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  1. Clearly no concept is too peculiar for the world of video games since Wilmot's Warehouse builds an entire game around the concept of organizing objects in a warehouse to fulfill orders. But the craziest thing is just how fun it is to do that. Scratching a very particular relaxed-puzzle-game itch, Wilmot's Warehouse is an oddly compelling example of simple, addictive gameplay. The game doesn't try to build any kind of narrative around its gameplay—which is almost certainly for the best. You simply play as a square face who picks up and pushes square icons around a large black warehouse. You'll receive orders and will need to pick up the required icons and bring them to the top of the warehouse for delivery. Between deliveries you'll receive a shipment of new stock, including more and more different icons, and it's up to you to organize the warehouse in a logical way that makes it easy for you to fulfill orders quickly, because you do earn stars for delivering in a timely manner. You also have limited time between orders, so you need to be able to organize your warehouse efficiently lest you get overwhelmed with new shipments. Thankfully you do get occasional periods of unlimited time to organize your stock however you want, which is vital if you want to be able to find things easily. That's really all there is to Wilmot's Warehouse. It makes for an undeniably repetitive game—you unlock some upgrades but fundamentally there's very little different about the gameplay from your first order to your last—but it's also a wonderfully calming experience. Having this little video game world where all you have to do is keep your things tidy is oddly compelling, and certainly hits something in your brain's weird need/desire to organize things. It's a simple, repetitive task that is so satisfying precisely because it offers a basic, clear-cut goal. It's the video game equivalent of tidying your room or performing light manual labor like gardening and somehow manages to replicate the same feeling of a job well done. Wilmot's Warehouse is definitely a relaxed gaming experience, even if you do have to contend with timers and, by the end of the game, have such a cluttered warehouse that it can feel a bit overwhelming. One of the unique things about the game though is how the difficulty is kind of dictated by your own actions. Initially you have a small, random group of icons to work with, but once you're dealing with dozens or hundreds of items you might want to organize them in logical ways that make it easy to remember where things are. For example, I made a "summer items" area for things like popsicles, tents, maps, and parasols, as well as a "science items" area for microscopes, thermometers, and eyeglasses. How you organize things is entirely up to you, which is what makes the difficulty level so fluid. If you create and maintain strict item groupings, you might have an easier time remembering where something might be when you're dealing with 100+ items in your warehouse. Placing things randomly might be more of a "hard mode," requiring you to simply remember where everything is. There's also some challenge in deciding where each item should logically go—would eyeglasses fit my "science items" section better or my "clothing items" area? There's a lot of freedom in how you decide to organize your warehouse and how you play the game, which makes it a lot of fun to see how other people arrange their inventory. All that said, the game does actually have an expert mode if you want something a little more challenging, which limits some of your abilities to make you work harder. Probably the biggest change is limiting the time you can freely organize your stock. In normal mode these respites are vital to keeping the warehouse neatly arranged, but in expert mode they become yet another frantic period of fast-paced organizing. Because of this, expert mode kind of does away with the relaxed, zen nature of the game, but it's still a fun way of testing your skills, especially since the main game will probably only take you six or seven hours to complete. There's also a split-screen co-op mode which presents its own challenges and frantic moments, but it's a fun experience to share with a friend. The presentation of the game is the definition of simplicity—your player character is literally just a box with a face, after all. Still, the simplicity is appealing and reinforces the game's simple and calming tone, and having clear icons is hugely important when you need to find things quickly. Though the game still throws some curveballs at you, like the numerous icons that are simple color patterns, seemingly designed just to mess with you based on how similar they are. The soundtrack is also, not surprisingly, quite calming and atmospheric. It's nothing too fancy, but serves as perfect background music when you're shuffling through your warehouse, making sure all of your inventory is in its proper place. Wilmot's Warehouse creates a beautifully addictive experience out of the simple premise of organizing items. Though undeniably repetitive, the simplicity of the gameplay makes that repetition more of a zen experience than a tedious one. Anyone that likes to keep their surroundings organized will surely find Wilmot's Warehouse delightfully compelling, and even if you're not a compulsive tidier you'll find the game to be an engrossing and unique puzzle game. Rating: 8 out of 10 Items
  2. It's been a decade since the original Xenoblade Chronicles was released on the Wii in Japan, and eight years since it was finally brought to North American shores, but the charm of Shulk's adventure with the Monado hasn't waned one bit. This is undeniably an epic JRPG, the kind that takes players on a massive journey to witness the humble origins of a handful of characters, through their transformation into powerful adventurers. But the Wii has understandably been left in the past, and now Switch owners get to experience the entire saga with Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, a remastering that brings some welcome adjustments to the original game's features and adds a 10-hour epilogue to round out some characters' stories. Whether you're an old fan, a new player, or first heard of Shulk from Smash Bros., this is an RPG worth checking out on the Switch. The setting of Xenoblade Chronicles is arguably one of the most unique in RPGs—or any game, really. The world that Shulk and his friends inhabit is actually composed of the corpses of two giant dead gods, the Bionis and the Mechonis, who killed each other in a duel long ago. Sadly the inhabitants of these two giants continue to wage war on one another as the Mechon of Mechonis attack and pillage the peoples of the Bionis. Shulk has one ace up his sleeve though thanks to the Monado, a mysterious sword that has the power to easily slay Mechons. Xenoblade Chronicles introduces you to a lot of great, charming characters as you traverse the bodies of the two gods and slowly unravel the truth behind the Monado. The game has its cliches and melodramatic moments sure, but it's an engaging adventure story nonetheless, with plenty of twists and turns. It's hard not to like these characters, even the goofy "mascot" character Riki, a tiny furry creature called a Nopon whose broken English is surprisingly more charming than not. It's absolutely a mark of quality that a game this long can keep the story fully engaging from start to finish. One of the pillars of this game's design is the massive environment that allows you to explore in just about any direction while fighting or avoiding monsters of all shapes, sizes, and experience levels. Back during its original release the wide open vistas were arguably more novel than they are today, as we've had not only two sequels in the Xenoblade Chronicles series but a variety of other RPGs that embrace the sandbox style of exploration. Even so, running wild in Xenoblade Chronicles remains an absolute blast. Whether you're exploring to progress the story, fulfill a side quest, or just want to see what you can uncover, the sense of freedom is amazing and can easily turn a thirty minute play session into a three hour one. Combat is, naturally, another crucial aspect of RPG design, and Xenoblade Chronicles' real-time, action-oriented system makes combat particularly engaging. You can form a party of three characters but only directly control one. By running up to enemies you'll auto-attack, but the more important aspect of battling is using and managing your selection of Arts (essentially skills or spells). Arts have cooldowns so you'll need to be thoughtful about when you use them, plus they'll often have special effects, such as Shulk's Backslash that is more powerful when attacking an enemy from behind. Each character has their own selection of Arts which can offer a decent bit of variety as you play and experiment with whom to control in battle, as well as which characters combine well together. Some Arts combo well together, and oftentimes you'll need to rely on your AI-controlled teammates to finish a combo you start. For the most part the AI behaves intelligently, though the more technical characters are still best left in your direct control. Regardless of who you're using, combat has a lively feel to it that keeps even normal encounters engaging. For an RPG of this length battles can't help but feel a bit rote eventually, but overall Xenoblade Chronicles' system keeps that feeling to a minimum. The game is also jam-packed with side quests to tackle, ranging from simple "defeat X number of monsters" to little side stories about the lives of background characters. The quest list can be daunting if you let them pile up, but it's undeniably satisfying to check off these little goals as you play. They also provide great incentive to explore the Bionis fully, and of course the rewards are always useful. The Definitive Edition makes some handy adjustments to the quest system that makes it easier than ever to track your active quests and conveniently point you in the right direction. For a game this big, this is an invaluable adjustment and definitely makes clearing out your quest list feel more doable. So what else is new in the Definitive Edition? A lot of it comes down to little adjustments that provide quality of life updates. The menu UI, for example, has been simplified a bit and, compared to the original, is much neater and more readable. There are also sliding difficulty options that can help you find the right balance. For players that love tackling every side quest possible, Expert Mode is a godsend since it allows you to bank experience points instead of using them immediately (a similar system was found in Xenoblade Chronicles 2). This means you can do all the side quests you like without becoming completely overpowered for the main quest, and can still spend those extra experience points to level up whenever you want—I highly recommend turning Expert Mode on as early as possible. You're also able to adjust the appearance of each character's armor. Xenoblade Chronicles has a wide variety of armor pieces which will oftentimes make your characters look absurd when you're mixing and matching pieces to give the best stats. Now you can set a specific look for each character which is more visually pleasing and also is simply a convenient way of seeing what each piece of armor in the game looks like on each character. There's also a new Time Attack Mode that throws uniquely challenging battles at you and rewards you with stylish new armor as well as other bonus items. There are a handful of other minor updates to the game, and taken in total they make an already great game feel smoother and more accessible. The biggest addition is of course the new epilogue called Future Connected, which follows Shulk and Melia as well as two new Nopon characters one year after the events of the main game. Conveniently, you can start this epilogue at any time from the main menu, you don't have to play through the entire 60+ hour game to try this new content (though it's still worth doing that if you don't remember the ending too well). Future Connected provides a brand new location to explore—which was actually cut from the original game—and tells a slightly more personal story of how the characters are coping with the changes that the main story wrought. It's fantastic to get to experience new content in Xenoblade Chronicles, and the best part is easily the "Quiet Moments" you can find while exploring, which are short, optional cutscenes between two characters that are both cute and heartfelt. The combat system also features a slight change in how chain-attacks work, and actually brings even more Nopon into the mix. All that said, don't expect a wildly new take on the Xenoblade Chronicles formula or surprising revelations about the characters. Future Connected is an enjoyable epilogue and well worth the 10+ hours it takes to play through it, but there are also times where it felt like it could have been more than just a brief continuation, and should have had a more impactful storyline to serve as the final word on the game. In the end though, it's hard to argue with more content. The Definitive Edition's visual upgrade is a light touch, but that's not to say it's bad. Rather than completely overhauling the graphics and visual style of the original, this remaster essentially boosts Xenoblade Chronicles into the HD era, and makes the game look like how it probably lives in your memory, with somewhat cleaner, crisper graphics and brighter colors. A more thorough upgrade would have been nice, especially given how noticeably flat some of the environment textures look now, but Xenoblade Chronicles still has a great art style that's colorful and varied. It's not going to compete with brand new games developed in 2020, but the game's breathtaking locations like Satorl Marsh at night will still be enough to stop you in your tracks to take in the scenery. The soundtrack got a slightly more thorough remastered upgrade, and it sounds fantastic. The music was always wonderfully varied and full of personality, and now the clear, crisp sound quality does justice to the arrangements. Ten years have done very little to dull the brilliance of Xenoblade Chronicles. The game remains a beautifully engaging JRPG that draws players into a unique world that is fun to simply live in and walk around in, not to mention going on an epic quest of survival and revenge. Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition not only helps introduce that experience to a new and wider audience, it brings with it some invaluable adjustments as well as a welcome epilogue that lets players explore the unique landscapes of the game for just that much longer. Xenoblade Chronicles is well worth playing on any of its available systems, but this version is, as the subtitle would suggest, undoubtedly the best. Rating: 10 out of 10 Arts
  3. The mystique of the wild west, with its lawless gunfights and desolate landscapes, makes a perfect background for a fast-paced and frantic roguelike action game. Colt Canyon, from developer Retrific and publisher Headup Games, puts you in the pixel boots of a cowboy on a bloody path of revenge after his partner is kidnapped. The game distills cowboy gunfights down to quick, 2D shootouts against hordes of enemies and deadly animals, all with randomly generated scenery, weapons, and upgrades. Like most roguelikes Colt Canyon can be brutally difficult, but the wild west still holds a certain appeal. Colt Canyon essentially plays like a twin-stick shooter, with some important differences. For one, this is a roguelike, meaning every time you play you'll get a slightly different experience since environments and item drops are randomly generated. The genre is all about adapting to the types of challenges the game throws at you rather than simply memorizing what to do next, which is great for ensuring the game feels fresh even after dozens of playthroughs. I say playthroughs, but it'd be pretty optimistic to expect to finish the game quickly or frequently. Colt Canyon can be brutally difficult, even after a few hours of practice. Some of that will be down to luck of the draw, since you might find a gun you really love on one attempt but then on the next never seem to see it. But the game is also just plain challenging, and will put your twitch gaming skills to the test. Even though the core mechanics of shooting and dodging are simple enough that anyone can easily jump straight into the game, mastering them to survive against the overwhelming odds thrown at you can take some serious skill, as well as lots of failed attempts before finally reaching the end of the game. What makes a successful roguelike though is how fun the journey is, not the destination. In that regard, Colt Canyon can be a blast. The shooting and dodging mechanics are quick and snappy, and tearing through dusty landscapes leaving trails of blood in your wake is pretty satisfying. You feel like a one-man wrecking crew, a classic Western gunman, and it's an awfully fun role to dive into. That said, Colt Canyon does have a few annoying quirks. The main annoyance throughout the entire game is managing your ammo. This is a Western setting after all, so it makes sense that most of the guns have small capacities, and finding the right time to reload in the middle of a shootout adds a layer of challenge (especially when you have a bear charging at you). But the constant need to scrounge for ammo can be exhausting, and it's something that doesn't change much even as you get better at the game. Ammo can be dropped by defeated enemies or found in the plentiful jars, crates, and chests littering the environment, but the rate at which you collect ammo feels low compared to how quickly you use up those bullets. Constantly gathering ammo is a bit of a mindless chore that slows down the snappy pace of the game a bit too much, especially since it's something you'll have to do every time you start a new game. One of the most important aspects of a roguelike is variety, which keeps the gameplay feeling fresh every time you start over from the beginning again. Colt Canyon's variety is okay, but it definitely feels like there's room for improvement. Part of the problem is simply the limitation of a Western setting—there are only so many different types of revolvers, shotguns, and rifles that fit a wild west theme. The upgrades you can gain from rescuing civilians also aren't terribly varied. They're all useful certainly, but after a handful of playthroughs it doesn't feel like there's a ton of room for experimentation. You'll also unlock a few different characters to play as, each of whom has different stats and starting weapons, plus there's a local co-op mode to further shake things up. There's still enough variety to allow for plenty of different approaches to the game, but I found myself wanting a bit more. The minimalist pixel art style is undeniably striking, and a pretty clever way of conveying the somewhat bleak, desolate landscape of a typical Western. It's stylish as well as functional since enemies stand out starkly against the sepia-toned scenery. The only downside is that hazards aren't quite as clearly visible. Hazardous terrain like thorny brush has a red tint and glows slightly, but the effect is hard to notice when you're racing through dusty canyons. The soundtrack also has a great wild west vibe that feels straight out of a spaghetti Western. It's at times moody and heroic, and a great backdrop for a gunslinging adventure. Colt Canyon offers a stylishly minimalist Western adventure that will easily pull players in with its simple and snappy gun mechanics. True to the roguelike genre the game can be brutally challenging, but players that appreciate the journey over the destination will enjoy tackling the game's challenges with six-shooter and dynamite in hand. A bit more variety in the weapons and mechanics could have made the gameplay loop feel less repetitive, but as a quick pick-up-and-play challenge, Colt Canyon provides a memorable journey into the wild west. Rating: 7 out of 10 Canyons Review copy provided by publisher Colt Canyon is available now on the Switch eShop for $14.99.
