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Messages - riskman64

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RTS and mechs go together like peanut butter and jelly.

I had the opportunity to attend a brief preview event for Grit and Valor - 1949, a tactics-focused RTS coming to Switch in 2025. From UK developer Milky Tea, who previously released HyperBrawl Tournament and Coffin Dodgers, Grit and Valor takes a darker and more serious tone compared to the studio's previous offerings.

In randomly generated battlefields, players are tasked with survival-style objectives and the opportunity to upgrade their squad in between missions. Waves of enemies ratchet up the tension as you work on lasting to the final wave and completing your regular and bonus tasks. What really caught my eye was the almost diorama-looking perspective and the need to stay on your toes to outsmart your opposition, not to mention the importance of customizing your mech squad effectively for each battle.

You can find the announcement trailer below. I'm excited to see more Grit and Valor - 1949 ahead of its launch next year.

TalkBack / Master Key (Switch) Review
« on: May 30, 2024, 06:00:00 AM »

A fine top-down Zelda-like for those who like getting lost.

Master Key belongs to the indie category of minimalist Zelda-likes, in the vein of games like Minit and Tunic. Fans of the original Legend of Zelda and Link’s Awakening will feel right at home with the puzzle solving and lack of handholding present in Master Key. It’s filled with those light-bulb conjuring “eureka!” moments that make adventure games so memorable, ones that often come on the back of minutes of aimless wandering and confusion. There’s a charm to the simple presentation that works well for what Master Key is trying to achieve, even if it won’t strike everyone’s fancy. I’ve yet to uncover all of its secrets, but I’ve had a blast spending time in this miniature world.

Without preamble, your fox-like character is dropped into a dark cave, with only a small circle of light to see you through the pitch black interior. Torches around the cave provide some guidance, and eventually you scamper through and open a chest containing a single, noteworthy key, which serves as your first weapon. Your journey takes you to four dungeons at different corners of the map where you must retrieve other similar keys, but this larger goal takes a backseat to just exploring the world at your own pace and experiencing the joy of discovery.

Using your trusty key/sword, you’ll cut through bushes and a smattering of different enemies as you make your way around. Coins that drop serve as both monetary currency but also restore your health, and the central town’s shops offer numerous upgrades and items that range from helpful to necessary, so you’ll likely return here often. The first of these is an object that lets you charge up your sword so that you can break fractured boulders impeding your progress, but you’ll need to decipher Master Key’s pictograph language to figure out this initial puzzle. You see, this is a game world without words, which means you’ll need to rely on your other video game senses to navigate the various obstacles and puzzles this world throws at you.

Where Master Key genuinely shines is in the way so much of its world beckons you to re-examine it. When you first arrive at a new screen, you’re likely to see a treasure chest or ledge that you can’t yet reach, so you make a mental note to return there later. This design isn’t one unfamiliar to Zelda enthusiasts, but it permeates so many of the spaces in Master Key. Another feather in its cap is the way that coins feel like a meaningful and valuable resource; from upgrading your wallet or sword, to adding on to your health meter, there’s almost never a point where you aren’t wanting to put money in your pocket. Enemies can hit pretty hard, too, so you’ll want to pick up every coin you can just to stay alive.

While the endgame ramps up the challenge a fair bit, there’s a steady difficulty curve for most of Master Keys's 5 to 10-hour runtime. Each of the main dungeons offers a unique theme and set of obstacles, and you'll have to keep your thinking hat and detective kit close at hand to solve the numerous puzzles located within. Aside from the familiar ones that involve hitting switches, you’ll also need to be creative with your growing arsenal of tools to navigate the trickier situations. I regularly found myself doubling back and pausing the game just to review and reflect on what I may have missed or not tried yet. The heavy emphasis on mental tasks is reminiscent of the Oracle of Ages on Game Boy, and it's refreshing given how other Zelda-likes can lean more into combat.

The minimalist visuals won’t appeal to everybody but they work well in a game with fairly simple gameplay mechanics. Pushing blocks, swinging your sword, and launching your hookshot are among the actions you’ll have at your disposal, but there’s a bit of jank to how combat actually works. While enemies don’t get knocked back by your attacks, you are by theirs, and so the few boss encounters you do have are made all the more challenging by this imbalance. Fortunately, the dungeons housing these bosses are memorable and contrast nicely with the world outside.

Completionists will also have their hands full with the many secrets and collectibles scattered throughout the world of Master Key. One such object is a music record, of which there are a few dozen to find that unlock the game’s music tracks for your listening pleasure (the town’s theme that opened the video being a favorite of mine). Even those not aiming for 100 percent will want to be thorough so as to be well prepared for the trials of the game’s final hours.

Overall, Master Key finds solid ground to share with other notable indie Zelda-like games, feeling very much like a minimalist version of Tunic. The countless secrets of its world and the way in which it encourages you to search and reflect on every screen give it a remarkable sense of vitality. I know I haven’t seen all that its dense map has to offer, but I’ve still thoroughly enjoyed my time with Master Key and look forward to eventually diving back in to find what I missed.

TalkBack / Read Only Memories: NEURODIVER (Switch) Review
« on: May 15, 2024, 06:00:00 AM »

A short sequel that fails to live up to the original.

Read Only Memories: NEURODIVER is a follow-up to 2064: Read Only Memories, which originally came out in 2015. Both titles are point-and-click style adventure games, but whereas 2064 featured a bit more in the actual pointing and clicking department, NEURODIVER plays much more like a visual novel. Another significant departure is in terms of the length, with the original game running about 10-15 hours long compared to the 3-5 hours of the sequel. The cyberpunk setting and aesthetic work well, and it’s fun to see characters from the first game show up in NEURODIVER, but ultimately the follow-up left me feeling like I’d be served an appetizer for dinner.

Read Only Memories: NEURODIVER follows protagonist ES-88, who’s also called Luna, as she works to assist various people with recovering their memories. As an employee of the company MINERVA, Luna also interacts with a variety of her co-workers before heading out for each mission. She is often accompanied by her partner and confidant Gate, with the pair often on the edge of being more than just friends. The new and returning cast members are well written and fun to hang out with, but the brevity of each chapter makes it hard to feel satiated by the lack of more in-depth interactions. Aside from Luna and Gate, the conversations you have with other characters feel slight, and I constantly found myself wanting to revisit areas I’d been to or push conversations further; the linearity and constrained nature of NEURODIVER ultimately work against it. Other games in this style, like Coffee Talk, succeed because you have multiple opportunities to build relationships and catch up with budding friends and colleagues.

The plot involves a character known as Golden Butterfly who is infiltrating people’s memories and fragmenting them; it’s up to Luna to use the bioengineered Neurodiver creature to transport herself into their memories and repair the damage. Each of the six or so chapters begins with Luna waking up in her apartment at MINERVA, collecting the Neurodiver, checking in with reception, and then meeting with one of the employees at the company before getting her next assignment. The narrative itself plays second fiddle to the interactions between the game’s cast members, and part of this is due to the main antagonist just not having quite enough stage time to make much of an impact.

As mentioned earlier, the gameplay takes on much more of a visual novel style in ROM: NEURODIVER compared to 2064, and that removal of player agency leads to a less compelling experience overall. 2064: Read Only Memories INTEGRAL was one of my favorite early Switch ports because of characters like Turing and much more traditional point-and-click adventure game mechanics. NEURODIVER condenses these down into memory clues that you pick up and insert into distorted fragments to repair each client’s memory, which moves the plot forward but offers little in the way of puzzle or mystery solving. The aforementioned fragments each require a handful of clues to be slotted in for the repair to be successful, and it didn’t seem like there was any rhyme or reason to why one set of clues was needed over another. Placing them in any kind of order isn’t required, either, and so you just need to pick them up or acquire them from conversations and then drag and drop them–trial and error style–until the distortion clears up.

The greatest achievement of Read Only Memories: NEURODIVER is that it helps to conjure up nostalgia for its much more effective predecessor. The sequel really feels much more like a robust piece of DLC than a full-fledged release. Fans of the original who go into it expecting a similar amount of content and playtime will be sorely disappointed. While the retro-looking aesthetic and FM synthesis-filled soundtrack are noticeable high points, there isn’t much else that makes the journey worthwhile. If you’ve already played 2064: Read Only Memories, you may get a bit of a kick out of NEURODIVER, but you’d probably be better served replaying the original, which overshadows its follow-up in almost every way. As likable as most of its cast is, they simply don’t get enough time to shine, leaving the adventure of Luna and co. feeling flat and incomplete.

TalkBack / Athenian Rhapsody (Switch) Review
« on: May 14, 2024, 05:00:00 AM »

An Undertale-like with the wackiness and color dialed up to 11.

It’s undeniable the impact that Toby Fox’s Undertale had on the video game industry, and indie games in particular. Few titles, however, have been bold enough to try and more or less replicate the experience wholesale. Enter Athenian Rhapsody, which seems to skirt the border between imitation and homage, especially in terms of its RPG combat. That said, whereas Undertale dabbled in a mix of both subtle humor and slapstick, Athenian Rhapsody is much more in your face with its comedy, with hilarious sound effects, fart jokes, and a cavalcade of outrageous characters.

After a series of quiz questions set against a black background, your Ness-looking character awakes in the world of Athens, and it's hard to ignore the vibrant, cartoony environment in which you find yourself. Among the first characters you encounter are a pair of inseparable creatures that look like either Grimace knockoffs or Pokemon that ended up on the cutting room floor (which could actually describe a fair few of the ridiculous Athenian denizens you end up befriending). This is Richard and James, and they set the tone for the incredibly absurd puzzles, antics, and trials you’ll encounter throughout the game’s approximately 10-hour main story. Your ultimate objective (insofar as the game actually has one) is to reach the Gardens area at the end of the world, while working to understand the drive of so many in Athens to earn as much EXP as they can. However, a much more effective way to experience Athenian Rhapsody would be to frequently stop and smell the roses, even if you’ll eventually catch a whiff of something rather unpleasant.

Unlike larger or more mainstream RPGs, there is no quest guide or checklist to work on as you weave your way around Athens. Instead, you’ll need to listen to what characters tell you and speak to everyone, which ends up being worthwhile for other reasons, too. For instance, it’s not always obvious which characters can be invited to join your party, so adding to your stable is one reward for chatting everybody up; another perk is that a lot of the writing is genuinely funny, and I never found it boring to walk about a new area and check in with all the locals. Each new environment within Athens offers a new color palette and design as well, which helps to distinguish these areas and keep pushing you towards the endgame. The catchy soundtrack doesn’t hurt, either.

You can win turn-based battles by attacking and defeating enemies or by befriending them, which sees you taking an action like posing, insulting, or laughing until your opponent is ready to give up and accept your friendship. During an enemy’s turn, you’ll need to play a dodge-’em-up minigame that is exactly like that of Undertale, wherein you need to carefully avoid a series of projectiles from all sides of the box in the middle of the screen. Every basic enemy and boss has a unique version of this minigame, with bosses often introducing a handful of variations to it. If you choose the more pacifist befriending route, you’ll need to step up to the challenge of an HP meter that basically never grows (since you don’t earn any EXP) and enemy attacks and obstacles that can put out heaps of damage. You do earn coins from any successful combat, and these can be used to purchase healing items, but your pocket space is limited, and so you may find that health restoration is regularly in jeopardy.

