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TalkBack / Assault Suits Valken Declassified (Switch) Review
« on: March 30, 2023, 09:51:09 AM »

A 2D run-and-gun featuring janky mecha, a harrowing difficulty, and a bevy of bonus materials.

Brought to North America on the SNES as Cybernator, Assault Suits Valken is a 2D action game that offers a punishing challenge across its seven stages. As pilot Jake Brain, you’re at the center of a war over the miniscule supply of resources left on Earth. In a Federation Assault Suit, you’ll run, jump, float, and shoot your way through enemy mecha, tanks, and vehicles intent on your destruction. The Declassified edition on Switch adds plenty of extra bonus materials that detail the history of the game and its inception, but the addition of features like save states don’t stop the game from feeling dated.

Every stage begins with a wall of text describing the current state of the war between the Axis and the Federation. As you play each level, dialogue boxes pop up regularly to add flavor text mid-mission, but because gameplay stops during these exchanges, they end up becoming more of a hindrance to the pacing than an interesting interjection. The end-stage bosses provide a stiff challenge, but reaching them with enough health left in your tank proves to be the greater feat. It’s possible to fail certain missions by not completing timed objectives, and this ultimately leads to the game’s bad ending; one such example involves destroying a series of engines within two minutes, but inexplicably there’s no on-screen timer for the objective.

While you start out with a standard vulcan cannon (machine gun) and a punch, you can collect a few different weapons by finding them at specific points in some of the levels. The missile weapon arms you with heat-seeking rockets, and the laser provides a powerful, straight-shooting beam that works well against large targets. Your weapons can also be upgraded to bolster their firepower once you’ve collected enough P items. At all times, controlling the Assault Suit feels pretty janky, especially when it comes to jumping, turning, and aiming your gun; you can lock your direction of fire, but doing so requires some demanding manual dexterity.

Given that it was also published by Konami and features similar looking mecha, comparing 1995’s Metal Warriors to Assault Suits Valken seems a fair practice. The three years between their releases were much kinder to Metal Warriors, though, as its controls and gameplay are arguably superior. While Assault Suits Valken should be lauded for its combination of side-scrolling shoot-’em-up style levels and more traditional free-roaming action, there’s no denying the frustration of trying to finish its enemy-laden stages on but three credits. Again, save states are helpful here, but the omission of a rewind function is a curious one.

What’s undeniably impressive about the Declassified version is the absolute bounty of bonus materials outside of the main game. These include: a translation of the game’s 80-page Japanese guidebook, an interview with Satoshi Nakai on the mecha design, new artwork from the game’s character designer Satoshi Urusihihara, and a recording of the full game and good ending, among other things. I love to see extras such as these that really flesh out the creative process of game design and help to preserve, like a time capsule, the moment in game history when Assault Suits Valken was born.

Assault Suits Valken Declassified is a love letter to a series that wasn’t as represented in the West as it was in Japan. This 2023 re-release adds a lot of fascinating bonus materials that are sure to excite fans, but the main game itself is a tough one to recommend given its difficulty and awkward controls. That said, I’m all for revivals of titles from the 2000s, ‘90s, and earlier, and therefore very supportive of the work done by M2 and Rainmaker Productions on Assault Suits Valken Declassified.

TalkBack / Kraino Origins (Switch) Review
« on: March 28, 2023, 04:00:00 AM »

Even with “Origins” in the title, there’s nothing original about this decent action platformer.

In the world of video games, imitation isn’t always the most sincere form of flattery. Taking the success of one title and trying to emulate it is fine, but many players are looking for something new within the familiar. Kraino Origins wears its inspiration on its ghoulish sleeve, basically taking Shovel Knight and adding a horror-themed window dressing on top. What’s most disappointing about Kraino is that the game actually plays pretty well, there’s just nothing unique or original about it.

Across eight lengthy stages, the titular Kraino makes his way towards a final battle with Dr. Batcula. From the overworld, you can enter and return to said stages or take out a handful of challenge stages that reward you with skulls to power up your sub-weapons, like a straight-shooting fireball or an upward-flying axe. For the most part, the overworld is devoid of life and character; similarly, the bosses you encounter offer little in terms of flavor and come off as generic. Even their attack patterns largely consist of just jumping up and down. Despite being so heavily cribbed from Yacht Club Games’ flagship title, Kraino Origins possesses none of its charm.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though: Kraino’s minute-to-minute gameplay is actually pretty enjoyable. It brings a challenging brand of platforming with fair checkpoints and secret filled levels. One of the collectibles to find in each stage adds length to your blue MP meter, which powers your sub-weapons; the other collectible functions almost like a Zelda heart container, where collecting three of them gives you another hit point. You’ll need all of these hit points, too, since the boss battle in one of the final stages is no joke.

Kraino is equipped with a trusty scythe, which can be used to slash enemies in front, block projectiles, and even pogo stick up and down on all types of foes. Even though there are only eight stages in total, each one presents unique obstacles that require all sorts of platforming acumen, from bubbles to bounce off of, rafts to traverse dangerous lava, and even a segment that fans of the Shovel Knight Specter of Torment DLC will instantly recognize. Even if the boss fights are a bit of a letdown, getting to them is generally satisfying, and the optional challenge levels provide another outlet for testing your skills.

In terms of presentation, the pixel art is attractive but most areas in the game are very dark, in keeping with the game’s horror theming. The music is lackluster and sounds pretty much the same in every stage. There are a few different screen filters to play with, but these can only be adjusted from the game’s main menu. The enemy variety is decent and their different attacks and patterns contribute nicely to the action part of the gameplay.

Given that the game can be finished or even completed in a couple hours and just how obvious it borrows from a title like Shovel Knight, it’s tough to wholeheartedly recommend Kraino Origins. Indie games are at their most endearing when they blaze an entirely new trail or offer a unique look at what we’ve seen many times before. Neither of those objectives are met in Kraino’s adventure, and the lack of any noticeable style or charm means that the game rests on its gameplay laurels. They aren’t enough, however, to elevate Kraino Origins over the majority of action-platformers on Switch.

TalkBack / Backbeat (Switch) Review
« on: March 15, 2023, 04:00:00 PM »

Marching to the backbeat of their own drum, bass, sax, and keytar.

From the creators of 2019’s Hexagroove, Backbeat is a unique isometric experience with the creation of a band at the heart of its narrative. Watts, the leader of the band, sets out to recruit bandmates that compliment her style and have a genuine enthusiasm for funk music. Each stage plays out like a puzzle, where you need to guide the four band members to a particular area on the map. While it’s definitely satisfying to complete each level, there’s a steep learning curve that can halt your progress and make gameplay more frustrating than fun.

Protagonist Watts begins the story with aspirations of starting her own funk band, but as a bass player, she recognizes the need for other musicians to join her in this endeavor. Bookending each level are dialogue-filled cutscenes between Watts and other characters she encounters, and while these are mostly interesting, the way that dialogue bubbles appear and disappear (including the sound effects) is jarring and makes the conversation hard to follow. Still, there’s a lightness and humor to the writing that shines through.

With over 40 stages to complete, Backbeat’s puzzles represent a major part of the experience, and as simple as the gameplay may appear on the surface, the challenge escalates rather quickly. Once you’ve formed a group of four, the stages themselves become much more complex, with objects that must be activated to allow one or more band members to scoot past an obstacle (often a person standing in the way). It’s not enough to just guide each character towards the objective; the order of their moves and even the direction they’re facing matter. If you don’t pick up the mechanics right away, trial and error isn’t going to be a consistent solution to the puzzles you face.

Even the hints/tutorials on each stage can be fairly inscrutable if you haven’t figured out the basics and mastered the new elements as they’re presented. To be successful, you really have to pay attention to the timeline in the top-left corner of the screen; it feels like an understanding of music on a more granular level would genuinely assist in being able to more readily pick up what Backbeat is putting down. As much as I like the concept of finding the best path and trying to figure out how to get every band member to the objective, there’s a lot of attention to detail required, which eventually replaced my feelings of enjoyment with those of frustration. At the end of the day, I’d certainly welcome a more in-depth hint system or more focused tutorials that do more showing instead of telling.

What remained consistently enjoyable, however, is Backbeat’s presentation. The mid-90s VHS style interstitials and the excellent funk music complement the gameplay wonderfully. Completing each stage actually generates a unique song based on how your characters move towards the end goal, which serves as a fitting reward for solving each puzzle. Instrument sound effects play as the different characters take their moves, and the different settings for every level add to the variety. While you can zoom out the map to see the entire stage at a glance, there’s unfortunately no way to rotate the camera around for a better look.

The puzzles of Backbeat either click with you or don’t, and it’s a mighty challenge to brute force your way through if they don’t. I found the mechanics hard to pick up, and even though the stages have multiple solutions, the patience and juggling required in later stages ended up pushing me to the brink. Other than how the dialogue exchanges work, I do love everything about Backbeat’s presentation, and the story and writing are certainly charming. Ultimately, though, unless you’re musically inclined or have a real knack for movement/resource-based puzzle games, it’s entirely possible you’ll end up wanting to throw Backbeat on the back burner.

