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  1. For years turn-based strategy fans have been lamenting the fact that the Advance Wars franchise has been seemingly abandoned, but thankfully indie developer Chucklefish took it upon themselves to create their own tactical wargame, complete with rich strategic gameplay and charming army factions. Wargroove picks up the mantle of Advance Wars in a beautiful way while still putting enough unique touches on the gameplay to feel like a fresh experience. The story follows young Queen Mercia who is forced to flee her homeland, the Kingdom of Cherrystone, when undead invaders attack. Now she must travel across the continent of Aurania to gather allies and fight to reclaim her homeland. Wargroove certainly isn't earning any points for originality with this storyline, but even if it feels far too familiar for this kind of war-strategy game, there's still plenty of charming personality to buoy the adventure, as well as interesting backstories when you take the time to read each character's codex. The handful of main characters and their quirks are fun to watch throughout the game's short cutscenes, and how many games feature a dog as not only a main character but as an army commander? Players familiar with any of the Nintendo Wars games will instantly recognize the core gameplay structure in Wargroove: 2D, turn-based strategy combat. Each mission pits you against an enemy force (usually better armed and entrenched) and you need to plan your attacks thoughtfully in order to advance across the map, seizing towns to earn money and barracks to deploy more troops. Wargroove perfectly scratches the itch that Advance Wars left behind. You've got a decent number of unit types at your disposal, meaning there are plenty of opportunities to pursue unique strategies in order to overcome the enemy army. When you're deep in a challenging mission, it's incredibly easy to lose track of time as you monitor your army's progress. And even when that victory screen comes up you'll want to dive right back in with another battle. Every unit has its own strengths and weaknesses, and in Wargroove this is further bolstered a semi rock-paper-scissors mechanic as well as a critical hit system. Certain units are more effective against other unit types, which means you have to be ready to effectively counter whatever units the enemy throws at you in order to defeat them efficiently. For example, pikemen are particularly effective against cavalry. It's totally possible to defeat a cavalry unit using basic swordsmen, but to defeat them quickly and with fewer losses on your own side it's best to keep in mind which units are particularly effective against any other given unit. Wargroove also features a critical hit system which can alter how you approach an encounter. Every unit type has a unique critical hit condition—going back to pikemen as an example, they'll deal a critical hit when standing next to other ally pikemen, so it behooves you to keep multiple pikemen around and move them forward as a unit (to help balance this, pikemen have the shortest movement range of any unit). Keeping critical hit conditions in mind has a huge impact on the way you play, adding a satisfying extra layer of strategy to the action and a helpful boost in your back pocket since a few key critical hits can drastically change the flow of battle. It's a bit frustrating that some critical hit conditions rely upon the enemy's placement rather than your own, but regardless, critical hits are a welcome wrinkle in the turn-based strategy mechanics. In Wargroove, your commander also exists on the field of battle as a playable unit, and a pretty powerful unit at that thanks to their ability to naturally regenerate health each turn. Commanders hit hard but you can't be too cavalier with them since, if your commander dies, it's game over. Commanders also have powerful Groove abilities that, once charged, can have devastating effects on the tide of battle. Mercia, for example, heals every ally unit in range for 50% health. Some of these Groove abilities feel a bit unbalanced, such as the vampire commander's deadly ability to instantly kill an enemy unit and heal herself, and since each commander has a unique ability it's a bit of a shame that you can't choose which commander to use during story missions. Still, having your commander on the field with the Groove mechanic opens up even more opportunities for strategic planning, and helps keep the gameplay varied. Another significant twist for Advance Wars alumni is the way healing works in Wargroove. You aren't able to combine two of the same unit when they're injured, but there are two ways to recover health aside from Mercia's Groove. Rather than positioning a unit on top of a friendly town to recover health, you can purchase reinforcements from the town, which also lowers the town's defenses (towns recover health naturally each turn). It's an interesting mechanic since you're actually weakening your defensive/money-making position in order to recover your offensive position. In a way it makes it seem like you shouldn't be relying on towns to recover health too much, but it definitely makes you think more critically about whether a unit on the frontlines is worth healing. Wargroove also features mage units that are able to heal nearby allies (for a small fee) which feels like a suitable replacement for maintaining your forward momentum without retreating to, and weakening, your towns. Wargroove features some great pixel art that perfectly references Advance Wars' colorful look while still feeling unique in its own way. The sprite-work on each unit is excellent as well, though perhaps there's too much variety and detail in their designs—sometimes you need to just see what types of units are on the field at a glance, and it might take you a while to recognize all of them. There's undeniable personality in every sprite though and the unlockable concept art is a lot of fun to sift through. The soundtrack is brimming with upbeat charm as well, even if there isn't a huge amount of variety in the tunes. Wargroove certainly isn't lacking when it comes to sheer amount of content. In addition to a decently lengthy campaign which includes a variety of challenging side missions, there's also an arcade mode which is more like a short gauntlet of missions and a puzzle mode which is an interesting twist for a strategy game. Each puzzle tasks you with clearing the map in a single turn, usually by means of defeating the enemy commander. These puzzles require you to master each unit's abilities, especially their critical hit requirements, in order to clear the map quickly, which is great practice for learning how to use each type of unit as efficiently as possible. And all of that covers just the offline, single-player content. There's also local and online multiplayer as well as a level editor to create, share, and download custom maps. Suffice it to say, when you get into the groove, there's no shortage of gameplay to enjoy. Wargroove wears its Advance Wars inspiration on its sleeve, but rather than feel like a simple imitation it comes off as a loving homage. The core mechanics are instantly familiar but there are enough unique quirks to let Wargroove stand tall as its own challenging and engaging strategy game. With plenty of depth to the gameplay and an incredible wealth of content, Wargroove is a must play for strategy fans and a decent place to start for new players thanks to its sliding difficulty options. Rating: 9 out of 10 Grooves
  2. It's pretty incredible that after so many years of mainline Final Fantasy games skipping over Nintendo systems, the Switch has played host to several titles that past Nintendo consoles have missed out on, including Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age. Originally released in 2006 for PS2, the game has gotten an HD makeover for this edition, as well as updates to the soundtrack and various gameplay adjustments such as a speed-up ability to make battles progress faster. Add in the Switch's portability and you've got arguably the definitive edition of a now classic RPG. The Zodiac Age takes place in Ivalice where the empires of Archadia and Rozarria are locked in an on-going war while the small kingdom of Dalmasca is caught between them. Like most Final Fantasy games you play as a ragtag group of heroes who band together purely from chance and yet must work together to stop the tyranny of the Archadian Empire. Unlike other titles in the series though there isn't much emphasis on your characters' personal journeys—the focus of the story in The Zodiac Age is more on the overarching political conflict. As such the storytelling feels a bit bare-boned. Without strong characters for the player to focus on it's hard to get fully invested in the conflict, and too often cutscenes feel rather boring as the characters simply go through the motions of finding a mystic power that can be used to stop the evil empire—pretty standard stuff in the realm of video games. It doesn't help that the writing seems to be made to mimic some sort of Shakespearean loftiness, but the execution falls well short of that mark. The writing is necessarily bad, but it never hits the highs that normally make RPG tales so engaging. Although The Zodiac Age retains all of the recognizable, trademark creatures and traits of the Final Fantasy series (chocobos, Moogles, character classes like white mage or black mage, etc.) there's a huge difference in how battles work here compared to previous entries in the franchise. For one thing, battles begin seamlessly—if you see an enemy in the field you can run up and attack it with no transition to a battle screen. You also only directly control one character at a time, though you're able to quickly swap characters (and even change characters in your active party in the middle of a battle). The key to the battle system here is the Gambit system, which allows you to essentially create auto-commands for your AI controlled party members to follow. For example, you might have your healer set to cast cure on an ally if their health drops below 50%, that way you don't have to manually enter that command any time it occurs during a fight. Every action, spell, or item can be set with the Gambit system, and you can purchase new commands to target a huge variety of enemy types to cover any situation. There's a degree to which the Gambit system makes it feel like the game is playing itself, but the benefits outweigh that minor annoyance. Standard battles fly by thanks to this feature, and given the real-time combat structure the alternative would be a tediously slow process of making sure each character is fighting intelligently. Plus you can always assume direct control over any character's actions anyway if you just need them to quickly do one thing, such as throw out a quick healing item. As is, the Gambit system feels like a happy medium—you have enough control over the AI that you won't feel stymied by their inability to adapt to changing circumstances during a battle, particularly a boss fight (and by the way, Gambits can be easily toggled on and off at any time as well) and at the same time you don't have to micromanage your party through every enemy encounter. This Final Fantasy game also has its own slight variation on character classes. You're able to choose a character's job (or license) right from the beginning—or at least, once you've unlocked it after a couple hours of playing—and from there you have access to a job board with various abilities that can be unlocked with license points. There are some similarities between boards but each class's most defining features are unique—for example, both white and black mages can unlock mystic armor to equip, but their respective white and black magic spells are unique to their job boards. You're able to select what to unlock or upgrade so there's a decent amount of freedom in choosing how your characters grow, though you're still limited by what equipment or spells you can buy in stores—unlocking the ability to cast Firaga early in the game is all well and good but useless until you've actually purchased the spell. There's something oddly addictive about opening up your job boards and poring over what to upgrade, though it's a shame that the physical classes have quite limited variety in terms of what they unlock. You're able to purchase non-magical techniques, but they're few in number and even more limited in use. It would've been nice to have more variety among the physical classes outside of weapon choice. A new feature for this edition of the game is the ability to swap licenses (in the original game you were stuck with whatever you initially chose). This is a great help in figuring out your ideal party structure, especially since each character can more or less excel in any job, and simply makes the game more convenient to play since you don't have to restart completely if you find a certain set-up just isn't to your liking. With the aforementioned speed-up ability as well, The Zodiac Age makes some valuable quality of life improvements that make the game more accessible. It wouldn't be a Final Fantasy game without a healthy dose of optional content, and The Zodiac Age features plenty of nooks and crannies to explore that are only safe to venture into once you've reached a decently high level. There's also the hunt system which tasks you with tracking down powerful monsters and defeating them. This process can be a bit tedious when the path to a monster is particularly obtuse, but hunts pose some good challenges that thorough players should enjoy tackling. This edition of the game also includes Trial Mode for an extra challenging gauntlet of fights that rewards you with rare items that can be transferred to your main game, perfect for players who want to put their skills to the test. The remastering of the game's visuals has done a great job of polishing the graphics. It is unmistakably a game that was originally released over a decade ago, and the art style has its ups and downs—from varied and imaginative creatures to some of the most ridiculous outfits, even by Final Fantasy standards—but the new coat of paint gives it a nice HD sheen, especially the full motion cutscenes. The voice acting, unfortunately, isn't quite able to shake off its clearly dated quality as several of the major characters sound rough, either from an acting perspective or just a sound quality perspective. This probably doesn't help with making the characters feel memorable and engaging. The soundtrack doesn't feel dated at all though and music fans can enjoy three versions of the soundtrack: original, orchestral, and OST. Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age introduced some innovative game mechanics into the long-running RPG series which are just as fun to play around with today as they were thirteen years ago. Some of the game's unique features might feel passé today now that ally AI has become a little more sophisticated and commonplace in RPGs, and the storytelling doesn't quite hit the high marks of other prestigious RPG titles, but the Gambit-focused battle system and satisfaction of building up unique job combinations proves plenty engaging for hours upon end. Rating: 8 out of 10 Gambits
  3. There's no better feeling in an action game than when you're locked into the rhythm of the gameplay and are flying through a stage, perfectly defeating enemies and flying over obstacles. Katana Zero is built entirely around that satisfying feeling—with only a sword at your side, you cut your way through rooms full of gun-toting enemies by dodging or deflecting bullets, knowing even one hit means death. Add in some stylish visuals and a thumpin' soundtrack and you've got an impressive, modern take on side-scrolling action games. You play as a mysterious samurai assassin deployed to eliminate key targets—and whatever bodyguards they might have defending them—using your sword and a bizarre ability to rewind time, meaning death is never permanent for you. It's a bit cliché but our protagonist has amnesia, and relies upon a somewhat suspicious psychiatrist who administers drugs and dossiers for your next target. As you progress you'll gradually uncover the truth surrounding the samurai's murky past as well as just a little of the setting's bleak, neon dystopian society, including some sort of devastating war that concluded only a few years prior to the events of the game. The story's slow pace at unveiling one more piece of the puzzle keeps things interesting as you struggle to comprehend what is really going on, but ultimately the game leaves a lot of questions unanswered which is a little disappointing. It's still an engaging story but you're really only getting a small peek at what is clearly a larger and more elaborate world. Katana Zero is all about fast-paced and fluid action. Since your main weapon is a short-range sword—and most enemies are equipped with guns—you have to be thoughtful in how you close the distance to a target to strike him down. There are opportunities to get the drop of enemies by busting down doors or even breaking through the floor, but if you're not careful it's easy to get overwhelmed. Your sword strike also have to be precise since a missed attack can leave you open—there's no worse feeling than missing a valuable deflection. This isn't the kind of game where you can rush in wildly and hope to squeak through anyway, which makes the action feel even more intense. When you're playing well it's incredibly satisfying to zip from one target to the next, dodging through enemy attacks and even deflecting bullets back at attackers (you also have a slow-mo ability which is invaluable for timing these deflects). There are plenty of ways to approach each stage too so you never feel pigeon-holed into a specific strategy. When only one hit can kill you, the game can feel punishingly difficult at times. The good news though is that stages are generally fairly short, so dying really doesn't penalize you too much. The game is also super quick about dropping you right back into the action, which is always appreciated. Most importantly though, even a failed attempt can provide some invaluable information about how to approach the stage on your next attempt. Even after dying and retrying a few times, the action of Katana Zero never loses momentum. And although your sword is always your main weapon, it is possible to pick up throwable items—and even C4, which you can remotely detonate—which adds just enough variety to how you approach enemies to keep every stage feeling fresh and still challenging. There's also something hilarious about defeating an enemy by throwing a soda can at them from across the room. Unfortunately, all of the game's fast-paced action also seems to translate to a quick, short game length. Just four hours or so will see you through the whole game, which is a shame since the game's formula certainly doesn't grow old by then. If you can't get enough Katana Zero though there are some hidden bonuses, including additional levels and a secret boss, but the difficulty of figuring out how to reach them might be a little too much without a little help from an internet guide. The visuals in Katana Zero combine classic pixel art design with eye-popping neon colors, plus plenty of blood splashing across the scenery when you cut down guards. The smooth animation just makes all of the frenetic action all the more intense and satisfying, and the developers have put a ton of great detail into the pixel artwork. The visuals are complemented by a fantastic techno soundtrack, complete with synthwave tunes that fits perfectly with the setting's 80s retro-futuristic style. From the first stage to the last Katana Zero throws you into an intense and wholly engaging action experience whose focus on fluid kills and unrelenting action helps it stand out in a sea of indie games. The intriguing setting and story doesn't quite result in a satisfying payoff, but the addictive gameplay is more than enough to keep you glued to the game throughout its short length. Rating: 7 out of 10 Katanas
