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TalkBack / World of Horror (Switch) Review
« on: January 07, 2024, 07:58:28 AM »

This hole was made for me, but was it made for the Switch as well?

In 1987, the Japanese shoujo magazine Monthly Halloween began publishing a manga titled “Tomie,” the story of a beautiful young woman who couldn’t help but charm and seduce just about any man who crossed her path, with the story always ending with her brutal murder at the hands of those men. This was the first published work of the author Junji Ito, who would go on to become a legend in the horror genre with stories like Uzumaki and The Enigma of Amigara Fault. However, no piece of art that I have ever seen has worn its Ito inspiration on its sleeve as much as World of Horror, a roguelike horror RPG from Panstasz, a solo developer based in Poland. Originally released as a Steam/PC early access title in 2019, it finally saw a console release in October of 2023, which begs the question how well the game translates to not being played with a mouse.

In World of Horror, you play as a resident of Shiokawa, Japan some time in the 1980s. Things have gotten very weird in Shiokawa, with masked cultists and strange creatures becoming common sights, and normal everyday people are beginning to go mad. An old god is waking up, and the local lighthouse appears to be the epicenter of its awakening. In order to try and stop it, the player must solve a selection of five mysteries both around town and in the surrounding area. These mysteries take the form of something akin to a visual novel mixed with an adventure game, as the player selects options from a menu to move the mystery forward. The way each mystery is structured differs slightly, with some based around progression by investigating a specific area and others using a time slot system where each action pushes the clock forward. Once all five mysteries have been successfully survived and solved–with each mystery containing multiple endings to collect for completionists–the journey to the top of the lighthouse can begin. If the player survives that, they have successfully completed a run.

While investigating, the player will experience various events and encounters. A lot of these will usually feature a scenario that requires you to make a choice, which serve as skill checks against your various stats such as luck, charisma, strength, or perception. These base stats are different depending on which of the playable characters you are using during your run, and you can later augment them using various items and equipment that can be bought or found as you go, or by leveling up and selecting certain perks. Failing these skill checks will have a negative effect on your character, whether it be an injury or a status effect that will affect your run from there on or, more likely, a loss of health. There are two types of health in World of Horror: stamina (representing your physical health) and reason (representing your mental state). If either of these fall below zero, your character will die at the start of their next combat encounter, but you have a chance until then to bring that health back up to safe levels, be it through item use, taking a bath at your apartment between mysteries, or getting lucky with some events. One of my personal major problems with the game is that regardless of stat levels, RNG almost always felt heavily stacked against me in a way that could sometimes make the gameplay frustrating. If a game based entirely around virtual dice rolls is something you lack the patience for, World of Horror is probably not for you.

Combat encounters are relatively simple in terms of mechanics, though they might not look like it at first glance. Before each turn in combat, the player can arrange certain actions along a timeline for their character to perform during the coming turn, be it to attack, use a weapon, dodge, etc. Each action takes up a certain number of seconds on the timeline, and once their turn is planned out, the player then hits the “launch sequence” button and the combat round begins; rinse and repeat until the enemy is dead. Different enemies do different kinds of damage with their attacks–some only take away from your stamina, some only take away your reason, some take both, and some increase the Doom meter (a bar that is filled by performing certain actions; if it reaches 100% your run is failed). When I say it might not look as simple as it is at first glance, this is actually reflective of my other major issue with World of Horror: the interface is extremely overwhelming when you first see it, whether it be the interface for combat or just for character management. There are a lot of tabs and windows and such cluttering up the UI, and while all of this information is important and much more manageable once you’ve gotten the hang of it, I would not fault a new player for experiencing information overload at first glance.

Aside from some issues with RNG and UI clutter, World of Horror pulls off everything else it’s trying to accomplish with flying colors, especially when it comes to aesthetics. The art is spot on in its reverence to the Junji Ito works that inspired it, and the soundtrack matches the game’s 1-bit graphics with a collection of fantastic 8-bit style jams, all of which come together to create a visual experience you’re not likely to get anywhere else. I was also pleasantly surprised at how well the game’s interface can be navigated using a gamepad as opposed to a mouse, though if you still prefer using a mouse cursor that is also an option built in as well. I’m not sure I would overall recommend the Switch version over the PC version of the game, but if portability is a big factor for you (an aspect this game lends itself to very well), then the Switch is a perfectly acceptable platform for stopping an old god from engulfing this sleepy Japanese town in madness.

TalkBack / Long Gone Days (Switch) Review
« on: October 10, 2023, 08:00:00 AM »

War truly is hell, but at least it’s turn based

There is no shortage of video games about the subject of war, and within that there is also no shortage of games trying to give those stories a serious and somber tone. Long Gone Days, a game from Chilean developers This I Dreamt, is one such game that attempts to tell a war story largely from the perspective of the civilians and refugees that experience the effects of conflict firsthand. While I would say it succeeds at certain parts of this particular conflict, there are also some places it falls short both in terms of stories and gameplay.

Long Gone Days takes place in a fictionalized version of the real world which is largely the same as reality, but in this world there is an underground dystopian society known as The Core, which often finds itself hired by countries around the world to help in wars or provide humanitarian aid. You play as Rourke, a sniper from The Core who has been deployed on his first mission to assist the Polish military fight a war in the Russian province of Kaliningrad. After successfully clearing out a base of enemy combatants, Rourke is horrified to learn that the people he just finished gunning down weren't combatants at all, but civilians. The Core is not there to fight a war in Kaliningrad; they're there to start one. Rourke flees the army he was once so loyal to alongside a Core medic named Adair, and the two begin a journey that will open their eyes to just how sinister the plans of The Core are, and how many innocent lives it has destroyed along the way.

The story overall is well done, with Rourke having a sympathetic character arc in particular. A particularly interesting characteristic in the writing is that the people in the cities you visit largely do not speak English, but instead the actual language of that country. If you, like me, only speak English you will not be able to understand a word anybody says until somebody that speaks that language has joined your party, Ivan and his ability to translate Russian, for example. Character designs are also largely on the strong side–myself being a personal fan of the German reporter–Atiye, all of them being successfully distinct while still looking like normal everyday people. All of this is unfortunately diminished by a distinctly bleak ending that felt less like the real ending and more like I had messed up somewhere and gotten a bad ending, but if that was the case I have no idea where my mistake would have or even could have occurred.

Gameplay in Long Gone Days is largely that of a typical RPG. You can explore a series of small (usually urban) areas and will occasionally encounter turn-based combat. Environments in Long Gone Days are largely fine, but they do suffer from the unfortunate side effect of taking place in modern cities: they all look the same. There is what feels like very little visual distinction between Kaliningrad and Kiel, Germany, and this is not only a problem for variety's sake but also makes the environments themselves sometimes feel a bit confusing to navigate even when they're fairly small and self-contained. That being said, every area contains a good amount of side quests that do actually give more life to the minor characters around you, things like finding somebody’s missing daughter right before an attack or even just reading newspaper clippings to get further elaboration on the conflict. These also can increase the party’s morale, which gives them a small invisible buff in battle and also has the potential to unlock even more side quests later on. The downside of this is that it shines a brighter light on how the game's equivalent to dungeons are a weak point as pretty much all of them are entirely linear with very little deviation.

Where Long Gone Days shows its unique qualities most strongly is in its combat system. On your turn you can choose to attack, use a skill at the cost of SP, or use an item. It gets more interesting when you choose to attack, at which point you will have to select where your character will shoot. Different body parts on enemies have different levels of defense, and for the most part the lower the defense something has the higher evasion rate it has. This gives an interesting risk/reward aspect: do you go for the safe option and shoot at their torso for lower damage, or do you aim for their head for higher damage at the risk of missing your shot? Many enemies also have parts that have a chance of paralyzing the enemy when attacked, usually their arm, which will then cause them to have to skip their next two turns. For me this battle system is where the game shines its brightest; it's simple but still felt like it added a little more depth to combat in general. There is no leveling up or EXP in Long Gone Days, making equipables the only way to increase a character’s stats. Instead of EXP, at the end of a fight you are offered the choice of a random item or a small bit of SP restoration. This is actually a meaningful choice, as many of the items it offers are extremely helpful and SP cannot be regained for free any other way, otherwise only replenished by using various items which are usually better saved for boss encounters.

Overall I find myself with relatively mixed feelings on Long Gone Days. I believe that it's a good experience and many fans of the genre will probably enjoy their time with it, at least a little bit when all is said and done, but it's those good parts that make its flaws stand out that much more. The soundtrack manages to successfully paint a somber atmosphere for the most part, the character stories are overall interesting even if The Core itself is kind of a generic antagonistic force, and I found the battle system to be interesting and engaging. But some slightly uninteresting settings to explore and an ending that still has me questioning whether or not I screwed up somewhere along the way make it a bit hard to give a glowing recommendation. It also should be mentioned that for some bizarre reason the game can only be controlled with the D-pad, which I found caused a lot more hand cramps than usual especially when playing in handheld mode. [UPDATE: We have been informed that this was the result of a bug, a patch has been submitted addressing this issue].  A lot of what's here is good, but more than anything I think it just makes me more interested in what the dev team comes out with next with the lessons learned from this project's completion.

TalkBack / Anonymous;Code (Switch) Review
« on: September 08, 2023, 01:26:50 PM »

Any game that tells me to "Hack into God" is okay in my book

Just a few months ago I played Mages’ influential 2009 visual novel Steins;Gate, the second title in their Science Adventure series, for the first time. This turns out to have been rather good timing, as I learned just weeks later that the sixth and latest entry in that series, Anonymous;Code, was making its western debut later that year after its 2022 release in Japan. I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Anonymous;Code, mostly I wasn’t sure whether it was going to be more grounded like Steins;Gate or if it was going to be something more fantastical and wild. It was, for that reason, a surprise that the answer was the latter scenario. While I was kind of skeptical of this direction at first, Anonymous;Code quickly grabbed my attention and convinced me to join it for the ride it was promising to be.

Most of Anonymous;Code is seen from the perspective of Pollon Takaoka, a young hacker living in the Nakano ward of Tokyo in the year 2037. Pollon is a member of a two person hacker group known as Nakano Symphonies with his best friend Cross Yumikawa. While most of Symphonies’ work is illegal in nature, Pollon sees himself as different from other hackers who are generally just in it for the money and fame. Pollon believes in helping those in need, no matter what. He’s unfortunately still a stupid teen boy, though, and one day he proves this without a doubt when he screws up and lies about being on his way to elope with his girlfriend, who doesn’t exist. This imaginary girl’s name is Momo Aizawa, and just when he thinks the jig might be up a girl suddenly approaches him as if she had been planning to meet him. The two start walking away, and Pollon is shocked when the girl introduces herself as Momo Aizawa. This gets even more surprising when the pair are suddenly surrounded by the army, who is seemingly after Momo, and the two have to make a run for it.

This escape fails, and Momo is taken away. Pollon manages to get away with the help of two strangers named Oz and Nonno, but their attempt to get Momo back is also a failure. Just when things seem to be at their most hopeless, Pollon is suddenly made aware of an app that has been secretly installed to his AR PC, an app which gives him the ability to save and load the real world as if it were a video game. Using this app he goes back to before they were caught and uses his knowledge from the first time to successfully escape with Momo in tow. From here, Momo reveals that she has come to Japan in order to find a legendary hacker who she believes can save the world from an upcoming apocalypse. Taking advantage of his newfound Loading ability, Pollon vows to help Momo in her quest no matter what it takes, and what follows is a thrilling and action packed rollercoaster ride about worldwide conspiracies and the prevention of various disasters that is sure to keep players engaged the whole way through.

The main thing that separates Anonymous;Code from other games in its genre is its use of the Save/Load system. At certain points in the story the player can press L2 to bring up the app on Pollon’s display, at which point Pollon will take the reins and load one of the “save files” he’s made throughout the story. These provide a way past certain bad endings as Pollon will go back with the knowledge of his previous run through the scenario. It should be noted that these saves and this loading menu are both different from the game’s actual saving, though after awhile I didn’t find myself saving manually very often as the game features an autosave that’s relatively frequent and almost always gives you the ability to go back before a possible Load point in the story. If you fail to load before disaster strikes, or if you load at the wrong moment, you’ll be greeted with a bad end screen that gives you a hint about what you should do, followed by being spit back to the game’s title screen. I actually found this part a bit annoying, as I would have personally preferred it if it had just taken me to the autosave menu to load right away, but this is something I consider a minor complaint. The only other problem with this system is that there are a few moments in the later parts of the story where figuring out when to have Pollon Load feels like kind of a crapshoot, these parts led me to simply hammer L2 in the hopes I would eventually find the right moment. These are few and far between, but they are quite annoying when they occur.