TalkBack / Planet Cube: Edge (Switch) Review
« on: February 23, 2023, 09:07:52 AM »

A fun 2D platformer that drags on a bit longer than it should.

Planet Cube: Edge is an action-platformer about a cube named Edge who is trying to protect its homeworld from invaders. Taking place primarily in a factory-style setting, you're tasked with guiding Edge from room to room as you assist your fellow cubes and stave off the efforts of those who would drain Planet Cube of its resources. While the gameplay is fairly solid, the game's eight levels are overly long and require that you overcome similar challenges and obstacles over and over again.

Helping Edge save Planet Cube and its citizens makes for an enticing story that never gets in the way of the platforming action. Each of the eight levels is divided into multiple screens, but the levels themselves can take 30 to 60 minutes to complete. Wanting to see how the narrative resolves is certainly worthwhile, but it's hard not to feel that getting to the end is a bit of a slog. Levels throw the same types of jumping and shooting tasks at you ad nauseam, and that feeling of satisfaction is generally replaced with ones of monotony and frustration at being asked to clear yet another room before reaching the end of the level.

Early on, Edge unlocks almost all of its arsenal moves, which include a double jump, a photon blaster shot, and a dash. The difficulty ramps up nicely in the first half of the game, but the second half takes no prisoners, and those without a fair bit of platforming skill and timing are likely to find the challenge too steep. Fortunately, the checkpoint system and quick respawns allow players to get right back into the action, with the rare exception where you'll need to cross multiple pits hazards before being able to advance.

The minute to minute gameplay feels quite good, with Edge being easy to control throughout. Water areas introduce swimming mechanics, and mesh walls have to be used like movable ladders, but every new element adds much needed variety to what is a well worn genre. Planet Cube doesn't necessarily do anything new in the platformer space, but what it does, it does well. The pixel art visuals are also crisp, and the Game Boy-style color palette continues to work well for experiences like this that focus so much on similar gameplay.

For those who want even more of a challenge and added replay value, there are collectibles in each level that force you to go out of your way to secure them. You also need to survive the screen where you find them in order to claim said collectibles. What's neat is that each one represents an audio track, a video, or a gallery image that gets unlocked in the game's main menu. Online leaderboards for each level also offer a reason to dive back into completed levels.

Planet Cube: Edge is a charming but padded experience. Most of the levels overstay their welcome, and this hurts what is generally an enjoyable experience. More certainly feels like less here, as I often found myself sighing as the gimmick of one screen was repeated more than a handful of times. Still, playing as Edge feels great, and as someone who enjoys his fair share of tough 2D platformers, I found the challenge more than met my expectations. If you don't mind lengthy run-and jump-and-gun stages that are filled with similar obstacles, the strong gameplay and replay value make Planet Cube: Edge worth a look for platforming fans.

TalkBack / Grim Guardians: Demon Purge (Switch) Review
« on: February 22, 2023, 06:00:00 AM »

Two schoolgirl demonhunters go to town in this Castlevania-esque experience.

Inti Creates have nearly cornered the market on contemporary titles that feel like retro games. From their Blaster Master Zero series to the various Gunvolt entries, they are adept at making fun, brisk experiences that offer replayability and familiarity. Grim Guardians: Demon Purge is no exception to their signature brand of action; its level-based Castlevania trappings see the two heroines, Shinobu and Maya, make their way from floor to floor as they climb a demonic castle. Its signature gimmick of being able to swap between the sisters on the fly (or play co-op) makes its five to seven hours fairly enjoyable, but some of the gameplay tricks do wear a bit thin by the end.

When dimensions collide and the girls' school is amalgamated with the demon realm, Shinobu and Maya charge headlong into the dark, towering castle that stands in its place. Along the way, they'll rescue students trapped in its halls or taken prisoner by the creatures within. The girls also focus on searching for a man who may or may not be Shinobu's boyfriend/crush. At the top of the castle awaits the culprit behind the whole mess, who has a specific affinity for adding "HELL" to every statement she makes.

The gameplay is tight and fluid, with each sister possessing a different weapon and set of ever expanding sub weapons. Shinobu has a machine gun that allows her to attack from range, but it lacks the power of Maya's slashing weapons. Every time a boss is defeated you earn a new sub weapon, and many of these allow for greater exploration of the castle, whether it's blowing up cracked floors with Shinobu's timed mine or forming platforms with Maya's paper crane. Jumping, shooting, and slashing feel great, and there's almost nothing to fault about the action here, other than Shinobu's lack of mobility when opening fire or the need to regularly reload her gun.

Playing solo, when one of the sisters' health runs out, the other will respawn a slight distance away and be able to revive their downed sibling. Sometimes these checkpoints are further away, which can make the rescue mission a perilous one. If both sisters die, you'll lose a life, but this didn't happen to me too often, partly due to the revive mechanic and partly because the game’s normal difficulty isn't massively challenging. Fortunately, completing the game does open up a third, harder setting, and there's an easy mode for those who want a breezier playthrough. Finishing the game also unlocks a boss rush mode, and a couple dozen in-game achievements encourage return trips to the demon realm.

In the same way that Ghosts N' Goblins originally required players to return through it's stages to unlock the ending, Grim Guardians does something similar. After defeating what initially seems to be the final boss, an adult version of the boss appears and essentially forces you to backtrack through the castle to obtain five special items before you can reach the game's actual final level. It's a bit of a tired way of adding length, but some new abilities coupled with new paths to explore and more challenging boss patterns in their re-fights add variety to the backtracking.

All in all, Grim Guardians: Demon Purge is another satisfying 2D action title from Inti Creates, further cementing their status as makers of genuinely solid retro throwbacks. Some of the enemy designs are clever callbacks to Mega Man and Castlevania, but ultimately the title manages to stand on its own merits. Even though they never seem to stop dictating all the action happening on screen, Shinobu and Maya are delightful to play as and make enough banter and jokes between them to keep the narrative light. If you'd rather purge something new than the dozens of games in your backlog, Grim Guardians provides a devilishly fun ride.

TalkBack / Ten Dates (Switch) Review
« on: February 14, 2023, 02:00:00 AM »

That’s the thing about first impressions: you only get ten of them.

Billed as “an interactive rom-com,” Ten Dates is an FMV game where you can choose from a male or female lead and pursue a number of different potential relationships. As the title suggests, however, the focus is on dating, and so each pairing only ever goes as far as a third date. With hundreds of scenes to unlock, there’s definitely a lot to see here, if you’re so inclined, and the two leads are played well enough to keep the proceedings interesting. Where Ten Dates stumbles a bit is in its lack of diversity and some frustrating gameplay issues.

After starting a new game, you choose between red-head Misha and boyish Ryan, two millennials who are reentering the dating scene after the isolation of the global pandemic. That Ten Dates doesn’t shy away from some challenging political and social topics is admirable for sure, even if the conversations available don’t go too in depth. On my first playthrough, I went with Ryan, who is brought unawares to a speed dating event by Misha. After some initial protestation about participating, Ryan eventually agrees and ends up meeting four women, each of whom seems to (at least at first) fit into a fairly clear archetype: the Ph.D. student who never leaves the library or the soccer player who eats, drinks, and breathes sports. Misha’s options include a bookish teacher, a jokey frat boy type, and an introverted software engineer. Overall, the cast is played well, and it was easy to find favorites among them whom I wanted to get to know better.

During the speed dating event, which is considered the first date, each pair makes chit chat and occasionally broaches a more serious subject, albeit briefly. During these five-minute or so interactions, you’ll be given a handful of multiple-choice prompts to respond to, such as answering a question, shutting down a particular discussion, or providing a reaction. Given how little of a description you get for some of the choices, it’s not always clear how Misha or Ryan will act based on your choice. It was frustrating in spots to select one prompt and then have the character react in an unexpected way. Another issue is that the dialogue choices are timed, which makes Ten Dates difficult to play with a partner. I know that having a time limit is meant to simulate real life, but it would have been nice to have an option, especially during repeat playthroughs, to turn off the timer and reflect a bit more on the dialogue choices available. Finally, although the R button is assigned to skip dialogue/cutscenes and even the end credits that play once you’ve completed one path, I found that it only worked sporadically, which made multiple playthroughs a real drag.

Highlighting the cast themselves, the acting is definitely believable and the cutscenes are filled with moments that felt genuine. There’s an interesting blend of humor, emotion, and awkwardness that carries through the narratives of Misha and Ryan. While most of the dates are between heterosexual partners, there are a couple of same-sex pairings, too. Where Ten Dates could improve, though, is in terms of the overall diversity of its cast, especially given the ethnic makeup of the game’s setting (London).

While it might not beat getting proposed to on Valentine’s Day, Ten Dates has more than enough substance to justify a second glance at the bar. It could definitely use more variety in terms of bachelors, bachelorettes, and even venues–with most dates taking place at some type of bar or similar establishment. Nonetheless, there are many, many scenes to unlock and fun conversations to have with the cast as is, and there’s even a menu that indicates how much you’ve seen from what’s available for each potential mate. It may not be love at first sight, but Ten Dates does offer an enjoyable way to pass an evening or two as you try to play matchmaker for Ryan and Misha.

