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Messages - Grimace the Minace

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TalkBack / Sonic Superstars Review
« on: December 18, 2023, 05:10:37 PM »

We tried to reach for the stars, and they still look pretty far.

I have tried so hard to like Sonic Superstars.

Superstars makes a great first impression as it nails the physics and controls that go into a 2D Sonic game. Sonic—at least in his side-scrolling incarnations—is one of the only platforming protagonists that has a heavy emphasis on momentum. Once he starts moving he can be difficult to control with precision, so actually speeding through a stage takes careful thought and practice to be able to do successfully.

This style of platforming may have a barrier to entry, but it’s what gives the classic Sonic franchise its core appeal since the player is rewarded for improving their own skill at the game—the better you are as a player, the more exciting the game will be in return. Nailing the feel of Sonic’s movement is ‘the hard part’ in making a 2D Sonic since nothing else matters if it doesn’t feel just right, and this is the area where Superstars is most successful. The movement and physics in Superstars feel perfectly in line with Sonic’s classic Genesis games, and that makes the many ways the game drops the ball with many other crucial aspects all the more disappointing.

Sonic Superstars is a death by a thousand cuts, and the first of those cuts is in the visible space around Sonic during gameplay. Simply put the camera is too close to Sonic, making it difficult for the player to see what’s coming up in front of them. This appears to be an issue with level design; Sonic himself is more or less the same size on screen as he was in the Genesis games, but everything else in the world is scaled up to seem so much bigger than him. Because of this the game often feels claustrophobic and cluttered, which flips around into feeling like too many critical details are just off-screen whenever the stages open up to allow more breathing room.

The biggest problem with the game that kills any chance I’ll be revisiting it in the future is the excruciatingly long boss fights. In most 2D Sonic games bosses can be attacked repeatedly in sequence, and if you’re particularly skilled you can finish many fights in a matter of seconds. This is not the case in Superstars where every single boss is designed to allow you to get exactly one hit in before it enters a long period of invincibility. Rather than the matter of seconds that a fight could take in previous games, Superstars’ bosses can be several minutes long when played perfectly (and God help you if you screw up and have to start the fight from the beginning). The bosses are not fun, and they add so much time onto a given playthrough that the threat of having to do them again is enough to stop me from ever replaying the levels preceding them.

There’s nothing but additional grievances to be found in the small stuff. The superpowers you gain from collecting Chaos Emeralds aren’t well-integrated into the game design—presumably because it’s possible to miss all of them entirely—and feel either too situational or too overpowered to be fun (and since they can only be used once per checkpoint the overpowered ones don’t even help much with boss fights). The online battle mode that serves as the only place you can use the customizable robot character that the game’s collectible medals are for feels tacked on like a relic from the days when every game needed to be able to advertise some form of multiplayer; not that it matters since there’s no one playing online to be matched up with anyway. Even the soundtrack is a letdown—a rarity for even the worst Sonic games—feeling more like an imitation of the classic Genesis soundtracks rather than an iteration of them.

After its strong first impression I quickly started to see the cracks in Sonic Superstars, but I kept pushing forward in the hopes that when all was said and done the game would rise above its flaws. This never happened; the more I dug into the game, desperately hoping for it to pull everything off in the end, the more frustrated I became as I realized it was never going to do that. I don’t like to directly compare a game from a totally different franchise in a review, but given how Superstars released only three days before Super Mario Bros. Wonder, it feels inevitable. Super Mario Bros. Wonder nailed its gameplay while reimagining Mario’s look for a new era, setting what could be a new standard for its franchise for years to come. Meanwhile Sonic Superstars looks back, basing its look on the animated shorts accompanying the retro aesthetic of Sonic Mania and Sonic Origins. Superstars should’ve been the new standard to live up to Sonic’s Genesis run, which just makes it sad that the game fails to even match the standard that was set over twenty years ago.

TalkBack / Firefighting Simulator - The Squad (Switch) Review
« on: October 24, 2023, 02:00:56 PM »

A great simulator in need of mutual aid.

My dad is a firefighter, so growing up I spent a lot of time around fire trucks, rescue equipment and—of course—firefighters. I’ve tried a lot of simulator games in my time, too, such as American Truck Simulator, Farming Simulator and PowerWash simulator, but this is the first time I’ve played one that’s actually about something I have some experience with. I was pretty excited since there aren’t a lot of games about firefighting, and I’m happy to say it met all of my expectations in that regard—though not without an unfortunate caveat that may be a dealbreaker for more general audiences.

As a simulator game, The Squad is less concerned with exciting game mechanics and more concerned with portraying the minutiae of firefighting. It’s not enough to rush into a building and point your hose at a fire; you need to know how to connect a supply line, where the attack line is stored on a fire truck and how to attach a nozzle before you can spray a single drop of water. Once inside a burning building you’ll need to juggle your responsibilities between stopping the spread of the fire and rescuing any victims stuck inside. This can be a careful balancing act since the fire will realistically spread and reignite rooms that were previously safe if you aren’t mindful and strategic about which flames to attack first. You’ll also need to be careful around smoke and keep an eye out for backdrafts that can prove deadly if you fail to spot them. The tone is not flashy and dramatic—it’s slow and methodical, realistically portraying how firefighters approach a fire in real life.

If you’re not experienced with all things firefighting, then you’re in luck; Firefighting Simulator comes with a comprehensive tutorial that walks you through everything you’ll need to know on the job. For me this was just a refresher course that told me which buttons to press to do things I already knew, but I was happy to see this because a lot of simulator games throw you into the action with poor tutorials that don’t help anyone that struggles with the details of how to succeed in realistic simulations. Even if you don’t know the first thing about firefighting you should have no trouble figuring out how everything works with the help of the tutorial.

One of the unique things about Firefighting Simulator is its commitment to playing cooperatively with other players. Every mission is carried out with three squadmates, allowing you to delegate duties to carry out your job efficiently. When playing single-player, AI squadmates will fill in and can be given specific orders to carry out so that you can split up and tackle different problems simultaneously. In theory this is a great idea because of how crucial teamwork is in firefighting, but in practice it’s sadly the game’s biggest red flag.

In my entire time playing this game for review, I never once managed to connect to another player online. Hosting a session myself when selecting a mission was never successful, and the list of public lobbies to join never once showed a single other player online. Unless you have three friends you can convince to buy the game with you it’s unlikely you’ll ever get to play the complete experience of The Squad, instead being stuck with the AI squadmates who will do most of the work for you while you’re busy ordering them around.

Firefighting Simulator - The Squad is a great representation of what it takes to be a firefighter, and the effective tutorial guarantees that any player should be able to figure out how to succeed at any mission in the game. I’d love to get a full squad together and tackle a house fire together with maximum efficiency, but the difficulty I had in finding a squad takes a lot of the wind out of Firefighting Simulator’s sails. This is the ideal form of a simulator game for me, but it’s sadly near impossible to play it under ideal circumstances.

TalkBack / Trine 5: A Clockwork Conspiracy (Switch) Review
« on: October 17, 2023, 12:01:00 PM »

The more things stay the same, the more they change.

Trine 5 is a difficult game to review since very little has changed since Trine 4. In truth, if you’ve already played a Trine game then I really don’t know what I could possibly tell you about one that you don’t already know. Obviously the story is brand new and the skill trees for each character have some new (though not very groundbreaking) abilities, but if you put both Trine 5 and Trine 4 next to each other, you’d be hard pressed to even tell which is which.

For those of you who are new to Trine, it’s a 2.5D platformer where you control three characters with their own unique skillsets. Amadeus the Wizard can use magic to levitate obstacles and conjure boxes, Pontius the Knight can reflect projectiles with his shield and throw his weight around, and Zoya the Thief can fire arrows and cover distances with a grappling hook. The majority of the game is spent solving puzzles that require you to swap between each character and use their abilities in tandem to clear challenges and overcome obstacles.

The game can be played in co-op with each player controlling a different character, but since I didn’t have anyone willing to play with me, I was only able to play in single-player. I imagine most of the fun of Trine comes from playing it with friends as you goof around throwing ideas at the wall until something sticks, but playing alone was not nearly exciting. Puzzles alternate between being so simple that taking the time to actually execute the solution ends up feeling tedious and being so obtuse that they feel like you’re brute forcing your way through them.

Puzzles in Trine are designed to not have a single distinct solution. On the surface this may sound like a good thing, but the downside is that puzzles cannot be built in a way that they facilitate the player understanding their solution. For one particular puzzle I resorted to looking up a walkthrough online that showed off a solution that required too precise timing for me to successfully pull it off. After many failed attempts I found another walkthrough with a different solution that was substantially simpler. In this case, Trine’s lack of specific puzzle solutions made it more difficult for me to succeed; the best puzzles will be carefully constructed around the solution so that the player will eventually stop trying a solution that clearly isn’t working, but Trine didn’t give me the opportunity to realize that. The solution I was failing over and over again did work—I had seen it in the YouTube playthrough—but the technical execution was too difficult for me to implement the solution that I already knew was the answer. Why would I give up and try to find a different solution when I believed I had found the correct one?

This is to say nothing of the poor combat that is all too frequent in the game. This is nothing new; Trine 4 was also filled with tedious, repetitive combat encounters that interrupted the pace of the game. The three characters’ skillsets simply aren’t built to make fights interesting, even with upgrades on the skill trees giving them more opportunities to do damage. Amadeus’ magic is simply too sluggish and cumbersome to deal consistent damage, and Zoya’s arrows never match Pontius’ strength. The most efficient way to approach every fight in the game is to spam Pontius’ basic sword attacks, and since a new fight starts every couple of minutes they get repetitive very quickly. Given how poorly the cast’s abilities fit into combat, I’m not certain what the point of having combat is at all.

That’s where I have to address the elephant in the room: my glowing review of Trine 4 where I gave the game a score of 8.5/10, praising its puzzle design in particular. This strange hypocrisy will undoubtedly stand out to anyone surprised to see my hot take on a beloved franchise; how can I feel so much more negatively towards Trine 5 while also claiming that it is more or less the same exact game? This is a question that I have to admit I do not know the answer to. I have been trying to reconcile that difference the entire time I’ve been playing Trine 5, and I have simply failed to understand it. I even tried replaying Trine 4 in my quest for answers, and all that did was reinforce just how similar these two games are. If everything between the two games is the same, the only conclusion I can come to is that I’m the one who has changed. It has been nearly half a decade since I first played Trine 4; long enough for a teenager to start and finish high school. The games I’ve played since then—as well as the person I’ve become in the roughly 1/8th of my life that has passed—have changed my perspective enough that Trine simply does not work for me anymore.

Trine 5 is more of the same, though based on how the series’ fans have received it so well perhaps that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It stands to reason that if you liked the previous Trine games, you’ll still like this one, and that probably goes double if you’ve got three friends to play with. Unfortunately I don’t have three friends to play with, and I can’t deny the dull and frustrating experience I had with it. Between poor puzzle design and combat that doesn’t seem to belong in the game, there was simply nothing in Trine 5 that didn’t feel like a waste of time.

TalkBack / Online Communication For Wii U And 3DS To End In April 2024
« on: October 03, 2023, 08:23:00 PM »

Fully pulling the plug on a generation.

Nintendo will be discontinuing online services for 3DS and Wii U in early Spring of next year.

Announced today at midnight eastern US time, Nintendo is planning to shut down all online communication for its previous-generation systems in early April 2024. A specific end date and time will be announced at a later date. This shutdown affects all online services for those systems including online play, leaderboards, and SpotPass communication.

Nintendo noted in their announcement that Pokémon Bank will be an exception to this shutdown, though they clarified that this may change in the future. It will also still be possible to download any previously-purchased software, updates, and DLC from the eShop "for the foreseeable future."

