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Found 85 results

  1. Fe Review

    Fe from developer Zoink Games marks the beginning of EA's indie games program, EA Originals, but it also marks a change for Zoink's style. Their previous original games, Stick It to the Man and Zombie Vikings, as well as their upcoming title Flipping Death, all have a distinctly comical tone and outrageous but distinctive character design. But with Fe they're trying something new, something more sober, something more emotional. Fe relies upon simpler themes and classic adventure/platforming design to provide a beautiful, serene experience. Outside of a scant few tutorial directions Fe is completely devoid of text or dialogue, but the visuals alone are enough to establish the setting and basic premise: a magical forest filled with giant flora and unusual fauna is in danger of being destroyed by alien/robotic creatures. You play as a diminutive animal of some sort—it looks something like a fantastical take on a wolf cub—who is able to sing to interact with other animals and plants. It may sound weird when written down but this is the kind of game where you just kind of go with the flow of the experience, and if you do you'll be treated to a beautiful little journey about preserving life and nature. I'll be honest though: by the end of the game I wasn't quite sure what happened in the story. Specifically, the motivations and actions of the antagonists, the Silent Ones, is a little confusing after everything is said and done. But Fe isn't a game about telling a specific story so much as it is about eliciting emotions and broad themes, and in that regard the game accomplishes what it set out to do. Even if I wasn't positive exactly why everything happened in the game, I was still moved by the game's concluding moments. The basic gameplay in Fe is pretty intuitive: you're plopped down into the middle of a magical forest where you can run, jump, and explore. What makes Fe unique is the singing mechanic where you can essentially resonate with other animals and plants in order to explore further—for example, in order to jump across purple flowers you may need to enlist the help of ferret-like creatures that can activate the flowers. You actually have to tune your voice when singing by moving the Joy-Cons up and down in order to match the song of other creatures, which is a neat touch (you can also turn off motion controls but it's a pretty easy motion here). Gradually, you unlock new songs and new abilities that allow you to explore further and help rescue other forest animals from the influence of the Silent Ones. It's definitely a unique way to interact with a game world, and the more you play the more it feels like a natural interaction. The developers have done a great job of making the world feel large, with lots to discover, without making it feel overwhelming. Every time you gain a new song you'll be eager to go out and see what it unlocks, what new paths or collectibles you'll discover. Once you get started Fe can be hard to put down. There's also something just plain fun about climbing trees to glide from one platform to the next. There's a lot of freedom in Fe that encourages looking around and being aware of your environment, especially since there are so many collectibles to find. First off, you can collect pink crystals that add new abilities, some of which are required but the last few are purely for making exploration a little easier and more fun. You can also find memory orbs that flesh out the story a little from the perspective of the Silent Ones, and you can sing next to shimmering rocks to reveal murals, which also adds to the game's narrative. The murals offer vague hints to the game's story though, so don't feel like you're missing out on a ton for skipping over them. They're great ways to spend a bit more time with the game—which is otherwise around six or seven hours long—but finding everything can be a bit more challenge than it's worth. Our petite protagonist only has the power of song at his command so there's no combat element to Fe. When you do encounter Silent Ones you'll need to rely upon stealth to avoid capture. And there isn't any kind of elaborate stealth system at play here: you can hide in tall grass or oftentimes just run when the enemy is looking in the other direction. For the most part these stealth sections are pretty easy, and even if you do get captured the game reloads quickly, but there's still something satisfying about sneaking around enemies and escaping unscathed. A big part of what makes exploration in Fe such a joy is the visual and audio design. The graphics aren't flashy, high-end, detailed technological wonders. Instead it's the art design that really sells the beauty, mystery, and serenity of the world of Fe. The visual identity comes down to a fairly simple interplay between light and shadow. A lot of the scenery is dark, with rough shapes, but then when the light hits it there are blooms of color that are just gorgeous. Each area of the game has it's own dominant color and the effect creates plenty of beautiful vistas. The only downside is that the framerate can be a little choppy at times—not enough to spoil any of this lovely art design, but still noticeable. And as you might expect for a game that involves singing, the soundtrack is wonderful as well. Much like the simple art design the music doesn't rely upon anything too elaborate, but the tunes mesh perfectly with the heavy emphasis on nature—soothing sounds when you're just exploring, more intensity when you encounter enemies, and perhaps most important of all the soundtrack knows when to hold back and just let the visual design speak for itself. The sense of nature that Fe so perfectly captures—serene, yet full of life—can't truly be done justice in these screenshots and descriptions. Zoink took a step out of its comfort zone with Fe and stretched itself to create a game completely unlike its most recent releases, and the result is an absolutely beautiful game. The gameplay mechanics make the world of Fe fun to explore, from forest to waterfall to rocky cliff face, but it's the game's tranquility that pulls you in. The game isn't particularly long but if you take your time to drink in the scenery you'll enjoy every minute of it. This stylish journey into nature is one Switch platformer that shouldn't be missed. Rating: 8 out of 10 Songs Fe is available now on the Switch eShop for $19.99.
  2. Old Man's Journey Review

    Video games are so often focused on epic quests to save the world, or at the very least have a defined antagonist for the hero to struggle against. But sometimes a thoughtful, emotional story is made, the kind that gives you a few quiet moments to reflect upon grounded, real-life joys and sorrows. Old Man's Journey by developer Broken Rules is a meditative game that dwells on the ups and downs of life, reflected in the rolling hills of the game's colorful countryside. It may not be a long or particularly elaborate puzzle game, but Old Man's Journey will have an undeniable effect on anyone that plays it. Old Man's Journey begins with the eponymous Old Man alone in his little seaside house when he receives a letter. There isn't any dialogue or text in the game at all, but through the emotive and adorable animation it's clear that he is surprised by the contents of the letter, which moves him to set off on his journey. What follows is a fantastic example of visual storytelling as the player slowly sees glimpses of the Old Man's life through memories stirred by the objects and people around him. I don't want to reveal too much since a big part of the game's appeal is just in seeing the Old Man's life unfold before you, but I will say it's one of the more emotional games I've played in a long time, largely because of its reliance upon simple human truths. There's no grandiose storytelling happening here; Old Man's Journey is an honest, emotional look at life, and it's all the more powerful for it. Of course, this is still a video game, so what exactly is the gameplay in Old Man's Journey? In a way it's almost a reverse platformer—instead of running and jumping from one platform to another, you actually move the ground to accommodate the Old Man. Your goal is simply to keep the journey moving forward, so in order to get around a hill or a gap you actually pull, push, and move the landscape in order to create paths which allow our protagonist to move into the foreground or background. It's a simple puzzle structure but it works well. This isn't the kind of game to throw complicated and challenging puzzles at you; this is the kind of game where you just get to enjoy the scenery and story, so don't expect anything too difficult in the gameplay. But while it may be pretty simple there are a few curveballs thrown into the mix—sometimes stone walls or sheep block the Old Man's way—and there's something amusing about imaging the hills themselves bending and contorting to accommodate one old traveler. Although the goal is to help the Old Man along on his journey there are a number of little touches that bring the scenery to life. Tap on a closed door and it might pop open, revealing a short scene of a child playing with a toy. Tap on a radio and it might spring to life with a quick little tune. These little aspects are completely optional but they're delightfully charming and worth seeking out. You're encouraged to poke around a bit and see what you can find, which feels like a fitting philosophy for the game's unassuming and undemanding adventure. And you'll enjoy whiling away a bit of time thanks to the game's absolutely gorgeous artwork and music. The hand-drawn art and animation is just enchanting—almost every scene of the game could be a beautiful illustration on its own, but then seeing the animation bring it to life is truly delightful, especially around the houses and towns the Old Man passes through. You'll want to run off to the European countryside to find these kinds of lovely landscapes yourself after playing this game. And the music manages to perfectly sum up the emotions of every scene. Buoyant and jolly when our hero is passing through colorful towns, somber as he reminisces upon his life and the choices he's made, but always with just the right balance of sweet and melancholy sounds. The Switch version of Old Man's Journey includes a few unique features. For one thing, you can choose from three control methods: control stick, motion, or touch. The game was originally designed for the touch interface of tablets and mobile devices and it remains the most natural way to play on the Switch, though of course you'll miss out on seeing the gorgeous artwork full-sized on your TV (although the game still looks fantastic on the Switch screen). But since this is a fairly relaxed puzzle game it's perfectly playable with the other control methods as well, just maybe not quite as smooth. The Switch version also includes a two-player mode. No, a second old man doesn't appear. Instead there's just a second cursor on the screen that works exactly the same as the first player: move the landscape, interact with scenery, etc. None of the puzzles have been redesigned with two players in mind so there's no actual need to involve a second player, but it's kind of a nice touch to bring someone else along for the journey, especially once you delve deeper into the narrative and see more of the man's choices in life. I should mention that, as charming as the adventure is, Old Man's Journey is a surprisingly short game. A good 90 minutes can see you through the entire trip, which might make the $9.99 price point seem like a bit much. If you wanted to judge the game solely upon the length and depth of gameplay then sure, the short length might be a knock against it. But the Old Man's story and the beautiful presentation make this a journey well worth taking. Old Man's Journey doesn't set some kind of grand quest to save the world or give you a time limit to earn the most points possible. There isn't a demon, demigod, or monster to defeat. There isn't even a line of dialogue in the game. This is simply a glimpse into the life of one man, with the kinds of dreams, choices, and burdens that can be found in any person's journey through life. It's a quiet, beautiful, and melancholic expedition into memories both joyful and sorrowful, and a good reminder to take a moment to appreciate not just the scenery but the people around you. Old Man's Journey isn't a game about being a hero. It's a game about being human. Rating: 8 out of 10 Journeys Review copy provided by the developer Old Man's Journey is available to download today, February 20th,on the Switch eShop for $9.99.
  3. In 2014 developer Over the Moon released The Fall, an engaging adventure/puzzle game with a compelling sci-fi story. There was one big problem though: the game was only part one of a larger narrative. Fans of the first game have had to wait almost four years for the next installment in the series, but the wait was worth it. The Fall Part 2: Unbound continues the first game's story and puzzle structure and adds several new features to create a longer and more varied adventure. Not all of the new aspects are well fleshed out but the puzzles are just as fun and the story is just as gripping. The story picks up immediately after the events of the first game and even includes a handy recap to bring you back up to speed about what happened to the Artificial Intelligence system A.R.I.D. Her AI has been disconnected from her body and she is now driven by the singular goal of finding and stopping "the User" in order to save herself. To do so A.R.I.D. possess several other AIs, who all offer new perspectives on robotics and human-AI interactions. I wouldn't want to spoil any other details—like the first game a big part of Unbound's appeal is its sci-fi storytelling that tackles concepts like AI freedom and self-determination. And like the first game, it's refreshing to see a story that delves into some heady sci-fi ideas rather than just shooting aliens. A.R.I.D. is changing, adapting even, and seeing her interactions with other AIs makes for a fascinating journey. The only downside is that once again the game ends on a cliffhanger—not quite as massive as the first game's, but you'll still finish Unbound with an itch to see where else the story goes. Hopefully we won't have to wait another four years for the next installment of The Fall. The gameplay in Unbound follows the same adventure game puzzle-solving as the first game but mixes in a few new features that help keep the gameplay feeling fresh from beginning to end. When A.R.I.D. first connects to the cyber network she enters a sort of Metroid-style world, complete with doors that you shoot to open. Exploration here is fairly basic though. As the game progresses you gain access to different areas but it's not nearly as complex as other Metroidvania games that require significant backtracking. You only gain a couple of new abilities throughout the game and even the way A.R.I.D. moves is somewhat stiff. Ultimately these forays into the digital world are more like interludes and lack the same draw as the main puzzle-solving gameplay. Additionally, there are light combat elements in cyberspace. Combat in Unbound is both an improvement over the original game's shoot-outs and yet still not totally comfortable. The repetitive cover mechanic of the first game is gone; in Unbound you have more freedom to move, jump, shoot, and dodge enemy attacks. But the stiff movement never really gives you the sense of fluidity you want in a shootout. Battles tend to be rather rote: wait for enemy to attack, jump, then shoot back. Even with a couple of new combat abilities throughout the game the combat just fails to excite. Plus there's one strange aspect to fighting: both gunshots and jumping are tied to an energy meter—run out of energy and you can't shoot or jump. This only encourages you to play as mechanically as possible to conserve energy, and tying your main dodge ability (jumping) to an energy bar just feels a little odd. But puzzle-solving is really the heart of the game, and where you'll be spending most of your time. A.R.I.D. inhabits multiple AIs in her quest to save herself, and each AI has its own mechanics and habits that you need to break. For example, the first AI you encounter, a robotic butler, adheres to a strict schedule of taking care of his human masters, and you need to find ways to break his routine in order to let you explore the house. Unbound does a great job of throwing different scenarios like this at the player—each AI you encounter feels unique, and so do the puzzles you face. The developers have also done a fine job of keeping the difficulty of the puzzles balanced. Solutions are rarely obtuse—if you're stuck you'll generally find that you merely overlooked an object that you can interact with. In that regard you have to play Unbound like a classic adventure game: click on everything you see and make sure you keep a mental note of what seems important. And in an adventure-puzzle game, examining everything has the added benefit of fleshing out the story of the game's world. Unbound also keeps its environments fairly small and segmented. Aside from the game's finale you are generally kept to small areas where it's easy to examine everything and keep track of where things are and even test out items on each object if you need to. The only downside in the gameplay comes from the controls, which have the same stiff movement/looking system of the first game. In order to interact with an object you need to look at it by shining your flashlight on it. Sometimes this means you can be standing right next to an object but because your light beam passes over it you can't actually touch/examine it. Aiming is pretty slow and stiff as well, so even shining your light on the exact spot you want can be a bit clumsy. Thankfully no puzzles have a time limit so the slow aiming system doesn't hamper the gameplay too much (and in combat you can lock-on to enemies), but it still feels a bit awkward, and certainly something that could have been changed between the first game and Unbound. Visually Unbound retains the same style as the first game, but thanks to a far greater variety in environments there's more of a visual identity to each section of the game—each new area with a new AI has a different color palette that helps set the atmosphere. The mood of the game isn't quite as focused on eerie, unknown threats like the first game, but there's still a heavy reliance upon shadows that give the game a somewhat menacing feel. They're not the most complex or detailed graphics you'll see on the Switch but it suits the story and atmosphere of the game perfectly. There is also a lot of great voice work that helps bring the story to (artificial) life. Voicing an AI undergoing an existential crisis is actually a pretty tall order, and the actors do an excellent job of skirting the line between robotic and emotive voices. Unbound is longer than its predecessor but it's still a relatively short to mid-length game, depending upon how quick you are with the puzzles. A good six or seven hours should see you through the entire game, and since it's largely a puzzle game there isn't a lot of replay value here. However, just like the original, replaying Unbound to re-examine the story with a new perspective can be a worthwhile pursuit. The Fall Part 2: Unbound builds upon all of the best parts of its predecessor for a larger, more engaging game. Not all of the new features are ideal but just by expanding the characters and setting Unbound is building up a fantastic sci-fi universe. This continuation of the story is everything fans could hope for: deeper exploration of robot and AI concepts, which seems to be setting up for a killer third and final act. Now it's back to the long wait for the next installment. Rating: 8 out of 10 AIs The Fall Part 2: Unbound is available now on the Switch eShop for $16.99.