TalkBack / PowerWash Simulator (Switch) Review
« on: February 13, 2023, 11:39:56 AM »

Now You’re Playing With Power. Washing Power!

A 2021 early-access title, PowerWash Simulator is exactly what you think it is, and despite some initial reservations, I did end up falling prey to its sweet siren call. I can’t always seem to muster up the willingness to scrub the bathtub, put the dishes away, or fold the laundry, but give me a digital water blaster and I’ll polish your car, boat, plane, or house to a shine. It’s hard to deny the monotony that can come from some of the larger jobs in its career mode, but there’s still something so Zen about PowerWash Simulator that it continues to gnaw at my mind even as I type this review.

From the main menu, we dive into the Career section, which houses essentially all of PowerWash Simulator’s content. In addition to the time and resource-based Challenge Mode, extra Bonus Jobs (like cleaning a Mini Golf Course), and Free Play, Career Mode houses over two dozen cleaning jobs for players to take on. From more simple tasks like cleaning a dirt bike to more involved work like powering the dirt off a Ferris wheel, there’s no shortage of grime and dust that needs removing. It’s fun to alternate between cleaning vehicles and buildings, and the money and stars earned by finishing each job to completion allow you to unlock and purchase upgrades to your kit, such as new, stronger power washers, special attachments, and even clothing to alter your appearance.

Why would one want to spend their in-game dollars on cosmetics you ask? Well, there is online multiplayer available for up to six people. Unfortunately, the Switch doesn’t have cross-platform play, so the experience is much more limited. I found it disappointing that there aren’t any local split-screen options, either. I’d hoped to dock the Switch and play with my son, showing him the joy of cleaning so as to inspire him towards some real life tidying up, but alas my plan never left the ground. The free Tomb Raider DLC is nice, but cleaning the front of Lara’s mansion is a hefty chore for a single power washer.

The primary gameplay loop, as basic as it is, involves moving around the particular level and using your power washer to spray down every part of a vehicle, building or structure until you reach 100 percent completion. PowerWash Simulator does a great job of hitting you with a pulse of light and a “ding” sound whenever you’ve cleaned enough of a particular segment, like a car wheel, the window of a bungalow, or the slide at a playground. Taking care of these segments often rewards you with small sums of cash as well, and eventually individual stars to fill up your meter to five. If at any time you can’t quite see the spot or spots you missed, a simple press of the right directional button flashes in orange the places you still need to hose down.

What works fairly well in its transition to consoles is the control scheme, with almost every button having a specific and useful purpose. Pressing the right stick in allows you to drop to your knees or to a crawling position; the L and R buttons let you scroll through your different hose attachments (so that you can adjust your spray to the task at hand); and as you might expect, the ZR button is your trigger (although I liked pressing the left direction button to activate continuous spray). All this said, the cursor controls of the menu are a little slow and less snappy than I’d like.

The visuals and performance do leave something to be desired, though. Loading times to get into each level range from 30 seconds to almost 2 minutes, and the resolution can certainly have an impact on one’s enjoyment of the game. Especially when playing handheld, there can be a fairly muted difference between a wall or fence post that’s clean and one that’s still dirty, which means you sometimes have to make very liberal use of the “show dirt” button. I wouldn’t say any aspect of the Switch port is a deal breaker, but it just isn’t necessarily the best place to fulfill all of your power washing fantasies.

PowerWash Simulator definitely lives up to its namesake, and while there’s something quite satisfying and calming about slowly spraying a concentrated beam of water at objects to rid them of dirt, the repetitiveness of its gameplay can’t be ignored. If you’re looking for a by-the-numbers time waster that feels a little like painting towards a set objective, then hop into your cleaning suit and equip your nozzle of choice (even better if you pair it with your favorite podcast). However, some will definitely find the power washing itself to be more of a chore than a blast, so splashing around with PowerWash Simulator is better left to anyone looking to zone out and clean to their heart’s content.

TalkBack / Re: Trophy (Switch) Review
« on: February 06, 2023, 10:06:12 PM »
I know it's a hassle, but can't you remap buttons at the system level e.g., switching a and b. Then change back when you go to another game?
For folks that played the Mega Man collection on GameCube, you might remember that the reverse button mapping makes it almost unplayable for some.

Sure, but not being able to do it in game is still annoying. One of Trophy's issues is that it takes some of the negative aspects of NES games that are rarely seen anymore.

TalkBack / Trophy (Switch) Review
« on: February 03, 2023, 09:40:01 AM »

NES-style Mega Man returns, sort of.

When a game wears its inspiration so clearly on its sleeve, direct comparisons between the two are inevitable. Such is the case with Trophy, an unabashed Mega Man clone, but also a competent one, for the most part. While the jump and shoot action remains largely intact, the signature weapon upgrades are noticeably absent. Fortunately, that deviation doesn't detract overmuch from Trophy's quality. What does, however, is cheap, frustrating enemy placement and fairly rudimentary level design.

The combination of good guy Dr. Sword and his robot friend Beeper, Trophy (the titular fighting robot) runs and guns through a total of eight initial stages and a final level that unlocks after clearing them. You can choose which of the stages to play and complete them in any order, but some like Train and Forest are easier than others. A couple are downright cruel in terms of their enemy placement and even the checkpoints where you spawn after dying. While the stages themselves feel very familiar to this lifelong Blue Bomber fan, they are also fairly derivative and even repetitive, the aforementioned Train level being particularly boring. Each stage ends with a large boss fight, and these range from manageable to challenging and even maddening.

Working in its favor is that the controls feel quite solid; jumping and shooting down all manner of robotic opposition is largely satisfying throughout. An odd hit box around your character means you'll land some tricky platforming jumps that you might have thought to be failures but also make contact with instant-kill spikes when you were certain you skirted past. Unfortunately, there's no button remapping (or any real options at all), so you're stuck with using A to jump and B to shoot.

The music is actually quite pleasant and adds to the 8-bit NES-style nostalgia play. The sound effects would not be out of place in a Capcom or Konami title from that era, and the visuals are crisp. With regards to performance, there is some obvious slowdown when multiple enemies and projectiles are on screen simultaneously, but it was definitely tolerable and dare I say familiar.

Hidden secrets in the stages allow you to increase your health meter or power up your blaster, adding to the size and strength of your bullets. If you get stuck, I found it worthwhile to move on to a different stage and hopefully acquire some upgrades to make previous challenges easier to overcome. Now if only there was an upgrade that allowed you to see each boss' health meter…

Trophy is a competent and enjoyable action-platformer that looks and feels like Mega Man, even if it falters in a few specific areas and doesn’t quite live up to that comparison. The game does enough to make it worth recommending to fans of 8-bit classics of yore, provided you can look past some of its poor level design and cheap deaths. At the end of the day, I'd award it a trophy somewhere in between participation and podium.

TalkBack / Bear's Restaurant (Switch) Review Mini
« on: February 02, 2023, 09:42:21 AM »

There's a bear and a restaurant, but this light adventure is heavier on story than cuisine.

There’s a subset of adventure games where the focus is so squarely on their narrative that there’s little room for any actual gameplay. This isn’t always a bad thing, though: sometimes it allows for just enough player agency to be the cherry on top of a truly endearing story. Bear’s Restaurant falls somewhere in between, as the absence of much to do besides walking around and interacting with other characters makes up the vast majority of the action. Fortunately, with an emotional tale at its core, it manages to provide a fairly enjoyable way to pass a couple hours.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that, based on the title and the game’s opening, you’re about to enjoy a restaurant simulation experience of some sort. You, a grey cat, wake up in bed to a bear in a chef’s outfit. Even the opening 15 minutes see you taking orders from customers, passing them along to chef bear, and then delivering the dishes as they come out. You’re also introduced to one of the primary mechanics of Bear’s Restaurant: obtaining memory shards from people you encounter and using those to dive into their memories. Doing so plays a brief cutscene that reveals a special food they might have enjoyed. Not long after, an important truth is revealed about everyone who enters the restaurant: they’ve all passed on and are living in the afterlife.

Saying much more about the story would be doing a disservice to the game, but suffice it to say the plot is an eccentric mix of bittersweet and weird. You’ll eventually encounter people who have been judged as going to heaven or hell, and the memory shards you collect end up granting the ability to see how each character met their fate. The themes of death and what awaits us after we shuffle off this mortal coil permeate Bear’s Restaurant, but they can be at odds with the rudimentary presentation and its vivid pixelated colors. After rolling credits there’s a nice bit of extra content to explore if you’re so inclined, but the lack of any meaningful gameplay means you need to be pretty engaged in the story to want to see it through. The heaviness of certain story beats and the way they’re weaved in almost unexpectedly may be off putting to some players.

Bear’s Restaurant offers a unique experience in that it is both more and less than what it appears to be. Its narrative delivers some poignant emotional moments, but it's also interspersed with oddly dark or fantastical elements that undermine its genuine heart. As a prequel to Fishing Paradiso, which Neal reviewed here, it does at least introduce characters that carry over to that follow up, but those looking for something more well rounded and with more pronounced gameplay elements may want to skip the restaurant and go straight to paradise. If you’re up for a story about the afterlife, how people get there, and the desire to hold on to those we’ve lost, pull up a chair at Bear’s Restaurant.