  4. Following the intense kart-shapeshifting mechanics of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, released back in 2012, developer Sumo Digital has changed tracks in order to focus on a team-based racing game. Team Sonic Racing, as the title implies, requires racers to work together by sharing items or boosting one another to win—or lose—as a team. But the novelty of this gameplay hook doesn't have quite the mileage that players might hope. When a mysterious tanuki named Dodon Pa invites Sonic and his friends to compete in team-based kart races, the blue blur and buddies saddle up in advanced cars to tear up the tracks. The quality of the writing is more or less what you'd expect from recent Sonic games, which is to say not great, with jokes that tend to fall flat more often than not, but the good news is the game lets you skip the introductory dialogue before each race—in fact it's kind of the default, since pressing A allows you to skip and pressing Y lets you listen. Regardless of the writing, the story mode is a valuable introduction to the mechanics of the game (even if the AI tends to rubberband no matter how well you're racing) and even includes a variety of alternate challenges such as collecting rings or passing through narrow checkpoints along the track. These bonus challenges can be frustratingly difficult since it seems there's no room for error at all to earn a high score, but for a racing game like this getting as much practice in as you can helps hone your skills. If there's one thing Team Sonic Racing has retained from its predecessors, it's elaborate, insane, and intense track designs. There are 21 courses in this game—divided into seven themed worlds of three tracks each—and each is pure chaos, in a good way. With everything from moving hazards to short cuts there are plenty of great courses to enjoy here, not to mention the mirrored version of each one to keep racers on their toes. There's also a decent selection of items to pick up while driving, each of which can have helpful effects for you or create nasty obstacles for your opponents. The only minor annoyance is that all items are Wisps which have a tendency to all look the same, especially when you're focused on racing and only glance at the item symbol in the corner of the screen, but it just takes practice to recognize them. The crux of Team Sonic Racing is, of course, racing as a team of up to three characters. These races are decided on a score system and the higher you place in the race the more points you get—you might place first and get 15 points, but if your two teammates are dead last your team might still lose overall. You don't have to simply hope that your teammates do well, though. You can help them in a couple of ways: for one, you can share items with teammates. A homing missile Wisp is pretty useless if you're already in the lead, but if you send it to a friend it might help them move up the ranks. What's odd is that you can't see what items your teammates have, even when they offer to share them (a prompt appears on screen to accept a teammate's shared item). You might not want what a teammate is offering, or it might be put to better use in the hands of your third teammate, but there's no way to know this in-game. Even so it's still helpful to share since certain items only appear with this sharing mechanic, but it's weird that there's a degree of mystery to it. The other key co-op feature of team racing is slingshot boosting. Whoever is currently the furthest ahead on your team automatically generates a yellow boost track behind them, and when teammates drive through these tracks they can charge up a boost. Any kind of speed boost in a racing game is hugely helpful, and it's nice that it's a sort of passive boost to your teammates, but it's a shame you can't do much more for them. If you're close to a teammate it's possible to repeatedly boost one another as one player gets ahead of the other, but if they're far behind all you can really do is keep driving and hope they're benefiting from your tracks. There's also a skim boost when you can perform by nudging a teammate who has just spun out (due to getting hit by an enemy or falling off the track, for example) which gives them a small boost to get back up to speed. Skim boosts can be pretty disorienting for the boostee though, and if you're on a curve or near a hazard they can be just as harmful as they are helpful. Finally there's the team ultimate boost, the biggest team effect and potentially a real game changer if you're lagging behind in a race. Every time you perform a team action (sharing items, sling/skim boosting) you'll charge your ultimate meter, and once full you can activate an extra powerful boost which also renders you temporarily invincible (it's like a Mario Kart super star times ten). Ultimate boosts are super helpful, though the fact that every team will probably charge up at least one use during a race means they also have to be used strategically. You also end up going so fast that these boosts can be harmful on sections of a course that require precision, which makes it a real problem if your teammates activate the ultimate when you're not ready. Ultimately these boosts can be just as frustrating to work with as they are useful. Although it won't take too long to power your way through the story mode there's plenty of replay value in Team Sonic Racing, whether that means trying different racers, playing locally with friends, or challenging other players online. Online races are pretty smooth, with only the occasional minor hiccup that one typically sees in an online match, but what's odd here is that there's no way to play with friends in a public match. You can create your own private lobby to race with friends, but there's no way to form a team of three and face random players online. In a team-based game that's a pretty silly oversight. On the presentation front Team Sonic Racing is a colorful, stylish racer with plenty of elaborate background scenery on each track. The fact that the courses are divided into seven worlds means there's a bit too much similarity between some tracks, but still, the art design is solid. The soundtrack has plenty of decent songs as well, though the voice acting sticks out a bit, in a negative way. Characters' quippy comments while racing get old fast, and while the voice work isn't all bad the sheer repetition and cheesy writing makes it pretty grating after only a couple races. Team Sonic Racing puts a uniquely co-operative spin on arcade-style kart racing, and the result is…fine. The team mechanics aren't quite as polished as I'd prefer to make it truly feel like a co-operative racing game, but the core gameplay hits enough of the familiar beats of a racer to keep the experience pretty enjoyable. The oversight on team-focused online features is bizarre though, and puts a bit of a shadow over the experience. It's far from the best racing game on the Switch, but for the budget price of $40 Team Sonic Racing is a decent enough for a quick spin. Rating: 7 out of 10 Karts
  5. It's been a while since Mortal Kombat graced a Nintendo system, but finally Nintendo fans can rejoin all of the bloody battles, bone-crunching hits, and gruesome fatalities that the series is known for. Mortal Kombat 11 adds a few new features to the franchise to keep the visceral action fresh and engaging, though the modern accoutrements unfortunately includes an emphasis on grinding in-game currency to unlock minor features in the game. The game features a full story mode that allows you to play as one or two characters in each chapter. The plot more or less picks up immediately after the events of Mortal Kombat 10 (though unfortunately the game doesn't feature any kind of recap of the story so far, which is especially a shame for players that only have a Switch). In short though, Raiden and the defenders of Earthrealm recently defeated Shinnok, the disgraced former Elder God of Death, but in doing so they've earned the hatred of Shinnok's mother, Kronika, the keeper of time. She uses her power to bring past and present versions of our heroes together in an attempt to create her own timeline, so now Raiden and company must unite to fight for their own reality. References to past games might sail right over Switch-owners' heads but regardless of your familiarity with these characters, the story mode features tons of crazy action cutscenes that are pretty fun to watch. The writing may not be much better than a soap opera at times (a soap opera featuring time travel and demonic beings, at least) but it's fun to indulge in some of the campiness and just enjoy the ride while it lasts. The gameplay in Mortal Kombat 11 is fundamentally unchanged since the franchise's origins and is extremely similar to the most recent entries: it's a 2.5D fighting game of 1v1 battles that emphasizes gruesome attacks and bloody fatalities—they're brutal but always satisfying to execute. Characters have a handful of combos and special attacks but there's tons of depth in learning all of the ins and outs of each character, enough to keep a player occupied with only one character for a long time. The flow of combat feels measured, not like the rapid chaos that can overwhelm match ups in Smash Bros., but the game is no less engaging for it. Precision over spamming feels like the name of the game here, and it helps acclimate new players to the action without reducing the intensity of each match. Mortal Kombat 11 introduces some new flashy moves such as Fatal Blows which are devastating cinematic combos that are only available to use once your health bar has dropped below 30%. These can also only be used once per match, so even when your health is low it's worth considering whether or not you're in an opportune time to use it. Fatal Blows represent not only Mortal Kombat's love of brutal attacks but also a great strategic element that can help the underdog in a match even things up. In addition to the story mode (which can be played on multiple difficulty levels) there are a couple of other single-player pursuits in Mortal Kombat 11. There are the Klassic Towers, essentially the familiar solo-play tournament progression of battling one enemy after another before facing off against Kronika, and the Towers of Time which introduces a random wacky effect to contend with such as increased enemy health or a barrage of projectiles to dodge. The chaos can be just as frustrating as it is entertaining but it does add a unique variability when you're tired of fighting the same AI battles over and over. There's also the Krypt, a third-person mode where you explore Shang Tsung's island to find treasure chests to unlock features like alternate costumes for characters and other customization items. Opening chests costs in-game currency, which is gradually amassed through normal gameplay. The rate can be excruciatingly slow based on how expensive the chests in the Krypt can be though, which makes the customization aspect of the game feel like an imbalanced grind. It wouldn't be a modern fighting game without an online mode as well, and Mortal Kombat 11 features a couple of options for battling online. There's a classic mode for jumping right into a match with another player, a ranked mode to put your skills to the test, and private rooms that you can set up just for playing with friends. For the most part the online matches are pretty smooth—not as fluid as offline but not so much that it significantly impacts the experience. The online community is decently populated as well so it's not too hard to find an opponent. But the downside to Mortal Kombat 11's online functionality doesn't even have to do with playing online, but rather trying to play offline. Due to the way the game continually registers your progress with unlocking items and earning currency online, you're locked out of certain solo modes if your Switch is not connected to the internet, e.g. when you're playing handheld on-the-go. Not being able to play solo modes while offline is obnoxious, especially given the Switch's handheld functionality. The game's visuals are an unfortunate reminder that this Switch edition simply isn't the most powerful and polished version of the game. The graphics can be gratingly low res at times, which is particularly noticeable during story mode as the game transitions from beautiful cutscenes to grainy in-game models. They're not terrible, but the muddier textures and grainy hair effects are undeniably noticeable. The game will even lag at times when there's a lot of effects on screen, such as during a Fatal Blow. On the brightside though the gameplay runs smoothly—during a match the lower resolution graphics never interfere with your attack inputs. It's still disappointing to see the lower quality visuals, but it's more important that the flow of gameplay is preserved. What's inexcusable though is the game's tendency to crash, whether playing a solo mode or online. Since it's a fighting game you thankfully rarely lose much progress but it's still an issue that pops up far too often. Mortal Kombat 11 is a great opportunity to jump back into the bloody action that has defined the series for decades, but this Switch version comes with some obvious issues, ranging from understandable lower-quality visuals to more frustrating problems like crashing or the necessity of an online connection to play solo modes. The base gameplay is still solid but the visuals are a constant, unfortunate remidner that you're playing an inferior version of the game. Rating: 7 out of 10 Fatalities
  6. There might not be a better recent example of unique, creative indie game creation than developer Gabe Cuzzillo's Ape Out. Where large studios might not be willing to take a risk on an original, unorthodox game, Cuzzillo and publisher Devolver Digital have taken the plunge on a stylish, jazzy action game that puts one ape against a seemingly endless supply of gun-toting captors. It's hard to spend time with Ape Out and not be completely mesmerized by its addictive gameplay and incredible sense of style. Storytelling isn't really a concern in Ape Out. It's clear that our ape protagonist is being held in some sort of research facility which has caused the deaths of other apes, but the game communicates all this without a line of dialogue or text. It's certainly never explained why there are so many armed guards surrounding the ape facility, nor why an ape would end up on the thirtieth floor of a skyscraper (King Kong notwithstanding). Regardless, it's not hard to empathize with the ape's pursuit of freedom, even if he does cut a bloody trail while finding the exit. The goal of each level is simple: wind your way through a randomly generated, labyrinthine level while dodging or defeating the armed guards in your path. Your tools are limited as there are really only two actions the ape can perform—grab or throw. Throwing an enemy into a wall (or into another enemy) results in a satisfyingly bloody explosion, or you can grab an enemy to use as a human shield before tossing into another group of enemies. That's all there is to know about Ape Out's controls—grab, throw, and never stop moving. The simplicity of its controls is key to Ape Out's addictive appeal, as is the rush of excitement in maintaining your momentum by bowling over one guard after another in a desperate bid for freedom. Every time you see an enemy a question pops up in your mind—do I try to rush him for a quick kill, or do I try to dodge and escape? It's a perfect distillation of the fight or flight instinct (appropriately exemplified in an animal protagonist) and helps keep every level feeling fresh and unique since you never know what you're going to encounter in the claustrophobic corridors and interconnected rooms. Thanks to the randomly-generated room structure and enemy placement each attempt is a new challenge, and rather than memorizing the layout of the game you're instead honing your instinctual reactions and ability to keep cool while staring down five armed guards. The top-down perspective does an amazing job of emphasizing this intense, slightly nerve-wracking feeling of not knowing what's up ahead, only knowing that you have to keep moving no matter what. Levels are quite short but surviving can be quite challenging—three gunshots and the ape goes down, and you gradually face more dangerous guards and even explosives which will instantly kill you. Dying near the end of a level can be frustrating but the game's quick, addictive nature means you'll likely just be energized for one more attempt, and of course it makes victory that much sweeter once you finally conquer a tricky area. Even when dying and retrying repeatedly (and you will) Ape Out isn't a very long game, which is a bit of a shame since the formula doesn't grow old at all by the time the end credits roll. The good news of course is that the game is nigh endlessly replayable thanks to its randomly-generated content, plus there's a hard mode for an extra challenge and a score-chasing arcade mode to truly put your skills to the test. Ape Out is short but the experience is magnetic and makes every second with the game count. The most immediately striking aspect of Ape Out is its visual style, which is both minimalist and mesmerizing. The colors are brilliantly vibrant, there's a beautiful textured, grainy quality to the art that makes it feel alive, and the narrow top-down perspective kicks up the intensity of the gameplay. For all of its simplicity, nothing is lost in terms of gameplay with this visual style—the ape is always a clear, bright figure on screen, enemies are immediately recognizable even once you have contend with various enemy types, and important hazards like doors that you have to pull open are clear. And bloody remains of a squished guard are pretty satisfying to see explode on the screen in a burst of red. The soundtrack is also not just a fantastically jazzy number, it's uniquely integrated into the game in a way rarely seen. Described as a reactive music system, the jazzy drum beat of the background music changes depending on how you play—e.g. smashing an enemy into a wall results in a satisfying cymbal crash, and if you take out multiple enemies in quick succession the tempo picks up to match the action. The improvisational nature of this soundtrack is a brilliant way to match the improvisational nature of playing the game. You aren't going to do the exact same thing every time you play through a level, and the music matches it. It's an almost obnoxiously clever way of integrating the soundtrack into the game, and best of all the jazzy drum beats are an absolute delight to listen to—and in a way you get to put your own personal touch on the music. Ape Out positively oozes style in its minimalist visuals and driving jazz drum soundtrack, and best of all pairs it with an addictive, fast-paced, intense gameplay structure. Though short, the challenge of escaping is absolutely mesmerizing and easily pulls players into its frenetic arcade-style action. With so many unique titles already on the Switch's eShop, Ape Out manages to stand out as a brilliantly creative experience. Rating: 8 out of 10 Apes Note: The game is currently on sale for 30% off, so it's the perfect time to give the game a try!