This news comes alongside recent rumors that the successor to the Nintendo Switch will be launching early next year, which Activision CEO Bobby Kotick was quoted under oath in court saying would be in "closer alignment" to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Since a Switch successor would make the 3DS and Wii U two full generations out of date, it's likely this shutdown is in preparation for Nintendo's jump to the next generation.

TalkBack / NACON RIG 600 Pro Headset Review
« on: September 18, 2023, 08:00:00 AM »

Maybe wireless audio isn't so bad.

I’ve generally resisted the transition from wired to wireless headsets over time, so the NACON RIG 600 Pro was my first venture into wireless gaming audio. The headset features two options for connectivity through either Bluetooth or a 2.4GHz connection via a USB adapter. For most every practical purpose in gaming, you’re probably going to want to use the adapter since the audio delay over Bluetooth is pretty bad, but the hardware makes this pretty simple to do.

The adapter itself uses a USB-C connection which makes it work natively with handheld devices like the Switch or a Steam Deck, but included in the box is an extra adapter cable for traditional USB ports for use on PC or console. The plug-and-play nature of the adapter works seamlessly, since I was able to just plug it into my Switch dock, my PlayStation 5, and my PC and it just worked on all of them with no fiddling required. The USB-C adapter is also pretty compact, so it fits pretty well with the Switch’s form factor.

A microphone on the headset can be used for voice chat while gaming, but unfortunately this doesn’t work well with the Switch’s mobile app since you can’t hear audio from both the USB adapter and the Bluetooth connection simultaneously—the Dual Mode where you connect to different devices merely swaps which one you’re using so you can answer a phone call if you happen to get one while gaming. This isn’t really the headset’s fault since the Switch is the only modern gaming platform where you are required to use voice chat on a completely different device, but it is a reality that Nintendo fans will have to put up with.

Audio quality on the headset is pretty good, though you’ll want to mess with the EQ settings via the RIG mobile app for the best results. The default settings have the midtones too low and I was getting ready to knock this headset for its sound quality before I discovered the mobile app. As a matter of personal preference, I do consider it a downside that basic functionality has been offloaded to the app. This is probably an unfair criticism since every headset I’ve used in the past only offered EQ settings through a PC app, but I’m getting a bit tired of smart devices in the modern age prompting me to download a mobile app to use them.

The last major feature of the RIG Pro headset is support for Dolby Atmos surround sound, which I have a bit of a bias against. I happen to have home theater speakers with full 5.1 channel surround sound, and I’ll never prefer the trade-off in audio quality that comes with simulated surround sound over headphones. With that in mind, the technology does provide a convincing simulation of 3D audio without the need for games to specially mix a binaural equivalent, so if you don’t have a full surround sound setup in your home then there’s an obvious advantage to having this turned on.

I can’t say that all of my hangups with wireless audio have been solved (the idea of having to charge my headphones still bothers me), but the RIG 600 Pro has managed to become my go-to for PC gaming. The ability to rely on a USB adapter instead of Bluetooth instantly resolves my biggest fears of compatibility and latency, and the quality is comparable with many of the wired gaming headsets I’ve used before. The Switch’s mobile app voice chat will limit the headset’s appeal for Nintendo fans interested in voice chat, but the compact form factor of the USB adapter gives it a far and away advantage over wired headsets for handheld gaming. I can see myself continuing to use the RIG 600 PRO for a while to come, and it’s gone a long way in helping me come to terms with an all-wireless future.

TalkBack / Vampire Survivors (Switch) Review
« on: August 16, 2023, 03:00:00 AM »

Numbers Go Up

Vampire Survivors is a remarkably simple roguelite game. The only thing that the player is really able to do is move around a field that is filled with hundreds upon thousands of hostile creatures. Your character will periodically attack the creatures, but you have no control over which enemy is attacked or when it is attacked. The one piece of genuine agency you have in the game is choosing which upgrades you acquire upon leveling up, which are split between new weapons for more frequent attacks and stat upgrades that boost your various abilities.

So what is it actually like to play Vampire Survivors? At the start of a run you’ll be fairly weak. Take the starter character Antonio for example; he begins a run with just a whip attack that occurs directly in front of him approximately every one and a half seconds. On a level up you could upgrade the whip to perform a second attack directly behind you, and eventually to do more damage in a wider area. You could also choose to take a second weapon like the magic wand, which fires a magic missile at the nearest enemy approximately every second which can be upgraded to shoot four powerful missiles that can each hit multiple opponents. Instead of a weapon maybe you’ll take a passive item like the empty tome, which decreases the cooldown of all weapons and can itself be upgraded to reduce those cooldowns even further.

You can carry up to six weapons and six passive items which can all be upgraded until you’ve gone from a weak adventurer throwing a fireball every now and then to an unstoppable ball of death that tears through legions of monsters without breaking a sweat. Some items can be combined to reach an evolved state that grants even more powerful effects that eventually fill the screen with projectiles and damage numbers until it all blends together into an incomprehensible soup of explosive carnage. Vampire Survivors has often been described as a ‘reverse bullet hell’; rather than trying to dodge a rainstorm of projectiles from an all-powerful boss, you instead are the all-powerful boss firing a rainstorm of projectiles on countless weaklings.

As a roguelite, Vampire Survivors features a long-term upgrade system that is driven by in-game achievements. Accomplishing goals will unlock new items and characters that provide more options in your level-up choices, and cash that is accumulated through gameplay allows you to buy permanent stat upgrades so that you can tear through stages faster and more easily. There isn’t anything to unlock that fundamentally changes the game and each character has the same basic gameplay loop, but as you unlock more and more abilities you’ll be able to get more creative and intentional with your builds in order to come up with an efficient plan that feels the best for how you specifically want to engage with monsters on the field.

Vampire Survivors is not an especially challenging or substantive game, but it is one that feels good to relax and unwind with for a half hour at a time. A podcast that I listen to once described the game as “my favorite slot machine”, and it’s a moniker I think is very apt for how good Vampire Survivors is at giving a satisfying rush of dopamine with its overwhelmingly flashy effects, absurd power curve, and snappy pace of upgrading. There are no hidden depths lurking under the surface and I truly don’t know what more I could say about the game than I already have, but it doesn’t need to be anything more than it is. Sometimes I just want to see big explosions, flashing colors, and numbers going up, and Vampire Survivors gives me all of that in great quantities with pretty much no friction along the way.

TalkBack / Pikmin 4 (Switch) Review
« on: August 11, 2023, 09:26:36 AM »

Those who do not embrace Dandori cannot survive this planet... But if they grow the leaves... they will thrive.

When Pikmin 3 first released on Wii U in 2013, it felt more like a sequel to Pikmin 1 than to Pikmin 2. The pressure of a limited number of playable days returned, caverns were gone, and even the purple and white types of Pikmin introduced in 2 were nowhere to be found. Now, a decade later, Pikmin 4 seems to be doing the same thing with Pikmin 2; caverns are back, the limited number of days is gone, and the story is about collecting treasures to fulfill currency quotas. In many ways Pikmin 4 feels like a stealth remake of 2, and it manages to elevate ideas and mechanics from the franchise’s former middle child to a new level, ironing out the flaws and introducing more new ideas to make an experience that feels like a new peak in quality for the series.

The basics of Pikmin are the same as ever: rather than directly fighting and completing tasks yourself, you are ordering around a group of tiny creatures called Pikmin that gain strength in numbers. They can fight, they can carry things, they can build bridges—pretty much anything a playable character in a video game needs to accomplish. The only thing they can’t do is make decisions for themselves; that’s where you come in.

Pikmin 4 follows the traditional structure of the franchise by tying gameplay to a day/night cycle where you must drop what you’re doing and return to base when the sun sets. This time around, that base isn’t empty anymore, and an entire crew of companions known as the Rescue Corps is running operations while you’re away. The Rescue Corps serve as recurring characters throughout the game’s story, but they also offer various gameplay functions such as providing mechanical upgrades and offering side quests for you to complete. The whole experience feels a bit more video game-y, and while it does sand down the uniqueness of the Pikmin franchise a little bit, it adds a nice flow to your progression that helps keep the day/night cycle from feeling as vestigial as in Pikmin 2. Every trip back to the base is a chance to upgrade your abilities and check in on your friends, making the end of a day something to look forward to after spending a ton of time exploring caverns.

Speaking of caverns, they’ve been substantially improved from Pikmin 2 with a small but significant change: the caverns are no longer randomly generated, and everything is placed with intention by the developers who expect you to have particular options when tackling challenges. This vastly improves the flow of underground exploration, but it also lightens the impact of some of the crueler pranks that the game can play on you with falling bombs and surprise enemy spawns. Since the caves have bespoke design to them you’ll never find yourself in a scenario where one of those pranks feels like it couldn’t have been avoided, and the added rewind function that can quickly take you back to a few minutes earlier can make it less frustrating when a true disaster befalls your party. Be honest, hardcore fans: you always hit the reset button when your Pikmin were wiped out in Pikmin 2’s caves anyway, didn’t you?

The biggest addition to Pikmin 4’s gameplay is the presence of Oatchi, a doglike companion who can act as an independent player character or in place of your Pikmin depending on what you need him to do. Oatchi fulfills an awful lot of quality of life features in Pikmin 4 as he can not only take on the role of a captain or a Pikmin, but can also be given commands to search for important things such as treasures, hidden resources, or even missing Pikmin. He’s not quite as versatile as the trinity of playable captains in Pikmin 3 (and sadly cannot be controlled by a co-op player like the three captains could) but clever use of his abilities will be crucial to succeed in the game’s Dandori challenges.

“Dandori” is the game’s name for acting efficiently and strategically, and there are many distinct challenges in the game that require you to use Dandori well. Special caverns where you race against the clock to collect treasures as quickly as possible in a limited time and splitscreen battles where you compete with an opposing captain to collect the most loot are the flagship Dandori challenges that will scratch the itch of long-time players who miss the time pressure of collecting ship parts in Pikmin 1 and finishing the game in as few days as possible. Even though Dandori didn’t have a name in-universe until Pikmin 4, it was always the part of the Pikmin franchise that I enjoyed the most, and many of the late-game challenges demand an extreme understanding of how to best command Oatchi and your Pikmin in order to barely scrape by and receive the best rewards.

One big part of the game falls flat though, and it is unfortunately one of the additions that sounded the most interesting going in. For the first time in the franchise, Pikmin 4 allows you to venture out at night in order to gather unique resources that can only be found in the dark while fighting off monsters that are far more aggressive than usual. I imagined the night time gameplay as something that you could choose to do instead of heading back to base at the end of the day that allows you to take risks in order to gain great rewards, but the reality is much less exciting.

Night time missions are chosen from a menu at the base, and they take up an entire day on their own. These missions take on a tower defense format where you must protect structures called Lumiknolls with the help of ghostly Glow Pikmin. The aesthetics of night time in the Pikmin world can feel unsettling and threatening, but the actual gameplay is simple to the point of being boring. Glow Pikmin are more powerful than regular Pikmin since they can stun enemies and deal huge damage with a burst attack and automatically teleport to you when left idle, trivializing both combat and strategy. The nighttime missions quickly blend together into feeling like busy work since you’ll be doing a lot of them if you want to receive their important rewards, and the utter simplicity of the challenge leaves little room for thinking on your feet and improvising. It is technically possible to finish the game while doing a bare minimum of nighttime missions, but you’ll be locking yourself out of a substantial amount of side content as a consequence.