  4. In the proud tradition of turning mundane activities into fun-filled video games, Moving Out transforms the hassle of moving into a frantic, co-operative race to put boxes on a truck by any means necessary. Taking obvious cues from the Overcooked! games (not surprisingly, as this game is also published by Team17), Moving Out focuses on wacky local co-op shenanigans, and is at its best when played with friends. It's when played solo that the game's slightly repetitive cracks are apparent. You play as a Furniture Arrangement and Removal Technician, which means frantically throwing boxes, appliances, and furniture into a moving van as quickly as possible. Up to four players can team up to speed up the process, though more players does mean slightly more difficult challenges, such as more fragile items that will break if tossed around haphazardly. That can be tricky since the best way to earn a fast time and a gold medal is to basically behave as wildly as possible: throw boxes through windows, off second story balconies, and occasionally launch them through the air via giant fans. As you progress the hazards in your path will grow crazier and crazier, pushing the limits of your moving skills. It gets utterly silly and is a blast to simply play around with the wacky physics that affect the game's world. Your character has a fairly loose sense of movement but it suits the frantic nature of the game—getting a box into the van would be a lot less interesting if it was perfectly easy to navigate the level. Moving Out also hits a fairly decent balance of wacky physics that aren't too frustrating. Occasionally you might curse the way heavy objects require a bit of momentum to move or how large objects can get stuck on corners, but even so the wacky physics feel right for the game. One wacky hazard that does stick out though is the conveyor belt, where objects can too easily get caught and, even worse, cause an entire blockade as more boxes pile up. It's one of the few times that the game feels unfair. But even with more and more hazards piling up with each level, it's hard to shake off the repetitive nature of the game. It's especially apparent when playing solo but even when you're playing with friends the gameplay can feel a bit too simple at times—oftentimes you don't even need to cooperate and each player can do their own thing to easily succeed. The core gameplay mechanics simply don't evolve over the course of the game, which isn't inherently bad but does leave something to be desired after playing for a few hours. It also doesn't help that there's a big emphasis on replaying levels in Moving Out. Aside from earning a gold/silver/bronze medal based on your speed, there are also three optional objectives in each stage that will earn you bonus tokens (both medals and tokens unlock additional mini-missions). The bonus objectives range from adding extra-challenging tasks to silly, oddball tasks to make the most out of every stage. It's nice to have some additional objectives, though somewhat annoyingly these bonus tasks are hidden until you finish the stage once, hence the emphasis on replaying stages over and over. I should also mention that the game features an impressive array of accessibility options. Rather than having a flat easy mode, you can customize the game's difficulty aspects to find the right balance for you. For example, you can extend the time limit to make earning gold medals easier, or you can make objects disappear once they're inside the moving van (one of the trickier tasks on any stage is arranging the furniture in the van to ensure everything fits). You can turn on one of these assist mode options, both, or go with neither and play on the standard difficulty. It's impressive to see a game take the extra step to make the "easy mode" option customizable and accessible for any player's preference. Much like Overcooked, there isn't much fancy design work going into the visuals of Moving Out, but the fun, colorful art style suits the gameplay perfectly. Even if the backgrounds are somewhat repetitive it's much more important that the objects are easily readable while you race against the clock. And much like Overcooked you can unlock a variety of oddball characters to play as, which is always a fun treat. The soundtrack has a real 80s vibe to it which for some reason fits the game nicely—perhaps it's because the game opens with a cheesy instructional video for new employees. Regardless, the music fits both the gameplay and the humor of the game. Moving Out is another charming local co-op experience on the Switch. The physics-based action is suitably wacky without getting too tedious, and although the gameplay can feel undeniably repetitive at times, having a friend or two along for the ride helps elevate the furniture moving experience. Moving Out's colorful charm and goofy sense of humor turns a real-life chore into a virtual party. Rating: 7 out of 10 Boxes
  5. In a post-apocalyptic, nuclear-war-ravaged world, the fall of society left the calendar perpetually stuck in the year 1988. It's fitting, then, that Black Future '88 has so much of an 80s arcade vibe to it, from the neon-infused visuals and sythnwave soundtrack to the brutally difficult gameplay. But while a high difficulty level is standard for roguelikes, Black Future '88 has a hard time building engaging gameplay elements that stay interesting one playthrough after another. You play as a survivor who is desperately climbing the procedurally-generated Skymelt tower to reach the ruler at the top before he delivers another nuclear strike to the world. Here's the twist though: you only have 18 minutes before your heart explodes. Adding a time limit onto a roguelike platformer almost feels cruel but it also lets you know exactly what kind of gameplay to expect from Black Future '88. This is a fast-paced and short-lived action-platformer challenge that will have you dodging enemy bullets and frantically scooping up ammo and money to keep your own weapons supplied. The time limit makes the gameplay feel even more frantic than usual and puts the pressure on you to really consider your approach—is it worth exploring a few rooms in the hopes of finding a better weapon, or should you rush straight to the level's boss? The game helpfully shows you which direction the boss is in, so if you don't have any time left to waste you can run straight to the end. But such an emphasis on speed can't help but make the gameplay feel shallow. The time limit makes for an interesting challenge that sadly isn't quite backed up by the stage design. There are five distinct areas of the game, each culminating in a boss fight, but the differences are negligible, with only a small variety of enemy types that mostly just become bullet sponges as you progress. You can also unlock new characters to play as, each of whom has different starting weapons and special abilities, such as lower max health but higher odds of finding rare items. It's nice to have some variety and you'll likely settle on one preferred style once you've unlocked all characters. The most significant change from one playthrough to the next is the weapon selection, and there's a decent variety of guns in Black Future '88 (as well as a sword). Some of the variations are minimal—a long-range shotgun as opposed to a short-range one—but others are pretty unique, including cursed weapons that will actually drain the time you have left in exchange for significant firepower. The guns aren't quite enough to mask the repetition of the game though. Granted, roguelikes are always going to feel repetitive, but Black Future '88 doesn't quite make one playthrough feel particularly unique compared to the next one, nor does it have the satisfying sense of accomplishment that makes other roguelikes compelling. Shooting and running through these basic level designs is just a little too simple to be fully engaging. And like a lot of roguelikes, Black Future '88 can feel punishingly difficult at first. You have no choice but to jump into the deep end right from the start, and that includes coping with challenging gameplay elements like grabbing ammo or money before they disappear (which actually makes enemies stronger) or discovering which boosts are actually helpful for your current style or weapon selection. Even after a few playthroughs though the game's UI leaves something to be desired. The screen is rather cluttered, with some UI elements even covering up parts of the level, which can cause you to miss ammo drops or money. Combat can also feel even more chaotic when there's so much happening on screen, from exploding enemies to neon background elements that are hard to parse from actual platforms and hazards. It's a shame since the retro design and 80s color theme looks nice, it's just overdone at times. The synthwave soundtrack is pretty solid though, and feels like it would have been right at home in any 80s cyberpunk adventure. Black Future '88 puts additional pressure on the Rogue-like formula by adding a tense time limit, but otherwise there's little to make it stand out against other entries in the genre. A decent variety of weapons to find and five playable characters do little to alleviate the dull repetition of the gameplay that combines such high risk elements—time limit, limited ammo, relatively little health—that it feels like your options are actually quite limited as well. There are some fun ideas at work here, but they're not fleshed out well enough to create a full compelling package. Rating: 5 out of 10 Futures
  6. In an alternate reality where arcades are a common feature instead of an increasingly rare piece of 80s nostalgia, one sleepy arcade's fortunes may soon take a turn for the better. Arcade Spirits is a visual novel, a game with minimal gameplay input but an emphasis on storytelling as you follow the protagonist's journey and mold their personality. The player base this game will appeal to is decidedly niche, but fans of the genre can expect a cute if somewhat plain story. You play as a recently unemployed and rather depressed adult who, thanks to the prompting of a roommate, lands a job at a modest video arcade. You soon meet the quirky cast of fellow employees and arcade regulars, all of whom are potential romance partners (though despite the romcom game description, you don't have to pursue any romance options if you don't want to and instead can just be friends with everyone). As the down-on-your-luck protagonist, you soon connect with others and the arcade itself, which helps to stir you from depressed apathy. The writing is, obviously, key for a visual novel, and Arcade Spirits' is a resounding: okay. The story never feels wildly unique, but it's a decent down-to-earth story about following one's dreams. The humor is pretty hit or miss with perhaps too much reliance on cheesy meme references (which almost never suit a game's writing) and the romance subplots are predictably rushed (just a couple of interactions and you're ready to profess your love for one another). But if you can overlook those foibles Arcade Spirits clearly has heart, as even the more stoic or abrasive characters in the story can't seem to help but be friendly, outgoing, and encouraging. The game's overwhelmingly upbeat charm makes it hard to dislike entirely, but for a visual novel it does leave something to be desired. The gameplay of Arcade Spirits is entirely conversation driven: you can choose from a handful of responses which all fall into one of five categories: Quirky, Kind, Gutsy, Steady, or Basic. For normal conversations you can always choose any available option, but these will influence your personality, and during the more serious moments of the game you may be locked out of certain choices based on your dominant personality traits. It's a modest level of variability and replay value—the core plot obviously plays out the same no matter what—but it's still nice to have some control over your personality throughout the game, even if it mostly comes down to a couple different lines of dialogue. Arcade Spirits also features some inclusive customization options, including changing your preferred pronouns. You can also choose from three hair styles and adjust skin tone, hair color, and clothing color. Sadly that's it when it comes to customizing appearances though—being able to adjust clothing options, accessories, or even having a couple of facial feature options would have been nice. The game's presentation straddles a strange line of quality and quantity. The character portraits are colorful and lively and the background scenery is decent (and clearly playing up the 80s arcade nostalgia), but there's so little variety to either that they become stale pretty quickly. The game even lampshades its own reused assets when one room looks identical to another, but poking a bit of fun at itself doesn't change the fact that the visuals can be pretty boring. The audio has its own odd problems, including finnicky sound balancing that can make the soundtrack either incredibly hard to hear or too loud. Even adjusting the levels in the options menu doesn't fully alleviate the issue. It's also rather jarring that the background music will stop any time a voice line plays, even when it's a brief, one-word line. The voice work quality is a mixed bag as well which only makes the sudden interjections more jarring. Fans of the visual novel genre will already know and appreciate what they're going to get with Arcade Spirits: a cute story with minimal gameplay interactions, buoyed by its cast of somewhat cliche but likeable characters. For a game focused entirely on storytelling the writing isn't always up to par, especially when it comes to lazy game/meme references, but if you're willing to overlook the occasional clunky line, there's a decent story of hope, dreams, and arcades to be found here. Rating: 6 out of 10 Arcade Cabinets
  7. The idea of combining Picross puzzles with another gameplay genre seems so obvious now that I'm surprised there aren't more examples of it. Organizing the satisfying repetition of solving nonogram puzzles into a 2D exploration adventure adds a nice touch of personality and pizazz to the experience, and in the case of Piczle Cross Adventure from developer Score Studios and publisher Plug In Digital, a good deal of humor as well. Make no mistake though, this is still first and foremost a puzzle game, and a perfect one for fans of Picross. Piczle Cross Adventure stars Score-chan and her animal(?) companion Gig as they solve one puzzle after another to rescue the world from being pixelated by Dr. Mona Chromatic as she attempts to turn the entire world into black and white pixels. It's a charming, goofy premise and as you might expect the game doesn't take itself too seriously. This is a light, bubbly adventure story that is oftentimes keenly self-aware of video game tropes. Even if it's not too deep, the writing is fun, and it's hard not to smile at the quirky humor. Plus, for Picross game fans, it's a nice change of pace to contextualize the puzzle-solving process into a story with an actual goal. Even given the genre mash-up of Piczle Cross Adventure, the core gameplay is still very much a Picross or nonogram puzzle game. You'll explore the map to find objects that have been pixelated, and then solve a puzzle to restore it to its glorious full color form. For those that don't know, Picross is a portmanteau of "picture" and "crossword," which succinctly describes what these puzzles are: by following clues on a grid (like a crossword puzzle) you create a picture. These can range from fairly simple 5x5 grids to much bigger, more complex challenges. Seasoned Picross players will find that Piczle Cross Adventure is rarely mind-bendingly challenging, but it's also nice to enjoy a puzzle game with a comfortable pace of progression. And novice players may enjoy using helpful features like the hint roulette, at least while learning the ropes of this puzzle format. Unlike most other Picross games, you're not just given a long list of puzzles to solve, you have to go out and find them. For the most part this means just exploring the environment—ranging from dark caves to sprawling deserts, all conveniently within walking distance—but Piczle Cross Adventure also takes a page from traditional adventure games. Sometimes you'll need to find an item to progress, such as finding a way to move a fallen tree blocking your path. The game doesn't throw anything too complex at you but just having a reason to explore and find items is a nice change of pace for a puzzle game. There's also a small amount of freedom as you can tackle regions in slightly different orders (until you run into an obstacle that you need a specific item for) and it's cool to have the opportunity to tackle puzzles in whatever order you like. Plus it is awfully satisfying to enter a new area of the map, see all of the blank, pixelated spots in the environment, and then restore the area piece by piece. If there's one area the gameplay feels slightly lacking, it's in one small aspect of the controls. You actually have a great deal of customization options with the controls, which is great, but one feature I was missing compared to other Picross games is a "maybe" option to fill in squares when you're not sure if a square should be filled in or not but you want to make a note of where it might be. It is perhaps slightly unfair to compare Piczle Cross Adventure's features directly to other Picross games, but it's a valuable feature for puzzle-solving and it's a shame it isn't available here as well. Like any puzzle game your time with Piczle Cross Adventure can vary quite a bit depending on how quick you are at solving nonograms, but you can expect at least ten hours or so. There are also a few optional objectives that aren't needed to complete the story, but are great for completionists. You don't need to finish every puzzle to complete the story (although there are some checkpoints where you need a minimum experience level to progress, so you do still have to finish most puzzles to progress). It's hard to imagine playing a Picross game and not hunting down every puzzle available though, and you'll likely end up addicted enough to explore every puzzle the game has to offer. Piczle Cross Adventure leans hard into the retro look with not just an old-school pixel look but even CRT scan lines (these can be turned off if you're not feeling the retro vibe though). The visual design is cartoony and cute, and honestly having even a bit of visual flair in a Picross puzzle game is a welcome change of pace. The soundtrack is pretty catchy, but also a bit too repetitive. A bit more variety in background tunes, especially given the wide variety of environments, would have helped shake things up a bit. Piczle Cross Adventure offers a fun, fresh twist on the typical puzzle game format without actually changing the familiar puzzle gameplay. A cute story and simple adventure game elements provide a charming frame for puzzle-hunting and puzzle-solving, one that gives you a bit more incentive to keep playing. For Picross fans, this is another great selection of nonograms, while new players will appreciate having a story/adventure to focus on while completing puzzles. Rating: 8 out of 10 Puzzles Review copy provided by developer Piczle Cross Adventure is available now on the Switch eShop for $9.99.
