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TalkBack / Akiba's Trip: Hellbound & Debriefed (Switch) Review
« on: July 20, 2021, 06:03:08 AM »

Akiba's Trip: Underwhelmed & Disappointed

Originally a PSP game, Akiba’s Trip: Hellbound & Debriefed is the first of the HD remakes in the franchise to be brought to updated consoles. The series acts as a love letter to Otaku trends, fan service, and Akihabara as a whole with the focal points emphasizing the culture surrounding what’s known as the electric town. The city is alive here with lots to find and explore but one thing I didn’t find a lot of was fun.

Akiba’s Trip follows a young “professional dork” named Nanashi, who is attacked in a dark alley trying to find a missing friend. After the assault, close to death, a vampire named Rui comes to the rescue but can only save him by turning him into a vampire as well. After turning, he’s recruited into NIRO, the anti-vampire task force. Straddling the line between human and vampire (or Kageyashi as they are called in the game,) Nanashi teams up with NIRO to rid Akihabara of the growing vampire threat. Armed with a team of Otaku (young pop culture enthusiasts) and a snappy fashion sense, Nanashi travels around Akihabara exploring the alleys of cosplayers while fighting vampire hordes that have infiltrated.

To combat the vampires, you have three attacks: A head attack, a body attack and a legs attack. Each one targets a specific article of clothing, and once you’ve done enough damage, you can grab and rip off that article of clothing leaving the enemies in their underwear. After you’ve removed all the top level clothes the enemy is exposed to the sun and disappears. This is a silly, fan service-y mechanic that feels a mile wide but an inch deep. Sure there are stats for specific pieces of clothing, or stat boosts to do more damage say to schoolgirl outfits, but it rarely feels profound.

The fashion aspect plays into Akihabara fashion culture, as it’s not uncommon to see cosplay displayed throughout the city. In Akiba’s Trip, it’s used as armor but some missions require specific real world outfits like school girl skirts or business suits so you better dress accordingly. Clothing can be found in tons of shops around the city or taken from enemies. Also there are skill books that will boost your stats against certain outfits so you can plan ahead. Outside of the gear, your stats improve from leveling up from combat encounters, and there are ALOT of those.

The flaw of the combat design is that being a vampire fighting for humans, you end up being attacked by both sides. This includes combat with any and all random NPC’s. At any given time you can randomly be attacked. This is super frustrating because it takes 2-3 seconds for your character to perform their intro combat animation and also combat will continue to occur in NPC conversations. You can get out of combat stance but that also takes 2-3 seconds and even after, you are still vulnerable to attack. The fact that these happen randomly may not be a big deal but I found myself in a combat arena 1 vs 1 story beat that was interrupted by roughly 15 random enemies joining into the frey. On the positive side, it was dynamic so they would accidentally attack and turn on eachother making it comedic but overall felt like a mess.

Adding to the frustration of the dynamic combat is that when facing multiple opponents in story encounters, it’s easy to find yourself stunlocked or encircled and unable to move being pummeled to your death. I found the best solution to strafe around constantly but that led to issues with the camera unable to keep up within the environment. Add in a lack of a targeting system and you are left wildly swinging your weapon and attempting to strip one enemy but accidentally grabbing another.There is a neat mechanic of using your flip phone camera to find hidden enemies but this was rarely used.

   The graphics, while HD, do little to improve what clearly looks like a PSP game. The characters art is crystal clear but doesn’t help the muddy textures or lack of detail in character avatars. Each map represents a block of Akihabara, so they are smaller in scale and confusing to say the least. Stores are highlighted with yellow arrows which is sadly a necessity, as some stores were just building walls with no storefront. Other issues are NPC’s. They are numerous in number but sometimes it’s required for you to speak with a specific one and it isn’t until you are right on top of them that a name appears above their head. Details like this make missions obtuse and confusing.

   There are tons of other issues that go along with the port such as music being louder than the voice acting, drowning it out, occasional frame drops or a dressing your underage sister for photos mini-game that feels uncomfortable and in poor taste. I know that there’s an implied sexiness to the game (yes I got the title pun) but still. Akiba’s Trip was a series I’ve always been curious about. I understand the fan service of  finding quirky excuses to strip your enemies but everything around this just feels outdated. The mechanics have not aged well, the story rarely gets passed ‘eye rolling,’ and combat is frustratingly repetitive. From my understanding, there are many quality of life improvements that have occurred in later entries into the series but this remastered version keeps it faithful to the original, warts and all. Strip away the Akihabara charm, and there’s not much left to enjoy.