  4. Dandara Review

    Dandara from developer Long Hat House and publisher Raw Fury turns Metroidvania exploration on its head—somewhat literally. Instead of running from room to room the eponymous heroine leaps from floor to ceiling to wall, rotating your perspective on your surroundings. You'll explore a labyrinthine world full of enemies and power-ups to collect using only these short range jumps. Dandara is delightfully original and a blast once you get a handle on the unique movement system, but some obnoxious aspects of the game make the adventure a little more tedious than it ought to be. The game takes place in the world of Salt, a peaceful land of creativity and creation that is being oppressed by a group called the Eldarian Army. Our heroine, Dandara, is born form the Crib of Creation to defeat the Eldarians and bring peace back to Salt. The story is pretty minimal in this game, which is kind of a shame since it's clearly a very surreal world that the developers have created. There are plenty of eye-catching details in the scenery but as far as the plotline is concerned you're just exploring and fighting enemies. The most interesting aspects of the narrative come from researching the development of the game and seeing how much of it is drawn from Brazilian history or culture, including the main character Dandara, named after a 17th century Afro-Brazilian freedom fighter. It would have been difficult to integrate some of the real life history seamlessly into the flow of the game, but it's worth researching on your own. As is, the game itself ends up feeling like just another good-vs-evil adventure. Dandara's unusual movement system might seem complicated at a glance, but surprisingly it's pretty easy to grasp quickly. You aim with the left control stick and jump with A—pretty simple. Zipping from floor to ceiling in order to move down a hallway is a lot of fun, and the game does a great job of giving you a solid sense of speed and fluidity. Despite being tethered to the walls, floors, and ceilings—you can leap to anything with a white surface—Dandara has a surprising sense of freedom and exploration that makes it fun to simply bounce around. It's only when you need to be more precise with your jumps that the controls start to feel clumsy, especially when you're being bombarded with enemy attacks. In this regard boss battles can feel like entirely new challenges since you can kind of skate by against normal enemies by sticking to a slow, careful approach which doesn't work in boss fights. Furthermore, when there are more than a couple enemies on screen you can easily get overwhelmed. Worse still, when you take damage you end up floating a bit off of the surface you were on, which has a way of throwing off your rhythm with jumping/dodging (eventually you get a shield ability but for much of the game you'll need to be quick to dodge enemy attacks). While floating you can still take damage which leads to a pretty vicious cycle of getting trapped by multiple enemy attacks. Like I said, slow and steady is oftentimes the best approach. Oddly enough, for as much as the movement system encourages a certain style of speed and fluidity, your attacks are quite slow and limited in the early parts of the game. Dandara can shoot out a sort of shotgun blast of projectiles, but they're short range and you need to charge up in order to fire. The idea of charging attacks really feels at odds with the fast-paced movement, especially when getting hit interrupts your charge. Once you hone your leaping skills the charged up attack system almost feels like a weight upon you, as if the developers were worried you'd end up being too powerful if you could both move and shoot quickly. Trying to find a free second to charge up a shot adds plenty of challenge to the game but it can also make even basic enemies quite frustrating. On the brightside, there is an RPG-like system that gives you experience points when you defeat enemies (you can also find XP in treasure chests). When you find a save point, you can spend your XP on upgrading Dandara's skills—maximum health, maximum special weapon ammo, and health/ammo potion efficacy. Enemies respawn when you use a save point, so technically you can grind to make yourself stronger, though it's a pretty slow process up until the last area of the game where enemies give decent XP. However, there's also a looming shadow over the entire XP system: you lose your XP if you die, like the Dark Souls series. You can recover your XP if you get back to the place where you died, but really, any time this Dark Souls system is used in a game it seems primarily to be there to frustrate the player. You're already sent back to your last save point when you die—a sufficient penalty in an exploration game, especially with how few save points there are in Dandara—so losing XP too is just kicking the player when he's down. Even if the stakes are high though, simple exploration can be a lot of fun in Dandara. The tone of the game is classic Metroidvania: there's little direction on where to go, but when you run into barriers that require special items or weapons you gradually learn where the game is funneling you. The maps themselves are pretty well designed too. They're intricate, but not so complicated that you lose track of yourself every five seconds—although the game would have benefited from some sort of mini-map on-screen just for quick reference instead of pulling up the entire map screen. Just seeing the screen flip around when you move between doors so you can orient yourself is a neat touch. And even if you're not running and jumping in a traditional sense there are some solid platformer challenges in Dandara, many of which revolve around avoiding enemy attacks while still moving forward. I suppose I should also mention that Dandara includes touch screen controls as well, but I only bring them up to say: don't even bother. It may seem intuitive to flick on the screen in the direction you want to leap, but the touch controls are never fast or accurate enough to compete with the normal control stick/buttons. All of those moments when the game throws tons of obstacles at you at once would only be made completely frustrating if you try to handle them with touch controls. It wouldn't be classic platformer/exploration design without classic visuals to match, would it? Dandara features some gorgeous pixel art that would be right at home on a classic system but still feels fresh and interesting. As already mentioned the backgrounds are peppered with some great visual details, some of which references famous Brazilian art, and the result is satisfyingly surreal. Plus the soundtrack is outstanding—a perfect match for the otherworldly vibe of the game. It's just the right blend of driving rhythmic beats as you explore and battle enemies and slightly eerie melodies as you stumble through bizarre environments. Dandara isn't a terribly long game but it doesn't feel all that short either. There are actually only a handful of areas to explore but with the backtracking and probable deaths/retries the game still comes out to a decent nine or ten hours. There are also plenty of hidden secrets to find, as well as the possibility of grinding XP until you reach maximum power, so it's possible to stretch the game out a bit as well. Additionally, Dandara seems like a prime candidate for speed-running, just like Metroid games, since most upgrades are optional. Overall it's a decent amount of content for your fifteen bucks. Dandara's unique movement puts a whole new spin on Metroidvania exploration while still staying true to the classic structure of the genre. With a bit of practice the ability to jump from surface to surface is a lot of fun, and being able to find something new and entertaining about just moving around the screen speaks to the creativity of the developers. As strong as the concept is though, the execution has some notable faults, mostly with regard to combat that too often feels punishing and somewhat at odds with the fast-paced fluidity of leaping from wall to wall. If you're prepared to stomach the challenges—and fairly frequent deaths/retries—Dandara is a delightful take on a familiar genre. Rating: 8 out of 10 Salts Dandara is available now on the Switch eShop for $14.99
  5. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is available on a Nintendo system. Even after having played through the game I still find this kind of shocking. It was obvious back in 2011, when the game was originally released on other systems, that it wouldn't have worked on the Wii, but more than just hardware limitations there was a sense that a game like Skyrim, a Western developed massive open-world game, just didn't seem to gel with Nintendo's style. There was a certain difference in design philosophy between the two, which also kept a lot of other third-party games at arm's length from Nintendo's systems. But the times, they are a-changin', and when Nintendo officially revealed the Switch in 2016, one of the first games shown in the trailer was Skyrim. And let's be fair, the game is several years old now which represents quite a leap in hardware design, but it's still pretty incredible to see one of the most lauded games of the past decade finally find its way to a Nintendo system. Best of all, it's still a really fun game. There's a good chance that you've already played Skyrim, or at least know the premise, but here's a quick recap: you play as the Dragonborn, an individual with the unique ability to absorb dragons' powers. Your arrival in Skyrim seems destined as the land is plagued with dragon attacks, and only you can stop them. That's just the main story though. The incredible thing about Skyrim is its sheer size, not just in physical locations but in the hundreds of side stories that the game's inhabitants live out. In any open-world sandbox game it's easy to lose yourself in the game's world since there's so much to do, and that's never been more true than in Skyrim. There are a multitude of combat options—even if combat feels a little stiff and repetitive at times—and a whole host of non-combat activities to busy yourself with. The degree of freedom and opportunities for side quests is staggering, and not a little intimidating, but when you throw yourself into Skyrim you'll find yourself engrossed in the game's world for literally hundreds of hours. The base game is still a wonderfully compelling adventure, and this Switch release includes all of the DLC that was added to the game post-release. Additionally, the developers have thrown in a few minor Nintendo touches. Skyrim on Switch supports amiibo, which drops a treasure chest in front of you with a random assortment of goodies. Since you're constantly collecting and hording stuff in Skyrim it can be a nice boost early in the game but after a few hours you'll probably move beyond the need for random goodie bags dropping from the sky. If you use Zelda amiibo you might receive special Zelda equipment—Master Sword, Hylian Shield, and Link's Champion's Tunic from Breath of the Wild. Again, these are pretty useful early on, plus it's just fun to see a lizard man running around with the Master Sword in hand. And don't worry if you don't collect amiibo; the Zelda equipment can also be found by visiting an important location in the main story. This Switch edition of Skyrim also adds motion controls, so you can swing a Joy-Con to swing your sword into your fearsome dragon foes. You can also aim bows or magic spells with the Joy-Cons' motion controls, and even pick locks by rotating the Joy-Cons. But since the game wasn't originally designed for motion controls, swinging the controllers around isn't very comfortable in Skyrim. It's fun for messing around a bit, but playing through the entire game like this would get pretty tiring quickly, and not just physically. Of course, as a Switch game, Skyrim can also be played in handheld mode, which is easily the biggest addition to this version of Skyrim. This is the kind of game that can take over your life while you're playing it, so squeezing in a bit of extra playtime on the bus or even just in the kitchen is a great feature. The game also runs quite well in handheld mode. Obviously everything is a bit smoother when you have the system docked, and dark shadows become even more difficult to see through when playing in handheld mode, but overall the game is perfectly playable on-the-go. I should mention though, as compelling as Skryim still is it also still has plenty of little bugs and glitches, some of which can be pretty problematic if you haven't saved recently (although you can save anywhere, so just remember to save as often as possible). Additionally, Skyrim is really showing its age as an over six-year-old game. Some of the animation is looking pretty stiff these days, and character models are looking rough. Still, the overall aesthetic of the game holds up well, especially since the game is simply so large and transitions between areas pretty smoothly. Even six years after the game's original release it's not hard to see why Skyrim was so highly praised. It remains an incredibly engrossing adventure, one that can last for hundreds of hours, and this Switch version has the benefit of both handheld mode and all of the game's DLC packed in. The other additions for this edition may not be particularly exciting, but the base game has enough content and appeal to keep you glued to your Switch all the same. If you've never taken a trip through this game's snowy landscapes and deadly dungeons this Switch version is a perfect time to do so, and even if you already have you'll probably still enjoy once again exploring every detail Skyrim has to offer. Rating: 9 out of 10 Dovahkiins
  6. Sonic Forces Review

    Sonic's history in the world of 3D platforming has had more ups and downs than his iconic rollercoaster level design. At times it seems like the developers find the right balance of speed and platforming, and then there are some games that seem to completely miss what makes a Sonic game fun. Sonic Forces, unfortunately, is one of the low points. The inclusion of both classic 2D stages and an avatar character with unique, customizable abilities does little to balance out the game's fundamental lack of engaging gameplay. Sonic Forces' woes begin with its muddled storytelling. The game opens with Eggman once again harassing Sonic and friends, but this time he has a powerful new ally named Infinite who defeats Sonic and throws him in prison. The story then jumps forward six months, during which time Eggman basically conquers the world, which leads Knuckles, Tails, Amy, and other side characters into building a resistance force. In itself that's not a terrible premise, but the plot moves at such a lightning quick speed that nothing really seems to matter. Sonic is imprisoned, but after the time skip he immediately escapes and starts kicking Eggman butt once again. Knuckles and friends have built up this resistance that mostly lets Sonic deal with actually defeating Eggman's forces. The avatar character is a blank slate and feels completely pointless next to the huge cast of other side characters that could have filled the same role. At one point Sonic is sucked into a black hole trap and then escapes literally eight seconds later—none of the game's events have consequences, and it moves so quickly that it kind of feels like an outline that was shipped out as the final draft. That feeling of unfinished design carries over to the gameplay as well. It feels like the developers couldn't decide what direction to take the game, so they just threw everything into Sonic Forces. There are 3D levels with Sonic, 3D levels with the avatar character who is almost exactly the same as Sonic except he carries a weapon, and 2D levels with classic Sonic. The game suffers for having three different styles of gameplay where none of them feel polished. One of the trickiest aspects of designing a Sonic game is finding the right balance of speed for the hedgehog. He needs to feel fast but not uncontrollable. In Sonic Forces his sense of momentum feels completely off, even in the 2D levels which is particularly baffling considering Sonic's long history with 2D design. In either classic or modern style Sonic will go careening off ledges at the slightest touch, and jumping has a terrible weighty feel that destroys his sense of speed. The controls lack that crucial sense of natural movement—it's just not fun to control Sonic or the avatar in this game. The other aspects of the game don't fare much better. The level design is mixed at best. A few stages have the branching path designs of Sonic's best games, but there are just as many that feel like an almost automated sprint through the level—you might as well put the controller down at times, or just hold it to jump at specific moments. It doesn't help that the game features an online scoreboard that emphasizes speedruns, which makes many levels feel like they are supposed to be rushed through in just a couple of minutes. And the levels with the most significant replay incentives are the avatar levels since you can equip different Wispons which can give you access to different parts of the level. The downside is most of these Wispons are not fun to use at all—it's just another way in which the avatar feels like an unnecessary addition to Sonic's world. The boss design is all over the place as well, in terms of quality and difficulty. The majority of boss fights are so easy they're downright boring. Sonic Forces pits the blue hedgehog against some of his classic opponents from across the franchise's history, but the battles themselves are completely uninspired. Then there's the final boss fight which is pretty decent in design, certainly more complex than many of the early bosses, but is also super difficult, seemingly out of nowhere. Everything about Sonic Forces shows that the developers really didn't have a strong idea of where to take the game, and the result is a hodgepodge of half-baked game design. On a technical level, Sonic Forces does look good. The game runs well and the splashes of movement and action in the background makes the world look satisfyingly lively. However, those flashy background details too often take center stage. The visual design is so busy at times that you can hardly see yourself amidst all of the chaos happening on screen—and of course this is only made worse when you're traveling at top speed. And although the art design of the scenery is pretty good the character designs feel lacking. Sonic and friends all have iconic designs at this point so there's not going to be much variety there, but the avatar creation options all make the avatar look terribly flat and bland. Even with all of the pointless accessories you can unlock to dress up your avatar—and there is a ridiculous amount of unlockable accessories—the avatar's visual design sticks out as much as his pointless gameplay design. Even the soundtrack in Sonic Forces doesn't feel quite on the mark. Too often it feels like a poor imitation of Sonic music rather than an exciting new soundtrack. With such an emphasis on fast, speed run levels it shouldn't be a surprise that Sonic Forces is pretty short. A good four or five hours will see you through the story mode. On the bright side there are plenty of bonus stages, but they don't really improve the basic gameplay problems found in every level. There's also the aforementioned online leaderboard to compare your time with other players, and you can use other people's avatars within levels, despite the fact that there is very little different from one avatar to another. There may be a lot of opportunities to replay the game but you probably won't be compelled to do so. At best, Sonic Forces is a completely uninspired Sonic the Hedgehog game. It introduces nothing significant to the franchise aside from an avatar system that comes across as a half-hearted attempt at appealing to the fan base. At worst, Sonic Forces is a mess of a game, one that desperately tries to throw anything at the wall in the hopes that it'll stick, and in the process fails to even properly recreate classic Sonic elements. It's a shame that after so many years of game releases Sonic still stumbles so much in 3D game design. Rating: 4 out of 10 Hedgehogs
  7. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has a pretty big legacy to live up to. The previous two games in the series were lauded for the massive scope of each adventure, which promised hundreds of hours of gameplay in gorgeous RPG worlds. The original Xenoblade Chronicles in particular is fondly remembered for its surprising size and compelling narrative, whereas Xenoblade Chronicles X tried something a little different, more of a sci-fi adventure, though just as fun. And now, on the Switch, XC2 stands tall as another gigantic game with a detailed, engaging battle system, a unique setting, and beautiful environments to explore. Even though the core elements of the game are similar to the original XC, XC2 offers plenty of new features for players to lose themselves in for hours and hours. Not all of the game's new ideas are entirely positive, but this is still one adventure that RPG fans cannot miss. As far as the plot is concerned, XC2 hits a lot of familiar JRPG and adventure story tropes—plucky young character, Rex, becomes a hero when he meets a mysterious girl, etc. To simplify the entire story down to just that would be a disservice, though. Like the previous XC games the world building is what really draws the player in, and XC2 features a possibly even more inventive and unusual world structure than the original XC. People live on the backs of gargantuan, living titans that move around the ever-shifting cloud sea almost like celestial bodies—it's the kind of fantasy setting that perfectly tickles your imagination. And then there's the idea of Blades, living weapons that bond with a user (called Drivers). The whole mythology surrounding these concepts is fascinating, and XC2 does a good job of both explaining things and leaving certain details up to the player's imagination. So the story begins when Rex bonds with a Blade named Pyra, who is not just a Blade but one of the most powerful Blades in existence. Rex's journey then takes him all across the world as he learns more about a massive war hundreds of years ago, as well as the formation of the world. It's fascinating to just see all of that lore unfold, and I should mention that the characters are quite charming in their own right, even if many of them lean on tropes—and Nopons continue to skirt a very fine line between adorable side kicks and annoying creatures. Even if the main appeal of the game is still it's exploration, the story will keep you well engaged, particularly the last few chapters. Anyone that has played a previous XC game will probably also expect a rich, complicated real-time battle system. Thank goodness the game only gradually introduces its many combat features, since it's probably going to sound ridiculously complex as I try to explain it now. In battle you only control one character (a Driver), who attacks automatically when in range of a targeted enemy. Drivers' weapons are determined by what Blade they currently have equipped—eventually you can equip up to three at once—which also changes the element of your attacks and what Arts (special attacks) you can use. By chaining together Arts in certain elemental combos you can unleash powerful attacks. There are a lot more little details to the combat system but that covers the essentials, and once you're playing you understand a lot of these aspects better. The combat system is clearly geared toward longer battles since it can take some time to build up good combo chains, so combat tends to be more satisfying during boss fights when you really have to keep an eye on every aspect of the battle. What's more unique to XC2 is the way Blades change your approach to battle, especially in the way some Blades are geared toward attacking, defending, or healing. Blades also have their own skill trees that grow the more you use them, so mixing up your line-up can help you unlock each Blade's potential. In an almost Pokémon-style way it's pretty addictive to try out every