TalkBack / DRAINUS (Switch) Review
« on: February 02, 2023, 09:19:00 AM »

As far as shoot-'em-ups go, using a shield is rarely this satisfying.

It’s always a treat when a well worn genre like the shoot-’em-up receives a new entry that adds a unique feature or mechanic that distinguishes it from others of its ilk. From Team Ladybug and WSS Playground, makers of the very excellent Record of Lodoss War-Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth-, DRAINUS is a horizontal shooter that puts the focusing on switching between offense and defense on the fly, literally. At the touch of a button you can conjure up a shield that absorbs most enemy projectiles, but it also allows you to return that energy in a burst of homing lasers. The end result is a genuinely fun and satisfying experience that’s only lacking in terms of its staying power and replay value.

In an effort to resist the cruel and oppressive “capital E” Empire, the protagonist steals the Drainus ship and blasts off into space. Across six fairly lengthy stages, you’ll fight your way through a variety of enemy ships and mechs to reach the final boss. Every level culminates in a multi-stage battle against a different oversized ship, and the overall journey is definitely an enjoyable one. That said, there’s little to unlock after rolling credits other than an arcade mode and an added difficulty mode where you can only take a single hit before a game over. The lack of online leaderboards is another curious omission given how common they are in shoot-’em-ups.

Fortunately, the gameplay loop of DRAINUS is incredible, and reminiscent of both Gradius and Ikaruga. At any time, you can bring up a menu where you can spend accumulated currency to purchase and equip upgrades to your ship, but the upgrades build up and don’t kick in until you’ve picked up a power up dropped from certain defeated enemies. Each level of upgrade that you activate in-flight also functions as a pseudo life meter, allowing you to take an extra hit at the cost of losing that upgrade. The upgrades come in many different flavors, including stronger base guns, missiles that shoot out in a variety of directions, mini-guns that rotate around your ship, and shields that absorb different projectiles. It’s the Reflector ability, though, that really makes the game stand out, and just how satisfying it is to absorb enemy shots, store up that energy, and then have it explode out of your ship to rain down destruction is a thing of beauty.

The stages themselves aren’t necessarily filled with visual variety, but they do include some neat effects in terms of how your ship enters larger ones to navigate them like a maze, for instance. One level features a vertical screen wrap that presents a series of corridors for you to choose from. The music is solid throughout, and the explosions and other visual flourishes do add to the game’s charm and presentation.

I’ve played dozens of horizontal and vertical shooters on Switch, and DRAINUS is definitely in the upper third of them. Your ship’s unique ability to absorb and reflect enemy fire back at them adds a gratifying push and pull to the gameplay, and there’s enough meat on the bone of the six total stages to make them well worth a playthrough. The lack of unlockables is unfortunate, but the number of upgrades you can open up and attach to your ship does allow for some neat customization. Another slight issue is that because the power-ups you collect allow you to take extra hits, you become something of a sitting duck after losing a life during a boss fight, with no way to reactivate your power-ups and thus build up your arsenal and your “life meter.” While it’d be great to see online leaderboards and more content added down the road, I’d still recommend DRAINUS to fans of the genre and–given the manageable challenge it offers–even newcomers looking to try one of these for the first time.

TalkBack / Persona 3 Portable (Switch) Review
« on: January 17, 2023, 07:00:00 AM »

Shooting yourself in the head shouldn’t be this satisfying.

Since its original release over a decade ago, Persona 3 Portable had long been trapped on Sony’s PSP and Vita. Debuting after the original Persona 3 and Persona 3 FES, Portable is famous for allowing players to choose a female protagonist from the beginning of the game, which Persona 4 and 5 would move away from. P3P is also condensed in terms of movement and exploration, taking a cursor and menu-based approach in contrast to physically moving a character from area to area, at least outside of the series’ traditional dungeon crawling. Without question, it skews on the longer end of JRPGs, with my most recent playthrough clocking in at just over 40 hours, and that’s as someone who had finished it once before on Vita and played quickly for review purposes. The upgrades brought to this remaster of P3P, though, help it retain staying power as a solid and engaging entry in a series that has continued to gain a fanbase.

P3P begins with a choice between a male or a female protagonist, and I opted for the latter. As a new transfer student, you move into a dorm with fellow students who end up becoming your friends and party members. The cast definitely has a few standouts, such as Aigis who joins the group about halfway through, but on the whole I found them a little less endearing than those from Persona 4 and 5. P3P’s narrative is a captivating one, with the school transforming into a massive, multi-floor tower called Tartarus during the Dark Hour, a hidden hour just after midnight. Tartarus represents the primary dungeon of the game, one to which you’ll return regularly to power up your characters, acquire new demons (personas), and complete side quests. Outside of the dungeon, every few weeks you have to defeat a boss or two roaming the city during a full moon, but you’re given ample warning about when such an event is going to occur.

Guiding your chosen protagonist through the school year during the day and navigating Tartarus and the Dark Hour at night is highly addictive. No matter what activities you take on, you’re always making progress in some way. Speaking of the recent Persona games in particular, the feeling of seeing your social stats like Academics, your character level, or your S-Link (Social Link) ranks climb is endlessly gratifying, and having a multitude of choices each in-game day makes the game very hard to put down. I spent much of the early part of the game working at two of the shops at the mall to build up social stats while also earning some money to buy better weapons. With my Courage and Charm at a higher level, I had greater access to different S-Links, so I could unlock more side story beats and make fusing personas more effective.

Tartarus itself contains over 250 floors, and the floors themselves are randomly generated. The floors are divided into six blocks that each provide their own color palette, but for the most part the visuals of the dungeon are fairly boring and repetitive. Persona 4 and especially Persona 5 would improve on this issue quite a bit. Still, the “press-turn” combat system that rewards you with an extra turn when you score a critical hit or strike an enemy’s weakness remains a delight, and it’s one of my favorite types of combat in a turn-based RPG. Carrying a balanced team that can hit a variety of enemy weak points while also not having your party too susceptible to a specific element or two can be the difference between climbing to higher floors of the dungeon and endlessly seeing your party wiped.

Without a doubt, there are some particularly challenging boss fights throughout P3P. Grinding at various points is practically a necessity, which is made a little easier with some of the customization options added for this remaster. In addition to multiple difficulty levels you can switch between at any time, there's also an experience boost or decrease you can activate. Frankly, trying to get through the final boss gauntlet is such a Herculean task that no one should feel guilty for making ample use of these features.

Reiterating on an early point, the lack of mobility and 3D exploration in P3P does put a bit of a damper on the experience. It's harder to connect with its world and characters because they just aren't as visually realized. That said, there are some genuinely charming, heartwarming, and engaging moments to be found among the game's dozens of hours, and the way in which you almost can't see everything in one playthrough makes its new game plus all the more enticing. From purchasing items through the home shopping channel on Sunday, to meeting the old monk at the club on weekends, and even going on a date with Elizabeth, the character who helps you perform demon fusions and offers most of the game's side quests: P3P is full of day-to-day tasks that manage to captivate in that repetitive RPG fashion. It doesn't hurt that the hip-hop and jazz-infused soundtrack is full of certified bangers.

Even though its sequels would largely improve on the formula, Persona 3 Portable remains an enjoyable but formidable challenge. It packs a healthy amount of content into its lengthy runtime, and if the combination of school life sim and dungeon crawler strikes you, there's little reason not to dive right in. It's worth considering that P3P does feel a fair bit darker in tone and theme, complete with characters needing to shoot themselves in the head to summon their personas. For those who first played the game on PSP or Vita, the visuals and performance have received a noticeable boost over the original version, in addition to now being able to quick save your progress at any time. The update doesn't reinvent the wheel, but added quality of life features definitely make this the ideal way to play Persona 3 Portable.

TalkBack / Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider (Switch) Review
« on: January 11, 2023, 06:00:00 AM »

Fun while it lasts, this action platformer plays largely by the numbers.

Published by The Arcade Crew, who also put out titles such as Kunai and Infernax, Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider is an action platformer in the vein of Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man, with ample references to both classic games. While the cyborg-looking Ninja that you control, Moonrider, moves and strikes in a smooth fashion, the eight levels you'll battle through offer little variety, and there really isn't anything here you haven't seen before.

Before hopping into the main story, I'd say it's worth completing the brief tutorial to familiar yourself with Moonrider's kit. You have a basic sword slash that can form a three-strike combo, a special move attached to an MP meter, and the ability to jump off of walls to navigate vertical spaces. In nearly every stage you can find power modules that can be equipped to Moonrider to add perks and buffs, such as stronger armor, automatic MP regen, and health restoration from defeating enemies. Most of these modules are carefully hidden, often within secret passages, so it pays to be thorough in your exploration of each stage.