TalkBack / Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny (Switch) Review
« on: June 25, 2021, 09:05:07 AM »

If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It

Disgaea is a long running RPG series dating back to 2003 and since then it’s been slowly iterating on a set of gameplay rules that has served it well over the last 18 years. These rules follow tactical grid-based combat with a cartoonish art style and tongue-in-cheek humor. At this point, Disgaea is a known quantity. It does what it does very well with a slow and steady drip of new mechanics that adjust the gameplay without making any giant leaps forward. Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny does exactly that but cranks up some of the absurdity for a fun and exciting new addition.

   At its core, Disgaea 6 is one part tactical JRPG and one part visual novel. The story is laid out in chapters with multiple levels per chapter/world. Each level begins with a minute or so of conversation amongst the characters before launching into a combat encounter. This is the first warning for those curious about the franchise. While skippable, the amount of storytelling presented is fairly consistent. This means jumping into the action is always a bit stifled with brief back and forth banter. It throws the pacing off and might be considered a hindrance to the impatient.

   That being said, the story of Zed the zombie is charming. It’s easy to fall in love with his steadfast attempt to defeat the God of Destruction to save his sister. Zed with his faithful dog and straight man Cerberus stand as a solid comedic duo. Zed continues to attack and be defeated by the God of Destruction. After every defeat he is “Super Reincarnated” in a different world with new characters and combat maps. The fact that he’s constantly killed is definitely played up for laughs. As the story progresses, a gang of merry followers joins Zed and Cerberus (sometimes against their will.)  One by one, we are introduced to new quirky characters that dig deeper into the backstory like a weird anime Wizard of Oz.       The comedic dialogue is really well written this time around. Characters constantly chime in on the foolishness of it all while breaking the fourth wall. Phrases like “what kind of lazy developer would allow such a thing” or “if I kill you and you reincarnate, I can just keep leveling up!” are commonplace. In addition, characters will often physically hit each other in cutscenes for faux “Game Over” screens or for 999,999 damage in pixelated RPG font. It’s the attention to detail that really sticks out and adds to Disgaea’s charm.

   Concerning the tactical RPG mechanics between the set pieces, they’re pretty straight forward. Units are spawned from a central point and moved individually across the grid to attack. Each unit's attack range is based on its special abilities, class, and weapon type, so there’s a lot to experiment with. Higher proficiency with said weapons and classes will gain them even more bombastic special attacks and increased damage. I’m not joking when I say that damage numbers go into the quadrillions.  You can’t help but laugh at the outrageousness.

   Another returning Disgaea combat system is the “Geo Symbol” system where colored tiles on the map can be used to help or hinder you throughout combat. There will occasionally be designated spaces on the map where a colored pyramid can be placed, and this will give large sections of the map traits such as “DEF+10” or “50% damage.” If the Geo Symbol is placed on one such spot, it will affect the corresponding color grids, but they in turn can be moved or even destroyed. Destroying them will cause damage to anyone in the same colored spaces. It’s an extra wrinkle to account for, but when you get into the groove it feels good. Other times, though, it can slow down combat to a snail's pace when attempting to avoid them.

   Those are the basics of combat, but with grinding your classes, weapon proficiency, and stats, you’ll still need to replay some encounters. That’s where the game introduces some of the newer features: Demonic Intelligence (DI), Auto Combat, and Auto Replay. Demonic Intelligence allows you to essentially program your team so you can have them automatically fight battles for you with Auto Combat. The DI system lets you program a series of if-then statements that will dictate how your characters move and behave in every situation. It’s as complex as you want it to be. Then Auto Combat let’s your units fight the encounters for you, and once it’s done they can Auto Replay the same encounter on repeat loop until you tell it to stop. This feels like a carry over grinding system that exists in the Disgaea mobile game released earlier this year, but here it does feel like a quality of life improvement.       The next new improvement is with the reincarnation system where you can reset a character’s level back to 1 but now with increased stats. This is a necessity as the levels accrue relatively quickly. No, really, you’ll average roughly 40 levels per combat encounter. It’s kind of wild and works for the sake of humor because what’s the difference when hitting someone for 10k damage when their life pool is 5 million. What’s the saying? If everyone's super, then no one is.

   Along with the aforementioned improvements, there’s the other basic Disgaea systems such as item worlds (procedurally generated dungeons inside every item to level them), dark assembly where you bribe demon congress to pass bills for your benefit, and juice bars to upgrade experience, quests and stat boosts. That’s my secondary warning for those curious about the franchise. Games like Advance Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics seem simplistic when compared to the systems on systems that exist in Disgaea. Managing dozens of troops, upgrading weapon stats, leveling each weapon individually, reincarnating, grinding, bribing senators: there are endless new tasks to learn and master. It’s daunting at best and overwhelming at worst. The game onboards you slowly, but drowning slowly is still drowning. It may not be for everyone.