Blade and see how they are best used in combat. And like past XC games it's possible to run into high-level enemies anywhere in the game. Battling a monster a few levels above you is also a good way to add some challenge and depth to the battle system, as long as they aren't too high leveled. XC2's combat is equal measures of planning and then reacting with a well timed strike or button press, and it's a lot of fun when everything comes together well. However, it seems like the developers realized that longer battles are a lot more fun than the quick ones, and as a result most enemies have a ton of health, which can be a bit of a drag when you're fighting a monster twenty levels below you but it still takes a long time to finish off. It can make some battles a bit tedious. So, Drivers equip Blades to use in battle, but where do you get Blades? This is another unfortunately tedious aspect of the game, one where the developers stretch things out in an already incredibly long game. Some Blades you'll earn through the story or through specific side quests, but the majority are unlocked randomly from items called Core Crystals. You'll collect Core Crystals throughout your adventure but you won't know what Blade is inside until you bond with it—it's a randomized, Gacha Game system. On one hand the random element means that two players can end up having significantly different playthroughs based on the Blades they unlock, especially early on, which is a really neat way of allowing players to discover their own preferred play styles. But on the other hand, having no control over the Blades you unlock gets tedious pretty quickly, and is made all the more annoying by the long animation that plays every time you "open" a Core Crystal. Over the course of the adventure you'll end up with hundreds of common Blades as you try over and over to find a more valuable rare Blade. By the end of the game, I guarantee you'll find the whole format completely obnoxious. Aside from the complex battle system the other key aspect of a XC game is massive environments. Exploration feels a bit more segmented in XC2 since you travel from one Titan to another as you progress through the game but even so, the scenery is huge and it's a blast to just wander out into it—just watch out for those high level monsters. All of those varied environments are complemented by tons of side quests to complete—rare Blades all have unique side quests attached to them as well—plus tons of items to collect and scavenge. Like so many games XC2 fosters that impulse to collect everything you can as you explore. Also, once you have a bunch of common Blades cluttering up your Blade menu, you can put them to work in Mercenary missions to earn some bonus money and items for you. As the game progresses you'll end up micromanaging a ton of stuff but there's always more to see and it's hard to say no to that call of adventure. And this is only tangentially related to the game's sense of exploration but I have to compliment the fast loading times for such a large game, and that includes fast-travel. It really does help make the game feel seamless. In a game as big as this, there are a handful of other small aspects that are pretty annoying as you play, even if they are fairly minor aspects of the overall adventure. For example, Blades can use field skills while you're exploring in order to reach hidden areas or unlock treasure chests. What can be a little annoying is that you need to have the appropriate Blade equipped to use its field skill, which leads to a lot of swapping Blades just to reach one platform or unlock one chest—not really a huge issue but an unnecessary aspect of the game. There's also a specific Blade that can only unlock new equipment by playing a mini-game over and over—again, needlessly repetitive. Or there's the complete lack of direction on finding specific collectibles or specific monsters needed to level up a Blade's skill tree. There are a lot of these little touches that can make the game irritating at times, but none of them really drag down the experience as a whole. The last key component for a XC game: beautiful visuals. A big part of what makes exploration so compelling is how gorgeous the environments are, especially in the way that they feel like living, breathing ecosystems and not just scenery for the game's narrative. One might argue that XC2 has fewer standout environments than its predecessors, but that doesn't mean the graphics are at all lacking. There are still a lot of gorgeous locales to lose yourself in, as well as a lot of fun character designs, especially with so may different Blades. The rare Blades that aren't key to the game's story were designed by a number of different artists and it's neat to see that variety in a single game. In addition to great visuals XC2 has a killer soundtrack as well, and thanks to the size of the game there is a ton of music to enjoy, from intense battle songs to adventurous exploration tunes. Although oddly there is still one annoying little issue that often happened in XCX: the music plays over the voice acting during some cutscenes. Overall the English voice acting is pretty solid too—some lines fall flat, though more often than not it's down to the awkwardness of pairing English words with animation designed for Japanese. Still, it's kind of fun to hear the variety of accents used in XC2. It helps add a little believability to the differences in the various Titan nations. Just finishing the story will last you probably at least sixty or seventy hours, but more likely your playtime will be far beyond that thanks to all of the side quests, Blade collecting, and just plain sheer size of XC2. Because of the way Blades work you technically have a pool of dozens of characters that can all individually be used, trained, equipped, and have special side quests attached to them. To 100% complete this game would be a pretty Herculean task, but the mark of a good game is that all of those hours spent fly by, and that's definitely true here. You can play for hours and not realize it, because there's always something else pulling you back into the game. And when you're in the middle of the adventure, you won't mind watching those hours melt away. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is a game made for the fans that loved all of the combat elements and exploration of the first two games. At its core, this game is more of that winning formula, with new characters to adventure alongside and a new world to explore with its own rich backstory and secrets. The new Blades system offers up tons of gameplay variability and strategy depth, and contributes to the unbelievable length of the game, even if unlocking rare Blades is a more tedious than it should be. Still, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is the kind of RPG that will keep you wholly engaged for weeks if not months, and RPG fans will love losing themselves in this adventure. Rating: 9 out of 10 Blades
  8. Doom Review

    Of all the games to release on the Switch in its first year, who could have predicted that Doom would grace Nintendo's portable/console hybrid? Not just for its M-rated content, but for its specific brand of brutal and bloody M-rated content that truly revels in its own gory combat. Doom is a unique brand of visceral action and, putting aside any comparisons to how the game might run on other hardware, Doom on the Switch delivers on all fronts. As the game begins you awaken in an empty room in a research facility on Mars. The Union Aerospace Corporation has opened a portal to Hell in order to draw power and solve Earth's energy crisis, but wouldn't you know it, demons have poured through the portal and are decimating the facility. It's up to you to stop the rampaging demons and send them back to Hell. For a Doom game, you might assume that's enough of a plotline, and for the most part that's all you really need to know, but there are still more details that make the game's infrequent cutscenes pretty interesting. The player character may not be terribly deep—though it is a nice nod to the series that you are once again playing the iconic Doomguy, this time called the Doom Slayer—but the game's universe is interesting and worth exploring. There's one thing you should always expect from a Doom game: tons of vicious, bloody action. This latest entry in the series doesn't disappoint on that front. In addition to the general mayhem of gunning down hordes of demons, Doom features brutal melee finishers called glory kills. You need to be up close and personal with a dazed demon to execute the attack, which can be dangerous, but in addition to just plain looking cool glory kills reward you with health, so they can be worthwhile attacks. They also speak to the fast-paced philosophy of this Doom game. This isn't the type of FPS where you hide behind cover and snipe your enemies from a distance. You need to be constantly on the move, gunning down monsters, punching them in face, and dodging their attacks. The rapid fluidity of battle can be disorienting at first—glory kills in particular can be a little rough on your eyes since, when the animation finishes, you often end up looking in a different direction than where you started—but after a bit of practice with it the hectic nature of the combat is actually quite satisfying. It's visceral action, and exciting to play from the first enemy encounter to the last. The bane of modern FPS games is corridor level design. Too many shooters put you on narrow paths where you dash from cover to cover, popping off shots between waiting for your health to regenerate. Doom has none of these weaknesses. The level design here is fantastically elaborate, with branching, interconnected paths and tons of secrets to find. You're never at a loss for things to investigate, which is an all too rare treat in FPS design anymore. The secrets are well-worth finding as well. Doom has quite an elaborate upgrade system, from weapon mods to health/armor boosters, and taking the time to survey your surroundings often rewards you with such upgrades. The only annoying aspect of Doom's exploration is that oftentimes there are points of no return with no warning, and with the auto-saving checkpoint system you can easily accidentally lock yourself out of sections of the map in each level. It's not a terrible hassle to replay a level but it is rather inconvenient. In addition to a pretty lengthy single-player campaign—which also has the added replay value of multiple difficulty settings and a score-chasing arcade mode—Doom offers online multiplayer. Many of the usual multiplayer game features are available here, including old standbys like Team Deathmatch and modern features like leveling up to unlock new equipment. There are also a few unique features as well, though these can be a little daunting to new players, such as the ability to transform into a demon during a match. However, the fast-paced action of Doom's gameplay makes for a somewhat rocky multiplayer system. Any slight delay between players can really make things rough on your aim when everyone is zipping around so quickly. Your mileage may vary depending upon your internet connection but in my experience the gameplay seemed to be too fast for the actual multiplayer infrastructure. Visually, Doom is everything you would expect. Several levels literally take place in Hell, and the landscape is suitably demonic, and the monsters themselves are delightfully horrific (though still clearly based on classic Doom enemies). Overall though the game's setting doesn't lend itself to a ton of variety in the visuals, which is a bit of a shame since what you do see looks pretty great. And of course the fast-paced action is complemented by a heart-pounding soundtrack—just the kind of intense music you want while tearing demons apart with a chainsaw. There is one huge problem with the presentation though, and it's a glitch that is still prevalent two months after the game's initial release. Occasionally the sound cuts out entirely, and other times you'll get a sharp blaring noise for a split second. These issues can pop up seemingly at random, and you'll have to restart a checkpoint to fix the audio when it goes silent. These glitches may not affect the gameplay but they are extremely distracting when they happen in the middle of a fight. Doom is everything you'd expect it to be: an intense FPS with brutal combat around every corner. What might be surprising though is how well that formula is used in this game. This is far from mindless action. The fast-paced gameplay is thrilling but it also changes the way you approach battles and encourages a true understanding of your surroundings. The level design makes exploration not only rewarding in terms of power-ups but engaging in its own right. The multiplayer system is somewhat less unique and exciting but it still scratches an itch for a bit of classic competitive gameplay. Aside from a few technical issues Doom on the Switch is an intense and intensely satisfying experience. Rating: 8 out of 10 Demons
  9. At this point, you probably already know what you're getting into with a Telltale game: episodic point-and-click adventure, lots of dialogue options, quick-time action sequences, and a lot of choices that don't really alter all that much in the end. Batman: The Telltale Series continues that formula to a tee, with all of the annoying quirks that come with it. But to be fair this may be one of the more interesting stories written by Telltale, not because of the branching options but because of how it treats the characters of the Batman universe. For better or for worse this is a pretty unique take on the Caped Crusader's world, even if it is yet another Telltale adventure full of missed opportunities. Batman is one of the most well known comic franchises out there; in fact he's one of the most popular pop culture figures still relevant today. So how does Telltale create an engaging story using well-trod characters? By turning some familiar conventions on their heads. The story does dip into a somewhat annoying theme of "everything/everyone is bad," the kind of grimdark style that trades storytelling depth for shock value, but this game does something that even Rocksteady's Arkham series never did: it tells a story that is as much about Batman as it is about Bruce Wayne. It makes sense that a dialogue-heavy game would do so, but it's still pretty refreshing to see a story that explores Bruce and the balance of his life with Batman's. This story-telling focus isn't necessarily a complete success—as usual Telltale bit off more than it could chew when it established some themes in the first couple episodes that aren't fully explored—but if nothing else this is a Batman story that you wouldn't see in any other game. As is the case in every modern Telltale game, narrative choices play a big part in the game. Well, as much as they do in any Telltale game, which is actually not that much out of some cosmetic differences. I'll give Telltale's Batman some credit though; this game actually has some interesting differences based on your choices. No, there aren't huge changes—the story is still very much railroaded into specific scenes, often to the point where characters just seem schizophrenic as they bounce between emotional extremes, and frankly at this point it would be just as crazy on the player's part to expect anything more elaborate from Telltale—but some of the differences at least lead to unique scenes. These scenes still come together to the same end result but it's neat to see someone else play the game and experience a different scenario, with different characters or locations, based on player choices. The majority of the gameplay is also the same as every Telltale game, but there are two unique features that cater to the Dark Knight. In some instances, when you are about to take on a group of enemies, the action pauses and you can choose how to take out each goon—toss him into a table, knock out a light fixture above him, etc. These options don't actually matter and it only comes up a handful of times throughout the game but it's a nice touch for showing off Batman's impeccable ability to plan out his moves. Secondly, you get to actually do a bit of detective work at times. Like the combat planning there aren't too many opportunities to do this throughout the game and by "detective work" I really mean click on the only interactive objects in the scene and draw conclusions on how they're related but it's more than you might normally expect from Telltale. These sequences would have been a lot more satisfying if they were even slightly more elaborate—something to justify Batman's title as "world's greatest detective"—but I'll take any gameplay depth I can get from these interactive stories. It also wouldn't be a Telltale game if there weren't some technical issues. Despite using an updated game engine you can still expect some jittery visuals, which is most noticeable during fight scenes, i.e. those moments where the frame rate needs to be smoothest. Granted, combat in a Telltale game just means a lot of quick-time sequences but it's still annoying to see every punch or kick stutter through a few frames then jump ahead. And although the updated engine adds some more detail to the graphics it's still the same style as previous Telltale games. Sharp outlines, bold colors—it's actually all very appropriate for a comic book franchise like Batman. You can also expect a star-studded voice cast that does a fine job of bringing the characters to life. It might take you a bit of time to warm up to Batman/Bruce Wayne's voice but overall the voice cast is solid. A new graphics engine and a new IP isn't quite enough to shake up Telltale's formulaic game design. Batman: The Telltale Series has all of the same pitfalls as its predecessors: narrative choices that don't really matter in the end, a lack of engaging gameplay, and technical issues that may not completely disrupt the game but are still pretty obnoxious. On the bright side this eight hour romp through Gotham offers a few enticing ideas that try to explore a more complex Batman story, but just like Telltale's concept of player choice these ideas don't lead to much in the end. Rating: 6 out of 10 Batmen
  10. Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King from developer Castle Pixel and publisher FDG Entertainment follows in the footsteps of action-adventure games like A Link to the Past and delivers a fresh game with plenty of classic elements. The top-down perspective, assortment of items, and hidden secrets scattered across the game's overworld will be instantly familiar to anyone that has enjoyed a classic Zelda game. But despite the clear inspiration from Nintendo's franchise Blossom Tales is far from derivative. The pieces may be familiar but Blossom Tales reassembles them into a charming, engaging adventure. You play as Lily, a newly recruited Knight of the Rose, who sets out on a dangerous journey to save the king who has fallen under a powerful sleep spell by an evil wizard—pretty classic adventure game fare. Blossom Tales does add a cute twist by making the entire game a story that a grandpa is telling to his grandchildren, à la The Princess Bride. This narration structure sets up some fun premises throughout the game including a few self-aware jokes, though for the most part this is still a classic adventure game formula: Lily explores, helps out the townsfolk she meets, and conquers vast dungeons. Even if it's not wildly original you'll still be charmed by the game's endearing style and dialogue. Comparisons to Zelda are inescapable when talking about Blossom Tales; the grandpa even makes a pointed reference to the series at the beginning of the game. The vast overworld to explore, the dungeon design with key items found in each one, the heart pieces to extend Lily's health—the entire structure is instantly recognizable, though in a way that works to the game's benefit. Most players will be able to instantly jump into the action and hence appreciate how well the developers have captured the balance of exploration, puzzle-solving, and sense of challenge that make these types of action-adventure games so engaging and rewarding. Even if the game isn't too difficult for anyone experienced with Zelda games there are still some great puzzles to decipher and fun environments to lose yourself in. The formula in Blossom Tales may be familiar, but there's something to be said for simply executing a formula so well. And there are a few ways that Blossom Tales distinguishes itself from the Nintendo series. For one, Lily can execute a sword attack combo ending in a jumping slash that makes combat a little more interesting. There are few truly challenging battle encounters, but the game gives you enough tools to keep fights engaging, especially with the wealth of side quest items you can collect from defeated foes. You'll often be tasked with collecting twenty of some item to turn in for a reward, and if adventure games as a whole are any indication there's something oddly satisfying about carrying out these little fetch quests. Blossom Tales also takes a unique approach to items by tying all item use to a stamina meter, i.e. you don't have to collect or buy arrows or bombs, you just need to have enough stamina to draw your bow or toss another explosive (and stamina recharges naturally). Granted this is yet another feature similar to a Zelda game, specifically A Link Between Worlds, but in Blossom Tales it forces you to think about your item management. Bombs and spells are particularly powerful in this game but with the stamina limitation you can't just spam them over and over. It adds a little touch of strategy to combat, particularly boss fights, which is a welcome change over games that turn into button-mashing sword-swinging fights. In the audio and visuals department Blossom Tales also looks back to classic game design for inspiration. The top-down perspective lends itself to classic square-shaped environment design but the characters are a bit less detailed than the 16-bit era A Link to the Past. Just like the gameplay the visuals do a great job of paying homage to a classic style but still creating a unique look for itself, which particularly shines through with the little environmental details like clouds and fog. And everything in the game looks absolutely adorable—the flower in Lily's hair bouncing as she walks is a great touch. The audio is a perfect match for the 16-bit era as well: bouncy, rhythmic, and just plain fun. Though if any aspect of Blossom Tales risks treading on Zelda's toes a bit too much, it's the music, where some of the songs are a little too similar to Zelda. Blossom Tales lasts a good ten hours or so, but a big part of that play time depends upon how much exploration you do. Like any adventure game worth its salt there is a whole wealth of collectibles to uncover: heart pieces, stamina meter extenders, optional items, etc. You can spend a lot of time just wandering around trying to discover everything you can in the overworld, and to be honest that's half of the fun in a game like this. Once you've found everything and defeated the final boss there isn't much incentive to replay the game, but the amount of optional content does make this a great candidate for speed runs. It's clear that this game owes a lot to Link and his adventures in Hyrule, but Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King never feels like just a copy of Zelda. It pays homage to all of the classic elements that have made the Zelda franchise as beloved as it is today, and adds a few unique twists and some fresh challenges to make a game that is just delightful from start to finish. And that may be the most important aspect of Zelda that Blossom Tales captures: the pure sense of fun in exploring an overworld teeming with secrets, in working through challenging puzzles, and in overcoming one boss after another in order to save the day. In the end that's what makes Blossom Tales another excellent addition to the Switch's library. Rating: 8 out of 10 Blossoms Review copy provided by publisher Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King is now available on the Switch eShop for $14.99.
