping EarthNight engaging after dozens of attempts. Finally there's also the fact that Stanley and Sydney play differently. Stanley has a basic jump as well as a long jump, while Sydney can double jump or dash forward horizontally or at a downward angle—helpful for dodging hazards. They may not seem like huge differences but they're enough to change the way you approach each run-through and give the game further replay value. One minor complaint though is the way the loading screen tips work. You'll randomly see a tip or explanation of controls when loading a new run-through, but I'd highly recommend checking out all of the tips in the settings menu first, since there were some important details that I didn't see until after several run-throughs. It took me a while to realize that chaining bounces on enemies can actually heal you (before learning that I often prioritzed survival by avoiding enemies as much as possible), or that collecting dragon eggs will increase your damage when you attempt to kill the dragon's head. Definitely stuff worth knowing right off the bat. What should be immediately clear from the screenshots is how uniquely striking EarthNight's art style is. It's vividly colorful, totally surreal, and makes you want to just watch someone else play so you can focus on the visuals instead of worrying about survival. There is, obviously, a fair bit of repetition since the nature of the game is in replaying it over and over, but the crazy graphics are fun to see time and time again. The only issue is that the game has some trouble keeping things running smoothly, and it's particularly disappointing to see frame rate hiccups in such a beautiful game. It's not a constant issue, but when there's a lot happening on screen you might see some stuttering, which is also pretty frustrating from a gameplay standpoint. The music, however, is solid all the way through. The soundtrack isn't huge but there are a lot of great songs that match the energetic, frenetic pacing of the gameplay. It's also fun to see that the game includes both a normal soundtrack and a chiptune soundtrack that you can switch between—you're even able to put the music selection on random so you don't know which version you'll get. It's a fun way of making the most of a catchy soundtrack. EarthNight draws you in with it's bizarre premise and striking visuals, but you'll stay for the addictive, frantic gameplay that keeps you engaged one run-through after another. The simple formula may feel repetitive at times, but the procedurally generated levels and challenge of collecting materials to craft and upgrade equipment keeps the energy high as you dive through swarms of dragons. The frame rate hiccups are a definite disappointment, but otherwise EarthNight is a uniquely compelling autorunner. Rating: 8 out of 10 Dragons Review copy provided by publisher EarthNight is available now on the Switch eShop for $14.99.
  24. Clearly the business of spiritual pest control is booming with not one but two Switch games centered around cleaning up rooms full of ghosts. Dead End Job from developer Ant Workshop and publisher Headup Games may seem to share thematic similarities to a certain high profile Nintendo title released this year, but the 90s cartoon aesthetic and endlessly replayable rogue-like structure give this game a style all its own. You play as Hector Plasm, a paranormal pest control expert at Ghoul-B-Gone. As the game explains in a charmingly 90s intro theme song, Hector's partner Beryl dies one night, and now it's up to him to save her soul from an eternity as a ghost herself. The writing is unabashedly silly, which pairs well with the game's outrageous 90s cartoon aesthetic. It's the kind of humor that will make you smile, though perhaps not necessarily laugh out loud. Ultimately there isn't too much text in the game—there are a handful of cutscenes as well as descriptions for the random items you'll find—but when it does come up there's plenty of puns or self-aware jokes to enjoy. Dead End Job is a rogue-like twin-sticks shooter—in simpler terms, the game's level design is procedurally generated (including random items in each level) and you move and shoot with the two control sticks. It's a simple formula but one that offers near infinite replay value thanks to the randomly-generated content. In each level your goal is to rescue the humans trapped by malevolent ghosts, and ultimately your goal is to earn money by completing jobs in order to save up enough cash to fund a Beryl rescue operation. The humans' positions on the map is random, so you'll need to search