  8. It would probably surprise most Western gamers to learn just how expansive and long-lived the Kunio-Kun series is—it certainly surprised me. Over thirty years of history and dozens upon dozens of games—though, granted, most being Japan-only releases—makes it a legacy series in the world of video games, despite limited acclaim outside of Japan. A new game developed by one of the biggest names in indie game development might help spread the word, though. River City Girls from developer WayForward takes the classic side-scrolling beat 'em up gameplay of the River City Ransom games and gives it a fresh facelift, perfect for a new generation of gamers, though the antiquated gameplay makes the experience a bit of a slog at times. The original River City Ransom follows two high school guys on a quest to rescue one of their girlfriends, so naturally River City Girls flips the script with two female protagonists fighting to rescue their boyfriends. It's a simple, straightforward plot buoyed by the larger-than-life personalities of all of the characters and the absurdity of punching, kicking, and otherwise beating up endless waves of thugs and gang members all over town. The developers are well aware of the humor of the situation and slip plenty of tongue-in-cheek jokes, and even if not all of them land perfectly, there's still a lot of charm in the writing. The gameplay is straight up classic brawler action: you have quick or heavy attacks at your disposal, plus a small variety of other attacks—grappling dazed enemies, picking up items to bash with or throw, special attacks that drain your special meter, etc. You'll also earn experience points and level up throughout the game, adding more attacks to your repertoire and allowing you to buy new attacks from dojos scattered across the city. The game follows a pretty constant, basic formula: enter a new area, fight or dodge a few minor enemies, then eventually hit a locked screen where you have to defeat all enemies before progressing. Beat 'em ups tend to be highly repetitive, and that's not too different for River City Girls either. Your enjoyment of the game hinges entirely on how much satisfaction you glean from beating down the same handful of enemy types over and over again. It feels clear that the developers sought to preserve the classic brawler formula as closely as possible, even if it comes off as a bit dry for a modern game. It seems like a missed opportunity not to add some more variety to the experience or even jazz up the combat with more interesting combo varieties. And it certainly doesn't help that there are only so many different types of enemies that you'll see over and over who seem to level up with you, so you never really get noticeably better at beating them up, you just have a few more combo options. Most significantly, River City Girls is beholden to the somewhat slow, slightly awkward controls of classic beat 'em ups, meaning you have to be on the same plane as an enemy to actually hit them, and adjusting up or down the screen can feel finnicky, or at least not fast and snappy. Obnoxiously it often feels like enemies don't have to be lined up as perfectly as you in order to hit you with a stunning combo. Ultimately this is a game for brawler fans, one that doesn't so much modernize the gameplay experience as preserve it, warts and all. If the game does click with you though there's a decent amount of content to enjoy. Finishing the game once can take as little as seven or eight hours, but there are also side quests to pursue, co-op mode, and additional features that are unlocked after beating the game once. The gameplay never fundamentally changes but completionists will enjoy maxing out all of these slight variations. You can also purchase and equip up to two pieces of gear which grant small buffs, such as regenerating health or increased attack power against certain enemy types. Again, these don't wildly change the experience but they add some welcome customization. The purchasing process can be rather annoying though because you can't see what effect items will have until after you buy them, which sometimes makes it feel like you've wasted your hard-earned money. It should be no surprise for a WayForward game, but River City Girls looks great. The in-game graphics feature smooth pixel artwork and slick animation for all of the various attacks you'll be dishing out, while the fully animated cutscenes look beautiful. There are also stylish black-and-white manga-style cutscenes that feel right at home in the game's universe. The synth-pop soundtrack is also excellent and adds some valuable pep and energy to beating down opponents over and over. There's also some solid voice acting, though at times I did wish I could simply speed up the text to move things along a little more quickly. River City Girls faithfully recreates the RCR experience, but perhaps could have done more to improve upon it instead. Even with WayForward's stylish visual design and catchy soundtrack, the simple repetitive nature of the beat 'em up genre can be draining, especially when little aspects like the controls feel like they haven't changed in decades. Still, River City Girls offers a fun co-op adventure tailor-made for the fans that long for the days of NES or arcade brawlers. Rating: 7 out of 10 Punches
  9. In the game's opening scene, the protagonist learns that he is, emphatically, not the hero. But just because he can't swing a sword doesn't mean he can't go on a globe-trotting adventure to save the world. Wandersong puts you not in the role of a dashing swordsman, but a humble and almost ridiculously friendly bard, whose gift of song may be the key to saving everything and everyone. Not surprisingly this makes for an utterly charming adventure, one with simple but fun side-scrolling puzzle platforming and a lot of heart. As you might expect for a game about helping people through the power of music, Wandersong is extremely cute, extremely silly, and extremely heartwarming. There is a lot of goofy humor here, not just in the way the bard interacts with people but in the odd little lives of the villagers you meet throughout the adventure. There's a lot of tongue-in-cheek jokes to discover, and also a lot of text to read through (but it's worth talking to everyone as much as possible). The game balances out this happy-go-lucky vibe with some affecting, heartfelt moments as well and isn't afraid to get a bit serious at times, which makes it easy to care about these characters and their silly little lives. Wandersong nails the "child's game that adults can enjoy" aesthetic, and most players would be hard pressed not to get misty-eyed at the game's climax. The gameplay is essentially a side-scrolling puzzle platformer, but instead of using items or gaining magic abilities, the bard uses his voice to move through the environment and overcome obstacles. For example, there might be a high ledge that you can't jump to, but by singing the same song as a nearby bird, the bird will help carry you up to the ledge. There's a decent variety of puzzles and obstacles that you'll face, enough to keep the gameplay engaging throughout. You can sing different notes by hitting one of eight directions with the right control stick, and these notes are also color-coded for clarity. Using the right stick to hit notes can be a little imprecise at times but thankfully the game never really requires fast, precise songs, so a bit of looseness in the controls isn't a big deal. Wandersong isn't really a difficult game in any sense, but its casual, breezy pacing still makes for an enjoyable adventure. Plus there's a button dedicated to dancing, so you can literally dance your way through the game, and that has to count for something. You might expect the game to be incredibly short given its low sense of difficulty and relatively straight-forward story, but you can expect a good eight or ten hours with Wandersong, and a captivating eight or ten hours at that. Depending on how much you talk with villagers and other side characters throughout the game your experience might be even longer. And although the game is quite linear there's a sort of side quest in that you can learn new dance moves in each act of the game. It's not much but it's worth seeking out to see the bard bust a new move. The game's paper cutout art style may immediately bring to mind comparisons to Paper Mario, but Wandersong's aesthetic is hardly derivative. The colorful, simple, and charming visuals are the perfect match for the bubbly and breezy tone of the story and gameplay, and even if the shapes are rather simple the colors are beautiful and striking. On the Switch the edges of objects can get rather jagged though, and it's a shame that these stylish graphics aren't at their best on the system, but it's not too disruptive. And of course the music is fantastic—this is a game all about singing after all. The soundtrack is broad and varied with plenty of catchy, soothing, and touching songs for the bard's journey, culminating in a particularly harmonious final number. Wandersong's musical take on side-scrolling platforming is absolutely charming, and honestly a great break from typical sword and shield combat gameplay. The singing mechanics are simple but make for a fun variety of puzzle-solving challenges, even if the game is never truly difficult. Wandersong is an uplifting, feel-good adventure, and perhaps now more than ever that's what we want and need from video games. Rating: 8 out of 10 Songs
  10. I really hadn't intended to play and write a review about a game set during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 while we're all facing another deadly virus pandemic, but, well, here we are. Vampyr takes an unconventional approach to vampire mythos, framing it not around the allure of immortal power (or around glittering teenagers) but around temptation and morality in the midst of a crisis. It's a breath of fresh air for a vampire story, but trying to balance a morality narrative with vampire-powered combat results in a clumsy action/adventure game. You play as Jonathan Reid, a doctor who specializes in blood transfusions but is turned into a vampire as the game begins. Thrust into the undead underworld of London society, Reid struggles to understand how he became a vampire, what is the cause of the recent rash of vampirism in London, and how to stop the Spanish flu epidemic, all while fighting against his own urges to drink blood. Vampyr sets up a fantastic setting for a moral conundrum of a game, one that promises a wonderfully unique approach to essentially a monster story. The actual execution of the story leaves a lot to be desired though. The characters, including Reid, are a bit dull and lackluster—more importantly, the relationships they build and foster are so terribly rushed that it's hard to actually feel invested in any of them. Long-winded dialogue saps a lot of the energy from cutscenes and doesn't allow for much chemistry between characters. Given more space to breathe and time to develop naturally, there could have been a great story here. As is, the narrative is disappointing at best. The gameplay in Vampyr is action-RPG in a semi-open world environment: you'll explore London to complete quests, battle vampire hunters and feral vampires, and interact with NPCs to either heal them by crafting medicine or luring them into a dark corner to feed on their blood. Here's where the moral question of the game comes into play: feeding on NPCs provides you with a huge boost of EXP, far more than you get by fighting enemies, but killing too many NPCs plunges London into chaos, not to mention the toll it takes on Reid's own code of ethics. Even a small bump in EXP can be a game-changer though, so essentially the "good" path of not killing makes the game significantly harder, while the "evil" path makes it much easier (and also makes it easier to experiment with abilities). Good/evil paths in a video game aren't new but Vampyr makes the contrast particularly stark—playing the good doctor can be exceedingly difficult since being even a few levels below your enemies makes a serious difference. It's a bit frustrating that there aren't more tangible rewards for suppressing your vampire urges, but ultimately it's the player's choice whether to feed or not. It is awfully tempting to feed though since the combat system is so frustratingly clumsy, and being killed in two hits because you're underpowered makes the game incredibly tedious. There are also frequent difficulty spikes clearly pushing you to indulge your vampire needs. Combat ends up being something of a chore throughout the game, something that you feel forced to do rather than get to enjoy doing. You have a small variety of weapons and vampire skills at your disposal but the floaty, weightless movements of Reid and enemies isn't terribly satisfying—the game doesn't have that satisfying sense of physicality that makes dodging and attacking feel rewarding. It doesn't help that enemies can so easily interrupt your attacks with their own, which almost seem magnetized to you even as you dodge repeatedly. These battles definitely require an element of strategy, which can be engaging, but for the most part they're so mindlessly repetitive that they just aren't enjoyable. Vampyr's semi-open world system can be rather frustrating as well. I say semi-open world, because everywhere you go you'll run into locked gates that require taking a circuitous path around to open, and these paths are often tied to story progression. The game's wayfinding system also leaves a lot to be desired. There's a compass at the top of the screen pointing you in the right direction, but this vague arrow is woefully inadequate when you're facing locked gates or inaccessible buildings. The game's restrictions can also be rather disappointing, such as Reid's ability to teleport short distances. This could have been a lot of fun in an open world environment, but you're actually only able to teleport at specific times (often to a high ledge, but the game doesn't always make this clear). Vampyr has too many conflicting ideas like this, which one might argue reinforces the doctor/vampire conflict, but in reality just makes for a poor gameplay experience. The game's dark, dreary visuals are perfectly suited to the story's setting, though the drab environments can be rather uninteresting after a while. The music is suitably somber and rather forgettable, while the voice acting has some serious ups and downs. To be fair, the low points seem to have more to do with the script than the acting, but even undead characters don't need to sound so lifeless. More problematic is the game's performance on the Switch, which leads to rather muddy visuals and some persistent technical issues. It's not uncommon to see the frame rate stutter, and the slight delay when you open the inventory menu is a constant reminder that this game is not running as smoothly as it should be on the Switch. This is all paired with some tedious load times, including random little buffering scenes when you're running around London. It makes it hard to ignore the fact that this simply isn't the best system on which to play the game. The story will take you a good fifteen hours to finish, though Vampyr offers a whole host of side quests to complete that revolve around the NPC population. You might want to tackle these out of the goodness of your heart or to make NPCs more valuable feeding targets, but either way there's a good amount of side content to explore. The game also naturally lends itself to at least two playthroughs so you can experience both the good and evil paths, plus there are actually four different endings that vary slightly based on your choices throughout the game. These are really just slightly altered ending cutscenes, but it's something to consider for completionists. Vampyr has a lot of interesting ideas that fail to come together into a cohesive, enjoyable game. The story, like the difficulty level, is all over the place, and a study of vampire morality might have worked better if this were a purely narrative driven game and the player didn't have to contend with a clunky combat system that awkwardly encourages killing NPCs. Just the contrast of being both a doctor and a vampire would have made for an engaging story if the characters had more time to develop instead of being forced into an action-RPG system. The game's performance on the Switch is the final nail in the coffin—this port is best left buried. Review: 5 out of 10 Fangs