  7. From indie developer Rayark, creators of Deemo and VOEZ, comes a third rhythm game for the Nintendo Switch. And just like those games, Cytus α offers a wide selection of techno, electronic, and pop music from Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, all of which offer catchy beats for you to tap along to on the Switch's touch screen or using a controller. Even if this type of music isn't your normal forte, you may find yourself a new fan of the style thanks to the game's relatively low barrier of entry and addictive gameplay. Like all rhythm games your objective here is to keep up with the rhythm of the song by hitting notes as they appear on screen. Notes can either be a single tap, an extended hold, or require you to drag your finger along the screen while following the path of the note—sometimes you even have to hit two notes at once, though I found myself wishing there were a better visual indication of this since it's an easy cue to miss on the particularly fast songs. Since notes can appear literally anywhere on the screen it can be daunting and chaotic at first, but there are some important rules to remember. There's a black bar that moves up and down on the screen, and when it passes through a note that's your cue to tap. Notes are also color coded, so you can see at a glance whether you need to hit a note as the bar is moving up the screen or moving down. And of course, above all you need to listen to the rhythm of the music. Even once you're in the groove with the game, earning a high score can be a serious challenge; some songs will have you tapping the Switch's touch screen in such a flurry that you can barely register what's happening with your eyes, you just have to give yourself over to the rhythm of the song. And when you tap into that rhythm, Cytus α is a blast. The best part of any rhythm game is getting into the flow of the music, and Cytus α has tons of great tunes to bob your head to. There's an incredible variety of songs, and the good news, if you just want to unlock them as quickly as possible, is that you don't have to complete every song in a chapter to unlock the next, so you can focus on the songs you like. Completing a song, even with a low score, isn't terribly difficult thanks to the game's leniency when it comes to your timing—you don't have to be perfectly precise in order to get a high score. There's a separate accuracy rating though, and that's where you'll measure your skill once you're good enough to earn a max score on any song. Though even getting to that point can be a gargantuan task. Cytus α features over 200 songs, including tracks from the game's original release on mobile devices as well as entirely original and exclusive tracks for this Switch release. Each song has an easy and a hard mode as well as a numerical rating to let you know how difficult it is (e.g. you might be willing to tackle a level 5 song on hard mode, but a level 8 song on easy would be even more challenging). Just playing every song once will last hours upon hours, and perfecting your skills on each gives the game a huge amount of replay value. Once you've developed your tapping skills you may want to tackle the online multiplayer mode and compete with up to two other players on the same song. The mode feels a little bare-boned though, and not just because it's difficult to find anyone to play with online. The matches are simply score battles, so you don't interact with your opponents—it kind of seems like an unnecessary mode, in fact, since Cytus α also features online leaderboards for every song. Still, multiplayer can be a fun way to compete with a friend and show off who has better rhythm. It also feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to not include any kind of music player mode to simply listen to the songs. There are tons of great tracks and it would've been nice to listen to them outside of the gameplay. I mentioned previously that Cytus α can be played on the Switch's touch screen or by using a controller, and while both are totally viable methods, it's safe to say the touch controls feel better overall. Somehow it's easier to get into the rhythm when your fingers are flying around the screen instead of simply pressing buttons on a controller—buttons just doesn't have the same satisfying tactile feedback. The downside to playing on the touch screen though is that your fingers might end up blocking the screen at times, and since notes can appear anywhere on screen it's a little too easy to trip yourself up this way. Although you might not expect it from a rhythm game, Cytus α does tell a story through unlockable data entries. It's not much—and doesn't quite tie into the gameplay precisely—but it's a neat little sci-fi story and worth taking the time to read through once you've unlocked them all. The writing itself leaves something to be desired but the sci-fi premise alone is worth reading. Cytus α offers a wealth of rhythm gameplay on the Switch, perfectly suited to the system's touch screen. The sheer amount and variety of songs means that anyone will find something to enjoy, and rhythm fans will love the challenge of perfecting every song on both easy and hard modes. Although the multiplayer mode is a bit lackluster and the $50 price tag might seem high for what was originally a mobile game, Cytus α is a treasure trove for rhythm fans. Rating: 8 out of 10 Taps
  8. Dragon Marked for Death sees developer Inti Creates leverage their experience with side-scrolling action games into a fresh genre for them: mutliplayer action-RPG. The transition is far from smooth though, and although Dragon Marked for Death retains elements of the fast-paced action that the developer is known for, the game as a whole is marred by some seriously tedious gameplay design. You play as a survivor of the Dragonblood Clan who, after their home is destroyed by the Kingdom of Melius, forges a pact with the Astral Dragon Atruum in an effort to reap revenge on the royal family. It's a set-up that's dripping with cliché and sadly never tries to be anything more than that. To be fair though, the gameplay is structured around replayable missions, so storytelling isn't a huge focus when the bulk of the game involves taking on contracts and beating up some monsters. It's a shame that even the world-building feels hollow, though, as the mission structure should at least allow for good opportunities to flesh out the game's lore and setting, but as it is players will most likely ignore the plot completely without missing anything of substance. As mentioned the gameplay in Dragon Marked for Death revolves around taking up contracts at the local bar and setting out on short quests—similar to something like Monster Hunter. At the beginning of the game you can choose your character class from four options, each of whom plays a little differently (i.e. the tanky warrior, agile ninja, delicate but powerful Witch) plus you're able to augment their abilities slightly based on choosing an element. Once you begin a quest you're transported to the relevant area of the world and cut your way through minor monsters and massive bosses while collecting experience points and loot. Rinse, repeat. And there's a lot of repetition. Dragon Marked for Death is unabashedly a grindy game, even by the standards of the genre, because the best (and frankly, only worthwhile) equipment has to be crafted from materials dropped by monsters or randomly found while on a mission, and in both cases the drop rate is frustratingly low. Games that require a lot of repetitive gameplay get by on solid fundamentals, but Dragon Marked for Death isn't quite up to par in that area. There are some flashy features to fighting monsters but the vast majority of it is mind-numbingly repetitive, not least because there are only a handful of different monsters found in the game. Each character really only has a handful of combos or techniques, but enemies tend to be massive damage sponges so you end up just hacking away at them over and over. Your movements can feel oddly stiff as well, and it doesn't help that there isn't any kind of basic dodge ability so getting cornered is all too easy. Bosses are at least more engaging but these battles end up swinging to the other extreme—they're seriously challenging, and the tedium of spending twenty minutes running through a level just to die against a boss is, needless to say, frustrating. There's an unfortunate degree of repetition in the level design as well since there are only a handful of locations that you'll revisit over and over. There are actually some solid dungeon designs in the game, such as a level that's a giant tower which requires you to find batteries in order to power its elevator, but doing it half a dozen times makes the charm wear thin. And levels are long, with no breaks or checkpoints, which honestly just makes them feel like work more often than not, with your reward being a slightly more engaging boss fight at the end. These flaws are all the more egregious while playing solo, because Dragon Marked for Death is clearly made for multiplayer—some of the clumsy design mechanics start to make a little more sense when you have a full team of four players backing each other up. For example, the witch's long, stationary cast time is hard to work around while solo, but if you have a friend drawing the attention of the enemy you'll be able to dish out massive magical damage. Multiplayer unquestionably makes the game more palatable, though it doesn't fix the inherent issues of tedious combat design and repetitive level structures. It's also a bit unfortunate that multiplayer is a little harder to execute than it ought to be—there's local LAN wireless play but no split-screen co-op, and the online community is so scarce that you'll have to plan meet-ups with friends through something like Discord. These can be problematic hurdles in a game that desperately relies upon multiplayer gameplay. And one note on the controls: it's straight up nonsensical that you have to repeatedly press the dash button in order to run. Environments are fairly big—and you'll occasionally want to backtrack for one reason or another—and there's no stamina meter that relates to combat, it's just that pressing the dash button only gives you a few seconds of running time. Why make a feature so pointlessly clumsy. Just finishing the game should take around 20 hours, but even that's being generous depending on how lucky you are getting valuable material drops for powerful weapons or how quick you are grinding experience points. Even after finishing you can of course replay the game with different characters with their different play styles, which can quadruple your play time. Dragon Marked for Death is simply designed to keep you playing over and over, even though the gameplay devolves into tedium fairly quickly. The weirdest aspect of the game's progression though is the fact that you won't unlock the final mission until you complete certain side quests—side quests that are completely hidden, which is just another awkward aspect of the game's design. Despite its issues with gameplay design, Dragon Marked for Death certainly looks stylish, once again relying on a pixel art style that Inti Creates has honed over the years. The visuals are colorful, the animation is fluid, and although the monster and environment designs feel overused by the end of the game they are undeniably well designed. The soundtrack isn't half bad either, though there are few songs that will stick with you after turning off the game. Dragon Marked for Death has some solid action-RPG elements but can't seem to bind them together in a cohesive game. Despite mimicking the loot grind formula of similar games, the shallow combat mechanics and tediously repetitive environments lack the kind of spark that keeps players coming back to these types of experiences. The focus on multiplayer is also at the complete expense of the single-player experience which feels woefully unbalanced in comparison, but the limited multiplayer options make teaming up with others just a bit too difficult, and the rewards too meager. Ultimately the game fails to inspire the kind of long-term community that it was clearly built for. Rating: 5 out of 10 Dragons
  9. There must be something special about 80s nostalgia since we're seeing so much of it lately in pop culture—or maybe it's just that those children of the 80s are old enough to make their own films, TV shows, and video games now. Regardless, the 80s has become synonymous with a certain style of pop culture nostalgia, that perfect balancing point where pop culture fandom was taking off but before the internet oversaturated it. Back when Saturday morning meant cartoons: ridiculously produced but still oddly magical cartoons. Saturday Morning RPG relies on all of those cartoon and pop culture references to produce a charmingly bizarre take on 80s teen life. But while the game nails the goofy nostalgia, the actual RPG mechanics leave a lot to be desired. You play as average high school kid Marty whose life gets turned upside down when he's given a magical notebook (which looks suspiciously like a Trapper Keeper) which gives him the power to use everyday objects as weapons to battle the villainous HOOD forces. The game is split up into five episodes and each offers a different heroic adventure—one is even a very special Christmas episode. The writing is as delightfully campy as you'd expect from a game based on 80s cartoons, and spotting all of the references is definitely a lot of fun. As amusing as it is to see all of the parodies at work the writing is mostly middling—emulating goofy writing doesn't give the developers much room to make the game's story particularly interesting—but as a comedic game it still lands most of its jokes, even if the nostalgia starts to feel uninspired after a while. Saturday Morning RPG puts its own spin on the genre with a quirky battle system that is kind of a mash-up of multiple combat types. Battles are turn-based and aside from your standard attack—which is quite weak and not worth using most of the time—you can bring up to five items to use as weapons, each with a limited use. For example, you can throw a CD three times per battle. Each item has its own power, accuracy, and speed rating because, after selecting an attack, it'll take a little time before Marty actually executes it. In addition most attacks feature some sort of quick time event to make the attack stronger (there's also a QTE for blocking). You also have a magic meter which is used to charge your attack multiplier to increase the damage of your next attack. And finally you can equip scratch and sniff stickers to boost your stats, but you need to scratch them before every battle by rotating the left control stick (or using the touch screen in handheld mode). All that might make battles sound more complicated than they really are. In reality they end up following a very basic pattern over and over. The battle begins and you frantically try to scratch your stickers, which feels like a silly mechanic almost immediately. You'll charge up your attack multiplier because your base damage is garbage otherwise, then you'll select one of the two or maybe three items that you use regularly because, despite having a wide variety of battle items available, most aren't very useful. All the while you'll be blocking a barrage of attacks because in the time it takes Marty to perform one attack the enemies will usually perform two or three. Saturday Morning RPG offers a unique battle system but the problem is it's incredibly monotonous and not that fun after a few battles. Combat feels unrewarding and incredibly shallow, which is a huge problem for an RPG. Since you only have one character your strategic options are fairly limited, and since you heal between battles there isn't even much incentive to perform well most of the time, outside of the letter grade you're given (which, granted, will earn you some bonus EXP). Much like the story the gameplay relies upon the humor of using these everyday items in battle, often involving some sort of reference to 80s pop culture, but that's a weak basis for the hundreds of battles you'll perform throughout the game. On the exploration side of things the game isn't a whole lot better. Each episode is self-contained so none of the environments are particularly large, though each has a handful of side quests to enjoy. Exploring to pick up new stickers or battle items can be helpful but the level design usually feels flat. There's not much depth to the exploration but again the most interesting part of the game might just be poring over the background details for more pop culture jokes. You have the option of replaying each episode to tackle every side quest or earn a higher score, plus the game has an Arena and an Endless mode if for some reason you want more of the battle system, but most players will probably be more than content with just a quick seven hour trip through the story once. The graphics try to capitalize on pixel art nostalgia and the result is…fine? Pixel graphics have become so commonplace that there needs to be something more interesting to make them stand out, and Saturday Morning RPG's visuals feel about as generic as you can get—unless that too is a reference to cookie cutter 80s cartoons. Even if the graphics fail to impress though there's something to be said for the soundtrack, which captures that 80s synth pop sound perfectly. Almost every track feels like it could've been taken straight out of an 80s movie. The downside is that there isn't a huge variety to the soundtrack so you end up hearing the same songs over and over, but it's not quite as repetitive as the battle system. Saturday Morning RPG coasts by on a healthy dose of nostalgia humor—and for fans of 80s cartoons, it really is fun to spot all of the references—but the bland, repetitive combat ultimately makes even this relatively short RPG a drag. The battle system gets points for originality but that charm quickly wears away and the player is left with a monotonous experience that, despite the variety of sticker stat boosts and combat item options, just isn't very interesting. Without a solid core gameplay system the flaws in the writing, visuals, and audio end up standing out as well, making Saturday Morning RPG much more fun in concept than in practice. Rating: 6 out of 10 Saturday Morning Cartoons