Overall Anonymous;Code is one of the more interesting visual novels I have played. The animated 3D models used in place of the usual static 2D character portraits do a fantastic job of giving each character personality by making them feel more alive and expressive. The soundtrack is also great, composed by series regular Takeshi Abo, and it especially shines during particularly action heavy scenes. The localization is overall solid though there were a few typos here and there as well as a line or two that felt a little stilted or awkward, but again these do not occur very often. I am not sure if I would put it at the same level as its most successful predecessor (Steins;Gate), but Anonymous;Code is a very worthy addition to the Science Adventure series and a game that anybody interested in visual novels should definitely take a look at.

TalkBack / OXENFREE II: Lost Signals (Switch) Review
« on: July 12, 2023, 12:07:15 AM »

Leave. Is. Possible.

In 2016 Night School Studio released their debut title Oxenfree, a horror thriller about a group of teenagers who ferry out to a nearby island for a night of debauchery. Things go south when, using their radio, they accidentally rip open a portal to a bunch of ghosts and cause a whole mess of temporal shenanigans. It is one of my favorite games of all time, a master class in sound design and atmosphere with a method of handling dialogue in a way that sounds natural and flows well. Now, much to my surprise, a sequel has arrived over seven years later. The announcement of Oxenfree II: Lost Signals filled me with equal parts excitement and worry, as it had a very large pair of shoes it would have to fill to hold up to its predecessor. Fortunately that worry ended up being unnecessary.

In Oxenfree II the player is put in the role of Riley Poverly, a contract worker who has accepted a job setting up radio transceivers to investigate strange signals interrupting air traffic radio over Camena, the coastal town across from the first game’s Edwards Island. Joining her is another contractor, Jacob Summers, a repairman and aspiring artist living near the town’s main square. When the two set up their first transceiver they suddenly notice a large triangle shaped portal over the distant Edwards Island, and a beam of energy shoots from the transceiver into it. From there they are both launched into a series of spooks and time loops possibly related to the studies of the late Maggie Adler, an old lady who once called Edwards Island home. Riley and Jacob learn they must set up three more transceivers in specific areas of the region, and also begin to learn about the plot of three teenagers connected to a local cult who appear to be trying to open the ghost portal on purpose for some mysterious reason.

The plot and characters are the main draw to Oxenfree II and both Riley and Jacob absolutely deliver. While I enjoy Alex and her friends, the main characters of the original game, their status as teenagers made it hard for my 24 year old self to fully relate to them. Riley, on the other hand, is like me: in her 30s, tired, and desperately just trying to scrape by however she can. Her story and baggage really come through and make her incredibly relatable, meanwhile her dialogue plays well off of Jacob’s awkward conversation starters and seemingly random facts. Dialogue in general flows in a very natural way, with dialogue options not only giving you more time to choose than they did in the original game but also flowing seamlessly between lines in a way that feels like a real conversation between two people. By far the biggest improvement to how the game handles dialogue over the first game is how conversations handle loading screens. In the original Oxenfree leaving an area would abruptly end any conversation that was going on, which meant if you wanted to hear the whole thing you’d usually have to sit and wait for it to end. In Lost Signals if you enter a loading zone while somebody is talking, they will finish their line on top of the loading screen. Once you’ve loaded into the new area the conversation picks back up exactly where it was, including if it was a moment where Riley had dialogue options to choose from. This is a small change but a heavily appreciated one.

Much like its predecessor, Oxenfree II is a fantastic example of sound design and atmosphere. Music is creepy and largely atmospheric, and the sound of the ghosts of Edwards Island speaking through snippets of radio broadcasts remains just as spooky and cool now as it was in 2016. Gameplay is overall the same as the first game but with three major additions. First, Riley has a walkie talkie that she can pull out throughout the game, with different channels representing different characters that she can check in with as the story goes forward such as the amateur sailor Nick or her work contact Evelyn. Each of these characters give more life to the town of Camena and their side stories help flesh out the events occurring around it. Second is the introduction of tears in time leading to the past, which Riley and Jacob can enter in order to find their way around obstacles in the present. Lastly in place of the winding minigame from the first title, Lost Signals includes a mini game requiring you to turn dials in order to match a 3D wire frame shape with an outline on screen. I found this to be the least interesting addition as I personally never found it super intuitive and felt like I was just bumbling along until I accidentally figured it out.

What it ultimately comes down to is that if you liked the original Oxenfree, then you will probably enjoy Oxenfree II. It should be noted that while the game ran smoothly for most of its run time I did run into a few minor bugs, most notably a dialogue bubble staying on screen when I took out Riley’s radio just as a different cutscene was happening. These were inconsequential, but what was not was the fact that exactly one time the game did crash on me. Luckily the game is constantly auto saving so no progress was lost, but any crash is still frustrating nonetheless. Getting past those though, I found this second entry into the story of Edwards Island to be worthwhile. The world feels dark and mysterious, the voice actors are all killing their roles, and for those who have played the original game you will probably walk away feeling satisfied with at least one of the possible endings the game offers, I know I was.

TalkBack / Story of Seasons: A Wonderful Life (Switch) Review
« on: July 11, 2023, 12:20:39 PM »

The farming sim where every day is one day closer to the looming specter of death.

Scientists theorize that there are approximately seventeen farming sims releasing every hour of every day in our current timeline. Even so, it should not be forgotten that the mother of all of these simulators is Story of Seasons, or Harvest Moon as it was known back in the day. Originally released for the GameCube in 2003, A Wonderful Life is relatively unique in comparison to the other games in the series, containing not only the possibility of reaching a fail state but also being one of the few games in the genre to have a definitive end point as well. The recently released remake may start out very similar to other games, but once you pass the first year you may find a more satisfying and family-based experience alongside your turnip harvest.

In A Wonderful Life, you play as a young city slicker who has been given a farm by their recently deceased father, and they have decided to move to said farm in order to give the country life a shot. This farm is located in Forgotten Valley, a small rural community out in the middle of nowhere. With the help of their father’s old friend Takakura, the player must begin raising livestock and growing crops in order to make money that can then be used to improve the farm as they go. Meanwhile, they can also make friends with the various people in the local town by speaking to them and giving them gifts, with your explicit goal by the end of the first year being to find a spouse among the eight romanceable NPCs. There are four female options, such as the waitress Molly or the farmhand Cecilia, and four male options, such as the artist Gordy or the overly laid back Rock, and all options are available to you regardless of what gender you decide to play as.

The issue with this first year is that it plays exactly like one would expect every other Story of Seasons game to play as. Years last a total of 40 days, with the season changing every 10 days, and you’ll likely find yourself falling into a routine of handling farm chores in the morning before going into town to shower as many gifts as you can upon any romantic interests you’re pursuing; the problem arises if you definitively decide on one early on in the year. You can build a relationship with multiple people at once, but you obviously only get one blue feather (the item used to propose) and there largely ceases to be a point in heavily focusing on the others once you’ve used it. This causes however much is left of the year to seriously drag as half your daily routine becomes obsolete. Luckily, once that first year is over the focus of the game’s social aspect changes.

After marrying somebody in the first year, the player will then have a child, and from there the game’s focus changes to raising this child. The child’s appearance and initial personality depends on who you’ve married. You can take the kid around town to introduce them to other citizens and provide them various toys purchased by the traveling merchant, and these things play a slow part in forming your child’s future personality and interests, which ultimately will lead to deciding what kind of life they lead when they grow up. Will they take over the farm when you’re gone? Or dedicate themselves to music or athletics? It’s all decided by how much time you spend with them and how. This is a very slow process, but overall I found it to be very cute and satisfying.

In the end, A Wonderful Life still feels like a game that was released in 2003, and whether or not you consider that a good thing will depend on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a very simple farming game to kill a few hours with here and there, or just looking for a trip down nostalgia lane, you’ll probably find yourself enjoying it. If you’re hoping for something as full featured and engaging as the modern games that have come out of the genre’s recent indie boom, then you’re not likely to find it here. Personally, I have enjoyed my time in Forgotten Valley and the experience of building a little family. While years can feel like they crawl by slowly, the progression you get to see as kids around the village get older and new people arrive in the valley is nice and satisfying to experience. I look forward to spending a lot more of my time in this sleepy little village.

TalkBack / Harmony: Fall of Reverie (Switch) Review
« on: June 24, 2023, 07:42:51 AM »

Put an end to the Age of Glory

Visual novels are not a type of game for everybody. Not only do they require a ton of reading but some might not enjoy their only input being the occasional dialogue choice. This appears to be an issue that Harmony: Fall of Reverie, the new game from Don't Nod (known for Life is Strange), seeks to address. At first glance, Harmony appears to be just another typical visual novel, but those who dive in will find a branching narrative with a fascinatingly gamified method of progression and decision making that is unlike any other game in the genre I have ever played.

In Harmony, you are put in the shoes of a young woman named Polly, who is returning to her home island of Atina for the first time in years. Her mother, Ursula, has gone missing, prompting her to rejoin her stepfather Laszlo and his granddaughter Nora in the hopes of solving the mystery of her disappearance. Things get a little more complicated, however, when Polly finds a necklace belonging to her mother that transports her to another dimension: the magical world of Reverie. Reverie is inhabited by a group of beings known as Aspirations, specific human emotions and concepts, such as Bliss, Chaos, Truth, or Power, given a living form. These beings inform Polly that she is an oracle that they refer to as Harmony, and her job is to gather a mystical energy called “egregore” in order to provide power to them. However, Reverie seems to be dying for some unknown reason, and Polly must bring the Aspirations together to save it, and by extension the real world as well. The mystery thickens even further when signs point to Mono Konzern, the corporation in complete control of Atina, appearing to be connected to Reverie's fate as well. This story is well told with full voice acting for every character, and the character designs (especially for the Aspirations) make everybody memorable right from the get go.

This story is told in the form of a visual novel with a branching narrative that spins out via a flowchart, an in-game representation of Polly’s newfound ability to look into the future. While it may look straightforward at first, this flowchart is actually a highly intricate series of nodes that come in a variety of forms. Some nodes are normal, simply starting a scene without any prior requirements; some can only be accessed if you completed a specific earlier node; some nodes are "inevitable," meaning you are required to do them the instant they're unlocked. These are just a few of the many different types you'll encounter throughout your journey. Sometimes accessing a node will require you to have collected a certain number of an Aspiration's crystals, with some nodes also either rewarding you with more crystals or taking away some you have. Collecting these crystals is important as it not only decides what choices you're limited to later down the line, but it also determines which Aspiration you choose to give your egregore to at the end of each act, which in turn will determine later events as well. The act of collecting these crystals is a fascinating way of driving the narrative forward, as you'll find yourself having to decide whether to purposely focus on a specific Aspiration or simply follow your heart and see where it takes you.

Unfortunately, you cannot talk about Harmony without talking about its biggest problem: loading screens. Every time the game has to load a new scene or move to a different background the player is treated to a loading screen, one that is often quite long. This is a huge problem as sometimes this means you will enter an area, there will be one dialogue box, and it will move to another area which prompts yet another loading screen. At the beginning of the game, this exact scenario repeats several times in a row. Likewise, every time you go from the flowchart into a new scene it has to load, and sometimes these scenes are two or three lines of dialogue before you're thrown back to the flowchart to pick the next scene, at which point it has to load yet again. It really breaks up the flow of the game's storytelling to have to sit and wait for the next part to load in every time, and while that waiting still amounts to a handful of seconds, it starts to add up when it happens multiple times in the span of a couple minutes. For a visual novel to have something that interrupts the story this often is kind of a disappointment and does start to get grating rather quickly.

Harmony: Fall of Reverie is a fascinating and experimental exercise in how to write a branching narrative in a way that keeps the player occupied with more than just the occasional binary choice. The way it handles the path the player takes as they progress, especially with the mechanic of gathering crystals, is like nothing else that I have ever played. While it is a shame that the loading screen issues drag the experience down a bit, for fans of narratives in video games and the unique ways only a game can tell them, Harmony is well worth a look.

