Show Posts

This section allows you to view all posts made by this member. Note that you can only see posts made in areas you currently have access to.

Messages - Halbred

Pages: [1] 2 3 ... 163
TalkBack / Kudzu (Switch eShop) Review
« on: April 15, 2024, 01:31:21 PM »

Little annoyances add up to big problems in this Zelda-like.

Kudzu is another retro game receiving an original cartridge, as in Dungeons & Doomknights. This one, however, is for the original Game Boy. It follows the trials and tribulations of Max, a gardener and protégé of garden master Zoen, as he explores a surprisingly large Link’s Awakening-style world in search of better gardening tools to fight back against Kudzu, a real, but invasive, vine-like plant (Pueraria sp.>. The game is competent and well-meaning, but a rash of technical issues and small spaces really hold it back.

The core gameplay is pretty simple: Max wanders through the world in overhead view while brandishing a machete and (eventually) various other gardening tools. An interesting twist on the Zelda formula is that “dungeons,” which have their own title screens, provide connection between zones of the overworld, so you’ll find yourself repeatedly traipsing through older dungeons to access new overworld areas. This isn’t actually bad, as you usually have new garden tools to further explore any given area. Max will come across various obstacles, including rocky ground (which you’ll need a rake for), actual rocks (which you’ll need gloves for), and thorny terrain (which you’ll need boots for). This is all fun in theory, but it winds up feeling like every new implement is a key. Max’s combat abilities never really change.

I’d say he could use a projectile weapon, but the spaces are so confined that it might not be useful. Most rooms (or “screens” in Zelda parlance) aren’t open spaces. Instead, Max will be moving around obstacles to kill enemies, which makes most areas feel very confined. I suspect that part of this is that the sprites are quite large. I would analogize this with the Mega Man games on Game Boy; because they don’t scale down the sprites, the valuable real estate of the Game Boy screen means that everything looks way too zoomed-in. I got a similar feeling during Kudzu.

Combat should be pretty straightforward, but winds up feeling tragically imprecise, and I think it’s due to technical issues. Because Max always moves a little bit forward when you press a direction, he often runs into enemies due to the confined paths through most screens. Some enemies also have wildly unpredictable movement patterns (none more so than the rats in the haunted house). In addition, Max’s attacks don’t always “count,” and sometimes just push an enemy away in a random direction. To be fair, this also occasionally happens to Max, where an enemy will seemingly hit him but no damage is taken. In addition, pressing pause, on many screens, will cause previously-destroyed objects (like vines) or damaged enemies to “reset,” which I found bizarre.

The pause menu itself also deserves some consternation. Moving the cursor within the pause menu is an exercise in frustrating tedium. It takes a lot of button presses for the cursor to “register” and actually move to the next thing. Max’s health is displayed on the pause screen but not, weirdly, on the gameplay screen. When he takes damage, a little bubble will appear over his head that displays how much damage he’s taken but not always--and it's occasionally wrong. Max can use jelly, sometimes dropped by fallen enemies, to restore health. When the game begins, he only has one jelly “jar” available but he can buy more jars over the course of the game.

The pause menu also shows how many mushrooms (currency) Max has as well as how many goats (collectibles) he’s found. Unfortunately, and unlike every other Zelda-like on the planet, no number is displayed by the mushrooms or goats. You have to navigate over to the mushrooms or goats and press A, which then brings up a dialogue box telling you how many you have. Once you buy a map of a given area, you can press the - button to view it, and the map is far more responsive than the pause menu. However, even late in the game, I'd not found a map to one of the early areas, which means that map-finding is more uncertain than you'd like.

Although save points are fairly evenly distributed throughout the world, Max will die more often than you’ll think is fair given the hit detection problems explained above. There are boss fights, and they are mercifully simple. Finding a new piece of gardening equipment should feel great but in practice it’s pretty underwhelming. Finding the rake, for example, doesn’t give you a new item to “equip” as there is no equipping. Your standard machete swing now also destroys rocky ground. It all feels very passive.

That undercooked feeling extends to the game’s options. The digital version of Kudzu displays in true Game Boy pea soup green, but there are no other filters. How about a Game Boy Pocket or Game Boy Color option? How about a pixel perfect option? You can choose a few different screen borders, including key art (which I don’t like) and two slightly different console borders, neither of which is a Game Boy, but instead looks like an off-brand Atari 2600.

I think you get the point. Kudzu is going to be compared with Link’s Awakening at every turn, and in fact the publisher’s own PR does just that, but it can’t hold a candle to that beloved Zelda entry. It all feels very undercooked and I can’t recommend it.

TalkBack / Lords of Exile (Switch eShop) Review
« on: February 19, 2024, 03:05:36 PM »

An NES-style combat platformer that feels a little too familiar.

It seems I’m on a bit of an 8-bit kick these days, what with Prison City and Dungeons & Doomknights earlier and Lords of Exile today. This is a well-worn subgenre, and games of this type really need to catch your attention to gain an audience. I can’t really say that Lords of Exile does that, but it is a fun diversion. This is a clear homage to NES combat platformers like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden; thankfully a bit more forgiving than either, but also less memorable.

You play as a knight, Gabriel, out to destroy an evil warlord through eight stages of sidescrolling action. He’s got a sword, various subweapons, and–very quickly–a spirit companion who can…float alongside him and provide a ranged attack that isn’t as useful as Gabriel’s subweapons. Combat is the name of the game in Lords of Exile, as the platforming is pretty basic, left-to-right stage progression. The dozens of enemies you’ll face fall pretty easily to your sword or projectile subweapons, and if you’re ever down on health, you can buy potions at the occasional ghostly item shop. Defeating enemies often nets gold, and you’ll rarely be short on funds.

The most exciting parts of this NES-like are the boss fights. Each level ends with a pretty chunky boss battle, featuring monsters with strongly telegraphed attack cycles. You’ll face humans and monsters in equal measure, but once you figure out a boss’ attacks, you’ll discover that they don’t deviate from the attack cycles at all. The first boss, for example, uses a sweeping fire attack first, then a ghost-summoning attack, and finishes off with an energy beam barrage. Survive all that, and she’ll go back to the fire sweep and the cycle continues.

Even the game’s final boss, who is initially quite hard, quickly falls into a predictable attack cycle that you can easily counter. That is somewhat disappointing, but it also makes Lords of Exile pretty easy overall. Gabriel’s abilities are enhanced with every defeated boss, like having a longer-reaching blade, gaining additional subweapon attacks (from 20 to 30), that kind of thing. He eventually gains a sort of “earthquake stomp” but I never found a reason to use it.

His spirit companion, initially a ghostly samurai, can be called upon once a meter charges. Holding down the attack button briefly before releasing causes the samurai to send out a projectile attack. This attack can hit enemies, but its primary use is to destroy purple blocks, which is not super exciting. Gabriel eventually gains a second spirit, an armor knight, who can hookshot you across gaps, and this isn’t much better. Generally, the spirit companions feel like wasted potential.

There is one big problem I want to bring attention to: you’ll spend a good amount of time climbing on walls (a bit like Prison City), including one boss where you’re climbing a wall the whole time. Taking damage while climbing knocks you off the wall and kills you–every time. This makes that one boss fight extremely frustrating–it would otherwise be pretty easy–but there are a couple of choke points during the final level that are exhausting because of this. I don’t like keeping track of a dozen potential attacks while climbing or having to do things in a very specific order to progress. Dying from taking a hit off the climbing wall makes it much worse.

I will say that Lords of Exile does nail the look of an NES classic, bringing to mind the Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon duology. The music is a high point, with catchy, toe-tapping chiptunes.

Beating the game unlocks three things–a speedrun mode, in which your time is constantly tracked, a boss rush, and a second character, Lyria. Lyria, a kunoichi, doesn’t have access to the spirit companions, but she is faster and her main attack is a projectile. She quickly gains the ability to destroy purple blocks on her own, which renders Gabriel’s samurai spirit unnecessary. I found playing as Lyria more enjoyable, but your mileage may vary.

Lords of Exile is a relatively fun, but not particularly noteworthy, NES-like. If you’re itching for some old-school Castlevania gameplay, you’ll probably find something to like here, but for the rest of you, there are more robust offerings out there.

TalkBack / Dungeons & Doomknights (Switch eShop) Review
« on: February 05, 2024, 08:22:43 AM »

You are the goodest paladin.

This charming NES-style action game was a complete surprise–my favorite kind. Like so many of its indie brethren these days, Dungeons & Doomknights is the product of a very successful Kickstarter campaign that eventually produced a physical NES cartridge and, thankfully, digital versions on the various console-specific digital shops. In it, you take the role of Atrix, a noble paladin, on a quest to rid the realm of the vicious DoomKnight. This open-world adventure pulls primarily from both NES Zelda games but confidently asserts its own identity through its unique combination of overhead and sidescrolling action. It’s also quite difficult, but rarely punitive, which I appreciated. If you long for the old school sensibilities of NES canon, Dungeons & Doomknights (D&DK) will scratch that itch.

Most of the action in D&DK takes place from an overhead perspective, though the character sprites are quite large, giving these sections of the game a distinctly GBC, rather than NES, feeling. When entering certain areas, like houses or caves, the action suddenly changes to a Zelda II-esque sidescrolling perspective. To make progress in the game, you must guide Atrix across the impressively large overworld to several distinct, color-coded regions, each with its own dungeon. The dungeons are impressively layered for an NES game but navigating some of them is confusing due to the lack of a map. There's also one particular door that I didn't realize was a door until I'd run out of places to go (PROTIP: try to enter any completely black areas).

Atrix will, rather slowly, find new abilities and weapons along the way, and some of the abilities are region-specific, like an ax that destroys “bat” blocks that only seem to appear in the graveyard area. It takes a frustratingly long time to find a projectile attack, although when you do, it very suddenly makes the entire game much easier. Atrix’s normal melee attack has all the range of Link’s wooden sword, so you have to be right next to enemies to hit them. Much of the game’s difficulty stems primarily from Atrix’s inability to take much damage before poofing out of existence, although checkpoints are mercifully frequent. Thankfully, you’ll find both additional heart tanks and skill points throughout the adventure. You use the latter to power most of your spells. Taking damage is not a concern during the unfortunately rare times where you control Atrix’s dog, Daimyo, directly. Usually, using Daimyo sends him out in a straight line, and upon hitting a wall, he’ll turn left, which leads to a few interesting puzzles where Daimyo must be used to hit switches or be directed through a tunnel. Once in a great while, though, you’ll take direct control of the little pooch, who turns out to be a murder machine, killing enemies by touching them.

While D&DK is a fun time, you have to be willing to put some work in. Like most video games from that era, there is absolutely no hand-holding. Villagers and the DoomKnight’s sultry daughter, Gravelyn, might give you some vague hint about where to go next, but you’re pretty much on your own. Aimless wandering is a feature, not a bug, in these old-school games. My bigger issue is Atrix’s meager offensive lineup, which doesn’t really “git gud” until much later in the game. I also initially enjoyed the intentionally broken English, meant to accurately depict the loosey-goosey translation errors in old NES games, but that particular charm wore off pretty quickly. I did enjoy the puns, though. More puns, less intentional grammatical errors, please.

The developer, Atrix Entertainment, does have some interesting resources on their website: a handy instruction booklet and a “strategy guide” that will tickle gamers of a certain age. Both provide a few hints ‘n’ tips, including some intriguing secrets. I appreciate that Atrix Entertainment is committing to the bit in both the game and its supplementary materials. I would love to see J. Scott Campbell or Joseph Michael Linsner take a swing at Gravelyn someday.

D&DK is a fun time if you’re of the right age and in the right mindset. It can be frustrating, but those frustrations are bizarrely part of the charm. And hey, it’s kind of fun to play a “lost” NES game that actually feels like it could’ve come out in 1989.

TalkBack / Turok 3: Shadow of Oblivion Remastered (Switch eShop) Review
« on: December 21, 2023, 10:19:02 AM »

Nightdive Studios finishes the fight.

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Nightdive Studios impressed me in 2019 with their remasters of N64 classics Turok: Dinosaur Hunter and its follow-up, Turok 2: Seeds of Evil, but I questioned whether they’d ever get around to the series’ threequel, Shadow of Oblivion. This was a late release for the N64, hitting the system in September of 2000, roughly a year before the launch of the GameCube, and long after support for the N64 had otherwise dried up. I was surprised to discover that I had no memory of the game, which suggests I never played it. Shadow of Oblivion is a very different Turok game in both structure and gameplay that feels wholly disconnected from the first two. It’s an interesting, if largely underwhelming, finale.

The game opens with Joshua Fireseed, the protagonist of Turok 2, being attacked and killed (spoilers?) by Flesh Eaters, which were relatively minor enemies in that game. His siblings, Joseph and Danielle, are transported away by a radically redesigned Adon (remember her?) and told that one of them must inherit the mantle of "Turok" and destroy the Flesh Eaters’ leader, Oblivion, who rose to power after Joshua killed the Primagen in the last game. Or something. The game's plot invokes lore that players would have no knowledge of. Maybe it's revealed in the short-lived Acclaim comics? Good luck finding those.

The first way that Shadow of Oblivion differentiates itself from its predecessors is that you can choose which character to play as. Both have unique abilities: Joseph can fit into small spaces, use a sniper rifle, and has night-vision goggles. Danielle can use different but fundamentally similar weapons, jumps (slightly) higher, and is equipped with an energy-based hookshot from Zelda. You would think that their campaigns would be radically different, but sadly that’s not the case. 90% of their traversals through any given level is identical, with extremely underdeveloped sequences that are unique to each sibling.

The level design is also where Turok 3 changes things up. You’ll recall that I was impressed by the extremely large, open, and intuitive maps of Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, but less inclined towards the more restrictive corridor shooting of Turok 2, especially since it made many levels frustratingly maze-like. Turok 3 shies away from both approaches, instead giving us a directed path through each level, exploration be damned. I didn’t especially enjoy this approach, as I was constantly being forced forward with little ability to travel outside the confines of the predetermined path. There’s no way to travel back to previous levels either, so if you missed a gun, super weapon component, or life force tokens in any given level, you’re out of luck.

You'll often be given “missions,” which usually amount to finding keys or pressing switches, sometimes with a ticking time limit. But these missions are only in service of continuing to move forward in a given level. None of them are optional. One “mission” asks you to find fuses for a generator, but you have to do that anyway if you want to get through a specific area. An early mission asks you to stop the self-destruct sequence of a military base that you’re in (for some reason), but it’s also the only way to activate the elevator to the next part of the level. The missions may exist to give the player a goal, or vague direction to go in, but as small as these areas are, you don’t really need them. You just don’t have a lot of options; there’s no way to get lost.

At least each level is easy to navigate, which is a leg up on Turok 2, but they also feel kind of soulless. There are boss fights, but all are almost insultingly easy; strafing around an area while pumping shotgun buckshot into the boss usually wins the day. Even Oblivion itself, which looks extremely goofy and not at all threatening, can be easily toppled without losing any health. The only truly difficult fight is the final boss, who wields a weapon that damages you constantly, but–and this is key–more slowly than your weapons damage him. Compared to the gargantuan, alien bosses of Turok 2 and the fire-breathing, cybernetic Tyrannosaurus in Turok 1, the Big Bads in Shadow of Oblivion barely register.

Turok 3 is also far, far removed from its prehistoric origins. This started in Turok 2, of course, where dinosaurs were largely replaced with “dinosoids,” or highly-evolved dinosaur people. Here, the only vestiges of the Dinosauria are the occasional raptors, hopping compsognathids, and “Fireborn” dinosauroids, all refugees from Seeds of Evil. Apart from one nostalgic trip through a small portion of the first level from Dinosaur Hunter, Joseph and Danielle are exploring sci-fi settings: a locked-down city, conspiracy-laden military base, mutant-filled industrial plant, and a mining facility run by Flesh Eaters, the purpose of which is never made clear.

In all, Turok 3 feels less like an evolution of Turok 2 and more like a generic, budget-conscious, sci-fi shooter. Even Adon, Joshua’s liason in Seeds of Evil, gets a shiny new sci-fi costume here as well as a robotic “Council of Voices” to converse with during cutscenes, hinting at Turok lore that would tragically never be fleshed out–including an intriguing cliffhanger which implies that Adon herself would have taken on a larger role in some future story.

I should note here that I encountered a couple of glitches during play that affected forward momentum. The boss of the lava area, the Alpha Fireborn, didn’t get stuck atop his cooled lava lake when I activated the lava-cooling effect, which essentially meant he never lost health. Restarting from the checkpoint didn't fix it–I had to restart the chapter, meaning the entire level. Thankfully, it worked the second time I reached his lair. Additionally, the first level appears to have a glitch that I originally thought prevented Danielle from progressing at all. In the N64 game, she can climb up some rebar to a higher floor in a collapsed building. Here, that rebar does not appear. However, there is a grapple point on the other side of the building that’s hard to see (look up, way up, above the existing rebar). I don’t know whether this grapple point was there on the N64 originally, but the Danielle-specific rebar sure isn’t. But once that obstacle was overcome, Danielle was able to progress without a hitch. Her grapple points are often hard to spot.