  11. Ittle Dew 2+ Review

    The first Ittle Dew landed on the Wii U eShop to little fanfare, but its charming cartoon design, clever puzzles, and loving parody of adventure game staples won over players looking for a cute but challenging adventure. I'm happy to see it even gained enough of an audience to warrant a sequel, one that does a great job of building upon the original's core mechanics without feeling like the exact same game again. Ittle Dew 2+ puts Ittle and Tippsie on a new island, full of dungeons and treasure, and gives you the freedom to explore wherever and however you choose. If the first game is The Legend of Zelda in style, Ittle Dew 2+ is A Link to the Past: a bigger world, more elaborate puzzle mechanics, and more optional content to seek out. Like its predecessor Ittle Dew 2+ takes a firm tongue-in-cheek approach to the adventure game genre. Ittle and Tippsie are adrift on a raft when they wind up in the middle of a pond on an island. An island rife with dungeons, and the only way to get a new raft is to explore each one. Along the way Ittle is just looking for treasure and Tippsie provides the sarcastic commentary. The dry humor is great, and not just because it's a sense of humor rarely seen in video games, at least not at this level. Everything in the world of Ittle Dew 2+ is goofy, witty, and wonderfully self-aware, from the first dungeon that is literally covered in protective foam and pillows to ease you into the adventure to the repeating bosses that tell you they're just there for a paycheck. It's a charming parody of adventure games, and the thing about great parodies is that they can't just poke fun at a genre, they have to actually be good at the genre as well. And Ittle Dew 2+ is a great adventure game. From the start of the game you're plopped down right in the middle of the island and told to head east to the first dungeon. But, in the spirit of the great adventure games of the past, you're actually free to do whatever you want on the island. You can go straight to dungeon number seven first. You can hunt down all of the secrets that the game has to offer (and there are a lot). You can just plain wander around if you want to. Ittle Dew 2+ is wonderfully open in that regard—outside of the final dungeon no area of the island is off-limits or blocked off by a specific item. You can discover all of the game's secrets using just your trusty stick. In fact it's pretty beneficial to head off the beaten path since you'll find health upgrades and other items to boost your abilities. But the key here is that discovering little secrets is always fun, and Ittle Dew 2+ gives you the freedom to do just that whenever you want. The only minor complaint about exploration is that the map system can be a little unhelpful while navigating. The full view of the island map makes it hard to actually make out details like paths and obstacles, and you can only zoom in on the region you are currently in (i.e. the forest area, the mountain area, etc.). It would have been even more useful to be able to zoom in on the entire map so you can plan your route between areas more easily. It wouldn't be an adventure game without dungeons, and they wouldn't be dungeons without various puzzles to solve. In the case of Ittle Dew 2+ the majority of them are sliding block puzzles or hidden switches, but like the first game there are just a few key items that are used in a wide variety of ways to solve each and every puzzle. Each item has multiple ways it can be used, so you really need to put on your thinking cap and consider all the ways your items can be leveraged, both individually and in tandem. The first Ittle Dew had entire bonus challenge routes that really cranked up the difficulty. This game doesn't have those anymore, but since you can explore the dungeons in any order sometimes you'll find a shortcut by using one item or another that may not have been accessible if you went through the game in order. For an adventure game that's heavy on puzzles, this is a pretty brilliant way to add some replay value, and to incentivize you to approach each puzzle from every angle you can think of. Combat is the one area of the game that hasn't really evolved since Ittle Dew. Ittle has her main weapon—which starts out as just a stick—and can use the other three items to not only solve puzzles but in combat as well. However, actually fighting enemies feels pretty basic, and oftentimes tedious. The combat is of the "smack it until it dies" variety, so there's not a lot of finesse here. Even dodging enemy attacks has more of a scrambling feel rather than skill and style, since many enemies are relentless with their attacks. The good news is that there's very little penalty for dying. You'll restart at your last checkpoint or the entrance of the area/dungeon you are currently in, but you won't lose any progress. For example, if there's a locked door that requires you to defeat a miniboss and you defeat it but die in the next room, the door is still unlocked (the monster will respawn but you can march right past it). You can sort of brute force your way through these combat challenges, which isn't super satisfying from a gameplay perspective—there's little incentive to fight well outside of boss fights—but at least it mean that, even if the combat isn't very rewarding, it won't hold you back from progressing through the game. The game also takes some pity on you if you're stuck by the puzzles too. While exploring the overworld you can find lockpicks which can be used in dungeons to essentially bypass any puzzles that have you stumped (at least, those puzzles that reward you with a key). Ittle Dew 2+ has its share of head-scratching puzzles, but the game gives you some wiggle room if you need it. And on the other hand, if you want more of a challenge, there are several optional dungeons and challenge rooms for you to enjoy. Some of these optional areas don't give you anything significant—and the game even warns you as much, if you're only in this for the treasure—but the bonus dungeons offer some valuable rewards. And just like the first game Ittle Dew 2+ is built for speedrunning. You can easily ignore all of the exploration and optional dungeons of the game and just power through the eight required dungeons, in which case you can finish the game in as little as an hour. It's more likely the game will last around ten hours for your first playthrough though, especially if you spend the time to fully explore the island. On a technical level the game runs perfectly smoothly except for one rather prevalent problem: loading times. It's a necessary evil for modern gaming but the loading times in Ittle Dew 2+ are obnoxiously noticeable, particularly because they come up so often (every time you enter a building, cave, dungeon, move between regions, etc.). Don't get me wrong, the loading times aren't ridiculously long, but they're just long enough to be annoying. The whimsical visuals in Ittle Dew 2+ are really what draw the player into the game, at least initially. The art style is just perfect for the tone of the game: cartoony, bizarre but not too elaborate—it's the kind of delightful absurdist design that video games revel in, which makes it a fitting setting for the parody/tribute that is Ittle Dew 2+. The sight of Tippsie, a winged fox, quietly scowling at you from the corner of the screen is hilarious from the first moment to the last. The game also sports a solid soundtrack. The music isn't as openly satirical as the writing or visuals; instead it's simply a proper, atmospheric adventure game soundtrack. From the moody dungeon melodies to the upbeat overworld tunes the music sets the tone for an epic exploration adventure. Ittle Dew 2+ is everything that fans of Zelda games will love, while also poking fun at all the little quirks of the genre. It's the kind of game that doesn't take itself too seriously—it's a game after all—but that doesn't mean it's some kind of mindless adventure either. Beyond the fun parody elements lies a properly challenging game that makes excellent use of only a few items to cook up all manner of puzzles and challenges. The combat still isn't a particular strong point of the game and faster load times would do wonders for the mere pacing of the game, but overall Ittle Dew 2+ offers a ton of clever, satisfying puzzles in classic adventure game and dungeon-exploration format. Rating: 8 out of 10 Dungeons
  12. Tiny Barbarian DX Review

    Tiny Barbarian DX brings players back to a simpler time, when action games were two-dimensional (literally) and the hero only had a few attacks to deal with hordes of enemies and massive bosses. It's a love letter to classic NES action games like Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania, from the pixel-art graphics to the tough-as-nails gameplay that will have you dying and retrying over and over as you slowly master the game's challenges. In some ways the game is a little too retro though; a few more modern touches could have made the game less repetitive. In true NES game fashion the storytelling in Tiny Barbarian DX is pretty minimal. The game doesn't begin with any elaborate cutscenes. Instead it pretty much gets right into the action of slashing enemies with your barbarian blade. However, in a rather clever nod to classic games, the developers have created a digital manual that outlines the backstory as a short comic. The whole manual feels like it could have been pulled right out of an 80s game case, but the comic is a particularly fun touch. There still isn't a ton of storytelling going on in Tiny Barbarian DX—and the later episodes only get crazier and have less explanation of what's going on—but to be fair this is all definitely true to the game's retro style. That retro style begins to get less endearing when it comes to the gameplay though. Tiny Barbarian DX is classic 2D action-platforming, meaning you'll have to fight a variety of enemies with only a handful of different sword skills and you'll jump across hazards that require pixel-perfect timing. The developers have certainly done a fine job of recreating this kind of classic gameplay, but they've also recreated many of its annoying aspects as well with things like knockback on hit which can make it extremely easy to die, especially since you only have a sword with limited range. Thankfully there is one important modern feature in Tiny Barbarian DX: there are no lives or continues. If you die you just restart from the beginning of the area. Granted some areas can be pretty big but it certainly beats restarting the entire level, or restarting the entire game. The game is still very much founded upon the cycle of dying and retrying as you slowly learn where enemies are and what hazards lay before you, which can be a pretty tiresome cycle and can leave you stuck on a single level for hours on end, but at least it isn't quite as tedious as it could be. The combat, however, is regrettably mired in the past. Tiny Barbarian DX only uses two buttons—jump and attack—so there isn't any room for anything like blocking, dodging, or special attacks. It is possible to perform three-hit combos which can also be directional—i.e. a forward dash, an upward slice, or a spinning attack midair—but enemies rarely give you the opportunity to do much more than mash the attack button. Oftentimes combat is simply getting a few quick swipes in and then retreating to safety. This is especially true in boss battles where preserving your life is so important. Cautious gameplay in and of itself isn't necessarily bad, but in Tiny Barbarian DX it makes the combat feel slow and a little boring. There is definitely room to make the combat feel more rewarding in this game. In another nod to classic games like Double Dragon, Tiny Barbarian DX offers co-op in each of its four levels. There isn't anything fancy added with another player—player 2 is simply another barbarian, this time with a blue loincloth—but a bit of old fashioned couch co-op is still fun to see, and a helping hand can make some of the combat challenges a little easier. Player 2 is tethered to player 1 so he can't actually move around that much (moving off-screen when player 1 isn't moving means instant death for player 2) so you do have to be a little careful while coordinating, but since player 2 will just respawn on the next screen anyway it's a pretty minor hazard. And yes, Tiny Barbarian DX is technically only has four levels (plus a short bonus level post-game). But the catch here is that each level is quite long. Each level follows a long map that basically looks like an entire playthrough of Castlevania. Even if you play well each level will last at least an hour or so, and it's more likely that you'll spend a lot more time with the game from dying over and over. There is also a score system in the game so you're encouraged to replay levels to get the best score you can in the shortest amount of time, though just finishing the game once may be exhausting enough for many players. The real highlight of the game is its presentation though. The classic pixel art style looks great. Even if you aren't nostalgic for this kind of retro artwork the game's charming animation and stylish backgrounds will easily win you over. Across the four levels of the game there is quite a variety of environments, some of which also pay clear homage to classic games with effects like a spinning tower, and all of it looks great on the Switch. And the music perfectly captures the style of 80s action games. The chiptune soundtrack positively explodes out of your TV while playing, driving the action on screen with pounding rhythms. Tiny Barbarian DX tries to capture a certain style of retro action game, and it absolutely succeeds when it comes to the visuals and audio. As a whole, Tiny Barbarian DX is a little hard to recommend though. The game pays such heavy homage to a classic game format that it kind of forgets to add anything new to the mix, outside of a more convenient retry system. Even with the variety of locations and platforming challenges in the game there is an underlying, frustrating aspect of repetition that makes the game more draining to play than truly fun. Tiny Barbarian DX may fit the bill if you're in the mood for an old school action game, but there's just not a lot of enjoyable depth here. Rating: 6 out of 10 Barbarians
  13. Nine Parchments Review

    Nine Parchments from developer Frozenbyte brings all the fun of classic co-op to the Switch: battling hordes of monsters together, overcoming massive bosses together, and occasionally blasting each other apart with fireballs. This Gauntlet-style action-RPG puts every player in the role of wizard, but the catch here is the wide assortment of spells to choose from, along with equipment you can find throughout the game, skill trees that you can customize as you level up, and unlockable characters for subsequent playthroughs. Nine Parchments has a few rough edges but at its core it's a fun and frantic take on classic co-op gameplay. In Nine Parchments you play as a group of student wizards eager to prove their magical capabilities. When an explosion at the academy sends nine valuable pieces of the academy's spell book flying out into the world you take it upon yourself to retrieve them and prove your worth. But aside from that prologue the story takes a bit of a backseat in Nine Parchments. There's some scattered narration and your characters occasionally engage in banter during a level but for the most part the plot isn't a significant part of this game, which feels like a missed opportunity. When you're in the middle of blasting away enemies alongside your friends though, you won't really mind the light story. Nine Parchments is an action-RPG that is essentially controlled like a twin-stick shooter. In each level you'll come across groups of enemies and you'll use the right stick to carefully but quickly aim your selection of spells. You can't just blast away willy nilly for a couple of reasons. One, there are different elemental types in the game, and monsters are immune to their own type, i.e. an ice spell used on an ice monster deals no damage. Perhaps more importantly though is the friendly fire aspect of Nine Parchments. It's very easy to hit allies accidentally, and whether you just graze them with a fireball or temporarily stun them with a lightning blast it's poor form to bewitch a fellow wizard. At first the friendly fire mechanic may seem chaotic but it actually helps rein in some of the chaos of Nine Parchments. When you need to pick your shots a little more carefully battles are more engaging, and require some coordination—going into every fight with full force would probably get stale pretty quickly. You can even combine your spells with another player to dish up a more powerful combo, if you can aim it properly. Ultimately the friendly fire aspect of the game promote a more rewarding sense of co-op gameplay. The game can still be fairly difficult at times though, even when you aren't getting shot in the back by a friend. Thankfully these wizards are well equipped to deal with all manner of monster. There is a decent variety of spells in the game, even with some repetition since the same spell type can have different elemental affinities. After each boss encounter when you retrieve one of the eponymous nine parchments you'll add a new spell to your repertoire, which helps make each playthrough somewhat unique in addition to increasing your power. It can be fun just seeing how the different spells work, though it's always best to try to keep a variety of elemental types on hand—you don't want to be caught with only ice spells against all ice monsters. You may have to resort to just whacking enemies with your staff, which somehow feels undignified for a wizard-in-training. The gameplay, then, is about aiming your shots thoughtfully, sticking to the right elemental affinity as necessary, and most importantly managing your spells' mana. Each of your spells has a separate mana pool, and each spell has a different rate of mana regeneration, so your more powerful spells may take more time to reload but you can blast away with the weaker but more frequent spells. Battles can really be a juggling act as you manage your mana, which again gives Nine Parchments a layer of strategy—you can't expect to just walk through every enemy encounter in this game. And here's an invaluable tip you might not notice at first: you can aim area-of-effect spells that you lob out by hitting ZR a second time while the spell is in mid-air, causing the spell to drop down and land. I went a few too many levels without realizing that's how you're really supposed to use those spells. Although Nine Parchments can be played solo it's definitely a game meant for multiplayer, and local multiplayer at that. You can jump into an online game with strangers or try to join a friend's game but since there are no communication options on the Switch the experience just isn't the same as when you're in the same room as the other players and can quickly call out strategies or requests for healing spells. And however many players you have the game scales in difficulty, so you won't be completely overwhelmed by enemies if you tried to play alone (though it still is pretty difficult to play solo). Despite the option to play solo, locally, or online Nine Parchments runs into one rather confounding problem: there's only one save file, meaning that if you play a few levels with some friends then want to play solo, you'd start over at the beginning (or continue playing new levels, just without your friends). On one hand this all sort of makes sense since there are unlockables which you might miss by jumping around and playing levels out of order, but it is a rather obnoxious limitation all the same. One full playthrough of Nine Parchments can last a good eight hours or so, which isn't quite short enough to justify restarting over and over when you just want to try out a new character. However, the good news is that the developers have already announced that they are working on a patch which would allow you to keep separate save files for your different playthroughs, which should make it much more convenient to start up a game with friends but also experiment in solo play on the side. Much like Frozenbyte's Trine series the graphics in Nine Parchments are almost absurdly rich and vivid, full of bright colors and gorgeously detailed backgrounds. It's hard not to get caught up in the scenery at times—just be careful you don't fall off any cliffs! There are only a handful of different monster types in the game but the scenery from one level to another more than makes up for a bit of repetition in the enemy designs. The soundtrack is just as engaging in its own way, and is also distinctly reminiscent of Trine. The music style is somewhat airy, which is kind of perfect for a game focused on fantasy and magic. Nine Parchments fully delivers on the promise of good old fashioned frantic co-op multiplayer with a variety of spells, characters, and opportunities to "accidentally" freeze your friend in the heat of battle. Juggling your spells' mana and their elemental effects gives the game a satisfying degree of depth and challenge, especially once you have several spells at your fingertips. The game's emphasis on multiplayer means solo games can be a lot more difficult and a lot less rewarding, but if you can't wrangle together some friends for couch co-op there's always the option of online multiplayer. No matter how you team up, Nine Parchments is a satisfyingly chaotic action game, perfect for scratching the co-op itch. Rating: 8 out of 10 Parchments Review copy provided by the developer Nine Parchments is available now on the Switch eShop for $19.99.