TalkBack / ghostpia Season One (Switch) Review
« on: June 11, 2023, 09:59:00 AM »

But look at what you’d be leaving behind

When I was a kid it was not uncommon for me to stealthily stay up late on certain nights to watch the anime airing on Adult Swim on our CRT TV in the basement. This is how I became familiar with shows like Cowboy Bebop or Yu Yu Hakusho, and for the younger folks among you it may be hard to understand just how different a vibe anime from that era had in comparison to today's big names. Something about the aesthetic of the signal sometimes having issues or the scan lines being visible in certain scenes is just deeply nostalgic, and it's these memories that Ghostpia expertly throws me back to.

Ghostpia is a visual novel that, based on some light research, is a remake/reimagining of an iOS game originally released in Japan in 2014. In Ghostpia the player takes on the perspective of Sayoko, a socially awkward girl living in a ghost town, not as in a town that is deserted but a town that is literally inhabited entirely by ghosts and surrounded by a seemingly endless desert of snow. These ghosts act like regular people, but they cannot die, they do not age, and they cannot go out during the daytime. Sayoko is also a ghost, but she doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the people in town. In fact she finds herself ostracized by most of them, an incident in the past causing them to be fearful of her, and for this reason she mostly lives as a shut-in. Eventually she is dragged out of her apartment by her only friends, two girls named Pacifica and Anya, and learns that something unprecedented has happened: for as long as anybody can remember there have always been exactly 1024 ghosts residing in town, but a new ghost has suddenly arrived and is being held captive by the local church, an organization with a stranglehold on the town's politics. The trio decides to welcome this new ghost into town to try and make Sayoko a new friend, and what results is a story about friendship, violence, and the importance of human connection.

The story of Ghostpia is its defining feature, as it does not have a whole lot in terms of interactivity. While the original 2014 product seems to have had branching story paths and QTE sequences, those have both been stripped out in this new version in favor of telling a more focused story. There are no dialogue options or anything of the sort, this is a visual novel through and through. By far my favorite part of Ghostpia, however, is its presentation. The game is split into five episodes and presented as if it were an old school anime playing on a shoddy TV signal or a well-worn VHS tape, complete with an OP (opening cinematic), an ED (ending cinematic), and even mid episode interstitial eye catches. These alone add so much personality to the experience that they almost single handedly make the whole experience worthwhile. The music also adds heavily to the experience, able to perfectly swing between atmospheric and whimsical, which is a rather good thing as the game itself does this as well. In a single episode you may find yourself having a comical conversation about how the local priest is a "poop" and then ten minutes later be putting a bullet into the skull of that same priest, and the soundtrack reflects this dichotomy exceptionally well. The story is also not afraid to go some wild places, both comedically and in terms of action (episode four in particular has what I can only refer to as an "anime as hell" finale sequence).

If you want more interactivity or branching out of your visual novels, Ghostpia is probably not going to scratch that itch. For what it is, however, I found Ghostpia to be a delightful time both story-wise and aesthetically. The cast of characters is fun and varied, from the anxious Sayoko to the bubbly and optimistic Yoru, and all of them etch themselves into your memory immediately. Ghostpia never fully throws out an explanation for many of its mysteries, but with a season 2 apparently already planned it fits to leave some questions unanswered. Those looking for a purely narrative experience that may take you back to those late nights watching Inuyasha will find that weirdly precise desire in this town full of ghosts, and I have a feeling you won't regret your visit.

TalkBack / Decarnation (Switch) Review
« on: June 09, 2023, 12:57:45 PM »

I’ve never seen a game more doggedly refuse to roll credits

I'm not sure there's any genre in the indie scene that feels like more of a roll of the dice than horror; it's a surprisingly easy genre to get wrong. Sometimes, however, a title may catch your eye for a variety of reasons: who's working on it, the artwork, the plot, etc. This is what happened to me with Decarnation, a game I played a demo for during a Steam Festival earlier this year. The demo provided me with a surreal and intriguing start to a story with a lot of potential, and it felt like a no brainer to jump on this game once it hit the Switch. Unfortunately while it tries its absolute best, Decarnation makes more than a few missteps that keep it from truly taking advantage of that potential, making it one of the more disappointing experiences I've had so far this year.

Decarnation puts the player in control of Gloria, a well known cabaret dancer for the Black Swan club in Paris. Things seem to be going well for Gloria: her career is going well, she has a loving girlfriend, and she has just recently posed for a sculpture by a renowned artist. Her life begins to take a downward spiral when she goes to see this sculpture, bearing witness to a pervert harassing it. From there, her boss suggests she retire from dancing, and her girlfriend breaks up with her. Just when everything seems to be going the worst it could possibly go, Gloria receives an offer from a well known patron of the arts that she cannot refuse. Even this ends poorly though, as on her way to meeting this patron she instead winds up knocked unconscious, waking up locked in a basement cell by someone only referring to themselves as "the Master" and his servant, a cheerful man named Bob. Gloria must find a way to escape her captor while dealing with the deep-seated issues that this incident has unearthed in her head.

Decarnation plays like your standard 2D adventure game, with the player able to explore various environments and observe the objects or people around them. There isn't a lot in terms of picking up items to solve puzzles; usually if you are carrying an item, it's just a key (or an object that will serve as a key) that you are going to use immediately. Puzzles are instead usually solved using the scenery around you, such as a puzzle involving giant chess pieces. Decarnation's puzzles are unfortunately one of its weaker points, with nearly all of them being either far too easy, such as one involving walking over circles to make a pattern, or kind of frustrating, such as one involving turning off lights and kiting an instant kill enemy around a room.

Another weak point of Decarnation is its various minigames used as abstractions to regular life activities Heavy Rain style. Nearly all of these games overstay their welcome, lasting far too long for how shallow they are. Most notably I was not a fan of the minigame played when Gloria is doing her morning stretches, which requires you to keep an arrow within a moving green bar for a certain amount of time. The most fleshed out of these minigames is a rhythm game you play several times throughout the story, whenever Gloria is performing one of her dances. This is a standard rhythm game requiring you to press a direction on the D-pad in time with the music, but even it has its problems, especially in terms of lasting far too long with music that is good but not interesting enough to stay as long as it does. To make this worse, it unfortunately also fell victim to one of the worst bugs I experienced in my time with Decarnation: three separate times while playing this rhythm game, the music ended before the game did, meaning I was stuck playing a rhythm game in silence for upwards of a full minute.

That's not the only bug I encountered, either. Another one involved a song forgetting to end when its scene ended, making me spend ten minutes trying to figure out if it was supposed to still be playing or if the game was bugged. Restarting the scene I was in fixed this issue, but it was still annoying nonetheless. Other times, sequences that felt like they should have music were instead backed by silence, and I have no idea if that was another bug or for some reason what was intended. These audio bugs are especially disappointing, as what made this game catch my eye in the first place was the involvement of one of my favorite game composers, Silent Hill's Akira Yamaoka, but disappointingly even when there was Yamaoka-style creepy ambience, it just did not live up to the expectations I'd had going in.

Decarnation is a game with a lot of potential that it just doesn't realize. There are absolutely good points to the game, such as its fantastic sprite art for the environments around you or the grotesque monster designs you encounter throughout, and the plot is also at times very relatable to anybody else going through a similar downward spiral in life, but this is not enough to counteract the overly long minigames or the unfortunately lackluster puzzles. This is made a bit worse by the fact that the game hits the point where most stories of this type usually end, and then keeps going for upwards of an hour, doggedly refusing to roll credits in favor of a drawn out series of epilogue scenes. I really wanted to like Decarnation–it was near the top of my list in terms of most anticipated indie titles for the year–but sadly it just did not deliver the experience I had hoped. It is not what I would necessarily call a bad game, but it is one held back by its multiple missteps along the way.

TalkBack / Curse of the Sea Rats (Switch) Review
« on: April 07, 2023, 03:33:21 PM »

Don't let the witch and her pirate crew get you RATtled. Get it?

There is no shortage of 2D metroidvanias in the current indie space, a sentence I am positive I have typed at least three times before this. For this reason, if you’re going to add on to the pile, you need to make sure you have some aspect of your game that makes it stand out from the rest, and while we’ve seen a large uptick in metroidvanias with hand-drawn art in recent years, it still tends to be enough to grab my attention at the very least. Enter Curse of the Sea Rats, a game that first came into my view during one of last year’s Steam Festivals. The demo showed a lot of promise: four playable characters, hand-drawn art reminiscent of a 2D animated film, a fun pirate aesthetic, etc. However, the game sadly does not quite live up to the promise it shows, and while it’s not a failure, it unfortunately contains problems that hold it back from achieving its true potential.

Curse of the Sea Rats begins on a British ship carrying several prisoners, including our four main characters. When the ship crashes somewhere on the Irish coast, the pirate witch Flora Burn takes the opportunity to transform everybody on board into a rat. She then escapes with her crew, kidnapping the Admiral’s son on her way out. Desperate to get his son back and break Flora’s curse, the Admiral offers a deal to these prisoners: he’ll set them free and strike down charges they had against them if they defeat the witch and return his son safely. The four agree and set off in search of the witch, learning of her power source: a medallion with a connection to ancient magic. However, this medallion is incomplete, with our four-prisoner team having the missing piece in hand. In order to reach Flora Burn, the quartet must explore the island in their new rat forms, engaging with Flora’s crew on the way to break the curse and take her medallion away.

You can play as one of four characters, each with their own style of combat. David Douglas is an American revolutionary soldier armed with a cutlass, Buffalo Calf is a Cheyenne huntress making use of daggers for both close and ranged fighting, Bussa is a fugitive slave from Barbados who fights using his massive fists, and Akane Yamakawa is a Japanese warrior wielding a naginata. Where this cast differentiates itself is in their overall moveset, with their regular combos, parrying abilities, air attacks, and magic being unique to each character. Unfortunately, this is really the only thing different between them, as none of them have any form of traversal abilities to themselves. Outside of combat, every character plays the same, goes the same speed, jumps the same height, and shares the same overall upgrades. Each character does have their own skill tree, but completely filling just one character’s skill tree is so easy and fast, and often makes them so powerful that there is little incentive to ever switch to another one. The entire game can be played in local co-op with up to four players, but this is likely the only way you’ll ever see any character other than the one you immediately gravitate to and take through the whole game.

Combat overall feels fine in Sea Rats; hits feel like they have a good impact, and blocking an enemy’s attack is usually pretty satisfying. I personally gravitated towards Akane, as the longer reach of her naginata fit best with my personal playstyle, as did her water-based magic. Bosses are well animated and unique enough from each other, with some of them even referencing other games (including one that is literally just Dracula from Castlevania but a rat). The voice acting for most characters is a bit questionable overall, but I personally found the cheesiness of the line reads to add to the charm in the end. Sadly what took away from the charm was the multitude of bugs I experienced over the course of my playthrough. If I switched characters right before a cutscene, there would sometimes be a problem where the wrong voice would read the lines. For example at one point I talked to a group of drunk pirates as Akane, but as I had just recently switched over from Douglas, it was his voice that read the line in question. Also, if you’re wondering whether or not the four characters have their own dialogue in situations like that, unfortunately they do not, every character appears to be reading from the same script for most of the game.

Another bug I experienced was the game forgetting I had acquired an inventory upgrade that was supposed to let me buy a higher number of health potions, therefore keeping me at the base number for a large portion of the game. This eventually fixed itself, but it was annoying for the time it occurred. Many of the problems I ran into have been or will soon be patched according to the developers, but unfortunately it was a tad too late to not paint my experience at least a little bit. Overall, Curse of the Sea Rats is a game I think has a lot of potential, but the samey characters and bugs hold it back from being what it seems like it really could be. If you’re really itching for a new metroidvania experience, or just really like rats for some reason, you could definitely do a lot worse than this one, but I sadly cannot say I would recommend you dash to the eshop as fast as you can for it.