Shadow of Oblivion Remastered also lacks the robust multiplayer of the N64 game. Note that the Seeds of Evil remaster didn’t have multiplayer available at launch, either, but was later patched in. There’s no word yet on whether Turok 3 will get the same treatment. Certainly, those waiting for Rage Wars will be disappointed: there’s a message in this game’s end credits asking people, in all-caps, to stop asking about Rage Wars.

I’m glad I got the opportunity to play through Turok 3, though the game itself is something of a disappointment. All of the usual Nightdive options are available to tweak to your heart’s content, and they have done a wonderful job porting this oft-forgotten N64 game to modern systems. Shadow of Oblivion is, however, barely a Turok game, and the levels are much shorter and more directed than they were in Dinosaur Hunter or Seeds of Evil. You can probably breeze through the entire campaign–for one of the siblings, anyway–in a couple sessions. An interesting curio, but not a particularly memorable one.

TalkBack / Prison City (Switch eShop) Review
« on: December 09, 2023, 10:34:05 AM »

This retro-style platformer is fun but tough.

Developer Programancer has gone back in time for Prison City, a hard-boiled action platformer that is a clear homage to Capcom and Konami classics from the NES era. It looks and sounds great, with short but enjoyable levels, blistering boss encounters, and plenty of references to 80’s and 90’s movies and video games, but the unbalanced difficulty level–while probably also accurate for the time–is more than my aged gamer ass can handle.

In the far-flung future of 1997, Detroit has become a city-sized prison where the United States’ toughest criminals reign supreme. When “Techno-Terrorists” take it over, the military calls former cyber-cop Hal Bruzer out of retirement to take out the threat. Hal uses a boomerang-like “Chakram” weapon to take out his enemies, a weapon that is somewhat tough to master, but he can also pick up screen-damaging grenades, temporary shields, and health-replenishing food to help him in his quest.

I recommend taking the Tutorial before jumping into Prison City proper, as the Chakram and Hal’s many methods of environmental traversal take some getting used to. In particular, the Chakram cannot be shot through walls unless it’s fully upgraded, and Hal will be doing a lot of grate-crawling and pipe-hanging. The Chakram can be angled up or down, and you can (to some degree) control its return path, although I found this difficult to do consistently. Hal can also perform a long jump by sliding off a platform and jumping at the right time, which was also very hard to do.

You choose your stages Mega Man style, and these are organized into several different environments–a nature preserve, the highway, the sewers, a factory, etc. While each stage is relatively short, they are all open-ended, allowing you to explore to your heart’s content. I found that each stage has three goals: find all three upgrades for your Chakram, which results in a much larger, more damaging weapon; find the boss room key, usually given to you by a colleague; and find the secret room, which contains an upgrade to your health or weapon energy. Once those tasks are complete, it’s off to the boss room.

Bosses are difficult, not necessarily because they have hard-to-avoid attack patterns, but because their health bars are so unnecessarily long. On Normal difficulty, it takes two hits to drain one of their hit points, and their health bars are insane compared to yours. They also tend to change up their patterns halfway through the fight. To some degree, these are wars of attrition, and I found them exhausting until I turned the difficulty down to Easy (don’t @ me).

“But wait,” you say, “with a fully-upgraded Chakram, don’t you have a significant advantage?” Indeed you do, dear reader, and in fact going into any boss room with a beefed-up Chakram feels great. However, once Hal inevitably takes three hits, inside or outside the boss room, the Chakram’s upgrade disappears, and does not reappear when you respawn upon death. Thankfully, Prison City’s difficulty is toggle-able, so if one boss is kicking your ass, you can drop it down to Easy, beat him, and then pump it back up to Normal for the next guy.

The game is, indeed, filled with 80’s and 90’s humor. One of the first ally characters I came across, who gave me the boss key to the sewer area, was a cybernetically-enhanced, talking dolphin which I have to believe is a reference to the ridiculous 1973 spy thriller The Day of the Dolphin. Another ally is named Iroquois, a nod to Metal Gear Solid 2. The boss of the highway area is the world’s clearest homage to Mad Max, and I would expect nothing less. The rooftop area’s boss is literally a Hind-D, and the factory boss appears to be an ode to the security robot from Metroid Fusion. Hal Bruzer himself is an amalgamation of several grizzled action heroes: Snake Pliskin, Solid Snake, Robo-Cop, and Rutger Hauer all come to mind. Also, for a fun drinking game, take a shot every time you see a Mega Man or Mega Man X homage. You won't last long!

Some boss fights are followed by unique bonus stages that mimic other video games. In one, Hal must destroy a car in a limited amount of time (Street Fighter 2). In another, he must traverse a small area and destroy all the targets (Super Smash Bros.). In my favorite, he must defuse several bombs in a “dam,” although it’s not nearly as difficult as in the game it’s parodying (TMNT).

Prison City is a fun game that nails the look and feel of 80’s action platformers. For fans of that era, this is a no-brainer. Now, for the sequel, I'm hoping for an Echo the Dolphin parody featuring that cybernetic cetacean.

TalkBack / Incube8 Games - Dracula: Dark Reign and Dragonyhm
« on: November 22, 2023, 01:17:11 PM »

Do your thing, Analogue Pocket!

I have been the proud owner of an Analogue Pocket since April, and up to now, I’ve really only used it for Game Boy/Color cartridges. The system’s lovely ability to create save states allowed me to finally beat Solar Striker, a feat that had always been just out of reach (that final boss, man). However, when our Reviews Editor Jordan passed along an offer from the Incube8 Games folks to play ROM demos of upcoming games on said magical device, I was intrigued. But how? I wondered. As it turns out, I needed some additional software to run the Incube8 Games files, but after a quick walkthrough from NWR alum Andy Goergen, I was all set up. Two demos were included, which I’ll cover below.

Dracula: Dark Reign

Billed as the first ever official Bram Stroker’s Dracula game for Game Boy Color (which seems correct), Dark Reign is essentially an Igavania game on GBC hardware. You play as Dracula protagonist Jonathan Harker, although it’s unclear whether the game is an adaptation of the 1897 novel or Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the 1992 film, in which case you’d be playing as Keanu Reeves, and Sir Anthony Hopkins would be giving the “miserable pile of secrets” speech.

The woefully brief demo has our hero escaping his bedroom and stabbing undead enemies with a knife while looking for an exit sign. Rather quickly upon leaving his room, Keanu—er, Jonathan—falls victim to a collapsing floor and lands deeper in the dungeon. The gameplay never really changes–Jonathan stabs a lot of zombies and bats, but the action is satisfying and the Igavania vibes are strong. Completing the demo, which takes about five minutes, unlocks additional weapons for subsequent attempts. These include a sword and an ax, both of which, along with the knife, are greatly influenced by the same armaments in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow and/or Order of Ecclesia.

‘Twas a lovely demo and I very much look forward to the finished product.


This game, as opposed to its Igavania ROMmate, is a Game Boy game. It’s a top-down RPG that looks a little like Dragon Quest on the map and a little like Pokémon on the battle screens. You play as the local hero, Kris, who is asked to go to a nearby village and take care of the ninja problem there. A gang of thieves has the small population under their thumb, and so you walk up to them to initiate a turn-based battle that looks almost exactly like Pokémon, but with people instead of pocket monsters.

On your turn, you can attack, use magic or special skills, or use an item. Items were surprisingly critical to my success, as the enemies hit hard, and my character’s lowly spear didn’t do much on its own. Using the special spear skill, however, made a bigger dent. That said, the use of defensive and offensive herbs, as well as HP potions, quickened my success. Once the village was saved, I was pointed in the direction of a cave, which I took to be Dragonhym dungeon. Once inside, I was beset upon by cartoony zombies and demons and leveled up enough to gain a magic attack (which was not as good as my spear strike skill). Landing critical hits or lucking into enemies missing an attack is, sadly, quite rare.

The dungeon had an unlimited healing shrine, which I made liberal use of. It also had a few puzzles in the form of Pokémon-like directional mazes, where stepping on an arrow causes you to fly in that direction until you hit a wall. There was an added wrinkle, however, in having to direct two rocks to land on switches, and then use a third rock to destroy a rock wall. Once through the wall, however, the demo ended.

Dragonyhm is a fun, if somewhat by-the-numbers, Game Boy RPG. It looks good, though; the spritework is straight out of those old RPGs. The music loops a bit too quickly, but, again, pretty accurate for the system it’s developed as an homage to.

Both games were fun, and while I’m definitely more interested in Dark Reign, I look forward to both.

More than that, this experience has opened up my Analogue Pocket in ways I hadn’t previously considered. It’s a piece of hardware I highly recommend, if you have the means and you can ever grab one before they go out of stock.


While filled with interesting ideas, imprecise controls make this chronicle tough to recommend.

Chronicles of 2 Heroes is a Kickstarted game (which is more and more common) in which players take control of the two titular heroic siblings, Ayame and Kensai, to deal with the threat of warlord Amaterasu in the well-worn video game setting of feudal Japan. It’s ambitious but not particularly enjoyable, featuring some intriguing team-up puzzles, frustrating controls, questionable physics (at times), and occasionally buggy platforming.

As you might expect, Ayame and Kensai do things a bit differently. Ayame, an agile ninja, can jump (and soon double-jump) and throw a long-distance kunai. Her brother, Kensai, cannot jump at all because his samurai armor is too heavy. He attacks with a sword up close, but can charge a dash attack that will defeat enemies and cross wide gaps. The two cooperate by switching with the X button and utilizing their abilities together to traverse any given area.

Your typical puzzle involves jumping up to a platform with Ayame, switching to Kensai to cross a wide gap, switching back to Ayame to throw a kunai at a trigger and/or double-jump to a moving platform, and then back back to Kensai to destroy a block or something. While ultimately satisfying to pull off, these back-and-forth dalliances often require a fair-to-frustrating amount of trial-and-error that quickly grew stale.

Some moving platforms have a habit of moving so quickly that it’s difficult to get a bead on them, especially if you have to fall down to meet them. Kensai’s dash move can be hard to trigger for closer platforms, because his dash “shadow” instantly moves beyond them. Enemies add another layer of frustration, especially if they have to be dealt with a certain way, and if you ever have to parry a projectile, be prepared for a lot of retries. Both characters can parry projectile attacks, but Ayame’s parry activates a teleport that puts her right behind whatever object is firing at her. This is required reading for getting through some of the obstacle courses. Unfortunately, the parry animation has little, if anything, to do with the actual parry timing. Add to that a long wind-up animation and the inability to use the parry twice in quick succession means you’ll be hit with a lot of projectiles. Even after spending several hours with the game, I still couldn’t pull it off consistently.

Each level has specific collectables to find, including those that give our two heroes new or augmented abilities. There’s also a boss in each level which tends to be more about platforming or hitting a specific sequence of actions than fighting, which is okay, because combat is almost an afterthought in Chronicle of 2 Heroes. However, it means that boss fights can also take a long time, as they tend to last longer than they should.

I encountered a few bugs or poor design decisions on the way. There were several places where, instead of landing on a platform, my characters would drop through it as if it hadn’t been there and die. More often, platforms just didn’t line up perfectly, especially if destructible rocks were involved, and I was never super comfortable with how high Ayame’s jumps would get me especially if, again, rocks were involved. There’s a general messiness about the platforming that I found frustrating.

Graphically, Chronicles of 2 Heroes is hitting that “better than 8 bit, worse than 16 bit” (12-bit?) aesthetic that I’ve come to find tiring. There’s no definition in any of the characters, projectiles blend into the background so often you’ll find yourself having trouble seeing them, and environmental backdrops repeat in any given level ad nauseum. There’s music present, but I couldn’t hum any of it for you, even after several hours, because it’s surprisingly forgettable.

Its drawbacks are a shame because the game has a good foundation. The underlying switching mechanic is strong and most of the platforming is solid in theory. It feels like this one needed more time in the oven, but a more refined version–or a sequel left to gestate–would probably provide a great time. As it stands, Chronicles of 2 Heroes is a mildly frustrating experience that I had to convince myself to keep playing for this review.

TalkBack / Atone: Heart of the Elder Tree (Switch eShop) Review Mini
« on: March 03, 2023, 08:30:32 AM »

I should like this game more than I do.

Atone is an interesting beast, combining aspects of adventure, puzzle, and rhythm genres in addition to a surprising amount of edu-tainment (about Norse mythology) and a surprising number of cutscenes, to tell a tragic, but fairly rote story that I’ve seen a bit too often in games lately. Atone is an Apple Arcade refugee, which helps explain the visual and gameplay simplicity, and within the first twenty minutes, you’ll have experienced what’s essentially the entire gameplay loop.

You have conversations with NPCs, occasionally choosing your own response. You’ll walk around an overhead map talking with people, which unlocks conversations with other people; go from house to house reading interesting tidbits about Norse mythology; and solve an environmental puzzle. Once you’ve done all that, a lengthy cutscene plays, during which time you’ll engage in Atone’s unique combat gameplay, which is an interesting Guitar Hero-like rhythm game.

Within that tutorial phase, you’ll play as Thyon, the leader of a village who goes after a monster who murdered its inhabitants. Whether you win the fight or not, Thyon will fall to the monster’s blade, which is witnessed by his young daughter Estra. The game then picks up some time later–Estra is a young adult living on her own but once the monster reappears, she journeys out to get closure (the violent kind).

From here, you’ll be doing the same things you did during the tutorial section, just more of it, with some genuinely interesting visual puzzles which were my favorite part of the game but occasionally drift into being too abstract for their own good. Some are quite easy (press these symbols in the right order) while others are considerably tougher (translate this numbering system to unlock a door) but I enjoyed them all. I got a little sick of talking to people so that I could then talk to other people, especially because many of the conversations go on a little too long and none of the characters outside of Estra were particularly memorable. Cutscenes continue to weave into the story, and I might be more forgiving of them if I’d enjoyed Atone’s art style, but alas, ‘twas not to be.

Atone’s character design is clearly inspired by Genndy Tartakovski (Samurai Jack, the superior Clone Wars cartoon, Primal): thin, angular characters who tend to look better in animation than in static images, but there’s unfortunately not a lot of animation in Atone, even during combat sequences, which are more moody than action-packed. I generally enjoy Tartakovski’s works, which are also more mood than action, but I think he has a better sense of timing, scale, and atmosphere. The environments are similarly bare-bones, which is both good and bad. While distinctive, it’s sometimes difficult to tell where you can and can’t go.

I enjoyed the music in overworld areas but not during combat–it’s a bit too heavy on the synth, not nearly as toe-tapping or beat-driven as you’d expect from, you know, a combat encounter. I don't need "Through the Fire & Flames," but I need something with a solid beat. This particular rhythm minigame is not as visually distinctive as you might like, either. You have between one and four buttons to press as notes come down the highway, but the notes themselves are all the same color and often come in the kind of staccato pattern you’d see in something like Guitar Hero or DDR, but without visual differentiation, it’s occasionally tricky to tell what the order is. To be fair, Atone seems aware of this drawback, and gives you a fairly wide window for success, but the times where Estra took a hit were felt as much the fault of the interface as my own timing. You could allow much tighter success windows with different-colored prompts and notes, and these combat encounters would be much easier to track. It’s a strange absence.

Cutscenes are fully voiced but come a bit too often and tend to center around the Norse gods up and leaving Midgard after having a falling-out with humans. The voice cast is good–nobody really had a voice I expected (especially Estra’s anuran companion), which I found myself enjoying. The overall story didn’t really do it for me–hearts corrupted by darkness yet again–but it’s well-told and well-paced.

But for me personally, Atone’s greatest obstacle is that it’s just not terribly engaging. I note here that I’ve had the game for about a month now. The usual review turnaround time is a week, maybe ten days if it’s a big game. I just found it difficult to find the motivation to grind out an hour here and there. My wife watched me play Atone for awhile and at one point remarked that all I was doing was talking to people and solving puzzles, and she’s not wrong. For some of you dear readers out there, that may be all you need, but I was unsatisfied.

TalkBack / Shieldmaiden: Remix Edition (Switch eShop) Review
« on: January 25, 2023, 11:26:45 AM »

Mistakes were made.

Here’s my ultimate takeaway from Shieldmaiden: Remix Edition for the Nintendo Switch family of systems: I don’t understand how it made it to launch with a couple extremely clear, extremely frustrating platforming issues intact. You don’t have to play a lot of video games to understand both why these things are so bad and how they could be fixed. I don’t generally go right into the problems at the top of my reviews, but I want to make them absolutely crystal clear here.

1. You can’t see what’s below you. Oftentimes, you’ll know there ARE things below you, but the camera is positioned so that Asta (the titular maiden) is at the bottom of the screen. You are usually looking at the sky above her. How do you find out what’s below? Leaps of faith, dear reader. If you drop off a platform, you’ll either be greeted with blessed terra firma or, more often, a bottomless pit. Now this might not be an issue if you weren’t encouraged to dutifully explore every stage to find trinkets, but you are, and you will find trinkets below your immediate field of view. Or, more often, bottomless pits. This is almost unforgivably frustrating because it’s such a simple remedy—just position the camera so that Asta is closer to the middle of the screen like every other 2D platformer on Arceus' green Earth. Or, if you must tempt fate, give the poor girl a way out of bottomless pits. Or, you know, no bottomless pits at all! That’s also a solution!