Two factors that can help turn the tide in battle are the ability to swap your main character out for your chosen partner ally, who has their own unique abilities to prop up your team or finish a fight. The other is the Burst mechanic, which allows you to draw from another pool of points to heal yourself or speed up your avatar in the dodging minigame. Successfully evading enemy shots can quickly restore your Burst meter, but taking too many hits will decrease both your health and Burst, which makes for a harsh penalty. Athenian Rhapsody does have a “Chill Mode” option that can make the fights a bit more palatable (by offering temporary invulnerability after you get hit), but even with it activated the difficulty level never felt too low. What at all times did feel too low, however, was the overly restrictive item storage box and your character’s own pocket, which combined still only allowed you to keep about 20 items.

There are elements of Athenian Rhapsody that point towards a long-tailed future for the game after its launch. For one, each playthrough of the game creates an individual, personalized Rhapsody, which can be shared with other players or rewatched by yourself. The game’s Steam page suggests that Rhapsodies can be combined or even used to access special in-game events; I’m eager to see if a substantial community forms around the game and if these features lead to some fascinating ways of sharing and storytelling. I know I haven’t seen everything the world of Athens has to offer, but it sounds like there’s potential for this world to grow if the support is there.

Athenian Rhapsody is much more than just another creator’s take on Undertale. Through effective comedic writing, a world that is filled to the brim with surprises, and an attractive presentation, developer Nico Papalia has crafted an experience that stands on its own as both an homage and a reimagining of what Toby Fox accomplished almost a decade earlier. The idea of each playthrough being transformed into its own object and gaining a tangibility is an intriguing one, reinforcing the power of decision-making in a world of unknown consequence. The vibrancy of Athens comes as much from its nature and biomes as it does from its inhabitants, and it was ultimately a sincere pleasure to spend time here. As a lover of both Earthbound and Undertale, I found in Athenian Rhapsody another experience that felt like home, complete with characters randomly exploding more times than I could count.

TalkBack / Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes (Switch) Review
« on: April 21, 2024, 07:00:00 AM »

I got 99 problems and the heroes add one.

The result of an incredibly successful Kickstarter in 2020, Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes is a spiritual successor to RPG series Suikoden. Interestingly enough, in 2022, Konami announced that they would be releasing a remaster of the first two Suikoden games, and so we won't have long to wait before the old that's new again can be compared directly with a modern interpretation. Unfortunately, Hundred Heroes leans far too heavily into old genre trappings and suffers major performance issues on Switch. As a result, I'm left pinning my character-collecting hopes on the forthcoming Konami remaster.

Eiyuden Chronicle tells the story of Galdea, a world on the verge of a war between the powerful Empire and the Alliance determined to resist. Among the expansive cast is  protagonist Nowa, who ends up being thrust into the leadership role as more and more people and factions end up relying on him and raising him up. As the story progresses, you'll spend a fair bit of time recruiting others to your cause, and while it's fun to meet new characters and learn a bit about them, the size of the cast means that basically everyone presents at merely a surface level. The character interactions lack the type of depth that make better RPGs stand out.

One of the greatest failings of Hundred Heroes is that it simply doesn’t play very well. Put simply, it’s an absolute chore of a game, and on multiple occasions I told myself I was going to just put it down altogether. The dungeon design is atrocious, with many dungeon spaces made up of circles and winding paths. It’s exacerbated by the game’s high random encounter rate, a feature that I thought we left behind in the ‘90s. You eventually recruit a character that can be added to your active party to reduce the encounter rate, but if you do that then you have to devote that support slot to mitigating an element that either shouldn’t be in the game or should come with some kind of toggle. Bravely Default had this figured out in 2014; if you have random encounters, make them optional.

Aesthetically, outside of the character designs, the world is boring and lifeless, with similar colors, objects, and patterns repeated regularly. Compounding this fact is a blurring of the top half of the screen that only allows you to see objects, landmarks, and people as you get closer to them; annoying only begins to describe constantly having to walk up to everything to determine what it is. The overworld is particularly guilty of being bland, and so it’s no small mercy when you do finally recruit a character that opens up fast travel. I’ll give credit to the music for bolstering the experience, with the town themes a high note in a game filled with sour ones.

Another of the few strong points of Eiyuden Chronicle is its combat, which allows for up to six allies in two rows of three to battle up to the same number of enemies. Certain pairs or even trios of characters can perform Hero Attacks if all participants have enough stamina points, which regenerate at a rate of one point per turn. Most abilities are powered by stamina, but you can also equip runes that bestow magic abilities across a handful of elements. What’s frustrating early on (and even late in the game to an extent) is that the MP costs of these spells are weirdly high, and so you can rarely rely on healing spells as a way of seeing you through early to mid-game encounters. Of course, seasoned RPG fans may find the overall difficulty a little bit lacking, rendering the spell cost issue moot anyways. But the enemy variety and smattering of boss fight “gimmicks” (literally) do add some much needed flavor to this Hundred Heroes dish.

An unforgivable stumbling block for Eiyuden Chronicle is how it handles a variety of its RPG mechanics. For one, a major goal of the game is to recruit dozens of characters to your fledgling alliance, and so almost every town has one or more individuals who can be persuaded to join your merry band. The problem is, the game fails to keep track of all these potential recruits and the tasks they put on your eventually crowded plate, and so when the endgame comes and the story gates off your progression until you’ve added an unknown quantity of heroes to your roster, it’s beyond frustrating to have to scour the world for allies and then try to figure out exactly how to get them to enlist.

Another issue is that the way in which equipment (and menuing in general) is handled is nothing short of laughable. Party members retain their equipment and cling to it like grim death; specifically, you can’t just remove accessories and armor from any character unless they are in your active party, which is yet another problem solved decades earlier in games like Final Fantasy VI and VII. Now multiply the cast by three or four and try swapping rings and other pieces around whenever you’re forced to carry two or three new party members on your squad for a specific story mission. This isn’t even to mention the way weapon progression works, which involves visiting a blacksmith to level up each character’s individual weapon, but again, you need to do this for every character, one level at a time, and at a prohibitively expensive cost.

As you might expect with a game about recruiting a hundred heroes, there’s also a base building mechanic, but it manages to offer about as much entertainment as a game of Monopoly where trading properties is banned. In addition to needing funds and materials to build a new addition to your castle, you also need a specific hero, and until you’ve met them in the world, they just appear as a darkened silhouette. Once you do meet them somewhere out there, I hope you remember where you did and why they didn’t join up in the first place, because your castle ain’t getting off the ground until you bring in these particular folks to spruce the place up. And while missing out on a homebase blacksmith kind of sucks, what’s worse is that you’ll fail to pick up a fair number of recruits strictly because your palace isn’t palatial enough.

If you aren’t dissuaded enough by the latter commentary on Eiyuden Chronicle’s numerous flaws, I’ve saved the most egregious for last. In short, the Switch version runs like a dumpster fire and looks like the trash inside said dumpster. I’ve lost multiple hours of progress to screen freezes and a crash to the Switch home menu, and it’s entirely possible that I’ve spent even more time than that just watching loading screens or waiting for the menus to stop hitching. The frame rate jumps all over the place, and slows significantly during the strategic war battles that are as unattractive as they are unnecessary. There’s enough of a mess here that I’m not sure a hundred patches would be enough to clean it up.

Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes may yet find an audience with those unlucky enough to have supported the game’s Kickstarter campaign, filled with hope that they’d be getting a true successor to Suikoden. While Hundred Heroes may have aspired to such an accomplishment, there are painfully few ways it has lived up to that standard. Playing Hundred Heroes feels like a burden, and even more so when you consider the high caliber of RPGs that have already released in 2024 that it might be taking your attention away from. Any moments of joy the experience offers are immediately dashed by baffling game design choices that would feel antiquated at the turn of the century, let alone decades after that. Were I not reviewing the game I would have put it aside after a few hours and never thought about it again. Eiyuden Chronicle comes after scores and scores of excellent and successful turn-based RPGs from which it could draw inspiration. Instead, it neglects so many of the lessons learned throughout the years in favor of outdated, tedious gameplay.

TalkBack / Felix the Cat (Switch) Review
« on: March 26, 2024, 11:00:00 PM »

Cats may have nine lives, but you won’t need more than a few of them here.

Felix the Cat is a collection of two games of the same name originally released on the NES and Game Boy in 1992 and 1993, respectively. The compilation includes a few quality-of-life enhancements that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in retro re-releases, including a single save state, a rewind feature, and a CRT filter. There’s also an unreleased Famicom version here (for some reason). While Felix may have been around for 100 years, there’s a reason these two titles have not: they offer little in the way of unique or above-average gameplay. They are almost as barebones as a platformer can be.

The NES game consists of about 10 worlds, and most of these have 3 separate stages to complete. The levels are generally quite short; the ones that do have a bit more length are largely just repetitive. You’ll come across the same basic enemies for most of the game’s abbreviated runtime, and even the boss fights feel more like palette swaps than handcrafted challenges. One feather in Felix’s fur-covered cap is the different transformations that he undergoes in certain stages, like those where he takes to the sky or goes underwater. Collecting Felix tokens, like coins, award hearts that imbue you with new magic devices and vehicles, almost like power-ups in a Mario game. They typically give you projectiles to launch or added maneuverability, but also allow you to take damage at the cost of dropping down to the previous power-up level. All in all, though, the playthrough is still a brief and largely forgettable one, and for some reason, my high score didn’t even save after finishing the game.

Felix the Cat on Game Boy is essentially the same experience but with fewer worlds and stages and less of the interstitial content from the NES original. All of the transformations are present here, but what does unfortunately get added to this portable iteration is a hefty dose of slowdown, making some of the jumps and other obstacles more frustrating to navigate. That said, it's still kind of impressive how faithful the game is when shrunk down to Game Boy proportions.

While neither part of the package is all that eye-catching, the upbeat soundtrack from the NES game in particular is quite pleasant and complements the playthrough well. The sound effects, though–like the one for Felix’s jump–can be a little on the grating side, so I was happy to reach segments of the game where less jumping was required. There is a neat visual flair to the rewind function that I did appreciate, but that's one of the few interesting presentation elements.

Felix the Cat may have been a bit more of a novelty on the ‘90s platforms it arrived on, but time hasn’t been kind to this comic feline’s pixel-based adventures. Despite starring a cat with a magical bag, these two games have almost no tricks up their sleeves. The addition of the Famicom version yields very little in terms of noticeable gameplay differences, so its inclusion is a bit of a mystery. I know the answer, but why couldn’t these two games have just been added to NSO instead? What's more, the overall challenge will be markedly light for anyone with platforming experience, and there’s no shortage of extra lives to earn and power-ups to keep you from danger and propel you through the largely pedestrian level design. If this 2024 collection had a few more interesting extras thrown in, it may be worth a pick up, but as it stands, this is just another black cat you don’t want crossing your path.