  10. In a Venetian-styled city overrun with political intrigue, factionalism, and classism, an elite investigator is called back from a five year exile to uncover the deadly threats lurking in the shadows. Masquerada: Songs and Shadows from developer Witching Hour Studios and publisher Ysbryd Games takes players on a colorful adventure with hand-drawn graphics and real-time tactical combat in order to explore the city's elaborate history that revolves around elemental magic. But gameplay elements take something of a backseat to Masquerada's entrancing storytelling. Masquerada takes place within the city of Ombre, a wealthy and powerful city thanks to the Mascherines found there—masks that grant the wearer power over one of the four elements. Though the origins of the Mascherines is something of a mystery, one thing is clear: their use has created distinct social boundary lines, causing an ever-growing tension between the ruling elite and the common public. The developers have done an incredible job of establishing a rich backstory to the lore and setting of the game. As you play you'll be positively bombarded with journal entries describing the city's districts, factions, and history, and although it might seem a bit overwhelming it's well worth taking the time to read them all. It also helps that the journal entries are written from the main character's perspective, which adds a layer of personality to the text. The fantasy setting is vivid, unique, and engaging, and the amount of detail poured into backstory elements is staggering considering the fact that some are only tangentially touched upon in the main plot. Masquerada's rich history will be an absolute delight to anyone that enjoys reading fantasy lore. And my praise for the writing isn't limited to the backstory. The main story and the development of the main characters is beautifully handled as well. Each has a potentially painful history that is thoughtfully and carefully unveiled as you progress, making it easy to care about each member of your party. And as the subtitle might suggest, there's an ever-present layer of intrigue and mystery that easily propels you through the narrative. Masquerada isn't afraid to delve into more serious topics either, and manages to do so with a delicate hand. Potentially cumbersome topics like social class issues are handled in such a way that the game never feels overbearing in its messaging. The writing is beautifully nuanced and engaging thanks to this blend of fantasy elements with real-world issues—in fact it's a shame that there aren't more games or stories written in this setting, as even by the end of the story there's plenty of interesting questions waiting to be explored. Coincidentally, exploration of dungeons, towns, or overworlds is not a major aspect of Masquerada. The game's progression is actually highly linear—you don't even earn experience points per se, but instead earn skill points at specific checkpoints—which might seem a bit odd for an RPG. However it's the storytelling that really drives the action in the game, not the combat or adventure mechanics. But that's not to say the battle system is without merits of its own. Masquerada is a real-time tactical RPG with up to three characters in your party (Cicero, the protagonist, is always one of them). You'll only control one character at a time but by using the tactical pause button you're able to take a moment to survey the battle and direct your two AI companions. Characters will auto-attack nearby enemies and the real heart of the gameplay is in managing your skills (each of which has a cooldown) in order to efficiently defeat enemies. Combining different skills can have powerful cumulative effects—for example, a fire skill might attach a fire tag to an opponent, and activating that tag with another skill will cause additional burning damage. Given the real-time flow of combat you need to be thoughtful in how you approach battles and quick to react to changes—it's easy to lose control of things if you're attacking haphazardly. Additionally, you'll need to consider the positioning of your characters, not just because each skill has a different area of effect (single target, straight line, circular, etc.) but because some characters are "tanks" with higher defenses while others need distance or excel at backstab damage. The combat system is a bit much to learn initially but after some practice there's a satisfying ebb and flow to combat. Battles may not be particularly flashy in Masquerada, but efficiently dealing with enemies is always rewarding, even if things can be chaotic at times. Plus there are plenty of boss fights that offer more challenge and require more thoughtful approaches, which helps the focus on managing skill cooldowns shine a bit better. Admittedly combat does get a bit repetitive by the end of the game, especially basic fights, but not so much that fighting ever becomes too boring. You're also limited to equipping up to four skills (they correspond to the ABXY buttons when you're controlling a character) so you have to decide which skills you want to upgrade and use in battle. Each character doesn't have a huge variety of skills but it's enough that two players can have significantly different approaches to combat. A few hours into the game you'll also be able to reset your skill points if you want to try something new, so experimenting is convenient. And perhaps most importantly, you'll select Cicero's element at the beginning of the game which determines his selection of skills, so there's a decent promise of replay value if you want to play around with different elements. A single playthrough can last a good 15 hours or so though, a lot of which is in cutscenes and dialogue, so replaying the game just for the combat can be a time-consuming endeavor. The game's rich storytelling is brought to life by an all-star cast of voice actors, including recognizable names like Matthew Mercer and Jennifer Hale. Every character is beautifully voiced—thankfully, since there is so much dialogue in Masquerada—and every actor does a fantastic job of giving depth and personality to characters that emote and grow over the course of the game. Rounding out the game's top notch audio is a brilliantly atmospheric soundtrack that perfectly evokes the shadowy mystique of a city defined by secrets as well as the elegance of a high society that prides itself on appearances. There's a suitably operatic tint to the music that makes it epic and impressive whether you're simply walking through town or battling a giant beast. The game's visuals are no less striking. Masquerada's presentation nails the sense of grand opulence that one would expect of an Italian city at the height of its power—the intricately detailed patterns in the scenery alone captures the beauty of a powerful and wealthy culture. The game also isn't afraid to flood the screen with brilliant, rich colors which adds just the right otherworldly quality to the environments. Cutscenes are presented as slightly animated comic book panels which are undeniably stylish, though at times the game's visuals seem to suffer from compression issues, or the artwork's resolution is simply too low, giving the images a smeared, blurry quality. The frame rate can also be a little choppy as well, most notably when walking through an area with a lot of NPCs and other background animation, which is especially disappointing given the not insignificant loading times that pop up regularly. Still, these technical issues do little to spoil the elaborate and colorful style of the art design. Even moreso than the typical RPG, the story is the star of the show in Masquerada: Songs and Shadows. The real-time tactical combat system is solid, even if it's mildly repetitive by the end of the game, and the linear game structure means that there's virtually no opportunity for exploring or finding side quests. The good news, though, is that Masquerada features some of the most interesting stories, engaging characters, and fascinating world-building that you'll find in a recent Switch release. The time you spend with the game may be tipped in favor of cutscenes and lore over actual combat sequences, but fans of rich fantasy storytelling won't find anything to complain about on that account. Rating: 8 out of 10 Mascherines Review copy provided by publisher Masquerada: Songs and Shadows will be available on the Switch eShop on May 9th for $19.99.
  11. Fans of pixel-graphic mayhem rejoice: Brian Provinciano's follow up to the smash hit Retro City Rampage is now available and promises just as much retro style action, this time with a 16-bit art style bump. Shakedown: Hawaii, from one-man developer Vblank Entertainment, retains many of its predecessor's best features, most notably the pure fun of just wreaking havoc whether on foot, in a car, or even in a speedboat. And Shakedown: Hawaii proves that formula just doesn't get old. Shakedown: Hawaii starts you off with a pretty unconventional protagonist. You play as an aging CEO who has lost touch with the modern world: your classic business ventures are losing ground in the face of online shopping, video streaming, and health food concerns. But with a little business ingenuity—which includes a massive supply of weapons and a willingness to shakedown every business on the island for protection money—you might be able to turn your fortunes around and take control of the entire island. It's a bit of a shame that this game shakes off the nonstop pop culture reference extravaganza that characterized Retro City Rampage, but Shakedown: Hawaii is chock full of humor all the same. The whole premise of the story allows for some scathing satire of modern business practices—everything from misleading marketing to loot boxes is made fun of by way of our protagonist's reckless pursuit of the almighty dollar. It's hilarious (and a bit depressing when you remember there are actually CEOs like this, albeit with fewer murderous crime sprees…probably) and allows for tons of story mission opportunities as you dip into various industries and business ventures. If anything the game might be a little too ambitious in its scope though, as the two other playable characters—the CEO's slacker son and a hired "fixer" that takes care of problems overseas—come off a bit half-baked, but that's a small concern when you're building your business empire one bullet at a time. Much like Retro City Rampage, Shakedown: Hawaii feels like the perfect distillation of the Grand Theft Auto formula, i.e. stealing cars, shooting passers-by, and generally being a huge menace to society. Letting loose with a little mayhem is always fun and Shakedown: Hawaii does a fantastic job of just letting you do it. Stealing cars is simple, driving is incredibly smooth thanks to hyper-responsive controls (no need to perfect your K-turn here, just tilt the control stick in the other direction and be on your way), just about everything is destructible so when you're driving around you don't have to worry about avoiding trees or fences—even escaping the cops is pretty easy. There is a solid selection of firearms to choose from (including a weaponized hair dryer) and aiming is easy with a dual-stick set-up. This game nails the sense of freedom that makes open world games so much fun and gives you a charming playground to mess with. Of course, as the CEO of a major corporation your day isn't just shoot this, drive that all the time. You're also in charge of acquiring property around the island and leveraging the modest capital your business currently has into a multi-million dollar empire. It may sound like a complete 180 compared to the chaotic run-and-gun side of the gameplay, but managing your real estate holdings is quite addictive in its own way. Just ask anyone that enjoys resource management or sim games: there's an incredibly satisfying loop of gradually building up your holdings and amassing more and more wealth (which is, again, perhaps the game getting a little too realistic with its portrayal of business moguls). Saving up your money to buy that valuable hotel which will in turn provide you even more money is an addictive process, and the cash in Shakedown: Hawaii adds up pretty quickly, so you won't be wallowing in a sub-million dollar company for long. The game also finds the perfect meeting point between the two halves of its gameplay (as well as the source for the game's title): by shaking down small business for protection money you'll be able to buy them outright, gradually expanding your control over the island's commerce. The allure of making money is ever-present in Shakedown: Hawaii and makes for a perfectly addictive crime spree experience. With an entire island to explore, including neighborhood variations like a commercial district, residential area, beachfront, etc., as well as over one hundred story missions, there's plenty to do in Shakedown: Hawaii. That being said the game also isn't too long—a good ten hours or so will see you through everything, including a handful of side quests and arcade-style high score challenges. Nothing about the game feels short while you're playing though, especially because the addictive nature of expanding your business means you'll always be on the prowl for a new hostile takeover. And even if some of the story missions end up feeling repetitive by the end (e.g. go to this location and shoot everyone there), every minute with Shakedown: Hawaii feels like time well spent. The presentation in Shakedown: Hawaii feels like the natural evolution of Retro City Rampage. There's still the delightfully retro pixel aesthetic to enjoy, but with the leap to 16-bit details the environments are even more vibrant and detailed (though character sprites are still adorably tiny) and developer Vblank makes the most of this distinctive style. The soundtrack by Matt Creamer deserves special mention too as the poppy, electronic tunes provide the perfect driving beat for the CEO's seemingly cocaine-fueled insane antics. The pop culture references may have been dropped from the game's writing but the audio still sounds deliciously 80s, which is perfect for the story of a CEO whose business ideas seem to have stalled in that decade. You might not expect a frenetic action game to blend so well with a business management sim, but Shakedown: Hawaii makes it work beautifully. The action is wild and satisfying thanks to sharp controls and an emphasis on chaotic fun over limiting realism, and the property management half of the game is shockingly addictive. Fans of Retro City Rampage will love stepping into this kind of pixelated world once again, while newcomers should appreciate the inventive blend of genres. Rating: 8 out of 10 Shakedowns Review copy provided by publisher Shakedown Hawaii is now available on the Switch eShop for $19.99.