2. Asta’s wall-jump is shockingly unintuitive. There are essentially two kinds of wall-jumps in video games: the Mega Man X type and the Super Mario 64 type (also known as the Ratchet & Clank type). The former allows you to climb a vertical surface. In the latter, you zig-zag up two parallel columns before eventually landing at the top. Asta uses the Super Mario 64 technique, but the developers don’t often add that critical second column to encourage zig-zagging. Instead, to get up any kind of vertical surface taller than Asta’s standard jump (which is often), you must have Asta jump off the side...away from your direction of travel, then hold the opposite direction and press A to dash. The hope is that the height of that wall-jump will clear the remaining height of the wall, and then you must dash to land on top of it. This leads to nothing but frustration and needless re-traversal. Listen, if you want to put tall vertical surface in your game, great, but you will need the Mega Man X technique. The combination of wall-jump, press forward, dash is complicated and imprecise. Be better.

Okay. That’s out of the way.

*deep breath*

Shieldmaiden: Remix Edition is an interesting but largely by-the-numbers stage-based platformer with very interesting combat and extremely frustrating environmental traversal (see manifesto above). You play as Asta, a heroine looking for answers regarding the disappearance of her sister immediately before a vaguely-defined cataclysm sent the city of Modigard into ruin.

Combat is the best part of the game. Asta has what’s essentially a Captain America shield that can absorb enemy shots to build up a power meter that results in a screen-filling special attack. She can throw the shield in pretty much any direction and it will bounce back to her. She can use it as a blunt instrument as well, and even a “surfboard” along certain but sadly few surfaces. Using the shield for its intended purpose is a balancing act. It can’t absorb an endless stream of energy attacks, but that’s also the only way to build up her special meter. It’s especially effective against the wide-beam attacks of boss monsters. The only real hiccup in combat is that the game relies heavily a bit too heavily on kill rooms.

Enemies take advantage of this balancing act, spitting out hard-to-dodge barrages of bullets that are best absorbed before pummeling said aggressors with your shield. Boss fights are tense affairs at first, but like any retro-stylized platformer, have plenty of telegraphed moves to look for. Most bosses must be stunned with your special attack before they can be damaged, leading to an interesting mix between playing defense, using physical attacks, and hitting that special attack at just the right time.

The one somewhat frustrating thing about combat is that you can’t “lock” Asta in place while throwing the shield, but it actually wasn’t as big a problem as I thought it would be.

The platforming, sadly, is where Shieldmaiden falls apart. The combat is great, but unfortunately, you must move through the environment using a moveset that is not up to the task. As I noted above, two things in particular would have improved the traversal a hundred-fold, but a couple other things would have further solidified it: Asta is begging for a double-jump, which would be another way to improve Shieldmaiden’s verticality issues, and you can’t use the D-pad to control her. I know I’m not in the minority when I say that 2D platformers should have an option to use the D-pad for movement. It’s not being used for anything else.

There’s a story told mostly through dialogue between Asta and her AI helper, whose name I don’t remember. It’s mostly background noise, but there are some nice exchanges here and there. The actual plot never rises to anything above "I need to find my sister!", but that said, Shieldmaiden isn’t a particularly long game, clocking in at about two hours if you don’t bother too much with collectibles—which you can go back for after beating the story.

Another strange control issue has to do with dialogue scrolling. In every other game on Earth, you’d move to the next bit of dialogue with the A button, but here, it’s the R1 button. I initially assumed that was because dialogue would be happening during combat and you’d need the A button free for dashing. Weirdly, that’s not the case—lengthy dialogue sequences occur in isolation, so I remain confused as to why it’s defaulted to R1.

The game’s end hints at sequel potential, and while I wasn’t overly impressed with Shieldmaiden, I might be interested in a second quest, assuming the developers address the many platforming issues that plague this game.

TalkBack / River City Girls 2 (Switch eShop) Review
« on: December 20, 2022, 07:27:50 PM »

More of anything? More of everything!

I can’t believe it’s only been three years since Kyoko & Misako burst onto the reinvigorated brawler scene, cracking skulls and taking down River City’s interim Yakuza boss, Sabuko, before finding their boyfriends, Kunio and Riki. Now they’re back, in a game that is bigger and better than its predecessor while incorporating key elements of River City Girls Zero, which I appreciated. You might recall that I did not care for RCGZ itself, but was delighted to see that characters from RCGZ have big roles in RCG2. For the most part, RCG2 is exactly what it says on the tin with some new features and quality of life improvements that I really dug.

The game starts by reminding us that at the end of the first River City Girls, heroines Kyoko & Misako punted katana-wielding Sabuko–daughter of imprisoned River City crime boss Sabu–out a window. She is soon discovered by her adopted brother, Ken, who you may remember from RCGZ, and the two visit their father, Sabu, who promptly punches a hole in his prison wall and says he’s going to take care of things himself. Meanwhile, Misako & Kyoko’s school is taken over by Ken and his goons, and they forcefully expel the gals, who wind up playing video games on Kyoko’s mom’s couch for six months.

You can choose to play as the four characters available at the end of the last game: Kyoko, who’s secretly my favorite; Misako, who’s the best brawler (IMHO), or their boyfriends, Kunio and Rikki. I never bothered to play as the boys in the first game, as they didn’t become available until beating the story. After playing a bit with them here, I found both to be fun characters with just as many beautiful, unique animations as the titular girls, but I stuck with Kyoko & Misako out of familiarity…but also it’s their game.

The first difference you’ll notice in RCG2 is that River City itself is greatly expanded. Maybe too expanded. The town is divided into several sections (Crosstown, Downtown, Uptown, etc.), and each of these sections is broken up into a dozen or so single areas–what we called “screens” back in my day. As in the first game, your troupe will be regularly targeted by troublemaking mooks, most of whom you’ll recognize from the first game, and you can either just run away or beat the tar out of them. In some cases–usually tied to completing missions–a chain will appear around the screen’s border, and you’ll have to clean a set number of clocks before moving on, or beat up a piece of scenery until it breaks (or is miraculously fixed) while fending off goons.

While each of the four–eventually six–characters has an overwhelming number of melee attacks at their disposal, most environments also contain plenty of weapons, and the sheer breadth of implements remains astounding. You’ve got everything from yo-yos to wrenches to enormous fish, old couches, and everything in between. Each weapon has a certain number of uses before it breaks, and it’ll flash red before it does–just enough time to toss it at one more mook, Breath of the Wild-style. Crowd control is a challenge in RCG2, though some characters are better at it than others. And as before, you can recruit some of these baddies to your cause, summoning them with a tap of the L2/R2 buttons. They’re handy in a pinch!

Provie & Marian have been heavily touted in the game’s PR, but are both unlockable characters tied to specific quests, and you have to beat them in rather difficult battles in order to gain their confidence. Provie, a Capoeria-centric (Brazil!) brawler who’s fun to play as, is actually a stowaway from the PC game River City Ransom: Underground, but you may recognize iron-fisted Marian as the oft-kidnapped girlfriend of the Double Dragon dudes. She’s barely recognizable here, with white hair and muscles that would put Billy & Jimmy to shame, and has an aggressive heavy-hitting fighting style.

As in the previous game, Kyoko & Misako are given a large number of subquests in between main story missions which often involve running around the overly-large map, talking to characters, beating up mooks, finding or smashing things, and playing entertaining minigames. I must admit that running around the enormous map did get old. Despite the presence of bus stops (fast travel points), you’ll be doing a lot of running from place to place, and three things make this a hassle:

1. There is no minimap, so you’ll be going into the map screen a lot.2. The map’s layout isn’t always intuitive, as if there are more screens in a given area than could realistically fit onto a single area of the map.3. There are weirdly-long load times in between every screen.

That last point is the real killer–we’re talking five-ten seconds of loading time every time you move from one screen to another. This was my main complaint about Shantae and the Seven Sirens, too, and I wonder if this loading issue is present on the other consoles. Not game-breaking by any means, but given that you’ll be traipsing around every corner of the map multiple times, it's omnipresent.

Minigames are new to RCG2, and in pretty much all instances are fantastic diversions from the main curb-stomping gameplay. One early minigame has you playing dodgeball against a whole team of opponents (which may be easier to win with more people). A later minigame has a fun version of Dance Dance Revolution. In all cases, they are over too quickly and there aren’t enough of them.

Yo’ girls still level up, but as before, stat increases are purchased in various shops. River City has a healthy number of restaurants, street vendors, boutiques, and specialty stores, all of which sell items that you can either eat, store for later, or wear as an accessory. Any time you visit a new food-centric store, if you’ve got the green, you should sample everything on the menu–the first time you eat any dish, that character will get a stat boost. Oddly enough, books and video games can also be consumed in this way. You can eat the food right there or store it for later use. My strategy was to eat everything right away, then buy seconds for boss fights.

Each character must boost their stats separately, but money is not hard to find in River City, and spending even a modest amount of time grinding goons will produce a surplus of casheesh. Accessories haven’t changed either: they produce certain buffs and two can be worn at a time. Some are defensive, some are offensive, some balance out, and others are ridiculously specific (for example, do more damage per cat rescued). The sheer number of accessories will allow you to find just about any combination to suit your playstyle.

RCG2 looks gorgeous, with the same 16-bit aesthetic that its predecessor had, but there’s just more of it now: more characters, more varied locations, and lots of eye candy to ogle in the environments. You’ll want to pay attention, too–one quest asks you to rescue a bunch of cats, and those little rascals get into the strangest places. The environments have more verticality now which is a nice change of pace. It’s not quite platforming, but I always appreciate environmental exploration in video games and you're usually rewarded for your effort.

One big change from RCG is the multiplayer options: up to four players can jump on locally, or two players online. One of the reasons this review isn’t up on launch day is that I wanted to try out online play, and I wound up pretty impressed. Hosting is easy–you can start playing as normal and when somebody joins, they seamlessly appear. I didn’t experience any slowdown during online play, although I wasn’t exactly sure what the rules were for entering/exiting shops. Surprisingly, it was local multiplayer that caused a performance hit. I was only able to get two other people in the room for my couch co-op experiment, and that caused a framerate dip when everybody started punching things. It wasn’t dramatic (see: Samurai Maiden) but definitely noticeable.

I can’t let you all go without mentioning the writing, which remains hilarious, and the voice-acting, which is extremely good. In my review of the first game (and RCGZ), I heaped praise upon Megan McDuffee’s transcendent soundtrack. When RCG2 was announced and that McDuffee would be returning, I found myself anticipating her new tunes more than any other RCG component. Well folks, the new tracks are amazing and exist side by side with tracks from the first game. If the theme of RCG2 is “more RCG,” that also extends to the soundtrack, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

So, to use some old video game magazine review lingo, River City Girls fans rejoice! If you liked River City Girls, you’ll probably like River City Girls 2. It’s mostly the same thing, just way more of it. The new characters are fun, the city is much larger, there are way more quests, and the story has higher stakes. The minigames are a great new addition, boss fights are tough but fun, and oh man, that soundtrack.

TalkBack / Samurai Maiden (Switch eShop) Review FAQ
« on: December 10, 2022, 12:07:14 PM »

A fun, lighthearted hack 'n' slasher with pretty girls and an atrocious framerate.

Going with the review FAQ format for this one, folks. I’ve done it for other waifu games and I think it works pretty well. Here are some past examples to get you acclimated to the format. This one’s pretty fun, but also pretty janky.

Hey Zach, a little bird told me you’re playing a new waifu game.

Oh hey, disembodied voice! I’m playing a hack ‘n’ slash game called Samurai Maiden in which 21st century high schooler Tsumugi Tamaori is transported back to the Sengoku period, where she finds out she’s the Princess of Harmony and starts working for Nobunaga Oda and his three multi-dimensional girlfriends to stop the Demon Lord from taking over the multiverse.

That sure sounds like a video game you’d like.

It sure does, and I sure do, despite its technical issues. This is a stage-based hack ‘n’ slash at its core, but I feel like we need to come up with a unique subgenre for games like this.

Games like what?

You know, games where you’re an attractive anime girl teaming up with other cute anime girls, leaning hard into anime tropes, in a hack ‘n’ slash format with some light RPG elements and heavy on character dialogue. Other examples include Senran Kagura, Onechanbara, Neptunia, and Azure Lane (although the latter barely has “game” segments).

How about Waifu Slasher?

That sounds like a horror movie, but you get the idea; we'll workshop it. These are all variations on a theme. In Samurai Maiden, you control Tamaori as she slays her way—



…slays her way through undead hordes who put up very little resistance as she goes through an incredibly straightforward, purely decorative environment before running up against much larger miniboss enemies. As the game continues, more of these mini-bosses will be present in any given stage. Every few stages, you’ll fight an actual boss character solo—that is, without an undead entourage.

What about Nobunaga’s girlfriends?

To be fair, they don’t seem to be his actual girlfriends. They’re other maidens from other dimensions who are joining your cause to destroy the Demon Lord, although one of them (Iyo) does know Nobunaga personally. One of the three is always shadowing you, but you can (usually) swap them out at any time. They provide attack support and have some largely superfluous environmental actions. All three conform to deeply ingrained anime stereotypes and are simultaneously charming and exhausting.

Can you describe them?

Sure. Iyo is the spunky, enthusiastic shinobi who never questions her devotion to Nobunaga. Her normal attack involves throwing fireworks at enemies, but she can also carry explosives and healing items onto the battlefield, although it’s rarely helpful. In terms of personality, she’s similar to Asuka from Senran Kagura.

How come she’s rarely helpful?

You have to tell her where to place the bombs, which takes time. A bomb doesn’t just appear out of mid-air, she has to literally carry it over to the spot where you want it placed. Unfortunately, by the time she gets there, the enemy has probably moved somewhere else. Her healing pot is better, but you’ll have to break your focus on not getting killed to run over and take advantage of it before it disappears. Her one truly helpful item is the decoy, which draws mook attention so you can concentrate on the Big Bad.

Okay, so Iyo’s not great.

Then you’ve got Hagane, the older, “mature” girl with a voluptuous figure who doesn’t mind drawing attention to it. She’s got a mechanical arm and, allegedly, other mechanical parts, but her boobs are completely real in case Tamaori was wondering. She can pull enemies towards Tamaori and also electrify her extendable arm to do damage in a straight line in front of her. In the environment, she can use her arm like a grapple and swing Tamaori across gaps. She’s better in a fight than Iyo, but her attacks have very limited range. Her personality is similar to Haruka or Shiki in Senran.

But she has big boobs?

She does, and it’s especially obvious with the swimsuit DLC, where her boobs kind of pillow out of the sides of the suit, something I’ve never seen before with character models.

Never change, Zach.

And then you’ve got Komimi, a young “tough girl” who’s a kitsune character and hates having her ears or tail touched but secretly loves it. She’s all business, but is the most useful character in fights, because she has a big-ass hammer and can throw explosives on the field, which includes bombs dropped off by Iyo. Her Senran counterpart is probably Ikaruga or maybe Imu.

So you rely on Komimi a lot?

Yes, and that can be a problem. One of the core concepts of Samurai Maiden is developing a strong bond with all three of your companions.

Oh…how do you do that?

In theory, it’s pretty simple. The more you spend time with them in fights, and the more you have them help out during fights (you control when they attack), the more your bond increases, as shown by a heart leveling system. Remember the bonding system in Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed?


It’s like that.


You can replay missions as much as you like to try and build up the bond with all three girls. I tried to keep it fairly even—no playing favorites here, although that’s obviously going to change with the swimsuit DLC (which is out already). For every ten levels of connection, you get a new ability or bonus stage for each girl. The downside here is that Tamaori’s new abilities are standard hack and slash maneuvers like a quick recovery, ground slam, rising slash attack, three-hit combo, and parry. And there’s no indication what you’ll receive at every bond level, so you can’t really plan ahead. That’s why I would recommend replaying levels and keeping all three girls within a level of two of each other.

What are the bonus stages?

These are stages where you can only bring along the subject gal pal, and they’re usually fairly nightmarish platforming challenges with some light puzzle solving. Remember how frustrating the “Retro Stages” were in Super Mario Sunshine?

Having recently suffered through them on the Super Mario 3D All-Stars Collection, yes. Awful.

Well, imagine platforming challenges in a game that is NOT built for platforming! Tamaori’s double-jump is imprecise, so landing on smaller platforms—narrow ones especially—is a problem! You also have to manhandle the camera during these areas, which in some cases means changing your view while also leaping off rapidly-flipping platforms. The puzzles are generally quite easy, though: have Komimi throw bombs at targets, or stand on a switch before directing Iyo to go stand on another switch. Most of Hagane’s bonus areas involve her grapple arm. The prizes for these bonus stages usually involve new gal pal abilities or weapons.

Ooh, you can equip different weapons?

Yes, and you can enhance existing weapons!

RPG stuff!

Indeed! While murderizing monsters, you gain purple orbs, which you’ll pour into enhancing Tamaori’s weapons and the weapons of her friends. Her own weapons upgrade pretty cheaply, and I think they only go up to Level 20. The trio’s weapons, however, cost much more to upgrade, so I found myself farming orbs in early missions to afford their enhancements.

Do the enhancements help?