Pikmin 4 is everything I could’ve wanted from a new Pikmin game and more. It is simultaneously a return to form with a heavy focus on Dandori and also a leap forward with entirely new mechanics and big improvements to returning mechanics. There are some flaws—nighttime missions are a drag and the early tutorials are dreadfully slow—but those warts don’t outweigh everything Pikmin 4 manages to achieve. This is a new standard for Pikmin; all we can do now is hope it doesn’t take another ten years for Pikmin 5.

TalkBack / Pikmin 2 (Switch) Review
« on: July 20, 2023, 07:49:19 AM »

A look back at Pikmin’s growing pains.

Pikmin 2 is something of a black sheep in the Pikmin franchise. It exists within Nintendo’s mid-2000s transition away from hardcore gamers towards more casual audiences, and it feels like a weird midpoint between those two extremes. I have no idea if this dichotomy is the result of any intentional design decisions on Nintendo’s part, but the result is an undeniable sense that the game has trouble deciding what exactly it wants to be. Sometimes it’s too easy and lacks some of the challenges that made the original Pikmin compelling, and sometimes it’s brutally punishing in ways that only the most skilled players will be able to stomach. The audience for this game feels slim, but the most dedicated fans of the franchise may enjoy it for the truly unique experience it brings to the table.

Pikmin 2 opens with Captain Olimar and his new partner Louie returning to the Pikmin homeworld in search of treasure to pay off their boss’ massive debts. The two captains enlist the help of the native Pikmin to carry various delicacies, devices, and doodads back to their ship to sell for cold hard cash. The big twist introduced in this game is the presence of underground caverns teeming with treasures and monsters alike. Though the traditional overworlds of Pikmin 1 are still present (literally, since you visit remixed versions of the original maps), the majority of the game’s runtime is spent in the caverns, descending deeper into the Earth with no warning of what you’ll find ahead.

The caverns themselves are sadly pretty dull, made up of copy and paste assets that are lightly randomized. Enemies and treasures are fixed to each individual cavern, but their exact positions will be different each time you enter. The layouts of the underground are mostly flat and simple with very few visual themes, and I swear I saw a few layouts multiple times (though I’d never be certain given how basic and featureless each one is). The randomness also makes the gameplay feel directionless; I would often break down walls and obstacles that lead to nowhere while treasures were laying out in the open. The bespoke puzzles and challenges in the overworld are just as good as the original Pikmin, but they feel few and far between since your time in the caverns will easily dwarf your time above ground.

In terms of difficulty, Pikmin 2 is very uneven. The core challenge of the first game—the limited number of days you have before a game over—has been completely removed, making the day/night cycle feel like a tedious leftover. With no hard time limit you’re free to explore at your own pace and take as much time as you need to restock your army of Pikmin with no consequence, leaving no incentive to optimize your route through the game. Every few minutes the sun will set and you’ll be forced to go through the rigmarole of gathering your Pikmin and returning to your ship before coming back the next day and returning to what you were doing exactly where you left it. The result is that the end of a day feels like it might as well be an especially long loading screen for how little purpose it has, especially since time freezes completely when you’re underground.

The flip side of the coin is the intense challenges to be found in the underground, which feature some of the most punishing consequences for failure I’ve seen in the franchise. Caverns are densely filled with powerful enemies that can easily catch you off-guard and wipe out an entire squad of Pikmin in an instant. Multitasking is actually deeply discouraged in the underground since unexpected enemies can be lurking around the corner, and the game often throws what I can only call pranks at you as explosives literally fall from the ceiling without warning. Monsters become tougher and more destructive as you progress further through the game, and I had to make frequent use of the autosave the game makes on each floor of a cavern to get through some of the unfair and unexpected curveballs that would be thrown at me.

Ironically, I think this punishing difficulty is actually something that especially dedicated fans of the franchise may find appealing. Combat in Pikmin is often simple because you aren’t directly engaging with enemies, and the intense difficulty found in the caverns is exactly what I’ve seen many hardcore fans say they love about Pikmin 2. The tedious repetition of each cavern’s randomized features took away a lot of appeal for me, but there’s no doubt that the game’s high intensity that requires intimate familiarity with the nuances of commanding your Pikmin is unlike anything else the series has to offer.

As for the Switch version specifically, the updates in the HD version of Pikmin 2 are pretty much identical to those found in Pikmin 1, which I covered in a mini-review last month. The primary change unique to Pikmin 2 is that the real-world product placement found among the game’s treasures has been removed, and a joke spam email from an online dating site (yes, that’s real) has been rewritten to be more family-friendly. One thing in both games that I didn’t realize until playing Pikmin 2 is that while using gyro controls the cursor can still be moved around by the control stick. This was not the case in the Wii versions of Pikmin 1 and 2 where you could freely aim independently of your character’s movement, and you’ll need to actively fight against the cursor drifting away when positioning yourself around enemies.

Pikmin 2 is a tough game to recommend, especially with the brand new Pikmin 4 featuring a much more successful version of its key feature, the caverns. The high difficulty requires a lot of investment from the player to overcome, and the lack of bespoke design underground makes the journey to overcome those obstacles too tedious to feel rewarding. Dedicated fans who want to be pushed into learning the intricacies of Pikmin’s mechanics will find something special in the unique challenge, but pretty much everything else about Pikmin 2 has been pulled off much better in another game in the franchise.

TalkBack / Re: 100 Classic Books Review
« on: July 07, 2023, 11:07:03 PM »
Does it have Pride and Prejudice? I know someone who's been meaning to read that.

TalkBack / Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective Demo Preview
« on: June 12, 2023, 03:00:00 PM »

We had early access to the PS4 version of the demo.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a murder-mystery puzzle game from Ace Attorney writer and director Shu Takumi. Originally released on Nintendo DS thirteen years ago, it serves as something of a sister game to Ace Attorney, featuring much of the same humor, style, and charm. Any fan of Ace Attorney’s story should feel right at home here, though what sets this game apart is its unique focus on manipulating in-game events in the style of a Rube Goldberg machine, setting off chain reactions of objects knocking each other over, hitting buttons to activate devices, and generally getting in the way of any hapless villains or bystanders around the scene of a crime.

If you’ve already played Phantom Detective on DS, the new remaster (which I played a demo of on PS4) is pretty unremarkable. The original’s touch screen controls are simple enough to map cleanly to an analog stick, and the game made so little use of the system’s dual screens that I had to look up old videos on YouTube in order to remember just what that second screen was even doing in the original game. This is a pretty straightforward port with few upgrades besides HD visuals and the option for a rearranged soundtrack. It’s bare-bones, but the game’s simple cel-shaded style lends itself better to higher resolutions than some other recent games that suffer a poor AI-upscale.

If you’ve never played Phantom Detective, then this port is a perfectly good way to do so, and I highly recommend you do so. The game stars Sissel, a recently-deceased man who discovers he has strange ghostly powers that allow him to possess objects to move them around and disrupt the environment. He can jump between nearby objects, but his limited range means that you’ll need to find clever ways to manipulate your surroundings in order to get where you’re trying to go.

Just moving around and generally haunting the place isn’t all Sissel can do though; he’s also able to possess the body of anyone else who is recently-deceased in order to rewind time to four minutes before their death and change their fate by performing a Ghost Trick. Each death scene is a puzzle that must be solved in order to manipulate the right objects at the right time in order to indirectly save someone’s life. The solution is rarely straightforward: you can make a rolling cart slide across the room, but you can’t defy physics and make it float where you need it to be, so you’ll need to cleverly figure out how to jump between multiple objects just to get around.

Since these puzzles take place in a scripted period of time, it’s not enough just to know where you need to go; you’ll also need to pay attention to the actions of the characters in the scene to be where you need to be when you need to be there. This setup adds a lot of tension in figuring out the right timing before it’s too late, though occasionally this can lead to you being forced to just sit and wait for the characters to reach the correct part of the script when you’ve already figured things out.

The most notable feature of Phantom Detective—which holds up just as well in HD—is the high quality of its character animations. Every character is animated with a ton of charm and personality that went above and beyond in making use of the limited hardware capabilities of the original DS version. A lot of big, showy movement was necessary to convey character on such a small screen, and that talented work looks just as good on a big screen at twice the frame rate. It’s the same quality that we’ve come to expect from the 3D-animated Ace Attorney games, and in fact all character animators named in the original game’s credits went on to work on Ace Attorney at one point or another, making it clear how influential this game was on its sister series.

The demo I played is now publicly available on Switch, PlayStation, and Steam. If you haven’t played Phantom Detective and you’re even a little curious about it, you should absolutely play this demo. It’s been over twelve years since I played the original game on DS, and I’m still impressed by it to this day. I’m looking forward to updating my vague decade-old memories when the remaster finally releases, since every memory I do have of this game tells me it’s one of the best and most unique narrative games I’ve ever played.

TalkBack / Pikmin 1 (Switch) Review Mini
« on: June 23, 2023, 03:29:00 PM »

One of Nintendo's best is back with compromise.

When Pikmin 1 was announced to be coming to Switch, the first thing I wanted to know was what version of the game it would be based on. The original Pikmin has only been ported once as part of the New Play Control line of games on Wii, and while the Wii Remote pointer controls were the obvious selling point there were actually some big quality of life changes that it’s easy to forget were never in the original GameCube version. In the original Pikmin, you couldn’t swap the color of Pikmin you were holding before a throw, meaning you had to carefully stand next to whichever type you needed before picking it up. The AI attached to Yellow Pikmin carrying bomb rocks was also different; on GameCube they would drop the bombs immediately upon being called with the whistle which could lead to some accidental deaths, while on Wii the Pikmin would only drop their rocks after being thrown and even automatically move away from bombs that were about to detonate. The most substantial change on Wii was that the game’s save system was overhauled, allowing you to rewind to a previous day from the file select screen in order to correct any mistakes you had made without losing more of your limited in-game time.

Since the Switch obviously doesn’t have a controller that uses a sensor bar, I didn’t want to take for granted that we’d be getting the improved Wii version of the game on Switch. Thankfully my fears were unfounded, and Pikmin 1 on Switch seems to be a 1:1 port of the New Play Control version. Even some minor graphical changes like on-screen arrows that direct swarming Pikmin, colored UI elements noting which Onion the Pikmin were carrying an item back to, and the color of Pikmin ghosts corresponding to their fallen soldier are all retained from the New Play Control version. If anything has changed in the game’s presentation besides the UI being upscaled to match the HD resolution, then it’s subtle enough that only the most hardcore of fans would notice.

Without the option to use a pointer, the game’s default controls are mostly the same as on GameCube, but an option has been added to enable the use of gyro aiming while whistling or throwing Pikmin. This is the biggest compromise that Pikmin 1 has made in the transition to Switch since the gyro is only enabled in context-sensitive situations, making it difficult to quickly micromanage your cursor between targets. I don’t think this will be a problem for first-time players—it’s still more versatile than the original GameCube version—but every ounce of muscle memory I had while playing screamed that this feels bad.

Pikmin 1 on Switch is not the definitive version of this game; the Wii Remote’s pointer controls were a perfect fit for Pikmin and their absence is deeply felt. That said, this is likely the best Pikmin 1 can be on a system that doesn’t have a pointer, and the core design still holds up as one of the best debuts a Nintendo franchise has ever had. Longtime fans might be better off digging out their old Wii Remotes for the New Play Control version, but this is a fine place to start if you want to see what the big deal is while we wait for Pikmin 4.

While I’m here, let me give a quick note on Pikmin 2: It’s been a long time since I played Pikmin 2 so I didn’t want to write a hasty review of it without really putting time into it, but as far as I can tell it also appears to be a straight port of the New Play Control version with the same control scheme on Switch as Pikmin 1. The single immediate change I could see was that the Duracell battery in the game’s opening stage has been replaced with a fake generic brand, which probably applies to the other licensed real-world products throughout the game.