  12. Originally released episodically starting in 2017, Bendy and the Ink Machine turns a classic animation studio (in the vein of classic Mickey Mouse cartoons) into a perfectly creepy setting in this first-person horror game. But although the game is oozing style, the gameplay and narrative leave something to be desired. You play as Henry Stein, a retired animator who is invited to visit his old animation studio by his old employer, Joey Drew. Once you get there though it's clear that something is terribly wrong, and your only choice is to delve further into the mystery in the hopes of finding a way out. It's not the first time we've seen a horror setting use something that is typically thought to be sweet and child-friendly (in this case, classic black and white cartoons), but Bendy and the Ink Machine does a great job of leveraging this backdrop into an unsettling setting. The emphasis on ink is also perfect for grotesque, creepy scenery—the whole game nails the atmosphere that something eerie is always happening just out of eyesight. The actual plot though fails to capitalize on the setting. There's just a little too much that is unexplained as you explore this mysteriously elaborate and derelict cartoon studio which makes it hard to feel invested by the end. It's unfortunately clear that the game was developed episodically without a strong narrative throughline to keep everything connected, resulting in an ending that falls flat. Bendy and the Ink Machine draws on the horror game blueprint that has become pretty standard over the past few years. You've got a first-person perspective to keep everything feeling close and dangerous, simple environmental puzzles to solve in order to progress, and a basic combat system (though there are also several scenes where your only option is to flee or hide from impervious monsters). If you've played any such horror games lately then this one is going to feel pretty by the numbers, i.e. find a valve handle to clear out some pipes blocking your way. The game wears its inspirations from other games on its sleeve, from audio log backstories to the mysterious side characters you meet while exploring. That doesn't necessarily mean the game is bad, but there's nothing particularly new or intriguing about the gameplay—even if you're in a constant state of tension while exploring, the gameplay feels pretty rote. The somewhat lackluster gameplay is also brought down by some mildly annoying quirks, such as the way puzzles have to be solved in a specific order—i.e., you might find a suspicious valve handle on the ground, but you won't be able to pick it up until you've found the pipe that is missing such a handle. It's understandable that the game would force you on these linear paths in order to make use of jumpscares and the like, but it feels silly at times when you can see a solution clearly but can't quite access it until you do things in the right order. The bigger issue with Bendy and the Ink Machine's gameplay is the combat. At times you're given melee weapons and are able to fight back against the inky blob monsters that pursue you, but hit detection and aiming leave much to be desired. This imprecision only becomes more frustrating against strong enemies that have a knack for hitting you and knocking you away before you can even get a swing in. Trying to fight back against these horrors just feels clumsy and awkward, like you're lumbering about. The good news is that the game autosaves frequently so even if you do succumb you won't lose much progress, but the flip side of that feature is the way it really lowers the stakes on surviving the game's traps—there's not a lot of tension while running from monsters if you'll conveniently respawn nearby with little progress lost. Bendy and the Ink Machine may not use the exact same classic animation of old cartoons but the inspiration is clear in the game's visual style. The developers have gotten a ton of personality out of the sepia toned graphics, painting a perfect backdrop for an eerie horror game, and the artwork nails the sense of "what if Disney were overrun by monsters?" The soundtrack is appropriately eerie as well, relying on tried and true creepy stringed instruments, and the voice work is good—though not necessarily great—at injecting some personality into the scattered audio logs you'll find while exploring. This is by no means a long game as, even when you're hunting for some item needed to progress, there isn't a ton of rooms to explore, so the game's progression is brisk and straight-forward. It only takes about four hours to finish the whole game, though there's a small incentive to replay the game with a bonus item to uncover some hidden secrets. Even so this is the kind of game that can easily by finished in one evening. Bendy and the Ink Machine establishes an intriguing horror setting that unfortunately runs out of steam by the end of the adventure. A mediocre story and lackluster gameplay fail to make the most out of the game's stylish blend of classic cartoons and horror, and the resulting game is not wholly bad but also nothing particularly remarkable either. Bendy and the Ink Machine is enough to supply a few frights for the evening but doesn't have the depth to make it memorable once the lights are back on. Rating: 6 out of 10 Cartoons
  13. Well, they did it. It took 25 years, but they proved him wrong. During the 1993 US congressional hearing on violence in video games, Howard Lincoln, then president of Nintendo of America, said Night Trap would never appear on a Nintendo system. But thanks to the questionable dedication of developer Screaming Villains, Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition can now be played at home or on-the-go with the Nintendo Switch. Whether or not any of this was a good decision depends on your tolerance for cheesy 80s horror acting and tedious, mindless gameplay. You're part of the Special Control Attack Team (unfortunately abbreviated as SCAT) who is investigating the mysterious disappearances of five teenage girls at the Martin family winery estate. Upon investigating the house, SCAT finds a bizarre series of traps and cameras, and by hacking into them you are now able to monitor the house and activate the traps remotely. A new group of teenage girls is staying the night at the Martin estate, including a special teenage agent of SCAT, and your job is to keep them safe while uncovering the truth. Night Trap is a blatantly goofy, cheesy, B-movie horror, complete with bad acting, terribly costumed "creature" villains, and hilariously awkward late-80s fashion, all presented with full-motion video (FMV). Your enjoyment of the story hinges entirely upon your tolerance for "so bad it's good" filmmaking, because the storytelling here really does feel like something you'd catch on TV at 3AM on a local broadcast channel. There's a certain charm to its cheesiness, though it wears thin over the short length of the game. What's odd about Night Trap is that the storytelling completely interferes with the gameplay. In order to catch the estate's black-clad attackers before they can catch the girls, you need to constantly monitor each room of the house by flipping to different camera views and activating traps with the press of a button once the on-screen indicator turns red. There are 100 attackers in the game so they pretty much never stop coming, but while you are, for example, watching the upstairs hallway for attackers you're missing the conversation that the characters are having in the living room. In order to play the game well you have to technically miss out on most of the storytelling in the game, which doesn't make much sense. This is certainly one way to pad out the game's length as much as possible though, since a perfect playthrough is only a little over 25 minutes long. If you're playing blind you'll have to run through the game dozens of times until you learn where attackers appear and when to trap them, so the idea is that you'll gradually see the story unfold piece by piece. As you might expect that means progressing in Night Trap is an incredibly tedious experience, especially when some attackers appear so close together that you need to switch between rooms in a split-second. It also makes the game extremely repetitive since you'll end up seeing the early parts of the game over and over as you memorize where and when to trap attackers. The game plays out exactly the same every time so it really is just plain memorization, aside from a few moments when the Martins change the key code color for the traps and you have to eavesdrop on them. In a way Night Trap exemplifies the worst of 80s video game design: make the player repeat things over and over to keep them playing instead of creating unique, innovative challenges. It's a shame this re-release didn't add any convenient modern features—there is only one checkpoint halfway through the game, and some key moments are instant game overs if you miss saving a teen—so be prepared to replay the game a lot if you hope to see the ending. The 25th Anniversary Edition of this game adds a few additional features, though they'll only be of particular interest to the few players that truly enjoy Night Trap. There are a couple of documentary features available to watch, production images, a playable version of the original prototype, and a theater mode to rewatch story scenes at any time. All of these come with some inconvenient caveats, though. The documentaries are just straight videos—there's no option to fast-forward, rewind, add subtitles, or even pause, which seems like a silly oversight. The production images are locked until you reach different endings (there are multiple bad endings of girls getting captured) and the theater mode is only available after you've watched the scenes play out in the main game—just another way to stretch the game's length as much as possible. Sadly this edition of the game also suffers from a few minor technical hiccups. Certain traps can be strangely finnicky and not activate even when it seems like you hit the button at the right time. The audio can become desynced at times, especially if you're flipping between cameras rapidly. The video quality has been improved from the original 1992 release on Sega CD but there's still some bad compressing happening at times—though it's understandable that footage from the late 80s wouldn't look great on a modern TV. There's no denying that Night Trap has carved out an infamous name for itself in the annals of video game history, not only for being an FMV game but for its salacious content (which is ridiculously tame by today's standards and just plain silly most of the time). As a piece of entertainment though, it struggles to maintain even the awkward charm of a B-movie horror flick, mostly due to the ill-conceived disconnect between watching cheesy story scenes and actually progressing in the gameplay by capturing attackers. Players might appreciate Night Trap as an oddity of video game history, but it's hard to find much value in the repetitive, monotonous entrapment of bad actors. Rating: 4 out of 10 Traps
  14. With not one but two games based around digging and a side-scrolling tactical shooter with an emphasis on hat collecting, developer Image & Form has proven they have no trouble creating unique, engaging games out of unusual genre premises. With the turn-based RPG and card-battling combo of SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech, published under the Thunderful Games umbrella, Image & Form has once again crafted a brilliantly addictive experience in a wonderfully original way. SteamWorld Quest trades the sci-fi focus of robots and laser guns for a classic swords and sorcery setting (though the characters, of course, are still robots). Our protagonist is Armilly, a grocer's daughter who dreams of being a great hero like the legendary Gilgamech. When mysterious attackers assault her village, she steps up to save the day, alongside her trusted alchemist friend Copernica and the somewhat surly homebody Galleo, and from there the three set off on a grand adventure. It wouldn't be an RPG without an epic story, and the writing here is far richer than any previous SteamWorld game. The characters are wonderfully (excuse the pun) fleshed out to give them charming quirks as well as room to develop over the course of the adventure, and it's easy to care for this ragtag band of heroes. The save-the-day plotline might not be terribly complex but the personality of the characters and the game's sense of humor are more than enough to build an engaging story about true heroism. The core of the game is the card-based battle system, but don't worry if typical card-based video games aren't your thing, the system in SteamWorld Quest isn't nearly as complicated as it might look initially. It helps that the deck is kept small—you'll choose up to eight cards for each character in your party and these are shuffled into the deck and randomly drawn during battle. On your turn you choose three cards to play, and speed isn't a concern here—you'll always act before the enemies do, so you can plan ahead on healing, blocking, or inhibiting their attacks in some way. Each character doesn't need to attack on every turn, and in fact using three cards from the same character in one turn will activate a special attack at the end. Alternatively, some cards gain special bonuses if another character acts before they are played, so there's always some variety in how to attack depending on the cards in your hand. The random nature of drawing cards to your hand each turn adds just the right amount of excitement to each battle, plus you can discard and redraw two cards each turn if you're looking for the right combo. Thanks to the low count of cards in your deck (24 cards max) there isn't as much micromanaging as you might normally expect from a card-based game, and the developers have done an excellent job of easing players into the experience while leaving room for more advanced techniques. And once you have a handle on those techniques, the gameplay really clicks. Early on in the game your options are small, but soon enough you'll find dozens of cards with special effects or more unique uses, and it's always satisfying to pull off a powerful string of attacks. Your cards are divided into two categories: basic cards, which include standard attacks and buffs, and skill cards, which are more powerful but require steam points. You'll charge steam points by using basic cards, so you'll want to keep an eye on your reserve throughout the battle and plan your big hits accordingly. This explanation might sound more complicated than the game actually is—after a couple of battles the flow of gameplay becomes second nature, and the real fun of the game is setting up powerful combos by balancing your steam point usage. Battles in SteamWorld Quest are also generally on the long, slow side, so there's plenty of opportunity to set up these big combo hits. This is definitely not the kind of RPG where you're on auto-pilot for the majority of fights—even normal encounters require planning and forethought, and the payoff is a beautifully intricate but still accessible battle system. SteamWorld Quest sports over 100 punch cards so there are tons of different combos and strategies you can cook up—two players can easily craft entirely different strategies based on steam point usage, elemental damage, or special effects like debuffs. The game gives you plenty of leeway in finding what strategies you like best, because while the game can certainly be challenging there's little penalty for experimenting with deck compositions. The only downside is that it almost seems like there isn't enough time to experiment with every combo available! Certain cards are clearly meant to be used in conjunction with one another, but setting up the opportunity to use them isn't always easy. It also would have been helpful to be able to save deck set-ups so you don't have to double check every characters' cards when you want to experiment a little, especially since some cards are clearly situational—a card that grants elemental defense is invaluable against mages but is a wasted space against physical enemies, for example. On the bright side, SteamWorld Quest makes it easy to grind battles if you just want to play around with different decks. For one thing, every level has one or more save statues that will heal you to maximum health and respawn all enemies on the stage—perfect for those players that can't help but grind EXP. You can also replay stages which, aside from the EXP opportunities, is a great way to collect any hidden treasure that you might have missed the first time through. Finally there's a side challenge available late in the game which doesn't award EXP but pits you against increasingly complex and challenging battles in order to win valuable rewards, which is also a handy place to experiment with card combos. The main adventure is a respectable 15 hours or so, but dedicated players will find tons of replay value in simply changing a few cards in their deck and cooking up new strategies. Battling alone is fun enough that playing around with deck compositions is a worthwhile pastime. Over the past few years the SteamWorld franchise has developed a stylish steampunk aesthetic that has looked great on every platform the games landed on, but SteamWorld Quest might be in a class of its own. The hand-drawn graphics are absolutely gorgeous with just the right mix of steampunk robot design mixed with classic fantasy setting features—Armilly's design alone is a beautiful blend of medieval armor and clockwork cogs. And it's not just the character design: the environments are atmospheric, the enemies are inventive, and even the cards themselves sport beautiful artwork. All of this is brought to life with lovely animation work that adds tons of personality to every character movement. The developers have done a fantastic job with the soundtrack as well by giving it a classic fantasy vibe that combines heroic battle themes with charming background tunes while exploring. Be sure to turn the music balance up though—the soundtrack is too good to be so soft and muted while playing. For the past few years each new SteamWorld game has been a surprising treat to play, and SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech is no different. RPG aficionados will love the varied opportunities to build an ideal strategic deck, and newcomers needn't be scared off thanks to the relative simplicity of managing a small deck of cards—in fact the addictive nature of battles will soon have even novice players poring over their decks to craft the perfect attack chains. From the beautiful steambot character designs to the myriad gameplay possibilities of building your deck of punch cards, SteamWorld Quest is the RPG you didn't realize you wanted but now absolutely cannot miss out on. Rating: 9 out of 10 Punch Cards Review copy provided by publisher SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech will be available on the Switch eShop on April 25th for $24.99.
  15. About 15 years ago, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy released on GameCube, PS2, and Xbox to average reviews and little fanfare. It's surprising, then, that the game would get a new life on the Switch, but the recently rebranded THQ Nordic has been happy to repackage and re-release any and all games from the THQ library, and that includes the more middling titles. Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy isn't all bad on the Switch, but the intervening 15 years of game development advancement means there's a lot left to be desired in this third-person adventure game. In ancient Egypt, a warrior named Sphinx searches for the legendary Blade of Osiris to battle a mysterious evil that has been gaining power. Meanwhile, young prince Tutenkhamen is celebrating his birthday when his brother starts behaving strangely. Soon enough these two protagonists' paths cross and they must work together to prevent an evil god from amassing power. The Egyptian setting may feel like it's been done before but Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy imbues it with enough original charm that the sandy temples and anthropomorphic animal inhabitants are plenty endearing. The actual plot is little more than a by-the-numbers good and evil story though, and the game even introduces a handful of more interesting threads but then abandons them to maintain a fairly basic storyline, which is especially unfortunate given the cliffhanger ending that has received no resolution in 15 years. Originally created right around the heyday of third-person adventure games, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy combines the typical blend of dungeon exploration, combat, and puzzle solving that largely defines the genre. What makes this game unique is the way it largely splits up combat and puzzle solving between its two protagonists. Sphinx has the sword and gathers other helpful items that can be used in combat, while the Mummy is defenseless but essentially immortal (one of the perks of being undead) and can even be set on fire or charged with electricity to solve puzzles. The Mummy's portion of the game does a fair job of finding interesting puzzles with these mechanics which require studying the environment to understand how to properly move forward, though by the end of the game they end up feeling virtually the same every time—simply find a switch that lets you build a pathway over hazards like pits or water. It's repetitive, but decent enough to keep the Mummy's sections of the game engaging. Sphinx's half of the game is far less solid, though. As the warrior his gameplay generally requires more dexterity, but the game obnoxiously avoids some basic control conventions, things that were common even in 2003. The lack of lock-on targeting is keenly felt, especially when you're fighting small, fast enemies that tend to scurry behind you. The fact that two or more enemies can easily stunlock you in a cycle of damage only makes it more obnoxious. You eventually get a shield (which isn't terribly useful) but Sphinx could really use some sort of basic dodge ability since sometimes enemy attacks just feel inescapable. The platforming aspects of the game don't feel great either, as Sphinx has a terribly weak jump (thankfully you eventually get the ability to double jump) and a finnicky camera system means it's hard to get a good angle on where you need to land, making it all too easy to miss the platform or worse, a moving rope. The camera has a real problem smoothly following you at times, because it can very easily get caught on walls or other objects, leaving you with an awkward perspective of the action. All of these factors make controlling Sphinx feel clunky, which would have been mildly annoying in 2003 and completely uncomfortable to play today. Which does raise the question: why wasn't the game more thoroughly modernized for this re-release? The game may not be unplayable in its current form, but there are significant areas that could have been improved, such as the long gaps between save points—a simple autosave system safety net would have made many of the harder portions of the game far less tedious. Re-releases can be a nice way for more obscure games like Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy to find an audience, but the game's flaws are only more noticeable in 2019. Perhaps proving the point is the updated graphics—the only area of the game that was really changed for this re-release—which look great on a modern TV. The game's cartoony art style has also aged fairly well, particularly with the main characters whose loping movements are charmingly goofy. The environments feel a bit bland since it's all just stone and sand, but at least the characters and creatures have plenty of personality. The soundtrack is also a bit of a surprise delight, with plenty of fun (if somewhat generically Egyptian/Middle Eastern) songs, though you'll want to turn up the volume to actually hear the background music as the default settings make it a little too light. For an adventure game, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy isn't too long. You tend to circle the same environments repeatedly as you unlock new dungeons and areas to explore, but even so the roughly 11-hour length might sneak up on you. There are side quests to occupy your time—most importantly, collecting Golden Ankh fragments to increase Sphinx's health—but the game still ends up feeling a bit sparse, and even doing every side quest won't add too much time or replay value. Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy was a charming GameCube title that quietly flew under the radar, and re-releasing it for the Switch seems like a good idea to help this mummy-based adventure uncover some new fans. Leaving so much of the game unchanged from its 2003 origins, however, will undoubtedly leave modern gamers cold. The rough edges of yesteryear are only more pronounced when played today and, despite some fun puzzles, the clunky combat and platforming found throughout the game leaves something to be desired—specifically a more thorough remastering. Fans of 3D adventure games will likely still appreciate the game's quirky charms, but anyone else probably won't mind leaving this one buried. Rating: 6 out of 10 Mummies
  16. Long after the heyday of point and click adventure games, it's good to see that there's still plenty of love for the genre, and developers are still finding novel things to do with the classic exploration interface. For Trüberbrook, from developer btf and publisher Headup Games, that means creating all of the game's environments out of actual miniatures before digitizing them and animating character movement. The resulting visual style is striking and a beautiful backdrop for a classic point and click mystery. The protagonist of our adventure is Hans Tannhauser, an American quantum physicist who won a vacation to the small German town of Trüberbrook—from a lottery he has no memory of entering (would anyone in reality ever actually accept such a suspicious prize?). Regardless, our hapless hero is fast asleep when his notes on quantum physics are stolen from his hostel room, spurring him on a bizarre journey to uncover the mysterious truths lying at the heart of this simple town. As the set-up to a mystery story, Trüberbrook hits all the right notes: an entirely too trusting protagonist, oddball locals, and just the right trickle of information to keep things interesting. There's a lot of charm to the strange little universe of Trüberbrook, even if some jokes come off a little stilted at times, and it's clear that the developers were inspired by classic pop culture mysteries (Hans regularly talks into a tape recorder just like special agent Cooper in Twin Peaks). The ultimate payoff leaves a little something to be desired though, mostly because the game's short length makes some of the story beats feel rushed and a little underdeveloped. Still, the setting and atmosphere have tons of personality that is easy to lose yourself in. The gameplay follows pretty basic point and click tenets: talk to everyone you can and examine everything around you to gather clues and items that will help you solve puzzles. Trüberbrook makes exploration a bit easier by allowing you to highlight every interactive object on screen just by pressing L, so there's never a need to stumble about trying to figure out what is a useful item and what is merely background scenery. It's a handy way to keep things moving as any point and click fan can tell you that pixel hunting to find just the right item to click on is never fun. In fact, Trüberbrook is pretty easy on the player throughout. The environments are generally fairly small and self-contained so there isn't too much tedious back and forth necessary, and even when you do reach that point in the game you can find a handy map to quickly jump to different scenes. The puzzles themselves also aren't too challenging—there will be hints and clues you'll have to remember, sure, and it's not like the game hands solutions to you on a platter, but there's nothing that should leave the average player too stumped for too long. It also helps that, when you interact with an object, the game will automatically tell you if you can use an item from your inventory on it, so there's no need to mindlessly try every item on every object—it really helps keep the flow of the game moving. It's great that Trüberbrook never gets too bogged down in tricking the player, as that can easily be a frustrating aspect of this genre. The only downside to tilting the difficulty toward the easier side of the scales is that it highlights how short Trüberbrook really is. It's fun while it lasts but it isn't difficult to finish the whole game in just five hours or so. Worse still, the game feels short. As mentioned the story doesn't feel quite as developed as it could be, so the quick conclusion is a bit disappointing. And as a puzzle-based adventure game, there isn't much replay value, though the game's charming scenery might warrant a second playthrough anyway. The presentation of Trüberbrook is easily the highlight of the whole experience, and it's hard to overstate how beautifully unique and stylish the animated miniature effect really is. The developer isn't just a video game company and does quite a bit of other visual design and video entertainment, and it shows in how effortlessly they've created a charming yet mysterious little town in 1960s West Germany. The handmade scenery adds a delightfully tactile vibe to the whole game that is just gorgeous to take in as you play. In fact, if anything I would have loved even more of the original miniature design to shine through, as there are times where it's easy to see where the miniatures have been digitized. Regardless of any minor nitpicks though it's a beautiful effect from start to finish and a real treat to see in motion. The audio design of Trüberbrook also deserves some praise. The soundtrack is, in a word, subtle, and the effect is perfect for a moody, atmospheric mystery setting. It's mellow and melodic, but in a slightly eerie way that suits the pervading sense that something is just a little odd about the town of Trüberbrook. All of the dialogue is also fully voiced and, for the most part, adds an endearing charm and personality to the characters. Some of the voice work is a bit more stiff than others, some of which might be attributed to the somewhat heady topics that the story delves into, but overall the voice acting is a nice touch. Trüberbrook puts a gorgeous new face on the point and click adventure genre, with a handmade visual style that is beautifully unique. The story isn't quite as fully developed as it ought to be, but the breezy pace of the puzzles and challenges at least ensures players can comfortably stroll through the adventure. The price of admission is high, especially for a fairly short experience, but it's hard not to love the sights and sounds of this idyllic, peculiar German hamlet. Rating: 8 out of 10 Miniature Models Review copy provided by publisher Trüberbrook will be available on the Switch eShop on April 17th for $29.99.