Sorta? It was hard to tell during actual gameplay. I rarely switched away from their default stuff because those were the weapons I upgraded; each weapon has to be leveled up by itself. Each weapon has abilities which unlock as you upgrade them but, again, it’s not obvious what’s changing during combat.

Hmmm. How IS the combat?

Once you unlock more attack slots for each girl (they all have cooldown periods) and unlock a handful of Tamaori’s standard attacks, the combat is pretty fun…but mindless. Normal undead enemies rarely put up a fight—their attack patterns can be identified by their color—but the minibosses put up a bigger fight. Auto-targeting is essential, but you have to be fairly close to the enemies for your companions’ attacks to be useful. Minibosses also have a nasty habit of breaking away from your auto-target, and YOU will have to break away from it to take advantage of Iyo’s healing pots. However, there’s something very satisfying about locking these minibosses into a stun cycle when you’re spamming helper attacks while slashing them to smithereens with Tamaori.

How about normal bosses?

Normal boss fights require a lot more diligence, but thankfully they lack the lackeys. They hit much harder and you need to pay attention to their windups. Once you figure out their patterns, though, it’s just a matter of keeping the pressure on.

That all sounds great, honestly. What’s the downside?

Oh, there’s a downside.


This is where we talk about the game’s technical performance. While I have to praise the character models (and hair effects) of Samurai Maiden, I’ve seen Waifu Slashers perform much better on other systems, including the PlayStation Vita.

Hey, I remember the Vita.

Right? I powered it up last night just to play some Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien! Man, what a good game. Shame about Runner3.

So what’s the deal with Samurai Maiden?

For a game with bare bones environments, water textures that are literally just a flat texture without any movement or opacity, backgrounds that are functionally empty, and level topography that makes Pokémon Legends: Arceus look like an Xbox Series X game, Samurai Maiden is extremely framey. The framerate drops while Tamaori is just running through the stage. It drops more when enemies show up, even more when she starts attacking those enemies, and it turns into a slideshow when she and her girlfriends are wreaking havoc on the whole group of enemies.


And some battlefields have a lot going on—in addition to more enemies than probably need to exist, you sometimes have environmental obstacles, explosions, shocking effects, somebody swinging a giant ice hammer, and Tamaori doing the kinds of swordplay acrobatics that would make the average Senran girl stand up and take notes. And of course, her sword swipes have particle effects, too. It’s all way too much for the Switch to handle, so while I usually came out the other side of each fight without much trouble, the actual fighting process was almost comical in its brokenness.

To be fair, this has always been an issue on Switch.

Sure, but it’s still annoying.

Anything else? Isn’t there some controversy about the game?

Oh, do you mean the smooching?


So once you accrue enough of a connection with each girl, Tamaori (who’s apparently polyamorous) will be able to active something called “Devotion Heart” during battle, which briefly increases certain stats depending on which of her friends are on the field with her. This activation is preceded by a brief cutscene in which she…KISS de girl (whoa whoa).

Oh my stars and garters!

Right? I think it’s probably meant to be titillating, but here in North America, at least, same-sex smooching is pretty blasé. Now, if Tamaori buried her face in Hagane’s cleavage or something…

Stop picturing that. STOP IT.


So with all that in mind, would you recommend Samurai Maiden?

I actually would recommend it if you’re a fan of Waifu Hack ‘n’ Slashers, but the Switch’s framerate issues keep me from issuing a full-throated endorsement. If you have access to other modern consoles, maybe check out some gameplay videos. If it’s way smoother during combat situations, maybe go for that version. I’m enjoying the game on Switch, and will be buying some of the DLC, but it suffers a lot on the performance side. That and the terrible platforming segments that, thankfully, are pretty rare.

Cool cool cool. Thanks, I’ll check out some videos.

Maybe somebody will make a Hagane figure.

Get help.

TalkBack / RWBY: Arrowfell (Switch eShop) Review
« on: November 25, 2022, 03:00:19 PM »

This by-the-numbers platform lacks the usual WayForward zest.

Dear reader, if you, like me, are unfamiliar with the multimedia franchise RWBY, here’s a brief summary: It’s a American web cartoon done in CG created by Monty Oum for Rooster Teeth Productions. Unfortunately, Oum died during production of the show’s 3rd season but production continued. It currently consists of eight seasons (“volumes”) and has been adapted into several different manga series, a few novels, comics, a spinoff TV series, a few other video games, podcasts, and even a crossover cartoon movie involving the Justice League.

The story concerns four young women, Ruby Rose, Wiess Schnee, Blake Belladonna, and Yang Xiao Long, who are “Huntresses” who protect their world (Remnant) from demonic creatures called Grimm. It’s clearly a beloved series, but jumping into Arrowfell with absolutely zero knowledge of the characters, the world, or the ongoing plot (it takes place during season 7) may not have been the best idea. The story was written by the series’ writers, features cutscenes in the style of the show, and features plenty of NPCs from the show along with voice acting from the cast. Longtime fans will probably get more out of the story than I did, but RWBY has issues that extend beyond the reach of canon.

You, the player, control the four girls–switching between them as the situation demands it–and traverse an awful lot of similar-looking 2D platforming environments fighting monsters, finding treasure chests, and doing errands for people. Each of the girls has a specific skill: Ruby has a short invincibility dash that can extend her jump, Wiess can create temporary platforms to get higher, Blake can create temporary shadow clones of herself to attack enemies and stand on switches, and Yang can destroy large blocks.

All that sounds great, right? Sounds like a modern take on Castlevania III, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the girls’ skills are extremely context-specific and, while they might be useful during combat, are more often used to solve puzzles and find new areas to explore. Even that sounds fun, but you’ll be doing the same kinds of puzzles for the entire game. There’s no novelty after the first time you solve a switch puzzle using Blake’s shadow clone. The girls eventually get powered-up versions of these abilities, but they just…give you one more of everything: Ruby can dash slightly longer, Wiess can create a second platform, Blake can spawn a second shadow, and Yang can…destroy slightly larger blocks.

Sometimes, you’ll need to combine their powers. That is, create a couple of platforms with Wiess to reach a switch with Blake, then dash through the open door with Ruby. While fun, those puzzles are few and far between.

Combat is about as rote as it gets: each girl has a specific melee weapon, but all deal comparable damage. They all have a ranged energy attack as well, but using them depletes your energy (we’ll get to that). There’s a dearth of enemy types as well. You basically get three groups: Grimm monsters, steampunk-looking people, and soldiers. You’ll fight endless numbers of these grunts, often in “ambush” kill rooms, and you’ll get real tired of it by the time the credits roll. The game also desperately needs a “backdash” ability, the kind you’d see in most of the Igavania games and Shantae games, because normal enemies will often charge you before attacking.

The girls share an energy meter and heart tanks. When your energy bar is depleted, you’ll lose a heart. However, losing a heart doesn’t refill the energy meter, so you’ve got to track down energy pickups (easily farmed by smashing objects) or risk losing hearts quickly. You’ll also find coins, which are used to buy energy and heart-refilling snacks, new heart tanks, and skill points from merchants. You’ll also typically find skill points in the field hidden in treasure chests. All of the girls have four attributes, which each have four levels of power. You’ll use skill points to improve these stats one by one. I’m sad to say that, even when fully powered-up, none of the girls are unstoppable powerhouses.

You’ll explore tons of distinct areas of varying sizes but will quickly be frustrated by the lack of any kind of map. You’ll often have to revisit stages to find new things, but because they all kind of look the same from room to room, you’ll often get turned around. Some of these areas are impressively by frustratingly large, making the lack of a map all the more bewildering.

And what, praytell, are you doing in these areas? You’re almost always finding something for somebody. You know how, in Shantae games, you’ll be occasionally asked to find an object for somebody to trigger the next part of the plot? You know, like finding the crustaceans for the scientists in Seven Sirens, or the stone tablet for the bereaved man in Pirate’s Curse? Well that’s literally all you’re doing in RWBY. Somebody in town will say they need you to find something, like a piece of ore, and you’ll got to comb through areas you’ve already been in to find it for him. You will do this dozens of times. Everybody wants something else. The RWBY gals are less huntresses and more errand girls.

Eventually you’ll uncover a conspiracy that probably means something to fans of the show, but it fell flat to me. Oh, I should mention the boss fights, because there are some boss fights in the game. They are all extremely easy, relying on a small number of telegraphed attacks that are easily avoided. The final boss even gets several rounds, none of which were remotely challenging. I eventually just started pounding things with Yang’s fists of fury and every fight was over in less than a minute.

I like the character animation and designs, as well as the character portraits during dialogue. I even like the music, which isn’t exactly toe-tapping, but remains pleasant throughout. My suspicion is that RWBY: Arrowfell was not necessarily made for me, but for younger fans of the show, gamers who don’t necessarily have the “mad skillz” required to play a more challenging game. To that, I would point to my seven-year-old nephew who, without any help, completed Kirby and the Forgotten Land and got everything. Kids are up to challenging games. Man of you readers grew up on Battletoads and Ghosts & Goblins, for Arceus' sake.

Fans of RWBY might find something enjoyable here, but it just lacks the sort of care and polish that goes into most of WayForward’s catalog, which is a shame.

TalkBack / Oddworld: Soulstorm (Switch eShop) Review
« on: November 25, 2022, 02:36:45 PM »

This New 'n' Tasty version of Abe's Exoddus is not without its issues.

Did you enjoy the “New ‘n’ Tasty” remake of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee back in the previous console generation? Our own Joel DeWitte had a pretty good time with the 2020 Switch port. I own New ‘n’ Tasty on PS4 but still haven’t cracked it open. I have fond memories of the Windows port of the original 1997 PSOne game, though I doubt I made it very far. Alas, I did not stick with the Oddworld games for all that long, and after a brief attempt at Munch’s Oddysee (an Xbox launch title), I fell off the wagon. Thus, I never played the “sidestory” games, Abe’s Exoddus and Stranger’s Wrath. I was excited at the announcement that the former–a direct sequel to Abe’s Oddysee–had been remade for the PS5, but with those consoles in short supply, I accepted that I might never play it. Somebody up there was listening, though, because an “Oddimitzed” edition was just ported to the Switch.

I’m happy to say that yes, Soulstorm seems to be a “New ‘n’ Tasty” version of Abe’s Exoddus, but my patience for this kind of game has receded in the twenty-five years since my tryst with that Windows original.

This game kicks off immediately following the ending of Abe’s Oddysee–our hero and his band of Modokon refugees, rescued from becoming Soylent Green at RuptureFarms, have settled in a subterranean cave system but are quickly discovered by one of the villainous Mollocks and his army of Sligs. Abe and his brethren are separated quickly, and after surviving the Slig attack and finding his way out of the caverns, Abe goes about re-rescuing his Modokon family and helping the remaining Modokons in other RuptureFarms plants.

Soulstorm features much of the same gameplay as was in New ‘n’ Tasty: Abe traverses a 2.5D stage, using a combination of platforming, item use, and possession to make it past Sligs and other enemies, as well as find various pickups and rescue Modokons. Possession is limited only by the occasional appearance of devices which zap Abe out of his chant, disallowing possession in that instance. Abe can use brew bottles to spread fires, then use water to put the fires out. He can throw Slig-stunning proximity mines, then tie up the snoozing Sligs to take them out of commission. He can also, of course, possess Sligs and use them to take out other Sligs before imploding them to regain control.

Soulstorm feels less like a new game and more like an expansion of New ‘n’ Tasty, and seems to differentiate itself by asking you to juggle small groups of Modokons at any given time. You may be asked to rescue them from a multi-level structure that requires a good amount of stealth, item use, giving direction, and avoiding environmental hazards. Losing too many Modokons ends the game early, so you’re almost encouraged to replay levels where you wind up losing too many NPCs. Granted, Soulstorm does more or less ramp up the difficulty and complexity pretty well, so you’re never presented with a situation that is completely alien to you. That said, there’s a lot of trial and error, and some of that is due to Soulstorm’s iffy controls.

Abe’s biggest enemy in his adventure isn’t the Mollocks or Sligs, but the imprecise controls. To begin with, your button presses don’t always register, which seems important. There were so many times where I tried to jump or throw an item and it just didn’t happen, which would occasionally lead to my death, but would more often lead to frustrating re-traversal. Whether water doused a flame or not was always a 50/50 gamble–potentially wasting one of your water bottles. Judging distances while jumping, especially vertically, is weirdly difficult, and I found myself defaulting to a running start in places where it probably wasn’t necessary just to be safe. Abe’s new (‘n’ tasty) double jump helps things, of course, but this has encouraged the developer to implement weird vertical shafts where the double-jump, itself, feels too restrictive.

Further, it’s not always clear what Abe can and can’t grab ahold of or even where he can land safely. Part of this is the map design, but another part is the unusually busy outdoor environments which don’t look great compared to the PS5 version–not a huge surprise, but a lot of the environmental components look like vestiges of the PS3/Xbox 360 era.

I recently broke down and bought the Switch version of DOOM (2016) on sale because I’d been impressed by Panic Button’s ports. While perfectly serviceable, that port appears to be missing a couple layers of graphical fidelity, as though a few texture or lightning effects are simply missing from the environments. It’s much the same situation here, but with so much puzzle-solving tied to reading your surroundings in Soulstorm, it’s a bit more frustrating.

Thankfully, interacting with Modokons is painless, and they do what they’re told quite well. The Lemmings-like segments are perhaps the most enjoyable in the game, but you’ll have to endure a few hours of toil to get there. It is a funny sight to see a small band of Modokons following Abe in what should be a line but winds up looking like Alucard’s shadow in Symphony of the Night since they all technically occupy the same space. However, performance takes a hit the more Modokons you have tagging along.

The few segments where you must defend large swaths of escaping Modokons, however, are not as fun–you’ll usually be possessing enemies to prevent other enemies from shooting the Modokons down, and I wish you had more methods at your disposal. I also didn’t particularly care for crafting. To be fair, I almost never care for crafting in a video game: it’s an arbitrary way to make “getting an item” more taxing. Given all the containers, lockers, and enemy pockets that Abe must pillage during his journey, it would’ve been quicker just to give me the items instead of making me find the components, repeatedly (if you die).

I didn’t particularly care for the story, although it might be more accurate to say I didn’t care for Abe himself or his Modokon brethren. They all speak in a slow-as-molasses, nasally, croaking drawl. Every time a Modokon opened his mouth, I readied myself for an agonizing monologue. It takes them five minutes to recite three lines of text. Abe, as the reluctant savior of the Modokons, displays all of Luigi’s cowardice with none of his charm. The story itself is rather interesting, with some fun twists and turns, but unfortunately projected through the lens of the uninteresting Modokons.

Overall, there were too many irritations in Soulstorm to win any of my enthusiasm. Every play session left me somewhat frustrated, and I often had to talk myself into booting it up. If you’re dying to revisit Abe’s Exoddus, this is certainly the best way to accomplish that. I just wish it was a little more fun and a little less janky.

TalkBack / Ghost Song (Switch eShop) Review
« on: November 08, 2022, 04:37:00 PM »

A contemplative, melancholy Metroidvania

For me, one of the great joys of this hobby is discovering great games by going in cold. I knew nothing about Shovel Knight when I was assigned the review and it turned out to be one of my favorite games of that generation. Similarly, I volunteered for Horizon Chase Turbo because it looked a little like Out Run, and it became perhaps my favorite single-player racing game. Right around Halloween, I was assigned Ghost Song, a 2013 Kickstarter game I’d never heard of, and immediately fell in love with it. Clearly inspired by Super Metroid and the Souls series, it also has links to Hollow Knight, another game I knew nothing about but wound up loving.

You play as a mysterious armor-wearing figure called “Deadsuit” who wakes up on a strange planet and quickly finds themselves helping a group of humans who crash-landed. Deadsuit isn’t even sure whether it’s a robot, human, or spaceship but doesn’t seem all that interested in finding out. It must travel to five spots on the planet and find replacement parts for the humans’ ship, the Gambler, and in doing so, must brave the dangerous creatures and subterranean environments in the world.

The game’s map is the clearest homage to Super Metroid, with color-coded sectors and lots of breakable walls. You will occasionally come across large, dead robots which will serve as fast-travel points and upgrade stations–more on that in a minute. Save points, while not rare, are less common than I’d like, and death often requires some amount of re-traversal. Deadsuit’s arm cannon is similar to Samus Aran’s with a twist: the cannon will eventually overheat, making shots weaker. However, this is where Deadsuit’s secondary attack–a melee attack–comes in handy. An overheated arm cannon means a fully-powered melee weapon, so players are encouraged to change up their combat frequently. The more Deadsuit explores the more melee weapons it will discover, like a spear or a gigantic short-range punch. My favorite–the “Painwheel,” is a boomeranging spiked shield that does a ton of damage fully-charged.

In addition to melee weapons, Deadsuit will also come across various arm cannon subweapons (like a missile or charge shot) that are fun to experiment with. You’ll also find Modules, which function a lot like the Charms in Hollow Knight. Each subweapon and Module takes a certain amount of energy to equip, and Deadsuit’s energy pool is tied to its level, so you’re also encouraged to find a combo that suits your playstyle. I eventually started forgoing multiple subweapons for more Modules. Defeated enemies will drop “NanoGel,” which is Ghost Song’s currency. NanoGel can be used to buy items from the Gambler’s trading post (or another, hard-to-find shop) but its primary purpose is to level up Deadsuit at fast-travel points. You can increase three traits which will affect Deadsuit’s base stats, including HP, attack power, stamina, available energy, etc. The trick is that the cost goes up with every level.