TalkBack / We Love Katamari Reroll + Royal Reverie (Switch) Review
« on: June 22, 2023, 04:35:08 PM »

What you see is what you get, and the rest is a royal pain.

We Love Katamari Reroll is a straightforward port of a straightforward sequel to a very unconventional game. If you have any experience with Katamari—whether it’s with the original PS2 games or the 2018 remaster Katamari Damacy Reroll—then you pretty much know what to expect already. You control the Prince of All Cosmos as he rolls around a Katamari—a round object that scoops up anything it touches to grow larger like a snowball. The Katamari can only pick up objects that are roughly the same size as itself, so the challenge of gameplay involves strategically rolling up small things like thumbtacks and board game pieces in order to eventually consume larger and larger targets.Little has changed since the first game, but We Love Katamari does retain its predecessor’s flair for bizarre and creative imagery. The story has shifted to a meta-narrative about the franchise’s popularity, and each mission involves fulfilling the wish of a Katamari fan by creating the Katamari of their dreams. The story is punctuated with flashbacks to the King of All Cosmo’s youth, providing his backstory in minimalist scenes that are bizarre, funny, and at times touching. There aren’t any bold innovations that make the game feel truly unique from its predecessor, but the end result is clever (and weird) enough to at least feel like it isn’t simply rehashing the same ideas.

New to the Reroll version of We Love Katamari is a side-adventure titled Royal Reverie where you actually play as the King of All Cosmos during his youth as he fulfills the orders of his own commanding father. This side adventure fits well into the original game’s structure, slowly unlocking new missions as you progress through the story, but its quality is a pretty stark contrast. The missions in Royal Reverie all have additional objectives that make them more challenging than the original game’s stages, but they are dull at best and a frustrating slog at worst. One asks you to create the largest Katamari you can in only sixty seconds, while another has you rolling up small fireballs to attack an opponent’s health bar without growing your Katamari. The challenge that ultimately made me give up on Royal Reverie was a pseudo-stealth mission where rolling up any of the fast-moving ghosts that wandered the stage would trigger an instant failure. These mediocre challenges—as well as the bland and straightforward dialogue that accompanies them—stick out like a sore thumb against the irreverent charm of the original game.

If you’ve ever played We Love Katamari or any version of the original Katamari Damacy, then you already know what you’ll be getting into with We Love Katamari Reroll. It’s an incremental improvement at best—both as a sequel to Katamari Damacy and as a port of We Love Katamari—but if that’s all you’re looking for then the end result will certainly be satisfying. Katamari is already such an unusual game that maybe its sequel doesn’t need to be particularly groundbreaking, and since it’s so rare for any Katamari game to be released at all it’s absolutely a good place to start for anyone that hasn’t gotten to experience the series’ weird and wonderful vibes.

TalkBack / Farming Simulator 23 (Switch) Review
« on: May 22, 2023, 11:00:00 PM »

Less for more.

One of the more interesting markets in gaming is the growing niche of ‘simulator’ games that strive to be mundane and realistic simulations of some facet of everyday life. Games like PowerWash Simulator and Euro Truck Simulator can be good ways to just vibe and relax, but Farming Simulator 23 is a game that struggles to hold the same magic for me. My only previous experience with Farming Simulator was reviewing the Switch version of Farming Simulator 20 a few years ago, and the 2023 edition has failed to hook me for many of the same reasons as its predecessor.

The basics of Farming Simulator 23 are obvious: you’re tasked with managing a realistic farm, carrying out all the necessary steps of agriculture to grow crops, cultivate livestock, and expand your business into more varied fields (both figuratively and literally). In order to produce any sizable yield to sell at the markets, you’ll need to have multiple vehicles running different parts of the process simultaneously, which is where automated workers can be hired to pick up the slack. This automation is as boring as it is necessary, since it means that the actual amount of work on the fields required from the player is relatively little.

The real meat of the gameplay appears to be in the actual management and upkeep of your farm and equipment, which makes it odd that the in-game tutorial almost entirely focuses on the ground-level process of harvesting crops. Once I had everything set up and automated, I was completely lost on what to do next since I didn’t even know where to begin with setting up a new area of expertise for my farm, and since new equipment is realistically in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars I didn’t exactly have the wiggle room to experiment with things to figure out what sticks.

Even some of the basics of harvesting weren't adequately explained, which I discovered when in-game notifications told me that my fields had not been adequately plowed. I needed to buy a new piece of plowing equipment—something which the tutorial never brought up in any way—in order to adequately set up my fields for a good harvest. Experienced veterans of the Farming Simulator franchise will likely go in already knowing what they’re supposed to be doing, but as an outsider I found the wide breadth of things that I could (and sometimes should) be doing to be utterly impenetrable.

On Switch, Farming Simulator 23 also comes off as a bit cheap. Switch players are receiving a stripped-down mobile version of Farming Simulator which is scaled back from the latest PC and console release from 2021: Farming Simulator 22. Features from Farming Sim 22 such as beekeeping and multiplayer are absent and the number of machines and vehicles has been scaled back from over 400 to roughly 130. It’s telling that the game’s marketing boasts the addition of chickens to the mobile versions—a feature that has been in the PC versions for over a decade. The graphics are also obviously a massive step down from Farming Sim 22, but the biggest problem I had with the previous Switch release—a low draw distance that made it difficult to tell when crops had fully grown—has been improved.

Farming Simulator 23 is not a game for newcomers. My time playing was largely filled with confusion, and the in-game tutorials and guides do very little to point a new player in the right direction. It may appeal to core fans of the franchise since it is at least a portable version of the game, but the scaled-back features are likely to be what those players care about the most, and anyway the price tag of $45 is frankly a joke compared to the $8 this same version of the game costs on Android and iOS. Perhaps I’m wrong and there’s some X factor a hardcore Farming Simulator fan can tell I’m missing, but Farming Simulator 23 is a clear non-starter for newcomers that clearly lacks plenty of content that longtime fans have come to enjoy on more powerful hardware.

TalkBack / Dokapon Kingdom Connect (Switch) Review-In-Progress
« on: May 02, 2023, 06:00:00 AM »

Adventurers! We have an emergency!

Dokapon Kingdom is a party board game that is often mentioned in the same breath as Mario Party. More specifically it is often regarded as the crueler and more sadistic version of the two, frequently pitched as “what if Mario Party was also a full-length RPG?” Over the last two weeks, I’ve been playing the game with my friends from Mario Party Monthly, the monthly stream series on the NWR Twitch channel where we have been competing against each other in Nintendo’s premiere sadomasochistic party franchise for the past a year and a half. We’ve barely scratched the surface so far—this is a full-length RPG after all—but we’ve already seen enough for me to know that Dokapon Kingdom is a board game experience unlike anything else that’s held back only by how difficult it is to convince people to actually sit down and play it.

The story of Dokapon Kingdom takes place in a standard fantasy RPG setting: a dark lord is threatening the world and the king has sent up to four adventurers to defeat the dark lord and win the princess’ hand in marriage. The players all have the same goal, but they are not working together. Each player’s status is measured by their net worth, which is most significantly influenced by towns on the board that the players have taken ownership of and invested money into for development. That’s right: Dokapon Kingdom has more in common with Monopoly than it does with Mario Party, but money isn’t the only thing you need to keep track of.

Like I said, this is an RPG, and you need to also pay attention to your stats, your equipment, and your class skills. Towns are not bought, but are instead liberated from monsters that must be defeated in battle. These monsters aren’t just filler enemies, they’re formidable opponents that will soundly trounce any underleveled player who tries to take them on. Players who get a good build going early will scoop up towns quickly, leaving opposing players in poverty. Each chapter of the story mode also features distinct objectives such as defeating a boss or retrieving an item for the king, and the player who completes an objective first will receive massive and often permanent rewards.

Success in Dokapon Kingdom depends on how well you can balance all of its various mechanics, and falling behind the pack means that you’ll often be forced to choose violence. Combat takes place in turn-based battles that leverage a rock-paper-scissors style system of advantages and counters. The attacker can choose to use a simple basic Attack which the opponent can weaken with basic Defending, but they can also choose a powerful Strike attack that can break through the enemy’s defense. Strike attacks are risky though, since the defending player can completely negate them with a Counter, which dodges the attack entirely and hits the attacker for more damage than the Strike would’ve done. Unique skills add a bit of extra depth and complexity to battle, and combat between two players is often a gamble on how well you know what your opponent is thinking.

The downside of Dokapon Kingdom is that it doesn’t do a very good job of explaining exactly how its mechanics work. There is a help menu where you can read up on the basics, but a lot of crucial details are often left unsaid. One good example is the Local Items that can be given to the king as a gift to boost your net worth. The help menus explain that Local Items can be obtained at towns you own, but what it does not say is that those towns must be upgraded to level 3, and then they are collected from the town alongside taxes. Battle stats are also never explained so it isn’t clear exactly how your stats translate into damage, or even what the speed stat does at all (it affects hit accuracy). We’ve had to do a lot of google searching to figure out how some major mechanics are supposed to work, and there are a few fundamental mechanics we still don’t fully understand after eight hours of play.

Speaking of those eight hours of play, the daunting scale of Dokapon Kingdom is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The length of the story mode heavily depends on the people you’re playing with and how efficiently you complete objectives, but discussion of the game online tells me that it takes roughly 25 hours to finish a single playthrough—and that’s if you’re quick! This enables an incredible opportunity to craft an ongoing adventure with friends that devolves into spiteful chaos as time goes by, with tension higher than any other multiplayer game I’ve ever played. The obvious drawback is that you need to figure out how to get a group of players to sit down and play a single playthrough for over 25 hours. The four of us are all adults who are out of school and have jobs and responsibilities to take care of, so those eight hours of play over the course of four sessions constituted every free moment we could find together over the course of two weeks. Even now I’m not sure if we’ll ever actually be able to finish this game, and that is a substantial red flag that I feel has to be included alongside any recommendation of this game. This isn’t something you can casually pick up with the lads; it is a substantial commitment that will take a very long time to finish.

Of course since Dokapon Kingdom Connect is a Switch remaster of a Wii remaster of a PS2 remake of a Super Famicom game, the most pressing thing I have to address is the brand new online mode that this version is named for. Our entire playthrough so far has been entirely online, and that experience has frankly been immaculate. We have not experienced a single internet-related problem in the game so far, and a sleek autosave system backs up your progress every turn so that nothing is lost if you do need to restart the lobby for a game in progress. Each player also receives their own copy of the ongoing save file, so no one person needs to be relied on as the host for an entire playthrough. Whenever we need to load the save file, it’s a simple matter of loading the save file, and then the game automatically connects us together. In an era where long-form online multiplayer games often struggle to have an intuitive save system, it’s a pleasant surprise that Dokapon Kingdom Connect just works.

Of course, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what Dokapon Kingdom has to offer, and there’s still a long adventure ahead of us. It’s going to take us a long time to finish this game, so I’d like to invite you to join us so we can witness the journey unfold together. We have been recording our entire playthrough so far just like it was a game of Mario Party Monthly and will be broadcasting it on NWR's Twitch channel as part of our new series: Dokapon Kingdom (Kind Of) Monthly. Beginning Friday, May 26th, we will be broadcasting our entire playthrough so far, and once the recordings catch up with us we may even start streaming our sessions live as we play them.

The journey has just begun, and we’ve got a lot of Dokapon Kingdom ahead of us, but I’m incredibly excited to continue this adventure. Check back with us as Dokapon Kingdom (Kind Of) Monthly progresses to see more of our impressions on this legendary party board game.

TalkBack / Smashterpieces Podcast Episode AF23: Doom (1993)
« on: April 01, 2023, 08:33:45 AM »

Looks like you're stuck on the shores of Hell. The only way out is through.