  11. Just last year fans of the Mana series finally had the chance to experience an official release of Seiken Densetsu 3, now dubbed Trials of Mana. The port included in the Collection of Mana preserved the original SNES experience, but now this fully 3D remake provides a new dimension of action-RPG gameplay. This remake provides more than a mere facelift, but rest assured the spirit of the original game is preserved, even if some features have been left behind. Possibly the most unique aspect of Trials of Mana happens right as you boot up the game. You're able to choose which three characters you want to play as from a selection of six, and your choice of main character has an impact on how the story progresses. Each character has a unique prologue that explains why they are on this quest to save the Mana Tree from the forces of darkness, and one of the nice additions in this remake is the option to play through the prologue of all three of your characters (you can also choose to skip them). It's a small change but it's great to get to see the full backstory of each character and further cement the sense of scale and world building that the game does surprisingly well. It's not presented in the cleanest, most "readable" way at times, especially since the early parts of the game have you bouncing between cities so much that it can be hard to keep them straight in your head, but fleshing out this world with multiple kingdoms with their own stories and struggles is fun to see, and if nothing else further encourages you to replay the game to see the story from a different character's perspective. Like the original game and Secret of Mana, this is an action-RPG with real-time combat. Unlike the original game, you have several attack options at your disposal. You have both light and heavy attacks and can string them together into various combos, including aerial attacks to hit flying foes, and can also unleash powerful Class Strikes by building up your blue strike meter with basic attacks. And of course there are magic spells as well, though most characters don't unlock these until changing class partway through the game. Dodging enemy attacks is also vital, and fairly easy thanks to the telegraphed red damage zones that appear when enemies are preparing particularly powerful strikes. All of this means combat is fast-paced and engaging as you time your attacks to knock down enemies and dodge away from their deadly blows. You might not have as many attack options as other, more elaborate fighting games, but combat remains satisfying throughout the adventure. That said, there are also some somewhat annoying elements. Aerial attacks, for example, could be handled better. Jumping up to take one or two swipes at an enemy is rather tedious and hampers the flow of combat a bit. Being able to dodge enemy attacks can almost make combat feel too easy at times, although the flipside of this is that your AI companions are pretty bad about dodging. They will avoid attacks sometimes, but not nearly as efficiently as a human player (and sadly this remake removes the co-op multiplayer of the original game). You can somewhat customize your companions' attack style in the pause menu, but unfortunately you can't change this during battle, so you can't rely on them to do anything too tactical or intelligent while fighting. And finally the camera during combat can be uncooperative at times, particularly when you're near a wall, which makes fighting in small spaces like caves more difficult than it should be. Even locking onto an enemy target doesn't feel quite ideal during the heat of combat. None of these issues completely spoil the experience, but there's definite room for improvement. This remake also introduces some valuable new features, including some minor quality of life improvements. You're now given a clear marker on the map to tell you where to go next, which can be hugely helpful when you have to run back and forth between cities. Having an ever-present marker does make the game rather easy—there's no way of getting lost—but you can also turn it off if you want. In the original Trials of Mana you would be given skill points when you leveled up to upgrade your strength, stamina, magic attack, etc. Now you're given Training Points, which can be used to upgrade stats but will also unlock passive abilities. These add a welcome bit of depth to the game and provide for plenty of customization options. For example, you might give Kevin, the heavy hitting brawler, passive bonuses to his attack and defense when his health drops below a certain amount, adding a risk/reward system to his combat style. There's a decent variety to passive abilities without being overwhelmingly elaborate so it's fun to play around with them to test what works well for you. The only other major addition to the game comes after you've defeated the villains and restored the Mana Tree. There is an entirely new post-game dungeon that adds particularly challenging battles and the opportunity to change classes a third time to new, even more powerful classes. The new content is a welcome addition, especially for a game that is fairly linear and lacking in side quest options. With the new post-game additions and the ever present incentive to replay the game to test out different party compositions and see the three different story variations, the roughly twenty-five hour length of the game ends up being quite a bit more. The game's visuals have been nicely translated to 3D, even when compared to the richly detailed sprites of the original. The graphics in this remake are bright and colorful, and seeing familiar Mana series monsters in 3D is a treat. It also runs fairly smoothly on the Switch, and although there is noticeable pop-in at times it never really affects the gameplay. The soundtrack has also been beautifully remastered, preserving the exact tone and style of the original but updated to be smoother and richer. If you're a purist though you'll be happy to hear that the original soundtrack is available as well. And finally there's the voice acting which is a real mixed bag of quality. Many characters sound fine and some of them are, unfortunately, quite true to the character (namely, Charlotte's odd baby voice), but there are also some that sound terribly flat and awkward. And these are main characters, voices you'll be hearing from over and over throughout the game. If the voice work proves too awkward though you can always switch to the Japanese voice actors instead. Trials of Mana provides an excellent remake and remastering of a lost RPG classic, one that has eluded Western shores for far too long. This version takes a careful approach of updating without completely rewriting the features and style of the original, and in that regard it's an overwhelming success. There are still some minor points that could and probably should have been revised, but overall the remake preserves the unique experience of the game and presents it for a new audience on the Switch. Even with the original available in the Collection of Mana, RPG fans should have no hesitation about diving into this charming entry in the Mana series. Rating: 8 out of 10 Mana Stones
  12. The Super Monkey Ball series has always seemed to have trouble matching the heights of its first two entries on the GameCube. Maybe the oddball gaming environment of the early 2000s was just the ideal place for a game concept as strange and endearing as this, but later entries in the franchise never seemed to roll as smoothly. That was also the case for Banana Blitz, originally a launch title for the Wii, and sadly the same seems to hold true for this remake. Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD trades motion controls for a standard controller, but it's not enough to make the gameplay more engaging. AiAi and his primate pals are just hanging around when a villainous character steals their Golden Bananas, so our monkey heroes have no choice but to saddle up in their plastic balls and recover their fruit. Yeah, that's all you get as far as storytelling in this game, but what else do you need? It's a bunch of cute monkeys rolling around in balls, just dive into the gameplay. The main levels have been adjusted to accommodate a normal controller setup instead of the Wii's motion controls, and for the most part the transition works. There are definitely moments where you can tell that the delicate adjustments of motion controls would make more sense than a control stick, but the developers have revamped the level design with this in mind, so this version of Banana Blitz is still playable. Playable, but still somewhat mediocre. The level design is challenging but rarely inventive, even with the ability to jump which offers a slightly different twist on the Monkey Ball formula. Banana Blitz HD is a decent experience, but nothing about the game offers much of a reason for remaking the game. The mini-games, however, did not survive the transition from motion control to control stick very well. For the ten mini-games in this HD version (cut down from 50 in the original game), it's painfully clear that motion controls would make them, at the very least, more novel and interesting, if not outright easier to play. Whack-a-mole, for example, would benefit greatly by the speed that motion control provides. As is, the mini-games feel like even less interesting side features than usual, and even gathering a few friends to join in fails to liven things up. If, however, you want to show off your skills online, there's an online leaderboard feature for a time attack mode and a Decathlon mode where you play through every mini-game in pursuit of an overall high score. It's a pretty underwhelming online feature, but score chasers might enjoy measuring up to players online. There's also one aspect that is just atrocious and likely would not have been aided by motion controls: boss fights. The only thing these battles have going for them is the cute critter designs of the various bosses. Beyond that, these fights are tedious, repetitive, and frustratingly difficult because of the game's awkward camera angles. The camera automatically locks onto the boss, which makes sense since it will help you keep track of them while moving, but because the camera angle is so low to the stage you end up having almost no depth perception and very little peripheral range. While you struggle to judge distance and monitor nearby hazards, you have to contend with an exceedingly simple and drawn out battle where you hit the boss's obvious weak point over and over. The very concept of boss fights in a Super Monkey Ball game might be a mistake because they offer none of the charm or inventive design that characterizes the series. The addition of "HD" to the game's subtitle almost feels tongue-in-cheek since this is not a franchise that benefits from high definition graphics at all. Still, the monkeys are cute and the levels are colorful, even if there's nothing in particular that will blow your socks off. The soundtrack is also comfortably average with little that stands out. Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz HD may seem like an odd choice for a remake, and, well, it is. Updating the game with higher def graphics is almost pointless for the franchise's aesthetic, and swapping motion controls for a standard controller doesn't make the level design any more interesting. Worse yet, removing motion controls actually hurts the appeal of the mini-games. Add in some truly atrocious boss fights and you've got a remake that simply didn't need to exist. Rating: 5 out of 10 Bananas
  13. Time travel mechanics, Metroidvania gameplay, pixel art design—nothing that hasn't been seen in games before, but put them together and you get Timespinner, an engaging adventure game that draws many of the best ideas from its influences into one entertaining package. At the same time the game's most unique features ultimately feel a bit drab, but there's no denying the appeal of a solid Metroidvania adventure. You play as Lunais, a young woman trained to be a Time Messenger—a person who, as a sort of emergency resort, will travel through time to the past in order to warn her people of a coming catastrophe. Not surprisingly Lunais is forced to do just this in the opening moments of the game, but things become more complicated when the evil Emperor Nuvius himself attacks during the time travel process. Now Lunais will need to use her time travel abilities to get revenge on the emperor, though she may uncover a greater threat along the way. The game isn't afraid to throw a great deal of lore at you quite quickly, which is a little overwhelming but ultimately worth taking the trouble to understand. Timespinner's story of revenge hides a compellingly twisted narrative that takes an intriguing approach to the idea that history is written by the victors—and now Lunais is able to rewrite that history with time travel. Some plot threads seem to get lost along the way, perhaps due to the story being a little too ambitious for the relatively short length of the game, but it's an engrossing tale nevertheless. The gameplay is pure Metroidvania, though leans a little more toward the Castlevania side of things. Timespinner offers classic side-scrolling exploration with plenty of secrets and locked doors that you'll need to come back to once you've found the appropriate power-up. There's also a bit of time travel shenanigans at work here: changing things in the past might have an impact on the future, so by swapping between the two you'll be able to progress in the adventure. The dual nature of the past and present settings feels, if anything, a little underused, but the few times it comes up make for clever exploration mechanics. The combat revolves around the two orbs that Lunais is able to equip which grant her different melee abilities. For example, a blade orb creates a sword, a fire orb launches fireballs, etc. You'll gradually unlock more and more orbs throughout the game and by the end there's a ton of variety possible, giving players a lot of room for experimentation. The only downside is that orbs gain experience points to power up, so it often feels like a downgrade to swap to a new orb rather than sticking with your tried and true current equipment, but there are always extra playthroughs to experiment with everything. Equipment aside, the combat itself in Timespinner is a bit of a mixed bag. Lunais can't move and attack at the same time, so attacking always brings you to a halt. This means you have to be a little more strategic about finding an opening to attack safely, but it also makes combat feel rather stiff, especially early in the game when your attack options are so limited. Gradually you'll gain more movement abilities that help to loosen things up a bit, but the combat never felt quite as fluid as I would have liked. Thankfully the game is pretty lax about punishing mistakes. You'll end up taking your share of damage throughout the game, but save points refill your health completely and healing items are plentiful. Finally, Timespinner features one last unique feature: an hourglass that stops time. At any time you're able to freeze all of the action on screen and move freely, which means you can't hit enemies but they can't hit you either. This provides some unique approaches to dodging and platforming but is definitely underused for such a unique feature. Using it to dodge is only useful during boss fights since normal enemies are generally too quick and will immediately attack you once time starts again anyway, and using it for exploring by creating stepping stones out of hazardous enemies is clever but a little annoying since the amount of time you can freeze is limited (you can find upgrades to the hourglass's capacity though). Freezing time just should have been a more central component of Timespinner. Timespinner's presentation delivers a beautifully crafted pixel art world that wouldn't feel out of place on the SNES or PSX. The retro look is nothing new, but this game does a particularly excellent job of creating polished character sprites and environments that look retro but don't feel dated. The only downside is that there isn't more variety in scenery, but that's also understandable from a storytelling perspective since you're time-traveling between the same locations. The soundtrack is equally great at invoking a classic vibe while still feeling fresh, and it provides plenty of solid, atmospheric songs to enjoy while exploring. Like a lot of Metroidvanias, Timespinner can be pretty quickly blazed through or you can end up spending a lot of time exploring everything available. Overall the game leans toward the easy side so collectibles aren't too difficult to uncover, and finishing just the story can last as little as five hours or so, but trying to complete the game 100% can stretch that number closer to ten. Plus there is the wealth of weapon orb options that can make replaying the game worthwhile, and enterprising players might even uncover extra bosses or endings. It's still not the longest adventure around, but you get your money's worth, especially for Metroidvania fans. Timespinner wears its influences on its sleeve, but you won't find many other games that so thoroughly capture the style of Metroidvania or feature such polished pixel art design. Although its most defining time-bending features end up feeling rather underused, the overall adventure is plenty engaging. Metroidvania fans will certainly want to take note of this one. Rating: 7 out of 10 Orbs