As with so many games these days, Ghost Song incorporates aspects of the Souls series into its design. Combat is difficult and demands precision–most enemies hit hard and my first few hours with the game were spent tenuously observing every new creature I came across. You’ll find healing items that can be activated at any time and are refilled at save points, and you’d better get used to using them. Dying, of course, results in you dropping a chunk of your NanoGel (how much depends on the difficulty setting), whereupon you must hike back to retrieve it, hoping not to die en route. Unfortunately, there is no “bank,” as in Hollow Knight, where you can save up a large store of NanoGel in case you hit a particularly rough choke point.

The bosses, of course, are where the real challenges lie. Several are optional but will usually net you a nifty subweapon or Module for the trouble. The bosses who guard replacement parts for the Gambler, though, are tough customers and often come down to good old wars of attrition–you’ll be avoiding their attacks more often than actually attacking, which does get old, but that’s how Hollow Knight was as well. Playing with your loadout certainly helps but there are no fights–boss or otherwise–where you can brute-force it. Patience is the name of the game here.

The world itself is gorgeous if somewhat undercooked. To be clear, every frame of Ghost Song is unbelievably gorgeous, and the environments themselves are often completely alien. Creature noises echo in the caverns, Deadsuit’s legs become covered in slime or fluids as she runs over messy terrain, darkness gives way to surprising touches of color. This planet feels more alive than most video game locations. I especially liked the few outdoor areas and the oppressive machine city of the Junk Pit. Other areas, though, feel a bit empty, lacking purpose other than being a road to a particular destination. There is a small underwater section that winds up being a peaceful but weird tangent that’s over too quickly and doesn’t connect to anything else. The game’s music is mostly atmospheric or ambient, but the few musical themes are serene and low-key. I enjoyed them, but if you’re looking for the kinds of tunes you’d hear in other platformers, you won’t find them here.

Deadsuit will come across various human (and android) characters, mostly associated with the Gambler, who will engage in conversation. I always enjoyed these interactions–some of them trigger events elsewhere–and the impressive writing gave each character a solid personality. All are struggling with questions of identity and purpose, and while Deadsuit is probably the perfect reflection of those yearnings, their talks always left me a bit cold towards Deadsuit itself. It is, for all intents and purposes, a “silent protagonist” who occasionally responds, but just as often answers with an ellipsis.

Occasionally-frustrating difficulty aside, there are a few things I disliked about Ghost Song. First, in order to swap out your subweapons and Modules, you must hold down on the D-pad to turn Deadsuit “off.” After that, you can go into the submenu and swap equipment around. The problem here is that, during this time, the game doesn’t actually pause, so you can’t do this during a normal fight, much less a boss fight. I know that not being able to pause your game is a Souls thing, but it’s not one I welcome (you can press the + button to actually pause, but it’s a different screen), especially since it means that you basically have to die during a boss fight if you discover your equipment isn't cutting it, then rejigger upon respawning.

Platforming on very small chunks of ground is weirdly difficult, and Deadsuit will often slide off the side, as if these tiny ledges are rounded. From a technical perspective, the frame rate will occasionally chug while simply running around, although this never affected combat encounters (in my experience, anyway). A patch just came out which supposedly locked the framerate at 30, but I still experienced drops. When moving between color-coded sectors of the map, the load times can be noticeably long compared to moving between screens within a given sector.

Despite these misgivings, I found myself blowing through Ghost Song with the enthusiasm I normally reserve for new Shantae games. There have been frustrating boss fights, sure, but that was my experience with Hollow Knight too, and it’s a similar feeling here. Finally beating these tough-as-nails bosses gives you a great feeling of accomplishment (and relief), although they’re probably not for everybody. It’s definitely worth a shot if you enjoy Metroid, Hollow Knight, or the Souls series.

TalkBack / Signalis (Switch eShop) Review
« on: October 30, 2022, 10:40:15 AM »

"I'll tell ya...'bout the Yellow King."

It is a celebratory occasion when I find a fun horror game that is, truly, a horror game. It’s a surprisingly rare game that fills you with dread, where the mere act of exploration brings a sense of unease. There might be a monster, there might not be.  They only serve to heighten your state of anxious arousal. I haven’t played too many games like that because a lot of horror games wind up trading environmental tension for monster fights. A good horror game makes you feel vulnerable, keeping a close eye on your inventory because you might well run out of supplies at any time. The environment is dark and oppressive, the sound design ratchets up the scares long before you encounter any nightmare creatures. My favorite horror games–Dead Space 2, Silent Hill 2, and Fatal Frame 2 all have these features in spades, and actual combat is often a calculated risk (less so in Dead Space, with its RE4-esque gunplay).

I’ve found a new title to add to my list–SIGNALIS, from developer rose-engine, is one of the most oppressive, spooky games I’ve played in a very long time and if you’re a horror game buff (Halloween is right around the corner), this is about as safe a bet as you can make.

This is the story of an android, Elster, who awakens after her ship crash-lands on a snowy planet. She’s soon off and searching for her missing crewmate and comes upon a mining station also run by androids. “Replikas,” as they’re called here, provide much of the workforce of the nameless fascist empire made up of an alliance of Terran countries (Japanese, German, and possibly Russian) which has conquered the stars. But something has gone wrong here–much of the Replika workforce has been corrupted by some unknown pathogen, causing them to mutate into mindless killing machines. Like the Crimson Head zombies in Resident Evil, many of them will resurrect after a certain amount of time unless their bodies are burned with rare thermite charges.

Elster is not helpless, acquiring various firearms in the course of her search like a pistol, shotgun, and magnum. Ammo, as you might expect, is at a premium, so you’ll have to make hard choices while exploring each sublevel of the derelict mining facility, especially as Elster’s inventory is limited to six slots.  With keys and components being so common, you won’t have room for everything all the time. Thankfully, there’s a storage box in every save room.

In between avoiding murderous robots, you’ll collect notes and instruction manuals (which are always fascinating to read) and solve various puzzles. The puzzles may be my favorite parts of SIGNALIS thanks to their bulky, analog construction: in one early instance, you’re asked to modify the length of a key’s individual teeth to fit cleanly into a lock.  In another, you’ll have to balance the proportion of gasses in an incinerator. Trial and error is encouraged and always takes a little bit of time to understand the interface and what the goal is, but the real joy is watching big, awkward-looking buttons depress with a hard click, or pulling levers to activate some internal machine. Even wall safes feature large push buttons and turning locking mechanisms.

Another puzzle feature is the radio module. Within the first couple areas, Elster finds a radio module which allows her to scan a frequency band listening for signals but also to see streaming data display–this data often corresponds to codes throughout the facility. You can also turn the radio on to a specific frequency and then leave the inventory menu, allowing the radio to play while Elster is walking around. Sometimes this activates a lock, other times it disables monster-based visual static within an area.

Occasionally, Elster will experience a memory (or is it?) in first-person. Here, you’ll often be searching a completely different area–or time period–usually ending after you find an item or see a specific event.  These sequences are jarring but always interesting and tense. The game’s relatively rare cutscenes, combined with the first-person scenes and overall gameplay, make you question what’s actually going on, and that constantly motivated me forward.

The real star of SIGNALIS, though, is undoubtedly the mining facility itself. It feels at all times like a real, incredibly creepy place. You could remove all of the mutants and it would still feel claustrophobic, dilapidated, and dark. One gets the idea that the facility was barely functioning at the best of times, held together with glue and popsicle sticks.  Broken doors, malfunctioning machines, flooded basements, and more speak to a lack of oversight, personnel, and resources.  Despite that, propaganda posters dot every wall, rules are strictly enforced even when such rules are detrimental, and notes reference employees being punished for the slightest misdeeds. Cameras still follow Elster in many rooms.  Even if nobody’s on the other end now, there used to be. The pathogen may have been this facility’s version of the Chicxulub impact: it may have killed the dinosaurs, but the environmental degradation was causing a slow death long before.

On a technical level, the game’s graphical style–a sort of homage to PSOne horror games–is especially effective. Be sure to turn the CRT filter on--it feels like you’re on the other end of those facility cameras, and gives a fuzzy, imprecise view of Elster and the facility she haunts.  The sound design is similarly brilliant, usually consisting of lowkey ambient noise that occasionally gives way to sudden intrusions of music or the blood-curdling screams of corrupted androids out for blood (hemolymph?).

I can’t really think of too many problems with the game.  There was the occasional puzzle or cipher that vexed me, but coming back later with fresh eyes often solved the problem. Combat isn’t particularly intuitive–aiming is a somewhat imprecise affair, but that reinforces Elster’s vulnerability.  With some enemies, you have to be a surprisingly exact distance away to land a shot, but in those instances, context kind of justifies it. Any issues I have with the game are wiped full away by the experience of actually playing it. The one thing I genuinely didn’t care for was constantly going into the map screen. As the facility’s sub-floors became more labyrinthine, I found myself wishing for a mini-map, although I understand that having a perpetually-displaying mini-map would break the immersion.

Turn the lights down and the sound up.  Play this game on your TV, late at night.  SIGNALIS is a wonderful, mind-bending experience and the passion of the developers can be seen in every pixel.

TalkBack / Moonscars (Switch eShop) Review
« on: October 11, 2022, 03:18:16 PM »

It's a game of inches.

Moonscars, a Souls-like sidescrolling action game from Black Mermaid, is one of the more daunting games I’ve encountered during my long tenure at this humble website. Brutally difficult, Moonscars demands perfection to progress—anything less is mercilessly punished. This is a game of contradictions: a beautiful game that looks rather bland, impressive combat that feels limited, systems that encourage engagement but also punish you for partaking in them. Moonscars feels like it’s made for a subset of a subset of combat-platformer fans, and thus is not my cup of tea, but others may embrace it.

Moonscars tells the story of Gray Irma, a warrior woman searching for a mysterious sculptor, but the brutality of the world necessitates her soul being separated from her mortal body and placed in a clay automaton. The story is difficult to parse at times, but Irma will find various NPCs to talk to and slowly unravel more of the narrative, though it’s not always clear what is being discussed or why it’s important. It’s also not the most pressing matter in the game.

Instead, it’s survival.

The world of Moonscars is a haunting, hellish landscape of blacks and greys, with some orange and red for contrast. The environments, as well as the various enemies that fill them, are mesmerizing to watch while simultaneously being hard to make out given the muted palette and fuzzy character designs. Even Gray Irma herself is somewhat out of focus—understandable given her artificial nature but I found myself longing for stronger character designs. While traversing this dark place, Irma will come across countless opponents, each of which presents a specific challenge. This is not a game you can button mash your way through—I would liken it to the challenging combat of Hollow Knight. Even the smallest enemy can really mess you up if you’re not careful.

Thankfully, Irma has a few tricks up her sleeve. In addition to her large broadsword, Irma has an invincibility dash, spells, a parry, and the ability to auto-heal. She also quickly acquires a secondary weapon, although more on that later. Combat can get hairy quickly, especially if you’re facing several enemies at a time, and parrying becomes the key to your survival. Unfortunately, the success window is exceedingly short, and each enemy attacks with different timing. You can parry any attack that leads with a flash of red, but you’ll have to wait for the right moment to parry once the flash goes off.

Thankfully, a successful parry auto-hits and often shoves the opponent backwards—sometimes into a wall or bed of insta-kill spikes. New enemy types show up with some regularity, so you’ll be learning on the go the entire time. As Irma kills monsters, she gains “Ichor,” which is Moonscars’ way of saying “MP.” Irma expends MP by using magic attacks or auto-healing. Enemies drop “Bone Powder,” which you can also find in the environment, which is Moonscars’ way of saying “experience points.” You’ll use Bone Powder to buy certain items in the Workshop (home base) area as well as learning new magic attacks (“Witchery”).

But Moonscars is a Souls-like, with all that implies. Death—which will come often—drops all of your stuff where you fell while Irma resurrects at the last save point she hit. The often lengthy trek back to your lost Bone Powder comes with the risk of dying en route and losing everything you’d gained. Death also has a perhaps more detrimental cost—the game gets harder.

At any time, you can spend “Glands,” which are exceedingly rare pickups, to satiate the Moon and drop the difficulty down from “FFS” to “Almost Manageable.” Enemies take fewer hits to kill and don’t hurt Irma quite as much. However, they also drop less Bone Powder. When the Sculptor opens a window, he closes a door. Death, however, resets the Moon’s temperament, and since Glands are extremely rare (and can be used for other things), satiating the Moon is rarely a good idea. It might help you during a boss fight, but if and when the boss kills you, your sacrifice will be in vain.

This is the first big problem I have with Moonscars: you’re encouraged to drop the difficulty down whenever you want, but not really as Glands are rare commodities and death—which is inevitable—resets the difficulty back to “This Seems Cruel.”

Whenever Gray Irma comes across a save point, she must activate it by traveling to the area where her mortal body is held, the Workshop, where she can talk to NPCs and purchase or sell items. However–and this is my second big problem with Moonscars–activating save points creates an enemy clone of Irma (for some reason) who will attack her as soon as she goes back to the world.

These fights are always absolute hell. Clone Irma has access to all of Gray Irma’s attacks and healing ability, and because the Moon probably isn’t satiated, she is insanely hard to kill. She hits much harder than Gray Irma does and her attacks are very often hard to parry because she travels forward while attacking, often crossing through Gray Irma’s character sprite, past the direction of your parry, but still doing damage on the other side. Magic attacks only work if Clone Irma doesn’t dodge them—which she often does. You can just ignore Clone Irma, but doing so means that you will lose Gray Irma’s secondary weapon, because Clone Irma—for some reason—stole it when Gray Irma traveled through the mirror.

And that sucks, because the secondary weapons are often very helpful in combat. Not only are they more powerful than Irma’s default broadsword, but they all have different debuff effects.

Punishing the player for just creating a checkpoint is hard to forgive.

One more combat ability I should touch on is Spite. After killing so many monsters in a row, you’re given the option to choose a “Spite” reward, which buffs Irma in some way, be it reduced MP cost, better healing ability, or a better critical hit change. She can have up to five Spite buffs at any one time, which is a huge advantage in combat. However, dying casts them all aside, as does using a mirror.

Irma will find various items throughout the environment, including MP and health upgrades and amulets, three of which can be equipped at a time, which provide extra benefits. She’ll also sometimes find piles of Bone Powder here and there. Learning new magic attacks is an expensive proposition—Moonscars has an enormous skill tree, but the cost to learn new attacks, or upgraded versions of learned attacks, increases exponentially so you won’t be learning new magic attacks at a steady pace.

I said that Moonscars is a game of inches and I mean it—you’ll fight for every inch of progress. Personally, the game presented too many challenges for my enjoyment. If the difficulty didn’t go up every time I died or I could activate checkpoints without having to fight a clone afterwards, it might be a different story, but I don’t appreciate being punished for doing inevitable things (dying, saving). Did you find Hollow Knight and Blasphemous too easy? If so, Moonscars may give you the challenge you crave. For the rest of us? It has limited utility.

TalkBack / Spidersaurs (Switch eShop) Review
« on: July 17, 2022, 10:49:43 AM »

Insert Ian Malcolm quote here.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect upon booting up Spidersaurs, a WayForward game that originally appeared as a launch title for Apple Arcade, but I was still surprised by what I got: a brightly-colored Contra game featuring all manner of bizarre dinosaur/arthropod hybrids and a level of difficulty that I was wholly unprepared for. Spidersaurs is fun but edges into frustrating territory here and there.

The story is barebones: The InGest Corporation, in attempting to solve world hunger, has successfully cloned dinosaurs, but instead of creating a “biological preserve” that “will drive the kids out of their minds,” they decide to fill in the gaps in their DNA strands with insect genes instead of frog genes. The resulting horrendous hybrids, perhaps too nightmarish to display to the public, are utilized to end world hunger (somehow). The game’s opening animation is extremely charming and I fully endorse the company’s name–a clear parody of Jurassic Park’s InGen. Well, as is inevitable, the monsters escape and it’s up to InGest’s two unpaid interns–Victoria and Adrian–to wipe out the Spidersaur threat.

Spidersaurs can be played solo or with a friend (locally). Victoria and Adrian have the same moveset but utilize different weapons, which I was pleasantly surprised by. The two run and gun through several short–but very difficult–side-scrolling levels, fighting midbosses and proper bosses, and swapping or upgrading their weaponry along the way. If you’ve been itching for a follow-up to WayForward’s 2007 Contra 4 for DS, your prayers have been answered, in all that implies.

"We clocked the Queen Spidersaurus at 25 miles an hour."