  17. Following in the footsteps of the 2017 remake of Superstar Saga, Nintendo has once again repackaged a Mario & Luigi RPG for the 3DS and added a minion-focused side mode. Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story + Bowser Jr.'s Journey, aside from being a mouthful of a title, brings players back to the third entry in the Mario & Luigi RPG series, which includes the return of fan-favorite oddball villain Fawful as he plots to dispose of both the plumber brothers and King Koopa in one fell swoop. Although the changes and additions to this version may not be particularly elaborate, the original game is still an unmissable RPG adventure. Mario and Luigi are summoned to Peach's Castle to address an unusual epidemic sweeping the Mushroom Kingdom: a disease called The Blorbs which is causing Toads to swell to enormous sizes. Bowser, naturally, bumbles his way into the meeting as well, but the Koopa King is soon tricked into inhaling Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and a score of Toads when the true villain reveals himself. Just like in Superstar Saga, Fawful's unusual speech patterns and eccentric behavior steals the show. Fawful is undoubtedly one of the best things to come out of the Mario & Luigi RPG series, especially because Nintendo has done a great job of making him bizarre and interesting without getting too tiresome—that might explain why this is his last appearance, but maybe one day we can look forward to the return of his chortles and fury. Regardless, Bowser's Inside Story is rife with fun, childish humor (in a good way), not only with Fawful but with just about everything Bowser does. The game simply doesn't take itself too seriously and enjoys its own absurdity, and it's hard not to fall for the game's charms. The gist of the gameplay should be familiar to Mario & Luigi fans by now, but as a quick refresher this is a turn-based RPG with active battles, meaning that well-timed button presses will yield more damage or help defend against enemy attacks. In Bowser's Inside Story you control not only Mario and Luigi but Bowser as well—while Mario and Luigi search for Peach and an exit from Bowser's body (thankfully not the usual exit), Bowser stomps through the Mushroom Kingdom. The developers have done a pretty flawless job of balancing the two halves of the adventure, with Mario and Luigi on one hand and Bowser on the other. They generally all fight in the same way, even if Bowser trades jumps and hammers for punches and fireballs, but they're still distinct enough that the Koopa King's raw strength is evident. As engaging as Mario and Luigi's battles are there's something satisfying about mowing down enemies as Bowser. Occasionally the plumbers and Bowser even need to work together to overcome an obstacle, and you can switch between the two parties with just a press of a button. It's a fun mechanic though it's a shame that generally you only do so as part of the story's progression, as it would be even more interesting to work out which character is best suited for an area on your own. At least by the end of the adventure there's more room for free exploration, though it's mostly for picking up collectibles as Mario and Luigi. Bowser's Inside Story is also awash with mini-games—at times they're in danger of overstaying their welcome, in fact. Some can be a nice break from the main adventure of exploration and battling but others get to be a bit much. Thankfully they're never quite overused, but the best use of mini-game mechanics remains the special attacks used in battle, not the story-required mini-games to power up Bowser. Overall this 3DS remake sticks to the original game's features quite closely. There are a lot of small changes but for the most part these will be hard to spot if you haven't played the game since its release, and many are only noticeable when held up side-by-side. On one hand, the original game is fantastic as is and doesn't need any significant touch ups. On the other hand though, it would've been nice to have more unique features aside from Bowser Jr.'s Journey, which is a rehash of the minion mode from the Superstar Saga remake. This time it's Bowser Jr. taking control of a minion army in real-time strategy battles, heavily based around a rock-paper-scissors mechanic of minion types. Once you select which minions to bring into battle you mostly sit back and watch the battle play out, with only minimal involvement by using Captain Commands or timed attacks. This side mode is once again a lackluster addition, one that simply doesn't have the same immediate charm and appeal as the main adventure and relies too much on slow, tiresome battle mechanics which only get worse once you need to grind to build up your level. Bowser Jr.'s Journey is simply a dull adventure that drags on too long. The controls in Bowser's Inside Story may seem simple at first since it's a turn-based RPG, but the timed button presses to deal extra damage make things a little more complicated. Thankfully it's an easy skill to master, and even the more elaborate commands for special attacks aren't too hard with a little practice—you can even select an easy mode if you're having trouble with them. This version also eliminates the need to use the microphone during Bowser's giant battles which is definitely an improvement. One odd feature though is the lack of a left-handed mode during these giant battles, which require holding the 3DS sideways. It's a minor inconvenience but in the end it's still an inconvenience, one that easily could have been avoided, so it's strange that the option isn't even there. The most noticeable addition to this 3DS version of Bowser's Inside Journey is the visual overhaul, trading pixely sprites for a more modern 3D visual style. The game looks great though it's a shame to lose the charm of the excellent sprite designs of the original, and it's a little disappointing to bother with the change at all since this version doesn't even take advantage of stereoscopic 3D. Regardless though, the art design of the game is strong enough that there's still a ton of charm and personality in every character and animation. The soundtrack also showcases some great audio design. There may not be too many different locations in the game, but the background music is catchy and fun in each and every one. Bowser's Inside Story may be an RPG but it's not quite the epic length of most Japanese RPGs. Around 20 hours will see you through the game, though there are a few side quests you can tackle and other optional challenges. And of course there's Bowser Jr.'s Journey which is its own time sink as well. Regardless, Bowser's Inside Journey is a decent length and thanks to a solid sense of pacing the adventure never feels bogged down. The original game received high praise from critics (including me) for its charming blend of humor, engaging RPG battles, and high quality presentation on the DS. Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story + Bowser Jr.'s Journey is no different. Though the minions side mode first seen in the Superstar Saga remake still feels lackluster and entirely too repetitive, the overall package here is still a fantastic example of the allure Mario & Luigi RPGs as games that appear simple at first but offer up plenty of depth and addictive gameplay. Whether you play the original DS version or this 3DS remake, no one should miss out on this unique Bowser adventure. Rating: 9 out of 10 Chortles
  18. From the crayon aesthetic of the original Yoshi's Island to the yarn style of Woolly World, Yoshi games just can't seem to keep away from putting a unique visual spin on Yoshi's solo adventures. Yoshi's Crafted World ups the ante by dumping an entire arts and crafts store into the mix, giving the entire game a Do-It-Yourself, homemade charm. And even if the gameplay hasn't seen much evolution from past Yoshi titles, the endless charm of the game is more than enough to keep players engaged. It's another peaceful day for the Yoshis of Yoshi's Island when Kamek and Bowser Jr. swoop in, intent on stealing the magical Sundream Stone, an artifact with the power to grant any wish. But before the two villains can get away with the stone, its five gems are broken off and sent flying across the world. Now the Yoshis are in a race to recover the stones before Kamek and Bowser Jr. get their claws on them. It's a cute story even if it's nothing we haven't seen from a Yoshi game before, and the short dialogue intros to boss fights are pretty charming. In the end, the story set-up doesn't matter much for a Yoshi game—the colorful scenery and trademark platformer gameplay are the stars of the show. Crafted World also treads lightly when it comes to shaking up the gameplay—very little is different here, so series veterans will quickly slide right back into the enemy-eating, egg-throwing, smiley flower-collecting action that defines Yoshi's games. Yoshi games have always had a solid mix of more laid-back platforming mechanics (compared to Mario or Donkey Kong games) combined with a wealth of collectibles to uncover which rewards a slower, more thorough exploration of its stages. None of that has changed with Crafted World. In fact, one of the few changes to the gameplay formula was in adding even more collectibles—specifically, more smiley flowers, which are now required to unlock new regions—so this game really doubles down on the franchise's position as a treasure trove of hidden items to sniff out. The gameplay may not be all that different from Yoshi's inaugural adventure in Yoshi's Island over twenty years ago, but the formula is still wonderfully addictive with a great balance between the ease of simply progressing through the game and the added challenge of collecting everything, satisfying all levels of gamers at once. The only other mildly significant addition to the gameplay is the extra dimension of exploration that Yoshi now has. Crafted World is still a side-scrolling platformer, but now Yoshi can throw eggs into the foreground or background as well as move forward or backward on that 3D plane, though only in specific areas. Ultimately it's not a huge addition—in fact the feature kind of feels like a holdover from a 3DS game—but it adds a few interesting puzzle mechanics as well as even more places to hide collectibles. The downside is that aiming into the foreground/background is a little challenging since you have to carefully aim at a specific target for the game's aiming mechanics to lock on. Granted the game is pretty good about giving you a generous "lock-on" range, but it still has a way of slowing down the gameplay and requires a bit more careful aim. It's nothing too difficult to work with, but it takes a bit of adjusting, especially for Yoshi pros that might be used to the wiggle room that aiming/jumping usually offers. Finally there's the flipping mechanic that was originally touted as a major feature in Crafted World but, in the final product, is a bit more lackluster. Every stage of the game has a flipped version, where you essentially get to play the level again but with a new objective and while seeing the back side of all of the cardboard scenery. It's a cute concept but feels woefully underutilized. Seeing the back side of every level doesn't actually add much of a fresh perspective on the gameplay, and instead the mechanic just feels like a way to pad out the game's length. Given the short length of this adventure though, maybe it makes sense to pad the game a little. If all you're interested in is reaching the end of the game and seeing the credits roll, Crafted World can be completed in as little as six hours or so. Of course, there are a lot of collectibles along the way, and not just in the flipped versions of stages, so don't worry, there's still plenty of content to occupy your time. Plus there's co-op mode, letting two players team up in local multiplayer which, like a lot of co-op platformers, can be as much of a hindrance as it is helpful, but is nevertheless a fun time. As already mentioned the DIY arts and crafts visual style of the game is absolutely adorable. Cardboard tube rocket ships, paper plate platforms, and even the characters themselves sport slightly fuzzy, felt-like features—it's a dangerously cute design style, one that the developers clearly had a lot of fun building. The graphics do a perfect job of capturing a playful sense of childhood whimsy, and manages to stay heartwarming and charming from start to finish. The music is less successful in this area, though. The songs are just as cute and whimsical, but none of them has quite the staying power as the visuals, and the soundtrack gets old fast. The main theme is somewhat overused in each region's background music, which makes the whole soundtrack seem a bit one note. As a sequel to Woolly World, Yoshi's Crafted World doesn't stray too far from the franchise's tried and true formula. The visuals get a charming upgrade from just yarn to now incorporating all kinds of adorable arts and crafts creations, but in terms of gameplay Yoshi's Crafted World feels like essentially the same game we've played before. That's not necessarily a bad thing though, as the gameplay is just as engaging and addictive as ever, and the platformer challenges are inventive even if they are rarely truly difficult. Series fans will surely appreciate the game, and the friendly, adorable aesthetic makes it a perfect introduction to a younger generation of players. Rating: 8 out of 10 Eggs