each room to find them, and every room you enter has a variety of ghosts blocking your way. In order to rid each room of ghosts you need to shoot them with plasma until they're stunned, then suck them up into your vacuum. It is, ultimately, a fairly simple gameplay formula, but one that can also be fun in a somewhat mindless way. It's inherently repetitive—and the rogue-like formula only makes it moreso since there are no custom-crafted challenges, only building block pieces that can easily be put together—but even so it can be oddly satisfying to finish one room after another. There are at least a couple of ways to shake up the gameplay formula though. For one thing, you'll gain ability upgrades every time you level up (or, in the game's terms, earn a promotion). These bonuses can be as simple as increasing the power of your plasma shots—I say simple but that's actually incredibly useful—to more unique features like making your shots spread out in a wide fan pattern. The promotion bonuses aren't wildly different but they're enough to make you approach ghost-bustin' in a slightly unique way each time you earn one. Dead End Job also features random items scattered throughout each level. You never know what the items actually do until you pick one up and use it, so early on it can be a fun game of experimentation. You can only hold two items at once though—and that includes healing items—so to make the most out of them you might as well use them up whenever you can. Items add some much needed variety to shooting and capturing ghosts, and the good news is there's a wide variety of them. Dead End Job also features drop-in/drop-out asymmetric co-op. A second player can join in at any time to play as Beryl's spirit. Beryl can't shoot ghosts with a plasma gun or vacuum them up like Hector, but she can spray ectoplasmic goo to slow down and stun ghosts long enough for Hector to clean them up. What makes things tricky though is that the goo also slows down Hector's movement, so you have to be careful where you're spraying it. It's great to see another game embrace the idea of asymmetric co-op, but it's a little disappointing that player 2 has so little to do in this scenario. Beryl is only there for support and even then she has to be particularly careful not to inhibit Hector's movements. It's nice that you can get another player involved, but it would have been even better if they had more to do. The controls in the game work pretty smoothly aside from one little quirk that can be a little annoying. The game auto-targets ghosts when you're firing in the right general direction, but this can be annoying when two ghosts are close together, or even when one is right next to you and the other is far away. It's too easy for the auto-aim to get locked onto the one further away even though you clearly want to hit the one that's close by. The game is still easy enough overall that this won't lead to too many frustrating deaths, but it's still a bit annoying to deal with. Dead End Job is also a pretty short game, all things considered—just a few hours will see you through the entire adventure. Of course, there's plenty of replay value thanks to the procedurally generated levels, various promotions, and random item selection, but maybe not enough variety to keep you occupied for terribly long. This game takes clear inspiration from 90s cartoons—specifically the bizarre era of animation that gave life to things like Ren & Stimpy or Rocko's Modern Life. That means particularly wacky and occasionally somewhat gross-out character design and animation. Don't worry though, Dead End Job doesn't get too outrageous. Instead the character design is charmingly colorful and weird, and that includes the ghosts you encounter. In fact, it's a shame that the visuals are ultimately fairly repetitive, since there's a lot of great design on display here, but seeing the same ghost designs one level after another makes the art style wear a bit thin. The soundtrack is similarly repetitive, but it does have some fun, peppy tunes, as well as that great intro theme song. Dead End Job's simple gameplay loop offers a nicely rewarding sense of progression, though the low sense of difficulty makes the loop a little more repetitive than it needs to be. The spot-on 90s cartoon aesthetic certainly keeps the adventure feeling lively though, and anyone looking for a bit of mindless fun will enjoy making money and bustin' ghosts in Dead End Job. Rating: 7 out of 10 Ghosts Review copy provided by publisher Dead End Job will be available on the Switch eShop on December 13 for $16.99.