Victoria and Adrian die after taking three hits, and health pickups are exceedingly rare. As they progress through the game, they learn new moves like climbing walls or hanging from ceilings, double jumping, and grappling to vertical handholds that give them a lot of mobility in later areas, to the point where the level design didn’t really account for much of it. As in Contra, dying also kills your weapon upgrades, so repeatedly buying the farm during a boss fight just makes the boss progressively harder. In fact, Spidersaurs is hard enough on normal difficulty that I was eventually inspired (maybe “crestfallen”) to start a new save file on easy–you can’t change the difficulty level mid-game. This did not come at any significant cost, though, because each individual level is maybe ten minutes long, which seems like the perfect length. Defeating the mid-boss in each stage (usually pretty doable, although one critter in particular became a huge thorn in my side) activates a checkpoint, which I definitely needed sometimes, even on easy.

Despite its intimidating difficulty, Spidersaurs is a treat to look at, with WayForward’s character design and animation talents on full display. I’m sure you can all guess that I immediately fell in love with Victoria (I’m going through a “Gwen from Total Drama Island” phase). Adrian’s no slouch himself in the animation department, and I actually found myself preferring his unique weapons (flamethrower, baby). The enemy characters are generally pretty simplistic, but that speaks to the Contra inspiration–they’re all immediately recognizable, so you know how to approach them. Boss characters get more personality: I really liked the puppeteer bosses, whose panicked expressions never failed to make me chuckle. A couple have more than one phase, which you’ll either love or hate. The music is also top-notch, though not as memorable as I’d hoped.


Difficulty aside, I have some minor gripes with the game: it’s very hard to play competently in Handheld mode because every character, enemy, pickup, and bullet is already very small. If you, like me, want to appreciate the art design and also not miss any stray enemy shots, play this game on your TV. I’m also torn on Spidersaurs’ dedication to emulating classic Contra. You’ve got the means–why not change things up a little? I would’ve loved to see a way to aim precisely a la Metroid Dread, or unique weapons that weren’t clear homages to old run-and-gun standards. While I liked the expanding moveset, the level design rarely took full advantage. Finally, and this is extremely nitpicky, I would have loved to see a gallery that showed the characters in different poses, or concept art, or something. Victoria adopts a super cool pose when she gets a new power that I adore, but her sprite is so small, I was never able to fully appreciate it.

For the Contra diehards among you, Spidersaurs is a great game. The difficulty can be brutal at times, but I’m sure I’ll power through the higher tiers eventually.

TalkBack / Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition (Switch eShop) Review
« on: July 05, 2022, 06:40:03 PM »

Is it, though? Is it really?

Night Dive Studios is well-known for their excellent work remastering old games: Turok: Dinosaurs Hunter, Turok 2, Shadowman, DOOM 64, and Quake have all benefited tremendously from their considered approach to games preservation, taking a largely hands-off approach to present these titles as they were intended with some added quality-of-life updates. In Turok 2, for example, they added the ability to warp between levels–especially handy if you’re trying to find all the Sacred Eagle Feathers. In Shadowman, they re-integrated a bunch of content cut from the original game due to space limitations. In Quake, they’ve added all sorts of game mods, including Quake 64. I was excited to try their recent Enhanced Edition of Blade Runner, a PC adventure game from 1997, but I’m sad to report that it’s a disappointment.

Blade Runner is notable for a lot of reasons, most notably that, due to a Gordian knot of licensing issues, developer Westwood Studios was unable to create a strict adaptation of the 1982 film. Instead, they crafted a parallel story that references, but doesn’t directly intercede with, the movie. While some excerpts are included, for the most part all of the music and art are original, as are the lines read by returning actors (like Sean Young). It was also unique in featuring a large number of random elements that made every playthrough feel different, including which of the game’s suspects are Replicants.

You take the role of a Blade Runner named Ray McCoy as he initially investigates a rash of Replicant crimes in Los Angeles, including the slaughter of several live and/or replicated animals, but he’s quickly embroiled in LA’s criminal underworld and the Replicants’ attempts to extend their lifespans. The game has thirteen different endings based on the player’s actions and the random occurrences in each playthrough.

Blade Runner plays like an atypical adventure game, with McCoy exploring various locations, finding clues, and talking to witnesses. He can give the Voight-Kampff test to suspects, although exactly how to use the test effectively is never explained. You can also have Ray unholster his gun and fire on Replicants or normal people (never a good idea to accidentally kill a human), but Ray has limited ammunition and “chinyins” (money) that you need to keep track of.

I recently rewatched Blade Runner to refresh my memory of the film and forgot that it’s abysmally dull, but I was surprised to see how many actors and locations are carried forward to the game, in some cases replicating location shots to a “T” (like the Bradbury Building).

The skeleton of this game is strong, with a good script and recognizable voices (like Lisa Edelstein and Jeff Garlin) and some actors reprising their roles from the 1982 film (Sean Young, James Hong, etc.). The plot is entertaining and presents a different perspective on the world of Blade Runner, expanding on the movie’s version of L.A. and its residents, as well as more information from some of the film’s characters, like J. F. Sebastian, and its criminal underworld.

I imagine that, in 1997, Blade Runner was very pretty, but in 2022 it looks pretty rough. Character models are presented as digitized computer models (a la Mortal Kombat or Donkey Kong Country) wandering through painted, 2D backdrops. It never really works, and some of the environmental effects, like fog or lighting, don’t affect the character models. The game is far darker (in terms of lighting) than any game I’ve played; to the point where clues or evidence in a given location may be completely invisible, like a piece of cheese or a photograph. The only way to really be sure that you’ve laid eyes on everything is by going over every centimeter of the screen with your cursor, waiting for it to change from white to green. Even then, some clues are so tiny that you may repeatedly miss them. Things just look too blurry; there are no clear delineations between background objects. Playing this game in Handheld mode definitely magnifies this issue, and I don’t recommend it, as you’ll miss a lot of visual clues scattered in some environments.

I found it bizarre that there is no “brightness” setting in the Options menu, and in fact the total options available are frustratingly slim. My previous Night Dive experience anticipated a wealth of options being present, so it’s strange that Blade Runner is so barebones.

Ray can also toggle his firearm with the B button, but aside from shooting suspects, I was never really sure what it could do until I learned (by accident) that you can use it to shoot environmental objects, like handcuffs or locked doors. This would’ve been useful information, along with some kind of tutorial about how to use the Voight-Kampff test correctly.

Another issue I had was with the game’s K.I.A. system, which compiles all the clues, interviews, and evidence which you can look at anytime by pressing the Minus button. Updating your K.I.A. database at the police station may give you additional clues. However, K.I.A. is unwieldy, and I was never comfortable with how it organized the evidence. The game’s ESPER system, in which you zoom in on collected photographs, is kind of cool (it works just like it does in the movie) but, again, the game’s extremely dark palette screws with your sense of what you’re looking for. In one of the first photos you come across, you’re supposed to zoom in on a pink-haired girl, but for some reason, the developers chose to put her entire body behind another object and if you didn’t know she was there already, the complete lack of lighting rendered her completely invisible.

I would have appreciated a “how to play” tutorial option from the menu, or even a scan of the original instruction booklet, to ease me into the game’s systems. I should also warn that the game does not auto-save, so save often because Ray can actually die, and you’ll be sent back to your last save point. I lost almost two hours of progress at one point because I assumed that, in 2022, the game was auto-saving.

One other knock against Blade Runner is that it’s buggy. If you turn on subtitles, which I always do now because I’m old, you may be annoyed to find that subtitles don’t appear during cutscenes. There were a couple instances of photographs just not being transferred to ESPER. I picked up a fish scale and expected to get information about it from the fish market saleslady, but she never brought it up. Puzzled, I went into K.I.A. and discovered it just wasn’t there at all.

In trying to determine whether these problems were present in the original PC release, I discovered that Night Dive actually had to reverse-engineer Blade Runner because the original game code had been lost a long time ago. There was a fan-created version using ScummVM that was apparently quite faithful to the original 1997 release, and Night Dive actually added that version in a free update to the Enhanced Edition’s Steam version. I can only hope it’s also added to consoles, because I’d love to play what’s apparently considered a superior rebuild. Screenshot comparisons of ScummVM vs. Enhanced Edition suggest that the latter smooths over the backgrounds, resulting in smeared, muddy images compared to the former.

I can’t recommend Blade Runner: Enhanced Edition, at least not in its present form. There are too many annoyances, too many unexplained systems, and not nearly enough lighting. If you really must check this out, I suggest leaving a FAQ open on your phone.

TalkBack / RiffTrax: The Game (Switch eShop) Review
« on: June 14, 2022, 08:36:34 PM »

Half good, half I've played before

Do ya’ll remember the Jackbox-style game What the Dub? (WTD) that I reviewed last year? Well, if you liked that game, you might also like RiffTrax: The Game, which could also be called a very large expansion pack for WTD. You and up to five friends get on your smartphones and either create riffs or select pre-recorded riffs and then vote for the winner. It’s a good time, but I’ll probably lean heavily towards the latter of the two game modes, which is more unique.

While I stop short of saying that your enjoyment of RiffTrax: The Game depends heavily on how much you enjoy RiffTrax or its spiritual predecessor, Mystery Science Theater 3000, it would not be inaccurate to say that having at least a passing familiarity with the comedic stylings of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett will certainly give you a better appreciation for this game.

For those new to the RiffTrax scene, the series might be best described as “three friends make fun of old sci-fi movies and vintage educational films while you watch them.” They’re usually quite funny; the trio’s wisecracking commentary through Gammera: The Invincible, for example, had me rolling on the floor. In RiffTrax: The Game, you and your friends get to be the riffers.

Sort of.

In “Write a Riff” mode, you watch a very short video clip from some god awful public domain piece of media, and then go about writing your own smarmy comment, to which you can add a dizzying array of sound effects, although going through the full list of sound effects may take up all of your riff-writing time (although you can bump up the input time to two full minutes). Once everybody has written their zingers, the game plays the clip for each player and the actual riffs are delivered by an automated text-to-voice robot. This mode, then, is essentially WTD with different clips (and sound effects). This shouldn’t be too surprising, as both games were developed by the same people.

The robot voice is a robot voice that can only do so much. I felt it was better utilized in WTD because the goal of that game is to write your own LINES for the films shown. Here, you're trying to write zingers, which is a bit different; zingers usually involve some degree of subtle voicework (like sarcasm) that the robot can't deliver. However, it will also attempt to pronounce typos, which is a unique kind of hilarity. It will also happily say curse words, although, as in WTD, you can turn a curse word filter on from the menu.

To put the RiffTrax in “Write a Riff,” the game, by default, includes a bot player, the Riff Bot, who delivers an actual riff delivered by one of the RiffTrax guys, from the actual scene. This has two effects: First, you can immediately tell which Riff is from the Bot, because it’s not a robot voice, it’s Mike, Kevin, or Bill’s voice. Second, it is a joke written and delivered by somebody who is probably much better than you at this. If it wasn't as obvious, the Riff Bot would win every round. Thankfully, you can turn the Riff Bot off in options, which I did almost immediately. If I want to listen to RiffTrax, I'll watch RiffTrax.

I found myself enjoying “Pick a Riff” much more, because it’s essentially Cards Against Humanity* (CAH) but with RiffTrax lines. You’ll see a clip, and then get a list of jokes. Each player has a unique list, and these are randomized voice clips, so you pick the one that you think best works with the scene. Then you vote on which one was the best fit. As in CAH, your “hand” decreases over time, but you can restock your riffs once per game. “Pick a Riff” feels much more like what RiffTrax: The Game should be, whereas “Write a Riff” feels like WTD with an optional Riff Bot that you will likely turn off.

One other thing to touch on is that RiffTrax: The Game is extremely streamer-friendly and includes, among other things, some Twitch-specific options. You can even allow a moderator to approve or reject riffs before they’re played in case some jackass is being a troll. You can customize the number of rounds (up to ten) and the input and/or voting times, which I found handy depending on the crowd. As in WTD, there are plenty of in-game achievements to be earned if that’s your thing.

RiffTrax: The Game is a good time with a good group of people. Everybody had about the same amount of fun with “Write a Riff” mode as when playing WTD, even given the different goal (riff vs. line) but most of my friends agreed that “Pick a Riff” was the more interesting game. As in CAH, when you get a joke that lines right up with the scene in question? Priceless.

*I re-read my review of WTD, and was surprised to see that I compared it to CAH. That's dumb and wrong; it's more like Quiplash. You vote on answers that people make up, you don't have a pre-set list of responses that you try to match up with a given prompt. I'm a moron.

TalkBack / Neptunia x Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars (Switch) Review FAQ
« on: April 18, 2022, 07:19:36 AM »

Not exactly what I was expecting.

As is now tradition, I’ll be covering this anime crossover game in the Review FAQ format. As the protagonist of this format, I think Neptune would approve (that’s a Neptunia joke).

It’s finally here!


No, you live in Alaska. I’m talking about Neptunia X Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars. Wasn’t this one of your most hotly-anticipated games of 2022?

I was really hoping you meant spring, because this has been the longest winter in recent memory. But yes, I’ve been playing Neptunia X Senran Kagura, which I’ve really been looking forward to since the announcement of a Switch port. And I’m thrilled to say it’s exactly what it says on the tin, but nothing more. Maybe even a little less.

That sounds…underwhelming.

That’s because it is. First of all, as I said in my preview, Nep X Senran is a Neptunia game that co-stars four of the Senran Kagura girls. The plot, menus, new characters, quests, environments, and several gameplay aspects are straight out of Neptunia. The Senran Kagura contribution is woefully thin on the ground. To me, as somebody who prefers the Senran series to the Nep-Nep games, this was a disappointment.

Is Shiki one of the Senran girls? You know, the actual Best Girl?


How about Haruka?



Yes, but only by virtue of being one of the Senran series’ leads (along with Asuka, Homura, and Miyabi). There are no other Senran characters in the game, even as character portraits. Meanwhile, there are two new characters: Yuki, the resident catgirl, and Goh the Crow, an amnesiac ninja. Both fit into the Nep-Nep cast more than the Senran cast, but both are fun to play as.

What do you do in this game?

Did you play Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed?

Oh, you mean the Tamsoft-developed Neptunia hack & slash game for Vita (and later Steam)?

I do.

Yeah, it was mindless fun.

That’s basically what Nep X Senran is, with more complex maps. You’ll pick two characters (who you can freely switch between in the field) and then press the Y button a lot to perform attack combos, occasionally tapping the X button to throw shuriken or kunai, block enemy attacks with A, and dash away from unblockable attacks with ZR. You have “stamina bars” which refill over time and are used to unleash four different special attacks (Ninja Arts) which can be strung together in certain ways to provide buffs, debuffs, or status effects. You can also—and I frequently forgot about this—activate your own temporary buffs which only have so many uses per mission. For bosses, you’ll want to try and build up their ”Break” meter by mostly spamming your shuriken/kunai to get them into a stagger state, where you can dole out a lot of punishment without the threat of retaliation.

Finally, generally once or twice per area, your girls will get a super attack which looks super cool but is almost always completely underwhelming. It won’t even take off one full bar of a multi-life-bar boss.

So typical hack and slash fluff?

Basically, yeah. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but like any game like this, it gets old before too long. Oh, and blocking doesn’t cancel your attack animations, so if you’re in the middle of a combo (even a Ninja Arts combo) and the enemy isn’t staggering, you’ll wind up taking a lot of hits, potentially fatally in the case of bosses, which isn’t great!

Do the characters differ?

Not really. I will say that the Senran girls come to this game with their signature fighting styles and specials intact, so they felt the most familiar. The Neptunia gals’ combat abilities are built from scratch, and so don’t feel as unique. Their specials seem more interchangeable and their combat styles—though all looking quite different—wind up blending together. If Vert or Blanc had nunchucks, that entire team would have Ninja Turtle weapons, but sadly that’s a missed opportunity. You do have some ability to customize each character, though, so let’s talk about this game’s biggest time sink.

RPG stuff?

RPG stuff! In another pull from the Neptunia series, each character can customize the order of their specials so that they provide extra benefit depending on the order they’re used. For example, one attack might result in a status effect if used in the second slot, and other might provide a character buff if used last. Each girl learns more specials as they level up, so you’ll be revisiting the Ninja Arts screen often. However, you are limited somewhat by the amount of stamina each attack uses up. It’s surprisingly hard—if not impossible--to find a combo that will result in all four specials being utilized in quick succession in the proper order—the only way to see all the benefits of a Ninja Arts combo. Further, you customize the list in list form, but in the field, the specials show up in a diamond shape, so it’s very hard to tell, at a glance, what order you’re supposed to use them in.

That’s annoying.

It is, but you have items on-hand that will refill your stamina meter, and certain Soul Gems that will reduce the amount of stamina you use up.

Soul Gems?

Are you sitting down?

…should I be?

Yeah, ‘cause this is gonna take awhile.

Soul Gems are an admittedly interesting, but poorly-implemented, system in which you can customize each girl’s stats. You’ll collect dozens of multicolored Soul Gems in treasure boxes, as quest rewards, or by purchasing them from the in-game store. They are organized into several categories, including attack, defense, growth, Ninja Weapons (shuriken & kunai), and Ninja Arts. Each specific Gem type (like “EXP Legion”) has four or five tiers of power, so it’s not unusual to have duplicates of each level of a given Gem. You arrange the Soul Gems on a large 5x5 grid which expands as the ladies level up. Your goal is to arrange them in such a way that several Gems become connected, thus providing a larger buff.