Did you know that dogs can’t look up? This implies that the Doomslayer, who also cannot look up, is in fact not a person but a dog. The evidence is out there, mostly on Mars and in Hell, but it is out there. Don’t believe me? Have you ever seen the Doomslayer eat food? Of course not, cause he’s eating his dog food in secret to throw you off the trail. Wake up, sheeple! The government doesn’t want you to know! The Doomslayer is a dog!

Presented by Anonymous Dinosaur and Nintendo World Report, this is Smashterpieces - a casual walk through the history of the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Roster. On this show, hosts Joe DeVader and Matt Zawodniak are playing one game for every fighter in the newest Super Smash Bros. game, from 1984's Duck Hunt to 2019's Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Each game will be live-streamed by both of us, and then we'll convene to talk about it on the podcast.

Anyways, we’re here to talk about Doom. Not 2016, that’d be silly. We’re talking about the ORIGINAL Doom. You know, the one where you can’t look up BECAUSE THE DOOMSLAYER IS A DOG.

Join us next time as oh god we’re playing that? No, god no, what hath we wrought?

You can find previous episodes at Anonymous Dinosaur's website!

Our list of games can be found here!

You can watch Matt and Joe stream these games on the NWR Twitch channel!

TalkBack / Smashterpieces Podcast Episode 44: F-Zero GX
« on: March 22, 2023, 10:12:01 AM »

You've got boost power!

Welcome to FASCAR, the channel where we talk about Fast Cars. Today we’re gonna talk about the fastest cars of all, the ones of the legendary F-Zero Grand Prix. They go very fast. They go extremely fast. Think of the fastest thing you know. A beautiful stallion? Faster. A regal cheetah? Faster. A tuned-up racecar? Faster. A jet like from that one movie? FASTER. The speed at which my life has fallen apart and my family has left me so I’m stuck here in this dark room writing podcast episode descriptions trying desperately not to let it set in but it gets harder to do so every day? Somehow even faster.

Presented by Anonymous Dinosaur and Nintendo World Report, this is Smashterpieces - a casual walk through the history of the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Roster. On this show, hosts Joe DeVader and Matt Zawodniak are playing one game for every fighter in the newest Super Smash Bros. game, from 1984's Duck Hunt to 2019's Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Each game will be live-streamed by both of us, and then we'll convene to talk about it on the podcast.

You can hear all about these speed demons in this episode discussing Smashterpiece #44: F-Zero GX. What do we think about the story mode as opposed to the Grand Prix? What makes this game so special in the world of racing games? Where’s your closest F-Zero AX machine? All that and more in today’s episode! (NOTE: We do not know which F-Zero AX machine is closest to you personally, that would be weird)

Join us next time as we set off on our first proper Pokémon adventure in Smashterpiece #45: Pokémon FireRed/LeafGreen

You can find previous episodes at Anonymous Dinosaur's website!

Our list of games can be found here!

You can watch Matt and Joe stream these games on the NWR Twitch channel!


This is a message from Lord Nergal. "I await you on the Dread Isle."

As I sit here on this battlefield, I think long and hard about the cost of this war. The lives lost (statistically like 7 or so), the wives widowed (I actually think our army only had three married people in it and two of them were married to each other), the blood spilt (this game is rated E for Everyone so honestly there really wasn’t any now that I think about it), the time taken (okay yeah this one checks out)… Was it really worth it? What were we even fighting for?

Presented by Anonymous Dinosaur and Nintendo World Report, this is Smashterpieces - a casual walk through the history of the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Roster. On this show, hosts Joe DeVader and Matt Zawodniak are playing one game for every fighter in the newest Super Smash Bros. game, from 1984's Duck Hunt to 2019's Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Each game will be live-streamed by both of us, and then we'll convene to talk about it on the podcast.

I suppose if I had to come up with an answer it’d be that we were fighting for Smashterpiece #43, Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade. An era has finally come to an end, and it needs much discussion. How do the last few maps of the game hold up? What are some of the major differences between the ends Eliwood and Hector’s routes? Is Ninian Roy’s mom or did we all get it wrong? What even is a dragon, anyways? All this and more in today’s episode.

Join us next time as we go way too god damn fast in Smashterpiece #44: F-Zero GX

You can find previous episodes at Anonymous Dinosaur's website!

Our list of games can be found here!

You can watch Matt and Joe stream these games on the NWR Twitch channel!

TalkBack / Tales of Symphonia Remastered
« on: February 15, 2023, 05:03:20 AM »

Barely the bare minimum.

I have fond memories of playing Tales of Symphonia nearly 20 years ago. It was one of the first JRPGs I’d ever played, and to this day I consider it a gold standard of the genre. With a complex narrative in a massive world, fluid real-time combat, and a star-studded English dub featuring the likes of Scott Menville, Jennifer Hale, and Tara Strong, there’s plenty to love about this game. There are a few things that haven’t aged too well such as the lack of quality of life features from future Tales titles and a messy opening act with clunky exposition, but I’d still easily recommend the game to anyone looking to play an absolute classic.Unfortunately, I don’t have as many kind words for the latest remaster, which is not only the first time it’s been re-released on a Nintendo system, but also only the third time ever that the game has been made available in the west. There are enough problems with Tales of Symphonia Remastered that it feels generous calling it a remaster at all—not only does it lack any new features or improvements at all, but it retains every technical flaw from previous re-releases while managing to introduce brand new problems of its own.

Symphonia Remastered is based on the PS3 re-release from 2014, and many of its issues are inherited from that version. There’s been a lot of talk about how the game is locked to 30fps—a downgrade from the GameCube version’s 60fps that has its roots in the initial PS2 port. If that were the only issue then things might not be so bad, but the game’s art style was also compromised with inconsistent rendering for the anime-style character outlines featured in the original release. The outlines never manage to look as bold as the original GameCube version, and depending on the scene they sometimes vanish entirely. Some scenes also bizarrely have dialogue that is completely missing in PS3 and Switch versions. This isn’t a matter of censorship or an updated localization; characters will still reply to missing lines as though they were still there.

The issues with the PS3 port (which can also be found on Steam) ultimately don’t add up to much, and if you’ve never played the game before you probably won’t even notice most of them. The same can’t be said of the new issues introduced in the Remaster. Loading times between maps, which used to be miniscule, are now several seconds long. Colors are less vibrant across the board with the game’s brightness being turned down in all scenes. Textures have been AI upscaled, with visual details devolving into a smeary soup as a result. The battle UI now features texture seams not present in any other version, and small icons and text fonts now have visible compression artifacts. One especially egregious example I noticed was a small black line that consistently appeared above any lowercase w in dialogue.

Some of Symphonia’s graphical effects are now simply broken. The pause screen which previously appeared on top of whatever was happening in the game now features a plain black background. The stylish animation that transitions between exploration and combat is completely missing, replaced with a hard cut to black followed by a hard cut to white that fades in after a couple seconds. Cutscenes also appear to have lost the ability to crossfade, now abruptly jump-cutting between shots that used to be slow transitions. The only genuine improvement in this version is that the game runs at 1080p, a record high for console versions of Symphonia—but a lot has been sacrificed to get there.

So much is compromised in this remaster that if it had just been an emulator running the GameCube version in HD, then it actually would’ve been an improvement. That’s not just hyperbole; I actually checked how the GameCube version looks on a fan-made emulator rendering the game in 4K, and the result speaks for itself. There are no compression artifacts in the UI, there are no visible texture seams, the character outlines are fully intact, and the game runs at a smooth 60fps; all aspects that the official remaster fails at. The only thing the GameCube version is missing is the content that was added in the later PS2 port, but at this point I’m starting to wonder if that content is even worth the trouble.

Tales of Symphonia seems to be a game that is doomed to get a bit worse with every subsequent re-release. It’s difficult to justify calling this new version a remaster at all since it includes all of the problems with the previous version while introducing entirely new problems on top of that. The bare minimum for a port of a retro game should be that you won’t notice any technical problems if you haven’t played the original, and Tales of Symphonia Remastered does not even clear that bar. It is playable; it’s still Tales of Symphonia, but that is the absolute least we can ask of it, and that is the absolute most we’ve gotten from it.

TalkBack / Fire Emblem Engage (Switch) Review
« on: January 17, 2023, 04:00:00 AM »

The best Fire Emblem in the last decade.

Fire Emblem Engage is both a celebration of the franchise’s history and an exciting evolution on the series’ formula, managing to deliver the best of both worlds. There’s plenty of fanservice referencing the series’ more than thirty years of history with classic characters, maps, and gameplay mechanics that harken back to the best memories of your favorite Fire Emblem game. There are also bold new reworks and innovations to mainstay mechanics that drive the tactical gameplay forward to new heights. Engage may not quite be everything I wanted it to be, but I think it’s easily a new high bar for what a modern Fire Emblem can be.

Fire Emblem Engage tells the story of the Divine Dragon, a character whose name and gender you can choose that is canonically named Alear. After a thousand-year slumber, Alear wakes up with amnesia to a world on the verge of war with worshippers of the ancient Fell Dragon. In order to prevent the Fell Dragon’s return, Alear must gather the twelve Emblem Rings—artifacts of substantial power carrying the spirits of heroes from other worlds—and travels the land to find them before they can fall into the wrong hands.

This story isn’t particularly unique—it has a lot in common with Fire Emblem Awakening, which was already pretty derivative in itself—but it gets the job done well enough and gives us the chance to meet a cast of characters from all corners of the world who bounce off of each other in compelling and entertaining ways. The main story may be simple, but Fire Emblem Engage has one of my favorite casts in the franchise, with a number of characters that are fleshed out very well in support conversations.

Some personal favorites of mine include the party animal Pandreo, who earnestly dedicates his life to leading the church his parents abandoned; the former assassin Yunaka, who puts on an over-the-top goofball facade as she tries to leave her violent past behind her; and the child merchant Anna, who dreams up big entrepreneurial schemes while concealing her fear and anxiety over being separated from her family. The only characters I didn’t find something to love about were the ones that simply didn’t stay in active duty long enough to unlock their support conversations.

Of course, Fire Emblem isn’t just a game about characters; it’s also about tactical RPG strategy, which is where Engage really manages to shine. I talked at length about the details in my preview two weeks ago so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but a total rework of the series’ staple weapon triangle goes a long way into encouraging aggressive tactics that raise the stakes of each battle, and powerful Emblem Rings representing heroes from previous games add a new layer of risk and reward to combat. The map design is also fantastic, often encouraging you to split your army into two smaller teams that can tackle separate obstacles at once, which led to me putting a lot of thought into which units synergized well in a coordinated strike force.

Even the fanservice leads to compelling gameplay as Fire Emblem Engage features throwback maps to chapters from previous games. These maps will obviously bring back memories to longtime fans, but the twists they offer to gameplay will make them worthwhile even for players who don’t recognize them. Every throwback map goes out of its way to replicate the feeling of its original context, whether it’s protecting the crest stones in Three Houses’ Holy Tomb, desperately defending choke points in Radiant Dawn’s Nox Castle, or getting one-hit killed by ludicrously overpowered ballistae on a bridge crossing the River Thracia. Even though these maps are technically reused content, they add a whole new layer of variety to the game that make for some of the most memorable tactical problems in all of Engage.

If there is one thing that disappoints me in Fire Emblem Engage, it’s that I’m starting to feel a bit disillusioned with the current split between Classic and Casual modes. The casual mode that disables permadeath and the time crystal that allows you to rewind turns and rethink your strategy are welcome features that have done a great deal to make Fire Emblem approachable to more players, but as an older fan of the series I can’t help but feel like the Classic mode is turning into a bit of an afterthought. As the franchise has pivoted towards investing in units and keeping them regardless of any setback, there hasn’t been any innovations in providing a classic experience that encourages players to keep playing through mistakes and adapt to changing circumstances.