TalkBack / Rakuen: Deluxe Edition (Switch)
« on: March 21, 2023, 06:47:58 AM »

It might be dark inside, but there are still stars shining in the sky

I first learned about artist Laura Shigihara through her work on the song Everything's Alright in To the Moon, one of my favorite games of all time. So obviously when I learned she was releasing a game of her own in 2017 I had no hesitation in jumping on it immediately. That game, Rakuen, has since become very close to my heart, and I have been eagerly awaiting the Switch release ever since it was announced last year. That release has finally come in the form of Rakuen: Deluxe Edition, which not only includes the original game but also its smaller sequel Mr. Saitou as well. Are these two games worth your time as they arrive on Nintendo's platform? Just to get the answer out of the way quickly: absolutely.

In Rakuen you play as a young boy who has been hospitalized for an indefinite amount of time. His condition has at least improved enough that he is able to wander the wing he's residing in, meeting the other patients and hospital staff working there. In order to pass the time his mother reads him a story taking place in a magical forest where the guardian Morizora resides, granting one wish to those he deems worthy. The two discover a mysterious door, which leads them into the world of the storybook, and the boy decides he wants to ask Morizora for a wish. There's just one problem: Morizora is asleep, and the only way to wake him is by finding the five parts of Mori no Kokoro, the song that will wake him up. To find the different parts of the song the boy and his mother begin exploring and interacting with the forest counterparts of the patients back in the hospital, hearing about their stories and helping them through their current traumas. The result is a story that looks and feels cute and fun, but every once and awhile surprises you with a masterfully done attack directly on your heart strings.

Rakuen is another game made largely in the RPG Maker engine, meaning gameplay is as simple as can be. You wander around the world, can interact with objects or people with A, look through your inventory and journal with X, and ask mom for hints with Y. Areas in Rakuen tend to be very puzzle based, whether it's a puzzle based on pressing switches in the right order, pushing blocks, or finding the right combination of actions to trigger the way forward. These puzzles are all well put together, though none of them are admittedly all that hard. One minor complaint I have with the gameplay is that, while I understand that this is meant to be a game you take your time with, I do wish there was an option to move at least slightly faster, as the boy's default walk speed can start to feel a bit slow at times. This is especially true during some sections that have you walking through areas you've already visited multiple times.

This package also includes Rakuen's newly released mini-sequel Mr. Saitou, which plays essentially the same as its predecessor. In Mr. Saitou you play as the titular Saitou, a llamaworm salaryman who feels unfulfilled in life. When a young bud named Brandon breaks into his house, Saitou finds himself escorting Brandon on an adventure to visit the Flooded Gemstone Caverns, a place he's always dreamed of going. This story of a man developing a new outlook on life may not be as emotionally powerful as Rakuen but still maintains the levels of charm and heart that make the first game so memorable in the first place. It is also much shorter than Rakuen, clocking in at just under two hours in comparison to Rakuen's six to eight hour runtime.

More than anything Rakuen and Mr. Saitou both deliver a delightfully charming experience in a magical world, but one that has the potential to leave you an emotional wreck by the end. The colorful art design and memorable characters are sure to keep the game in your mind for a long time, and Laura Shigihara's background as a musician is clear to see with the game's soundtrack, juggling fun bouncy pieces and somber tunes alongside multiple well done vocal tracks. It is not a soundtrack you will forget any time soon. Rakuen is a story about grief and life, one that is told well and that people should absolutely experience if given the opportunity. Just make sure you have a box of tissues at the ready, just in case.

TalkBack / Ib (Switch) Review
« on: March 09, 2023, 06:37:45 AM »

I’d like to leave the art exhibit now

Something a lot of people might not be aware of is that there is actually a rather large community built around making horror games in the various versions of the RPG Maker engine. Games like Corpse Party, The Witch’s House, Yume Nikki, and Blue Oni have built themselves small but dedicated fanbases, and another game among that category is Ib. Having originally released in 2012, Ib gained a cult following both in Japan and the west and is considered one of the more influential titles among its peers. Placing you in a surreal and creepy art gallery full of living paintings, this remake of a cult classic handily proves that it’s still got the ability to startle players even now.

In Ib the player takes control of the titular character, a young girl visiting an art gallery with her parents to view the work of artist Guertena Weiss. When she wanders off on her own, she finds herself in front of a strange painting that she does not understand. Suddenly the power in the museum flickers, and Ib finds that everybody else is gone and the doors are now locked. After she is lured into physically entering one of the paintings, she finds herself in the “fabricated world”, a twisted version of the gallery where the paintings have come to life. Some of these paintings are much more hostile than others, and Ib’s health is now attached to a rose that will kill her should it lose all its petals. Ib must explore this fabricated world and find a way to escape, meeting with others who have also found themselves stuck within along the way.

Ib is pretty much your standard adventure game in terms of gameplay. You can interact with objects by pressing A, access your inventory by pressing B, converse with any partners you have at the time with Y, and that’s essentially it in terms of overall input. Movement with the d-pad feels overall fine when using the joy cons but I found the pro controller’s d-pad to make controlling Ib feel kind of jerky and difficult when trying to walk in a straight line. As you explore you’ll find various items that can be used to solve puzzles throughout the world, with many of these puzzles being interesting and effective brain teasers. There are, however, one or two puzzles that feel just a little too trial and error. These aren’t common, but they are noticeable when they occur. That being said, for the most part puzzles have a consistent logic to them and hints can almost always be found if you know where to look.

By far Ib’s most successful aspect is its atmosphere, which genuinely manages to feel creepy and off putting even in the most colorful scenarios. Being chased by one of the gallery’s many painted ladies is something you won’t soon forget, and the game has a masterful use of silence to make sure any noise is enough to catch you off guard. This is also bolstered by a well done soundtrack with a good balance between solemn, creepy, and even sometimes a bit whimsical. The fabricated world itself is also very interesting to explore, with the art of Mr. Weiss being extremely weird and memorable, adding an extra layer of charm to the entire experience. These aspects alone make Ib well worth your time, with the short run time of about 2-3 hours and the presence of multiple endings making it worthwhile to go back and explore again and again afterwards.

Overall Ib proves that it is considered a classic among its peers for a reason, and for the most part it still holds up today. It may still have the issue many of this type of game have, being that anything and everything can hurt or kill you even if it’s not entirely obvious that it will do that, but this is not only not as prevalent as other games I have experienced and is also made less impactful by the fact that you are constantly finding save points as you go. Between the atmosphere, soundtrack, artwork, and characters, if you enjoy creepy experiences Ib is definitely something you should check out. This adventure through art that may or may not have it out for you managed to still find a way to scare and stress me out over ten years after its original release, and honestly I just find that impressive.

TalkBack / Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse (Switch) Review
« on: March 08, 2023, 01:28:40 PM »

Something’s wrong with this mirror

Fatal Frame is among the most iconic horror franchises in video games, often listed alongside big names like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. With five mainline games in its lineup, it’s actually surprising that we in North America have only ever gotten four of them, with the fourth entry in the series never leaving Japan. That is, until now! Fatal Frame: Mask of the Lunar Eclipse, originally released exclusively for the Wii in 2008, is finally making its way worldwide and to modern platforms as well. The real question is: was it worth the wait? Depending on your experience with the series, your mileage may vary on that one.

Mask of the Lunar Eclipse features the story of three main playable characters, all of whom are returning to the mysterious setting of Rogetsu Island. When their friends die under mysterious circumstances, Misaki Aso and her friend Madoka travel to the island in hopes of finding answers to the gaps in their childhood memories. The two get separated, and Misaki winds up having to explore alone. Meanwhile Ruka Minazuki follows Misaki and Madoka to the island with the same goal, but finds that not only has Madoka perished, Misaki is nowhere to be seen. Finally, Detective Choshiro Kirishima also travels to the island, himself following Ruka in order to bring her back home. All three of these characters begin exploring the local sanatorium, seemingly connected to the girls’ history, but unfortunately for them this sanatorium also happens to be stuffed full of ghosts.

The main mechanic of Fatal Frame is the ghost combat whenever a spirit type known as a wraith appears. Misaki and Ruka both fight using the series’ iconic Camera Obscura, which can be pulled out by pressing X and shifts the game into a first-person perspective. While both Camera Obscuras have a slightly different look to them, they play pretty much the same. Keeping a ghost in frame allows the camera to charge, with its progress indicated by a pattern around the center, and the more charge it gets before you take the ghost’s photo the more damage it will do. You can also increase damage by equipping stronger types of film, attaching different lenses, or by capturing a fatal frame. You can get a fatal frame shot by taking your picture right before the ghost attacks, and this will then allow you to take several shots in quick succession to build up damage. If you’ve played other Fatal Frame games in the past, this is not too much of a change from those. One complaint I have about the Camera Obscura combat, however, is that the setting likes to put encounters in cramped areas like hallways or small bedrooms that give you extremely limited room to maneuver, something that can become a bit frustrating when fighting enemies that can disappear and reappear wherever they want (including inside of walls).

Choshiro does not use the Camera Obscura in combat, and instead goes to Rogetsu equipped with the Spirit Stone Flashlight. Combat with this is even simpler than the camera, as all you have to do is hold down the ZR button to charge and release it to fire your attack. The simplicity of this type of combat actually kind of holds it back, as ghosts become trivial even when there’s more than one of them (an event that becomes especially harrowing with the Camera Obscura). Both these weapons can be upgraded using Blue Spirit Stones that can be found throughout the game, but it should be noted that all three characters share the same pool of upgrade materials while not sharing actual upgrades, so the player is encouraged to pick and choose who they want to upgrade the most. One non-combat bit of control that I had an issue with is the flashlight, which in the Wii version used pointer controls. This does not translate very well to being on the right analog stick, which is also connected to the game’s camera, and trying to manipulate the flashlight to shine over items (the only way to reveal their location) can be a real pain.

Overall, of all the Fatal Frames I have played, this is one of the weaker ones. The setting of the sanatorium is very well done in both atmosphere and sound design, and the newly improved graphics over the original Wii version certainly help make it more immersive. However, exploring the same areas over and over with three different characters gets old rather quickly, especially when characters are also backtracking to those areas as well. The same goes for some of the ghosts, with certain encounters like the sadistic child Ayako repeating several times with multiple characters, which tends to get annoying after the third occurrence or so. Fans of Fatal Frame who want to experience this lost title in the series will likely find enough atmosphere and story to keep their interest, but newcomers may find some of the game’s shortcomings to be a turnoff as their first experience. That being said, you can put a hat on your character that’s a big Camera Obscura, so in a way, maybe it all balances out in the end.


A murderous impulse seeps into my soul like thick black tar

I was not at all sure what to expect out of Paranormasight when it first caught my eye, having been included in the Japanese version of a Nintendo Direct but not the English version. I knew it had a distinct look to it, and seemed to be heavily influenced by the Famicom Detective Club series, but that’s really all the information I had before diving in. What I did not expect to find was a visual novel that featured a very interesting mystery with a cool framing device around it, as well as a visual novel that takes full advantage of the fact that it is a video game in a way very few games do. Very quickly, Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo goes out of its way to show you that it is not your ordinary run of the mill visual novel, which made me eager to share that it is rather worth your time.

You begin Paranormasight in control of Shogo Okiie, an office worker in Showa Era Japan, who is exploring a park at night with his friend and occult fanatic Yoko Fukunaga. As the night goes on, Shogo suddenly finds himself in possession of a curse stone, an artifact that allows him to take somebody’s life and convert it into soul dregs. If enough of these soul dregs are gathered, the user can then perform the Rite of Resurrection, which allows them to bring somebody of their choosing back from the dead. Shogo learns that there are eight other curse bearers within the city who have received their own curse stones, and killing one of them will provide far more soul dregs than would an innocent bystander. Thus begins the contest for the Rite and the exploration of the nine urban legends that created each curse, for some reason known as the Seven Mysteries of Honjo.

Once you’ve completed the introductory chapter with Shogo, you are then given access to the Story Chart and the main routes for the three main playable characters. Harue Shigima is a grieving mother working with a private detective to learn the truth of her son’s kidnapping and murder a year prior, and she sees an opportunity when the possibility of the Rite is brought to her attention. Tetsuo Tsutsumi is a high ranking police inspector who winds up involved in the contest for the Rite while investigating the death of a fellow officer, and begins taking it upon himself to find other curse bearers and confiscate their curse stones. Yakko Sakazaki is a high school student who winds up with a curse stone of her own while investigating her friend’s supposed suicide, with suspicions that it was no suicide at all. All of these characters are interesting to inhabit the mind of, with each having vastly different motivations and attitudes towards their curses. As the mystery unfolds, their paths all begin to intersect, and it’s in those moments that the story is at its most engaging. My one issue with the game’s narrative, however, is that it telegraphs a few of its twists far too obviously, making me able to guess exactly what the deal was hours before it was officially revealed. Otherwise, the mystery in Honjo is fun and has a few genuine surprises in store for anybody playing.