The eight total levels are divided into different areas and end with a boss battle against foes designed much like Moonrider. As a result, defeating these figures rewards you with a new special move that can be selected from a wheel menu; as you might expect, some of these abilities are particularly effective against certain bosses in other stages. A variety of mini-bosses pop up throughout the game as well, but the basic enemy variety is definitely lacking. The levels themselves, outside of a few underwater areas and some motorbike segments, are a really similar aesthetic, making it hard to distinguish between them. Fortunately, you do have a choice of stages after the first one that opens the game and can return to each to improve your score, time, ranking and find any hidden power modules.

In terms of visuals and its soundtrack, Vengeful Guardian absolutely looks and sounds like a Sega Genesis or SNES title, and for better or worse, it even retains a little bit of jank, too. What hurts the aesthetic is how nearly every level appears dark and gritty, with lots of blacks, greys, and browns featuring prominently on screen. After a while, each section just kind of blends together, and it’s just not easy to differentiate one part of a level from another. The pumping music coursing through each stage certainly helps to alleviate some of the monotony, though.

Focusing on the minute-to-minute gameplay, guiding Moonrider through corridors, up elevator shafts, and across platforms is mostly satisfying. Slicing and dicing enemies or using the different beams and projectiles acquired from the bosses works well and will feel familiar to anyone who’s played games like this before–Contra 3, Mega Man X, and Shinobi III all come to mind.  Having initially skipped the tutorial, I thought the only way to sprint was to double tap forward; it’s much easier, however, to simply press the ZR button, so here’s hoping others can avoid some of the platforming headaches I encountered by rushing headlong into the game.

While there’s certainly nothing really off putting about Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider, it ultimately feels pretty derivative. It does an admirable job of conjuring up feelings and impressions of the 16-bit era, but it fails to push the envelope in any meaningful way. There’s no doubt that it’s a decent way to spend a couple hours as far as action-platformers go, and fans of the genre–particularly the retro-focused kind–will get a kick out of something so clearly paying homage. For my money, though, I’d have liked to see a few twists and a bit more risk taking with such a well-worn type of video game. Falling short of being a full Moonrider, Vengeful Guardian does enough to make rolling credits worthwhile, if not much else.

TalkBack / Melatonin (Switch) Review
« on: December 24, 2022, 08:56:34 AM »

At night I dream of being in Rhythm Heaven.

Melatonin does a wonderful job of creating a lo-fi, pastel-colored version of rhythm game darling Rhythm Heaven, and that's high praise. Nintendo's version of WarioWare but with music, the Rhythm Heaven series has been conspicuously absent from Switch. Fortunately, developer Half Asleep has come up with a venerable substitute whose presentation sets it apart from what’s come before.

The premise of Melatonin is that every night a man falls asleep on his couch and dreams of all sorts of fantastical situations and vivid memories. The dreams function as the stages of Melatonin, and each one features different music and a unique mini-game. If you're a fan of lo-fi beats, you're going to dig the music here, but if not, don't expect much aural variety.  The lack of any real story is a slight knock against it, but fortunately the gameplay and presentation are exceptional.

Across four nights and a finale, 21 stages have to be completed to roll credits on Melatonin. Each night contains five stages, with the fifth being a mash-up of the previous four. All five are connected by a loose theme, which makes sense given that they are all part of the same night's dreams, and each one can award up to three stars on regular difficulty and three rings on Hard Mode. Because every stage is unique, it begins with a tutorial that explains how the mechanics of that stage work, while also offering a chance to practice said mechanics before hopping into the scored version of the level. During each night, you’ll need to earn eight stars in total before the final stage opens up, and then score at least two stars on that final stage to move to the next night. Even though the experience may only last a few hours, going back to play every level on Hard Mode (which ramps up the speed) or achieve perfect scores on completed stages is a worthwhile incentive on its own given how fun and charming the game is.

By default, the tutorial operates with a timing circle in the middle of the screen to assist with your button presses. The only three buttons used during gameplay are A, L, and R, making the Switch an easy place to pick up and play the game. A smattering of accessibility options allow players to, for instance, keep the practice circle on outside of the tutorials or make early, late, or missed notes less of a penalty towards your score. Most of the time, you'll be relying on sound cues that function as prompts for your button presses; visual cues appear as well, but the stages have clever ways of distorting what you see to force you to rely on what you hear. Overall, Melatonin seems a great entry point for newcomers to the rhythm genre but ramps up the difficulty nicely as you progress from one night to the next.

In terms of how it looks and sounds, Melatonin employs a cartoon aesthetic with hand-drawn visuals that work well for what it is. It's satisfying to be able to choose which of the four stages to play during each night, as you can walk from one to the next and play them in any order. The background music is quiet and soothing, and as someone who listens to a fair bit of lo-fi, I loved the different tracks accompanying each stage. The clean UI helps to bolster a comfortable and relaxing experience that is nearly impossible not to bop and nod along with.

Whether you're watering dream flowers, catching hamburgers in la-la land, or socking a few dingers mid-snooze, Melatonin makes and leaves behind a warm and inviting impression. You can even edit each of the non-mashup levels to make your own customized version. From both a gameplay and presentation standpoint, what's here is nearly unassailable, and the game serves as an exquisite reminder of just how spoiled we are with the wealth of indie titles on Switch and also how astonishing it is that it took until now to get a flattering facsimile of Rhythm Heaven on Nintendo's latest console. Playing this late at night might not boost your brain's melatonin levels, but it’s sure to leave you smiling before bed time.

TalkBack / Aka (Switch) Review
« on: December 16, 2022, 11:05:12 AM »

Also known as a relaxed but overly plain adventure sim.

Aka doesn’t waste an opportunity to tell you that its eponymous red panda is trying to move on from a war-torn past. This throughline is one of the few narrative beats that come up, and other than that, Aka really is all about having the freedom to explore and interact as you see fit. While there isn’t necessarily a shortage of things to do across the game’s four islands, few of these activities feel at all satisfying. The result is a nonlinear experience that might be too leisurely and empty for its own good.

Upon arriving on the first island, Aka is invited by a neighbor to live in the home underneath theirs, and this space serves as your home base, including a bed, a bathtub, a fire, and a storage chest. In keeping with the game’s day-night cycle, you can return home and use your bed to advance to the next day, which is useful for letting your crops grow. While farming is one of the primary activities that Aka can partake in, crafting, mini-games, and interacting with NPCs represent other ways of killing time. The real issue is that nothing you do feels very meaningful or rewarding; quests literally have no rewards to them. Moreover, certain quests just repeat themselves, like the cleaning out of dead tree stumps and rock formations that make up separate tasks for each island you visit. Seeing a quest completion pop up and receiving no tangible benefit to it makes it hard to maintain any real drive for exploring Aka’s world more thoroughly.

In a way, it feels like Aka is trying to pull off what Animal Crossing has done so successfully: living, working, and collecting being their own rewards. But it has little of the charm and none of the polish of Nintendo’s latest powerhouse franchise. Objects on the ground can be hard to discern against muddy background textures. At one point, a bridge I needed to cross was clearly glitching out as its individual pieces were flailing around the screen as if caught in a tornado. During the game’s frequent loading screens, the music cuts out and then restarts entirely. Even just booting up the game into its intro cutscene led to screen hangs that made me think my Switch had frozen up.

Even just controlling your character and doing simple menuing isn’t the walk in the park the game itself is trying to espouse. Trying to hoe an area for your farm and water your crops is an exercise in frustration given the camera perspective and Aka’s tendency to keep taking steps and moving after you’ve stopped pushing the control stick. Picking up items, dropping them on the ground, and even selecting things from your inventory simply isn’t smooth, and when an experience relies so heavily on these basic actions, they should be easy and comfortable to perform. One of the few examples of Aka controlling well was during a rhythm-based mini-game, but of course there was absolutely zero reward for completing it, let alone getting a perfect score.

Aka’s heart is in the right place, and it may have an audience with players looking for a breezy, slice-of-life game. Unfortunately, playing the game offers too little of an incentive for how challenging it is to control your red panda friend. While it may be true that a good deed is its own reward, such a proverb doesn’t lend itself well to the medium of video games. There are some worthwhile moments to be had in this world, but they’re just too few and far between.

TalkBack / Crisis Core -Final Fantasy VII Reunion- (Switch) Review
« on: December 15, 2022, 06:00:00 AM »

A faithful but fleeting Final Fantasy experience.

The "Reunion" subtitle is an especially apt one given Square Enix's history with Crisis Core and the current situation of the Final Fantasy VII universe. Those who longed to re-experience the once PSP-exclusive side game are now able to reunite with hero Zack and familiar FFVII characters like Aerith and Sephiroth. For anyone who never played the original Crisis Core, this modern remaster offers a chance to do so with the potential knowledge of the events of Final Fantasy VII Remake. Tempering the excitement of newcomers, though, it's important to keep in mind that Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion is based on a smaller, portable title, and its visual glow up might not compensate for repetitive gameplay and poorly-aged narrative trappings.