I often wish Fire Emblem would implement a ‘wounded’ system where units are merely taken away temporarily, but even the simple option to adjust the number of rewind charges on higher difficulties—which is locked into the maximum number that was available at the end of Three Houses from the very beginning of Engage—would make me feel like the classic experience was at least something the developers were thinking about. Instead after making a mistake on classic mode we’re left to choose between two extremes, either removing a character and their personal story from the game entirely, or turning back time (either through a full reset or literal rewind) to completely erase a mistake from existence. It’s a great thing that Fire Emblem has options for players that want to mitigate the consequences of their mistakes, but I’m disappointed that players who actually want to deal with those consequences have not received any innovations to match since the series began over thirty years ago.

Fire Emblem Engage may not be my dream game, but it is still a damn good Fire Emblem game. The worst parts of it are merely okay, and the best parts of it paint a bright picture for the future of the franchise. I have never played a game quite so ravenously, sinking over ninety hours into my first playthrough in just two weeks (though don’t get too intimidated by that number, it counts all of my resets from playing on Hard difficulty, and I also played all fifteen optional chapters). At the end of it all I didn’t feel exhausted or burnt out, but rather like I somehow wished that I could play for even longer. Fire Emblem Engage may not check every box that fans were hoping for, but it is easily the strongest showing for the series in the last decade.

TalkBack / Fire Emblem: Engage (Hands-on Preview)
« on: January 05, 2023, 04:00:00 AM »

The most exciting Fire Emblem in a decade.

Fire Emblem Engage feels a bit like it snuck up on me. Only about three months passed between its original announcement and the game arriving in my hands, and I feel like I learned very little about it in that time. That meant that I was going into the game relatively blind, and I’m happy to say I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I have been playing this game non-stop since I received it and I’m confident now that this is the best I’ve felt about a new Fire Emblem game in the last decade.

The first thing I want to talk about—which is also the thing I’ve seen people online be the most hesitant about—is the Somniel: Engage’s equivalent to Garreg Mach Monastery from Three Houses. In Three Houses I felt like the classroom-focused gameplay of the monastery was a bit too intrusive, largely being a rote and monotonous task that lost its appeal long before the game ended but was too essential for your units’ long-term growth to be ignored. In contrast, Engage’s Somniel is mercifully skippable while also being much clearer about its immediate benefits. Rather than focusing on long-term growth that becomes evident hours into the game, the minigames on the Somniel provide temporary bonuses to your units that immediately affect your next battle. If you participate in the exercise minigame then you’ll receive a minor stat buff for the next battle, and stopping by the kitchen for dinner gives a special healing item that’s a little better than a standard vulnerary. It’s a good balance that makes the side activities clearly worthwhile, but they aren’t so necessary that you’ll feel like you’re missing out by ignoring them.

But Fire Emblem Engage isn’t just a game about mitigating its predecessors’ weaknesses; it also showcases a number of innovations to gameplay to bring a new twist to combat. The biggest change by far is the complete overhaul of the weapon triangle, which has returned after a brief absence in Three Houses. The basic concept of the weapon triangle is the same as ever—swords have an advantage against axes, axes have an advantage against lances, and lances have an advantage against swords—but what that advantage means has drastically changed. In past games, weapon advantage would give a boost to your stats that meant you were more likely to hit your target and do a little extra damage. Those stat changes have been completely replaced by a new status effect called Break.

Attacking an opponent with advantage applies Break, which completely prevents them from counter-attacking until their next turn. This means that any unit, regardless of their own strength, can attack the afflicted target without any fear of retaliation, giving a big incentive to act more aggressively in battle. The flip side of this coin is that it’s now substantially more dangerous to sit and wait for the enemy to come to you since they have equal opportunity to apply Break to your own units as well. The strongest units can be put into a bad situation after being Broken, so you’ll need to be careful of putting yourself into a spot where the enemy can take advantage of you.

And enemies will absolutely take advantage of you; enemy AI appears to be much smarter this time around than ever before. As early as the very first battle of the game, I was surprised to watch an enemy unit that was already right next to me carefully reposition itself to make sure it was standing in terrain that let it evade my attacks more easily before it attacked me. This is something that I’ve never seen AI in Fire Emblem be smart enough to do before. Aside from smart positioning the AI would also always make sure to capitalize on my mistakes; it would inflict Break first when swarming my units, and it would always go out of its way to target any unit that could possibly be killed in that turn—even if that enemy in particular had no way of dealing the killing blow. Even with the generous rewind function that is now standard in Fire Emblem, I often found myself restarting entire chapters from the beginning because I wasn’t confident that my strategy was going to work out anymore. I should note that I exclusively played on Hard difficulty, so I can’t vouch for whether the AI will still be as smart on Normal, but I was more than happy to get the challenge I was looking for and then some.

Engage also brings innovations that aren’t quite as subtle with the introduction of Emblem rings. Emblem rings take the form of protagonists from previous Fire Emblem titles, acting as a personified piece of equipment that grants stat boosts and extra skills to your units. Each Emblem fills a different niche in battle, such as Radiant Dawn’s Micaiah giving powerful healing abilities, and Genealogy of the Holy War’s Sigurd granting ludicrous mobility to any unit. Emblems grant some passive abilities to their users at all times, but their strongest skills are limited to when you Engage with them.

Engaging with Emblems merges your unit with the Emblem, giving them a fancy costume change and legendary weapons from the Emblem’s original game. Engaging with Emblems is extraordinarily powerful, and it will often be your ace in the hole to take out the game’s most difficult foes. The balancing factor that keeps Emblems from being too strong is the cooldown they have after the Engage runs out. After being depleted the Engage meter can only be recharged through active combat (or through healing for clerics), so simply hanging back and waiting for the Engage meter to recharge won’t be an option. If you want to Engage with your Emblems regularly you’ll need to make sure your units are getting a healthy balance of combat each turn—and the faster you want to recharge a unit’s meter, the more danger you’ll need to put them in. Overall, Fire Emblem Engage skews the risk/reward calculations you’ll be making to favor aggressive tactics where you take on your opponents head on, which is exactly what I think a strategy game should do.

In addition to the major Emblems you can Engage with, there are also minor Emblem rings representing side characters from past games that can be obtained through a gacha system. These Emblems cannot be Engaged with and offer much smaller advantages in battle, but they’re worthwhile enough to at least make sure you have one on each unit. Duplicate minor Emblems can be merged together to create rings of higher rarities that offer greater stat boosts, and some S-tier rings even offer unique skills that you can’t get anywhere else. Unfortunately in this pre-release era where there isn’t any information about these rings online, it felt like I was taking a huge gamble every time I decided to merge some rings together. There’s no way to know which S-tier rings have unique skills, so every time I spent substantial resources to get an S-tier ring only to end up with a dud, it felt like a complete waste of time. This should be much less frustrating when I can just check a fanmade wiki to know which rings are worth investing in, but without that information you’re better off just relying on the whims of random gacha pulls.

The one part of Engage I think is most likely to disappoint people is its main story. The plot is fairly straightforward and spends little time on worldbuilding. It’s reminiscent of the old GBA games where the writing received little focus, and characters often act with little more motivation than simply following the script. If you enjoyed the fact that Three Houses had enough lore to fill a textbook you probably won’t be happy with how underwritten things feel. It’s honestly a shame because Engage’s cast of characters is one of my favorites in the entire franchise. The support conversations in this game go a long way towards fleshing out units from multiple angles, and almost every character has more interesting things going on than the single anime trope that defines them.

This is best seen with the recurring character Anna, who has been reimagined as a child separated from her family. She’s still motivated by money at heart, and her interests are focused on business strategies and marketing, but she also struggles with the anxiety of being separated from her family, and often speaks up about how she resents being treated like a child. The silly trope that defines her may be the same as ever, but it’s been used as a foundation to build a more interesting character instead of just being the entire character like in previous games. The entire cast seems to have gotten this amount of care and focus, and the only characters I didn’t find something to love about were the ones that I simply didn’t keep on the battlefield long enough to unlock support conversations for.

There’s so much more I wish I could say about Engage, but there’s also so much I’m not able to talk about in a limited preview. From the very beginning of the game I was utterly taken in by how much I was enjoying it, and that energy has not let up. It remains to be seen if I still feel as good about it when it comes time for my final review, but for right now I’m more excited about Fire Emblem than I have been in a long time.


Brendan Reed, leader of the Black Fang.

Ah, sorry we’re late! You know, the weather and the traffic and all that, but at least we’re just in time for the holidays! I mean, it’s only been… Oh god, has it actually been that long? Oh no, oh jeez, oh dang… It’s fine, let’s just say we went off to war and that’s why we took so long, right?

Presented by Anonymous Dinosaur and Nintendo World Report, this is Smashterpieces - a casual walk through the history of the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Roster. On this show, hosts Joe DeVader and Matt Zawodniak are playing one game for every fighter in the newest Super Smash Bros. game, from 1984's Duck Hunt to 2019's Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Each game will be live-streamed by both of us, and then we'll convene to talk about it on the podcast.

War wasn’t won in a day! A fact that we have learned extensively in Smashterpiece #43: Fire Emblem: The Blazing Blade. Much like the wheel of fate, Alex’s wheel of death continues to spin. Not really, more just people are dying. Everywhere, really. Even you, even me, even Eliwood, even the character from Binding Blade that you absolutely know because you’ve played Binding Blade, right? We’ve all played Binding Blade, the game that didn’t release outside of Japan? Yeah, we all played it. Definitely. Anyways, life is finite.

The next episode will be our final episode on The Blazing Blade.

You can find previous episodes at Anonymous Dinosaur's website!

Our list of games can be found here!

You can watch Matt and Joe stream these games on the NWR Twitch channel!


The facts so far.

Smash World Tour, an unofficial Super Smash Bros. circuit run by the eSports team VGBootCamp, announced yesterday that they would be ceasing operations. The tournament series was nearing the end of its 2022 season with championships set to take place during the weekend of December 9th, and the planned 2023 season has also been cancelled. In an open letter shared on Twitter, SWT said that they had been contacted by Nintendo the night before Thanksgiving and told that they would no longer be allowed to run their tournament circuit.

According to the open letter, SWT's organizers were shocked to hear this since they had been in talks with Nintendo over the previous year to acquire a license to operate as an official Nintendo-sponsored event. After the announcement of PandaGlobal's officially-sponsored Panda Cup, Nintendo assured SWT's leadership that their tournaments were not at risk of being shut down and "had represented Nintendo's values well." A key takeaway of the meeting was that Nintendo's primary concern in shutting down tournaments was whether the event made use of unauthorized game modifications, which controversially led to them issuing a cease & desist order to The Big House Online in 2020 due to the use of an online netplay mod for Super Smash Bros. Melee.

Nintendo explained that their partnership with PandaGlobal was not exclusive and allowed SWT to apply for a license, with SWT saying they submitted their application in January of 2022. SWT alleges that after this, PandaGlobal's CEO Alan Bunney began advising tournament organizers not to partner with SWT, claiming that the tournament circuit was going to be shut down. SWT explains that Nintendo dismissed Bunney's claims when asked about them and promised to talk to him about his comments, which continued as both circuits got underway.

Smash World Tour 2021's Grand Finals, screenshot from VGBootcamp.