TalkBack / Re: Unicorn Overlord (Switch) Review
« on: March 11, 2024, 05:08:59 PM »
Best review I've read so far of this game.

Appreciate the kind words! Hope you've had a chance to try the game for yourself!

TalkBack / Contra: Operation Galuga (Switch) Review
« on: March 10, 2024, 11:00:00 PM »

A good modern Contra experience.

In the continued spirit of what is old becoming new again, developer Wayforward has partnered with Konami to bring back a familiar run-and-gun staple with Contra: Operation Galuga. Whereas 2019’s Contra: Rogue Corps went rogue with its top-down, twin-stick style, Operation Galuga (Contra: O.G., get it?) returns to the tried-and-true side-scrolling gameplay that has made the series so endearing. This isn’t Wayforward’s first kick at the can, either; they also developed Contra 4 for Nintendo DS, regarded as one of the stronger entries in the Contra franchise. Have they managed to recapture that magic in this reimagining of the original experiences from the ‘80s?

Operation Galuga begins with heroes Bill and Lance being sent to the Galuga Archipelago to investigate the presence of a terrorist group and unknown gravity waves after a meteor shower event from six months earlier. The island setting offers jungle, town, underground base, and even snowy mountain train-themed stages, and uses some fun changes in perspective to add visual flair and keep players on their toes. The story will feel familiar to fans of the earlier Contra games, with monstrous alien foes eventually stepping in for the more mundane human cannon fodder, and some larger-than-life bosses offering a fairly decent challenge.

Story Mode takes you through the game’s eight total stages, and a few different characters unlock as you make your way towards the final level. What’s interesting about these new faces is that they bring with them some small gameplay tweaks that make it worth experimenting. Ariana, a native of Galuga, can slide under enemy fire and other dangers, as compared to the dash move shared by Bill and Lance. Lucia, a commander who provides assistance to the Contra unit, only has a single jump, but her Spread Shot fires differently and can be charged up to do a stronger wave-type blast. Lt. Stanley Ironside also trades in the double jump of his allies, but he can use a jetpack to float for a few seconds or activate a vertical grappling hook to reach platforms or ceilings. His Machine Gun and Laser Beam weapons also fire in a distinct way, and so you have a handful of options that do vary up the gameplay to an extent.

The stages themselves last anywhere from 4 to 10 minutes, and the environmental variety, mini-bosses, and end bosses make for a fun and satisfying run from beginning to end. While Story Mode only allows you to choose characters that have been unlocked by that point in the plot itself, Arcade Mode lets you choose any of these five characters, in addition to Probotector robots that function like Bill and Lance. Besides the three difficulty modes available, you can also choose to have a health meter or equip a variety of unlockable perks, like starting every stage with a particular weapon or not losing the second stage of a given weapon when you get hit. The challenge of Operation Galuga is largely in the hands of the player, which is a welcome feature for a series famous for the Konami code and the abundance of extra lives it provided. You may not need the code to roll credits on this Contra game, but you might as well try it at the start screen anyways.

Rounding out the package is a fair-sized Challenge Mode, with a couple dozen events to complete. Typically, these are speedrun-style challenges that task you with running through a level segment or completing a boss as fast as possible. Certain ones even limit the amount of ammo you can fire or the weapon you can use. Each one awards credits that can be spent in the Perk Shop to open up the equipable perks I mentioned earlier, with extra credits earned for making it through a challenge ahead of the given par time. Once you complete the game proper, some very neat but pricey options get added to the shop, and it’s a bit of a bummer that earning enough currency to unlock them will require an immense amount of time and patience.

In terms of performance, much has been said prior to launch regarding the Switch version’s drop to 30fps. In a fast-paced game like this, it's hard to argue 60fps doesn’t make a difference. That being said, so long as the 30fps target is hit and maintained with consistent frame times, it shouldn’t be too big of an issue. From our testing, Operation Galuga does exactly that. Outside of the very occasional one or two frame drop, the target frame rate is met the whole time. Image resolution hits a full 1920x1080 docked and the expected 1280x720 handheld. Given that both of these are the max resolutions for either configuration, it does make you wonder if some sort of performance mode could have been possible, exchanging a lowered resolution for 60fps. The one other technical detail worth highlighting is some odd foliage materials, which can be seen in the opening stages of the game. Many of the random shrubs and other plant life in these stages appear to have unfiltered, dithered, alpha transparencies. This results in blocky pixelated edges. It's possible this could be some sort of artistic choice, but to me it reads more like a settings bug in the alpha channel for that material. Either way, it really stands out.

If you enjoy classic Contra-style gameplay and want to wash the awful taste of Rogue Corps out of your mouth, Contra: Operation Galuga is a worthy palette cleanser. What it lacks in visual attractiveness, it does make up for with a solid run-and-gun experience that is comparable to the best Contra games of the past. The additional characters, four-player Arcade Mode, and tricky Challenge Mode extend the replay value, but some of the more fun, Easter egg-type perks that you can unlock require far too much grinding. While it may fall a bit short of being a sure-fire hit, Operation Galuga provides a fair amount of entertainment and some good ways of adjusting the difficulty of what has been a notoriously tough video game series.

TalkBack / Unicorn Overlord (Switch) Review
« on: March 07, 2024, 05:00:00 AM »

Ogre Battle lives on as a Unicorn.

March 23, 2024 - Review has been updated with a final score

Unicorn Overlord impressed in its 2023 reveal trailer with stunning visuals and that unmistakable VanillaWare style that made 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim and Dragon’s Crown so memorable. Channeling Fire Emblem to an extent but Ogre Battle even more so, Unicorn Overlord is an incredibly deep and rewarding experience that real-time tactical RPG fans will fall in love with. After 20 hours with the game, I’ve only seen half of the world map and even less of its secrets, but there’s no doubt in my mind that VanillaWare has another stone cold classic on their hands. Given the sheer depth and customizability of Unicorn Overlord, I’m holding off on assigning a final review score at this time, but I’m stoked to share my impressions thus far.

The overarching story follows protagonist prince Alain, who becomes leader of the Liberation army after his castle and homeland of Cornia are besieged years earlier by the Zenoiran army and its villainous emperor Galerius, a former general of Cornia. Bit by bit, Alain must bolster the ranks of the Liberation army by recruiting friends and even defeated foes along the way. Across five kingdoms, you’ll encounter a variety of story beats involving Alain and his retinue of followers, and as his army swells, so too do your chances of finally taking the fight to Galerius and freeing the world of his tyranny. So far, the narrative elements of the game have been buoyed by excellent voice acting and writing and frequent but short cutscenes before and after most battles. I’m quite eager to see how Alain’s story concludes, and I’m trying to savor every minute of it.

There are effectively two primary gameplay modes in Unicorn Overlord. The first involves traversing the overworld to encounter characters, towns, forts, events, and battles, in addition to collecting items and discovering hidden secrets. The semi top-down view makes for easy navigation, but the camera can make finding every shiny spot (which denotes an item pick-up) a bit of a mystery. It’s worth being thorough, too, since objects you find in the overworld can be traded in at towns to acquire gold, equipment, and Honor, but more on that shortly. You can fast travel to towns, forts, and battles you’ve previously unlocked, and so you may want to back track to gather more resources to improve your troops. At forts, you can expand your units, hire new troops, and promote your individual characters to upgraded classes. The overworld segments provide a pleasant contrast to the more stressful combat situations.

When you enter a battle–some of which are small and last only a few minutes; others can take upwards of 30 minutes–you’ll start by seeing the win and loss conditions and then deploying specific units to the battlefield. Each unit initially holds only two individual troops, but this number can grow up to five (maybe even six?) by cashing in your accumulated Honor. Most of the time, you’ll click on a unit you’ve deployed and then select an enemy, garrison point,or other area on the map to which you want the unit to travel. When your unit comes in contact with an enemy, a combat encounter takes place, but what can be jarring at first is that you don’t actually do anything during such encounters. Instead, all troops in combat take turns according to their initiative number and the abilities they have equipped. Typically, you’ll win a battle by reaching a particular enemy leader and taking them out; however, you’ll lose the battle if your starting garrison is taken over by an enemy, you run out of time, or (in some cases) if a special character is killed.

To prepare for combat, you'll not only need to outfit your troops with their own equipment, but you can even set specific parameters on their individual abilities/attacks. For instance, you can set your healer’s curative spells to target an ally with the lowest total defense or the one who has the lowest percentage of health remaining at the time when the ability goes off. One of the closest analogs I can name is the Gambit system from Final Fantasy 12. Moreover, you'll need to choose which troops to slot into which unit positions, which consist of a 2x3 grid. Putting a heavily armored class in front of an archer or witch can shield them from some (but not all) attacks, but this is just a simple example; the reality is more complex. There are dozens of classes, and I'm still discovering more. Marketing materials for Unicorn Overlord boast more than 60 characters all told, and I've found just about half of them. It's a fascinating experiment just playing around with all the different class combinations within a unit. When you factor in skill customization and even how ranged units can assist other units in combat, you start to understand just how deep this well is. And that's without mentioning the separate powers each character can call upon within the battle map to spend Valor Points on specific buffs and debuffs and out-of-combat strikes and spells. It's a lot to take in, I know, but the game doles it out gradually and gives many, many opportunities to test your limits.

Some of the greatest moments I’ve experienced have come from seemingly innocuous discoveries in the overworld. Exploring some of what appear to be abandoned temples, ruins, and towns, I came across a small event where I discovered an enemy catapult that I promptly dismantled. Partway through a subsequent battle that I entered near where the event took place, the enemy leader–hoping to turn the tide in their favor–was shocked to discover that their hidden catapult was no longer where they had placed it. A random and potentially minor interaction at the time for my squad ended up having noticeable repercussions later on, and that speaks to the heart of Unicorn Overlord: small decisions potentially having major ramifications. On the battlefield, you need to adapt quickly and without hesitation. While you can pause the battle at any time to set up your units, use items, and determine everyone’s position and path, you’re also working against the clock and what can be a near endless supply of enemy units; if you’re not regularly saving your progress during a battle, one misstep can result in a total loss for your side, forcing you to start over from the beginning. There are real consequences to the decisions you make in and out of combat, and it’s a delightful balance between trial and error that makes this game so hard to put down.

While most of the gameplay makes Unicorn Overlord feel like a spiritual successor to Ogre Battle, there’s definitely a little bit of Fire Emblem thrown in as well, primarily seen in the character interactions and morale building that occurs between pairs. When you accrue a certain amount of Rapport, you unlock brief vignettes between characters that shed a bit of light on their past or their connection; some of these scenes are more lighthearted while others are more emotional. Characters with a stronger bond are rewarded with stat bonuses that make them more capable, and in addition to forging bonds on the battlefield, you can also do so at city taverns by spending some coin on a meal to share with multiple invitees. There are a lot of meters, hidden or otherwise, to manage, but the feeling of seeing your units grow stronger and more capable and finally overcoming a previously insurmountable challenge is relentlessly satisfying.