Across its 10 chapters, Crisis Core Reunion tells Zack's story as a member of SOLDIER and his responsibility for protecting the interests of Midgar mega corporation Shinra. Much of the narrative centers around the pursuit of Genesis, a former SOLDIER 1st class who defects and starts a war against Shinra. Eventually, more of the events originally seen in FFVII's flashbacks come to pass in Crisis Core's timeline, culminating with the beginning of Cloud's story. Ultimately, the main story can be seen in about 10 to 15 hours, but completing all of the extra missions will add many more hours to your playthrough.

However, what's frustrating about those side missions is that they end up consisting purely of more battles. Each one is essentially a tiny dungeon with a few treasure chests to pick up, some potential random encounters, and then a mandatory fight against a particular enemy or group. Some involve rematches with bosses like Ifrit, but in general you aren't often seeing something you haven't already. More than that, the game as a whole doesn't really provide much of an incentive to complete more than a fraction of these missions; on normal difficulty, you'll likely acquire all the materia, equipment, and stat growth you need from doing less than 20 percent of these missions, if that.

Working in Crisis Core's favor is its quick and fairly satisfying combat. Since so much of the content consists of random and scripted battles, I was glad to see that controlling Zack as he fights his way through scores of enemy soldiers and monsters is relatively easy. Your equipped materia link a spell or ability to one of six button combinations, and outside of your basic attack, your spells and physical moves are tied to their own MP and AP meters, respectively. You can use items at will, and Zack's dodge and parry moves help him to avoid damage. Should you fall in battle, a prompt allows you to restart from the beginning of the fight or even adjust your loadout before doing so.

As someone who didn't play the original game but who does have nostalgia for Final Fantasy VII as a whole, I found the way in which Crisis Core delivers its story to be somewhat lackluster. During each of the game's individual chapters, the events that take place land with more of a thud than having any real resonance. While Zack's charisma helps him stand out and makes him likable, characters like Angeal and Genesis, who serve as mentor and antagonist, respectively, feel more like window dressing than compelling foils for Zack. So often you'll find yourself walking for a mere few seconds before encountering the next cutscene, which makes the little player agency you have outside of combat feel vapid.

Without a doubt, the boss battles that close out each chapter are a major highlight for Crisis Core. What blunts their effectiveness is how easily you can render them toothless through just a pinch of materia fusion. Once I crafted a Blizzaga materia, much of the game became a breeze. It doesn't help that so many of the enemies you square off against are just copies of Genesis, divided into slightly different types.

When you consider its portable roots, Crisis Core Reunion, as a remaster, is actually quite impressive from an aesthetic point of view. It doesn't match the visuals of Final Fantasy VII Remake, but its release on multiple platforms means that many more players will be able to experience Zack's story and meet some familiar FFVII characters before they became heroes. The Switch version itself holds up quite well. It targets and largely maintains 30 frames-per-second with only the occasional stutter. When docked the target resolution appears to be 720p with handheld mode swapping over to about 540p. Both configurations make use of temporal anti-aliasing, which results in nice smooth edges, albeit with some artifacting on quick moving objects.

Evaluating any remaster is fraught with difficulty because a person's enjoyment of it is almost always tied to how much they connect with the original game. My connection to Crisis Core is only in my experience with the original Final Fantasy VII and then the more recent Remake and its Intergrade DLC. Make no mistake: I love the world and characters of Final Fantasy VII, but that's not enough to make Crisis Core Reunion an easy recommendation. Much of its gameplay is repetitive and its narrative only pays off in fits and starts. Those who want to see and do all that this Reunion remaster offers will find dozens of hours of content, but outside of its compelling protagonist, Crisis Core feels fairly hollow, and it should be judged in a 2022 context as a home console experience. As such, its appeal will be limited more to diehard fans than RPG players as a whole.

TalkBack / Tactics Ogre: Reborn (Switch) Review
« on: December 09, 2022, 02:13:44 PM »

Does this Super Famicom and PSP rework rise like the proverbial Phoenix?

Tactics Ogre: Reborn is one of a multitude of RPGs from Square Enix to round out the year. The large developer is no stranger to remakes and remasters, and their effort in re-releasing the 2010 PSP version of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together is an enjoyable one, for the most part. The awkward progression halting, over-long final chapters, and inscrutable mechanics make for an experience that's challenging in more than a few ways. Do its bright spots shine enough to outweigh the shortcomings?

From the outset, the story of Tactics Ogre: Reborn seems to take place in the middle of a longer saga, which gives the beginning a bit of a shaky start. As protagonist Denem, you see yourself embroiled in a civil war as a member of the smallest of three factions, the Walister. Across its four chapters, Reborn takes you through dozens of battles, all sorts of political scheming, and pivotal moments in the war for Valeria, the game's setting. Throughout, it can be tricky to keep up with all of the names, for factions, families, places, and people, but those with a penchant for deeper, intricate narratives will have an opportunity to become engrossed with this one.

From the overworld map, you move from location to location to initiate battles and watch cutscenes. In certain places, you'll have access to a shop where you can buy, sell, and craft equipment, items, and spells. What makes the shop frustrating is that it requires a bit of navigating to figure out which pieces fit on which job classes, and whether one weapon is stronger or even capable of being upgraded. The UI just isn't as friendly as it could be. When you're not shopping, you'll be moving to map locations marked in red for a story event or side quest, and some areas even lead to multi-part battles that require you prepare well before entering.

Before venturing into Reborn's turn-based tactical combat, I want to touch on the sublime musical score, which had been re-recorded with a live orchestra. In short, it's incredible, and contributed mightily to the gravitas of the game. So too does the excellent voice work, which helps to make each character stand out. In a title with so many different faces, the voice acting really makes it easier to identify with the crucial individuals in the story.

At the heart of Tactics Ogre: Reborn is its familiar but intricate combat system, which originated back on the Super Famicom, and predated classic PSOne game Final Fantasy Tactics by a couple of years. Characters take turns moving, attacking, casting spells, and using items, with the goal usually to defeat a specific named enemy. In certain fights, you're required to eliminate every single foe, and some of these can be quite lengthy, especially later in the game. There's a single speed up option that helps to move things along, but it would have been nice to see a few more speeds to choose from. That said, the abundance of combat in the game, sometimes at the cost of longer story beats, may work in the game's favor given how darn compelling it is.

Taking knights, wizards, clerics, and archers into battle only scratches the surface of what's possible. Recruiting special characters, unlocking hidden job classes, and discovering powerful weapons are all in service of experiencing every nook and cranny that Tactics Ogre has to offer. Completing the game unlocks the World Tarot, which allows you to return to any past event on the large, branching timeline you create as you play the game. It's an incredible feature for completionists and those who want to see how specific choices altered their course. Even during combat itself, you can activate the Chariot Tarot to rewind back to a particular turn and play it out different from there. These features almost make it easy to ignore the lack of difficulty options and awkward progression. Almost.

At all times you are at the mercy of the Union Level, which is the maximum level that your party members can reach at a given point in the story. What this means is that you might need to be incredibly diligent about upgrading your equipment and arsenal at the shop, and the more time you spend there, the less time you're investing in the more interesting parts of the game. There's essentially no grinding in Tactics Ogre, except for when you're looking for specific crafting materials, items, or money. In many of the battles you engage in, the enemies will be at or just above your Union Level, and winning these only to see thousands of experience points just thrown away seems a cruel system. Xenoblade Chronicles 3 allowing you to bank and spend XP whenever you choose is a much more elegant and player-friendly system. Some of the final bosses are as many as five levels above your maximum, making for some grueling end-game fights.

What really impressed me during my time with Tactics Ogre: Reborn was the enemy AI and in particular the AI settings that can be applied to your own party. In general, the computer-controlled allies and adversaries make smart decisions and adapt to what's in front of them. Nowhere was this more evident than when I used the Chariot Tarot to rewind time and watch my opponents take completely different actions based on even a single new move of mine.

While my final impression of Tactics Ogre: Reborn is a positive one, I'm also left wanting in some noticeable ways. The final three to five hours of the game are nothing but a slog, and the greatest culprit is a four-part dungeon that comes in the heels of one that can include as many as 10 combat encounters; all of this without a chance to shop, too. I certainly understand the purpose of the Union Level, but it's an inelegant solution to a problem that other RPGs have themselves faced. Still, the aesthetics remain true to the original versions of the game, and the audio experience is simply marvelous. It's built much more for veterans of the genre and players with patience and persistence, but Tactics Ogre, in the right hands, can absolutely soar.

TalkBack / Fae Farm (Switch) Preview
« on: November 29, 2022, 04:42:02 PM »

Our farm is a very, very, very Fae Farm.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a hands-off demo for Fae Farm, a farming-and-more sim that was announced during the September 2022 Nintendo Direct. From Phoenix Labs, the makers of Dauntless, Fae Farm appears to be a chill, multi (or single) player entry in a genre that is much larger now than when something like Harvest Moon on the Super Nintendo first released. The team members taking us through the demo emphasized the concept of “cozy,” and it’s hard not to see how Fae Farm embraces that theme wholeheartedly.