SWT explains that this back-and-forth continued through 2022 with their license application being delayed several times and tension between the SWT circuit and the Panda Cup continuing behind the scenes. This culminated in a meeting last week where a representative from Nintendo informed SWT that the tournament would not be granted an official license, and that Nintendo would no longer be allowing them to continue operating without one. According to the open letter, Nintendo also denied a request for SWT to be allowed to run their 2023 season with the intention of obtaining a license for a potential 2024 season, with Nintendo's representative telling them that "those times were now over." SWT said in their original letter that they had received Nintendo's notice both verbally and in writing.

After the story broke last night, Kotaku received a statement from Nintendo confirming that SWT's license had not been granted, however Nintendo claimed that they did not request that the 2022 championships be cancelled. SWT quickly followed up by sharing the written statement they received from Nintendo, which said the following:

“It is Nintendo’s expectation that an approved license be secured in order to operate any commercial activity featuring Nintendo IP. It is also expected to secure such a license well in advance of any public announcement. After further review, we’ve found that the Smash World Tour has not met these expectations around health & safety guidelines and has not adhered to our internal partner guidelines. Nintendo will not be able to grant a license for the Smash World Tour Championship 2022 or any Smash World Tour activity in 2023.”

While Nintendo's statement does not directly order SWT to cease and desist, it does clarify that they require a license for any commercial activity featuring their IP. The statement additionally clarifies that they will not be granting that license to SWT for either the 2022 championships or any activities in 2023. This contradicts Nintendo's statement to Kotaku unless Nintendo is trying to capitalize on the technicality that they didn't say SWT had to stop, they just described a situation identical to SWT as one that they do not approve of.

Panda Global CEO, Alan Bunney

There has also been some discussion regarding Nintendo's statement that SWT's health and safety guidelines are not up to Nintendo's standards, since SWT has stricter requirements for the COVID-19 vaccine than the officially-licensed Panda Cup. SWT requires all attendees provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, while the Panda Cup merely recommends attendees follow CDC guidelines that recommend a vaccine. However, the Panda Cup has stricter rules requiring the use of masks indoors, which SWT only recommends attendees do.

At time of publication, SWT's response to Nintendo's statement to Kotaku is the most recent official comment on the matter, so it's likely that there are still developments to come before we know what really happened. However, something that is less disputed is the role PandaGlobal's CEO had in attempting to undermine SWT. A number of representatives from prominent eSports organizations such as Beyond the Summit's David Gorman and Golden Guardians' Tracy Parkes have corroborated SWT's version of events, with Gorman describing Bunney's behavior as "basically running a protection racket." Additional allegations against PandaGlobal have also surfaced, with pro player Niko claiming not to have received his tournament winnings for placing 7th in a Panda-run tournament last month, and Spanish commentator Toon Laguna alleging he has not been paid for translation work for the Panda Cup dating back to July.

After SWT's letter was posted, several players sponsored by Panda Global spoke up against Panda, with Justin "Plup" McGrath saying he believed the Panda Cup should be cancelled. Cody "iBDW" Schwab said that he felt blindsided and betrayed, while Eric "ESAM" Lew simply stated "This is f**ked." Terrence "TKbreezy" Kershaw spoke at length about the news on his Twitch channel where he began jokingly updating his resume to apply for a new job.

At time of publication there has been no official statement from Panda Global or Alan Bunney regarding SWT's letter.

TalkBack / Bayonetta 3 (Switch) Review
« on: October 25, 2022, 05:00:00 AM »

Let's hit the climax.

Many games struggle with the balance between style and substance, but Bayonetta 3 has an abundance of both. One moment it puts you into a combat sequence where you'll be pulling off combos and maneuvers that feel straight out of a fighting game, and then the next moment you'll be on the back of a giant spider demon, swinging from building to building across a collapsing city. 'High-octane' barely begins to describe it, and few games manage to offer as much mechanical depth or as much over the top spectacle as the latest entry in Platinum Games’ flagship series.

Keeping with series tradition, Bayonetta is a particular type of action game that many have taken to calling 'character action'. In this kind of game, a heavy emphasis is placed on giving playable characters deep, varied movesets that allow the player to experiment and practice combos in order to have unique strategies and approaches for a wide range of situations. It's possible to get by with basic button mashing - and in fact there's even an equippable item that can boost the power of single-button combos if that's the kind of thing you'd prefer - but the real meat of game comes from its scoring system that awards you medals at the end of each combat encounter based on your performance. The score considers your longest combo, how much damage you took, and how quickly you completed the encounter in order to grade you, and earning the best medal across every encounter in the game is a feat reserved for the most dedicated players who sit down in the training room and get to know the ins and outs of every combo available to them.

The biggest addition to combat in Bayonetta 3 is the ability to use Demon Slaves, which work similarly to the Legion monsters in Platinum's previous Switch game, Astral Chain. Like the Legions, Demon Slaves aren't directly controlled so much as they are given commands. Your character cannot move while you're commanding a Demon, but both can be active in a fight at once by being mindful of the downtime you have between attacks. The Demon Slaves tend to have big, lethargic animations, so once you've given a command you'll have time to get some hits in with your combos before stopping to issue the next command. With enough practice you can even start to find downtime in your own animations in order to maintain a non-stop barrage of damage between two fronts. Demons aren't able to act infinitely though; they consume magic power in order to be active, and if they sustain too much damage from enemies they'll be placed on a cooldown where you won't be able to summon them.

Bayoneta’s moveset has also been augmented by an ability called Demon Masquerade, which transforms her entire body into a form similar to the Demon Slave that matches the weapon she's currently using. In practice this doesn't change too much about gameplay since the weapon you use (and therefore the form you take in Demon Masquerade) isn't tied to the Demon Slaves you have equipped, but it does add an extra layer of uniqueness to the various weapons at your disposal, giving a lot of opportunities to customize the combat to fit your playstyle.

Outside of combat, Bayonetta 3 keeps things exciting with a hefty dose of spectacle. I can't reveal many details (I wouldn't want to spoil most of them anyway), but there are times where the game practically changes genres and turns into something else entirely. It's the kind of thing you'd expect from a bad licensed game trying to brag about how many experiences they have on the back of the box, but each of these moments in Bayonetta 3 is frankly so awesome that I don't care if they're a little under-baked, and most of them are polished enough that they aren't frustrating or boring to actually play. These brief genre shifts punctuate the traditional combat encounters to create an unforgettable experience that almost defies description.

Of course when I say "most of them" aren't frustrating, naturally I mean that there are a few duds. The most blatant failure in my eyes is the Side Chapters, which have you take control of Bayonetta's close confidant Jeanne in a side-scrolling stealth mission. These chapters are clunky, lacking the effortless fluidity that ties the rest of the game together, and despite the name they are mandatory to progress through the story. The side chapters are mercifully short, but they serve as a good reminder that while Bayonetta 3 hits more than it misses, things can be especially frustrating when it does occasionally miss.

Bayonetta 3 is the kind of game that makes you wonder where a series could possibly go from here, because I can't imagine a sequel being bigger or better than this. Platinum Games pulled out all the stops for this one, both expanding on the Bayonetta franchise as it was and learning from other games they made in years between to bring the franchise to a new peak. The game is constantly swinging for the fences, and while it may strike out a few times it manages to hit plenty of home runs in the process. It’s been nearly five years since Bayonetta 3 was first announced, and after years of silence it finally seems that it was absolutely worth the wait.

TalkBack / Pokémon Scarlet & Violet (Switch) Hands-On Impressions
« on: October 21, 2022, 05:00:00 AM »

Is this the evolution the Pokémon franchise needs?

Pokémon Scarlet and Violet are promising to be a big shake-up to the series’ formula as the first brand new generation to feature a fully open world map. I had the privilege recently of being one of the first people in the world to get hands-on experience with the game, and was given the opportunity to play roughly an hour of it. I’ll admit that I was a bit hesitant going in; the mainline Pokémon games have started to lose me a bit lately, and I haven’t really gotten excited about a new adventure in close to a decade. I can’t say that my worries have been completely dispelled—Scarlet and Violet are not the radical reinvention to the formula that I may have been hoping for—but after playing it for myself, one thing has become clear: this is definitely going to be the best game the series has seen in a long while.

Our demo started early in the game with the prologue already completed, giving us the opportunity to immediately see what the game is like after it gets going. From there we got to choose one of the game’s three main stories to follow: Victory Road, Path of Legends, and Starfall Street. Structurally, I was expecting these stories to be part of a single linear narrative, but they actually unfold in a manner that reminded me most of Grand Theft Auto V—a phrase that I’m sure you’re as surprised to read as I was to write. In Grand Theft Auto V, each of the main protagonists has their own separate linear story, but you can swap between them on the fly based on whatever you feel like accomplishing at the moment, and new missions are unlocked in each story as you progress further through the others. Pokémon Scarlet and Violet work the same way; all three storylines have a main objective on the map at once, and you’re free to wander over to whichever you feel like doing.

I chose first to follow the mission closest to my starting point, which was part of the Path of Legends. In the Path of Legends storyline, you’ll be searching for rare resources guarded by massive Titan Pokémon. This led me to a mountainous desert where I encountered the Stony Cliff Titan, Klawf. This same Titan Pokémon was showcased in the recent online video presentation, and in fact most of the missions we played in the demo can be seen in that stream. I briefly tracked it through the mountain, which led to a boss battle against it. Our Pokémon team was preset and filled with Pokémon that were intentionally over-leveled so that we could quickly progress through missions in the limited time we had, so I didn’t get a good idea of how difficult this fight would really be in the final game. After Klawf was defeated, it ran away, bringing an end to the portion of Path of Legends that we were allowed to play. Since we got to see so little of this storyline in the demo, I still don’t really have a good idea of how it will progress in the full game, and I’m not sure how in depth it will be beyond just fighting giant Pokémon.

Next I decided to follow the Victory Road story, a traditional storyline where you travel to multiple Gyms to defeat their leaders and earn badges. This mission was a bit farther away from where I was, so I took a couple of detours in the open world on the way. I didn’t want to get too distracted since we had been warned that it would be tough to complete all three story missions within the limited time we had, but I was interested in seeing how the open world itself works.

In this respect, Scarlet and Violet are incredibly similar to Legends Arceus, with the environments outside of towns being primarily filled with wild Pokémon and collectible items. Occasionally I would see a shining light off in the distance, and taking a detour out to it would either lead me to a Tera Jewel that would allow me to Terastallize, or a sparkling Wild Tera Pokémon that was already Terastallized—I’ll talk more about Terastilization later. I was a bit disappointed not to find any side quests or other minor storylines I could follow, but it’s possible that I simply didn’t pass by any while rushing to my next main story mission. Since Legends Arceus featured plenty of sidequests, I’d be surprised if there didn’t end up being any in the full version of Scarlet and Violet.

It didn’t take long for me to reach the Grass-type Gym in Artazon. Gyms work the same as they did in Sword and Shield: you must complete a specialized mission before you can challenge the leader. For this Gym, I had to play a game of hide and seek with a group of Sunflora. Like the Gym challenges in Sword and Shield, this was not very difficult, but unlike in Sword and Shield this challenge didn’t take place within the Gym; it utilized the entire town. I liked this challenge a lot since it was a great opportunity to really explore the town and see the sights that I had rushed past in my haste to start the challenge, and I think it served as a great introduction to the town itself. If, in the full game, you explore the town before taking on this challenge, then that would be great, too, since it means you’ll likely already know the layout and be able to find the hiding Sunflora in quick order. We didn’t get to see any other Gym challenges in the demo, but if they all use the town’s geography like this, it’ll go a long way towards making the game’s world feel a bit more fleshed out.