  14. Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout, the latest in the long-running Atelier series, follows the franchise's formula of crafting and creation, combined with some RPG mechanics. As someone new to the series I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into with this game, though some people more familiar with the franchise describe Atelier Ryza as being a more accessible entry point. Maybe that's true, but for a newcomer the experience was fairly overwhelming at first and yet underwhelming in the end. You play as Ryza, a restless girl who dreams of going on adventures beyond the confines of her family's farm and their small island home. She soon gets her wish when an alchemist visits her village and opens her eyes to the world of alchemy and the ability to craft items. Soon enough a grave danger to the island rears its head, and Ryza and her friends must band together to save the village. Broadly, it's a typically generic RPG storyline, one where our protagonists grow and learn to trust their own strength, though the developers have also slipped in some rather heavy topics as well. The end result feels somewhat unbalanced. The handful of heavy-hitting moments feel like they come out of nowhere when the rest of the game is so saccharine sweet, which really makes them lose their impact. Instead the characters and story come off as a bit trite and dull—cute, but a little too breezy to actually be interesting or memorable. Atelier Ryza is all about crafting through alchemy. At her home and base of operations, Ryza is able to use an alchemy pot to craft items from raw materials. The majority of the game revolves around gathering these materials by exploring the surrounding wilderness, then crafting items through the game's interactive crafting system. Items' quality and traits can vary wildly depending on the quality and traits of the materials you've gathered, so there's a real emphasis on gathering as much as you can over and over to hopefully find the best quality ingredients for your alchemy. Although you can get by on simply throwing the necessary materials into the pot to craft an item, there is an incredibly detailed system under the surface that allows you to get extremely nitpicky about crafting the best possible items with bonus traits. It feels almost needlessly complicated at first but if you're really struggling to grasp everything there is an option to auto-craft items based on the materials you have. It's a handy feature but it kind of feels at odds with the whole focus of the game, so it's probably not a great option to rely upon too much. This crafting system should appeal to a certain type of gamer, but it can also feel overwhelming when you first start. Which is actually surprising since the game eases you into the experience with an incredibly slow and drawn out series of tutorials—the game really doesn't begin in earnest until several hours in. Things get better once you unlock a proper fast travel system but these opening hours can feel ridiculously slow with a ton of just back and forth walking between cutscenes and tutorial explanations. The pacing of the game is a real drag for far too long. Once you get into the swing of things though you'll find Atelier Ryza follows the typical satisfying gameplay loop of crafting and exploring. Explore to gather new materials, craft items with said materials, explore a little further, repeat. Atelier Ryza puts far more emphasis on crafting the best possible materials though rather than simply crafting new items. There are definitely a ton of recipes to discover, but the bulk of the game's replay value comes from gathering the same materials over and over in order to find the best possible quality of materials. It's not quite as satisfying as crafting entirely new items and is a bit monotonous even for this kind of crafting-focused game. Atelier Ryza also features turn-based battles with real-time elements where you control one character and the AI controls your two partners. The crux of combat is in building up Action Points. You generate AP by using basic attacks, and then spend AP on special skills. You can also spend AP to increase your Tactics level which allows you to perform more hits per basic attack and gives other benefits to special skills. Aside from simply wearing down the enemy's health bar, you'll also want to try to crack their break gauge which leaves them stunned and open to attack for a short time. The combat system is surprisingly complex. Since everything happens in real-time (no pausing while you're selecting attacks, unfortunately) you might feel like you're scrambling to keep up at first as a cacophony of numbers, levels, and attack prompts appear on screen. It's a bit of a mess of information but once you get the hang of it combat is pretty fun, if highly repetitive, even for an RPG. Typical battles aren't too challenging but they can be rather drawn out, so it's just a lot of the same process of building up AP and unleashing special skills when you can. Boss fights are more engaging and challenging, but can still fall into a pit of repetition. Atelier Ryza isn't a short game, but your time with it can vary quite a bit depending on how deep you get into the alchemy system. Just finishing the story can be done in about twenty hours, but finding every recipe, some of which involves completing chains of side quests, can last much longer. And of course perfecting your creations with the best possible ingredients can add hours and hours to the length of the game. If you prefer an additional challenge though there's a New Game Plus option as well as adjustable difficulty levels. The visual design of Atelier Ryza hits all the checkmarks you'd expect of a JRPG, and hits them well: sweeping environments filled colorful creature designs. It's rather disappointing how quickly the game resorts to reusing monster models though (it happens in every RPG, just particularly quickly here). The character designs are also a bit hit and miss, with some frankly overdesigned characters. The soundtrack is solid though and is impressively varied, providing a great atmosphere to the adventure. Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout takes too long to hook the player fully, but once you have a handle on things you'll find a wealth of crafting-based gameplay to lose yourself in for hours and hours. Whether you'll fully enjoy the experience depends on your interest in perfecting your alchemy skills through repetitive tasks and combat. But players looking to kill some time can do a lot worse than the light-hearted adventure of Atelier Ryza. Rating: 7 out of 10 Alchemists
  15. Developer Level-5 continues their penchant for unusual, wacky RPGs with Snack World: The Dungeon Crawl - Gold, a dungeon exploration RPG in a world packed with food puns. Either solo or in multiplayer you'll run through randomly generated dungeons in search of treasure, defeat monsters, collect crafting materials, create new equipment, and do it all over again. Snack World's simple, cyclical nature makes it a decent game to zone out with, but its shallow combat and exploration leave a lot to be desired. In the Kingdom of Tutti-Frutti, your customizable character is found injured and alone. Taken in by King Papaya and his daughter Melonia, you repay their kindness by becoming an adventurer, taking on quests for anyone in need. Along the way you'll make friends, battle a big bad villain, and save the kingdom. It's an adventure story aimed squarely at children, which doesn't make it bad so much as just predictable and a bit uninspired. Snack World does show off Level-5's undying love of puns though, and there's quite a range on display here, from clever food-based wordplay to some truly groan-worthy jokes (as well as a number of jokes that are frankly questionable for a children's game). The game's puns and sense of humor is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and you may often be tempted to simply fast forward through cutscenes, but there are still some amusing moments. Snack World is a mission-based dungeon crawler RPG. Some missions take you to small sections of the game's world, generally for quick, simple missions like defeat 30 of X enemy, but the meat of the game is in exploring the randomly generated dungeons. Even here though the game is fairly snack-sized: dungeons are always only two floors plus a boss fight. Granted, since the floor layouts are randomly generated you might end up spending a lot of time exploring before you find the stairs to progress, but still, the game is clearly built around quick missions to get in and get out of dungeons. That's probably for the best since, even in bite-sized chunks, Snack World is an incredibly grindy and repetitive game. It's kind of the nature of this type of game to be a bit repetitive, but Snack World isn't doing itself any favors with its basic dungeon design and boring combat system. First I'll say there is one unique, compelling aspect to combat: you can bring up to six weapons (called Jaras) into any mission, which allows you to target a variety of enemy weaknesses. For example, you might have a sword that is effective against beast-type monsters, and a spear that's effective against aquatic monsters. Bringing both allows you to quickly swap on the fly and deal with any threat you may encounter. In fact, all you have to do is press ZR to instantly swap Jaras to whatever is most effective against the monster you're currently targeting. It's a handy system that encourages you to find/purchase a wide variety of weapons and get a lot of use out of all of them instead of crafting a single powerful weapon to carry you through the whole game. That said, the actual combat system is just kind of boring. You only have a basic attack or a special attack with each Jara, and special attacks operate on a cooldown. Even with that cooldown though special attacks are far more useful than basic ones, so you'll probably end up just dodging until the special is available again. You also have Jara Points (JP) for each Jara, and overusing a Jara will cause it to break until its JP is naturally refilled. What this means is that combat quickly devolves into a boringly simple pattern of using a special, waiting, and using it again, repeat ad naseum. There really isn't much strategy involved since you can instantly swap to the most effective weapon, and using any other weapon is so wildly ineffective that there's no incentive to even try. Combat in Snack World ends up feeling rote and monotonous. Boss fights up the ante a bit with more challenging battles, but these can be tedious in their own way. Since bosses won't go down in just a hit or two you'll need to be more conscious of your JP and timing your specials well, which makes the fight a bit more interesting. What's frustrating about bosses though is how ridiculously mobile many bosses are. You don't move fast in Snack World—even dodging and dashing will increase you speed only so much—and too many bosses will warp around the battlefield or dash from one end to the other rapidly. It makes boss fights more difficult in the worst way. Lastly, Snack World has a bit of a creature-collection aspect as well. The monsters you fight, called Snacks, can be recruited to fight alongside you. The AI isn't particularly smart so you'll still be the one doing most of the damage, but party Snacks can be invaluable for healing or just for distracting monsters. The one downside to having several Snacks with you is that they can clutter up the screen a bit when there's a lot happening during combat. It's obnoxiously easy to lose track of whom you're targeting, which is often crucial since every monster you're currently battling may have a different weakness. This is also largely to blame on the needlessly restrictive camera controls though. You can only rotate the camera 90 degrees in dungeons, which means you'll often be either moving forward without seeing exactly where you're going or your view will be obstructed by walls or dungeon decorations. It leads to some atrocious camera angles at times and really seems unnecessary. The game's visuals are bright and colorful and cartoony—exactly what you'd expect from a game that is clearly marketing itself as a TV show and merchandise line simultaneously. It doesn't feel particularly inspired for the most part, though at least the monster designs have some room to be creative and unique. For the most part though, Snack World's presentation plays it safe, which also extends to its decent but forgettable soundtrack. The game's story can be finished in about 20 hours or so, but the bulk of the game is really about repeating missions, taking on side quests, and otherwise grinding for weapons and armor. The post-game includes a ton of additional content, but all of it has the same sense of grind and monotonous repetition that characterizes the main game. On the bright side Snack World does have a multiplayer mode, and dungeon crawling can be a bit more exciting when you have a friend along for the adventure. Not every mission is available in co-op but it can still liven things up a bit to hop online with a friend. Snack World: The Dungeon Crawl - Gold is an admirable attempt at making a dungeon crawling RPG more accessible to a young target audience, but the final result is a bit too lopsided. For a game clearly aimed at kids the humor is weirdly inconsistent, the battle system is initially new-player-friendly but far too quickly devolves into mindless repetition, and the dungeon design is simple enough for young players to grasp but that also makes it rather dull. The grindy nature of the game also feels like perhaps asking too much of young or inexperienced players. Ultimately Snack World feels like a handful of good ideas stretched to their breaking point. Rating: 6 out of 10 Snacks
  16. Step into the world of a pulp adventure novel with Curious Expedition from developer Maschinen-Mensch and publisher Thunderful Games, where you'll travel to distant lands, discover ancient ruins, hunt exotic game, and run afoul of mystic curses. With procedurally generated maps and a wide variety of characters to play as, there's nigh endless replay potential as you struggle to survive and make a name for yourself in dangerous climates. As with many roguelikes there's a punishing learning curve to overcome, but soon enough the call of adventure will keep you enthralled. According to the game's brief intro you are a member of the UK's Royal Society who is given the chance to immortalize themselves as the greatest explorer of the age. To win this honor you'll have to compete against four other explorers to build as much fame as possible across a series of expeditions. You can choose from a variety of historic figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and not just famed explorers but scientists like Marie Curie or whatever title you want to give Grigori Rasputin. Sadly the game's writing doesn't really change depending on which character you're playing as, and a lot of the dialogue in the game will start to seem pretty repetitive after a couple of playthroughs, but if nothing else the list of historic figures is a nice encouragement to read up on their real-life exploits. Curious Expedition is all about resource management as you cope with randomly generated environments and hazards. Every step you take while exploring costs you some sanity, and letting your sanity get too low can have adverse affects on you and your crew, potentially even triggering some dark scenarios where one crewmember goes missing and the rest are suddenly eating well on a supply of mysterious meat. You can recover sanity with various food items or by sleeping at rest points like healing springs, native villages, or missions. Reaching these safe havens is rarely a simple task though. You're in uncharted territory so you literally can't see what's ahead of you too far, which may cause you wander into some bad dead ends, or be attacked by predatory animals. Terrain can also affect your progress, since something like thick jungles can be more time-consuming to traverse (and more sanity-consuming). You'll also have to worry about injuries since you'll encounter plenty of hostile beasts, supernatural creatures, or even natives if you manage to annoy them too much. Combat in Curious Expedition is handled by a pretty interesting dice system. Each member of your expedition crew contributes dice that you roll during combat, and you can combine the results into unique attacks. For example, rolling a sword symbol on its own can be used for a basic attack, but combining it with a shield symbol will turn it into a more powerful combo that deals damage and gives you a shield for defense. Even though you have to cope with the randomness of the rolls, there's still a good amount of strategy involved in how you combine and use the results of your rolls. The whole combat system almost feels like an entire mini-game or side game system within the broader exploration adventure, and it's one that can be richly rewarding (though no less stressful when your luck turns). And just surviving is really only part of the game. The goal of each exploration is to discover the golden pyramid hidden in each map, and also to discover it before your rivals so that you can reap the most renown. Along the way you'll contend with plenty of other obstacles, hazards, and moral dilemmas—for example, raiding a native's temple for valuables my increase your renown when you make it back to London, but it will turn the locals hostile, potentially costing you trade and shelter. Like any good roguelike, Curious Expedition is all about maintaining a juggling act of all of these randomly generated challenges while coping with whatever resources you have on hand. And like a lot of roguelikes it'll be really difficult the first time you play, even on the easiest difficulty, but the joy of Curious Expedition is in dusting yourself off and starting the adventure all over again. There's tons of replay value here and it helps that one full playthrough is fairly short—earning that coveted statue at the Royal Society can take only a couple of hours, so failing doesn't feel like a waste of too much time and success just spurs you on to try again with a new character and a new strategy. Players that enjoy testing out all possible paths that a game can offer will love discovering every hidden item, character, and stratagem in Curious Expedition, and then pushing themselves to handle any possible combination. Not only is the premise of the game a throw back to late 19th century exploration and adventure, but the art style are just as much of a blast from the past. Okay not quite that old-fashioned, but the retro pixel art graphics does lend the game a bit of an 80s PC adventure game vibe, which really works for the atmosphere of the game even if it does feel maybe a little too simple at times. The music isn't half bad either, though the soundtrack mostly lays down some atmospheric beats—good for zoning out and exploring, but not particularly memorable either. Disappointingly though, the game can get somewhat laggy and choppy when there's a lot happening on screen, and the issue is only worse when playing in handheld mode. Thankfully it's not the type of game that requires quick reaction time so some frame rate jitters doesn't really affect the gameplay, but it's disappointing to see. Curious Expedition leverages its unique setting and style into a charming and addictive roguelike adventure. Dropping players into procedurally generated maps with random hazards under the guise of a 19th century explorer is, it turns out, a pretty solid combination, one that proves plenty engaging when survival is so precariously balanced around your forethought and strategy before the expedition begins and your on-the-spot decision-making while you're in the heart of the jungle. Roguelike fans will be satisfied by the variety of possibilities the game offers, and even players who aren't already fans of the genre may be drawn in by the game's curious trappings. Rating: 7 out of 10 Expeditions Review copy provided by publisher Curious Expedition will be available on the Switch eShop on April 2 for $14.99.