I’m not done with Alain’s campaign to restore his kingdom and set the world to rights, but there’s no denying how exciting and captivating Unicorn Overlord has turned out to be. It’s a love letter to deep, complex tactical RPGs and will most likely appeal to those who appreciate the Fire Emblem and Ogre Battle franchises, but as someone who only has very sparse memories of the latter, I’m still enthralled by what VanillaWare has done here. The Switch performance is excellent, and the art style remains one of the clear strengths of this developer. I expect that I’ll need another 10-20 hours to see the main story through to completion, and even more to discover all of the secrets hidden around the world map. Once those tasks are complete, I’ll be updating this review with a final score. Until then, I feel confident in saying we’re looking at another candidate that’s sure to take home some end-of-the-year accolades.

TalkBack / Berserk Boy (Switch) Review
« on: March 05, 2024, 06:00:00 AM »

A solid, satisfying action-platformer with a few rough edges.

There's a lot of nuance within the action-platformer genre, and with later Mega Man games in particular came a heavier focus on exploration and replaying levels with newly acquired powers. Berserk Boy is a fast-paced indie game that channels the Mega Man X, Zero, and ZX games–as well as the Gunvolt series–to try and carve out its own space in this very crowded genre. It manages to provide a fair bit of entertainment across its 15 or so stages, but a couple hiccups hold it back from achieving must-play status.

Berserk Boy is at its weakest when it spends time doling out story beats that aren't nearly as captivating as its gameplay. The premise is that a boy named Kei gains the ability to transform into Berserk Boy via a strange orb, and as he collects more of them, he acquires even more transformations. Within your home base hub, you can speak to NPCs, visit a lab to improve your powers, and select new missions. Between end-of-area boss fights, you'll also be tasked with running around the base to clear out enemies that have invaded, but these segments are fairly tedious. The hub may add a bit of flavor, but it gets in the way of the true star of Berserk Boy: the way that you can fly through stages, swapping powers at the touch of a button.

Every stage features multiple checkpoint doors that allow you to return to earlier parts, if, for instance, you missed a collectible. However fast you choose to play through them, the levels can be quite lengthy, with lots of secret passages to uncover and obstacles that require specific transformations to bypass. In addition to platforming challenges, you'll encounter basic enemies, mini-bosses, and a few different types of collectibles; one of these opens up a time trial mini-stage and the other ends up coming into play near the game's conclusion. The latter collectible is actually required to unlock end-game content, which is more than a little frustrating.

Kei’s first transformation is one that grants lightning-based powers, including a high speed dash that allows you to zip across the screen, striking enemies and enabling a lock-on projectile for extra damage (not unlike how the aforementioned Gunvolt functions in his own games). The other Berserk Orbs you collect unlock a flame-based outfit with drilling capabilities, an air-themed suit that allows you to float, an ice ninja form that can hang onto moving platforms, and an earth-based form that allows you to scan doors and platforms to unlock them. Later stages force you to switch on the fly (sometimes literally), and so becoming familiar with each form is key, or it would be if you even needed anything other than the lightning form to take out almost every boss you encounter. If you’re expecting anything close to the difficulty of the hardest Mega Man games, you’ll need to turn on the Retro difficulty when starting a new save file, which gives you a set number of lives and tougher enemies–compared with the unlimited retries of Modern mode.

In terms of presentation, Berserk Boy boasts a vibrant color palette and neat visual effects, like a disappearing shadow trail that appears as you run and jump through each level. Each world consists of three main stages that center on a particular element/biome, and these are accompanied by the signature sounds of composer Tee Lopes, so rest assured your ears are in for a treat. The ease with which you can switch Berserk forms via the L and R buttons in addition to the rest of the smooth controls make for a gorgeous and smooth ride across Berserk Boy’s multi-hour campaign.

Despite its strengths, the repetitive boss fights, lack of enemy variety, and tedious base defense segments throw a few sour notes into the upbeat and satisfying jazz that is Berserk Boy. Another issue is that the lab where you can buy upgrades doesn’t quite work as intended, with the health upgrades I purchased not registering at all towards my health meter. That the true conclusion of the game is gated behind collecting dozens of tokens across the game’s five worlds is a definite misstep, but the overall package will remain an enticing one for action platformer fans.

Berserk Boy offers a fast-paced diversion that will appeal to those who like the speed of Sonic and the transformations of Mega Man. It’s aesthetically pleasing from start to finish, and the gameplay shines through most of its runtime. A handful of issues keep it from putting both feet solidly in must-play territory, but all told it’s a good time and scratches that run, jump, and shoot itch.

TalkBack / qomp2 (Switch) Review
« on: February 19, 2024, 12:09:04 PM »

The Pong sequel you never knew you needed.

Like many of you, I was once quite unaware that qomp2 is a sequel to Pong; in fact, it's actually a follow-up to the original qomp from 2021 that only came to PC. If you can imagine Pong mechanics across a series of multi-screen puzzles, you'll have a decent grasp of what qomp2 brings to the table. The types of obstacles change regularly across each of the game's four worlds, and even if the fairly basic presentation and aesthetic aren't that enticing, the unique challenge of qomp2 manages to shine through.

Through a total of 30 stages, you guide a singular ball through lightly labyrinthine segments that will test your patience and timing. At your disposal are a mere two moves: a charge that propels you ball forward quickly in the direction it’s traveling, and a switch in orientation that allows you to shift from moving diagonally up to moving diagonally down and vice versa. The only way to swap from moving right to left is by bouncing off a wall or other surface. What this means is that you can spend a lot of time waiting for your ball to travel to its destination, especially if you miss a button press and send your ball careening back to a previous screen.

Some levels are as simple as tasking you with avoid spikes on walls or constantly spinning buzzsaws, like Super Meat Boy, but each new world throws a new wrinkle at you. Eventually, you'll come across waterlogged screens that mess with the physics you've become accustomed to. Other stages feature shark like enemies that chase you until they find another target to munch on. One of my favorite obstacles were doors that required you to play a game of Snake, wherein your ball left a solid trail behind it that would spell death if you happened to touch it–the margin for error here became even slimmer. That qomp2 constantly throws new problems at you to solve makes it perfect for that pick-up-and-play experience. Finishing a couple levels every night became part of my bedtime routine for a good week or so.

Where qomp2 stumbles (or whatever verb better suits a Pong ball) is in its lack of style and its boring environments. While the simplicity of the gameplay fits the plain-looking stages, the drabness is hard to ignore as you make your way from world to world. There are brief punctuations of color that indicate blocks that can be broken or shifted or targets that you need to destroy, but it would have been a very welcome shift to see at least a new color palette somewhere. Similarly, the very faint soundtrack is only notable for the way it allows the generic sound effects to stand out, which isn't a strength.

Even if it won't win any style points for its visuals or sound, qomp2 is an enjoyable and light experience that boils video games down to their essence. Bouncing a ball off paddles, through corridors, and around danger makes for a two or three-hour runtime that doesn't overstay its welcome and manages to hold your attention throughout. There's a familiarity to the proceedings that's deceptively comfortable, and therein lies qomp2’s greatest trick: it feels like something you've played, but you haven't. And while I don't have a problem with going back to Pong for a few rounds, I was happy to invest significantly more time than that in this oddly-named psuedo-sequel.

TalkBack / Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney Trilogy (Switch) Review
« on: January 22, 2024, 05:00:00 AM »

It’s hard to object to more investigation and courtroom goodness.

It's been about a decade since the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy came to 3DS, which was actually two years after first debuting on mobile. We've been waiting patiently for another courtroom collection from Capcom, and the release of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney Trilogy is finally upon us. It contains Apollo Justice, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies, and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice, the lattermost of which was never released physically outside of Japan. If you played and enjoyed the original trilogy, there's even more investigating and lawyer-ing awaiting you in this follow up, with some interesting twists on the familiar Ace Attorney gameplay. A robust suite of extras and museum content make Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney Trilogy even easier to defend in a court of law.

For those who've never investigated an Ace Attorney game, there are enough optional tutorials here to get new players up to speed or remind veterans of the basics. Most people would probably recommend starting with the original trilogy (consisting of the first three Phoenix Wright games), but I think you can still enjoy the gameplay and character moments even if you start with Apollo Justice. If you do prefer to go back to the first three games before tackling these next three, Capcom pretty regularly puts them on sale.

Diving into the Apollo Justice trilogy of games themselves, each one is broken into four or five episodes, each with a handful of chapters to move through. The first and final chapters generally take place in the courtroom, where Apollo or Phoenix needs to prove their client's innocence; these are the most compelling segments of each episode. The sound effects, twists and turns, theatrics, and humor all blend wonderfully to create a unique experience that few visual novel-adjacent titles can match. This series really does have a special touch that is worth trying at least once, even for those who might prefer picture books to text-filled ones.

While some of the investigation sequences drag on a bit long, careful sleuths will take note of the finer details presented during these moments to help them during the courtroom exchanges. To move the plot forward, you need to be thorough, and that means examining every nook and cranny of the vicinities you can visit. It's fun to see returning characters from earlier episodes pop up again as they–and even folks who only show up one time–have entertaining mannerisms and quirks that make them memorable. The snack-fiend Ema Skye reappears frequently in Apollo Justice, and it's hilarious to see her whip out a bag of treats with regularity, stopping to munch one of them in between every couple words of dialogue.

The three games vary up the gameplay slightly in terms of unique mechanics during the courtroom segments in particular. Apollo wears a bracelet that allows him to notice when a witness is feeling nervous; activating the bracelet puts a magnifying lens on the witness so that you can try to find the minute tick that reveals their true feelings. In Dual Destinies, a new character (Athena) can analyze a witness’ emotions to find a discrepancy between their testimony and their feelings. Spirit of Justice features the Divination Seance, which allows the participants to see through the deceased victim's eyes to glean insight about the crime that took place. As an aside, it's worth noting that Apollo Justice originally came to DS, while the other two games were 3DS entries, so there's a noticeable upgrade in terms of presentation and cinematics with Dual Destinies and Spirit of Justice.

Given the sheer volume of reading, it can take 15 to 25 hours to roll credits on Apollo Justice alone. The other two games are even longer and include bonus episodes that were originally DLC. The Trilogy also throws in extra costumes, six additional languages, the music gallery Orchestra Hall, Art Library, Animation Studio, and even a Story Mode that will play the games automatically if you just want to kick up your heels for a bit. There are upgrades and features in this second trilogy that aren’t present in the prior one, and it’s always great to see that type of treatment given to a collection of games. Far from being a simple rom dump, this compilation is absolutely the best way to experience these courtroom dramedies.