  14. The Sexy Brutale Review

    In a lavishly decorated mansion-turned-casino, guests enjoy an endlessly-looping day of decadence and gambling—right up until the point where every guest is brutally murdered each night. The Sexy Brutale, co-developed by Tequila Works and Cavalier Game Studios, takes the time-looping concept of Groundhog's Day and compacts it into an intricately designed casino full of fatal hazards and supernatural dangers. You'll need to sneak from one room to another to gather information on each character's looping path and find a way to prevent their grisly deaths, and ultimately find a way to escape the deadly mansion. This delightfully macabre backdrop sets the stage for a unique murder mystery that you'll find hard to put down. In The Sexy Brutale you play as Lafcadio Boone, one of the hapless guests of the masquerade party doomed to relive the nightmarish twelve hours over and over. But a mysterious figure grants you the power to retain your memories with each winding back of the clock, which gives you a chance to find a way to prevent each murder. With further powers gained by rescuing the other guests Lafcadio is able to explore the mansion and rescue each of the other victims, but always within the twelve hour time limit—when the clock strikes midnight everything is reset once again. Like any good mystery the fun of The Sexy Brutale is learning the why—learning about the characters, their histories with one another, and ultimately why they have all been gathered together to be murdered in one fateful day. From the first tick of the clock The Sexy Brutale paints a compelling setting that will easily pull in player's imagination, culminating in a satisfying, emotional climax. The characters' backstories aren't required to solve the puzzles surrounding their murders but it is well worth the effort to seek out all of the details hidden in the game. Some of it can be quite tricky to find but the developers have created such a unique, vivid environment that you'll enjoy sifting through every bit of information available. The gameplay is a mix of stealth and adventure-game-puzzle-solving, i.e. you'll need to find a way to prevent a guest's murder by collecting a necessary item or hitting a switch while avoiding the casino's staff as well as the guests themselves. Lafcadio's unique power allows him to skirt the boundaries of time itself, but the other characters will notice that he is out of place and will react violently if you're in the same room. Hence, an important part of the game is spying upon the other characters and tracking their movements across the twelve hours of the game's time frame. Don't worry though, the game is actually quite lenient on the player. If you're caught in the same room as another character you have ample time to flee, so although you have to be stealthy to a degree—by peeking through keyholes, listening through doors, and even hiding inside wardrobes—the game doesn't punish you for any little slip up. Once you've tracked a character's movements their path will even be outlined on your map in the pause menu for a handy reference. The real challenge of The Sexy Brutale is just making sure you have enough time to do what you need to in order to rescue someone, so there's no time for dawdling. Twelve hours may sound generous at first, but there's a lot to see in this game and you'll need more than a few rewinds to take it all in. That may be why the game makes it easy to spot what objects you can interact with in any room. This isn't the kind of adventure game where you have to click on everything or go pixel hunting: anything you can pick up or examine is clearly highlighted, so you won't waste any time while exploring (though again it is very much worth the effort to examine everything that is highlighted to better understand the setting, and you may even find a clever pop culture reference or two). It's nice to see the game doesn't beat you over the head with a specific order of operations either. With a little luck you can actually stumble over some solutions or interact with objects without necessarily knowing what the effect will be, so you don't have to slowly gather clues and proceed step by step to the puzzle's conclusion. Of course, you'll miss out on some of the storytelling going on in the mansion by not listening in on every conversation you can, but it does help the game move at a brisk pace. The downside is that this can all make the game a bit too easy at times. Some puzzles are so straight forward that it's really just a matter of checking each room at least once and the solution will be clear. There are few true head-scratchers in The Sexy Brutale, and even the time-sensitive solutions are fairly generous with the actual timing needed to solve the puzzle. Though to be fair, a game based around replaying the same day over and over could easily have been tediously repetitive rather than a touch too easy, so at least the developers erred on the more enjoyable side. In fact, that may be one of the more impressive aspects of The Sexy Brutale: for a game founded upon replaying sequences repeatedly, the game never actually feels repetitive. The game moves quickly enough that it never feels like a chore. If there is one problem with The Sexy Brutale though, it's load times, or more specifically, the buffering that happens when transitioning from one room to the next. There is noticeable frame rate stuttering when moving between some rooms, particularly between different sections of the mansion where the game has a whole new set of rooms to load, such as when you're moving between floors. Even when you're just spying through a keyhole the game will stutter for a few seconds as it struggles to properly load the scene. Thankfully, despite the time-sensitive nature of some of the puzzles, these hiccups never really interfere with the gameplay and are more of a cosmetic annoyance, but an annoyance all the same. And it would be a shame to portray either the visuals or the audio in a poor light, because both are stunning in The Sexy Brutale. This game has style in spades, from the infectiously upbeat main theme that plays in the casino to the eerie but opulent rooms that seem to hide some sinister secret in every corner. The art design hits a perfect balance between its charming character designs, flamboyant scenery that simply screams wealth, and the macabre details that shine through when you look closer. The fixed camera angle in each room allows each to be set up as a specific tableau, but it still would have been fun to have a zoom function to really examine the details that give The Sexy Brutale it's unique cartoonish, opulent, and ominous style. And even beyond the main theme—which really will get stuck in your head as soon as you start up the game—there are some great songs to enjoy, all of which add to the game's dichotomy of jazzy party atmosphere and deadly traps. Given its stealth, adventure, and puzzle elements the length of The Sexy Brutale can vary quite a bit depending on how carefully you comb through each area, but you can expect around six hours to finish the game. Not particularly long, and the desire to see the entire mystery unfold will keep you glued to the game anyway. As mentioned there is quite a lot of optional text that fleshes out the backstory of the characters and the history of the casino itself, and finding all of it can be a little tricky, so there's good reason to be thorough. There are also 52 playing cards scattered throughout the game—a bonus collectible that might yield something interesting if you can find them all—though without a convenient way of tracking which ones you already have it can be difficult to gather all of them. Other than that, like many adventure-puzzle games, there's little replay incentive besides watching the story unfold once again. Time-looping stories in video games may not be a new concept, but few are executed with the unique panache of The Sexy Brutale. The developers have built a fascinating little world within the confines of this sprawling casino. Just exploring it would be entertaining on its own, but preventing one murder after another and inching closer to the root cause of the mansion's sinister machinations will leave you transfixed to your Switch. Despite some technical hiccups the compelling writing and intriguing setting set The Sexy Brutale apart in a year already filled with fantastic games. Mystery fans will love uncovering the secrets that the gilded casino hides, from the first shocking revelation to the last. Rating: 8 out of 10 Playing Cards Review copy provided by the developer The Sexy Brutale is available now on the Switch eShop for $19.99.
  15. After a rocky initial launch last year, Slain: Back from Hell from developers Andrew Gilmour and Thomas Jenns and publisher Digerati Distribution was, much like its protagonist, given a new life when significant overhauls patched up the gameplay for a more rounded and enjoyable experience. However, it wasn't a complete 180 in terms of quality. Despite some significant improvements Slain: Back from Hell on the Switch eShop still seems hellbent on trying the player's patience, with only meager rewards in return. Extra challenging, old school game design can be fun when handled well, but when it turns into a repetitive slog you end up with a game like this. In terms of story, visual design, and music, Slain takes all of its cues from heavy metal. You play as Bathoryn, a fallen warrior who is brought back to life in order to fight the evil Vroll and his minions of death. You travel through forsaken landscapes battling witches, wolves, and skeletal warriors—the art design in this game is like a metal album come to life, and put through a pixel filter. The writing isn't exactly top notch as the characters talk in overly dramatic, stilted sentences and ultimately the game ends with a confusing cliffhanger clearly meant to set up another game, but the graphics are pretty fantastic. Slain puts pixel art to great use, creating vivid, bloody landscapes with just the right touches. And the music is, naturally, one heart pounding metal song after another. It's the perfect soundtrack to pump you up while you battle waves of undead monsters inside a bloody castle littered with bones. The rest of the game may have some significant problems but the presentation at least is both unique and wonderfully realized. Slain's pixel art design is a little more advanced than the kind of stuff you'd see on the NES, but the gameplay feels right out of that era. This is classic 2D action game fare—sidescrolling environments, some platformer elements, waves of enemies, etc. Slain also retains many of the annoying quirks of those old school games, like knockback on hit, precise platforming despite meager movement controls, stiff combat, and one hit kills. You're going to die in Slain. A lot. But the truly frustrating thing is that, unlike other games where you may die repeatedly but still feel compelled to keep trying, Slain's appeal fizzles out pretty quickly. The main problem here is how stiff and ultimately unsatisfying the combat is. You swing your sword pretty slowly and it doesn't have much range so it can easily by interrupted by enemy attacks. You have to time your strikes carefully, especially when there are multiple enemies around and you can easily end up being juggled by their attacks. It's not necessarily such a bad structure on its own since it's meant to force you to be careful, but in Slain you have so few combat options and even basic enemies can take several attacks to bring down, so pretty much every encounter with an enemy devolves into a super repetitive game of waiting for the enemy to attack and then counterattacking. Action games don't necessarily have to have flashy, elaborate attacks to be appealing but there should at least be some sense of fluidity to the combat. Enemies that attack from a distance are even worse since your only ranged attack—magic bolts—are extremely limited and also not very powerful, so you often have to slowly approach, jumping over or reflecting enemy projectiles. At the very least, Slain doesn't leave you completely defenseless. You can dodge, though it's pretty short and only backwards. You can block, but you'll still take some chip damage (and there's no option to increase your health throughout the game). You can also perfect block, and this is essentially your go-to move for just about every enemy encounter. When you time you block just right you'll execute a perfect block, take no damage, and the enemy is open to a counterattack. It can be tricky to time it right and admittedly it's satisfying to do, but no so much the thousandth time you do it. Slain is in dire need of more viable combat options, especially something to deal with aerial enemies, since perfect blocking isn't all that useful on these highly mobile targets. A better designed combat system would even make the high frequency of instant death traps more tolerable (though in the one concession the game gives to the player there are frequent checkpoints, so you'll restart relatively nearby). Slain isn't actually that long of a game. If you were somehow able to complete it without constantly dying and retrying, it would really only be a couple hours long. As it is you'll probably spend at least six hours with the game to finish it, though again this heavily depends on your skill with old school action-platforming. And once you finally reach the end and watch the credits roll, there isn't anything left to do in the game. No difficulty options, no replay incentives—the only reason to even try to explore the game's linear levels is to find all five pieces of a special talisman which makes you a little stronger for the final boss fight. Not that I was eager to jump back into the game immediately after completing it, but still, the game is quite short. Slain: Back from Hell may be an improvement over its initial release, but it still has some serious problems with the core structure of the gameplay, which ultimately pigeonholes the player into repetitive attacks against enemy after enemy. A game can be super challenging but still satisfying. Slain is super challenging, but the tactics you need to use to get through the game are just not fun. Oftentimes it feels like sheer persistence rather than skill, which makes each victory less of a satisfying accomplishment and more like a trial you were forced to sit through. Slain manages to capture the extra difficult style of old school action games but fails to deliver it in an engaging way. Rating: 5 out of 10 Headbanging Skeletons Review copy provided by publisher Slain: Back from Hell will be available on the Switch eShop on 12/7 for $19.99.
  16. Battle Chef Brigade Review

    Imagine if Studio Ghibli made an Iron Chef movie, and then you might have a rough idea of what this game is like. Battle Chef Brigade on the Switch eShop, from developer Trinket Studios and publisher Adult Swim Games, is a wonderfully bizarre combination of side-scrolling combat and match-3 puzzle gameplay, all set in the backdrop of the most elaborate cook-off challenge you can imagine. This isn't just some goofy combination of game types though. Battle Chef Brigade may draw you in with its unique concept, but you'll stay for its charming design and engaging race-against-the-clock gameplay. In the world of Battle Chef Brigade, chefs don't just stay in the kitchen, watching over their pots and pans. They find the ingredients themselves by dicing up monsters to find the perfect element for their culinary creations. This all leads to the Battle Chef Brigade itself, a highly respected band of chefs that have mastered the art and ply their trade for the benefit of everyone in the land. It's a wonderfully unusual setting for a game, especially since the ultimate goal is to feed people delicious meals rather than defeating evil overlords or saving the world from destruction. It's a refreshingly earnest story, which also relies heavily on how charming the cast of characters is. You play as Mina Han, a bright-eyed woman from a little village eager to join the brigade by competing in the brigade's tournament. Along the way she meets numerous friends and opponents in the tournament, and it's hard not to love each and every one of them. The only downside is that the story feels rushed at times. In addition to the tournament itself there are a few other plotlines woven through the game but not all of them feel properly fleshed out. Battle Chef Brigade's unusual gameplay structure could essentially be boiled down to two key aspects: hunting monsters to collect ingredients, and combining ingredients to make a dish. Let's start with the former. Instead of simply gathering ingredients from a pantry or refrigerator, chefs in this game cut down monsters themselves by dashing out the kitchen's back door—at least we know these ingredients are fresh. While hunting you are basically playing a 2D action-platformer. You can attack monsters to collect meat, cut fruits and vegetables, and even find treasure chests with valuable sauces. You only have a few combat options at your disposal, including a handful of magic spells, but it's enough to make the hunt feel engaging even by the end of the game. Besides, the real focus of hunting isn't about executing fancy attacks, it's about collecting the right ingredients as quickly as possible so you can get back to the kitchen and prepare your dish. No matter how experienced you are at hunting monsters that time pressure adds a satisfying sense of urgency. So what makes a great dish? Well thankfully you don't need to worry about how actual flavors combine or play off of one another. In Battle Chef Brigade you only have to worry about combining ingredients in a match-3 format, i.e. line up three red gems and the quality of your dish will increase. Match-3 is a well-worn game format but the time pressure here adds quite a bit of excitement to the cooking process, plus you are given specific ingredients that must be included and a guiding flavor that should dominate your dish. For example, you may be tasked with using boar meat in a dish that predominantly has green gems, but boar meat always gives red gems, so you need to combine other ingredients and maximize the point value of your dish within the allotted time. Dishes also have a limited amount of space for gems, so you need to line them up and match them to upgrade the three gems into one high level gem, thereby freeing up space and adding to your score. I know this sounds like one of the strangest games ever cooked up, but once you start playing the gameplay is highly intuitive and quite addictive as you take on one tournament challenger after another. Battle Chef Brigade wastes little time in providing plenty of other spices to help you refine your meal into the perfect offering for the judges. There are numerous options when it comes to items that change the way you hunt, cook, and even how your dish is scored at the end of the match (these bonus points can be incredibly valuable in a tight match). The hunting items are fairly standard stuff—increased health, increased mana, more inventory space for collecting ingredients—but the cooking items can truly change the way you approach each battle. You can use different cooking pans which have unique effects, such as only matching red gems but you only need two to make a match instead of three, or a pressure cooker that will slowly upgrade gems while you're hunting or preparing a different dish. A lot of items seem highly specific in their use which makes it a little annoying that you can't see the special ingredient or the guiding flavor until after you have already selected your items for the match, but still, your choice of cookware can drastically change the way you operate in the kitchen, and change the way you approach each challenge. Just like in an actual kitchen two people could have drastically different styles, though both can lead to delicious dishes. Whenever you're not racing against the clock in the kitchen with an opponent chef you can explore the small stretch of town where Mina has rented a room. More importantly, you can take on side quests to earn some coin, and then buy new items to help your cook-off performance. The side quests aren't particularly challenging, but it's nice to have something else to do in the game between matches. Similar side quests are also available in the main menu as challenges where you can compete for a high score against other players. There are sadly only a few challenges to enjoy, but like the side quests they can be a nice break from the main game. If there's one problem with Battle Chef Brigade, it's that there simply isn't more of it. The story mode is surprisingly short and can be finished in a few hours (unless you're particularly bad at cooking and need to retry matches repeatedly). As already mentioned the story comes off a bit rushed sometimes, and in general the concept of the game could easily sustain a much longer adventure. More ingredients, more battles, even more playable characters—there is so much potential here for a longer game. And really, the main reason I'm so insistent on this is that Battle Chef Brigade is so polished as is that I truly didn't want to stop playing it. The game does feature one aspect that gives it some replay value: there is a Daily Cook-Off challenge that gives you predetermined items to create a dish in a quick match, and you can then compare you score against other players online. The predetermined items does add a unique bit of challenge to these cook-offs so there's a decent reason to keep loading up the game each day, but still, a longer story mode would have been the icing on the cake. And of course I would be remiss not to mention the absolutely lovely artwork in Battle Chef Brigade. The character and monster designs are just beautiful—there's some clear anime influence in the designs—and the screenshots here don't do the animation justice. The backgrounds are delightful as well with their soft, watercolor style that is wonderfully detailed. There may only be a handful of unique locations in the game but each is so well-crafted that you'll enjoy poring over each one every time you visit. The soundtrack makes for a perfect complement to the game's cheery approach to chef battling, though the somewhat surprising highlight of the audio is the excellent voice acting. You might not expect such quality work in an indie game but the voices do a great job of bringing the game's colorful cast of characters to life. Battle Chef Brigade gets high marks for originality, and the best part is that the unusual combination of gameplay types coalesces into a clever, engaging game. As disparate as they are every aspect of the game comes together in a wonderful blend of flavors: the charming storyline, delightful artwork and audio, and uniquely challenging gameplay make Battle Chef Brigade hard to put down. Like a short-order cook you'll find yourself juggling various demands in the kitchen and even some outside as you hunt down the perfect ingredient to wow the judges. The only issue with the game is that the highly polished design is so much fun that it'll leave you hungry for more. Rating: 9 out of 10 Dishes
  17. Serial Cleaner Review

    For all the games that have you shooting down dozens of enemies, how many games show the aftermath? Someone has to clean up all of those bodies and guns after all, and if this game is any indication it's a messy job with its own hazards. In Serial Cleaner, available on the Switch eShop from developer iFun4all and publisher Curve Digital, it's your job to make sure the crime scene is spotless, even when the area is already crawling with cops. There are no fancy gadgets involved here, no magic teleportation—you can't even fight back when the cops start chasing you. Serial Cleaner is about pure stealth: watch the enemy patterns, plan your route, and get out of there as quickly as you can. This kind of challenge isn't for the faint of heart, but then neither is being a cleaner. You play as Bobby, and average guy paying his bills by doing a little dirty work for the mob now and then. Bobby is a cleaner; he's not the guy pulling the trigger, but he makes sure there's no evidence left behind when the cops show up. And as you might expect, eventually something goes wrong, and Bobby finds himself in over his head with an ever more dangerous client. For a game with such macabre subject matter and a suspenseful storyline it might be surprising to hear that Serial Cleaner is actually not that dark. In fact, it's really quite charming. Bobby lives with his mom and you can check in with her before each mission. The 70s setting lends the game a certain funky aesthetic that balances out the criminal aspect of the plot. Who would've guessed that cleaning up dead bodies could be portrayed in a fun, light-hearted way? As mentioned Serial Cleaner is a stealth game with almost no bells or whistles. In fact there are only a couple of controls in the game, and the only concession the game gives you to make the stealth gameplay a little easier is Cleaner Vision, which allows you to see the entire map so you can better plan your movements. The lack of special items or abilities adds a satisfying intensity as you sneak around—this isn't a stealth game that you can just stumble your way through. The goal of each level is to remove any incriminating evidence left behind at the scene of the crime. The police always manage to get there before you so you need to avoid being seen as you dispose of bodies by loading them into your station wagon or dumping them in specially marked locations, pick up items like murder weapons, and vacuum up the blood on the ground. Yes, in the world of Serial Cleaner a vacuum cleaner is the most efficient way of cleaning blood—a quirky touch, but also relevant to the gameplay since anyone nearby will hear the vacuum, so you have to find the right time to vacuum. The cops move about on predetermined paths and later levels give you a few options as far as distracting or blocking off their movements. You can also hide in certain areas of the map—even if a cop is chasing you and sees you hide, you'll be safe, so oftentimes a chase ends in a mad dash to the nearest hiding spot. That's essentially all there is to the game, but even with relatively few mechanics the developers have done a great job of challenging the player's planning abilities and sense of timing. And just to make things a bit more complicated, the position of bodies, evidence, and blood is randomized, so each time you fail and retry a level the key objectives might be moved around (hiding spots can also move but the core stage layout and enemy positions never change). The randomization can be both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes you find yourself just plain stuck, unable to get the timing right or find a viable path through the level, but then the objectives move and it ends up being easier for you. That can be a huge boon sometimes. But the opposite can also be true: you have a good layout but make one mistake, now everything seems to be in a more difficult spot on the map. Sometimes it feels like you're just cycling through randomized sets until you find a manageable layout, which is less of a fun challenge and more of a luck of the draw. At the very least it keeps you on your toes and adds some replay value, even if it can be frustrating at times. With only twenty levels in the story mode Serial Cleaner can be a fairly short game. You can also unlock ten more bonus levels based on recognizable movies from the 70s, but that still doesn't quite pad out the game's length much. The real value of the game comes from its challenge modifiers. You can replay any level with an extra helping of difficulty by using special rules such as no Cleaner Vision, no enemy vision cones so you can't easily tell where they're looking, an endless mode where bodies continuously spawn until you're caught, etc. The game keeps track of your best time for each of these challenges but surprisingly there's no online leaderboard. The challenges don't fundamentally change the way you play the game, but at least it's something to keep you engaged if you want more Serial Cleaner after finishing each level once. Whether you're hooked by the game's replay intensive format or not, Serial Cleaner has a groovy sense of style. The simple, sharp edged art style is simultaneously adorable and stylish, which is then offset by the bright splashes of scarlet blood scattered around the stage. It's a great juxtaposition and gives Serial Cleaner a striking, almost pop art look. Plus you can unlock bonus outfits for Bobby, also drawn from 70s pop culture like the bonus levels—I doubt you'll see anything quite as delightfully bizarre as a character cleaning up dead bodies while dressed as Dr. Frank-N-Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show. The real star of the show might be the soundtrack which perfectly captures the funky 70s aesthetic and feels like it could be right at home in any action movie or TV show from that era. The catchy guitar riffs, groovy bass lines, blaring horns, and soulful sax make the perfect background music as our antihero rolls up his sleeves and gets to work in one criminal enterprise after another. Serial Cleaner isn't a flashy, elaborate take on stealth games. It's very much the opposite: a game that focuses on the core element of examining your environment and relying upon a solid gameplan and careful execution to make it through levels unscathed. It's challenging, but the funky soundtrack and stylish art design are utterly charming and fun, even in the face of the bloody work the game is centered around. The randomized elements of the game can sometimes work against that philosophy, but at the same time a little chaos helps buoy the game's replay value given its short story length. In the end stealth fans should appreciate the challenge, and the game's undeniable style will keep them coming back for more. Rating: 8 out of 10 Bodies Review copy provided by the developer Serial Cleaner is available now on the Switch eShop for $14.99/£14.99.