The 15-minute demo shown to members of the media took us through your character’s individual farm, a nearby village, and a dungeon area. One title that I was reminded of during the presentation was the hidden 3DS gem Fantasy Life. Within the dungeons, you can clear out the resident monsters to give yourself time for mining resources. Outside of dungeons, we encountered no shortage of people with quests to give, which appeared to be a primary method of tutorializing the game. In addition to a robust crafting system to keep your various meters filled, your farmhouse has its own “cozy score,” and sleeping in a space with a high cozy rating can actually boost your stats. This was one of the more intriguing features of the game given that it can incentivize players to get into decorating and padding out their homes through the offer of a more tangible perk.

We didn’t get much in the way of detail about the story of Fae Farm, but there will be an overarching narrative weaved throughout the game. Multiple save states allow you to create a file that might be used exclusively for solo play and another for hopping into the world with friends to take on quests together. Freedom seems to be the name of the game here: if you want to build up your farm and character as efficiently as possible, have at it; if you’d prefer to host an in-game fishing trip with your buddies, make it happen. By choosing to prepare and craft less, constantly charging headlong into the next main mission or dungeon, you’re effectively selecting your own difficulty, too. Another minor but helpful quality of life mechanic saw your character automatically switch to the appropriate basic tool rather than needing to manually switch between them.

This Switch exclusive doesn’t seem to be trying to reinvent the farming/life sim genre, but there’s definitely potential for Fae Farm to reinvigorate it. The frame rate could be an issue, based on the early build we were shown, but with lots to do and the ability to team up with friends to tackle whichever activity you choose, there’s certain to be an audience for Fae Farm. If the last couple years have taught us nothing else, it’s that seeking cozy spaces and experiences has definitely become a priority for many, and seeing a title that’s familiar gameplay-wise really embrace those particular elements has me excited to see more of Fae Farm ahead of its Spring 2023 release window.

TalkBack / Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion Preview
« on: November 29, 2022, 12:00:00 AM »

Square is running out of words beginning with "Re"

Crisis Core will be, for many, a Final Fantasy side game they just never got a chance to try. Given that the game has been stuck on the Sony PSP since its 2008 release (2007 in Japan), it's very much a welcome sight to see it coming to basically all platforms in 2022. I had the opportunity to play to the end of Crisis Core's third chapter on PlayStation 5, and while it's not what I expected it to be, I'm eager to see more about how it fleshes out the world and story of Final Fantasy VII.

As a direct prequel to FFVII, Crisis Core revolves around Zack Fair, a skilled but overconfident member of SOLDIER, the same group that Cloud Strife was once a part of. If you've played Final Fantasy VII Remake, you'll have a bit of an idea about how Crisis Core Reunion feels, but its structure in particular is what I've had to come to terms with during my first few hours with the game.

Rather than the larger world and freedom of exploration offered by the original Final Fantasy VII (itself only available on a Nintendo platform thanks to the Switch), Zack's tale is divided into multiple chapters and features more of a mission-based structure. The first three chapters have each involved a dungeon area in or around a place like the Shinra Building and then a boss fight, but accessing these segments is largely done through talking to the head of SOLDIER or another prominent character. There's no real traveling from A to B here; the little movement and exploration to be found are constantly interrupted by cutscenes or combat. And so that seems to be, at least so far, at the core of this Reunion 15 years in the making: story beats and action-RPG battles. Don't be expecting to explore all of Midgar or travel across any continent.

Fortunately, the combat is fast-paced and very reminiscent of FFVII Remake. You can execute basic sword slashes, dashes, and guard moves but also spend MP on magic spells and AP on physical special moves. The interplay between all of Zack's kit makes for an entertaining experience to be sure, but there's also a random element thrown in called the Digital Mind Wave or DMW. The DMW consists of three slot machine reels at the top of the screen that constantly spin during combat, and when they land on certain combinations they bestow special perks, like temporary invulnerability or free spell and ability usage for a time. It's this mechanic that also facilitates Zack's limit break attacks, which are his most powerful moves, and as he meets new people on his journey or acquires more summoning materia, the DMW becomes stocked with even more potent ways of doling out damage. Hitting an Ifrit jackpot at the right time really does make you feel like you're on fire–your opponent, too.

In addition to the main story path, there are side missions to undertake for the purpose of earning new materia, equipment, and items. These are often very slight combat encounters generally against familiar enemies or rematch against bosses like Ifrit and Bahamut. With a bevy of curative items in stock and a trusty Cura spell slotted into my loadout, I've only found one or two missions to be really challenging, but they offer a nice way to hone your skills while picking up extra loot.

As a fan of Nobuo Uematsu's work on the Final Fantasy series, it's nice to hear familiar tunes and sounds from FFVII make a return here, which one might expect for a prequel. However, the voice acting has been a bit of a letdown so far, with Zack being perhaps the only bright spot among the cast. The dialogue has also been a bit stilted, with awkward pauses that tinge serious conversation with a seemingly unintentional dose of humor. With many more hours left to go before rolling credits, I'm hopeful that upcoming characters and scenes will sound more convincing.

After having played both Final Fantasy VII Remake and exclusives like Demon's Souls, the visuals of Crisis Core Reunion do leave a little bit to be desired as well. It looks like a game that's coming out on current and last gen hardware, as is the case. I can only speculate, but if the PS5 version doesn't look all that great, what the Switch gets may leave folks wanting as well. We'll have more to say about performance specifically when we get our hands on the Switch version.

Having really just scratched the surface so far, I'm intrigued to see where the story of Crisis Core Reunion takes me, especially since I know roughly where the narrative ends up. The gameplay loop is generally satisfying, and I'm eager to see if it holds up across another dozen or more hours. With just a few short weeks before its December 13 release date, this Final Fantasy prequel once trapped on a single portable platform is almost here. Stay tuned for our full review, including Switch impressions, near launch.

TalkBack / Goodbye World (Switch) Review
« on: November 21, 2022, 07:56:00 AM »

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.

The premise of having a game within a game is one that interests me greatly. That Goodbye World leans very deliberately into this device given its two game dev protagonists lends the proceedings an air of authenticity. Unfortunately, the brevity of the story, lackluster presentation, and frustrating and sparse gameplay make for a tough sell.

Goodbye World opens with programmer Kanii trying to solve a conflict in college with an artist whose vision doesn't align with hers. At the same moment, graphics artist Kumade is within earshot and offers to partner with Kanii to work on her game. Across a series of 13 brief vignettes, their story plays out, and at the beginning of each one, you have an opportunity to play a level from the game being developed for what seems an obvious Game Boy stand-in. The story itself can be touching at times, but there isn't much substance to it, and parts of some of the chapters merely consist of dialogue boxes against a black screen.

The game within a game, Blocks, is a 2D puzzle platformer that escalates in difficulty far too abruptly. You control a small dinosaur-like creature who can destroy and create blocks to get over obstacles and eliminate enemies. You can only conjure up as many blocks as you've already taken apart, and time stops whenever you activate the block dropping mechanic. What's unfortunate about the game is that some sections require a fair bit of precision, which is difficult when jumping is mapped to pressing up on the stick. What's even worse is that even a simple mistake near the end of a stage can force you to restart from the beginning, like picking up a block you shouldn't have or jumping off a ledge before you could fully see what lay ahead. Interestingly, while you have three lives to try and finish each level, you don't actually need to do so to advance the story forward; a game over just takes you out of Blocks and back into the lives of Kanii and Kumade.

The eShop listing for Goodbye World is noticeably misleading, which definitely impacted my impression of it. It's billed as a "narrative adventure game," but there's essentially no adventure aspects to speak of. There's no exploration, no decision-making, and very few characters outside of the two protagonists. It's much more of a one or two-hour visual novel with a puzzle-platformer mini-game tucked inside, but it doesn't even have the dialogue choices or routes of other visual novels. I had to push myself to keep going as neither the gameplay or the story really held my attention.

Not being able to control Kanii or Kumade or explore their world at all makes it very difficult to connect with the story of Goodbye World. While its message about the challenges of independent game development is increasingly poignant, the packaging around that theme fails to captivate. The metagame Blocks, on its own, is equally plain, and the feeling I'm left with after rolling credits is largely one of disappointment. In spite of its interesting conceit, parting with Goodbye World isn't really sweet sorrow.

TalkBack / Rogue Legacy 2 Among a Handful of Indie World Shadowdrops
« on: November 09, 2022, 08:00:00 AM »

Did you need yet another game to play this month?

As is customary from Nintendo Direct and Indie World presentations, we've got another batch of freshly shadowdropped titles available on the eShop today. The most notable among them is Rogue Legacy 2, a sequel to the smash hit roguelike from 2013. Joining it is A Little to the Left, a puzzle game where a mischievous cat occasionally interferes with your progress. Rounding out the trio of newly released games is Once Upon a Jester, a narrative-filled adventure about performing on stage with songs and jokes to appease a variety of audiences.

Are you going to be picking up any of these three later today? Let us know in the comments!

TalkBack / Sports Story Hitting the Links, Pitch, and Court in December
« on: November 09, 2022, 07:41:35 AM »

You'll be doing a lot more than playing golf this time around.