Even if you don't get into any of the bonus materials included in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney Trilogy, there's still well over 60 hours of whodunnit goodness and crime scene evidence to sift through. If you already finished the Phoenix trilogy and have been eager for more, don’t hesitate to dive into the Apollo trilogy. For some, the petition to get the two Ace Attorney Investigations titles and the Phoenix Wright crossover with Professor Layton will now begin in earnest. For me, I’m still trying to find times in my everyday life where I can shout “OBJECTION!”

TalkBack / Turnip Boy Robs A Bank (Switch) Review
« on: January 18, 2024, 03:00:00 AM »

The crime spree continues, but does a change in genre pay off?

In 2021, I reviewed Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion based on a quick glance at screenshots and its eccentric title. Three years later, the garden-dwelling ragamuffin returns to perpetrate a bank heist. The life of crime continues in Turnip Boy Robs A Bank, but the action-adventure trappings of the original game have been swapped for more of a roguelite experience. Does this vegetable-filled sequel deliver the goods or get caught red-handed?

The premise is a simple one: Turnip Boy is tasked with assisting a bank robbery, alongside a team of thieves who furnish him with tools to pull off the deed. As it turns out, this heist is one that will only be completed in bits and pieces as you need to spend the money you collect on each run through the bank to purchase items that open up new areas of the bank or improve Turnip Boy's stats, like health and melee damage. Once you become accustomed to the new gameplay loop of the sequel, it's a mostly fun romp through museum-like halls, office spaces, a darkened underground, and more. Early difficulty spikes can be overcome by picking up upgrades back at your hideout or finding better weapons to dispatch the security forces trying to halt your progress.

Turnip Boy moves quite speedily–especially for a member of the mustard family–and he can carry only two different weapons at a time. You'll need to decide which ones to bring with you, but you can return new weapons to a fellow in your hideout to research new permanent weapons for your arsenal; these are available to choose at the start of every run. Quick scores can be a good strategy early on and when you get stuck since it's easy (and advisable) to bring back the cash and treasure you find so that you can spend it before losing it to a failed run. There's also a timer on each trip through the bank, starting at 3 minutes, that can be upgraded to add a few additional minutes. I'm still amazed at how much of a departure Turnip Boy Robs A Bank is over Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion, but the change is largely an effective one.

What's less effective is the finale of Robs A Bank, which requires a Herculean amount of skill and effort. There's a stark contrast between the shorter runs and relatively lighter challenge of the first three-quarters of the game with the sequence of tasks needed to successfully complete the heist. Once you’ve maxed out all the upgrades, there’s really no other way to make the finale more palatable either. Repetition, preparation, and luck are needed to overcome the final challenges, and for the most part these end-game moments are more frustrating than fun.

Returning from the first game is a variety of characters with funny dialogue and charming personalities. Many of them offer sidequests to complete and while it’s nice to have more objectives to complete, the reward for these is often just a new hat to adorn Turnip Boy’s leafy scalp. Whereas the world of the first game felt a bit more engaging, the gun-shooting and sword-slashing gameplay of the sequel take center stage, and so it does still feel like there’s something missing. A better amalgamation of the two games might yield a more complete and satisfying overall experience.

Turnip Boy Robs A Bank offers a lighthearted roguelite romp in the pursuit of Stinky’s riches, hidden within the bowels of the Botanical Bank. The gameplay loop is pretty fun, and finding new weapons to dispatch the security flora and fauna standing in the way of your heist manages to entertain, at least up until the final parts of the game. The performance on Switch also leaves something to be desired, with more detailed areas of the bank leading to noticeable frame drops.  If you wanted a bit more action from your Turnip Boy escapades, this follow up might be the serving of veggies you’re craving. That said, it doesn’t quite do enough to rise to the upper echelons of roguelites already available on the eShop.

TalkBack / Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown (Switch) Review
« on: January 11, 2024, 07:00:00 AM »

The King is Dead. Long Live the Prince!

In 2020, an announcement for a remake of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time garnered excitement for a franchise that had seen a very busy stretch from 2000 to 2010 but offered little since then. After an indefinite delay of that remake, fans were left wondering when, if ever, we would see another entry in the series. Embracing its 2D roots, Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown is an incredible return to form that leans heavily into Metroidvania trappings with an emphasis on swift movement, an expansive map, and challenging platforming. The constantly evolving combat and expanding arsenal of acrobatic moves make The Lost Crown nearly impossible to put down.

You play as nimble, dual blade-wielding Sargon, a member of the legendary Immortals, who are tasked with safeguarding Persia from enemy forces. As it turns out, the threat in this adventure actually comes from within, and Sargon must venture into the mountain of Qaf to uncover its secrets and rescue the kidnapped Prince Ghassan. Within Qaf, players will discover a series of interconnected spaces that are constantly opening up as you explore deeper into the mountain, purchase area maps, and acquire new movement abilities. While some of the map regions are a bit similar aesthetically, they offer unique enemies and puzzles, those that require manual dexterity and those that require a keen mind–and sometimes both.

At the outset, Sargon is relatively weak compared to the stout, speedy warrior he will become by the end of the 10 to 20-hour main story, which plays out across a series of primary quests. In addition to these, you’ll meet an eclectic cast of characters who offer side quests or assist you on your journey. In one of the central hub areas, there’s a shopkeeper who sells potion upgrades to restore your health and amulets that provide general buffs, a blacksmith goddess who will bolster your weapons and amulets–for a price–and a friend from the palace who teaches you the finer points of combat and lets you earn time crystals (your currency) for doing it. Each map region houses one or more friendly faces to help guide you towards your next goal, including a young boy who sells you maps that make navigation easier. The Lost Crown doesn’t offer the same type of isolation felt in games like Super Metroid, but its superb forms of progression and more overt storytelling are among the strongest in the genre.

By the time I had rolled credits, I was flying around the map like a Cirque du Soleil performer on steroids. The end of most major story quests yields a new movement-related ability, like the familiar mid-air dash and double jump, but also others like the ability to create a mirror image that you can teleport back to. While most of the map is tailored to make excellent use of these newfound powers, there was at least one late-game ability I never used; it may be one better suited to exploring 100 percent of the map. Nonetheless, I love the way Sargon becomes stronger as he overcomes trials and unravels the mysteries of Qaf. The main story becomes more intriguing as the adventure progresses, and there are collectible items to pick up that enrich the lore of this world, but it’s Sargon himself whose growth and developing perception of his reality that truly punctuate this Prince of Persia for a modern audience.

There’s a great balance between combat and exploration/platforming that persists throughout the experience. You’ll encounter a series of rooms where you need to avoid poison pits and acid falling from the floor, and then the next might have an enemy gauntlet, forcing you to take on a few waves of lesser opponents (who might end up being quite deadly if you’re not careful). Death isn’t overly punishing, fortunately, costing only a pittance of time crystals and generally taking you back to the last Wak Wak tree (health/save point). During boss fights, if you fail, you can simply restart the fight rather than having to trek back to it. Combat itself is an intricate dance, a ballet of swords, parries, and well-timed dodges. A meter that charges up as you dole out and take damage allows Sargon to execute different levels of super moves depending on how far the meter has charged. These put out massive damage, empower your offense and defense, or even create a temporary healing zone.

Another standout from an already strong package is the numerous cutscenes that run when Sargon encounters a major character. The ones surrounding the boss fights are particularly impressive, especially in how the ones pre-fight seamlessly transition into actual combat. The Switch performance is also impeccable, with decently short load times, attractive visuals, and stable 60 FPS framerate. Even though I wasn’t terribly invested in the lore or background of this world, it was impossible not to root for Sargon and fall in love with his determination and perseverance. Another incredible detail was how his character would actually show the scars of the encounters he survived throughout Mount Qaf; truly, the experience leaves a literal mark on him, and it’s pretty safe to say that it does for the player, too.

During the opening hour, I had the attitude of not wanting to really get into a Metroidvania longer than 10 or 15 hours, but that initial hesitation melted away like ice cream in the desert heat. There’s an absolute treat of a game in Prince of Persia: The Lost Crown, and the ways in which it reminds me of Hollow Knight, Metroid Dread, and of course the original Prince of Persia from 1989 are palpable. The almost-Spider-Man-like traipsing around ruined temples, a frozen sea, and majestic historical cityscapes only got better and better as Sargon’s repertoire of moves grew, and even if some of the mid-to-late game bosses ramp up the difficulty a fair bit, there’s more than enough fun in returning to exploration to bolster your stats and capabilities. The Lost Crown is a title that I hope people remember at the end of the year when recalling the standout video games of 2024 because there’s no doubt this should be among them.

TalkBack / Arcadian Atlas (Switch) Review
« on: November 30, 2023, 07:00:00 AM »

A tactics RPG with decent combat but little else.

The tactics-style RPG popularized by games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Ogre Battle is seldom imitated and rarely duplicated (perhaps for that very reason). When I came across Arcadian Atlas at PAX West in 2022, I could see that it had promise, with a character-driven plot and some player choice in terms of how the story unfolded. Fast forward more than a year later, and the game is arriving on Switch and other consoles a few months after its summer debut on Steam. Unfortunately, Arcadian Atlas is another isometric tactical RPG that fails to hang with–let alone live up to–the standouts in the genre. Poor Switch performance, unsatisfying aesthetic, and odd pacing make it tough to push through even the 10-20 hours required to roll credits.

In Arcadia, a political conflict is brewing, threatening a war that could destroy the nation and those who call it home. Queen Venezia has ascended the throne as her husband the king ails on his deathbed, and to protect the power she has seized, she exiles the two princesses, Lucretia and Annalise. Much of the plot revolves around two warring factions, each led by one of a pair of siblings, Desmond and Vashti. While initially the two fight together, the fact that they end up on either side of the war makes for some intriguing and emotional story beats. The first two chapters focus on the conflict between Venezia and Lucretia, with the former pursuing the latter throughout the country, but the final chapter does an about-face and delves more into the fantastical, and it’s difficult to reconcile with the way in which the political aspect of the narrative falls by the wayside so suddenly.

Gameplay sees you move across nodes on a map to enter cutscenes, engage in battles, shop for gear to outfit your soldiers, recruit new comrades, or take on side missions. On the standard difficulty, it’s pretty important that you do sign up for extra jobs at the tavern as each successful mission raises the level of the participating party members by one, increasing their stats and awarding a skill point to be spent on each character’s skill tree. The progression is fairly straightforward, but the fact that the leveling up happens off screen is a bit of a letdown–you miss out on the satisfaction of seeing numbers go up. The skill trees are different for each of the game’s four basic classes: cavalier, ranger, warmancer, and apothecary (warrior, archer, mage, and healer, essentially). The warmancer can choose to spend points to become more proficient with fire, ice, or lightning, while the apothecary can wield both restorative and destructive potions on the battlefield. At level 18, advanced classes open up that offer a few more options for customizing your party.

While some parts of the story are a clear highlight of Arcadian Atlas, the combat is where you’ll spend more of your playtime, and fortunately it’s fairly solid. These turn-based affairs feature a timeline at the bottom of the screen to indicate who’s next to act, and your group of five or six characters will often be fighting against seven or eight opponents. This means that you’ll generally need sound strategy and a properly outfitted team to win the day. Checking the shops regularly for new gear is a must, as are assigning earned skill points and having a well balanced squad. I learned pretty quickly of the importance of bringing an apothecary with me at all times, given their ability to heal and even revive downed teammates. If one of your party members has their health reduced to zero, there is a three-turn window where either they can be revived or you can win the fight and not lose them.