  19. LEGO DC Super-Villains flips the script of the typical LEGO superhero games by letting you play as the villains. Even better, you're able to create your own villain to join the illustrious ranks of the Joker, Lex Luthor, and other criminal masterminds. In practice though, little has changed here, and DC Super-Villains plays exactly the same as every other LEGO game: a huge amount of content in a simple, repetitive package. The story begins with Commissioner Gordon visiting Stryker's Island prison to deliver a new, unknown super criminal who has the ability to absorb superpowers. A prison break is soon executed by Lex Luthor though, and in the chaos a group of villains escape. The Justice League is hot on their heels until a group of superhero imposters called the Justice Syndicate trap the heroes. It's up to the villains, including the new criminal dubbed "The Rookie," to find out what the Syndicate is really up to. So even in a game focused on the villains, you're technically playing the good guys. It's a huge missed opportunity but then again it's doubtful a LEGO game would stray from its comfort zone and make a game truly focused on criminal activity—these games are still squarely marketed toward children, after all. In the end the story is fine for what it is, but it's hard to shake the feeling that it could have been much more. DC Super-Villains doesn't stray far from the gameplay system that has been well established in the LEGO franchise either. Each level involves a variety of simple puzzles that require destroying the scenery in order to build new items from the bricks or using different characters' abilities to interact with objects. Joker, for example, can use exploding pies to destroy silver objects, and Deadshot can snipe distant targets to activate controls. And as always there's drop-in/drop-out local multiplayer available throughout the adventure. The gameplay has grown stale after so many years of relying upon this exact formula but it still has a simple charm to it, suited to either a relaxing, mindless play session or for teaming up with an inexperienced friend. The only significant new feature in DC Super-Villains is the customizable villain, The Rookie. In addition to crafting his or her appearance at the beginning of the game, you can choose from a couple of minor superpowers in addition to the story-related powers gained during the adventure. A customizable character who is front and center in the story feels like a novel idea at first but the game squanders the concept, partly just because of how the gameplay works. You constantly need to switch characters to progress, so The Rookie quickly just feels like another character in an already huge cast. There are also plenty of levels where you don't use The Rookie at all. The customization aspect adds to the game's robust amount of side activities, but it adds little real value to the main adventure. The presentation is also largely by the numbers for DC Super-Villains, though as with every new entry in the LEGO series there are a few more frills to spice up the visuals. The special effects in particular are more flashy here, with plenty of colorful explosions to represent various super powers, though at times it makes it hard to actually tell what's happening on screen. The soundtrack isn't much more than typical video game background music, but as a treat for longtime DC fans there are numerous recognizable voices in the voice cast, not least of which is Mark Hamill once again reprising his role as The Joker. Despite all the times he's claimed he wants to move away from the character he can't seem to keep away for long, and it's great to hear his distinctive cackle again, even in LEGO form. What else is there to say about yet another LEGO game? Like most of the dozens of games released in the franchise over the years, there's a wealth of content in LEGO DC Super-Villains, enough to keep you busy for hours upon hours despite the repetitive nature of the gameplay. Very little of the game is truly exciting, inventive, or surprising, but sometimes that's all you want out of a game—something that you can flip on and zone out to for a few hours, getting exactly what you expect to based on the dozens of other games in the series. For a bit of cute, mindless action, the LEGO franchise continues to serve nicely. Rating: 7 out of 10 Bricks
  20. Drawing clear inspiration from the great RPGs of yesteryear, Cosmic Star Heroine, from two-man developer Zeboyd Games, takes players on a planet-hopping adventure that wouldn't feel out of place on the SNES. The game doesn't merely bank on nostalgia though, and the unique battle system offers a wealth of variety that helps make each battle interesting. The resulting blend of classic presentation and novel gameplay mechanics helps make Cosmic Star Heroine feel both familiar and fresh. You play as Alyssa L'Salle, star agent of the Agency of Peace and Intelligence, a galactic peacekeeping agency. An assignment to investigate a science outpost gradually uncovers a hidden conspiracy, one that prompts Alyssa to strike out on her own path to protect the well-being of the universe. As far as settings go, Cosmic Star Heroine does a great job of quickly acclimating the player to an inventive sci-fi universe where seemingly anything is possible, but the game's plot is a bit lackluster. There are plenty of fun characters but the story moves so quickly that none of them are given any time to really develop, and by the end they're an almost dizzying rotation of faces. Similarly, the conspiracy plot is intriguing but doesn't feel fully developed, partly because you're shuttled off to the next objective so quickly and partly because the writing just doesn't make the threat feel like anything more than typical "save the world" (or galaxy, in this case) video game fare. Cosmic Star Heroine has a great set-up, but the storytelling feels a bit thin. At a glance the gameplay here looks right out of an SNES-era RPG, and Cosmic Star Heroine clearly uses those RPG greats as a foundation. You've got standard dungeon exploration, equipment to find/buy, and turn-based battles (battle screens even include a turn order on the right-side of the screen for you to keep track of who is up next). But once you actually start playing it's clear that the developers have cooked up a fresh, inventive battle system that takes advantage of the game's numerous playable characters. First and foremost, characters don't have a basic "attack" action. Instead each character can equip up to seven unique abilities, which includes simple attacks, elemental spells, buffs, debuffs, etc. Aside from a few rare exceptions, using an ability means that it is spent until the character recharges by spending a turn in a defensive stance. As a result, Cosmic Star Heroine emphasizes thought and planning in every enemy encounter. Even simple enemies require some degree of forethought, so no battle ever feels rote. The game does a great job of keeping you engaged and invested in every fight, no matter how small the opponent. By the end of the game each character has access to a wide variety of abilities, so you get to customize which ones they're working with in battle, which offers a ton of customization and replay value. Characters can also equip shields which give access to additional attacks (called programs) and you can use items in battle, but both programs and items are one-use-only per battle, so they're even more vital to plan when to use and not squander. It's easy to cook up some inventive combos of abilities and programs, and the game offers plenty of flexibility for fun experimentation. That's not all there is to the battle system in Cosmic Star Heroine, though. Attacks will also give you style points, and the more style points you have the more effective your attacks are. The catch is that enemies also charge up style points as the battle goes on, so the longer the fight lasts the more deadly things become. It's a smart way to ensure you don't become too complacent while playing—you always have to keep your best strategies in mind. And finally (and perhaps most importantly) there is the hyper point system which means that, every few turns, a character enters hyper mode and their attacks become even more powerful—it's kind of like a limit break system. The hyper mode interval is different for each character but regardless, this is where you want to plan your strongest attacks and buff your allies or debuff enemies. Ultimately it may sound like there's a lot to keep track of during battle in Cosmic Star Heroine but in practice it all flows together naturally and does a fantastic job of encouraging tactics and planning while giving you just enough limitations that you can't be too relaxed. The battle system does an excellent job of keeping you engaged with every moment of the fight without overwhelming you with details to track. Even with a particularly involved battle system, Cosmic Star Heroine moves along at a clip. It's not hard to finish the game in just 12 hours or so, which is obviously a little short for an RPG. Still, since the story pushes you along so quickly it still feels like you accomplish quite a lot. And thanks to a decent number of playable characters (each of whom has their own set of abilities) you constantly have new challenges and new tactics to work with, so no part of the game drags. It helps keep the game engaging and addictive from start to finish. Of course, as an RPG, there are also side quests to keep you busy, and if you find the game a little too easy (or too hard) you can adjust the difficulty at any time to ensure battles have a challenging sweet spot. Once you have a handle on the battle system it's worth turning the difficulty up a notch to really put your tactics to the test. The game's presentation feels straight out of the 16-bit era, or perhaps even earlier during its slightly animated, pixelated cutscenes. Undeniably the aesthetic plays off a certain sense of nostalgia, but it's a delightfully charming effect nevertheless. Pixel artwork in indie games is quite common in indie games these days but there's still something to be said for a game that does it well and finds the right balance of detail to make environments interesting and give characters personality while retaining the retro look. The soundtrack, by HyperDuck SoundWorks, does a fine job of evoking that retro charm as well, while still giving the game a unique, sci-fi vibe. Cosmic Star Heroine has no qualms showing its inspiration from, and love of, classic RPGs, but that doesn't mean the game feels at all derivative. The battle system, the core of any great RPG, offers up a fantastic balance of variety, nuance, and challenge that allows any two players to approach combat in wildly different ways and still find satisfying, effective strategies. Cosmic Star Heroine's story doesn't hit quite the same highs, but fans of turn-based RPGs won't want to miss this charming and inventive take on the genre. Rating: 8 out of 10 Heroines
  21. Where better to put a Zelda-inspired adventure than Nintendo's latest console? Windscape, from developer Dennis Witte (aka Magic Sandbox) and publisher Headup Games, draws influence from Zelda and other recent adventure games to create a vibrant first-person adventure complete with dungeon exploration, crafting, and a great evil that needs to be defeated. After gradually being worked on as an Early Access game for a couple of years, Windscape is ready for its official debut, but the final product might have benefited from a bit more polish. In Windscape you play as Ida, a young girl that lives on a farm with her mother and father. As so often happens in adventure stories though she is quickly wrapped up in a quest to save the world when a simple journey into town reveals a dangerous evil threatening to destroy everything. The game has no qualms relying upon this tried and true storytelling device, and the writing doesn't develop beyond it at all. In fact it's pretty clear that the writing runs out of steam when the latter half of the game ends up featuring no new NPCs or dialogue. Still, while the writing is fairly lackluster it's clear that the game isn't focused on storytelling so much as exploration, combat, and crafting. Unfortunately, these three areas of the game have their own issues, mostly stemming from the fact that the developer might have overextended himself in trying to create an epic adventure that would include exploration, dungeon puzzle solving, first-person combat, and crafting. Not one of these aspects of Windscape feels particularly exciting or polished, even though it feels like the developer planned for something more elaborate someday. For example, it's possible to craft slashing, blunt, and piercing weapons as some enemies have resistance to one or more of these weapon types. The crafting system is incredibly basic though, and in each region there is usually only a few options for new weapons to craft, so there's no reason to put any thought into which weapon you want. Combat ends up being completely mechanical as well, typically just circle strafing an enemy to get in a few hits. Battles have a dull, mechanical feel to them, and they tend to play out in exactly the same manner whether you're fighting a giant bee or the final boss. Exploration isn't much more exciting since, although there are some large environments in Windscape, there is rarely anything interesting to find within them, so you might as well just sprint to your next destination. The dungeon design is a bit better, though it's clear that the developer ran out of steam by the end of the game here as well. The early dungeons have at least a bit of complexity that requires exploration and finding levers to progress, but the final region of the game is little more than a long, linear combat sequence. These half-baked elements of the game just make the experience feel bland and repetitive. Finally there's the crafting aspect of the game, which can be hard even for mainstream games to get right since there's a fine line between engaging crafting mechanics and just plain tedious ones. Windscape, thankfully, is never tedious about its crafting system. Curiously though, it manages to swing to the opposite end of the spectrum—instead of being too difficult, crafting is a little too easy, since there isn't much to craft at all. You might instinctively want to load up on materials as you explore, chopping down trees and gathering herbs, but overall there's very little reason to spend any significant amount of time farming materials. On one hand it's great that the game never forces you to mindlessly gather items. On the other hand though, it makes the entire crafting system feel somewhat pointless when there are only a handful of items to craft throughout the entire game. Part of what makes the crafting system feel a little superfluous is just the short length of the game. It's not hard to finish Windscape in just six hours or so, even when you do take the time to craft everything. As mentioned the game's open environments are lacking in things to see, and that includes side quests. There are a few, but for the most part there simply isn't much to do in Windscape, which doesn't help shake the feeling that the whole thing is a little unfinished. The controls and user interface could've used more polishing as well. Aiming feels a little clumsy, and while magic spells thankfully lock-on to targets somewhat, arrows don't provide the same luxury and landing a hit is far more awkward than it ought to be. Menus also have a weirdly unintuitive interface that can make flipping through your materials, map, and objectives feel clunky. It's just another area of the game that could have used some fine tuning. The game's presentation is also going to be a tough sell to some players. There's certainly something charming about the minimalist art style that uses bright, flat colors rather than weigh the game down with detailed textures. However, the art style doesn't really play to the minimalist aesthetic well, and instead environments, characters, and enemies just come off as forgettable and drab. The music is a bit better, with some engaging background music peppered throughout the game, though even the audio doesn't escape the clumsy design when sound effects like opening a treasure chest are completely unbalanced with the music. Windscape is an admirable attempt at creating a smaller, indie version of the grand adventure game, one that incorporates dungeons and a crafting system into a classic tale of exploration and monster slaying. It never feels like more than attempt though, and certainly not a particularly unique or polished one. Despite a couple years of Early Access development, Windscape never seems to find its feet, resulting in a half-baked first-person adventure. Rating: 5 out of 10 Islands Review copy provided by publisher Windscape will be available on the Switch eShop on March 27th. Pre-purchase now for $15.99 (20% off the normal price of $19.99).