  18. I'll admit, I was skeptical of this game when it was first rumored to exist, months before its official E3 unveiling. A Mario and Rabbids crossover game sounds more like a fever dream, and adding in guns and strategy gameplay only made it sound more insane. But if there's one thing the Rabbids do well, it's insanity. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is hands down the strangest game to grace the Switch so far, but it may also be one of the best thanks to its surprisingly deep strategy gameplay that demands careful planning while still pushing forward as quickly as possible. As unlikely as the combo of Mario and Rabbids is, the underlying gameplay will capture your attention and draw you into this oddball adventure. So how do the Rabbids even get to the Mushroom Kingdom in the first place? Well the story is a bit complicated. First the Rabbids, using their Time Washing Machine, stumble upon a young inventor's home who has created a SupaMerge helmet—a helmet capable of combining two objects into one, e.g. a Rabbid and a balloon are transformed into a Rabbid balloon. When one Rabbid starts playing with the helmet he hits the Time Washing Machine, sucking in the Rabbids and all of the Mario merchandise and decorations in the room, which transports the Rabbids to the Mushroom Kingdom where they pretty much immediately start wrecking havoc, combining objects and Rabbids into more dangerous creations. Like I said, the story starts out kind of complicated. It's definitely a long road to travel to get to the point where Mario and his friendly Rabbid companions are battling dangerous Rabbids in turn-based encounters, but once it gets going you can enjoy the story for just being a bizarre adventure in the Mushroom Kingdom. The game is packed with plenty of Rabbid humor, i.e. goofy, ridiculous, toilet humor (and with the Rabbids "toilet humor" is meant literally) but even if the Rabbids aren't your cup of tea there's something charming about Kingdom Battle. It's such a strange premise that you can't help but sit back and enjoy the ride. For all of his gaming travails across his long career, Kingdom Battle may be the first time Mario has engaged in turn-based strategy like this. Fans of the genre may be worried that the combo of Mario and Rabbids would mean the gameplay would be oversimplified, but rest assured Kingdom Battle doesn't pull its punches. It certainly eases you into the gameplay over the first few battles, but soon enough you'll find there is plenty of depth to this strategy game. Mario and his Rabbid companions move around a grid-based battlefield, where positioning is key to hit enemies (and avoid getting hit yourself). Characters can also execute dash attacks while moving by charging straight into an enemy, or do a team jump by using an ally as a springboard to move further, cross gaps, or leap onto higher ground (and high ground provides an attack bonus on enemies). Movement can be so crucial in a grid-based strategy game like this and the developers have done a fantastic job of making each movement feel like it truly matters and feel unique compared to similar games. Then there are the characters themselves, each of which comes equipped with different weapons and skills. For example, Mario can perform a team jump to stomp on an enemy's head and then use a hammer for close quarters damage, while Luigi is adept at sniping distant enemies. Each character feels unique and is best used in different scenarios, plus you can customize your playstyle with each character's skill tree. Completing chapters of the game earns you skill points, and these points can be used to unlock new abilities and upgrade them, further giving each character unique tools to approach each situation. One of the true joys of the game is discovering how best to use each character's unique talents—by the end of the game you can crush enemies in just a couple of turns with the right combination of skills and positioning. Playing around with different team combinations can be a lot of fun, and help you rethink how to approach certain challenges. There aren't quite enough skill points to fill out the tree for any character, but you can reset your skill points at any time if you want to try something new or feel like a specific skill would be vital for your current battle. Free resets is surprisingly forgiving for a game like this but it's not really a required tactic either so you can just as easily ignore it. And again, just because you have all of these tools at your disposal doesn't mean the game is easy, especially if you want to earn gold trophies for each chapter. Each chapter has one or more battles, and you earn high marks for keeping all of your characters alive and completing each battle within a set number of turns. In the early parts of the game your healing options are quite limited, so balancing safe movements with pushing forward to finish under par can be a good challenge and balancing act. You really have to plan out where your openings are to best survive, which can be very rewarding when everything works out in your favor. Battles can also have different objectives: defeat all enemies, defeat a certain number of enemies, reach the goal area, escort a character to the goal area, etc. When you add it all up Kingdom Battle actually has a surprising wealth of strategy elements that you'll need to keep track of in each battle, which is just the kind of thing strategy fans should love. I will say that there is one area that Kingdom Battle simplifies things, and that's in hit chance. Other games may use the full breadth of 0-100% chance to hit an enemy, but in Kingdom Battle there are only three options: 0%, 50%, and 100%. This makes it easier to plan your attacks and know what to expect—anyone that plays strategy games knows the true frustration of missing an attack with a 90% chance to hit. In that sense it does make it easier on the player, but since you're limited to three characters per battle every shot needs to count, so it really just removes any doubt whether a shot will land or if it's a calculated risk on your part. Between battles there are short exploration/puzzle sequences, presumably meant to break up the gameplay a bit so it doesn't feel like one battle after another. It's a nice effort but there isn't a lot of meat to the exploration or puzzles. The most rewarding aspect is that you'll find treasure chests that sometimes have new weapons or free skill points in them. These exploration bits feel particularly pointless when you need to retread your steps. After finishing a world there are bonus challenges and a bonus chapter unlocked somewhere within the world, so you need to go through the whole thing again to find them all (as well as extra chests that you couldn't access before). The challenges are well worth it for the coins and skill points earned—plus they're just plain fun—but repeating a world does make the puzzles and exploration feel a little unnecessary, even if the scenery looks great. If there's one minor thing to complain about in Kingdom Battle it's the team selection process. Each character is a lot of fun to use but you can only bring three into a battle, one of them has to be Mario, and one of them has to be a Rabbid (i.e. you can't just use Mario, Luigi, and Peach). The gameplay still works because it's tailored to this set-up, but it feels a little limiting, and needlessly so. It would have been interesting to see larger bonus chapters with more enemies using four or five characters, just to see how different your strategy can be with wildly different parameters. The one area where you are free to use anyone is in the co-op challenges where two players control two characters each, but it would have been nice to see this kind of larger set-up in the main game as well. And finally you unlock the last character extremely late in the game, which is a shame—he ends up being mainly for replaying levels rather than experimenting with new challenges. It seems like the developers had a lot of fun turning Mushroom Kingdom mainstays on their heads. The SupaMerge helmet has created a truly silly landscape for Mario and company to explore, and it's all pretty gorgeous. From desert environments to spooky graveyards the visuals have a nice balance between the Mario and Rabbid senses of style, resulting in a very colorful, playful world. You can also unlock concept art by finding it in treasure chests which is really beautiful and shows off the kind of detail and forethought that went into Kingdom Battle's universe. And of course there is the excellent soundtrack from Grant Kirkhope, whose compositions are just as playful and fun as you would expect. The soundtrack culminates in the third world boss fight, which I won't spoil here but truly feels like the core element of what Kingdom Battle is all about, style-wise: goofy, jolly, and fun. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is without a doubt the most surprising yet delightful game to grace a Nintendo console this year. The Switch and 3DS have had some unexpected releases but no one could have predicted this collaboration between Nintendo and Ubisoft, nor the fact that the game would end up being so good. And it's not just good as a goofy crossover game (though it definitely is a goofy crossover game); it's good as a truly inventive turn-based strategy game, one that is flexible enough to acclimate new players to the genre but deep enough to satisfy more experienced players. Ubisoft has created something truly special here: an engaging game with all of the polish and style of a Nintendo game wrapped up in the charming absurdity of the Rabbids. Rating: 9 out of 10 Rabbid Bwaaaaahs ************************* Posting this a little early since I'll be with family for the rest of the week. Happy Thanksgiving to anyone celebrating, and seriously try out Kingdom Battle, it's a lot of fun.
  19. The Legend of Zelda got the Musou treatment a few years ago on Wii U and 3DS, and now it's Fire Emblem's turn. Fire Emblem Warriors combines the colorful characters of Nintendo's strategy RPG series with the visceral and over-the-top action of Musou games like Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors. Thoughtful, turn-based combat is traded for real-time action where hundreds of enemies charge at your heroes, heroes drawn from across the history of Fire Emblem (though largely from the more recent entries in the series). It may be quite a gameplay change for Fire Emblem but like peanut butter and chocolate the two come together perfectly. Nintendo fans familiar with Hyrule Warriors will see some immediate similarities with FEW: worlds collide when portals between different Fire Emblem universes open up, allowing various heroes to fight alongside one another. And just like in Hyrule Warriors there are a few original characters as well. Rowan and Lianna are the twin prince and princess of Aytolis, and they're the ones that bind the group together on their quest to prevent the revival of the evil dragon Velezark. The plot isn't exactly a complex piece of writing, but FEW is still first and foremost a game catering to fans who want to see their favorite characters interact with one another. It may not be an elaborate story but it's fun to see a bunch of characters team up and battle alongside one another. There are even some support conversations as in the main series which is a nice touch, especially when characters from different universes interact. Musou games are founded upon a very simple tenet: it is a lot of fun to destroy enemy armies. Sure you have specific goals on each map and there are sub missions to keep you occupied as well but when it comes down to it, games like FEW are satisfying just for the enjoyment of wrecking whole swathes of enemy soldiers and building your kill count as high as you can. Sure it can be a little mindless at times but it really is gratifying to play. And to be fair there is still an element of strategy at play here as well. It's not quite on the same level as the main Fire Emblem series, but it's enough that if all you're doing is knocking down enemies you're not going to win on some of the tougher maps. In FEW you're both fighter and tactician, and you need to keep an eye on the whole battlefield to know where your ass-kicking skills are most needed at any given moment. Allies may be in danger, powerful enemies may spawn in unexpected locations, or one area of the map may just be overrun. The game alerts you to these developments, though sometimes it's hard to tell exactly what is happening on the mini-map. Thankfully there are some important strategy tools at your disposal. You can pause the game to get a good look at the map and direct your characters to attack or defend certain points. You can also switch between characters at any time—the AI is simply never as effective as a player controlled character—so you can quickly move to whatever point needs you most. On the truly difficult maps it can feel like spinning plates, trying to keep your army afloat against overwhelming odds, but that just makes the victory all the more satisfying. FEW also takes a few cues from the Fire Emblem series to add a bit more nuance to the gameplay. FEW features the weapons triangle (sword beats axe, axe beats lance, lance beats sword) and when you have advantage over an enemy it's easier to stun them and deal heavy damage. You can only bring so many characters into each battle so you'll want to survey the map and plan accordingly as far as what weapons might be most useful. You can also pair up characters just like recent Fire Emblem games, adding a bit of offensive and defensive power to the main character. Some characters on the map are strictly there for support purposes but if you pair up two playable characters you can switch between the two and make better use of the weapon triangle to take down enemies. It's great to have a bit more strategy at play in the game, but on the flipside you aren't beholden to it. If you want you can fight lance users with a sword-wielding character—it'll be a little harder, but FEW also has RPG leveling, so if you are a few levels above your opponent you won't have much trouble cutting through them like paper anyway. If you really want to stick to using specific characters you can (for the most part; some maps do have requirements/restrictions on whom you can bring). And with twenty playable characters in the main game—with more as unlockables and DLC—you're bound to find some that are your favorites. Even outside of the different weapon classes there is a decent amount of variety in how each character fights, so replaying maps with different characters can feel a little different. And Musou games are gold mines for replay value. You can build up support levels between characters, raise levels, earn gold, and gather items for upgrading character skill trees. Suffice it to say that, if you want to 100% complete FEW, you'll be putting a lot of time into the game. And if those hours upon hours of gameplay aren't enough the game also has a string of DLC planned, some of which is even free. A lot of it can be pretty repetitive but it's still satisfying to destroy waves of enemies, even the hundredth time you've done it. FEW also features split-screen co-op, and the only thing better than decimating enemy armies is being able to do it with a buddy. Co-op can also make it easier to coordinate your units since you can just plan together what needs to be done and cover more ground. The downside is the game takes a pretty noticeable hit to performance with two players. When one player is using a special attack the frame rate drops, and since the game is rendering two characters at different locations there are a lot fewer enemies on screen—sometimes this can actually make it a lot harder to hit the bonus goal of 1,000 enemy kills in a single map. The mini-map is also poorly handled in co-op. Both players get their own mini-map which is not only completely unnecessary, but it makes actually seeing the details of the map difficult. Of course you can just pause the game and look at the map there but it really is silly to have separate maps with a split-screen view. It has been quite a while since Fire Emblem fans have gotten to see a game made for a home console rather than handheld, and never before in HD. As a fan of the series it's a lot of fun to see these characters on the big screen, with all of the flashy, over-the-top attacks that pause the battle just so you can drink in all of the destruction. Even if the normal soldiers are pretty faceless there's still something so satisfying about seeing whole waves of them get knocked down with each attack. The game also has a pretty solid rock soundtrack, fused with bits of familiar Fire Emblem themes, but you'd hardly know it while playing. During battle it seems like characters never stop talking, whether to announce some change in battle or spout out a one-liner before a special attack. It's not that the voice acting is poor, for the most part it's pretty good, but it's kind of shame that it steps on the soundtrack's toes so often. As a longtime fan of Fire Emblem it's so much fun to see how much the franchise's popularity has boomed over the past few years, to the point where it now has a spin-off largely catered to the fans. But where Fire Emblem is slower paced and strategic, Fire Emblem Warriors is fast, chaotic, and thrilling. It's a distinctly different style but the characters of Fire Emblem and the gameplay of the Musou series manage to blend perfectly in a game all about fast, rewarding action gameplay. This game doesn't do much to reinvent the Musou franchise—there is still an undeniably repetitive cycle to the way these games work—but at the end of the day it doesn't really need to. Fire Emblem Warriors is still a beautifully action-packed game, one that will reward tenacious players with hours upon hours of game time. The only question now is: what will be the next Nintendo franchise to get the Musou treatment? Rating: 8 out of 10 Emblems
  20. The Professor Layton series was one of the best to come out of the DS. The DS was an odd, experimental little system, and so was Layton, not just in its gameplay approach but in the very core concept of the game. A game series about a top hat-wearing, puzzle-solving professor in a bizarre British setting doesn't sound like it would be an immediate hit, but the games endeared themselves to millions of fans with their charming graphics, memorable music, and emotional storytelling. The professor put his puzzle-solving hat to rest a few years ago, but developer Level-5 has finally given fans a new adventure in the same universe. Layton's Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires' Conspiracy stars Layton's daughter as she takes up the puzzle- and mystery-solving mantle of her father by opening her own detective agency. Unlike the last spin-off—Layton Brothers: Mystery Room on mobile devices—Katrielle's adventure stays close to the franchise's roots, though the game still doesn't feel quite the same as the professor's grand adventures. Millionaires' Conspiracy takes place several years after the original Layton games and hence stars an entirely new cast of characters (well, except for a couple of old standbys for longtime fans of the series). First up is of course Katrielle Layton, following in her father's puzzle-solving footsteps, and she even has her own assistant: Ernest, a polite, well-meaning boy hopelessly infatuated with Katrielle. Kat is certainly cute and charming enough as a new character but she's never all that interesting as a protagonist, while Ernest's lovesick shtick starts to get annoying as soon as it begins. Then there's their talking dog, Sherl. Okay, so previous Layton games have had fantastical elements as well—although their conversations were never explicitly shown, Luke was able to talk to animals too—but somehow Sherl still feels out of place in this game. His presence feels tangentially related to Layton's style—close but not quite right. And that is really the theme of the entire game: a simulacrum of Professor Layton, but not quite on the mark. The cases themselves are rather underwhelming as well. And yes, that's cases, plural. Previous Layton games generally kept to one overarching mystery, but Katrielle's work sends her on multiple smaller cases, not unlike a TV detective procedural—a new mystery each week. That in itself isn't such a bad idea, but the actual mysteries are disappointingly simple. Most of the mysteries are entirely too obvious or just plain have boring low-stakes, while the final case seems to come completely out of left field with a revelation that doesn't feel earned at all from the preceding cases. The past Layton games weren't always good at balancing the mystery element either, but in Millionaires' Conspiracy the lack of solid mystery build-up makes each case bland. And the writing isn't all that compelling in other areas either. The game's sense of humor is almost too goofy—oftentimes the punny names and gags feel like they'd be more at home in a Phoenix Wright game than Layton—and it's hard to truly feel invested in many of these new characters. Most frustratingly of all, the game never addresses the two biggest mysteries surrounding its main characters, which is left as an annoying tease for a possible future game. Although Millionaires' Conspiracy follows the same puzzle-solving structure as previous Layton games—why are brainteasers hidden in so many corners of this universe, anyway?