  17. It's a story we've seen a thousand times: you're chilling at home scrolling through your social media feed when some alien lady bursts through your wall and kidnaps your cat, which leaves you no other option but to fight your way through her robot army to rescue your precious pet. That old tale. Insane premise aside, Super Crush KO leverages all of the experience that developer Vertex Pop gathered from Graceful Explosion Machine to create another delightfully engaging score-chasing action game. There's not a lot of storytelling happening in Super Crush KO—my summary up above pretty much covers everything—but there's still a lot of style and flair packed into the game's brief cutscenes as our protagonist, Karen, pursues her cat, Chubbz, and the space-traveling cat-napper. The end of each level also treats you to a short bit of text that highlights what the characters are thinking, including Chubbz (spoiler alert: it's meowing). The game happily leans into its absurd premise to be utterly charming, cute, and, in the end, rather heartfelt. Super Crush KO is a stage-based side-scrolling action game: each level features a handful of combat scenes where you fight off waves of robots, and these scenes are connected by light platforming sequences and more robot butt-kickin'. The basic goal is to reach the end of the level, but the real heart of the game revolves around racking up a high score by stringing together combos and all of Karen's abilities. In addition to basic punches and a fancy space gun picked up from the alien cat-napper, Karen gradually unlocks a handful of special attacks that deal extra damage and smoothly combo into one another. After Graceful Explosion Machine, the developers seem to have this formula down pat, and the fluidity of Super Crush KO is an absolute blast. Rather than inundating players with dozens of special attacks, the game keeps things simple with just a few, but the effect is still the same: you'll feel like a one-woman robot-wrecking crew when you effortlessly flow from punching one robot, dodging another before uppercutting it, kicking the robot while in mid-air, then shooting a distant robot before it can fire at you. The combat system is immensely satisfying thanks to this snappy combo system that isn't too demanding but still rewards quick reflexes and careful monitoring of the stage as robots spawn in around you. Most importantly, Super Crush KO is about earning a high score, which means stringing together your attacks without taking damage yourself. This is, as you might expect, much more challenging, but it's also what makes the game so wonderfully addictive. The flow of combat is smooth and fairly easy to grasp, so perfecting it can become an obsession as you try your best to maintain a high combo streak from one fight to the next. You're able to share your high scores on an online leaderboard to see how you stack up to other players, which only further incentivizes you to perfect your skills. It's a good thing the game has this incentive too since just running through the game once is a very short experience. There are only twenty levels in the game (four of which are boss fights) and levels are rarely longer than a few minutes. The stage length itself actually feels great—long enough to be challenging to maintain a high score, but not tediously long—it's just a shame that there aren't more levels. The game's formula absolutely does not get old and I easily could have played through another two dozen levels, especially since the game continuously challenges you with new robot enemies with more dangerous attacks and bigger health bars. Bright and colorful with bold shapes but ultimately few details, the look and sound of Super Crush KO is an excellent match for the fast-paced arcade-style gameplay. You don't want any uncertainty about what type of robot you're fighting or whether an incoming attack can be interrupted or needs to be dodged, and the game's clean, bubbly, and relatively minimalist style ensures that you're never confused about what is happening on screen. It's also a really gorgeous color palette, one that gives the game a unique pastel vibe, which is oddly calming despite the action-packed nature of the gameplay. The music is excellent as well; its mellow, groovy style is almost at odds with the gameplay as well, but ultimately the synth sound, punctuated by Karen's punches and kicks, creates a great background for a robot beatdown. Super Crush KO does one thing and does it exceedingly well. The simple goal of score-chasing can be wonderfully engaging, and developer Vertex Pop has once again captured that simple joy, this time in a beautiful pastel package that encourages combos with fast, fluid gameplay. It's a shame the experience isn't longer, but when you take the time to perfect your skills and your score in every level, Super Crush KO is a delightful addition to the Switch library. Rating: 8 out of 10 Cats
  18. Who says work has to be the same ol' same ol' boring stuff every day? It helps to put a little pep and verve into the process, and for Felix the Reaper that means dancing and shimmying his way through the mortal realm, sowing death one person at a time. Part black comedy, part puzzle game, and part love story, Felix the Reaper is a curious collection of seemingly incongruous elements. If every piece of the puzzle fit perfectly it might have been a sleeper hit for the Switch, but the final product actually leaves much to be desired. Felix is a hard-working reaper with the Ministry of Death who is completely smitten by Betty the Maiden from the Ministry of Life. In the hopes of meeting her while on the job, Felix takes on field work to manipulate the mortal world and reap souls, all the while pining for his lady love. The game is unabashedly silly, and putting the grim reaper into a star-crossed lovers story is as odd and entertaining as you might expect. Felix the Reaper also doesn't shy away from dark humor—oftentimes your goal in each level is to manipulate events into an absurd Rube Goldberg machine of death. What's particularly impressive about the writing though is the amount of research that went into exploring the figure of Death in Western culture and art. On the main menu you can read some lengthy articles on the subject, and although it would have been better to frame this research into something a bit more easily digestible (especially for a video game), they're still interesting reads and a neat inclusion. Each puzzle involves navigating a grid-based map while keeping to the shadows (reapers, it seems, can't handle daylight). By moving barrels, crates, and other objects around, you're able to create a path for Felix to move about the map and place the correct object on the indicated square. You may need to move a deer into the path of a hunter's spear for example, or move a barrel of ale close to the same hunter to ensure he isn't too careful about what happens next. You're also able to adjust the position of the sun, so you need to consider where the shadows currently are and will be when the sun is moved in order to create paths. It's an engaging puzzle system that requires a lot of forethought as you plan out each move, and seeing a plan fall into place can be awfully satisfying. That said, not all of the puzzles in Felix the Reaper feel particularly inspired. The core gameplay formula doesn't change much over the short length of the game, which is a little disappointing. The difficulty of each puzzle can vary pretty significantly too. Sometimes there are so few options at your disposal that it's not difficult at all to figure out what to do, and other times there are so many possibilities (but only one correct path) that you can feel totally lost. Thankfully there's a built-in hint system in the game so if you do need a nudge in the right direction you can easily see what steps to take next. One feature that does feel like it's missing though is a quick "rewind" button to undo your most recent actions—at the very least it would save a lot of time when you realize your current plan is leading nowhere. In fact, the controls in general could use a bit of an overhaul. Clearly the game's controls are built for a PC's mouse and keyboard because instead of moving Felix directly you just aim a cursor and click on which square to send him. With a controller this can feel a bit clumsy, and it's only made more difficult by the somewhat slippery camera rotation system that doesn't quite let you pan the camera over the entire stage but instead just rotate around it. When you first start up the game you'll likely be quite thrown by these controls, and it takes several levels to get used to them. Even by the end of the game I'd occasionally find myself annoyed by the tiny white dot of a cursor or the rotation that doesn't quite let me see the angle I want. The awkward controls are only emphasized by the game's focus on speed. You can take however long you need to finish a puzzle, but to earn all three bonus skulls you'll need to finish as quickly as possible with as few actions as possible. It's nice to have something to stretch out the game's length a bit, but really all you're doing is memorizing the correct actions after one or two trial runs and then executing them as quickly as possible—not the most interesting use of your time in a puzzle game. There are also harder versions of each level which can add a lot of play time to Felix the Reaper since these levels can be incredibly tricky (and you don't even get any hints). They can be so difficult, in fact, that they'll probably only appeal to the most dedicated players, but the challenge is there if you want it. And on a more technical note, the game has a real problem with load times. Sure loading screens are simply a reality of modern gaming but they're a bit of a drag here, especially if you finish a puzzle in just a minute or two and then sit through twenty seconds of loading. If there's one thing you can say about Felix the Reaper, it's that it has character. Felix himself is an oddly lovable representation of death, trading a dark cloak and scythe for a tie and a pair of headphones, all on a rather adorably pudgy body. A body that, surprisingly, is capable of stylish dance moves as Felix flits from shadow to shadow. The humans you're reaping are similarly unusual and yet charming—their simple, somewhat grotesque faces can be surprisingly emotive. The soundtrack though, is a bit of a mixed bag. Considering dancing is a major aspect of Felix's character, it's surprising that a lot of the music leans toward light, atmospheric sounds rather than, say, a dance club vibe. It might be suited to solving puzzles but it doesn't seem to fit with Felix himself. However, the soundtrack is actually composed by several musicians and you're able to change songs at any time, so once you find one you like you can stick with it the whole game. Felix the Reaper promises a great deal with its quirky sense of style and humor, but ultimately the pieces don't quite come together for this macabre rom com. The puzzles are clever and certainly challenging at times, but they never quite manage to evolve into more complex or engaging formats. The controls leave a lot to be desired, which can easily wear on your patience during more difficult puzzles, and even the charm of the presentation and dark humor of the writing fail to liven up the atmosphere. In the end it's hard to love Felix's quest for romance. Rating: 6 out of 10 Deaths
  19. At this point it feels like it'd be faster to count the number of Wii U games that haven't been ported to the Switch, though to be fair, few deserve a second chance in the spotlight as much as Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE. This Encore performance adds a few new features—as well as including the DLC released for the original game—but just giving Switch owners a chance to experience the engaging RPG mechanics of the game is treat enough. TMS♯FE takes place in modern day Tokyo and the story revolves around the idol industry of teenagers becoming pop star singers and actors. However, the city is also beset by phantom creatures called Mirages who are attacking people to steal their performance energy. Our heroes, a scrappy group of mostly novice idols, teams up with friendly Mirages to fight back. It's probably not surprising that TMS♯FE leans heavily on anime tropes and such—each character almost feels like a walking cliché, which can make the game's story beats a little tedious. The main protagonist, Itsuki, is particularly disappointing since he's really just a blank slate character to facilitate other characters' development. Still, the characters can be charming at times as well, and if you just let yourself go along for the ride on a light-hearted, campy, save-the-world story, the writing's lack of substance won't matter much. Besides, TMS♯FE makes up for any storytelling faults with a wonderfully engaging battle system and inventive dungeon designs. Scattered throughout Tokyo you'll enter Idolaspheres (dungeons, essentially) in order to battle Mirages, and these Idolaspheres feature some clever and unusual designs. Exploring them is a lot more engaging that simply walking to the exit and battling creatures along the way. The battle system, however, is arguably the star of the show in TMS♯FE. The key feature here is activating Sessions by targeting an enemy's weakpoint with a combat skill, either an elemental weakness or weapon weakness. Each character has a limited selection of skills (Itsuki, for example, uses swords and lightning magic), so you'll need to select your party carefully to effectively deal with the Mirages in the current Idolasphere—don't worry though, you can also swap characters from your reserves to your active party mid-battle if you need to switch things up. Hitting an enemy with a skill they're vulnerable to activates a Session, where every available party member jumps in with their own attack, creating a satisfying chain of damage that can also leap to other enemies in battle as well. Eventually you'll also get the chance to further augment Sessions with special skills called ad-libs and duo attacks, which can lead to some satisfying damage combos. On one hand these massive Session chains can make normal battles a little too easy, but they're still awfully satisfying to pull off. Plus there are always boss fights for the truly challenging moments, and when enemies aren't killed by a single session you'll realize there's more to the battle system and it requires a typical RPG's strategy and planning to survive (and a little luck). Boss fights can be pretty challenging in fact, but thankfully you can save at any time in the game (outside of battle) so as long as you remember to save frequently, a defeat won't result in much lost progress. The other major aspect of TMS♯FE's gameplay revolves around learning skills, which comes from crafting new weapons and using them in battle. Weapons can be crafted from items dropped from Mirages, so it's a nicely cyclical system—fight some Mirages, gather resources, craft new weapons, repeat. The crafting system is rather tedious in TMS♯FE though because you have to leave the Idolasphere and return to your base of operations to craft, and you'll probably want to do this several times in just a single dungeon, so there's a lot of running back and forth that easily could have been streamlined. Speaking of streamlining though, the Encore edition of the game does speed up one aspect of the game. You're now able to speed through Sessions, which is a huge time saver. As mentioned you're going to be triggering Sessions in every battle, multiple times, and by the end of the game Sessions can get ridiculously long. As nice as the animations are, being able to speed through them is a welcome change. Beyond that though, the other new features for the Encore edition are kind of underwhelming. Some of the side characters are able to jump into battle during a Session, and the interface for the game's message system has changed (since you don't have the Wii U Gamepad in hand anymore), but the main new feature is the EX Story, a short dungeon focused on two of the characters. It's great to have a new area to explore but it's ultimately a simple, brief side story that doesn't add too much either story- or gameplay-wise. It's probably not enough to convince you to play through the entire game again if you're on the fence, but fans of the game might enjoy having a bit extra to do. Not that the game's length really needs extending anyway—this is a full-length RPG, so you can expect at least 40 hours or so to finish the game. There are also several side quests with each of the game's main characters, and even though these are technically optional you really shouldn't skip them as they'll give you valuable bonuses and combat abilities. There are still some optional side missions to tackle though, and if you can't get enough of TMS♯FE you can try out New Game+ to keep the performance going even longer. Focused as it is on the Japanese idol industry, the look and sound of TMS♯FE is distinctly poppy: bright, flashy, and arguably overdone at times, but there's still a certain appeal to it all. Each character has multiple costumes you can use (including some from the game's original DLC as well as new ones for this Encore edition) so you can always experiment to find the look you like. Music is, naturally, a big part of a game focused on pop music idols, and there are some catching songs (including entire music videos) but again your enjoyment will largely hinge on your interest in the Japanese idol industry. The game is also fully voiced but only in Japanese which is, to be fair, appropriate for the game's style and setting. Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE Encore isn't much of an overhaul or upgrade from the original Wii U title, but for anyone that missed its first performance this is a great opportunity to find new fans with a second showing. The core RPG elements remain wonderfully satisfying when you pull off long Session chains, and crafting weapons to unlock new skills is completely addictive, even if the crafting process is slower than it ought to be. Switch owners should be pleased to find yet another solid RPG port on Nintendo's hybrid system. Rating: 8 out of 10 Sessions