By far the most interesting thing about Paranormasight, though, is its manipulation of the fact that it is a video game that you’re playing. Some scenarios will lead to a dead end at which point you will be able to go back and try again, and some of these are your standard run of the mill dialogue trees that require you to figure out just what to say. Sometimes, however, it may require you to do something extra. Some puzzles in Paranormasight require you to open the options menu and mess with settings, for example, while others may expect you to use knowledge you have that the character you’re controlling does not. Characters will even acknowledge when this is happening, usually confused as to how they suddenly knew something or why they got the urge to perform some seemingly nonsensical action. Paranormasight uses every part of itself in neat and bizarre ways that not many other games do, and for me this is where I came away from the game incredibly impressed and hungry for more.

Overall, I would say that Paranormasight surprised me in a way I don’t think I have been in a long time. My only issues with the game are the controls which can feel sort of sluggish and unruly on a controller, though not to an obscene degree. If playing in handheld mode you can get around this by using touch controls, which I found worked just fine for the game’s purposes. The “horror mystery” also seems to steer away from the horror part at certain points, which might disappoint those hoping to see a lot of curse action, but the plot during these moments is just as interesting as when those curses are involved. I am happy my eye was pointed in Paranormasight’s direction, as I think it may already be one of my favorite experiences of the year, and if this kind of game sounds like it appeals to you, it just might be one of yours, too.

TalkBack / The Pathless (Switch) Review
« on: March 01, 2023, 04:22:53 PM »

Do you not see that this world is broken?

The Pathless first released in November of 2020 as a console exclusive on PlayStation, and honestly until now I just figured it was going to stay that way. Back then I remember sitting down to give this cool looking archery game a shot and accidentally blowing through the entire six-hour game in one go, and the idea that I could one day do that portably was a nice dream to have. But I must dream no longer, as Giant Squid's eagle-petting, god-saving journey has made its way to Switch at last. While having a portable version is nice, it is likely no surprise to you that the usual concessions have had to be made in order to make it possible. How much does this affect the overall experience? Let’s dive into it.

In The Pathless you take control of the Hunter, whose world is being consumed by an all encroaching darkness. It is said that the source of the curse is an island where the barriers between the world of the gods and the world of mortals is thin, but anybody who has ventured there to find the cause has never returned. Once she arrives, the Hunter finds the deity Mother Eagle having been sapped of her strength by a malicious being known as the Godslayer. Not only has the Godslayer incapacitated Mother Eagle, but he has also corrupted and transformed her four children into vicious beasts that follow his every command. With the help of a new eagle companion, the Hunter must climb the plateaus of the island and free Mother Eagle’s children from the Godslayer’s curse, before ascending to the floating isle above where the Godslayer himself awaits her.

The main focus of The Pathless is on movement, and it really shows. While moving around the island you’ll see an abundance of floating targets throughout the landscape; shooting these targets with the Hunter’s bow and arrow will fill her energy gauge, which she needs to be able to sprint. Hitting a target while sprinting will cause a short boost of speed, and hitting one while airborne will give her a bit of extra airtime. Also while airborne the Hunter can glide with the help of her eagle, and the eagle can also flap its wings to gain a large amount of vertical height, with the amount of flaps you can do per glide upgraded as you progress through the game. All of this comes together in a very fluid and satisfying way, especially once you really get the hang of it. Moving around as the Hunter just feels cool in a way that not many other games have felt.

On each plateau there are three towers that must be activated in order to initiate a boss fight, and these towers are activated by collecting emblems from across the area. Emblems are earned by solving puzzles, whether it be a puzzle involving creative use of your arrows or instructing your eagle friend on what button to put a very heavy thing on. Some of the later puzzles feel a bit obtuse at times, even requiring very tight timing in a few of them, but every one of them is successful at leading you to an “ah-ha!” moment that feels good once you’ve solved it. During this stage, the plateau’s beast will also be wandering around, and this is a place where the design feels like it falls apart a bit. If you are caught by the beast, represented by a giant swirling maelstrom, you will be separated from your eagle and forced to participate in a stealth sequence where the beast wanders around looking for you and you must reunite with your bird. Moving while in the beast’s vision cone causes an instant failure, and while the consequences for failure are minimal, that just serves to make it more annoying. Getting sucked into these sequences when exploring makes it very easy to lose track of where you had been going, but even worse is when you’re forced into the encounter while trying to solve a puzzle, something that can absolutely destroy momentum. These encounters can be avoided but it is almost guaranteed you will have to put up with one at least once per plateau.

After all three towers are activated, you then can fight the boss, starting with a pursuit sequence that takes full advantage of The Pathless’s movement system in a manner that feels even cooler than usual. Once you’ve angered the beast sufficiently in the chase, the fight will move to the beast’s temple, at which point a more traditional boss fight will begin. None of these bosses are what I’d call incredibly difficult, and the consequence for failing is again rather minor, but they all manage to feel satisfying and fun nonetheless. Composed by Austin Wintory, the music throughout the game is fantastic, and that is especially true during boss fights when the music and tone are both at their absolute best.

Unfortunately, the move to the Switch did come with some caveats, as to be expected. In terms of graphical downgrades when compared to the PS4 version of the game, there is less foliage on the ground, and the foliage that is present pops into existence just a few feet in front of you. The lighting is also noticeably flatter, which unfortunately takes away a good chunk of the beauty of the game’s landscape. Lastly, there were a few frame hiccups here and there, most notably when entering a new plateau for the first time. These problems are relatively minor, though, and I still found the game to be incredibly fun to play regardless, but if they’re a deal breaker for you it’d be a better idea to look to other platforms for your Pathless experience. Overall, The Pathless is a game those looking for some action and exploration should definitely give a try.

TalkBack / Theatrhythm Final Bar Line (Switch) Review
« on: February 14, 2023, 05:07:30 AM »

A celebration of some of the best music in video game history

Ever since its debut on the NES in 1987 the Final Fantasy series has boasted some of the best soundtracks that video games have to offer, across fifteen (soon sixteen) main series games and countless spinoffs. For this reason this series lends itself extremely well to the idea of a rhythm game celebrating this music, and that’s exactly what the Theatrhythm series and its latest entry Final Bar Line are here to offer. Mixing a typical rhythm game experience with some light RPG mechanics might seem a bit weird to those experiencing it for the first time, and those who might have last experienced Theatrhythm on the 3DS might be wondering how well the game translates to a platform lacking a touch screen. How does it shake out in terms of both these questions?

As stated before Theatrhythm is a rhythm game featuring a collection of music from throughout the Final Fantasy series, from the original NES game to Final Fantasy XV and including multiple spinoff titles such as Mystic Quest and Type-0. The general premise of gameplay is simple: circular trigger icons will appear from the left (or in some cases the top) and you must perform the correct input when they reach an empty circle on the right. These triggers are timed to the music and come in a few varieties, regular red triggers require you to press either one of the triggers or face buttons, yellow triggers feature an arrow and require you to flick one of the analog sticks in the direction it indicates, and green triggers require you to hold the triggers/face buttons and release with the right timing. There are three types of stage, BMS puts your party up against a train of enemies, FMS has your party walking along a path and features its own unique version of the green trigger that requires you to point the analog stick up and down to follow a path of your own, and EMS plays roughly the same as BMS but instead of a battle features a video in the background. All of these modes are responsive, easy to learn, and fun to play, including the slide notes on FMS stages which I was particularly worried about in terms of their transition from touch screen controls.

The game also features some light RPG mechanics as you can build a party of four out of a massive pool of characters from throughout the franchise. These characters come in a variety of types specializing in physical attacks, magic attacks, summons, support skills, and more. Completing songs will give the characters in your party XP, which in turn will level them up and gain them various skills they can use. Other than assigning their abilities and picking a summon stone, the player has very little input on how the fight happens outside of how well they do in the fight. Every note is an attack on the enemy, with the better you hit the note the stronger the attack. If you’d rather ignore this element and just play the music, don’t worry it’s easily ignorable. Where it really comes into play is in the Series Quest mode, which is also the main method of unlocking music. Each series in the game has its own quest line that you can go through, with each song unlocking for free play once you finish it for the first time. In this mode every song has a quest to complete for a reward, and these range from merely bringing a specific party member to completing the song with a certain percentage of ratings, and do require you to dive a bit deeper into the party building system if you want to complete them all.

There is honestly an absurd amount of music in Final Bar Line, with the track count reaching almost 400 songs. This makes an incredible selection but comes with one downside: because tracks are only unlocked through completing them in Series Quest, unlocking the entire library is a very lengthy process. At time of writing I have put around 20 hours into the game and I still have not managed to get them all. Another issue with the game is the controller you may be playing on, as I personally found the joy cons to be uncomfortable to use for long periods of time due to the placement of the right analog stick. The pro controller mostly fixes this issue, but you may want to be prepared for some hand pain if playing in handheld mode. A small, personal gripe that I have is that many of the series’ longer tracks like One-Winged Angel or the vocal tracks like Suteki Da Ne are only small clips of the song, usually lasting around two and a half minutes on average. The lack of an option to play the full version of these tracks if you desire is a bit disappointing, even if not unexpected.

Overall Theatrhythm Final Bar Line is already a front runner for my personal game of the year, and it’s only February. The massive track list, fun gameplay, and cute aesthetic help keep me absorbed and have proven to be a dangerous catalyst to me saying “one more song” over and over late into the night. Difficulty options are also well balanced, Beginner charts are easy enough to get a feeling for the game, Expert charts are fun while not being too incredibly difficult, Ultimate tracks are a huge challenge for the most advanced players, and those looking for an extreme challenge will find some tracks add a fourth difficulty called Supreme. All of these levels feel exactly as you’d hope, meaning any skill level can have a good time. The music of Final Fantasy is legendary for a reason, and Theatrhythm is the perfect representation of that. If you’re looking for a great rhythm game to eat up your time and occupy your mind, Final Bar Line is a fantastic choice.

TalkBack / A Space for the Unbound (Switch) Review
« on: January 20, 2023, 06:47:45 AM »

A game where you pet and name cats. I guess other stuff happens, too.

A Space for the Unbound is one of those games that seems like it's been shown again and again at various indie presentations and even in at least one Indie World over the years. Every time it was, I found myself extremely interested in just about everything it seemed to be offering: its art style, its premise, its characters, and its promise of an emotional tale that would likely squeeze at least a few tears out of me. Unfortunately, a date never seemed to come alongside these showings, no matter how hard I wished, and this got even more unfortunate when a clash with their publisher seemed to delay the game indefinitely late last year. But now those storm clouds have at last passed, and A Space for the Unbound has finally seen a release, meaning we can finally talk about whether or not it delivers on the promise seen in its numerous past showings.

In A Space for the Unbound the player takes the helm of a teenage boy named Atma. Atma lives in a small Indonesian town, and begins the game hanging out with a younger girl named Nirmala. Nirmala is incredibly creative, writing stories full of fantasy and emotion, and Atma is more than happy to help spur that creativity along and help Nirmala find confidence in her work. However, after a tragic accident sweeps Atma away in a river current, he wakes up at his desk in a high school classroom as if it were all a dream. The girl sitting in front of him, Raya, claims to be his girlfriend, and the two decide to spend the day together outside of school. Eventually Atma becomes suspicious that things are not quite what they seem, and he must get to the bottom of the various mysteries cropping up around town using a newfound ability to enter the world of someone's heart using a "space dive." Was his experience with Nirmala all a dream? Is Raya really who she says she is? These questions and more manage to be intriguing, and the answers are not as predictable as one might think, making the narrative the main reason to trek through A Space for the Unbound as a whole.

In terms of gameplay, A Space for the Unbound is your fairly standard adventure game. You can walk around the world picking up objects that can then be used to solve puzzles and move the plot along, though one of the game's main flaws is that later on it begins to feel a bit too fetch-questy for its own good—at its worst feeling like unnecessary padding. This is largely a problem because the game is a little too long for its own good, clocking in at around 9-10 hours for a story that feels like it should last around 5-6. The added length isn't game ruining at all, but near the end it does make the whole experience kind of drag, especially as I had multiple moments where I was positive the credits were about to roll, not knowing that I still had roughly three hours of game remaining. Even so, the town the game is set in as well as the people that live in it are all a delight to explore and interact with, with many of them having their own full stories and character arcs even if they're not central to the plot. The writing in general is funny and well done, though there were a few typos within the script here and there.