—the puzzles themselves are not quite of the same quality as the professor's. Overall there seem to be fewer genuine brainteasers and far more trick puzzles, i.e. puzzles where you need to carefully read the exact wording of the question to find the answer rather than think through the solution. All of the Layton games have some of these types of tricks, but somehow Katrielle's puzzles just aren't as satisfying to solve. Some of them are just plain poorly worded. Too often I found myself shaking my head as the solution appeared rather than smirking at the clever puzzle design. Maybe I've just become a master puzzle-solver over the years—unlikely—but the difficulty level in Millionaires' Conspiracy is disappointingly low. Since Katrielle has multiple cases to solve the flow of the game is a bit different as well. From her office you can choose which case to tackle, and each case has specific locations, characters, puzzles, etc. After finishing a case you can return to it to complete any hidden puzzles you may have missed—there are always two more added after you've cracked the case—or find hint coins. This all means there's no need for Granny Riddleton in this game since nothing is truly missable, and the game even tells you on which screens you've missed puzzles or hint coins when you return to a completed case. The change in story structure has definitely made the game easier on the player. Despite featuring 185 puzzles in the main game, the pace at which you find and solve puzzles feels oddly slow in Millionaires' Conspiracy. This is largely due to the multiple case format. Each case has an average of about fourteen puzzles, and since each case has a new mystery there is a lot of exposition to read through before getting into the puzzle-solving action. In a way this makes the game feel very drawn out. The twenty hours or so that it takes to finish the game feels somewhat slow by the end, especially since the mysteries aren't all that compelling. Like other Layton games there are additional optional puzzles and mini-games to enjoy, though like the main puzzles they just aren't quite as interesting as past games'. The visual and musical design of the game is very much in keeping with the Layton series as a whole. Although the franchise made the shift to 3D models some time ago it's the 2D artwork that is truly eye-catching, from the beautiful, painting-esque backgrounds to the charming and cartoonish character designs. The 3D models feel particularly unnecessary in Millionaires' Conspiracy since the game doesn't support stereoscopic 3D anyway, and the gently swaying 3D characters just make everything look a little fuzzy. The visuals are still charming but Level-5 really ought to just have confidence in its 2D artwork. Meanwhile, the music feels right at home next to past Layton soundtracks—lots of strings, peppy tunes, and just plain fun songs. Layton fans will be happy to find that this aspect of the game hasn't diminished at all over the years. In many ways Layton's Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires' Conspiracy is a triumphant return for the Layton franchise, but unfortunately there are a number of caveats at play. There are hundreds of new puzzles to solve, but the quality is distinctly weaker than before. Katrielle has a host of mysteries to tackle, but the revelations aren't nearly as satisfying. There are dozens of new, adorable characters to meet, but the main cast doesn't have quite the same charm as Layton, Luke, and everyone else from their previous escapades. Layton fans will still enjoy the adventure, but be prepared for something slightly more toned down compared to the heights of the original games. Rating: 7 out of 10 Hint Coins
  21. Super Mario Odyssey Review

    It's a testament to Nintendo's developers and designers that Mario has endured as a gaming icon for over three decades now. And it's not from resting on Mario's laurels—though Super Mario has possibly the most consistently outstanding catalogue in all of video game-dom. Each new Mario platformer goes above and beyond to provide an exhilarating, fresh, and most importantly a fun adventure. Adventures that may give you new ways to control everyone's favorite Italian plumber, or new features to explore in the colorful Mushroom Kingdom, but adventures that are, at their core, joyous experiences for the child in all of us that just loves to play. And that's exactly what Super Mario Odyssey is. Let's set the scene first for Mario's latest adventure: in the skies above Peach's castle, aboard Bowser's airship, Mario and his longtime rival are locked in a heated battle. Bowser has, yet again, kidnapped Princess Peach, and this time he is intent on marrying her. King Koopa gains the upper hand and knocks Mario down to the Cap Kingdom, where Mario meets Cappy, and the two team up to rescue Peach and Cappy's sister, Tiara. The duo must travel from one kingdom to the next, collecting Power Moons to improve their vessel, and put a stop to all of Bowser's wedding preparations (stealing a suitable ring, dress, cake, etc.). Fundamentally it's the same "Mario rescues Peach" story that has been found in almost every Mario platformer, but it's still a suitable enough spark to start Mario on his latest odyssey. More importantly, it sets the scene for a globe-trotting adventure with Cappy's unique powers. It's no secret that Odyssey draws inspiration from Super Mario 64, and in this game Mario has all the same 3D movement abilities—long jump, back flip, triple jump, etc. Longtime fans will find such controls immediately familiar, and new players shouldn't have trouble picking it up either as the game eases you into the finer points of gameplay in the first couple kingdoms. The important addition in Odyssey is Cappy and his ability to cap-ture enemies, which allows Mario to control them. Your first introduction to this is with a simple little frog, and as a frog Mario can leap even higher than his legendary skills normally take him. Every enemy provides new abilities, some of which feel familiar to classic power-ups and some of which are wonderfully inventive. The capture system is a brilliantly clever way of integrating new features into Odyssey's gameplay without overdoing Mario's core abilities. With the capture system there are dozens of new abilities to play with throughout the game, but since they're limited to the enemy you capture you can only use them in specific areas/kingdoms, so you won't be overwhelmed with possibilities. The developers have also done a fantastic job of making each captured ability feel unique and still give the player room to experiment and discover new uses for each captured enemy. This gets to the heart of what Odyssey is all about: explore, experiment, and discover fun little features on your own and at your own pace. Plus when Mario captures a creature the creature looks completely adorable, so that's a plus too. Cappy isn't just used for capturing enemies either. Mario's new hat toss can be used to stun foes or break blocks, uncover hidden moons, and for a little platforming boost. Mario can toss Cappy then jump on the hat for a little extra height. It's a tricky move at first but incredibly useful once you get the hang of it, because although there are plenty of fantastic platforming sequences using captured enemies, there is still a lot of classic 3D Mario platforming to navigate as well (as well as some sequences that go even further back in Mario's history for platforming inspiration). For the most part though Odyssey's platforming finds the perfect balance of challenge and accessibility. Veteran players may not find too many truly difficult areas but there's enough complexity to keep you engaged regardless. The design of each kingdom plays a huge part in how easy it is to simply get sucked into Mario's adventure. Each kingdom is open-world and is absolutely packed with things to discover, and not just Power Moons (though a moon is usually your reward for exploring). The level design itself is so well balanced that, no matter where you are in the kingdom or what you might be focusing on currently, you'll see something else to interest you nearby or in the distance. This makes Odyssey incredibly difficult to put down; there's always something enticing you to keep playing. Just like in Breath of the Wild, Odyssey is almost dangerously addictive in how compelling the environments are to explore, and how easily you can get hooked on finding Power Moons. And oh boy are there a lot of moons to discover. Super Mario 64's 120 stars looks paltry next to Odyssey's Power Moon count—most kingdoms have dozens of moons to find. On the other hand moons are much easier to come by in Odyssey. Sometimes you can literally find them just lying around! But since you don't have to restart the level every time you find a moon (outside of a few story-centric moons which change the layout of the kingdom) you're free to simply wander and find what you can find. Odyssey is the best Easter egg hunt you'll ever play. It wouldn't be a modern Nintendo game without a couple of touches to make the game easier/more accessible to any player. For one thing, Odyssey includes an Assist Mode—essentially an easy mode where Mario has more health and you aren't penalized as much for dying. Even in the normal mode though Odyssey takes it a little easy on the player. Unlike other Mario adventures there are no lives in this game, you just lose a few coins for dying, so it really encourages you to just keep exploring at your own pace. Additionally, there are a couple of in-game hint systems to help you find moons. There's Talkatoo, a chatty bird that tells you the name of a hidden moon, thereby giving you a hint as to how to reach it, and a Hint Toad which will tell you the location of a moon (for a small fee). You can even use amiibo to help point you toward a moon. Some moons may be out in the open but others require a fair bit of hunting to find, so the hints are definitely a welcome feature. Of course, you can always choose to simply not use these and tough it out yourself, but there really is an insane amount of moons in Odyssey, and a hint or two can be a big help. Possibly the only minor downside to Odyssey comes from its controls, and more specifically the motion controls. You can toss Cappy with a simple press of a button but to perform more stylish moves you need to literally move the controller. Even after hours of gameplay and adjusting the sensitivity the motion controls just don't feel completely smooth. Thankfully at least the motion controlled actions are very rarely required to progress or find a moon, but it's kind of a bummer that the fancier attacks end up feeling useless just because activating them isn't super consistent. It should be no surprise that Nintendo would pull out all of the stops to make Mario, their flagship mascot, look absolutely gorgeous on the Switch. Every visual aspect of Odyssey exudes the bright, colorful, charming style that helps make the game such a joy to explore. The game covers the standard video game zones (desert, forest, snow drifts, etc.) but it's the levels that buck the trend like the Metro Kingdom that are particularly impressive and imaginative. As already mentioned Mario looks adorable when capturing an enemy, but even the regular creatures are utterly charming as well—just try to look at the chubby seal-like Shiverians without smiling. And then there's the music which is just as fun and energetic, and pulled from a variety of inspirations to match each location Mario visits. But the standout star of the soundtrack, by far, is Jump Up, Superstar, the ridiculously catchy song that perfectly speaks to the Mario franchise's sense of fun and whimsy. You could probably finish Odyssey in around ten hours or so, but it's unlikely that you would limit your playtime to only that. Even though you could get through the story in that time there is an incredible amount of optional content in the game, as well as post-game content, and finding all of it is really what Odyssey is about. This game isn't about finishing a level and moving on to the next one, it's about exploring and playing in these sandbox levels to try to uncover every little secret you can. And the exploration is so much fun that you probably won't want to move on until you've seen as much as possible in each kingdom. For fans of the sandbox structure of Super Mario 64 or Sunshine, Super Mario Odyssey is everything one could hope for and more. The kingdoms are jam-packed with secrets to uncover, and it's an absolute delight to just wander in one direction, picking up any moons to be found along the way. All of that freedom is matched with some truly fantastic platformer stage designs, along with imaginative creature abilities that provide new, exciting challenges in each kingdom. Every aspect of Odyssey's design breathes excitement and the thrill of adventuring through creative, colorful landscapes. I truly don't know how you could play this game and not have fun, not have a huge grin on your face—Odyssey is simply an exhilarating adventure. Nintendo once again proves that they are masters at making, above all, a fun game. Rating: 10 out of 10 Moons
  22. It's easy to forget that not everyone has played every game in a franchise you love, especially the early entries that may have been overlooked just because of their age. For the Mario & Luigi RPG series the earliest entry was Superstar Saga on the GBA—not the first Mario RPG but the first to put Mario and Luigi in the starring roles and give them a variety of themed Mario Bros. abilities and combo attacks, set in a wacky RPG world (and I mean wacky in the best way possible). It remains one of the best games in the franchise, and now even more players have a chance to try it out with Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions for the 3DS, complete with a new side mode starring one plucky Goomba and his team of minions. The good news is this remake retains all the goofy charm of the original, even if the new additions are modest. The main Mario platformer series may not be known for its writing but the RPG spin-offs take the opportunity to craft more elaborate and hilarious storylines in the Mushroom Kingdom. Or as I should say, the Beanbean Kingdom, where Superstar Saga takes place. The story begins with the evil Cackletta stealing Princess Peach's voice, so the Mario brothers give chase (with the unlikely assistance of Bowser). A simple enough premise, but Superstar Saga made waves in 2003 for its delightfully goofy sense of humor, one that perfectly balances between outright slapstick comedy and clever writing. And if you've never seen Fawful in a Mario + Luigi game, you're in for a treat here. This side-kick to the main villain is so wonderfully bizarre that he's charmed players for years with his unusual speech patterns and adorably small but evil stature. One of the additions to this remake is a fast-forward option during cutscenes, and while it's nice to have the option to speed things up be sure to read the dialogue as much as you can, it's worth it. Superstar Saga is the genesis of the Mario & Luigi RPGs, and began the combat system where you control Mario with the "A" button and Luigi with the "B" button and can increase attack power or dodge attacks with a carefully timed press of the correct button (although this action-battle system actually goes further back to Super Mario RPG on the SNES). This is a long way of saying the battle system in the Mario & Luigi series has always done a great job of keeping every battle interesting. You aren't just mashing the attack button every time your turn comes around—you have to pay attention to what you're doing. And dodging well means you can completely avoid damage, so you really have to focus when the enemy is attacking, especially during long boss fights. Add in the extra-powerful Bros. attacks which require a bit more skill with timing and you've got an engaging RPG combat system that rewards skill as much as planning/level grinding. The unique battle system also means that the Mario + Luigi series has always had a pretty fluid sense of difficulty. If you're bad at dodging the game can feel pretty punishing at times, and conversely it can seem like a breeze if you avoid every hit. This remake tries to find a middle ground—or at least cater to novice players—with an easy mode that is more forgiving. As is always the case with such features easy mode is entirely optional, but if you find yourself struggling it might not be a bad idea. Superstar Saga isn't a particularly difficult game, but getting stuck on a boss battle is never fun. Superstar Saga also puts a fun twist on exploration. Your progress throughout the Beanbean Kingdom is tied to new abilities that the Mario brothers learn, which correspond to their iconic skills: jumping, hammer attacks, and fireballs. As in battles you control the brothers separately: "A" makes Mario jump and "B" makes Luigi jump. Unlike the original game you can now press "X" to make both brothers jump, which is handy. Jumping around the scenery may not sound like a big deal but Superstar Saga has a knack for making these simple actions fun. The abilities are as funny as they are functional, such as when Mario smacks Luigi with a hammer, driving him into the ground, so he can go underneath a locked gate to open it. There are a handful of times where the brothers are split up, which allows for unique puzzle-platformer sequences and serves as a good reminder that the brothers are more powerful as a team. And finally as a bonus you can see enemies wandering around the environment and can avoid them if you don't feel like taking the time to battle—though it's an RPG, you should be fighting everything you see! The controls are pretty intuitive and have gotten a couple of small upgrades like the aforementioned "X" button to make both characters jump. Additionally, the touch screen can either display a mini-map or quick links to Bros. abilities while exploring (otherwise you use "R" and "L" to cycle through the abilities). Both are welcome additions and help make exploration just a bit smoother. In battle the touch screen doesn't have much to do, but it displays the stats for Mario and Luigi, which is really only useful information when one of them is afflicted with a status ailment. The main addition to this remake is of course the new mode: Bowser's Minions. This side story follows a slightly altered version of the plot from the perspective of one enterprising little Goomba who is dead set on rescuing Bowser from the chaos of the Beanbean Kingdom. The writers have done a great job of matching the charming and outright silly tone of the main game in this side mode—in fact the best reason to play is just for the cutscenes between the various minions. The gameplay is a little less compelling, or at the very least overstays its welcome even across the relatively short length of the Bowser's Minions campaign. The key component in minion battles is planning—there's an attack triangle system where melee minions beat ranged, ranged beat flying, and flying beat melee—but the battles themselves grow tiresome pretty quickly, mainly because you don't actually get to do much. Once you've chosen your minions for the next stage you begin the battle and watch them fight. There are only two inputs you need to focus on now: timed attacks, similar to Mario and Luigi's attacks in the main game, and Captain Commands which are special abilities that cost command points to use. Battles can be kind of boring with these limited tools for interaction, and sometimes luck just isn't on your side when it comes to timed attacks or Captain Commands, so these strategic encounters have an obnoxiously chaotic element to them. Battles end up feeling pretty repetitive, especially when you have to replay previous encounters to level up a bit (enemy armies always seem to be just a little ahead of you, level-wise). Bowser's Minions is okay as a side mode but that's really all it is: a side dish novelty that you might enjoy playing in short bursts but ultimately won't hold your attention. The visuals have gotten a significant overhaul compared to the original GBA graphics, trading sprite artwork for polygonal models. The original sprites had a lot of personality to them and while the new graphics aren't quite the same this 3DS version still looks great. The shift in art style doesn't completely diminish the charming character design that defines Superstar Saga, from the exaggerated expressions to the oddball villains. And although the developers didn't add stereoscopic 3D to the game—which feels like a missed opportunity since they revamped the graphics anyway—Superstar Saga looks pretty sharp on the 3DS screen. It also sounds great, with an updated soundtrack that improves upon the GBA's sound system. The composition is just as good, with plenty of catchy songs, and now you can hear it on better speakers than the original. Mario + Luigi: Superstar Saga + Bowser's Minions takes an already great game and basically just repackages it. The updated visuals and audio are great since the original game is quite old at this point, and a few touch-ups make the adventure a little smoother, but the one big addition doesn't actually add much to the experience. On the other hand, Bowser's Minions doesn't detract from it either. It may not be a hugely interesting side mode but it can be charming in small doses, and since it's an optional mode you can just as easily focus entirely on the main game instead. The core Superstar Saga experience may not be particularly different or revamped but it remains an utterly charming and engaging RPG just the same. Rating: 9 out of 10 Beans