Wait, hold on, I’m getting lost. Give me an example of what one Gem does. Like what does “EXP Legion” do?

Oh right, sorry. Each Gem provides some kind of minor buff. “EXP Legion” means that you’ll get a slight boost to experience points earned from each defeated Steem Legion enemy. Other related Gems give you more experience for each defeated Yokai enemy, or large mini-boss enemy, or proper boss. There are similar Gems in other categories: your attack against Steem Legion enemies is higher, or you’ll get more Zenni from defeated Yokai enemies, that kind of thing.

In general, your goal is to collect as many high-level Gems of each type as you can and arrange them on the ever-expanding Soul Board in a way that gives that girl the best possible buffs. Your grid is graded from F to A, although it doesn’t tell you how to improve your rating. Using high-level Gems seems to help.

Does the Soul Board apply to every character?

Nope, you have to set a different board for all ten girls.

Are you…insane? Do you have to have a hojillion Gems so that they all have duplicates to use?

Thankfully, each girl can use the same set of Gems, so if Homura is using all the “Attack UP” Gems, don’t worry—Noir will be able to use them, too. My strategy was to give each girl a mix of buffs from the many categories, trying to balance them all out. You can also synthesize Gems, but I have no idea how to do that—it’s poorly explained, and it was just easier to buy extra Gems at the store. You can also buy new shuriken and kunai at the store too.

Are they cool?

They’re mostly useful for status effects, though there's always some small damage components. I miss the Senran light/heavy attack dichotomy. Frankly, I miss a lot of the Senran staples: transformations, Flash mode, outfit-based bonuses, costume customization, character-specific sidequests, outfit damage, combo attacks.

Combo attacks?

Back in Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson, you could also switch between two characters, and some of them had very powerful combo special attacks. I was hoping to see that in this game—because it also has you playing as two characters.

I admit to being a little weirded out that Nep vs. Senran doesn’t have a dressing room.

Right? That said, this game does come with all the costume DLC from last year’s release.

Are they good costumes?

NOPE! The Senran girls get their traditional pre-transformation outfits (but cannot transform) and the Neptunia cast gets…alternate color schemes. Considering that was paid DLC, I expected better options or at least way more choices. Have you seen the DLC for a typical Senran game? It’s a mile long list of outfits and accessories. Give the Neptunia girls their traditional cyber-goddess outfits, at least! Oh, and Yuki & Goh the Crow don’t get alternate outfits at all. If anybody in this game is crying out for bikini DLC, it’s Yuki.

Dare I ask why?

Let’s just say that she must have a very strong back. Also, given her weapon of choice (claws), her role could’ve been taken by an existing Neptunia character—Peashy, a.k.a. Yellow Heart—who also has claw weapons and ridiculous proportions. Just missed opportunities left and right in this game.

Sounds like you didn’t like this one. Anything else you want to touch on?

This game does do something that I really hope is carried forward to future Senran and Neptunia games: during the (many) cutscenes featuring illustrated character portraits, their eyes and mouths move, and expressions frequently change. It’s a small thing, but I really liked it. Despite it being a gigantic hassle, I  like the Soul Gem system in theory, but it needs some revision. The boss fights are generally unpleasant in that they take way too long. The “Final Chapter” is about as long as all the previous chapters combined. Oh, by the way, the story is garbage.

Yeah, you haven’t mentioned the story.

It is to be endured more than enjoyed. The world of Gamninjastri –


Instead of Gamindustri.

*rolls eyes*

I know. The Senran and Neptunia cast are members of warring ninja factions who don’t actually go to war ever and are, instead, best friends. When an extradimensional group called the Steem Legion arrives and tries to take over, the “warring factions” team up to take them down.

So it’s a play on the game platform Steam?

I couldn’t tell, because there are also cracks about Instagram and likes and retweets and the leader of the Steem Legion is a girl named Yoh Gamer and they’re trying to awaken a giant demon…it’s all nonsense, every cutscene goes on way too long, and by the end I was just pressing A like I was playing Mario Party.

After you beat the final boss, you unlock more subquests (BUT WHY) and a new Hoard-like endurance mode that I just cannot be bothered to play through. Maybe if the combat was more robust, but not like this.

Okay so you didn’t like this one.

Not especially, no. I expected more out of this waifu crossover, but it’s less than the sum of its parts. I’m happy that both of these franchises are coming to Switch more often, but I really wish some of the better games in both series were getting ports. Where’s Estival Versus and V Generation? Heck, I can’t imagine that the remake of Senran Kagura Burst would be all that hard to port, although it may be a Sony exclusive. Anyway, the point is, I was really looking forward to Neptunia X Senran Kagura and came away very disappointed.

Last question: have you bought any new Senran Kagura figures?

Tragically, no, but not due to lack of interest. There are two matching bunny girl figures (of Yumi and Yozakura) but pricing for figures of all scales has exploded in the last few years. We're talking $300+ for the pre-order. If you miss that, the aftermarket price is completely unreasonable.

Geeze, that sucks.

It does, but my wife doesn't seem to mind.

TalkBack / Neptunia x Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars (Switch) Preview
« on: April 03, 2022, 07:07:53 PM »

What a time to be alive.

Let me get the obvious out of the way first: If you’re a fan of Neptunia games, you’re probably also a fan of the Senran Kagura games, and vice versa. Both are similarly tongue-in-cheek, both are franchises where the localization takes center stage, and both feature a wellspring of Grade A Waifu. The Neptunia series is mostly known for its RPGs—two are on Switch—but it’s branched into other genres as well, including a dating sim, tactical RPG, musou, multiplayer action, and bullet hell shooter. The Neptunia Goddesses have also crossed over with the SEGA Hard Girls and Azure Lane. Senran Kagura is a bit more conservative—gameplay-wise—as most of the games involve musou-style action, but they have branched out into genres like rhythm, third-person shooter, pinball, and…whatever Reflexions is…

The Neptunia musou game, Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed, was developed by Tamsoft, who also developed most of the Senran Kagura catalogue. So it might come as no surprise that these two waifu heavyweights (sorry Blanc) would have their own crossover game—Neptunia X Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars. The game has been out on PS4 since October 2021, but this Switch port will allegedly include some new features, including new difficulty settings and all the PS4 costume DLC.

I’ve gotten a fair way through the game, so why not post a short preview?

The game’s plot does something unexpected for Senran, but pretty standard for Neptunia: this is a one-off title with no connection to previous games in either series. The world of Gameinjustri (instead of Gameindustri) is home to two warring ninja factions: Marveland, for the Senran cast, and Heartland, for the Neptunia Goddesses. Their unique methods of transforming are called Honeypa Style and Compa Style, respectively. As usual for a Nep-Nep game, there are meta-game references like this throughout. When a new threat appears—the Steem Legion—the two factions come together to battle their common enemy and meet new allies on the way. The plotline and non-Senran characters definitely fit into the Neptunia series more than the Senran games, which seems to be par for the course.

While Neptunia X Senran Kagura is a crossover game first and foremost, it’s pulling more from the former much more than the latter. There are no transformations in Ninja Wars: the girls all enter combat areas in their Goddess (or Shinobi) attire. The maps for action stages are relatively maze-like and it’s extremely easy to get turned around—another Neptunia standby. You can chat with townspeople and other characters from the main menu and doing so may produce new quests, which is pulled from Nep-Nep.

In fact, there’s just not a lot of Senran DNA here. Probably to mirror the four Neptunia Goddesses, there are only four Senran girls present—Asuka, Homura, Yumi, and Miyabi. As the heads of their respective clans (in other games), this works, and while it does make narrative sense, it also feels distinctly anti-Senran, which has a ridiculously large cast. Senran is also known for its unique leveling mechanic, where a character’s stats change depending on whether they’re fighting in normal clothes (Yin), Shinobi clothes (Yang), or skivvies (Flash). That’s nowhere to be seen here. There’s also no dressing room option, another standard feature of Senran games—even the pinball one.

All of the girls do have multiple special attacks, though, and that is borrowed from the Senran series. Here, those attacks can be rearranged to create different combo effects, and that is pulled from the Neptunia games. The special attacks are a great example of two distinct parts of these series being combined into something new, but that might be the only real melding.

Like both series, there are secondary missions through already-completed stages to get items and zenni. Instead of “light” and “heavy” attacks, everyone does melee attacks with the Y button and throws a shuriken or dagger with the X button. This took me awhile to get used to. Every button on the controller (even the D-pad) has a specific function, but thankfully it’s never confusing. You can only take two characters into each stage, which you switch between, but fortunately the entire cast seems to level up together. The game lacks the fluidity and technicality of Senran games—you can block and parry, but the latter feels inconsequential. Standard enemies rarely put up much resistance, even as you begin to encounter palette-swapped stronger versions. You can buy better shuriken and daggers from an in-game store, but more powerful versions are unlocked slowly through story progression.

There’s also an interesting, if confusing, Spirit Gem system. Here, you equip each girl with Spirit Gems (more spaces unlock as they level up) that apply various buffs, like more attack power, more experience gain, more Ninja Arts damage, etc. Linking three or more of the same type of gem gives a bonus. Sometimes. It's not explained very well. However, as each girl’s gem grid becomes quite large, and since they have to be equipped individually, it’s quite a time sink. You can find gems in the field or as subquest rewards, but you’ll also need to buy them from the store. There’s a way to synthesize gems, but I haven’t really figured out how yet Again, it's not explained very well.

There's also a cute minigame where you choose a girl to sit on a giant peach (I know) and use motion controls to try and keep her balanced while making the peach tip left to right. It's weirdly hard and fun to watch. Success lands you a buff to your stats that lasts several missons. There are three difficulty settings, each one an order of magnitude tougher than the last. You can also just buy tickets that will give you the buffs without going through the motions (ha!). But I enjoyed watching the girls panic as they began to slide off the giant peach.

I’ll have more to say in the full review, but so far this is an enjoyable, but not especially ambitious crossover game.

TalkBack / Dawn of the Monsters (Switch) Review
« on: March 15, 2022, 10:48:27 AM »

You can't keep a good kaiju down.

I’ve always been surprised by the distinct lack of kaiju-based brawler games out there. The most obvious example of this genre is likely King of the Monsters and its sequel, which you may remember from your days playing NeoGeo cabinets at Pizza Hut. Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee and its sequels, which fell in quality over time, are the next best thing. But for the most part, all of those games were one-on-one arena fighters, more like wrestling games than brawlers. King of the Monsters was even known for its button-mashing grappling system. That void, friends, has now been filled by 13AM Games, who you may remember from Runbow, Double Cross, and Pirate Pop Plus. They’ve created quite the kaiju/tokusatsu world in Dawn of the Monsters (DOTM) and it’s a lot of fun.

On the story side of things, DOTM takes place a few decades in the future where rampant climate change has awoken giant kaiju called “Nephilim.” Humanity creates the Defense Alliance Worldwide Network (“DAWN”) to combat the threat using two controllable Nephilim, Megadon and Ganira, and two humans—Ultraman-like hero Eiji Murasme, who can transform into the giant warrior Aegis Prime, and Jamila Senai, who pilots the colossal mech Tempest Galahad. In each mission, you’ll uncover new Nephilim and learn more about their rise to power, as well as the structure of DAWN itself.

The game plays like an atypical brawler—think Streets of Rage— where discarded monster heads and buildings are your pickup weapons. You’ll choose a character for each mission and then take them to pound town, stomping through cities and smashing in kaiju skulls. Each level, which is made up of several stages, takes place in a certain geographic area (like Canada or Egypt), with your ultimate goal being to destroy the Nephilim “nest” and guardian boss.

In addition to walloping monsters with office buildings (always supremely satisfying), the DAWNsters can unleash a variety of light and heavy attacks, a charging attack, and super moves—RAGE attack energy builds up over time, and unleashing them slowly fills up a secondary bar for your Cataclysm attack—an ultra technique that tends to occupy most of the screen. You’ll want to save the latter for boss fights or to keep yourself from being completely mobbed by enemies. RAGE attacks have a variety of effects both offensive and defensive, and thus giving an air of strategy to the gameplay.

Unlike Streets of Rage, though, DOTM offers some defensive capabilities as well. You can block, parry (by blocking just as a hit lands), or perform a short-range dash. Perfect dashes will negate damage entirely but I found them difficult to rely on when facing an onslaught of angry monsters. In fact, I found all these defensive maneuvers hard to wrap my head around; I’m just not used to thinking about blocking or dashing in the context of a brawler, but it’s absolutely imperative that you learn this stuff because starting around the third level, the difficulty steps up considerably.

Completing a stage will reward you with DNA Augments, which are essentially equipment that modify your monsters' stats. Each monster can use three Augments at a time, and each Augment has multiple tiers of power. Just because it’s a convenient analogy, I’d compare them to the various Coils & Weaves in Horizon Zero Dawn/Forbidden West. They usually result in a slight remixing of your monster’s stats as well as an added effect, like increasing your monster’s speed for a few seconds after a heavy attack or allowing executions (see below) to fill up your Cataclysm meter. There are a lot of Augments to mess with, and you’re encouraged to replay stages to get a better grade, which may result in a better choice of Augments. You can sell unused Augments or "reroll" the ones you earn to try and get fresh sets.

However, all the Augments in the world aren’t going to help much if your defensive game is weak, so I encourage you to try and perfect it. Enemies will telegraph attacks, and some can't be blocked, so perfect dodges are your only option there. Furthermore, once an enemy’s health is in the red, you can press B to “execute” them, which gives you some health—and other effects depending on your Augments—but uses up one of your Rage bars, so you’ll want to be careful with it. The training area is of limited utility; I found it more helpful to replay stages to practice against specific opponents.

I tried to cycle between the four playable characters regularly, but I definitely wound up defaulting to two if I was having a hard time finishing a stage: Ganira is tough to stagger, has heavy attacks for days, and can spawn an AI-controlled crab buddy who will draw enemy attention. Aegis Prime is the most melee-focused character with quick attacks and seems to take less damage than his peers. Much as I love Megadon, he’s easily overwhelmed and doesn’t have the range of Ganira. Tempest Galahad is the ranged fighter, with a variety of energy-based weapons that unfortunately all feel comparatively weak. Her Rage attacks are similarly underwhelming, though her Cataclysm attack is basically a win button when you can activate it.

That said, this is where Augments come into play. I eventually found an Augment combo that turned Megadon into an unstoppable powerhouse, and I suspect I could do the same with Tempest Galahad.

Each level ends in a boss fight, and these are generally quite enjoyable but may take a few tries until you learn all their telegraphed attacks. I’ll talk about two-player co-op here, as it definitely helps even things out in this monster mash. Given DOTM’s focus on balancing offense and defense, however, it’s not in the same “pick up and play” category as Streets of Rage 4, but maybe River City Girls, which has a defensive option and complex attacks. The point is, you'll want to let your couch co-op partner get some practice in before wading into the later levels.

Between missions, you will often be able to listen to conversations between the human characters, which helps move the story along, view unlocked art and information files, and buy permanent stat upgrades (primarily Health & Rage). Additionally, you can buy different color schemes for each monster, which you can cycle through when choosing your character before a mission. Most are callbacks to famous kaiju and tokusatsu characters.

Any downsides? Like most brawlers, the game will eventually start to drag as you’re essentially doing the exact same thing in every stage. There are a few places where the difficulty unexpectedly skyrockets—in an early cityscape, you must fight through two waves of monsters and get to an extraction point in less than about a minute and thirty seconds, which I found extraordinarily difficult by my lonesome. In other cases, it felt like some areas just had waves upon waves of enemies coming after me, and I’d wind up getting killed towards the end, only to have to start over from the checkpoint. In both instances, having a second player would have helped, but that’s not always possible. I was banging my head against the wall in level 3-3, which ends in a seemingly endless parade of monsters followed by two minibosses stomping out together. Tempest Galahad was not up to the task after several tries, so I exited out, called in Ganira, messed with its Augments, and trounced those clowns on the next attempt. If you're having trouble, don't be afraid to exit out and switch up your strategy.

But that’s a relatively minor complaint since each stage is so short. I’m also willing to forgive because 13AM Games has built a charming kaiju brawler that, while paying homage to the giants (ha!) of the genre, feels wholly unique. There’s a lot of game here, and there are a lot of places they can take this franchise. DOTM is a fun time, and one I’ve greatly enjoyed.

TalkBack / Dawn of the Monsters Interview with 13AM Games' Alex Rushdy
« on: March 12, 2022, 12:03:13 PM »

We get the deets on the highly-anticipated kaiju brawler.

You loyal readers out there in Readerland are probably aware of my enthusiasm for waifu and dinosaur-based video games, but you may not realize that I'm also an enormous kaiju fan. I saw Godzilla 1985 somewhere around 1988 and was hooked for life, so you can only imagine how hyped I am for 13AM Games' upcoming Dawn of the Monsters (DOTM). It looks like the game I wanted SNK's King of the Monsters to be back when I was going to Pizza Hut regularly for the "Book It" program. Neal Ronaghan and I got a chance to pepper 13AM Games' CEO and DOTM creative director Alex Rushdy with questions about the game. It was a real pleasure--thanks to Alex for indulging us!