  20. Back when the original Crash Bandicoot game released in 1996 for the PlayStation, it was at a unique nexus point. The 90s were rife with platformers, but with the PlayStation/Nintendo 64 generation came the advent of 3D visuals and gameplay, and games like Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot represented the bridge between one of the classic gameplay genres and a new dimension of gaming. But while Super Mario 64 set the standard for a lot of 3D platforming mechanics and remains a pretty solid entry in the Mario series, time hasn't been quite so kind to the early Crash Bandicoot games. Although an iconic gaming mascot of the late 90s, Crash feels incredibly dated in 2018, even in the remastered Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy. Let's start with the first game which introduces us to Crash, a bandicoot that has been mutated by the evil Dr. Neo Cortex using his Evolvo-Ray. Although Cortex wanted to make Crash into a powerful animal soldier, Crash escapes the lab, only to start a quest across the Wumpa islands to rescue the other animal captives. Despite its sleek polygonal looks the original Crash Bandicoot was more of a combination of 2D platformer gameplay with 3D visuals. Some levels are viewed from the side like classic 2D platformers but many have Crash running into the foreground or background. Amidst all this there are boss fights and collectibles—all the basic building blocks of an adventure/platformer. Now I'll say here that I never played these games when they were first released, and while I'm sure this sort of gameplay twist was impressive at the time it is kind of a mess now. In fact, the original Crash Bandicoot feels like a crash course in bad 3D game design. You have very little depth perception in these fore-/background running levels, with only Crash's shadow to tell you where you'll land during a jump. And there are some insanely difficult jumps in some of these levels. Crash's movements are also incredibly stiff since, when the game was first released, the PlayStation didn't have analog sticks, so players used a D-pad to control Crash in these semi-3D levels, and Crash's movements remain awkward. And finally, your main attack is spinning into enemies, which requires getting up close and personal with enemies who can kill you just by touching you. All of this makes the original Crash Bandicoot obnoxiously difficult. Stiff controls with an awkward camera angle and unforgiving level design means it's easy to die pretty much constantly. Although there are some clever level designs it's hard to get past how frustratingly clunky and outdated the game feels today. To be fair, some of the clumsy gameplay might be due to this remastering which required rebuilding the gameplay from scratch, so some elements might not have translated well, but anyone that is first playing Crash Bandicoot in 2018 is most likely going to feel like this game is simply a relic that doesn't quite belong on a modern game system. Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back is a marked improvement over the original game. Once again Crash is combating Dr. Cortex (though Cortex pretends to be asking Crash for help to collect powerful crystals) which leads Crash to a wide variety of different levels. There's much better stage variety in Crash 2, though Naughty Dog still loves the format of running into the foreground while something huge chases Crash. Still, Crash's movements are much smoother so it doesn't feel like you're fighting the controls throughout the whole game, and he also has a new attack: sliding. While playing these games back to back it's clear how much of an improvement it is to add even one new mechanic to Crash's repertoire. On the other hand Crash 2 also introduces some jetpack levels which, much like the entire first game, feel like an experiment in 3D game design that comes across as awkward and stiff today. But overall Crash 2 offers a more satisfying and diverse platformer adventure compared to the first game. The third game, Crash Bandicoot: Warped, is when Crash really hits his stride. The basic gameplay premise is the same as the first two (linear platformer levels that often have Crash running into the foreground or background) but the gameplay feels much more polished and, frankly, easier. But the lower difficulty is in part due to improvements to the game's mechanics. Crash moves more fluidly so it's easier to dodge obstacles. The level design is more varied and engaging, including race levels and flying levels. Over the course of the game Crash gains several new abilities, not all of which are always useful (and one of which, the gun, actually makes the game much, much easier) but the variety makes the gameplay feel more exciting from start to finish. There are fewer challenges that require super precise jumps and a lot more enemies that just stand around as obstacles rather than actively attack you, but even if the difficulty is toned down the gameplay is much more enjoyable. Each game contains around 25 levels, but to complete the games fully there's actually a lot of bonus material to cover. In each level of each game there are a number of crates you can break and, if you break all of the crates in a level, you'll be rewarded with a gem. You can also earn a gem from completing alternate paths within levels, which are unlocked by collecting gems in previous levels. In short, there's more replay value here than just blazing through each level once, and collecting every gem unlocks the true ending in each game—a fine reward for completionists. Gathering gems can be pretty tedious, especially in the first game, but it does give you more of a goal than just completing each game once. And finally there is a time trial mode to further pad out the games. There may only be a little over two dozen levels in each game but if you try to do everything you'll have plenty of Crash action here. Naturally this remastered trilogy comes with updated graphics and music, including cutscenes with voice actors from the more recent Crash games. Some of the level design still looks quite dated, which is more a product of the linear structure of each level, but overall the graphics look great on the Switch. The unique style of the Crash games is perfectly preserved while updating the artwork to something that feels more at home on a modern system. The updated music is well done as well, and has the right blend of atmospheric melodies and upbeat action. Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy is a bit of a mixed bag. With the remaster of the first game, this trilogy proves that some games are better off left in the past, when repetitive level design and clunky controls might have been less noticeable thanks to the purely new appeal of 3D platformers. The other two games, however, are far less dated, and even if some of their mechanics still feel notably old-fashioned they're still enjoyable platformers today, particularly Warped. Nostalgic fans may love all three equally but new players might only enjoy the third game, making even the budget price on this trilogy a bit of a stretch. Rating: 7 out of 10 Wumpa Fruits
  21. There was a twelve year gap until we saw a sequel to the offbeat GameCube launch title that put Luigi in the hero's seat instead of his brother, and now it's only taken six years to get a third installment. Hopefully that means another entry will be released even faster, because Luigi's Mansion 3 is another charming adventure of ghost-bustin' and puzzle-solvin' with our favorite green-clad plumber. A few new features put a fresh spin on Luigi's frightful expedition, though some minor issues have a way of draining some of the life out of the adventure. As the game begins, Luigi and friends are traveling to an opulent hotel where they've been invited to stay as VIP guests. You'd think Luigi would be a little suspicious of this kind of invitation at this point, but no, he's happy to make the bus ride (with an arguably dangerously short Toad at the wheel). It's not long after they've checked into their rooms that the facade fades and the ghosts of The Last Resort make their nefarious intentions clear, trapping Mario, Peach, and three Toads inside paintings with only Luigi able to save them. The game really doesn't try to do anything fresh or surprising with its premise, but ultimately that's okay because there's still a ton of charm and personality to enjoy here. It's not a cutscene heavy game but just seeing the ghosts living their best afterlives in one silly room after another is pretty delightful. And it's the kind of spooky setting that is mostly just cute and fun rather than bone-chilling, which feels perfect for Luigi's scaredy-cat adventure. It doesn't take long for Luigi to equip himself with a new model of Poltergust (by the way, Professor E Gadd has been caught in this ghoulish trap as well), and from there the gameplay is classic Luigi's Mansion. The Poltergust allows Luigi to suck up ghosts—after stunning them with his flashlight—and clear a path for himself to explore every floor of the hotel. For better and for worse, the combat system is largely unchanged from past games as catching ghosts is once again a bit of an unwieldy rodeo match as you try to hold on to a ghost without it breaking free. The controls make this a little slippery but it's never too difficult to wrangle a wraith. However, Luigi's Mansion 3 introduces an invaluable new move: the slam. Once Luigi has a hold on a ghost he can slam it into the ground for a nice burst of damage, even damaging nearby ghosts as well. Slamming can deal so much damage that it almost seems to make the game too easy, but on the other hand, ghost-catching can be so tedious that having a quick way of draining ghosts' health is more than welcome. In fact, even with the powerful slam at your disposal, combat can feel mindless at times. There are only a handful of different types of ghosts—though there are also unique challenges when ghosts are carrying shields or avoiding your flashlight—and ultimately catching ghosts is kind of a drag. By the end of the game it just feels like busywork rather than an engaging challenge. The boss fights, however, deliver some fantastic battles that are oftentimes just as much about puzzle-solving as they are about dodging attacks and getting your own hits in. There is a wonderful amount of variety in the bosses—including in their designs—and they almost always deliver a fun and even occasionally challenging match. Though there is one boss roughly halfway through the game that is a huge pain, and that comes mostly down to the game's tricky, somewhat imprecise controls. This fight in particular could have benefited from more precise Poltergust movement to make it less of an awkward chore. The other half of the gameplay comes down to puzzle-solving and exploration. Exploring the hotel is naturally broken up by whichever floor you're on, and each floor features a unique theme (including, somehow, a pyramid in the middle of this hotel? Granted, not the strangest concept in a Nintendo game). Creeping through ominous rooms and sucking up all of the valuables you can find is pretty consistently satisfying, though there are undeniably some sections of the game that feel like padding, e.g. retreading old rooms or just long, drawn out floor plans. Some floors also feel somewhat shortchanged while others drag on—the pacing easily could have been tightened up in parts. Luigi's Mansion 3 also introduces a couple of important mechanics to help you explore. The Suction Cup allows you to shoot out a plunger to help you pull down or destroy objects in the scenery; it's a useful tool that creates some simple but satisfying puzzle scenarios and serves as a good reminder to examine your surroundings carefully. The other major addition to Luigi's adventure is another Luigi entirely—or rather, a Gooigi. Gooigi can be brought in for some co-op gameplay but he's also required to solve a variety of puzzles, such as slipping through bars or grating that Luigi can't squeeze through. You can only control one character a time, but by swapping between the two you'll be able to overcome some unique obstacles. Gooigi seems like a rather silly addition at first—just making another Luigi feels suspiciously low-effort, developers—but his puzzle-solving and occasional combat uses will win you over. Luigi's Mansion 3 isn't a particularly long game, even with the blatant padding in some areas, and racing through the game without focusing on collecting optional gems or hunting down errant Boos will only last about ten hours. Overall it feels like a good length though, and the optional content for completionists helps give the game a bit more meat. Additionally, there are two multiplayer modes: the competitive ScreamPark mini-games and the co-operative ScareScraper that can also be played online. Neither of these side modes are likely to keep you too busy, but teaming up with friends in ScareScraper with objectives like rescuing all Toads can be a nice change of pace from the main game. The first thing that might stand out about the presentation in Luigi's Mansion 3 is the classic, cartoony style of all Mario games, but when you pay attention to the details you'll see that the game is truly gorgeous. There's a lot of technical polish here to make the shadows and lighting effects feel natural and believable, and the animation throughout the game is lovely. It's a shame that there isn't more variety in the basic ghosts you normally fight but there's no denying that their animation is beautifully expressive and charmingly goofy. The soundtrack is solid as well, though the stand out songs are a bit far between, mostly because the typical background audio is subdued and spooky. Luigi's Mansion 3 is a worthy continuation of Luigi's ghost-fighting adventures. It has the right mix of familiar mechanics and fresh features to keep the charm of the previous games while adding some welcome new abilities. Some unfortunate padding and the natural division of exploring one floor after another drags down the pacing of the game a bit, but players will no doubt still love helping Luigi face his fears and rescue Mario for a change. Rating: 8 out of 10 Ghosts
  22. The 2D platformer genre is such a mainstay of the video game world that seeing one as poorly done as Ghost Parade is honestly kind of shocking. The game's intriguing art style and promise of dozens of unique specters initially drew my attention, but it didn't take long for the game's appealing facade to crumble into a series of misguided or outright sloppy design choices. You play as Suri, a young girl who, after she misses the bus home, decides to try a shortcut through the forest, where she finds not just woodland creatures but entire villages of ghosts, ghouls, and apparitions. The ghosts are drawn from Indonesian mythology and folklore which makes for a pretty great source of spooky stories—the main story doesn't get too deep into the dark origins of its spectral characters but you can find a bit more information in the game's journal. Once Suri is over her initial shock of meeting actual ghosts, she learns that they have been trying to scare away humans in order to preserve their home against deforestation and reckless human destruction. The environmentalism plotline is certainly admirable, but it's told with all the subtlety of an after-school special. The writing could definitely have benefited from a few revisions to make it less boring and mechanical. Boring and mechanical is an apt description of the gameplay either. Ghost Parade is a 2D action/platformer with some light Metroidvania elements. Suri can attack with a fairly basic melee strike and call upon her ghost allies for unique abilities, and of course there's plenty of jumping over obstacles, climbing up vines, and some backtracking involved as well. Unfortunately, Ghost Parade struggles to make even the most basic controls feel comfortable or enjoyable. Suri's movements are incredibly floaty which can make some of the platforming elements horrendous. Even with a double jump to help correct your movements it is shockingly awkward to just jump on a platform, much less jump on one while avoiding fireballs and enemy attacks. Thankfully there are frequent checkpoints but that's just a bandage over a wound—actually fixing the game would require overhauling the core movements and animation. That loose, floaty feeling bleeds over into the combat as well, making it all to easy to miss an attack or fail to avoid an enemy's. You can also easily get stunlocked by enemies which is always a pain to see—getting repeatedly juggled by fireballs because there are no invincibility frames and you can't break away with a dodge is beyond frustrating. Even when you're not pulling your hair out over enemies' juggling attacks, the combat in Ghost Parade just isn't fun. Suri's melee attacks are boringly simple while the ghost abilities add only a modest amount of variety. Bosses in particular are terribly tedious thanks to your limited attacks and the few opportunities bosses are even open to attacks. Some of the ghosts in this game must have died from boredom while trying to overcome the Sisyphean task of whittling away at these bosses. Ghost Parade is also plagued with minor design annoyances or other issues. Top of the list is the excessive load time—loading screens are not only long but frequent. Each region of the game is divided up into smaller screens which requires a loading screen, and every time you die (which will likely be quite a lot) you'll have to endure more loading. A not insignificant part of my playtime with Ghost Parade must have been devoted to staring at loading screens. Navigating the game's menus is also needlessly time-consuming, particularly opening the map which you'll probably be doing frequently since there's no mini-map in the game and you'll need to backtrack a few times to progress. For some reason the ghost menu, which allows you to change the ghosts in your current party, is not part of the main menu but is activated by pressing up on the D-pad—I know this sounds like a nitpicky complaint but it kind of exemplifies the odd design choices that make Ghost Parade feel unpolished and untested. The visuals are definitely a highlight of the game—at least at first. The strikingly colorful and unique designs of the ghosts are really beautiful and will certainly draw you in when you first start playing. But soon enough the repetitive environments and enemy designs, along with clumsy animation and an inconsistent frame rate, wears away the shine from Ghost Parade. You may end up cursing the ghosts' elaborate designs as well since they float around Suri and can be rather distracting when you're platforming. The soundtrack has a decently moody/atmospheric vibe for a mostly kid-friendly ghost story, but there's really not much notable about it either. Ghost Parade only takes seven or eight hours to finish but you'll feel every single minute of that playtime. If, for some reason, you do want to spend more time with the game, there are a few side quests and a few dozen ghosts that you can recruit, though experimenting with different ghosts in battle ultimately felt unrewarding thanks to the shallow combat mechanics. Ghost Parade feels like an earnest first draft that never should have been pushed to full release. The unique ghost designs drawn from Indonesian folklore is a great hook for a 2D adventure, but the game fails to deliver on even the most basic platforming mechanics which makes spending any amount of time with the game feel like a chore. Even fans of niche Switch titles will find little redeeming about this one. Rating: 3 out of 10 Ghosts