Where Arcadian Atlas stumbles is in terms of its presentation and overall aesthetic. It leans heavily on a jazzy soundtrack that clashes with the gravity of its story and the tension of its combat. Worse is the constant hitching of the Switch version, with inputs not recognized immediately and characters simply freezing for seconds at a time, leaving me wondering whether the game itself had frozen completely. Battles also play out very slowly and awkwardly, with no option to speed up the proceedings or even rotate your view around the battlefield, let alone zoom in or out. During cutscenes, the intentionally zoomed-in perspective makes it difficult to appreciate the surroundings and situations the characters face. While the character sprites themselves are fine, the art used in dialogue exchanges isn’t as attractive, and it’s hard not to feel put off by the visual experience of the game as a whole.

Arcadian Atlas makes a tactical misstep in terms of its soundtrack and overall performance on Switch. Even aside from its technical and artistic weaknesses, there isn’t an abundance of strength in its story pacing, even if a few beats do land fairly well. The activity you’ll spend most of your time with, the turn-based battles, are pretty good but feature little in the way of variety. If you’re a diehard tactics fan, Arcadian Atlas may be worth looking up on another platform if the performance is better there, but games like Triangle Strategy and Tactics Ogre Reborn are much stronger options if you’ve yet to play them.

TalkBack / In Stars and Time (Switch) Review
« on: November 20, 2023, 05:00:00 AM »

In search of lost time loops.

2D RPG In Stars and Time is a genuinely unique blend of genres, feeling something like a cross between Undertale and Minit. It features a turn-based combat system, heavy amounts of dialogue (especially for its slight world), an almost roguelike time loop mechanic, and a smallish four-floor dungeon at its center. What it lacks in breadth it makes up for with charming characters and dialogue, but the in-baked repetition does start to wear thin about halfway through its 10 to 15-hour runtime.

The game opens in a field, with protagonist Siffrin struggling to wake up from a nap. The story sees Siffrin and his friends–Mirabelle, Odile, Bonnie, and Isabeau–near the end of their journey to defeat The King, a villain who has been freezing time for nearby citizens. The in medias res narrative allows the soon-to-be introduced time loop mechanic to take center stage, with the heroes spending one final night sleeping over at the nearby clock tower before entering the King's lair.

The four-floor house contains enemies to engage, locked doors to open, and items to collect. You can generally avoid most basic enemies by skirting around them in the hallways, but encounters with mini-bosses and bosses cannot be avoided. One of the first events you encounter involves a giant boulder falling from the ceiling and crushing Siffrin, and it's at that point that the time looping comes into play. Each trap you trigger in the dungeon gives you information about how to avoid it in future runs. You'll learn the location of keys so that you can immediately retrieve them and continue on your way towards the final battle. Eventually, you'll access the ability to open all doors of a floor before looping back there, which cuts down on backtracking. An unfortunate aspect of the time manipulation is that there’s a currency involved with skipping ahead in later runs, and accumulating more of it feels like a chore.

A creature known as Loop plays the role of handler, guiding you through the game and offering hints about what to do next. You can find them in the town area at the beginning of the game, but later on you'll be able to call them from a distance. There are ways to reduce the amount of looping (and thus saving a fair bit of in-game time) by just saving your game before choosing from the forks in your path. You're meant to succeed through some trial and error, but having to push through all the dialogue and even the tutorial battle that come with looping back to the very start of the game is fairly tedious.

What helps with the repetition built into a game of this type is that you do gradually open up new dialogue options with your party members. One of your first objectives is to inform your comrades in town of the sleepover to come that night, and it's during this sequence that Siffrin is able to use some of their previously acquired knowledge to ask different questions and get to know their mates a little bit better. The townsfolk can also offer hints and information to assist you with obstacles encountered in the dungeon, too. That said, In Stars and Time does sometimes feel like a larger game trapped in a smaller one, and so there's a disconnect between what you need to do to reach the end and what optional tasks you can take on. It doesn’t help that the second half of the adventure forces you to juggle multiple objectives without really giving the progression or record-keeping tools to manage them.

The turn-based combat uses rock-paper-scissors (RPS) as a replacement for elements or typing. Rock attacks are strong against scissor enemies but ineffective against paper foes, and so on. The enemy designs are abstract but forgettable, aside from needing to spot a part of their body that indicates their RPS type, often their hands. Noticing that a foe's mitts are in the shape of a pair of scissors means you'll want to use Isabeau's rock attacks or Odile's rock spells. You can level up, albeit slowly, to earn an extra ability or two over the four or five you start the game with, and given the challenging final boss fight, it's worth stockpiling items and not avoiding too many combat encounters.

I'm torn when it comes to the cast and dialogue of In Stars and Time. As individuals and as a group, I like how different they are and how they express their personalities. However, even searching basic elements of a room, like a closet or a bookshelf, can result in lengthy discussions amongst the party. These interactions go on longer than they need to, and there are so many of them that I stopped searching locations thoroughly to avoid the overlong conversations that would undoubtedly ensue. A better balance between gameplay elements and dialogue would have likely resulted in a more enjoyable experience overall.

While it doesn't persist throughout the entire playthrough, there's an unmistakable uniqueness to In Stars and Time. Its parts may be stronger than it ends up as a whole, but there's humor and heart pouring from its cast. While the back half features some interesting twists, with them come more repetition and occasional frustration with how character and area progression occurs. Even though it's a little too verbose, the overall experience of In Stars and Time is a worthwhile one, especially for fans of Undertale and other offbeat RPGs.

TalkBack / Re: Final Fantasy VI Pixel Remaster (Switch) Review-in-Progress
« on: November 18, 2023, 04:11:32 AM »
Is this going to get a score?

It only took seven months, but the review finally has a score! Thanks for your (incredible) patience!

TalkBack / Video Game Memoir A Game In The Life Now Available
« on: November 16, 2023, 04:00:00 AM »

NWR Reviews Editor's debut book releases today.

Jordan Rudek has spent the last three years working on his first book, A Game In The Life: A Personal Journey Through Timeless Video Games. After many hours of editing, polishing, and reworking, the book is finally releasing today, November 16. It's currently available as an eBook, but a physical version is in the works as well. The snazzy cover was done by none other than Site Director John Rairdin and his wife Kaytee.

You can find store links where you can purchase A Game In The Life here.

TalkBack / Cobalt Core (Switch) Review
« on: November 08, 2023, 07:00:00 AM »

A space-themed roguelike with cute animals and staying power.

After having the chance to go hands-on with Cobalt Core’s PC build at PAX West earlier this year, I was practically salivating while waiting for a review code for the full game. Little did I know, the Steam version and Switch versions would both be releasing on the same day, and after having spent time with both, I’m happy to report that the experience is great whether you’re sitting at your desktop or playing Switch in bed. This charming deckbuilder is as addictive as it is approachable, and there haven’t been many days since I’ve had access to it that I haven’t booted it up for a run or two.

The premise of Cobalt Core is that you play as a squad of three animal pilots (Starfox-y vibes?) who have gotten trapped in a time loop and must retrieve their memories to understand how and why they became stuck. Completing a run allows you to unlock a single memory from one of the three participants. In total, there are three unlockable characters to build out your pool to six, and then two additional hidden ones as well, for a total of eight. Story beats spill out over the course of a run, but it’s the unlocked memories that are won from clearing all three maps that offer the most satisfying–and humorous–dialogue exchanges.

As you might expect with most roguelike games, the gameplay is where most of the focus lies, and fortunately the loop of Cobalt Core offers a healthy amount of customization and variety to keep dozens of runs feeling fresh. Across a map filled with branching paths and about a dozen nodes that are required to pass through, you’ll take on enemy ships in one-on-one turn-based combat. During your turn, you can see what the enemy will do on theirs, and so you can spend your three energy points to attack, raise your shields, evade enemy fire, or apply different buffs and debuffs. The cards in front of you represent your possible moves for that turn, and each one has a different energy cost, with more powerful or useful cards costing two, three, or even four energy to play.

As you win battles and visit different map nodes, you’ll be able to add new cards to your deck, upgrade the cards you like, and even remove ones you don’t. You also pick up artifacts along the way that add permanent buffs to your squad, such as being able to start each battle with one shield and one evade move or being able to fire at enemy missiles to turn them towards your opponent. Mini-boss map nodes can generally be avoided, but the rewards are greater if you’re willing to risk those encounters. Completing each map adds to your ship’s maximum hull rating (hit points) and also refills a portion of your missing hull, setting you up for success in the next map. Other events you’ll encounter offer chances to rearrange the layout of your ship or rescue a friendly pilot whose missile systems have gone haywire. Even though subsequent runs eventually start to feel more and more familiar, you can increase the difficulty, try out newly unlocked ships and pilots, and discover new cards and artifacts each time you play. After more than 15 hours with Cobalt Core, I’m still discovering things I hadn’t seen before, and I’m excited to keep digging.

Even though Cobalt Core does feel a bit better suited to using a mouse, the Switch controls are a perfectly fine way to experience the game. The added portability of Handheld mode lends itself incredibly well to almost any roguelike, especially this one. I walked away impressed by the PAX demo of Cobalt Core, and the full game lives up to that hype. It’s a wonderful run-based title that I expect to revisit for years to come, just as I’ve done with other roguelike standouts like Into the Breach. Although it’s somehow not yet on Switch, FTL: Faster than Light is another obvious comparable for Cobalt Core, and if you enjoyed the former, you’ll almost certainly want to sink your furry paws into the latter. This is one time loop I’m happy to never see the end of.

TalkBack / Gargoyles Remastered (Switch) Review
« on: October 19, 2023, 05:00:00 AM »

Some stones should stay unturned.

It wasn’t uncommon for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis to receive slightly different versions of the same game; Mortal Kombat is a famous example of this. In other cases, like that of Disney’s Aladdin, the two versions were actually quite different, with one focusing more on combat and the other on platforming and movement. In some cases, like with the Lion King, the two games were essentially the same. Another Disney property was also going to see two entries come to the predominant 16-bit platforms of the ‘90s (no offense, Bonk), but it’s not hard to see why it ended up only hitting the Genesis. Based on the Gargoyles cartoon, Gargoyles Remastered is a short, frustrating, and unsatisfying video game, and while it includes the Genesis game packed in, neither the remaster nor the original are worth your time.

Across five stages with smaller individual areas within them, you guide Gargoyles protagonist Goliath through a castle, across rooftops, and into the depths of a subway. There’s a combination of horizontal and vertical spaces to navigate through and a smattering of enemies to take out along the way. The first two stages have about three different types of basic enemies and then a boss fight at the end, the second of which is laughably easy if you just stand beside them and mash the attack button. What makes the levels so frustrating is the combination of awkward combat and the way in which you’re constantly knocked down when scaling walls or jumping across gaps and pits.