NWR: Dawn of the Monsters is clearly a love letter to kaiju and tokusatsu media, and it seems to be pulling from virtually all aspects of the genre. There's obviously a lot of Godzilla in here, but Ultraman and maybe Pacific Rim as well. What were your touchstone inspirations for the world and characters of the game?

AR: You’re absolutely right! Honestly, I’m a humongous fan of kaiju and tokusatsu stuff, and I’ve watched so much that it’s hard to exclude anything from our influences on the game. I’ve been a Godzilla fan since before I went to kindergarten!  That being said, some of the key specific inspirations for the story and concept are Ultraman Gaia, Pacific Rim, Patlabor, Godzilla: Final Wars, and the ’90s Gamera trilogy. There are, of course, other real-world and non-kaiju influences, but those choices in particular had a huge impact on making this game!

NWR: 2. Your monsters have a really recognizable look to them, which is impressive in a genre as crowded as this one. Can you talk a bit about the art design side of development? I've been blown away by the collaborations you've done with illustrators from across the kaiju world. Was that always part of the plan, or did that become a possibility during development? When you've got somebody like Shinji Nishikawa designing a character, do your guys give him concept art to work from or just adapt whatever he comes up with?

AR: Thanks! We put a lot of work into designing our creatures and our team did a fantastic job. The challenge when designing our cast of characters was that we needed to balance an iconic/recognizable look alongside a new and striking design that would be exciting and fit their gameplay mechanics. There is a difference between a “kaiju” and a “giant monster,” and we wanted our characters to feel like they stepped out of a long-lost Japanese kaiju anime. This meant paying a lot of attention to silhouette, color, and shape language, as well as sticking to the “could this character exist as a guy in a rubber suit?” rule. Every monster had to somehow work with the silhouette of a man (or at least work as a practical puppet/prop) to fit within the aesthetic we wanted.

The plan was to work with famous kaiju artists from the beginning! We wanted this game to feature a world that felt genuine and authentic to kaiju fans, and we certainly didn’t want it to feel like a pastiche or parody. This meant we needed to get some of the biggest names in the biz to contribute. Thankfully they were just as excited about the project as we were and were happy to contribute. It’s been a real honor working alongside the likes of Yuji Kaida, Shinji Nishikawa, Matt Frank, Zander Cannon and more!

And yeah, we actually gave Mr. Nishikawa pretty free reign. We explained the concept to him and what the boss he designed had to do, and he supplied a few different designs for us to choose from. It was great! Here’s what he came up with:

Shinji Nishikawa

NWR: The 2D brawler genre has been going through a huge renaissance lately. Did any particular games inspire you on the brawler side of Dawn? Core staples of the genre aside, your Augment system seems pretty unique for a brawler. Can you talk about that system? Was it challenging to keep things balanced, or can players overpower their characters?

AR: We did play a lot of beat-’em-ups when we were planning the game (I’m a huge fan of them), including TMNT, Streets of Rage 2, Sengoku 3, and others. That being said, the major influences on us, design-wise, were more “modern” brawlers like Bayonetta, Ninja Gaiden, and God of War. We wanted to bring the depth and expression of those games into the 2D beat-’em-up space. That’s why you have access to an instant dodge, a block, a parry, and other staples of modern action games.

As for the Augments, we wanted to offer players a lot of variety and expression in how they play. Not only are the four characters very unique, but you can customize each one. I’m a big fan of games like Monster Hunter and Samurai Warriors that let you upgrade your skills and abilities. The Augment system is a way to simplify that concept so it’s easy for anyone to understand, but with enough depth in build-making to encourage experimentation. There are some really incredible combinations you can pull off! It’s generally pretty balanced and there is a hard cap on certain stats and abilities.

We decided that it wouldn’t be exciting for Augments to simply give you a few stat boosts like increased attack or defense, so each one is focused on a unique perk often with a tradeoff. For example, one augment might give you more health from executing, making the game a bit easier if you’re in a pinch, but another might increase your damage but decrease your defense: great for increasing your score, but tricky if you can’t play really well! They make for interesting choices.

Zander Cannon

NWR: What is the game's overarching story? Who are the major players?

AR: The game takes place in the near-future of 2065, after climate change has awoken monsters called Nephilim from their slumber. In response to the worldwide catastrophe, the planet creates DAWN (the Defense Alliance Worldwide Network), and assembles a team of four gigantic heroes including two Nephilim. They are Megadon “the living volcano,” Ganira “the Terror of the Seas,” the gigantic mech Tempest Galahad (piloted by Jamila Senai), and giant warrior Aegis Prime (the superhero alter ego of Eiji Murasame).

These four heroes are trying to stop the Nephilim and uncover the mystery of their existence, but not everything is what it seems at DAWN…

NWR: What did you learn from the development of Runbow and Double Cross that has helped out with the creation of Dawn of the Monsters?

AR: We learned a lot. And a lot of that learning came from making mistakes! We not only learned how to properly scope and budget a game, but we also learned how to better focus our design onto a few specific areas instead of attempting a very broad design. At the core of Dawn of the Monsters is a game that makes punching giant monsters feel really, really good.

Aside from that, a lot of the tech we developed for the visuals in Dawn was built off of tools we made for Runbow and Double Cross. It also helped that after years of purely 2D action we were able to get enough confidence to add another dimension to the gameplay and work with fully 3D environments!

Matt Frank

NWR: Between Seismic Toys and Limited Run Games, you have quite a bit of physical reach for DOTM. Is this a world you hope to build out beyond this game? What is the pie-in-the-sky hopeful future for the world of DOTM?

AR: We’d absolutely love to! Obviously we are focused on delivering a fantastic game first, but people have latched onto the world and characters that they’ve seen so far and even some of our early merch sold out really quickly! The ultimate dream for me would be to do a live-action series or movie, kinda bring it back full circle! We’ve already received multiple requests for a comic book series, so who knows where it can go?

NWR: What are your favorite kaiju/tokusatsu films and shows? Any personal favorite character designs? Personally, I still hold out hope that Toho or Legendary will pick up the rights to Gamera so that we finally get the showdown of the century. At the very least, Toho's gotta let Anguirus show up in the Apple TV Godzilla series, right? Dude wasn't in King of the Monsters or Godzilla vs. Kong!

AR: If someone came up to me and said “I’ve never watched a kaiju film before, what do you recommend?” First, I’d say “Godzilla (1954),” and then I’d say “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995) and its two sequels!” Really, the Gamera movies are so fantastic, and I think a lot of people forget about them because they aren’t Godzilla films. But yeah, I love all the Godzilla and Gamera movies and at this point I’ve watched them all too many times to count.

Aside from that, I really love Ultraman. Like, it’s becoming a problem. I own almost every series on DVD or Blu-Ray and I’ve been watching the new shows as they simulcast each episode! My absolute favourite Ultraman series are the original, Seven, Return, Tiga, Gaia, Max, and X! But really they’re almost all absolute bangers!

I’m also a humongous fan of Pacific Rim (the original!), and the original King Kong.

There are some excellent indie kaiju/tokusatsu movies I want to shout out to as well, like Howl from Beyond the Fog, Psycho Goreman, and Gehara! Anyway, I better stop now or I’ll keep listing off kaiju movies until this interview becomes a wall of text. And you’re correct, it’s an absolute travesty that Anguirus hasn’t made his Monsterverse debut. There is a skeleton that looks suspiciously like Anguirus in Atlantis in KotM, but that can’t count!

Yuji Kaida

And there you have it, folks. Thanks again to Alex, that was a blast. I have to make a shameful confession here: I've never seen Ultraman. Any version of Ultraman. I know. I need to get on that ball, especially since they're basically all readily available here in North America now. I'll also enthusiastically back up his Gamera trilogy recommendation: the three Heisei-era Gamera movies (Guardian of the Universe, Attack of Legion, and Revenge of Iris) are some of the best kaiju films ever made. They're worlds better than the Showa-era Gamera series--although those movies have their charms too--and the Millenium-era follow-up, Gamera: The Brave was such a letdown. I'm super excited about Dawn of the Monsters, so keep an eye on this humble website for a review in...just a few days! It's coming out on March 15th. HYPE!

TalkBack / GetsuFumaDen: Undying Moon (Switch) Review
« on: March 08, 2022, 07:59:46 AM »

It didn't have to be this way.

Did you guys know that GetsuFumaDen: Undying Moon is a remake/sequel to an ancient 1987 Famicom game called Getsu Fuma Den? It basically plays like Zelda II, but the sidescrolling action sequences are more like Castlevania or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Look it up on Youtube sometime; it’s pretty wild. Now, twenty-five years later, Konami has resurrected this curiosity as a stunningly beautiful, but ridiculously frustrating, roguelite.

Let’s get that first part out of the way right off the bat: GetsuFumaDen: Undying Moon should win an award for its unbelievably gorgeous art style. The environments, monsters, and colorful animations are top-tier. The boss characters are big, bizarre, intricate, and lovingly crafted. Once I unlocked the seaside area, I never stopped choosing that route. In terms of art design, I don’t even know what to compare Undying Moon to. If the roguelite genre is the Matrix, Undying Moon is the “Lady in the Red Dress.” It captures your attention. It’s an order of magnitude better looking than its peers.

Unfortunately, you’ll have to play through it so often that that red dress does eventually start to fade.

Undying Moon is, unabashedly, Konami’s attempt to reverse-engineer Dead Cells, but it gets that game’s sense of upward mobility very wrong. In Dead Cells, you collect blue energy cells from fallen enemies and spend them on permanent meta-game enhancements: new weapons (which are added to item pools), new skills, and various passive bonuses, like keeping a certain amount of gold after dying. There’s a lot to unlock in Dead Cells, but the point here is that it all uses one type of currency.That is not the case in Undying Moon. Two types of currency are used to unlock passive bonuses (green and yellow Tao symbols), each of which has several levels. As in Dead Cells, you can only spend this currency at the end of a given level. The difference is that, in Undying Moon, these currencies are depressingly rare. Upgrading weapons must be done on a per-weapon, not a per-weapon-type basis, and these usually require an entirely different set of random drops that generally consist of what any other game would call “materials” or “resources.”

Of course, if you die, everything you’ve collected disappears. You are given the option, upon completing a level, to go back to your home base with everything you’ve collected. There’s a risk/reward mechanic here, but practically speaking, if you want to make any real progress in Undying Moon, you’ll have to take many trips back to your home base to keep your items, then repeatedly replay the first or first couple levels often than you’d probably like.

Weapons are divided into main weapons, like swords and clubs, and sub-weapons, like bombs and magical energy bracelets. There is an unnecessary number of weapons in each weapon category, so you’ll be upgrading a lot of weapons very slowly. You’ll occasionally find blueprints for new weapons—another holdover from Dead Cells—but like everything else, they require specific drops that are exceedingly rare. During each run, you’ll collect gold and souls. Both can be used in certain areas to upgrade the power and passive bonuses of your weapons, but those upgrades only last the duration of the current run. Furthermore, if you haven’t unlocked a given passive weapon bonus in the meta-game, it simply won’t be available during the run, no matter how many souls you’ve saved up. The economy of Undying Moon is its biggest flaw—progress is just so glacial that it can become very easy to lose patience.

And it’s a real shame because the minute-to-minute gameplay is insanely satisfying. Combat is a blast, with lots of weapon types to mess with and plenty of different kinds of enemy monsters to tangle with, all pulled from Japanese mythology. As I said, boss encounters are amazing: big, powerful monsters who telegraph their attacks and have weak points to exploit, although some of them last a bit too long.

The way levels unlock is also something of a bear. You’re usually given two options when choosing the next area, but the second area is always locked, and can only be unlocked if the previous boss drops a key—which seems to be random. There’s a second character to unlock (Getsu Renge), and she plays a bit differently (essentially faster but weaker), but her weapons must be upgraded separately.

No, man.

At this point, I have to ask: what was the point in making Undying Moon a roguelite? This may come as a shock to game developers, but not every game has to be a roguelite. I desperately want Undying Moon to be a linear, level-based adventure where I can see all the levels and fight all the bosses without enduring the tedious rigmarole that roguelites require. Keep the randomized level layouts! Keep the randomized paths and boss encounters if you have to, but just let me play your beautiful game without all these roadblocks. Eventually, I just got sick of Undying Moon. It was more frustrating than compelling, in part because it does so much right, but its wings are clipped right out the gate by its grind-heavy, roguelite trappings. There are better roguelites out there (Binding of Isaac and Dead Cells, for example), but I’m sorry to say none of them look nearly as amazing as Undying Moon.

TalkBack / River City Girls Zero (Switch) Review
« on: February 23, 2022, 10:34:21 AM »

Co-starring the River City Girls!

You dear readers might recall my 2019 review of a delightful WayForward brawler called River City Girls (RCG). This offshoot of the River City series, more properly the Kunio-kun franchise, featured Kunio & Riki’s significant others—Misako and Kyoko—as they painted the town black and blue in search of their kidnapped boyfriends. RCG is an attractive, charming, modernized brawler that I really enjoyed despite some minor issues, and the titular girls were engaging and fun. While we impatiently wait for River City Girls 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold (probably not the real title), WayForward has given us River City Girls Zero (RCGZ) as a stopgap. It’s an interesting title for a lot of reasons.

First, you’ve probably heard that this is not actually a new game. It’s the first English-localized port of a 1994 Super Famicom titled Shin Nekketsu Koha: Kunio-tachi no Banka. For our purposes, it’s significant in introducing the characters of Misako and Kyoko. The game is weirdly cutscene-heavy for a brawler: Kunio and Riki are framed for a hit-and-run, escape from prison, and set about trying to clear their names and coming across some plot twists that wouldn’t be out of place in a daytime soap opera.

WayForward has handled the localization beautifully while adding now-standard display options, like various aspect ratios, a CRT filter, and (frankly awful) letterbox borders. The real draw for me, however, is the intro and outro cutscenes produced largely by one of my favorite retro-anime artists, David Liu, with a new theme song composed and performed by Megan McDuffee, who also produced the exquisite soundtrack for RCG. After that, we are treated to an appropriately meta manga cutscene—linking it to RGC—in which our heroines find and fire up Shin Nekketsu Koha: Kuniko-tachi no Banka.

All good things come to an end though, and I’m sorry to say that RCGZ is not particularly fun to play.

Now, I want you all to recall what I said in my recent review of Shadow Man Remastered:

“This is game preservation as it should--keep the wrinkles, warts, and missteps…let the strengths of the original games speak for themselves.”

I said that old games shouldn’t be “fixed” for modern audiences, and while I still believe that, such a philosophy lands on RCGZ like an ACME anvil. This game is simply not enjoyable. The controls feel imprecise, not just because it’s ridiculously hard to line up an attack, but also because button sensitivity often feels inconsistent. You can block, but the window is quite short. Kunio & Riki can pummel dudes who are lying prone, but Misako & Kyoko can’t. Special attacks—activated by holding L/R and hitting a face button), are required for success, but setting them up usually involves some pre-planned choreography. Jump kicks provide easy knockdown opportunities, but it’s easy to get hit out of them.

Boss fights go on too long, their attacks are too powerful, and those attacks usually override your own. You’ll fight a couple of them more than once—including one fight that essentially happens twice in quick succession.

Roughly half the game allows you to swap between Kunio & Riki freely, and the other half involves all four characters. You must juggle them based on health, because if just one of them dies, it’s game over. Checkpoints are plentiful, but that may come at the cost of watching an un-skippable dialogue sequence when you restart.

You’ll quickly find that Misako & Kyoko are basically there to absorb attacks, as their attacks are fast but relatively weak, and they have no ground game. Kicking enemies while they’re down is possible but weirdly hard to activate. There are occasionally brief platforming segments where you’ll need to press Y (punch) to grab a ledge, but the game’s instructions fail to mention that. In areas with a large lateral spread, if you find you can’t move forward, you’ll have to walk back to the other end of the room to see that a couple enemies have magically appeared off-camera: you have to defeat a pre-approved number of goons before doors will open.

The plot, while it does have a few bananapants twists, actually sidelines our heroines (before Kunio & Riki enter the final area) in a way that would have made me gasp in 1994, but today, in a game called River City Girls Zero, I had trouble processing. Again, WayForward did not fix this game, nor should they have, but I did hear Jurassic Park's Ian Malcolm in my ear:

“Now you do eventually plan to have the River City Girls in your River City Girls game, right?”

At best, Misako & Kyoko are co-stars in their own origin story. I understand that’s an unavoidable part of Shin Nekketsu Koha: Kuniko-tachi no Banka, and again, I’m happy they didn’t change the game, it’s just kind of a drag. It just makes me want River City Girls 2: The Secret of the Ooze (probably not the real title) even more. I want to watch these gals kick ass, not watch them be upstaged by their boyfriends.

If you do manage to suffer through the game, including its frustrating final boss, you’ll be rewarded to another manga cutscene, another beautiful David Liu cutscene (which I would like as a desktop background), and another McDuffee song.

And then, and this is truly the best part of RCGZ, you unlock the ability to play the Intro, Outro, and End Credit sequences from the main menu. You can also flip through scanned pages of the original game’s Japanese instruction booklet if that’s your bag. I haven’t played too many games where the bread is the best part of the sandwich, but here we are.

Pages: [1] 2 3 ... 163