  22. A vengeful spirit embarks on a quest for revenge in this stylish stealth-based action game. Aragami: Shadow Edition bundles together the original 2016 game as well as its prequel DLC/expansion for a ton of satisfyingly sneaky gameplay in one package. Despite some rough edges and a slow build up, stealth fans will appreciate the addictive nature of flitting from shadow to shadow, eliminating any guards in your path. You play as Aragami, a shadow spirit summoned by Yamiko, a girl who is being imprisoned by the oppressive Kaiho clan. In order to free her you'll need to collect a number of talismans and defeat the Kaiho generals, all before sun-up when your shadowy existence will disappear. It's a decent enough story even if it quickly becomes predictably melodramatic—don't expect any particularly fresh writing takes and you won't be too bothered by the lackluster dialogue. It doesn't help that the game does not feature voice acting, and trying to read text while sneaking from shadow to shadow is a bit awkward, especially when you need to be at the ready at all times. Aragami covers the classic elements of stealth gameplay—in each level you need to reach the goal while avoiding roaming Kaiho guards—but as a shadow spirit you've got a few neat tricks up your sleeve. For one thing you can teleport to any shadow within range, which includes jumping up to ledges and even passing through guards while in shadow form. Shadow leaping is your most basic and most invaluable tool in Aragami, though it takes a little getting used to at first. The controls aren't quite as smooth and responsive as you might want out of a stealth game where timing is everything, but after a bit of practice you'll lock into the rhythm of leaping from shadow to shadow and it'll be easy to appreciate the smooth sense of movement that Aragami offers. You also have a handful of other abilities at your disposal, but these have to be individually purchased by collecting scrolls hidden within each level. It's a smart way to encourage a bit of exploration—and perhaps even taking some risks to grab a scroll—but it also makes the first few chapters of the game feel slow and tedious. Once you have the ability to dispose of guards' bodies so no one else raises an alarm, throw kunai to kill enemies at a distance, or even just create a distracting noise, the game opens up and becomes far more engaging and interesting. You can choose to focus on more defensive or offensive techniques, and even the more overtly powerful abilities like temporary invisibility feel pretty well balanced. Even if Aragami has a bad habit of recycling objectives (you almost always need to destroy a barrier in order to progress), the variety of tools helps keep the game feeling fresh from level to level. Naturally the game wouldn't be challenging if you were able to use abilities wildly, so you're limited to just two uses before you have to recharge at a prayer shrine, and even your shadow jump ability relies on a stamina meter that gradually refills while you're hiding in shadows. This is where things get a bit muddy for Aragami though, and it comes down to an awkward disconnect between the visuals and gameplay. For one, it's too difficult to tell if you're able to shadow jump to a point at a glance. There's also a difference between low and bright light, where bright light drains your stamina, so it's important to avoid. This kind of information is vital to take in quickly, but the game's art style makes it hard to tell what is a safe point and what isn't. Secondly, your stamina and ability charges are stylishly displayed on the back of your cape. It certainly looks cool but again interferes with gameplay since it's hard to tell exactly how much stamina you have remaining—this gets even worse when your cape is billowing in the wind. Lastly, aiming your shadow jump in order to ascend a ledge is far too finnicky. Oftentimes it feels like the cursor has to find a hidden sweet spot to work correctly and finding it totally breaks the fluidity of sneaking around in the shadows. The controls in general feel a bit too stiff in fact, though it gets a little easier with practice. Aragami has a lot of fun stealth gameplay but it has some undeniably unpolished aspects as well that make the game more clumsy and frustrating than it needs to be. The game isn't terribly long if your goal is simply finishing each level once, but like a lot of stealth-based games there's an addictive quality to perfecting each stage and completing them without being detected once. As such Aragami makes up for its relatively short length with plenty of replay value. Additionally you can bring a friend along for the ride with online co-op, which offers a fun twist on approaching obstacles. And of course this Shadow Edition of the game includes Nightfall, the prequel expansion that adds new levels, playable characters, and gameplay mechanics. The core gameplay is unchanged (including its obnoxious quirks) but the fresh challenges and new abilities make a welcome addition to the base game. The presentation in Aragami is somewhat of a missed opportunity. The cel-shaded look is fantastic and makes both Aragami himself and select details in the environment pop is a beautifully stylish way. At the same time though the overall art direction feels somewhat bland, as environments have little interesting detail in them and enemies are repetitive and rather drab. Without more engaging character designs the cel-shaded style feels a bit wasted. The music is somewhat similar thanks to, perhaps, an over-reliance on light ambiance music instead of engaging, memorable songs. Even for a stealth game the prevailing quiet makes for an aurally dull experience. Aragami: Shadow Edition offers up an engaging stealth adventure that feels held back by some unpolished elements which can make the core gameplay a bit awkward and frustrating. If you're willing to work at it though and overlook some of its flaws, sneaking around enemy camps and carefully eliminating guards before you're noticed is always a fun time, especially once you have a few of the more useful abilities at your disposal. Stealth fans in particular will feel well rewarded for sticking with Aragami. Rating: 7 out of 10 Shadows
  23. Once upon a time, Nippon Ichi Software created a side-scrolling puzzle-platformer that followed a princess and a prince on a storybook adventure through a dark forest. Playing the game isn't a complete fairy tale, though. Despite a charming story and a beautifully unique visual style, the gameplay in The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince leaves something to be desired. The plot of the game reads just like an old fairy tale: each night in a dark forest, a monstrous wolf sings a beautiful song, attracting the appreciation of a young prince. Separated by the darkness the two grow close, but when the prince tries to see the source of the beautiful voice, the wolf panics and accidentally blinds the prince. With the help of the old witch of the woods, the wolf transforms into a princess to try to help the prince regain his eyesight. The story is extremely cute, a little sad, and wholly charming from start to finish. It's not too often that you get to enjoy a modern fable with poignant reflections on self-identity and appearance that still captures the feel of a classic fairy tale—cutscenes in the game are even presented as a storybook. It's easy to be charmed by the fairy tale format of Liar Princess. The gameplay is a little harder to love, though. You play as the princess who is able to transform between a wolf form and human form. As a wolf, you can attack monsters with your claws and are mostly invulnerable to damage yourself. As the princess, you have to take the prince's hand and slowly walk him forward, avoiding obstacles and falls (you'll die from shockingly small heights as a human in this game). In essence, Liar Princess is one long escort mission, and I fully acknowledge the kind of baggage that comes with that term. Walking the prince around can be slow and plodding—though thankfully it's easy to leave him alone to take care of enemies or hazards yourself, so you're not constantly worried about his safety. Still, the gameplay can feel quite meandering at times. To spice things up a little, there are plenty of simple puzzles you'll have to solve using both the princess and the prince, i.e. pressure sensitive switches that require you to leave the prince behind while you find another route. For the most part these are quite simple puzzles though. Anyone that has played a decent number of platformers won't be surprised by the kinds of challenges Liar Princess cooks up and, given the slow nature of walking the prince around, the gameplay can feel particularly sluggish at times. To be fair there are few bad puzzles in the game, outside of one or two finnicky controls moments or a particularly obtuse riddle (which, to the game's credit, the game even warns you about and offers you a chance to skip it entirely). Instead the puzzles in Liar Princess are, by and large, just kind of there. Not terrible, but nothing particularly inspired either. The game is also quite short, and can easily be finished in just four or five hours. Combined with the somewhat basic level and puzzle design, it can't help but feel like Liar Princess is a rough draft that was never fully fleshed out. Still, it has a certain charm while it lasts, and each level has a handful of collectibles which unlock concept art and additional story lore, both of which are well worth checking out. The presentation, like the storytelling, is the saving grace of Liar Princess. The storybook / sketchbook style to the graphics is gorgeous and totally charming for the cute fairy tale plot that unfolds here. There aren't a ton of different elements at play here—you really only encounter a few different types of monsters—but the style is undeniably appealing. There are also adorable details like how the princess and prince smile while holding hands. The soundtrack is pretty great as well. There aren't that many tracks since there are only about twenty stages in the game, but the music hits the right balance of whimsical and eerie that feels perfect for this slightly dark fairy tale. The game's cutscenes are also voiced, but only in Japanese—somehow it doesn't feel too out of place, though. The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince offers up an adorable little fairy tale that will easily charm you with its endearing protagonists and simple story of bonding. The gameplay rarely manages to feel like more than a mostly by-the-numbers side-scrolling adventure though, and your progress isn't so much limited by challenging game design as it is by the prince's slow walking speed. Still, players interested in a beautifully designed and charming story should appreciate the brief journey of the princess and the prince. Rating: 7 out of 10 Fables
  24. What if you could rewrite the rules of a video game while playing it? That is essentially the premise of Baba Is You, created by developer Arvi Teikari, aka Hempuli. In this puzzle game the rules of each level are written on the screen, and by moving the words around you're able to turn an impassable wall into harmless scenery, or a simple rock into an invaluable key. Baba Is You leverages this inventive puzzle game premise into hundreds of mind-bending levels for a puzzle game that is consistently surprising, challenging, and delightful. Baba Is You takes a very literal approach to the idea of "rewriting the rules," as each level's rules are written as text in the level. For example, you'll generally see "Baba is You" somewhere on screen, indicating that you can move the odd little character Baba around. Another rule might say "Flag is Win," indicating the end goal of the level, but the rule "Wall is Stop" might prevent you from reaching the flag. However, rules are only in effect when written in a straight line (horizontally or vertically), so by simply pushing the word "Wall" up one space the rule is now broken and you can pass straight over the wall. Explaining this in text doesn't have the same effect as simply playing the game—it's a devilishly simple but ingenious puzzle gameplay system, one that any player can immediately pick up. This word manipulation system is so delightfully clever that I finished most levels while shaking my head in amazement at the puzzle design. Once you get past the introductory levels, solving these puzzles truly requires out-of-the-box thinking, but Baba Is You also makes it easy to experiment and slowly work through solutions at your own pace. There's even an undo button that allows you to rewind by one action at a time. This is especially important given that changing one rule can have a huge effect on the stage overall, plus it can be easy to accidentally work yourself into a corner (literally, since Baba can generally only push words and not pull them, so pushing a word into the side of the screen will leave it stuck there). Even so, Baba Is You doesn't pull any punches. The game isn't afraid to throw some seriously challenging puzzles your way, and given the nature of the game you may find yourself floundering for a bit. There aren't any in-game hints to nudge you in the right direction either, which can make some of the particularly difficult levels feel frustrating. Baba Is You simply isn't the kind of game you can rush through though. It's a game that rewards light experimentation as much as careful planning, and it's a game that will particularly appeal to players that enjoy mulling over a puzzle, examining it from all sides, and trying to find the key first step that puts everything on the right track. And thankfully, even though the game doesn't offer hints, the levels unlock in a mostly non-linear fashion—if you're truly stuck on a puzzle, simply skip it and tackle a new one instead. Sometimes the best way to solve a puzzle in Baba Is You is to leave it be for a while and come back when inspiration strikes. The game drops you straight into the action with no storytelling build-up, which is a bit of a shame, given the uniquely surreal visuals and setting in the game. The graphics are simple but undeniably striking in their own way and give the whole game a charming sense of style. There's also something impressive about the way the developer has given each world a personality using only a handful of different background elements. The music is sort of in the same boat—the soundtrack isn't overtly flashy but it adds a catchy, mellow vibe to the game, perfect for when you're staring at the screen trying to solve a particularly tricky puzzle. Puzzle games, naturally, rarely have much replay value, but the sheer amount of puzzles combined with the challenging design means you can rest easy with spending your money on Baba Is You. With over two hundred levels, it's easy to spend hours upon hours with the game. However, if you're just trying to "beat" each world and progress, you'll also be pleased to hear that many levels are optional, so if you get stuck you can move on to a new puzzle anyway. Baba Is You is a fiendishly clever puzzle game, one that does an excellent job of establishing a simple set of rules and then twisting them into all manner of challenges. The simple art style and catchy music add a welcome layer of charm—important, given how long you'll be staring at these screens trying to work out in your head what you actually need to do. But even if the puzzles can quickly feel overwhelming, their inventive design never fails to impress and the satisfaction of completing one is consistently tantalizing. Rating: 8 out of 10 Babas Review copy provided by developer Baba Is You is available now on the Switch eShop for $15.00.
  25. Plenty of games try to capture the excitement of a buddy-cop action flick, but few do it by focusing solely on the door-kicking action and gun fights like this one. RICO from developer Ground Shatter and publisher Rising Star Games puts you in the shoes of a loose-cannon cop, either solo or with a friend, where procedurally generated buildings are packed with criminals in need of merciless justice. Quick, arcade-style action and local or online co-op don't do much to fix RICO's rough gameplay elements, though. In the town of San Amaro, crime runs rampant, especially due to the slow nature of prosecuting organized crime. That's where you come in: as a member of the RICO elite police task force, you have just 24 hours to take down a criminal empire, which means working your way through the lower ranks until you reach the kingpin himself. Unfortunately that's about all you can expect as far as storytelling is concerned, as there's no other cutscenes or story elements outside of the opening cutscene, but to be fair RICO is a fast-paced arcade-style FPS, and you've got no time to waste if you want to defeat the crime boss. Either solo or with a buddy (both local split-screen and online), your goal is to sweep through one criminal warehouse after another by kicking down doors and shooting anyone you see inside (when you've only got 24 hours to finish a case, due process takes a backseat). Essentially RICO focuses entirely on the satisfaction of breaching and entering rooms with tactical efficiency—you'll even be treated to a slow-down sequence when you first enter, giving you a chance to quickly pick off each enemy in the room before they can react. You'll also have to collect evidence and make a speedy escape before you're overwhelmed by reinforcements, and later missions will add further challenges such as taking out a high-ranking target, destroying criminal servers, and frantically defusing bombs before they explode. It's undeniably satisfying to sweep through rooms as either a one-man or two-man wrecking crew, but the problem with RICO is that it doesn't offer more than this one thrill over and over. Every level is procedurally generated to add variety and as you begin a case you'll be given a branching path to reach the boss, so you can plot your path to some degree, but the game is still mindlessly repetitive and some of the extra challenges make the game more frustrating than rewarding. Defusing bombs is easily the biggest problem, as you're given a short countdown to find every bomb in the area as soon as you find one. Given the randomly generated level design, this more often than not means you're given a nearly impossible challenge to break through enemy lines to reach the bombs (and why are so many criminals just standing in a room with a ticking time bomb anyway?). Roguelike mechanics sometimes mean you're simply dealt a bad hand, but in RICO the balance is too often tipped toward frustrating challenges rather than rewarding ones. The other basic elements of the game don't do much to make up for the tedium of each playthrough. The controls are flat out clumsy—even with a good bit of fiddling with the aiming sensitivity settings it's hard to find a happy balance between either wildly too loose or molasses slow. You basically have little choice but to rely upon spray 'n' pray shooting. The guns themselves aren't terribly inspired either thanks to a limited variety to purchase/upgrade and a lack of a satisfying sense of weight or snappy aiming. The fact that reinforcements can spawn from seemingly anywhere is discouraging, especially when you're frantically trying to find a bomb. The destructible environments—most of all the doors that you kick down—are novel at first but too often a flying bit of timber will obscure your view for a clean headshot. Even the game's UI is a little obnoxious given its black and white color scheme that makes it hard to see what item you're actually highlighting. It's unfortunate, then, that RICO is based entirely around replaying the same basic playthrough over and over when so many of its gameplay details feel lacking. If you're willing to put up with some repetitive, unpolished gameplay though, you have full cases with different difficulty levels, daily challenges, and of course the option of going solo, with a friend, or playing online. But RICO never quite finds the right addictive formula to keep you coming back for more. The presentation isn't much more polished than the rest of the game. The cel-shaded design is certainly stylish when you first start up the game, but the cracks soon appear. Environments are repetitive and lacking in interesting details, the criminals themselves are much the same with only a handful of different looks, and even details like headshots aren't given much visual flair, to the point that sometimes it's hard to tell if you've even landed a headshot. There's virtually no background music and the sound effects can be oddly balanced at times—too often you'll hear a thug screaming at you from three rooms away. Sadly the audio and visuals do nothing to buoy the repetitive game design. RICO focuses on one element of FPS gameplay—breaching and entering rooms full of bad guys—but unfortunately doesn't even manage to do that particularly well. It's all too easy for a procedurally generated Roguelike game to fall into tiring repetition unless the core action of the game is polished enough to be engaging and satisfying no matter how often you do it. That's just not the case with RICO. Kicking down doors and bursting into a room guns a-blazing is fun for a moment, but RICO's rough design isn't able to sustain the excitement for even one playthrough. Rating: 5 out of 10 Kicked Doors Review copy provided by publisher RICO will be available on the Switch eShop on March 14th for $19.99.