Goliath can perform a swiping attack, a throw, a downward stomp, and a double jump. None of these feel particularly good; there’s a stickiness to the controls and a lack of feedback when it comes to your blows landing on their target. The Genesis version is a little bit better in this regard but not by much. I spent my first run of the game swiping dozens of times at one particular enemy before realizing I could defeat them easily by simply picking up and tossing them. Later stages require incredible precision and timing with your jumping, and Goliath’s jump and double jump don’t work nearly well enough for the types of obstacles and challenges you need to overcome. Fortunately, one of the few highlights of the Remaster is an added rewind button (although even that isn’t implemented well), and I can’t imagine rolling credits on this game without it. The final stage is laughably tough, and that’s only compounded by collision glitches and falling through solid walls and floors.

Both the Remaster and the original offer three difficulty modes, and gluttons for punishment might opt for anything other than the easiest one. Goliath has a weird life meter that can be restored in miniscule amounts by collecting the items left behind by defeated enemies. Other than that, there are rare extra lives to snag and (very) temporary invulnerability pick-ups. While you do have a handful of lives depending on the difficulty, the number of continues is limited. It's great that losing a life or continuing basically starts you off at the same place where you died, but I'll reiterate just how hard it is to finish either version without extensive practice or skill, or just making ample use of the rewind feature.

The Remaster deserves credit for how its visual design brings the game more in line with the cartoon. That said, there are still too many moments where it's not readily apparent how to progress; destructible walls blend in too well, air pumps to be smashed don't stand out from the background, and even objects to cling to aren't obvious enough. The sound effects range from ear-splitting to inaudible, and little about the music is at all memorable. It's clear that there was an effort made to bring Gargoyles to modern platforms, but I'm at a loss as to the reasoning for why.

One of the pretty clear indications that Gargoyles Remastered is a failure is in its lack of achievements, a feature promised by its eShop listing. Another broken promise is that of seamlessly toggling between graphics styles; you can either select the original Genesis game or the Remaster, but there's no switching between them unless you go back to the main menu and start over. Worse than any promises unfulfilled is that the game just isn't very good at all, and it's mired by bugs, lacks basic options and tutorials, and only spans five total stages. Gargoyles is a relic that should have remained set in 16-bit stone, sealed away never to return. I'm normally very supportive of the effort to bring back old and forgotten games, but even superfans of the TV series shouldn't be tortured by this unnecessary re-release.

TalkBack / Born of Bread Hands-on Preview
« on: October 18, 2023, 04:00:00 AM »

Paper Mario-style gameplay starring an oven-baked hero.

I recently had the opportunity to play a Steam demo of Adventure RPG Born of Bread, and from the opening moments, the Paper Mario inspiration is unmistakable. The 1 to 2-hour demo took me through the start of the game and up until the completion of the  first major mission, rescuing Papa Baker, the man responsible for bringing protagonist flour golem Loaf to life. The world is full of color and characters to interact with, in addition to sidequests to undertake and secrets to uncover. In my brief time with the game, it’s hard to deny the appeal, and fans of Mario-themed RPGs and indies like Bug Fables should keep their eyes squarely locked on Born of Bread.

After emerging from an oven in the Royal Castle, Loaf meets the man responsible for baking him to life and then has free reign to explore the kitchen and other parts of the castle. Shortly after, a group looking set to function as the primary villains show up to snatch a treasure known as the Sunshard, and the result is Papa Baker and Loaf being blown out of the castle only to land in a nearby forest. Making their way back allows Loaf to learn the ins and outs of combat in addition to meeting your first companion character, Lint. After being accused of causing the castle explosion, Papa Baker is apprehended and the first major story quest unfolds, with Loaf needing to prove his father’s innocence. There’s an effective sense of pacing early on, and a helpful notebook in the menus that shows what objective(s) you’re working towards.

Born of Bread employs an effective sense of humor and a vibrant color palette to make both the heavily populated and more solitary spaces both feel enjoyable to explore and interact with. Light platforming is required to traverse the different environments, including a mine, a crystal cavern, a forest village, and a dark, water-filled passageway, but most of these places were fairly straightforward with just a few treasures and collectables off the beaten path. Enemies you come across will attempt to run into you to initiate combat, but you can also smack them with your ladle to get an extra bit of damage in before the fight starts. In the town area surrounding the castle, you encounter an office filled with heroes, and a misfit among their rank ends up joining your party as a “Saver,” who has the job of recording your progress (and even pops out at save points to facilitate this).

The turn-based combat features timed attacking and defending, with Loaf and his companion (Lint for this demo) taking their turns before each of the opponents had a chance to act. Besides a basic attack, Loaf could perform a slicing sickle move to the first enemy in the row or toss a pickaxe at any enemy on the battlefield. The pickaxe was particularly effective against rock-like enemies, but it was costly to use in terms of weapon points (WP). The timing component for many of the attacks involved starting and stopping a meter at a particular spot, and it’s also possible to miss entirely if you fail completely in your timing. Loaf also has a move to bolster his defense (which requires spending from another meter, RP), and it’s funny and a bit weird to see enemies attack you as part of the move, with its effectiveness based on how well you time your defending of these blows. The combat felt a little bit slow until I unlocked a move with Lint that could hit every enemy in a row, and stat gains only seem to come in the form of increasing health, WP, or RP after a level up. You can equip weapons you find to give you new moves and slot in objects called Boons to raise your stats, but I didn’t come across any to reduce damage received or improve my damage output, at least in the demo.

What impressed me the most about Born of Bread was the way in which the explorable areas had a lot of depth to them. Instead of being dominated by west-to-east movement and flatter rooms and environments, the interior spaces in particular had a lot of north-to-south navigation room. Tying into this is just how detailed and bright all of the objects and backgrounds look, almost like a cartoon that’s come to life. There’s less of a sense of a book or pop-up book flipping pages and more one of fully realized 3D spaces, making exploration and traversal more engaging. I’m really eager to see more of this world and encounter more of its citizens in the full game.

Born of Bread doesn’t yet have a release date, but it is coming to Switch soon and we’ll find out exactly when budding bakers will be able to get their oven mitts on the game shortly, as we've been assured it's still on track for a 2023 release. So far, I’m intrigued by the environments and characters I encountered and hoping the Switch version holds up enough to make for an enjoyable experience.

TalkBack / River City: Rival Showdown (Switch) Review
« on: October 11, 2023, 08:00:00 PM »

A 3DS remaster of an NES classic makes its way to Switch.

River City: Rival Showdown is an overhauled version of River City Ransom, one of my favorite NES titles. It originally came to the 3DS in 2016 and now sees new life on Switch. While it may be advertised as a remaster, there’s actually quite a bit that’s changed in Rival Showdown compared to the original River City Ransom. A day-night cycle, experience points and leveling, and a whole lot more story beats make for an interesting departure for this 2D side-scrolling brawler. It’s a little rough around the edges in some spots, but there’s enough meat on this beat-’em-up bone to make for a fairly satisfying experience.

Rival Showdown stars high school student Kunio, a self-confident but delinquent teenager who’d rather spend his time strolling the streets or sitting at an arcade cabinet than at a school desk. One of the primary narrative threads that you follow involves gangs at rival schools wanting to assert their dominance, which eventually culminates in a massive brawl outside of Kunio’s Nekketsu High School. Across three separate days, you work towards uncovering secrets, plots, and rumors about what’s going on in River City, and on the fourth day it’s basically the Royal Rumble in front of the Nekketsu gates. You can use your map to see which events are happening in which part of the city, but you need to carefully plan your moves and keep your ears to the ground to unlock the game’s true ending. Fortunately, there are a few other endings you can earn as well.

The gameplay loop sees Kunio running around River City as a clock at the top of the screen displays the time. Days are divided into three segments–Day, Evening, and Night–and different events will occur during different segments, sometimes even at specific times. There are dozens of events to encounter across the separate time periods, and it’s likely you won’t see all of them on your first few playthroughs. Listening to what folks about town have to say and checking your map routinely will allow you to find out about most of what’s happening in River City. As you make your way from screen to screen, you’ll encounter a variety of NPCs to talk to and all sorts of gang members dressed in different suits depending on their affiliation. It’s never clear at a glance how powerful your opponents are until the first blows land, and the beginning of a new save file (where you start at Level 0) can offer a rude awakening as most of the foes you encounter have the capacity to clean your clock in no time flat.

Gradually, you’ll start to level up and distribute stat gains to different attributes, like Punch, Kick, and Endurance (whatever suits your playstyle). Equipping different pieces of clothing and accessories can also yield significant boosts to your stats, but you may not find gear right away. If that’s the case, you can use the hard-earned currency you pick up from defeated enemies to purchase consumable food to restore health, specific gear for different body parts, or even books that can teach new skills, such as my River City Ransom staple, Dragon Feet. One of the most helpful aspects of leveling up is that your health and stamina are restored, allowing you to stay in the fight and keep unleashing devastating special moves.

I'm a bit torn in terms of the aesthetics and presentation for Rival Showdown. Visually, the combination of retro-looking sprites against a more detailed background really works well for breathing new life into the game on Switch. The way menus, attacks, and different areas of the city look is really eye-catching. On the flip side, the updated soundtrack is an ineffective facsimile of the NES version. I kept it on for my first couple playthroughs before throwing in the towel and switching to the original, which is a very welcome feature given how well the NES music holds up today.

Rolling credits for the first time unlocks a library of character and skill info, in addition to a sound test. There are also three difficulty options to unlock, coupled with an extra sub-story that tells part of the narrative from a different character's perspective. I do wish that a medium difficulty was available from the hop, but there is something fun about restarting your save file with all of your experience, stats, and abilities and being a total badass on Day 1. It was also neat to see a playable fighting game called Double Dragon Duel, which is part of the in-game world, as an option from the main menu.

River City: Rival Showdown is an enjoyable departure from the NES title it derives from. It's received an obvious visual upgrade over the 3DS release, and has added online play, too. It can be frustrating to get stuck with unwinnable event battles, but the penalty of losing an in-game hour isn't devastating. There's definitely a bit more of a learning curve for anyone who's only played River City Ransom, but the overall package is a solid one for Kunio-kun and brawler fans alike, provided you don't mind a bit of detective work.

TalkBack / CounterAttack: Uprising (Switch) Review
« on: October 09, 2023, 01:14:24 PM »

Gradius-like upgrades and lots of unlockable content elevate this 'shump.

CounterAttack: Uprising is a horizontal shooter in the vein of classics like R-Type and Gradius, and it even features a power-up system that functions as in the latter. While its art style and presentation are less appealing parts of the package, the hundreds of unlockable ship attachments and over 30 stages add plenty of staying power to another entry in this well represented genre on Switch.

The story is a familiar one, with Earth needing to be defended against an onslaught of sentient machines. Across single player, local multiplayer, and online co-op, you'll blast your way through a chain of maps to get to the final stage, typically unlocking new map nodes or starting points along the way. You can opt for a random ship or select from eight different pilots who have their own unique spacecraft with its own capabilities and weapons.