Overall, A Space for the Unbound is a must play for those that enjoy getting an emotional experience from their games. The puzzles are generally easy to understand, and the game does a good job of making each space dive throughout the story feel different from the last in some meaningful way, helping gameplay not get stale as you go. It may take a tad longer than it should to get to the various emotional payoffs, but those moments are well done and generally worth it. The experience is bolstered by expressive and colorful pixel art that portrays a memorable cast of characters throughout the game's world, and a wonderful soundtrack accompanying the whole thing doesn't hurt either. The game deals with some very heavy subjects at times, but always does so respectfully and without making them seem like a crutch for the narrative to lean on. There are also a lot of cats that can not only be pet but can also be named, something some people may see as a very worthwhile bonus (I know I do). If you like your adventure games to try and yank some tears out of your poor, poor eyes, A Space for the Unbound is easily your first great choice of 2023.

TalkBack / Persona 4 Golden (Switch) Review
« on: January 17, 2023, 11:32:59 AM »

I'm sorry, Teddie... Only people have human rights.

Persona 4 originally released for the PlayStation 2 in 2008, and for a portion of the fanbase it is considered to be where the series truly took off. While Persona 3 had been relatively popular in its time, people seemed to have fallen in love with the foggy streets of Inaba. This popularity only grew with Persona 4 Golden, an enhanced edition released for the PlayStation Vita in 2012. Until very recently these games were trapped on their respective systems, but for the first time ever Persona 4 has arrived on a Nintendo platform, meaning those who have likely gotten into the series with the wildly popular Persona 5 will have a shot at playing one of the two titles that technically started it all. What should those people expect from this now decade old title? To be honest, the smart choice would likely be to keep your expectations in check.

In Persona 4 you take control of a high school student who has transferred from his school in the city to the rural town of Inaba, where he will spend the next year of his life living with his uncle Dojima and cousin Nanako. He very quickly makes friends with some of the more eccentric students at his school like Yosuke Hanamura and Chie Satonaka. His peaceful country life is turned upside down rather quickly when a series of serial murders begin to happen in town, seemingly connected to a strange rumor about watching a blank TV at midnight on a rainy night, a phenomenon that is known as The Midnight Channel. Shortly after, the protagonist and his friends learn they have the ability to enter into TV screens, emerging into a sinister foggy world full of monsters called Shadows. People are being thrown into this world, and with no way to leave they are killed by the Shadows on days when it's foggy in the real world. The group of friends pledge to save anybody who gets thrown into the TV from there on, beginning a supernatural murder mystery that may well be one of the best narratives the RPG genre has to offer.

Gameplay in Persona 4 is split into two parts, the first being everyday life. Unlike the other characters on the team, the protagonist has the ability to change between multiple personas. One of the main ways of getting new personas is by fusing ones you already have, and the way to make this process more effective is by doing social links. Throughout the game you will encounter characters, including those in your party, who you can get to know through a ten part story of their own. Each character is represented by a different tarot arcana, and furthering your relationships with them will give any personas of that arcana that you fuse a burst of bonus XP once they're born. This mechanic is what really sets Persona apart from the other games in its genre, and the most memorable part of the game in general. Some social links are more interesting than others, with characters like Ai Ebihara having a phenomenal arc while Shu Nakajima is not exactly the most thrilling story to be a part of, but they are all overall worth your time and do a great job of giving you more emotional attachment to Inaba as a whole.

The other half of gameplay is the dungeon crawling inside the TV. Roughly every month somebody in town will be kidnapped, and you will have to venture into their dungeon in order to rescue them before the next foggy day. These are by far the weakest part of the game, made up of massive randomly generated floors that essentially make every dungeon in the game the same dungeon with a different coat of paint. Whenever they do try to have a small gimmick to set them apart, these wind up being more frustrating than interesting, such as requiring you to backtrack two floors to open a door or causing your camera to jolt in another direction every time you step into an intersection. Combat is overall intuitive and well put together, but is still not without its problems. As in other Persona titles hitting a Shadow with a type of attack it's weak to will give the character another turn while knocking that Shadow down. If all Shadows are knocked down, the party can initiate an all-out attack to inflict massive damage. If a downed enemy is hit with their weakness a second time, they will become dizzy and be forced to skip their next turn, but be warned that this can also happen to the people in your party. The issues with combat come in later dungeons when enemy types are seemingly built to be as annoying to fight as possible, with a lot of them only able to be hurt by one type of attack yet having an ability that makes it incredibly hard to hit them with that specific type, causing the whole fight to be even more up to RNG than usual.

In general Persona 4 is deserving of its spot on the list of best JRPGs ever made, but it absolutely shows its age. Those coming from Persona 5 will likely find many of the systems they're familiar with are present but in a much clunkier fashion. The bland dungeons and sudden difficulty spikes might also turn off new players, but if they can push through those they may find a thrilling murder mystery featuring some of my favorite narrative moments in the Persona series. Add this to an extremely likeable cast of characters like Kanji Tatsumi or Yukiko Amagi, as well as one of the most catchy soundtracks to ever be put into a video game, and you may well find yourself falling in love with Inaba. Despite all of its flaws, you might find that in the end you're actually sad to leave.

TalkBack / It Takes Two (Switch) Review
« on: November 29, 2022, 11:13:02 AM »

More like It Takes Too Long

There are plenty of games out there that can be played co-op. Adding a friend or two to the action usually helps to heighten the fun and working together as opposed to competing with each other is a nice change of pace from how games usually go. There are, however, very few games that basically require co-op; one of the most notable of those games is 2018’s A Way Out, which put players in control of two jailbreaking convicts attempting to evade recapture. A Way Out was well received critically and is generally a very fun experience, so expectations were slightly high for developer Hazelight Studio’s next title. Once again they came out with a dedicated co-op experience, but this time in the form of a cooperative 3D puzzle platformer, It Takes Two. Originally released on other platforms in March of 2021, the Switch is a bit late to the party. However, what better platform could there possibly be for a game like this than the Switch? It seems perfectly suited to the task of a co-op platformer! At least, one would think, but unfortunately that does not appear to be the case.

In It Takes Two, players take control of Cody and May, a married couple in the midst of a divorce. This situation is, understandably, upsetting for their daughter Rose, who is now looking for any way to help her parents patch up their relationship. She turns to a mysterious book for help while playing with two dolls made to look like her parents, but when the emotions become too much and her tears fall on the dolls, some form of magical spell is cast. Cody and May wake up now inhabiting Rose’s dolls and being spoken to by Rose’s book, which is now alive and referring to itself as their “therapist” Dr. Hakim. The fighting couple must learn to cooperate if they want to solve the various puzzles and break through the obstacles placed between them to be able to return to their regular bodies, but can they really do it? Or is their relationship already too far gone?

Gameplay in It Takes Two is overall pretty standard for the genre. Both characters can sprint, jump, double jump, wall jump, etc. Platforming as a whole is tight and responsive, with characters never really feeling like you’re not entirely in control of where they go. Moving around just generally feels good, and things like grappling points and grind rails especially heighten the fun. By far the most interesting part of It Takes Two’s gameplay is that it is always subtly changing, with each area having its own unique mechanics all built around making the players work together. For example in the very first area, Cody is given nails that he can throw and stick into walls, while May is given a hammer that can be used to smash large switches or other things in need of smashing. This leads to puzzle solving that requires Cody to create grapple points for May using his nails so that she can get across a gap, and these mechanics always go both ways. Some of these mechanics are better than others, but each one is creative and fresh, with some even throwing the game temporarily into a different genre.

Unfortunately, no matter how fresh the changing mechanics may be it still doesn’t help with one of It Takes Two’s biggest issues: its length. Clocking in at around 11-12 hours, It Takes Two feels far too long for the type of game it is. This length would not be an issue if it were your usual single player game, but having to work with two peoples’ adult schedules just to figure out a time when we could both be available to play became a hassle when every time the end seemed nowhere in sight. This is exacerbated by a feeling in almost every section that the mechanics and area have overstayed their welcome. For a game that is locked completely to co-op, and encouraged to play the whole thing with the same partner, it’s just too much to not have outside annoyances start to creep in.

There are also the major issues that come along with the game’s port to the Switch, all of which are incredibly noticeable and in some cases highly inconvenient. Lighting was constantly flickering in and out, with some scenes even missing lighting that is not only present on other platforms but sometimes was originally there to help guide players through puzzle solutions. Textures have gotten a noticeable downgrade throughout the game, so much so that a lot of the time we didn’t even have to check whether or not an object or location was supposed to look like that. The framerate will also dip on occasion, and while this never messes with the platforming it is still hard to ignore. By far the biggest problem, however, is the fact that the Switch version adds several loading screens that simply aren’t present on other platforms, such as the PS4. These regularly happen mid-cutscene, breaking up the pacing of the story quite a bit, and go on long enough that we would not be surprised if they alone added about an hour to the game’s runtime.

It Takes Two is a very fun game that should honestly be about half its length, but the Switch very much does not feel like the place you should go to play it. The major graphical downgrades and added loading screens make it hard to recommend no matter how good the gameplay feels or how clever the writing is. If you’re looking for a fun game to play alongside your significant other or a friend, It Takes Two is among your better options in general, but you’d likely have a far better experience on PlayStation or PC than on Switch.

TalkBack / Potion Permit (Switch) Review
« on: September 22, 2022, 03:16:54 PM »

I put a daisy, a chunk of silver, and a bear’s severed paw into this boiling water. Drink up.

It goes without saying that lately there has been a massive influx of games that put the player in a rural setting where they must run a business while befriending the locals, with that business typically being a farm. While Potion Permit doesn't have you planting and watering a field of turnips in hopes of one day striking it rich off your blueberry harvest, it is extremely difficult not to put it in the same box as games like Stardew Valley. Both games situate you as a newcomer to a small town, both involve helping the townsfolk with their problems while earning money, and both are built heavily around the aspect of befriending the various characters around you. The DNA shared between the two is inescapable, and this is not a bad thing on its own. What matters is what it does differently, and while Potion Permit contains some smart decisions and mechanics, it also has some unfortunate flaws that are hard to ignore.

In Potion Permit, you play as a chemist working for the world's medical association, and you’ve been sent to the town of Moonbury to help treat the mayor's sick daughter. The people of Moonbury are distrusting of chemists due to an incident that destroyed their island's ecosystem many years ago, and so you must gain their trust by opening a clinic and treating citizens if they get sick. Gameplay is fairly standard for the genre; you can go out into the wilds in order to forage for plants, metals, and animal products that can be used to create medicinal potions. Potion making takes the form of a puzzle, where a shape made of interconnected squares must be filled with ingredients, each ingredient represented by a different shape. Some recipes may restrict what elements can be used as ingredients and you are also limited to a certain amount of them per brew. Treating patients is also simple: they will tell you what part of their body feels off and you’ll take a closer look and diagnose the problem by playing a minigame. The minigames associated with this are overall rather dull, but thankfully they’re short and only need to be done the first time you diagnose a new type of symptom. Successfully treating a patient will raise the town's overall trust in you, making the people of Moonbury more accepting of your presence.

What I find most disappointing about Potion Permit is the extreme watering down of the genre's traditional gift giving system. In a usual game like this, you would be able to give any item to any NPC in order to try and build your relationship with them, and it was up to you to figure out what that person loved to receive and what they absolutely hated. In Potion Permit, there is no guesswork involved. There is instead one single item that can be given as a gift, called Moon Cloves, that is universally loved by everybody in Moonbury. While this makes it slightly easier to build up relationships faster, it has the side effect of making the whole thing feel shallow. In fairness, there are also mechanics in this system that are fantastic ideas, things that other games in this space should copy as best they can. First off, once you've filled a character's relationship bar, it will lock until you've done their next friendship event, and in a game like Stardew Valley this would mean wandering around town at all times hoping to randomly bump into the scene you need. Potion Permit solves this problem by providing a bulletin board pointing you in the right direction and giving you the correct time window. Another major improvement is the fact that you can instruct your dog to lead you to any character in town, eliminating the need to have to meticulously memorize every single NPC's weekly schedule. These are both fantastic mechanics that I hope to see more of, but sadly the specter of the gifting system these mechanics are meant to support hangs too heavy on the whole package to really feel like they make as much of a difference as they should.