The "one more thing" at the end of today's Indie World presentation was the long-awaited release date announcement for Sports Story, and it didn't end up actually being a specific date but instead a month: December. New sports including tennis, soccer, BMX, and even cricket have been added to the game, but there seems to be much more of an emphasis on non-athletic pursuits this time around. Hanging out at the mall, diving into dungeons, and sneaking around bases are just a few more activities added to your busy schedule.

Sports Story has a lot to live up to given the indie-darling status of Golf Story, and we don't have long to wait before we can settle down for the winter holidays with this seemingly robust sequel.

TalkBack / Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher (Switch) Review
« on: November 02, 2022, 11:30:36 AM »

Definitely bigger, but not necessarily better.

Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher is somewhere in the middle between spinoff and sequel, but it is absolutely Monster Rancher.  Anyone who has ever played a mainline entry, such as the recent Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX that came to Switch, will feel very much at home here. In addition to new ways of acquiring creatures to raise on your farm, returning characters make an appearance and a few other changes add some welcome flavor. But make no mistake: throwing kaiju into the mix won't be enough to bring in those who've never enjoyed Monster Rancher gameplay.

On the Island of Istur, in the same world as Monster Rancher, you play the role of monster trainer and breeder, except now with kaiju.  After meeting your handler Holly and getting your breeder's license, you head out into town to pick up your first kaiju. Holly and other characters, like Colt, will be known to those with Monster Rancher experience, as will many of the gameplay trappings. The Altar where you acquire your first kaiju is also the place where you can generate new ones through the use of codes, keywords, and what is called Memory Board. The Memory Board system uses NFC and would pair perfectly with amiibo, but for some bizarre reason Nintendo’s own figure line don’t work with the game–the Help menu goes so far as to specifically indicate that amiibo can’t be used. One neat feature at the Altar is that you can regenerate any kaiju you’ve owned previously, but ultimately I found the way music tracks were used in Monster Rancher 1 & 2 DX a bit more interesting.

Also within the city area, you can combine kaiju at the Research Center or bake cookies at the Inheritance Cookie Shop. The latter location is where you can create cookie items to bestow small stat bumps and special traits, with kaiju gaining an extra trait slot on their first and second birthdays for a total of three. Who doesn’t love birthday cookies? You can (but likely won’t be able to) use Memory Boards here as well, and you can store up to 30 cookies to feed to the different kaiju that you raise.

Back on the ranch, you can dedicate the weeks and months to having your kaiju participate in Drills, Errantries, Tournaments, and Adventures.  Drills are the typical method for increasing a kaiju’s stats like skill, speed, and power, but there are a couple neat changes here. Each region where you train has a Territory meter that fills up and can award stat bonuses when maxed out.  Enemy kaiju will also attempt to take over the training areas, and defeating them will protect your Territory meter and also award stat bumps.  With the month-long Errantries, you need to meet and defeat specific kaiju trainers in scheduled arena battles before they’ll offer their services, with each trainer specializing in a particular move type or stat.  As usual, you have a chance to earn a new move at the end of most Errantries, and with the game autosaving at the beginning of every week, you can always reload if the results aren’t to your liking.

In addition to weeks where you’ll want to rest and restore your kaiju’s fatigue meter, there are Adventures (this game’s “Expeditions”) that crop up a few times a year during specific months.  Participating in one takes up an entire month, and the perspective shifts to a plodding, dungeon-crawling-esque mini-game. Here, you have a stamina meter that drops with every movement or action, and so you need to explore a small segment of the maze and return to base camp with any loot you’ve acquired. My major issue with the return of this feature is that the movement is incredibly slow, and because your stamina ticks down so quickly, you have little time to do much of anything before being forced to end the Adventure, lest you want your kaiju’s lifespan to decrease and its found loot forfeited.

Also on the ranch screen, you’ll regularly receive letters, with about half being advertisements for sales at the local shop, so not too much to get excited about.  A second character, Kanezo, who has the appearance of a Kanego (another kaiju), offers their own thoughts and insights throughout your time on the ranch screen, but they feel more like comedic relief than adding anything meaningful. It’s fun to see your massive kaiju stomp around the farm, and the UI remains familiar and easy to read and navigate. One addition to the bottom of the screen is an anger meter; the more angry your kaiju, the higher their guts (which powers their attacks in combat) and the more damage they deal. On the negative side, anger can also lead to kaiju being confused during battles or refusing to rest or complete their drills. It’s neat to have another aspect of their wellbeing to consider, especially one that can have such a noticeable impact on their performance.

Combat in the arena takes the form of one-on-one bouts in round-robin, single elimination, and even best-of-five type contests. The prize money earned from fighting is exorbitant, and after only a few hours I had more money than I knew what to do with (at least playing the game fairly casually).  The AI opponents are generally quite dumb, and they’ll seldom attack at all, even in the higher rankings.  More enjoyable, to my mind, is trying to acquire all of the 218 kaiju to fill up the game’s Kaiju Guide, but however you choose to play it, Ultra Kaiju Monster Rancher does just feel like more of the same.

In spite of the numerous small tweaks to the Monster Rancher formula, it’s difficult to see this Ultra Kaiju entry as a breakthrough for the series. The inclusion of NFC technology is hobbled by the lack of amiibo support, and the Adventures continue to feel like a relic from the beginning of 3D gaming in the ‘90s.  That said, seeing familiar kaiju–Gomora, Bemstar, and Sevinger (which was the first kaiju I raised)–and even Ultraman himself will definitely hit home for a certain audience.  After playing around with the remastered first two Monster Rancher games, there wasn’t enough in this release to keep my attention, but its updated graphics and presentation could make it a decent place for newcomers to the franchise.  Here’s hoping that the next time we see Monster Rancher on a Nintendo platform, it takes some kaiju-sized risks in order to offer a fresher experience overall.

TalkBack / Re: Missile Command: Recharged (Switch) Review Mini
« on: November 01, 2022, 12:47:50 PM »
There should really be a compilation of all these recharged games. I am hesitant to pick any individual one up but I would pay full retail price for a collection of all of them.

I agree, and I'd be surprised if we didn't see one eventually. That said, it's hard to know what a company like Atari is going to do next, and I've had fun with the Recharged games I've played so far. It's not a bad idea to pick up the ones you like now or maybe wait to grab them on sale.

TalkBack / Sophstar (Switch) Review
« on: October 28, 2022, 08:19:07 AM »

A retro-style vertical shooter with content for days.

One of the most important qualities of an arcade-style horizontal or vertical shooter is how much it entices you to keep picking it up time and time again. Sophstar shines exceptionally bright for its multitude of playable ships, bonus challenges, and unlockables. At the end of the day, though, it simply feels good to play and can offer something new every time you boot it up.

Published by Red Art Games, Sophstar follows heroine Soph and a seemingly harmless recon mission that morphs into so much more. Story interstitials between each of the eight stages shed light on Soph's background and what's happening in the galaxy. Depending on the difficulty level you choose, there are different endings to see, too, but it's the rock solid gameplay and variety of content that really stand out here.

The Arcade mode has six difficulty options, a training mode, and two scoring settings to choose from. The seven stages aren't overly long and generally involve at least one mini-boss and then a final boss; the eighth stage is effectively just a boss fight. While the enemy design isn't anything too special, the fact that there are nine unique ships to pilot more than makes up for that. Each one has a different main cannon, sub-weapon, and teleport ability, which allow for blink, shift, and repositioning maneuvers. The subweapons are very distinct from one another and rely on a meter that slowly charges up over time; they include screen cleaning bombs, concentrated laser beams, and even rotating shields that can be fired forward. In terms of pick ups, most defeated enemies drop green squares that quickly decrease in size and and point value, and on occasion you can snag an item that rotates between point values and sub-weapon meter charges. The teleport move also has a cooldown between uses.

A handful of extra modes complement the standard Arcade playthroughs. Cadet School offers a total of 60 challenge stages, each involving objectives like surviving for as long as possible, earning a certain number of points, or destroying enemies as fast as possible. Every one of these challenges awards a letter ranking based on performance and even unlocks a visual filter for the game. Score Attack, Timed, Challenge, Endless Mode, and the unlockable Ultimate Challenge add even more content to test your shoot-'em-up mettle, and every single mode (except for Cadet School) has its own online leaderboard.

In addition to the aforementioned filters that can be unlocked (I've got more than two dozen so far), different screen borders and even tate mode give more ways of tailoring the visual experience to your liking. The main game options allow for making your hit box visible, adjusting the appearance of the teleport gauge, and making enemy bullet pulse. What I loved to see was a sound test mode that eventually became available, since the music is pretty catchy and really grew on me the more I played.

Sophstar soars above some of the other arcade shooter offerings on Switch because of the sheer amount of content and replayability. Going through its Arcade Mode on different difficulties and using new ships is a genuine treat because each one feels distinct from the one before. While it's a bit annoying that sleep mode seems to regularly disconnect the game from its online servers, requiring a manual reconnection in the menu, there's little else about the game that is worth criticizing. Sophstar marks a stellar debut effort from developer Banana Bytes, and it's both an easy recommendation for vertical shooter fans and a title I'll be coming back to regularly.

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