Customization is the name of the game in CounterAttack, going so far as allowing you to choose the color of your ship. From there, you can equip up to three modules that you gradually unlock through gameplay. These include speed upgrades, the ability to convert ultimate charges to extra lives, and extra drones, among many others. There's also the opportunity to chose up to three weapons, with these options also growing in number over time. It's actually pretty astounding just how much you can tailor your ship to your liking, and this feature helps the game standout from its peers.

From there, you'll need to land on either Casual, Arcade, and Hardcore mode, with the former allowing you to save your game and the latter offering a higher unlock rate for attachments (at the cost of having zero extra lives). There are four difficulty levels as well, and even a survival mode where you try to last as long as possible. Every game mode appears to have an online leaderboard, adding to the already fairly high replay value.

The levels themselves are largely fine, but they can drag on a bit without a ton of enemy variety. Another gripe is that the dull look can make it difficult to discern some forms of enemy fire from the background or from your own bullets. The boss fights that conclude each area are a bit lackluster, too. What works in CounterAttack's favor is the way in which you have a robust upgrade tree that constantly asks you to consider implementing an earlier power-up like speed or waiting for a stronger primary laser; you can even save up for an extra life. One odd omission from the playing screen is your current score, which you only get to see at the end of each stage.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get into an online match during my time with CounterAttack, but it's nice to have the option should more players populate this mode. The local co-op is solid, with power-ups alternating between participants, regardless of who picked them up (ideal when playing with a younger or less experienced shipmate). Switch performance was steady throughout my entire experience, and loading times and screens were both minimal.

CounterAttack: Uprising is a content-laden shoot-'em-up that offers some excellent customization and multiplayer options. There are even level and campaign editors for the creatively inclined. The aesthetic, including the level design and the art style, wasn't overly appealing to me, but my son and I still had a wonderful time trying to see how far we could get across the different game modes. While it's not quite in must-play territory, CounterAttack is well worth a look for fans of the genre, particularly those who embrace playing starship mechanic.


Endless garbage, by any other name.

Dragon Quest has spun-off into dozens of exciting, unique, and enjoyable titles over the years. Among these, Dragon Quest Builders and its sequel, both Minecraft-like games with RPG features, are two of my personal favorites. The Dragon Quest brand carries with it a cachet and charm that often infuse the non-mainline releases with that same joy that games like Dragon Quest V and Dragon Quest XI bring. It's fitting, perhaps, that the latest side project doesn't actually begin with Dragon Quest in title; it's the furthest thing from the typical quality of the franchise and even further away from being a good time.

Infinity Strash: Dragon Quest The Adventure of Dai is an action-RPG based on the manga and anime starring the titular character. Except, it plays more like a visual novel for half of its runtime and features nothing in the way of exploration or adventuring. There is very little redeeming about the experience outside of some flashy ultimate attack animations, and after rolling credits I'm left wondering why the game exists at all, if only to attempt to cash in on the recent anime series from 2020. The story largely focuses on Dai's journey to become a hero, but the medium of delivery for that narrative just doesn't fit with the musou-style combat. A couple of the characters earn new job classes, but these changes come far too late in the story to really matter.

Across seven chapters, you access tiny map nodes of three different types. Most of these involve a voiced but still cutscene a minute or two in length. The second most common scenario is a boss fight, and bafflingly the majority of them are one-on-one bouts. There are also a smattering of small stages where you’ll have multiple characters and waves of enemies to take out. Your party reaches a maximum of four, but only a handful of stages in the main story involve fighting with your teammates, and so there’s a disconnect between all the work you do in raising up their levels and outfitting them with specific attribute boosts that feels undone by the structure of the game. The word for it might be discordant; there’s no sense of harmony or flow to how The Adventure of Dai plays out. Moving from node to node becomes a tedious chore that’s occasionally punctuated by a seldom enjoyable boss fight. I say “seldom” because if you’re underleveled, the standard difficulty mode may prove an immense challenge, while the easier mode (and there are only two options) is basically child’s play.

Progression comes in the form of standard RPG level-ups through the combat stages, and you can return to previously completed levels to grind for experience and materials to improve your skills. As the game so often likes to remind you, there’s also a roguelike dungeon called the Temple of Recollection, and here you can earn Bond Memories to equip on your characters to boost their attack, defense, magic, etc.  Bond Memories themselves can also be bolstered with materials acquired in the Temple. Every visit to this location starts you back at square one, both in terms of character level and the literal floor of the dungeon. None of your experience gains carry forward outside of the Temple, and dying at any point in your run forfeits all of the items gained to that point. This roguelike element is a cruel way to punish players for trying to make the story mode a little easier, and it does feel like a necessary feature given the way bosses scale up outside of the Temple of Recollection. You basically need the benefits that come from finishing a few floors within the roguelike space, but if you don’t exit the dungeon before it becomes too tough, you lose everything.

While you’re given a variety of healing and stat-buffing items for every combat encounter, you have none of these in the Temple of Recollection (outside of a few you can purchase on certain floors). It’s also not possible to revive fallen comrades, so you need to be very careful to conserve HP or make ample use of your healer, Maam’s, curative spells. Moving from one strata to the next can represent a major leap in enemy strength, and if you haven’t built up your character’s levels and stats enough by moving through the earlier floors, you can be in for a rude awakening when your foes start pounding you like a hammer.

The plot of Infinity Strash isn’t boring or uninteresting, but its delivery is one of the poorest I’ve seen in a game of this size and style. The world of Dragon Quest is full of endearing characters, enemies, and spaces, but all of those elements are sapped of their potency through the narrative structure employed here. Accessing multiple map nodes in a row that serve only to push the story along just isn’t very compelling, and the repeated one v. one battles against the same bosses is another form of repetition that drags down the experience. The few interactive elements of The Adventure of Dai aren’t rewarded with meaningful, well-told exposition, and the constant switching between rote combat encounters and visual novel cutscenes represents a death knell for this mediocre game.

If there’s a worse Dragon Quest side game out there, I haven’t played it. The only group who is likely to derive any satisfaction from Infinity Strash: Dragon Quest The Adventure of Dai would have to be megafans of the manga or anime and want to see the events therein retold in a different medium. Baffling design choices like splitting up the party, forcing players to make use of the punishing roguelike area, having lack of action map nodes, and delivering the story through still cutscenes work in tandem to kill any joy that this experience might have elicited. Ultimately, Infinity Strash is a lifeless husk of a video game that can’t be redeemed by an added post-game difficulty or the dozens of simplified and random stages of the Temple of Recollections. Spend your time and money on anything else with the “Dragon Quest” name on it instead, and leave this one in the Strash bin.

TalkBack / Wargroove 2 (Switch) Review
« on: October 05, 2023, 05:00:00 AM »

The roguelike Conquest mode is this strategy sequel’s hidden gem.

In January of 2019, I proclaimed in my glowing review of Chucklefish’s Wargroove that the title gave Advance Wars fans “what they’ve been clamoring for,” and while 2023 did see the return of Nintendo’s beloved strategy series with Re-Boot Camp, that effort didn’t completely hit the mark. Unlike its predecessor, Wargroove 2 left only a handful of months between its reveal earlier this year and its October release, a pleasant and unexpected surprise to be sure given the two years separating the announcement and launch of the original. Given the similarity in the gameplay, I’ll refer you to my review of Wargroove for a breakdown of its mechanics and instead focus below on what’s new in the sequel, including one addition in particular that really knocks it out of the park.

Within story mode, there are three new campaigns involving the returning factions–including the Outlaws from the Double Trouble DLC–and a brand new faction in the mouse-like Faahri. The campaigns are varied and offer bonus objectives to complete for an added challenge. In addition to new Commanders, each one also has an enhanced Groove ability that allows you to change up to a second tier for a more potent effect. The stages of the campaigns offer a range of objectives, but most of the time you’re winning by either defeating the enemy Commander or destroying the opposing side’s Stronghold. While there’s an array of ways to adjust the difficulty, veterans of the turn-based strategy will likely find the base settings to offer a fairly robust challenge on their own.

Wargroove 2’s most compelling new feature is the roguelike Conquest mode, which features its own unlockable maps, bonuses, and characters. Across another four mini-campaigns (Conquests), you proceed through a series of nodes and forks to reach a final boss fight at the end of each campaign. At the outset, you get to choose from three random Commanders and three sets of starting units (each with its own starting gold amount). Most of the nodes involve a regular battle wherein you need to defeat all enemies present to advance, but the trick is that any damage or losses you sustain carry forward to the next node. There are also spaces where you can recruit more units with money earned from felling enemies, purchase special items, heal either your units or your Commander, or even encounter a special event (which may be harmful or beneficial).

The end result of each individual Conquest, whether successful or not, is that you come away with Shards that can be spent to unlock a variety of goodies within Conquest mode. Initially, only the Cherrystone Conquest is available, and so the Shards you earn there are spent flipping cards on a grid to eventually unlock the next Conquest of Felheim. Along the way, you can also flip cards that add new Commanders to the pool, new shops, new items, a larger starting army, and a greater starting sum of gold. The Shard cost increases steadily as you unlock more and more content, but you can replay all of the Conquests to earn more Shards, and doing so at a higher difficulty multiplies your earnings and awards a higher grade medal. There’s also the built-in replayability of being able to choose a different Commander and initial soldier squad, coupled with the randomness of the Conquest node layout. I ended up spending as much or more time with this game mode, and it alone ended up entertaining me as much as the first Wargroove did.

Other upgrades made their way into Wargroove 2 as well, such as improved map and campaign editing tools, but I do wish there was some kind of tutorial that introduced the section of the game. There are five new units as well, including Frogs that can use their tongue to reposition units and powerful Kraken that can entrap foes. The multiplayer modes from the original Wargroove return here: local play on a single system for two or four players, and online multiplayer (which I wasn’t able to test during the pre-launch period). One noticeable downgrade, however, is the sheer number of softlocks I encountered while playing any of the different game modes. It’s nice that the Story and Conquest modes appear to feature an auto-save that bookmarks your progress, but I had to close and restart the game multiple times due to this issue.

I was done shaking my Wargroove thing in 2019, but this sequel four years later has brought me right back to the colorful, medieval battlefield of Aurania, and I’m absolutely here for it. Much to my delight, the inclusion of a roguelike mode in Wargroove 2’s Conquest feature is the best reason to recommend this hearty sequel, particularly for anyone who enjoyed the original. The sequel is not only more of the same, but also presents a compelling new way to experience its tried-and-true strategy gameplay. While I do like the new Commanders that have made their way into the fold, I would love to see the individual factions have a bit more uniqueness in terms of how they played or their strengths and weaknesses; they’re only distinguished by their appearance and their units names (which can sometimes be confusing). Nonetheless, strategy fans should rejoice at the opportunity to spend more time with a wonderful series that puts a fantasy twist on Advance Wars.

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