What came as more of a surprise to me was the large number of technical issues I encountered during my time with Potion Permit. Every few minutes the game would hang for a brief second, seeming as if the whole thing was about to crash, and while it always recovered immediately it still took me out of the experience somewhat to see time freeze every once and awhile. One of the more frustrating bugs I encountered was when one of the tabs in my journal counted one too many unread entries, and so I was just stuck with an unread icon over that tab for a majority of my playthrough that I was never able to get rid of. At one point the game deactivated two of my fast travel points in town for no reason, and I had to go manually reactivate them or the game would throw an error every time I tried to use them. Cutscenes also load awkwardly, flashing an image of what seems to be an outdoor area for a brief second before fading into the cutscene proper, which I found very distracting.

I don't dislike Potion Permit, but I also find a good chunk of reasons to be disappointed by it. The town of Moonbury is charming with a massive cast of varied and fun characters, and the resource gathering gameplay loop has the usual ability to keep you sucked in for hours, but there's just something there that made me feel like it wasn't scratching the itch as well as it could have. Add to that the various technical issues and the inexcusable crime of not allowing me to romance Helene, and it is difficult to imagine recommending this game to someone before pointing them towards many of the other options popping up around it. Despite all it does well, Potion Permit doesn’t quite do enough to stand apart from the crowd.

TalkBack / Beacon Pines (Switch) Review
« on: September 21, 2022, 12:01:41 PM »

One little word can change everything.

What if you were reading a book and had the option to change one word of a sentence? What if that one word changed the entire trajectory of the story, setting the whole thing on a different path to a completely different ending? This is the core concept behind Beacon Pines, a narrative storybook game about trying to find the real ending by switching out words here and there. I first encountered Beacon Pines as a demo during one of the recent Steam Festivals, and it caught my interest very quickly. With the entire thing narrated by a very enthusiastic author, it was hard to see the hijinks of these children in their rural farming town as anything but incredibly charming. Add on to that a rather intriguing conspiracy to unravel and Beacon Pines heavily delivers on what it sets out to do.

In Beacon Pines, the player takes control of Luka, a young boy living in the titular town. At the start of summer break, Luka and his best friend Rolo are thirsty for an adventure to kick things off with a bang, and Rolo mentions that he’s noticed lights at an old fertilizer factory that is supposed to be abandoned. The two boys head straight there to investigate, but doing so ends up drawing them into a wide conspiracy that blankets the entire town, and could eventually also spell its doom. With the help of his fellow citizens, including the new girl Beck, Luka must solve the mystery of Beacon Pines and do so in a way that brings about the best conclusion for everybody. The entire story is presented in the fashion of having a book read to you, and the main mechanic this is all built around is the collecting of charms.

Charms can be collected either through the course of the story or by exploring the area around you, with each charm representing a single word. At certain points in the story you will be given a sentence with a blank space in it, and you must fill this space with one of your collected charms. The word you pick could drastically alter the story, changing either what a character does or how they perceive something, with the most simple example being the difference between fighting or running away. Most of these options will lead you to a bad end, but every decision point that can cause a major branch can then be instantly traveled back to and done again. Sometimes you won’t have the exact charm you need to get a particular branch, but typically you’ll get the charm you need for one branch in a different branch. In this way Beacon Pines successfully guides the player in the order it wants them to play without making them feel like they’re being railroaded; it also makes sure they have the information needed to make scenes in the other branch make sense.

Beacon Pines generally performs well on Switch with one notable, and honestly very weird exception: for certain bad endings, once I got them the game began to run incredibly slowly. Text would take longer than usual to fully appear, animations would play at a drastically lower framerate, and once it brought me back to the branching event selection, navigating that menu would have noticeable input lag. This didn’t happen for every single bad ending in the game, and overall it didn’t mess with gameplay too much, but it happened just often enough and just hard enough that it was very noticeable. Luckily, the issue always cleared up once the game proper had started back up at the branching point. My other qualm with Beacon Pines is that the event menu felt a bit clunky and awkward to navigate, with directional inputs feeling inconsistent and the only way to close the menu being to navigate to a back button. Other than these, I find it hard to name any other major complaints about the game.

Overall, Beacon Pines is an incredibly neat narrative adventure game that feels unique in terms of its mechanics. The story and mystery presented in the game’s world feel fun to discover, and the drastic differences noticed while going back and forth between different branches will likely be enough to keep your attention for the game’s 6 to 7-hour runtime. I especially enjoyed the game’s narrator, as she gives a delightfully enthusiastic (if not cheesy) performance throughout. If you want a complicated story with a simple delivery method, and a fun way of branching around, Beacon Pines is definitely a game to give a try.

TalkBack / Jack Move (Switch) Review
« on: September 20, 2022, 06:40:57 AM »

That's so pluggin' chrome!

There is one trope in sci-fi that I still do not know how I feel about to this day, 30 years into my life: the introduction of “future slang” meant to make everybody sound more tech savvy or hip with the times. One game that makes heavy use of this trope is Jack Move, the bite-sized RPG developed by So Romantic and published by HypeTrain Digital, which was released on PC earlier this month. It may not have changed my mind about slang in sci-fi, but Jack Move still managed to impress me in several ways that I think definitely make it worth your time if you enjoy turn-based RPGs. Despite one or two missteps, there is a lot to love in this cyber brawling package.

In Jack Move, you play as Noa, a hacker vigilante working on the streets of Bright Town. Together with her partner, a fellow hacker named Ryder, she spends her time messing with the overreaching corporation Monomind. In Jack Move’s world, far in the past, the Earth was hit with a massive solar flare that knocked out all electronics worldwide in an event known as The Dark, and over the years as a result, corporations like Monomind have taken the place of the government, leading to the dissatisfaction of some. When Noa’s estranged father is kidnapped by Monomind, she must investigate their reasons for doing so while also working to save her father from the company’s dirty hands.

Gameplay in Jack Move is pretty much the usual fare when it comes to RPGs, with the ability to freely wander around the map, talking to NPCs and sometimes taking on sidequests for them. When in certain areas, battles are the result of random encounters, with a meter on the top right of the screen telling you how close you are to the next one. One of the best features of Jack Move is the ability to adjust encounter rates in both directions, making it so that you can turn them down or off if you want to explore more easily or turn them up if you’re looking for more of a challenge or just looking to grind. When in battle, a sort of rock-paper-scissors system goes into effect between Wetware, Electroware, and Cyberware attacks. Most enemies are weak to one of these types of software based on the type of software they use to attack. How much software you can have equipped at a time is based on your RAM, with each ability taking up a certain amount of space. The amount of RAM you have can be upgraded in shops throughout the game. You can also equip hardware, which bestow passive buffs and effects.

When in battle if you find yourself in need of software not currently equipped, you can actually use a turn to change your build, making the player have to strategize about attack types but not to the point where a fight might become undoable because you stumbled in with a bad build. Dealing or taking damage builds the Jack Move bar, which when full will allow you to use a super attack. The strength of this attack is decided by your performance in a short, rhythm game-esque challenge requiring you to press three directional inputs. I never found a single one of these to be difficult, especially when each Jack Move has a set sequence that will be the same every time you use it. Software and Jack Moves are leveled up by being used in battle, with a max level of four.

There is a lot to love about Jack Move, but it is not without a few flaws. Some might find themselves dissatisfied with the game’s length being incredibly short, especially for an RPG, with a runtime of around six hours. Personally for me, this helped the mechanics and story not overstay its welcome, providing a tighter experience than it otherwise would have. I also encountered a fair number of bugs, usually dialogue either repeating or showing up in the wrong place; the game did crash on two separate occasions during my playthrough as well. Fortunately the game’s autosave happens frequently enough that neither crash led to any lost progress, but it’s still always disappointing when a game crashes regardless. I also found the final dungeon’s gimmick to be incredibly frustrating, but at the very least it’s short and leads to a very satisfying and cool final boss sequence.

Overall, Jack Move is likely going to be one of my favorite games of the year, and I wish more bite-sized RPGs like it existed. Visually the game’s pixel art is a treat to look at, and this is only bolstered by the fantastic soundtrack that accompanies it. Bright Town feels alive and NPCs have their own side stories that happen as the main story progresses, encouraging me to talk to every NPC at every possible opportunity to learn about things like the woman dating a mafia runner or the two hacker sisters who are clearly on another level. If you enjoy the cyberpunk aesthetic and want a short RPG to spend a weekend on, Jack Move is absolutely the place to go for a good time.

TalkBack / Wayward Strand (Switch) Review
« on: September 15, 2022, 05:16:35 AM »

The full range of elderly people, all the way from nice grandma to very angry grandma.

Wayward Strand first caught my eye in a Wholesome Direct, and if you know anything about those presentations, then you pretty much know what kind of game to expect. Something about the idea of a laid back game where you just talked to the elderly was weirdly interesting to me. My first job as a teenager was as a server at a retirement home’s in-house restaurant; this is where I interacted with a huge number of retirees with all sorts of stories and life experiences to share (sometimes whether you wanted it or not). A game written around this concept was intriguing, and so I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Wayward Strand. I am happy to say that overall I think Wayward Strand managed to deliver on its concept.

In Wayward Strand, you take control of a young fourteen-year-old girl in Australia named Casey, whose three day weekend is thrown to the wind when her mother recruits her to help at work. Casey’s mom is the head nurse at a hospital that has been built inside a decommissioned airship, and not much about the ship is public knowledge. Casey, an aspiring journalist writing for her school newspaper, decides that if she’s going to be losing her holiday she may as well get a story out of it. She is assigned to the elderly ward and asked to simply spend time with the various patients there, so she begins to hang out with people like the kind and gentle Ida, the pompous Mr. Avery, and the nonverbal Tomi. All the while she works to get to know their stories and personalities, while also trying to sneak in a bit of digging for information on the facility itself.

Gameplay is about as simple as you can get: Casey can walk around the elderly ward and speak to the characters around her. If a conversation is already happening between characters where you are, you have the option to listen in. Information gained during these conversations will be added to Casey’s notebook, and responses chosen during conversations will affect how other characters feel about interacting with her. There aren’t really any set-in-stone goals in Wayward Strand, you can pick and choose what you do and who you hang out with. The more you get to know characters, the more events you can witness, but be warned that a VIP guest is set to visit at the end of the week and tensions are high as a result. Not everybody is going to be so open to socializing with a fourteen-year-old , and it’s up to you whether or not you want to try and break their hard candy shell or leave them to their own devices in order to not rock the boat.

There are a few issues with Wayward Strand as a whole, the most prevalent of which is some unfortunate visual bugs. None of them are completely immersion breaking, but it is hard not to notice Casey’s mom levitating a clipboard two feet in front of her. Overall this game has a nice distinct visual style, but seeing Ida miss her bowl with her spoon to scoop up the table has a way of slightly ruining the effect. Some voice lines bugged out and either played in the wrong place or on top of each other, but this only happened once or twice near the very end of the game. There is also the small issue that loading times, while only happening every hour or so, are still rather long. Otherwise, I didn’t notice any large scale problems with the way the game ran or looked, just these small things here and there.

Overall, Wayward Strand is not going to be for everybody; it’s a game that runs at a very relaxed pace that some may find too slow. For me and people who enjoy more narrative-focused games, however, you might find it to be a pleasant experience. It’s not always happy, for some of these patients the past is sad to look back on, and the present might not be the most delightful subject, either. Regardless, these stories are well fleshed out and memorable and a hospital inside of an airship is an incredibly interesting place to learn about. The game is fully voice acted, adding quite a bit of personality to the cast. If you enjoy a laid back experience that just has you talking to people, Wayward Strand is worth a look. Old people have some pretty neat stories, and the ones on this airship are no exception.

TalkBack / Circus Electrique (Switch) Review
« on: September 11, 2022, 12:45:25 PM »

I don’t understand why my strongman’s barbells are plasma globes, wouldn’t those weigh very little?