  23. After a brief and frankly ill-fated foray into the world of 3D platforming in Trine 3, the franchise is back to its 2.5D roots with Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince. The game once again reunites our three heroes for a beautifully designed and cleverly crafted bit of puzzle-platforming, alongside a few welcome minor improvements to the formula, resulting in yet another must-play side-scrolling adventure on the Switch. The game begins with a brief introduction to each character and their unique abilities as they've been summoned by the Astral Academy for help. Prince Selius has wreaked havoc at the academy thanks to his unchecked magical ability to bring nightmares to life, so now Amadeus the Wizard, Pontius the Knight, and Zoya the Thief are tasked with working together to find the prince before his shadow creations destroy the world. The story itself is rather simple, though not without its charms. The best part of the writing though is in the little moments of banter among the three heroes. It's nothing too elaborate but it's just fun to see these characters interact, especially given their wildly different personalities. Like the first two Trine games, Trine 4 is a 2.5D puzzle-platformer: your journey to the end of each stage is impeded by all manner of puzzles that require one or more of our heroes' abilities to progress. Each character has unique attributes that can be used to solve puzzles, hit switches, or cross gaps. Amadeus is able to conjure boxes to stand on or weigh down switches, Zoya has a bow and arrow as well as a grappling hook, and Pontius's sword and shield are ideal for breaking things or blocking hazards. The core interaction and combination of these three characters is largely unchanged from the original game, and with good reason: combining these three characters/playstyles provides for a seemingly endless offering of clever, engaging puzzles. The variety of approaches is really what gives the Trine series its addictive depth. To cross a gap you might just swing across with Zoya's grappling hook, or you might need to carefully place a box to give yourself just the right leg up to reach the ledge (Pontius is by far the least mobile character but he still has his moments to shine as well). It really is a blast to be able to put each character's abilities to use in unique and novel ways, and to discover those methods on your own. And Trine 4 continues to come up with clever puzzles and obstacles to challenge your puzzle-solving skills, because the solution to crossing a gap is rarely as simple as "swing over it on a grappling hook." The developers have done a fantastic job of coming up with new and exciting challenges for this game, largely drawn from the variety of additional skills each hero gradually unlocks over the course of the game. Zoya, for example, can imbue her arrows with fire or ice to trigger a heat-activated switch or freeze a moving platform in place, while Pontius gains the ability to gently glide down with his shield (I told you he gets his moments). Trine 4 never lets you rest on your successes because there'll always be a new, unique puzzle just up ahead that challenges you to think outside of the box and put each of the three characters' abilities to their full use, oftentimes in unexpected physics-based solutions. It's incredibly satisfying to cross one hurdle after another and ensures you're never bored or complacent while playing. Additionally, multiplayer has always been a key part of the Trine series, and Trine 4 introduces some welcome changes in that regard. For one thing, you can play in either classic mode or unlimited mode. In classic, three players take control of one character each, bu in unlimited, each player is able to freely swap among the three heroes (though technically there is still only one Amadeus, one Zoya, and one Pontius—the others are generic, nameless characters with the same abilities). It's a really nice quality of life change to allow all players to experience everything each character has to offer, plus it allows for even crazier puzzle-solving scenarios when you have three wizards all conjuring boxes. You might think that this would trivialize the difficulty, but the developers are one step ahead of you: the puzzles actually change whether you're playing solo or in multiplayer. Puzzles become more complicated and require teamwork when there are more players, which is a great way of ensuring all players have to work together (not to mention adding some nice replay value). Trine 4 also features both local and online co-op, though the best experience is arguably local co-op—it just feels more natural to work through puzzles with a friend sitting beside you rather than online. Either way though, the dynamic puzzle design makes replaying the game with others worthwhile. The one area where Trine 4 doesn't quite shine is in combat. Occasionally you'll need to fend off the nightmare beasts running loose in the world and these battle screens can get pretty repetitive pretty quickly. It certainly doesn't help that combat feels almost exclusively like a Pontius job. It's satisfying to shoot arrows as Zoya but the slow draw speed means its a bit impractical during hectic fights, and although Amadeus can technically drop boxes on monsters' heads it's an even slower and less practical combat solution. So oftentimes you'll just use Pontius, which makes combat a bit dull. It would have been great to see the same creativity that went into the puzzle design put toward combat as well. Trine's visual aesthetic hasn't changed much over the years, and it remains absolutely gorgeous. The ten years of difference between the first and fourth games means there's far more detail and technical polish in Trine 4, but the style is just as captivating with a beautiful use of color to make every map feel magical and ethereal. There's so much detail in the scenery that you won't even mind getting stumped by a puzzle when you get to have a moment to just drink in the graphics. The music also does a great job of giving the game a magical adventure vibe, though it's frankly a bit overshadowed by the visual design. The game is a good 10–12 hours long depending on your puzzle-solving skills as well as your interest in collectibles. Each stage is packed with pink gems that can be used to upgrade each characters' abilities, plus there are three collectibles in every stage as well. Collecting everything is no simple task since you'll have to carefully scour the scenery to find hidden nooks and crannies, but putting that extra effort in is a fun way of extending your time with Trine 4. Fans of the first two Trine games should be delighted to find that developer Frozenbyte hasn't lost a step when it comes to gorgeous and clever 2.5D puzzle-platforming. Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince is a delightful return to form, one that carries on the spirit of the franchise while making some small but valuable adjustments to the multiplayer experience. Even if you're new to the series, Trine 4 promises top-notch side-scrolling gameplay from start to finish. Rating: 8 out of 10 Puzzles
  24. From the minds behind Slain: Back from Hell comes another heavy-metal-inspired action game, this time mixing swords and guns in a space setting—though still with plenty of blood, skulls, and brutal combat. Some unique ideas help distinguish Valfaris from similar games, but the intense difficulty may reserve this adventure only for the hardest of the hardcore. The fortress of Valfaris mysteriously disappeared from galactic charts and then just as mysteriously reappeared orbiting a dead star, prompting our protagonist, Therion, to explore the fortress and find his father. The game has such a habit of introducing characters or story concepts so casually that I worried there was some lore-filled cutscene that I had somehow missed, but the reality is the story in Valfaris is merely window dressing to the action. It's nice to have some context as to why you're shooting this latest giant monster in the face, but you don't really need to know, and the short introduction to bosses and locations adds little to the experience. Like Slain before it, Valfaris draws inspiration from classic side-scrolling action games, including their punishing sense of difficulty. With both guns and a sword you'll fight your way through hordes of monsters and bosses, and thanks to a fairly small pool of health (and no way to heal yourself outside of hoping for random health drops from enemies), any little mistake on your part will be punished harshly. Enemy attacks and hazards are completely unforgiving, and often you'll have to die and retry before you even understand what you're supposed to do to progress. Since there is no dodge or dash ability it's frustratingly easy to simply get caught repeatedly in enemy attacks, especially particularly large melee swings. The brutal sense of difficulty can be exhausting, though hardcore fans might appreciate the no-nonsense challenge. However, Valfaris does feature frequent checkpoints that alleviate some of the frustration, though there's a unique twist here. In order to activate checkpoints you'll need to use a resurrection idol, which you'll find while playing at a pretty regular rate—typically one idol per checkpoint. The catch is that the more resurrection idols you're holding, the higher your max health and energy are, so there's a bit of a risk/reward in how you use your idols. Do you want to have a handy checkpoint in case you die up ahead? Or do you want to risk going back all the way to the last checkpoint, but with a bit more health to work with? Without knowing what lies ahead—but knowing that death comes easily in Valfaris—it can be a tricky bit of strategy and calculated risks to use your idols effectively. Therion comes equipped with guns, swords, and special heavy guns (which require energy to use), but there's a unique connection between his weapons beyond merely using guns for distance and swords for melee. Killing enemies with a sword strike generates energy which can then be used to fuel heavy guns or your shield, so to make the most of your weapons you have to be able to seamlessly transition between all of them, spending and regenerating energy efficiently. It's a little tricky at first but it's certainly satisfying to find a rhythm of using your different weapons without leaving yourself open to enemy attacks. Valfaris isn't a Metroidvania—it's entirely linear, more like classic Castlevania—but there are still quite a few secrets to uncover. A hidden area might reward you with an idol or you might find a new weapon entirely, or blood metal which is required to upgrade weapons. Even with frequent deaths and retries Valfaris is not a particularly long game, maybe six or seven hours, so trying out different weapons helps add some replay value. Heavy metal is once again the key artistic inspiration for the game. The art style feels ripped straight from a metal album cover, in good and bad ways. There's no denying there's a certain appeal to the crumbling, alien scenery dripping with blood and viscera, though it can also feel a bit overdone at times with too many busy elements competing for your eye when you just need to dodge enemy attacks. The headbanging soundtrack fuels your adventure through these hellish environments, and if nothing else will get your blood pumping for another attempt against the game's fiendish challenges and bosses. Valfaris shows some marked improvements over Slain by mixing up the gameplay with a satisfying blend of weapon styles that play off of one another. The lack of a dodge ability makes the already punishing difficulty even harder to stomach, but fans of extra-difficult action games may enjoy mastering the ins and outs of Valfaris's combat system. Rating: 6 out of 10
  25. Despite a somewhat tumultuous publishing history, the Darksiders franchise is still going strong with the latest entry, Darksiders Genesis, now available on the Switch. Taking place before the events of the previous three games, Genesis features the fourth Horseman, Strife, teaming up with War to settle some unrest stirring in Hell. Like every other Darksiders game, Genesis takes clear inspiration from other video game franchises—in this case Diablo—but still manages to create a unique, addictive, and action-packed adventure. In sharp contrast to any of the other Horsemen, Strife is something of a wise-cracking jokester—though anyone paired up with War's dour demeanor probably can't help but come off as light-hearted. The duo makes for a classic odd-couple adventure, one that never reaches the dire seriousness of the previous Darksiders games but still reflects the personality and lore of the series. It's a delicate balance to maintain but the developers have done a great job of fleshing out Strife's personality (and a bit of War's as well) while keeping the overarching universe of Darksiders just as fascinating and engaging. The actual plot of Genesis mostly just sees Strife and War sent on a series of errands as they investigate demonic plots, which can get a little tiresome and at times a bit disjointed, but overall it's still a hell of a ride. The Diablo influence isn't hard to spot: Genesis is an action game played from a top-down camera perspective, and naturally both series are filled with demons to fight. Genesis is far from derivative, though, with more emphasis on combat and exploration than looting. You play as either Strife or War, each of whom has unique skills for fighting and puzzle-solving: you'll either blast monsters apart with Strife's guns or slash into them with War's sword, neither of which ever seems to get old. The combat system isn't too complicated but still manages to be satisfyingly visceral—you really get to feel like a super-powered demon killing machine. Both Horsemen earn new abilities through the game to keep combat feeling fresh, and having that potential for different approaches (such as using different bullets in Strife's guns) adds a nice degree of customization and experimentation. Perhaps most satisfying is the burst ability which will trigger after you take down several enemies at once, boosting your power for a limited time. There may not be that many different types of enemies in the game, but it's always entertaining to plow through them with powerful abilities. The game also rather cleverly justifies the grind of fighting the same types of enemies over and over with the Creature Core system. Defeated enemies will sometimes drop a Creature Core, which you can then equip to augment Strife and War's abilities (often these are flat bonuses such as increased health or attack power, but sometimes they grant unique bonuses like leaving a trail of fire when you dodge). Collecting multiple cores of the same creature will increase their power, and then you have to find room to equip them in your Creature Core menu in order to maximize their effectiveness. It feels a tiny bit nitty-gritty-RPG-detaily for an action-heavy game like Genesis, but the end result is an engaging bit of RNG-driven character grinding that rewards you for always taking the time to defeat every demon you can and customizing your bonuses to your preference. Strife and War also gain a variety of puzzle-solving abilities throughout the course of the game, which also allow you to reach new areas and suss out more secrets in the environment. There are only a handful of these puzzle-focused items and skills but they're put to good use; you won't find too many brain-stumpers when you're just trying to reach the end of the level, but if you want to be a completionist and collect all of the items and upgrades hidden in each level you'll need to be thorough and thoughtful to reach them all. The light puzzle-solving/platforming aspect of Genesis helps break up the gameplay and prevent the demon slaughter from feeling too exhausting. It's also worth noting that it's just great to see another solid co-op focused game. Whether you're playing locally or online, bringing a friend along can add a nice element of camaraderie that reflects Strife and War's unlikely bond. Of course the game can also be played solo and there's nothing lost by doing so—you can swap between the two Horsemen at any time to try a new combat approach or solve a puzzle—but the emphasis on co-op is great to see. Genesis does suffer from a few technical problems though, which are generally only exacerbated in co-op (and especially online co-op). For one thing, the load times are a bit too long. The environments in each level can be fairly big, granted, but the loading times still weigh on the game, especially if you ever have to go in and out of a building repeatedly. Secondly, the frame rate and resolution really aren't doing justice to the art style of the game. Semi-frequent FPS drops can be a real bummer to see, and they're only more common when there's a lot happening on screen—e.g., you're really letting loose on a whole horde of demons. Finally there are some unfortunate buggy moments in the game, ranging from getting stuck in a wall and having to reload the last checkpoint (which are thankfully pretty frequent at least) to, oddly, dialogue being repeated or seemingly shown out of order. Many of these problems could be touched up in future patches, but they're still obnoxious to see now. Although the format has changed a bit the aesthetic of Genesis is still undeniably Darksiders, meaning lots of intricate demon designs that are, in a word, badass. Unfortunately this game doesn't have as many opportunities to truly show off the stylized artwork—especially if the frame rate is dipping or the resolution starts looking a little muddy—so although the game still looks good it certainly doesn't have the same "wow" factor. The soundtrack at least lives up to Darksiders' history of dramatic, engaging background music, and the voice work is a lot of fun to hear, especially from returning characters. The game clocks in at a solid fifteen hours or so; you could probably rush through the game more quickly, but since part of the game's charm is exploring and figuring out how to reach distant collectibles/upgrades you'd really be doing a disservice to yourself. Genesis also has an arena mode that can be useful to practice your combat skills and earn extra money (which, in the world of Darksiders, means souls), plus there are multiple difficulty levels you could tackle, so there's a good amount of content available if you like being thorough. Darksiders Genesis does an excellent job of translating the franchise's love of hack-and-slash combat into a co-op, top-down action/adventure. Satisfying combat options and engaging exploration mechanics make for an addictive experience, one that is only enhanced by having a friend along for the ride. The game's unfortunate lack of technical polish brings the experience down a bit, but fans of the series will still love saddling up with the fourth Horseman and once again raining down carnage on demonic hordes. Rating: 7 out of 10 Demons