After finding all the Sunflora, I faced off against the Gym Leader Brassius. At this point I have to admit that I actually had not watched the online presentation that covered most of the content in the demo yet when I played it, so I didn’t know that I’d be going face to face with a Terastallized Pokémon. When the game told me that Brassius would be sending out Sudowoodo, I swapped to my Water-type Pokémon to counter, which was promptly stomped into the ground when Sudowoodo Terastallized into a Grass-type.

The process of Terastallization is like a weaker version of Dynamaxing, where the Pokémon in question drastically alters its stats to change its role in battle. (I consider the fact that it’s weaker to be a good thing since Dynamaxing was hilariously overpowered.) I don’t think that Terastallization will mean very much to a casual player; the quick surprise of having to deal with a different type matchup than I expected was funny, but ultimately didn’t change the battle very much since I simply swapped my Fire-type Pokémon back in, and I suppose I should’ve been more suspicious when the Grass Gym Leader sent out a Rock-type Pokémon in a game whose core gimmick is about changing types. That said, I do expect Terastallization to have a drastic impact on competitive play, and it could be a fascinating shake-up to that format which could bring otherwise irrelevant Pokémon into high-level play.

After completing the Gym Battle I decided to heal my Pokémon through the Picnic mechanic, which is a cute diversion where you can hang out with your Pokémon, wash them, and make sandwiches to eat together. The sandwiches you make are assembled by hand with real-world ingredients. The Nintendo rep who was guiding me through the demo caught me a little off guard when she said that the sandwich-making minigame was physics-based, which led into the most memorably stupid experience of the day.

I am not very good at preparing food and do not know what ingredients make a good sandwich, which was something that I started to feel very self-conscious about with representatives from Nintendo and The Pokémon Company watching me play. So I naturally overcompensated by intentionally making the most ridiculously impractical sandwich I could imagine. I stacked up various pieces of meat way too high, and added tomatoes, lettuce, and various other toppings on top. I was quickly forced to face the consequences of my actions as ingredients started to slide off the top of the sandwich, with a particular piece of lettuce acting as a foundation that held its passengers roughly as well as a water slide. I desperately tried to course correct, but the sandwich had turned into a late-stage game of Jenga that was collapsing in on itself at an unsalvageable rate.

The game titled my sandwich “A [Player Name] Original,” which I could not help but imagine being read with the same patronizing tone in which you might call a kindergartener’s watercolor painting “unique.” This whole sequence was very funny to me, and it’s the kind of thing I look forward to seeing a Twitch streamer struggle with in real time.

Having paid for my sins, I set off to the final story mission in the demo, which was part of the Starfall Street storyline where you take on the villainous Team Star. This mission took place within a Team Starfall base, which could only be entered by opening a barred-off gate. Upon entering the base, I was thrown into a challenge where I had ten minutes to defeat thirty Pokémon that were under Team Star’s control. The only way to accomplish this was by using the auto-battle mechanic to send out my team to independently take on different Pokémon so that I could complete multiple battles at a time. This challenge felt remarkably similar in scope to the Gym challenges, though the team base was a much less interesting locale than the town of Artazon.

After completing the challenge, I squared off against the Team Star boss Mela, who fought me with her team of Pokémon as well as the massive Starmobile she was riding on. The Starmobile is a powerful opponent that had to be defeated to win the battle, and I was shocked at just how difficult the battle was. Keep in mind that the Pokémon team we were using was intentionally overpowered to allow us to progress through the demo quickly, and even with that hefty advantage, I still had to think carefully about my strategy once Mela took down half my team. I’ll be very interested to see how tough this fight ends up being when my team is properly balanced for it, since it struck me as unusually hard. If it turns out to be a difficult fight where you’re forced to put some real strategy in to win, then it’d be one of the most interesting things the franchise has done this side of Pokémon Stadium 2’s Gym Leader Castle.

When the demo time ran out, I was connected to the other guests who had been playing the demo at the same time as me in a raid battle against a Tera Pokémon. Raids were introduced in Sword and Shield, and it’s still pretty cool to work together to take down a super powerful Pokémon, but it was definitely the least interesting part of the demo since there weren't a lot of new things to see. Aside from some minor changes like being able to cheer when your Pokémon aren’t knocked out and a rework of the target Pokémon’s health bar, raids are pretty much the same experience as they were in Sword and Shield.

My time with this demo didn’t blow me away—it’s not too surprising to discover that Pokémon is still in fact Pokémon—but it did lift my confidence enough in the game to be interested in buying it. I have a lot of questions that need to be answered before I can say for sure how I feel about this game: will the Gym Challenges all use the overworld’s geography in interesting ways? Will Starfall Street have the depth and difficulty I imagine from the close call it gave me? Is there more to the Path of Legends than just fighting giant Pokémon?

These questions could all be make-or-break for whether this game is a true revitalization of the formula or just the next small step up, and if the answers aren’t what I’m hoping for then this game probably won’t change the minds of anyone like me that’s feeling a bit worn out by the series. But despite these questions, the open world structure will undoubtedly be a breath of fresh air that sets Scarlet and Violet apart from its most recent predecessors. I’m confident in saying that this will likely be the best Pokémon game of the last few generations, but time will tell just how much of a gap there is between first and second place.

TalkBack / Life is Strange Arcadia Bay Collection (Switch) Review
« on: October 18, 2022, 03:16:12 PM »

A hella letdown.

The first time I played Life is Strange, it was in five distinct sittings over the course of ten months in 2015. The game’s original release in an episodic format was comparable to other narrative adventure games of its era, like Telltale’s The Walking Dead. In the years since this format has fallen out of favor, and the latest game in the series—Life is Strange: True Colors—was released in a single complete package. This change in context is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot while revisiting the original Life is Strange, since many of the things that I forgave or even forgot when there was a two month gap between each two hours I played, and playing the episode back to back over the course of a single week have revealed a lot of problems that I never noticed before.

Life is Strange follows Max Caulfield, a teenage girl who has recently returned to her hometown of Arcadia Bay to finish high school. Upon her arrival she reunites with her childhood friend Chloe and discovers that she has the mysterious ability to rewind time and change the past. As Max tries to reintegrate into Chloe’s life she receives visions of a doomed future where Arcade Bay is wiped out by a terrible storm, and that future seems to be mere days away.

Naturally the story is front and center since this is a narrative adventure game where Your Choices Matter™, but there are a lot of things that didn’t quite enchant me this time around like they did years before. It’s a popular sentiment by now that your choices don’t really matter in any game that tries to have a relatively linear story like this, but I was surprised to discover that at times Life is Strange doesn’t even bother pretending. The opening sequence sees Max witnessing the school bully Nathan Prescott shoot Chloe to death, which she obviously rewinds to prevent. Afterwards Max is confronted by the principal, who suspects her of hiding something.

At this point, I recalled how this choice went in my first playthrough seven years ago: I told the principal I had seen Nathan with a gun. The principal would later shield Nathan from any consequences, and Nathan would find out in the process that I had seen him, going on to threaten Max in an attempt to silence her. This time I chose differently: I feigned ignorance, claiming to the principal that nothing was wrong. He was still suspicious of Max, but there was now no way for Nathan to find out that I’d seen him. An hour later I reached the scene where Nathan had threatened Max in my first playthrough, and I was surprised to see that Nathan still somehow found out that I had seen him and still threatened me. My choice didn’t just “not matter”, but the game didn’t seem to know what to do after I chose the “wrong” choice, so it simply acted as though I had chosen to snitch on Nathan anyway.

This was literally the very first major decision in the game, and it set a tone for things to come as Max’s power to rewind became relevant in the gameplay. Conversations often allow you to choose different dialogue options, and then once the conversation is complete you can rewind time and try answering differently. Frequently I would discover that the different dialogue options got the exact same response from whoever I was talking to, and in a couple of instances Max herself even said the same thing between two different options. This is very common in games with dialogue trees and wouldn’t even be worth mentioning in some of them, but since you have the power to rewind and immediately try different options in Life is Strange, the illusion doesn’t even last to the end of your first playthrough; it breaks down in the very first conversation of the game.

The story itself has a number of problems separated from the big decisions you make that I didn’t quite realize in 2015 when I had a couple of months to forget the finer details between episodes. The most obvious is the sheer amount of filler that pads out each episode. It’s incredibly common for the characters to state plainly the next thing you need to do only for some bizarre problem or obstacle with no real bearing on the plot to get in the way. A brief trip to Max’s dorm room to pick up a USB flash drive ends up being a quarter of the first episode’s runtime as you must first set up a Rube Goldberg-esque series of events to drop a paint bucket on a bully, prompting her to move away from the front door, and then once inside you’ll discover that you actually lent the flash drive to a girl down the hall whose roommate is currently blockading the door to their room because the aforementioned bully tricked them into fighting, so then you’ll have to sneak into the bully’s room to find evidence that she made the whole thing up in order to convince them to let you in and take back the flash drive.

Moments like these are all over the story, and the actual character scenes waiting at the end of the filler have also been tough to revisit. The core appeal of Life is Strange is the relationship between Max and Chloe as they try to rebuild their friendship and move on from the traumas that Chloe had to deal with in the years that Max was gone. Unfortunately that deep friendship has gotten a lot harder for me to accept nowadays; without the months between episodes giving the chance for my vague memories of events to romanticize things. There’s a lot I could say about Chloe’s character and the contrast between how sympathetic the game wants her to be compared to how needlessly hostile she is, and how many of the choices that contribute to the game’s hidden affection system with her involve reinforcing her rebellious, hostile demeanor.

As for how things run on Switch, there isn’t a lot of good to say there either. The ports in the Arcadia Bay Collection are based on the remaster that was released on other platforms earlier this year. Personally I already didn’t like a lot of the artstyle changes that were made in the remaster, but the Switch really struggles to run the updated version, often looking and running even worse than the original 2015 version. Load times that were near instantaneous on PS4 are now incredibly long, regularly taking at least 30 seconds and occasionally going as high as more than a minute. The difference is so bad one transitional cutscene at the beginning of episode two which has three loading screens in the middle of it has gone from 2 minutes and 44 seconds on PS4 to 4 minutes and 28 seconds on Switch.

The look of the game is also substantially affected. Camera cuts will frequently stutter between multiple frames before settling on the correct shot, and object pop-in slowed down enough to be easily noticeable while turning the camera. The biggest issue with the visuals is a poor temporal anti-aliasing effect that seems to be out of sync with the objects it’s trying to smooth over. The result is an ugly smear over anything that moves, and the faces of characters that aren’t close to the camera will disappear into a messy pixel soup. Given the Switch hardware can easily clear the recommended PC specs for the 2015 version, it’s likely that choosing to port the remaster instead is the cause of many of these problems, and it makes the game look and feel substantially worse than it ever did before.

The strangest part of all of this is the prequel story Before the Storm, which appears as a different app entirely on the Switch home screen. A majority of technical problems with the Switch version of Life is Strange are not there in Before the Storm. The messy smearing is gone entirely, greatly increasing visual clarity. Visual glitches on camera cuts are gone, and even load times are usually better, coming in at a rough average of 15 seconds (though I did clock one loading screen that lasted 70 seconds even here). This is still definitely a port of the remastered version from earlier this year, but it somehow feels like a completely different port. If for some reason you want to pay $40 for a two-game collection and then only play the second game that doesn’t really make sense without playing the first, then I guess this port is pretty good.

Returning to Arcadia Bay has been pretty disappointing for me. The magic that I felt from the game in 2015 is gone as playing the episodes in quick succession makes their flaws all the more obvious. I would be unsure about recommending the best port of this game now, but my feelings on the Switch version specifically are far less complicated. This is not a very good port, and the baffling difference in quality between the original game and its prequel only makes that more blatant. If I could rewind time, I would go back and avoid playing this port so I could simply live with my positive memories of the original instead of confronting the serious letdown the remaster has turned out to be.

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