Darkest Dungeon is one of those games that has established its identity so absurdly well that I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever seen another game exactly like it, but Zen Studios has worked very hard at their attempt to change this: Circus Electrique. Zen is not exactly shying away from this comparison, Darkest Dungeon is the game I have heard Circus Electrique compared to more than any other and it’s easy to see why. Battles look and feel very similar, there’s a similar amount and type of resource management when it comes to your party members, permadeath is a present factor, etc. So how does it actually stack up to this comparison? It should be noted that I am not actually a fan of Darkest Dungeon myself, so I went into this review with the angle of finding out if somebody like me might still enjoy this game.

Circus Electrique takes place in an alternate history Victorian era London where Tesla-esque technology has become commonplace, and there is no better place to see the wonders of this world than the titular circus. The Circus Electrique is reopening after many years, and to mark the occasion they plan to light an electric Pillar of Power, but the moment they do so The Maddening occurs. People all over London begin to turn violent and murderous, and the circus’s performers must use their unique skills to protect the city while also trying to uncover the cause behind The Maddening. Because of the circus aesthetic the game is going for, character classes like fire breathers, clowns, and strongmen replace your usual fare for an RPG, with each class having their own sets of skills that perfectly match up with the kind of showman they’re supposed to be. Clowns can heal with laughter and taunt enemies with their jokes, escape artists can channel electricity through their chains, and strongmen hit things very hard.

A party in Circus Electrique is made up of up to four members, and positioning is very important. Party members will stand in a single file line, with each character having a set of preferred positions that would work best with their skills. Certain skills can only hit certain positions on the enemy team, a clown’s ball throw attack can hit anybody from anywhere but their hammer can only strike the first two people in the enemy line and only if that clown is in the first or second position. Some attacks can hit every member of the opposite party, though these are generally weak and more meant for their secondary effects such as breaking an enemy’s defensive stance or causing status effects. Aside from HP characters also have a secondary stat called devotion, which affects their stats such as evasion or attack strength. Certain attacks can lower the enemy’s devotion, and if you bring it down to zero they will immediately flee the battle, but be warned that this also applies to your characters. If a performer’s devotion stays at zero for multiple days they will leave the circus, this also happens if their HP reaches zero while in battle but for a much sadder reason (they die). Battle overall is rather slow paced for an RPG which does help ramp up tension, but I found this pace was a bit of a problem when an overly long loading screen accompanied each fight at both ends. Fights also feel rather repetitive, especially at the start, with very little variation on the skills you’re using until devotion levels force you to change up your party configuration.

Devotion and HP levels on your performers are only one of the many, many things the game expects you to keep track of. A lot of these are introduced early, but this has the problem of feeling kind of overwhelming when presented all at once. Luckily Circus Electrique keeps all of its tutorials available at any time, so if you don’t quite understand a mechanic you can look at that specific tutorial again. One of these mechanics is the act of organizing shows for the circus to put on. Before embarking out onto the streets of London you must select a number of performers who will stay behind and entertain guests, and doing this is a much more complicated affair than you might think. Every performer has a preferred section of the show, the opening or closing act for example, shown using a V shaped symbol on their character card. They also have a type of performer they work well with, and one they very much don’t. Your job is to make sure each performer is in the best spot possible, with the success of your show depending on this synergy. A successful show will earn you resources that can be used to keep your circus afloat, something very important if you want to make it to the end of the game.

Overall Circus Electrique probably won’t change your mind if you’re not already interested in games like it, the slower pace and heavy amounts of resource management will probably still cause you to bounce off. I can tell that this is a pretty good game even with some of its flaws, but it was very much not my flavor. It doesn’t help that, while the Tesla circus aesthetic is fun, the game’s use of 3D models means that it is not as visually distinct as the game that inspired it. One aspect that may change your mind about trying it is that, unlike Darkest Dungeon, Circus Electrique has difficulty options that include an easy mode where characters regain a bit of health at the end of each day, but even with this it was not enough to hold my interest the whole way through. If you like Darkest Dungeon, this is absolutely a game you should give a shot, but otherwise the grand Circus Electrique is probably not going to change your life.

TalkBack / Ooblets (Switch) Review
« on: September 01, 2022, 07:26:47 AM »

Grab your nurnies and your drizzle dribbler, describing this game makes me sound like I’m having a stroke

I find myself drawn to a lot of games in the vein of Story of Seasons or Stardew Valley; they have a gameplay loop that just tends to suck me in. So hearing the idea that somebody was going to try and mix both with the concept of collectible monsters like Pokemon, it was hard for me not to be intrigued by the proposal. Enter Ooblets, a quirky farming and animal collection game hitting version 1.0 after entering early access in 2020. The world of Ooblets is incredibly colorful, with witty character writing (outside of Taffy) making it even more of a delightful place to hang around. That writing and delightful art only goes so far, however, as I sadly found the sheen to rub off as time went on.

In Ooblets, you play as a newly arrived immigrant to Oob, a land where everybody coexists with cute creatures called ooblets. You specifically end up in a place called Badgetown where you are immediately recruited as the new assistant to the town’s mayor, Tinstle. You’re given a farmhouse and a list of tasks to complete, the most important of which being traveling around Oob in order to activate towers and reconnect everybody to the Oobnet. As you make progress on this quest, you can also farm various crops in a manner very similar to something like Stardew Valley, or talk to the other residents to build up friendships with them and earn “friend stickers.” You can also recruit your own ooblets, and this is done through dance battles. If you find a group of ooblets in town or in the wild they will happily walk up to you, and if you have the items they are requesting you can initiate this battle. Dance battles are done in the form of a card game where the goal is to reach a certain number of points before your opponent. If you defeat the wild ooblets, you can choose to get a seed from them, which can be planted to eventually grow your very own ooblet of that type. The card game itself unfortunately feels rather shallow: you can build hype to up the amount of points your cards give you, and playing cards costs “beats” that you only have a certain amount of per turn. I never really found that any real strategizing was required, though, with the best strategy seemingly always being “play the cards that earn the most points” and not much beyond that.

Sadly, the more I played of Ooblets the more I began to feel like the game had no respect for my time. Little annoyances began to pile up and the charm of the game’s writing and characters began to wear off at lightning speed. Things like traveling in the hot air balloon or returning an ooblet to the wild area included unskippable cutscenes that felt longer and longer as time went on. Upping my friendships with my fellow Badgetown citizens started to feel far less rewarding when I realized I wasn’t actually experiencing stories for each one, just getting a funny quip and a sticker and then repeating the process the next day. Activities when I arrived in new areas began to feel like obvious padding, such as one area that required me to get the high score on several arcade games or pay an obscene amount of money before I was allowed to progress. This all came to a head when I reached a late game area that required me to make long hikes up and down a mountain several times in order to complete a series of fetch quests, and I realized I just was not having any fun; this is around where my time with Ooblets ended.

One particularly souring moment during my time with Ooblets came about five or so hours into my playthrough. After earning my first friendship sticker with a character, they gave me some items as a gift; however, my inventory was full at the time. In most cases a game like this would usually either have the character hold on to those items until you’ve made room, or would automatically send it to some kind of storage. Storage options are very limited early on in Ooblets, so that second option wasn’t really viable. Instead the game’s solution was to create two temporary inventory slots for these items. When I picked up one of them to see what it did, the inventory slot it was previously in disappeared, and I was stuck holding the item. The only options I had at that point were to either swap the item or cancel, but if I tried to cancel the game would tell me I couldn’t because I had no room in my inventory, instructing me to condense my items first. But I couldn’t condense my items; they already were condensed; everything that could stack was stacked. If I tried to go to a different menu, it would tell me to drop the item first. The usual solution would be to just drop the item on the ground, but this also did not appear to be an option I was given. At this point I had actually softlocked myself into this menu and had no choice but to close and restart the game. This was by far the most frustrating part of my experience.

I desperately wanted to like Ooblets. On the surface, it feels like a game that should be right up my alley. Unfortunately, the things that felt therapeutic and rewarding in games like Stardew Valley or Story of Seasons just felt like chores during my time in Badgetown. Despite having the usual farming game loop that was able to suck me in easily, I felt less and less like I was having any fun as time went on. While there is funny writing and cute little collectable creatures to be found in Ooblets, it just wasn’t enough to leave me with a satisfied feeling by the end of my time with it. It’s a shame because there’s obviously a lot of heart put into this game, but heart alone cannot sustain a game like this for an extended period of time.

TalkBack / Islets (Switch) Review
« on: August 24, 2022, 08:58:04 AM »

Who broke Laputa? This is like the fourth time this week, we can’t keep doing this

There is, admittedly, no shortage of metroidvanias being produced by the indie scene on a daily basis. Some say that one day we will reach a metroidvania singularity and thus the end of all things will occur. For this reason it becomes a lot harder for your standard game in the genre to really stand out amongst its peers, and one that I’m glad stood out to me is Islets. Islets is a game developed by solo developer Kyle Thompson that features cute character design, snappy movement and combat, and competent map design all in one convenient package. What makes this one worth a look when a wealth of other options already fill your plate?

In the world of Islets there was once an island floating in the sky which was actually made up of five smaller islands, all attached through the use of powerful magnets located on each one. Over the years these magnets began to fail, and for unknown reasons one day they stopped working, causing the islands to drift apart. Over the years warriors from each island have journeyed using their flying airships to try and reactivate these magnets, but all have failed. You take control of Iko, a young mouse warrior who has set out on his own magnet activating adventure armed with only a sword and a bow. Not only will Iko have to find the magnets to turn them back on, but will also have to contend with the savage beasts that have overrun the islands as a result of their separation.

Gameplay in Islets is overall pretty standard, Iko can jump, perform a dodge roll, swing his sword forward or upwards, as well as fire arrows forward or up. When firing arrows, if an enemy is close enough Iko will automatically aim for it, and holding down the fire button will continue firing until you run out of ammo (displayed as a meter below your health), and you can regain ammo by hitting or killing enemies. Combat feels responsive and snappy, and only gets more satisfying as you collect upgrade tokens from around the map. These tokens are usually connected to a platforming or combat challenge, and upon collecting one you are given three seemingly randomized options for a permanent upgrade to apply, ranging from upping your maximum health to increasing the fire rate of your arrows. The drawback of these choices being randomized is that by the time you have found a good amount of them, they seem to run out of options to offer you, with its replacement reward just being some of the game’s currency. The currency can be used to buy strength, health, and arrow upgrades in the game’s hub but even then, if the challenge to get that token was especially difficult, a handful of money doesn’t exactly feel like a worthwhile reward for your effort.

My favorite aspect of Islets is the namesake of the game, being that each separate island is its own small metroidvania in itself. I would compare it to something like Shantae & the Pirate’s Curse, a comparison I don’t make lightly, but the main difference here is that when you’ve activated an island’s magnet it will join the rest of the islands, and those five small maps will eventually become one big one. This makes sure that you have a good amount of time to get familiar with each zone on its own before it becomes part of the bigger picture, and also helps the player keep focused on a singular goal at a time. Joining the islands also allows the player to reach new areas that would previously have been inaccessible without the connecting corridors. Maps are very well designed, with shortcuts placed after almost every major platforming challenge that cut down on having to do them over and over again when backtracking.

Boss fights are also a major focus of Islets, with each island having two to three to fight through, usually resulting in new abilities like a double jump or wall climb, or being the last obstacle before reaching the island’s magnet. Bosses in this game are all fun to learn, all attacks that any of them use are dodgeable in some way with none of them feeling cheap or unfair, but this does not mean they are easy. Each boss is challenging in its own way, with some even turning parts of the fight into something resembling a bullet hell game. If you want an actual bullet hell fight, Islets has you covered on this front too. A few boss fights take place off the islands while in your airship, and these are actually something akin to a toned down session of a Touhou game, complete with a circle to show where your actual hitbox is. These fights become less about learning patterns and playing skillfully and more about surviving long enough for the boss to eventually go down.

Overall, Islets may not be doing anything especially new in its genre, but it does all the usual things incredibly well. Movement and combat feel good, the abilities you get are fun to use, maps are well designed and satisfying to explore, and bosses are challenging in a way that makes them memorable. Outside of some qualms with how upgrade tokens sometimes make rewards not as worthwhile as they should be, I have very little negative to say about my time with Islets. If you find yourself hankering for another metroidvania that does what it says on the tin, and does it competently, this is definitely a game to have your eye on. Those islands aren’t going to reconnect themselves.

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