  23. Monster Hunter's popularity has finally reached the point where a spin-off game has seen worldwide release. Monster Hunter Stories takes the familiar monsters of the series and basically turns them into Pokémon—companion creatures that you can train to fight alongside you. It may seem like a leap to take the hulking beasts of the main series and transform them into smaller, friendlier allies, but the turn-based RPG gameplay is just as addictive as the action gameplay. Even if this is an RPG with some odd combat quirks. In Stories you don't play as a monster hunter, you play as a monster rider from a small village that befriends monsters by hatching their eggs and building a bond with the creature. In true JRPG fashion you are a young rider that builds unusually strong bonds with your monsters and must use that bond to defeat a dark force that threatens to upset the very balance of the world—the core theme of the game is essentially to make friends with everybody. In fact it's not surprising that this game was also used as the basis for an anime, since those storytelling tropes are clear here as well, even down to your friend/rival that thinks you're too nice to your monsters. It's a cute little story, even if it's not particularly deep, and it's certainly more narrative-rich than the main Monster Hunter games. Stories retains several concepts, item names, and obviously monsters from the main series, but this game is a turn-based RPG. You and one monster participate in battles against wild monsters both big and small and even other riders in special tournaments or multiplayer modes. Battles are pretty unusual in Stories. One of the core mechanics is a rock-paper-scissors attack triangle. You can choose from power, technical, or speed attacks, and each has an advantage over the other in that order. For example, if you use a speed attack and an enemy monster uses a power attack during a head-to-head encounter, you'll have advantage and deal more damage (and take less). What's tricky is that you don't know what the enemy will choose, unlike strategy games where you can see the enemy's weapon options. Monsters habitually use one type of attack but not necessarily every time, so it really is a guessing game. That uncertainty can be kind of annoying early in the game, especially when you don't have many special attacks to rely upon to help give you more of an edge, but on the other hand it'll keep you on your toes throughout each battle. The other odd battle aspect in Stories is that you don't directly control your monster. This is where the attack triangle really does get frustrating, when your monster keeps using attacks that are at a disadvantage. Again, early on this can be annoying but as monsters level up they gain access to special skills, and you can command your monster to use these special attacks (though you still can't select normal attacks for them). For a game that is essentially simplifying the Monster Hunter formula for new types of players this all seems a little needlessly complicated. At the very least it can be frustrating to have such loose control over your own party in battle. Finally there's a unique attack that each monster has that can only be used when you, as a rider, mount the monster and combine your power. During battle you build up kinship points (things like succeeding in head-to-heads builds more points) and once the gauge is full you can mount your monster. Your attacks are a little stronger combined but more importantly you can use a kinship skill, which are super powerful attacks—they even have their own special little animations. There's something satisfying about unleashing an extra powerful joint attack in the midst of a particularly intense battle. Special attacks also require kinship points, so sometimes you have to choose whether to focus on building up for a powerful kinship attack or spend a few points on special attacks. Despite the initial oddity of only directly controlling one party member in battle you'll soon find that combat in Stories has enough nuances to keep you engaged from one hunt to the next. I should also mention that your rider has a few weapon options in battle, just like in the main series. You can use a sword-and-shield, great sword, hammer, or a hunting horn, each with slightly different properties, the main one being that each weapon type has a different combo attack. For example, using speed, technical, then power attacks in a row will deal extra damage with the sword-and-shield. There really isn't any one weapon type that is overall more useful or even situationally useful, so you're free to use whichever one you prefer. And like the main series you have to forge new weapons and armor in Stories. Thankfully you don't have to hunt monsters over and over to get specific rare parts for upgrading, though you still have to farm basic monster parts. Mostly it's just nice to see that aspect carried over to this spin-off game. Just like leveling up it rewards you for taking the time to explore and battle every monster you encounter. Speaking of exploring, it wouldn't be an RPG without thematic locales to wander through. Desert, forest, snowy mountainside—Stories has them all. In a lot of the big, open areas your movement speed is just a little too slow, to the point where it's noticeable, especially since landmarks are few and far between. But the real point of exploring is to find monster dens. Inside you'll find monster eggs, and this is your opportunity to collect new monsters. This is where the Pokémon aspect of the game comes into play: you may be the type that just wants a handful of monsters to train (you can have up to five in your party) or you may want to have one of every monster type—there are over one hundred. Or, if you really enjoy the nitty gritty of monster training, you may want to perfect your monsters with the best possible stats. Each monster has nine gene slots which can be filled with different abilities such as special attacks or passive buffs like poison immunity. You can sacrifice one monster to pass one of its genes to a different monster, and this is where you can get obsessively focused on building the perfect monster. It's not easy either so if you have a specific idea in mind for your monster it'll probably be quite time consuming. Just like Pokémon though you don't have to worry about any of this if your goal is simply to play through the game's story. If you want to get heavily into multiplayer battles it might be beneficial, but don't feel like you have to dive deep into genetic manipulation to enjoy Stories. And if your goal is simply to enjoy the game's main story, you're in for quite a long haul. If you actively skip every side quest or opportunity to hatch new monsters you can probably finish the game in thirty hours or so, but more likely you'll spend over fifty to truly explore every aspect of Stories. Plus there's even more content to enjoy after the credits roll—more quests, more powerful monsters, and the aforementioned multiplayer modes if you feel like getting competitive. Stories may not last as ridiculously long as the main series games do, but it's still quite a lengthy adventure, even for an RPG. The graphics in Stories are basically a chibi-fied take on Monster Hunter, but don't let that dissuade you. It may be more bright and cheery than the main series but the monsters and environments are still beautiful in this game. The monster designs look great in this colorful style—less imposing than the main series but with just as much personality—and the scenery is fantastic in towns and more heavily detailed locations like the rainforest. The downside is that the framerate can be a little choppy at times, especially on older 3DS models, and distant people or monsters pop into view in a somewhat stuttering fashion. And the music is as colorful and energetic as the visuals, perfect for both exploration and combat. Monster Hunter Stories doesn't have the intense action of the main series, nor the camaraderie of teaming up with friends to take down ferocious beasts. What it does have is a lengthy, engaging RPG adventure, one that perfectly scratches the Pokémon itch of collecting and training various monsters. The battle system has somewhat of a slow start as you adjust to combat that has as much luck as strategy, especially in the early parts of the adventure, but once you spend a little time with the game it's hard not to be charmed by the colorful graphics and simple joy of hatching new monsters. RPG fans should love Monster Hunter Stories, and even veteran hunters should give this spin-off a try to see familiar monsters in a new light. Rating: 8 out of 10 Monsters
  24. Mario Sports Superstars collects five sports–four old ones for Mario sports fans, and one new one–and combines them into one simple collection. Emphasis on simple. Because although the sports are entertaining enough on their own there is almost nothing that feels fresh or exciting in this 3DS game. Instead the game feels aimed toward people that want a quick Mario sports experience but aren't interested in any deeper or unique gameplay elements. The majority of the sports offered here are simply more of the same that gamers have been playing for years. Tennis and golf have seen numerous Mario sports iterations, and even soccer and baseball have gotten standalone games in the past. And that's the biggest problem with Mario Sports Superstars: if you've already played versions of these sports in previous games, what incentive is there to play this one? The answer is not much. Mario Sports Superstars relies more on the convenience of having multiple sports on one game card than actually fleshing out the sports themselves. Although each sport has a tournament, exhibition, and practice mode including things like ring shot challenges, the actual gameplay feels noticeably more simple or pared down compared to the Mario Tennis or Mario Golf games. There are no wacky Mushroom Kingdom features at play here, no unusual courts or courses to spice up the gameplay. Mario Sports Superstars is a simple, straightforward sports game, and that's one of the last things you'd want out of a Mario title. There is, however, one new sport: horse racing. Maybe it's just because it's new but horse racing seems to be the most fleshed out of the five sports. You pick a rider and a horse, both of whom have individual stats that can affect your performance, then race through twelve courses. Horse racing isn't quite as direct as kart racing–you can't just break away from the pack early on, you have to manage your stamina, which actually recovers more quickly when you are near other horses. Additionally you can pick up stamina recovery carrots as well as stars which allow you to perform a star dash for a quick burst of speed. While some of the other sports can feel particularly chaotic or tied to the whims of the computer player who sometimes manages perfect shots in soccer or perfect hits in baseball, horse racing has a more satisfying sense of challenge based on your own performance. Additionally, horse racing includes a mode that lets you care for your horse in the stables. You can groom it, fit it with accessories, and take it on short walks where you can even find additional items. The accessories are cosmetic but raising a horse's bond through grooming and feeding it provides small bonuses when you take the horse out into a race. Ultimately the stable isn't a huge aspect of Mario Sports Superstars but it's a cute addition that at least peppers in a little variety into the gameplay. Mario Sports Superstars introduces its own line of amiibo cards, which can be used to unlock star versions of characters–characters with improved stats. The good news is that you can also unlock star characters by completing the championship tournament in each sport. The bad news is amiibo cards can also be used to unlock superstar characters, which have even better stats. Raw stats aren't the deciding factor in how you play in Mario Sports Superstars though, so don't feel too bad if you're missing out. Regular amiibo can also be used in the game to unlock collectible cards. These are purely for the purpose of collection, and while it's always fun to collect items in games it's not a significant part of Mario Sports Superstars. Naturally Mario Sports Superstars isn't just a solo game. You can play locally or online, though sadly there is no download play option, so local players will each need a copy of the game. There aren't a huge variety of game options in multiplayer because there aren't many options in the solo modes either, but you can choose to play with or without special moves like power shots if you want an even less Mario-themed sports match. Playing against human opponents can be more satisfying but don't expect an active online community here. Perhaps not surprisingly the presentation in Mario Sports Superstars is decidedly bland. Sports games don't have much room for visual flair to begin with, but this one doesn't even bother to inject the familiar Mushroom Kingdom style into the courts or scenery. The music is similarly generic, and although both the music and visuals are technically fine they are completely forgettable as well. Mario Sports Superstars fills an odd niche. It seems to be made for people that want quick access to Mario sports games, but aren't interested in the kind of depth that characterizes past titles. Outside of horse racing, which has the benefit of being new and therefore slightly more novel than the other sports, Mario Sports Superstars might best be described as charmless. The game itself may run perfectly well, but it has a dire lack of imagination. Rating: 5 out of 10 Sports
  25. Earth Atlantis Review

    For all of the advances in gaming technology over the years, there's something to be said for a good ol' fashioned side-scrolling shooter. Earth Atlantis from developer Pixel Perfex and publisher Headup Games brings players back to a simpler time in video game design, one where the goal was just to destroy every other thing on the screen. Although the core gameplay stays true to the basic goal of destroying wave after wave of enemies, the adds in a bit of exploration and a variety of boss fights to spice up the action. Earth Atlantis could have used a few more modern tweaks though, as the cycle of fighting enemies and bosses grows a little stale as the game wears on. The premise of Earth Atlantis is that a cataclysmic climate shift has shaken the planet, and now ninety-six percent of the earth's surface is underwater. If that wasn't bad enough, machines have risen up to attack humanity, and have adopted the appearance of sea creatures to hunt humans in the depths of the ocean. That's kind of a lot to take in all at once, so suffice it to say there are mechanical sea monsters in need of destruction. As a hunter it's your job to blast apart the mechanical marine monsters that now infest the earth's waters. The setting may be a little complicated but it builds up the gameplay well, and since storytelling isn't a major feature in Earth Atlantis that's all it really needs to do. Earth Atlantis has few frills in the gameplay department: your job is to shoot monsters, and that's pretty much all you do—be prepared to hold down the fire button pretty much the entire time. There's a bit of exploration involved as there are no separate stages in the game and instead you just explore new areas—and backtrack to old ones—in order to find the boss enemies marked on your mini-map who, once defeated, open up parts of the map for new boss encounters. It's a pretty simple cycle, and one that admittedly gets pretty repetitive after a while. There are a good variety of bosses to fight, each with unique properties, and even the standard enemies come in a number of marine animal shapes and sizes, but the game doesn't do much else to keep the gameplay varied and engaging after you've defeated a dozen or more bosses. You do end up backtracking quite a bit as well, which can be a little tiresome. There are a couple of small aspects that can keep you engaged, but they can fall into a repetitive cycle as well. Enemies will sometimes drop power-ups to improve your submarine's attacks, so you always want to be on the lookout for these offensive improvements (as well as health recovery items also dropped from enemies). Additionally, you can find sub-weapons in marked barrels and crates, which can significantly improve your firepower, especially since your standard attacks only allow you to aim left and right, and enemies will attack from all angles. You can only carry one sub-weapon at a time though, which is a shame since, depending on the boss you're currently fighting, some sub-weapons can be better suited to the task than others. It's hard to play around with finding the best weapon for the job when you can't hold more than one and they have to be randomly found in crates. And hunting down sub-weapons and power-ups is the most repetitive and tiring aspect of Earth Atlantis. When you die you are sent back to the last checkpoint you activated—and since there's a lot of circular backtracking these checkpoints can really be anywhere—and you're back to square one: no power-ups, no sub-weapon. On one hand this is just Earth Atlantis being true to its old school shooter roots: you've got to start over and try again. However, it is pretty discouraging to start at zero, especially since power-ups are randomly dropped from enemies and sub-weapons can be scattered anywhere on the map (though thankfully you can see where on the mini-map). Rebuilding yourself up to fighting shape just isn't much fun when you have to do it over and over, but it's pretty much a necessity since your basic attack is terribly weak. And it is very easy to die against some bosses. Several of them have one-hit kill attacks, the main submarine in the game is pretty slow when trying to dodge, and since healing items randomly drop like power-ups you can't rely upon a health stash or a quick way to recover. It can be particularly discouraging to die in Earth Atlantis, even if there's no real "game over" system. Note: Just yesterday the developer announced that there is a patch coming to make it easier and faster to recollect power-ups after dying and restarting, so that aspect of the game will be adjusted in the near future. This cyclical nature of recollecting your power-ups each and every time means the game's length can be pretty varied from player to player. If you're skilled enough to avoid dying completely, you can complete Quest mode in a few hours or so—there's even a scoreboard for your best time. Although it's more likely that you'll need several tries on some bosses and hence a lot more time to finish. Earth Atlantis also features a Hunter mode for a bit more replay value, as well as four submarines with different weapon properties. None of this fixes the repetitive nature of the gameplay, but they at least add a little variety. Although the game's backstory is a bit convoluted it allows for some truly unique and stylish visuals. The artwork in Earth Atlantis is gorgeous: in keeping with the game's theme of nautical exploration the graphics are in the style of an old sketchbook, the kind an explorer would have used to document the strange creatures he encountered. It's a really cool effect, especially for the larger and more detailed boss creatures, and it's unlike anything else you'd see on the eShop right now. The background scenery is also beautiful—you can recognize some global landmarks, now sunken beneath the waves, and the sense of depth looks great in motion. On top of all this the music is top notch as well, and also a little surprising for a shooter like this. The first song you here is oddly serene, not the kind soundtrack you'd expect from a fast-paced shoot 'em up, but it does a great job of setting the tone for underwater exploration. Some of the other songs ratchet up the energy to match the frantic shooter gameplay, but that initial music really stands out. Earth Atlantis takes a unique setting and fleshes it out with a gorgeous art style and catchy music. The gameplay, though, leaves something to be desired, as the simple yet satisfying shooter action becomes a little too repetitive as the game struggles to offer new or unique challenges aside from one boss after another. Without more forgiving checkpoints or a more engaging way to build up your power levels Earth Atlantis too often falls into a tedious cycle of attempting to fight a boss, dying, then spending far too long to prepare yourself for another attempt. If you don't mind that repetition Earth Atlantis is a great shooter, but anyone without that level of patience will find the game discouraging. Rating: 7 out of 10 Mechanical Sea Monsters Review copy provided by the publisher Earth Atlantis is available now on the Switch eShop for $14.99 / €14.99 / £13.49.
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