  25. Some franchises get great revivals that manage to capture the charm of the original game while modernizing the gameplay in an appropriate way, and some franchises get Contra: Rogue Corps. In a seemingly wild mishmash of ideas, Rogue Corps combines just a hint of the classic run and gun series with twin-stick shooter gameplay, an emphasis on multiplayer modes, and a needlessly complex upgrade system. What is truly impressive is just how badly every single aspect of the game plays. The story picks up several years after the events of Contra III: The Alien Wars where you, as a member of Rogue Corps, explore the Damned City and basically just blow up anything in your path. Let's be honest though, this isn't the kind of game you play for plot. There are things that need shooting, that's all you really need to know. To that end, you have a few options with how you approach shooting everything in sight. There are four playable characters, though their differences are almost nonexistent—they start with different weapons, but beyond that everyone controls pretty much the same. Rogue Corps uses a mostly top-down perspective, which gives the gameplay a twin-stick shooter feel—move with the left stick, aim with the right, etc. This is a pretty simple gameplay system, yet somehow the developers have managed to make the controls feel as awkward and imprecise as possible. Instead of smooth 360 degrees of aiming, the game limits you to oddly stiff shooting angles, which just feels wrong for anyone that has ever played a twin-stick shooter. It is, at the very least, clumsy for the standard machine gun weapons, but if you try to use a laser weapon which shoots out a large continuous beam of energy, it makes hitting enemies feel almost impossible. Smooth aiming controls is paramount in a twin-stick shooter set-up, yet Rogue Corps manages to make the most basic element of its gameplay clumsy and frustrating. Sadly the game doesn't get any better from there. The top-down perspective sometimes shifts slightly to take advantage of 3D environments and light platforming, like hopping across a broken bridge, but Super Mario this is not. Jumping feels just as imprecise as shooting, and trying to grab collectibles on high ledges ends up being more trouble than its worth. When you're actually able to hit them, mowing down waves of monstrous baddies can be pretty satisfying, but Rogue Corps doesn't have the depth or charm needed to assuage the mindless repetition of shooting one group of enemies after the next. In fact, the game almost seems to encourage the tedium, with boss fights that aren't hard but take so long to complete thanks to bosses with massive, bullet sponge levels of health. It's not challenging, it's just boring. And although you don't have to worry about ammo, your weapons will over heat if you fire them for too long, which doesn't seem to mesh well with the twin-stick shooter vibe of "shoot everything you see because there are hordes of enemies charging at you." It ends up slowing down the gameplay even more, making it even more mindlessly dull. The game seems to want you to play through these levels over and over, because of the weapon and character upgrade systems that rely upon random drops from enemies as well as experience gained from fighting. Progress is pretty slow, but upgrading is vital to keep the bullet sponge monotony to as low a level as possible. It also doesn't help that upgrading and customizing weapons seems needlessly complicated—at the very least the UI could have used some cleaning up to make it easier to tell what's useful and what isn't. All of the game's tedious repetition begins to make a bit of sense when you see the multiplayer options. Presumably, playing with some friends would help speed up the action and make the gameplay flow a little better. The downside is that the online community is nonexistent, and the couch co-op is limited to exploration mode so you can't play through the campaign together. Though even playing with friends wouldn't fully salvage the uninspired gameplay and clunky controls. Not that the game needed it, but the visuals are the final nail in the coffin for Rogue Corps. The art direction seems straight out of a 90s teenage boy's imagination, from the muscular badass protagonist to the grotesque creatures. If the game had a stronger sense of personality or charm—or better yet if the game played off this look as knowingly ironic—then the style might have worked, but instead it just comes off as silly. It doesn't help that the environment graphics are terribly bland, and the game's textures and details just aren't very sharp on the Switch. Contra: Rogue Corps feels like a rough draft of ideas that somehow got pushed out the door as a final product. It's almost impressive how badly they managed to screw up the twin-stick shooter formula, from the clunky aiming system to the hordes of enemies and bosses that are little more than bullet sponges. The gameplay is just such a grind, without any of the charm or depth that makes similar grindy games worth playing, which only leaves you with the tedious, repetitive gunplay. At least Contra fans still have the Contra Anniversary Collection to get their fix of frantic and engaging shoot 'em up gameplay. Rating: 3 out of 10 Corps
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