Disgaea 6 doesn’t break the mold from its predecessors but what it does add are welcome inclusions. The art is gorgeous and the story is fantastically written, being both hilarious and heartwarming. Unfortunately, the story does slow down the action to a screeching halt. As always with the series, there are systems on systems that can become quickly overwhelming if not taken in stride, but when engaged they let you customize the game in infinite ways. Overall, I enjoyed my time with the game. It has a consistent quality that has remained interesting over the years. It may not be the best tactical RPG, but the Disgaea name still holds weight within the genre, and this entry is no different.

TalkBack / Sludge Life (Switch) Review
« on: June 11, 2021, 12:17:00 PM »

Psychedelic indie does minimalist storytelling right

I’m a big advocate for enigmatic and free form indie games. The art comes in removing the constraints of typical goals and replacing them with what can be best described as “fun in the experience.” Here we find Sludge Life, a grungy, awkward, open world game that lets you explore and discover the stories you want to find. It’s not the typical environment you’re used to and delving into the intricacies of that are what makes this title so intriguing.

   Sludge Life begins at a ‘90s computer desktop, complete with clunky login and boxy file windows. It’s a unique start to say the least, but this screen acts as your pause/inventory menu. Entering Sludge Life is as simple as clicking the icon and then you’re in the world: a sludge covered oil rig planet with a workforce strike in progress and a graffiti problem. You play as Ghost, a notorious tagger in the graffiti community.

The initial goal is to tag in hard to reach designated spots throughout the map, but with some exploration the world unfolds into psychedelic environmental interactions. Kaleidoscopic drug trips and uncomfortable lab experiments are very much part of the charm of Sludge Life. The view is first person but the art and character design are a surrealist, muppet-esque acid dream reminiscent of MTV’s Liquid Television. This motif is set to a retro synth soundtrack that brings some deep bass; you’re definitely in for an experience here.

While it may seem like I glossed over the goals of the game, that’s because Sludge Life is best played without a goal in mind: just explore the space. Poking at every nook and cranny to find a new story or interaction is what makes it special. Unfortunately, this lack of direction can leave some wandering aimlessly. If you want a linear path, this is not the game for you, and that’s kind of the issue overall. You either vibe with it or you don’t; it’s polarizing. The grimey beats hit weirdly, multiple endings can be stumbled upon accidently, and the hallucinatory nature of the story may not be for everyone.

If you do venture in, there’s deeper environmental storytelling about the oil workers’ strike, subpar living conditions, classism and mind-expanding drug trips. There’s lots to find, including secret lab equipment that lets you teleport to rocket ships and hang gliders. If poked enough, there are secrets around every corner. That’s where the shine is. There was rarely ever a time that I didn’t work hard to access an area and not be rewarded with some comedic conversation, environmental story beat, or new item. To accompany that thought, the world isn’t overwhelmingly large, so Sludge Life is relegated to a shorter experience game, and this works in its favor. It shows you insight into a fantastically stylistic world but leaves you wanting more.

Sludge Life is a stylish package that plays in both the absurd and experimental space. The art style evokes a feeling of being on psychedelics with a grungy style all its own. The visuals hit hard, and the bass beats hit even harder. I was always curious to find out more and usually there was something interesting around every corner. It’s understandable that this game’s drug use and lack of direction can turn some players off, but I found it wild and truly unique. There’s really nothing like it. Sludge Life is a vibe, for sure.

TalkBack / Skate City (Switch) Review
« on: May 03, 2021, 02:10:31 PM »

Ollie Ollie style 2.5D skateboarder that delivers the chill vibes

Fresh off of Apple Arcade comes 2.5D side-scrolling skateboard action with Skate City, a skateboarding game that brings the relaxed trick system of Olli Olli but mixes in some real world spots for a satisfying skate experience. The runs are short, bite-sized experiences and the art crafts an animated, almost-cell shaded look to realistic animations. With its debut on consoles, the pick up and play short burst action is now brought directly to your living room TV.

   Skate City comes in a pretty simple package. Left stick controls basic tricks. Pointing the stick in any eight directions will result in a trick, and they are listed as you rotate the stick so you aren’t blindly moving it around. The right stick controls “Nollie” tricks, which are down off the nose of the board instead of the tail. Rotating 180 degrees is on the R and L bumpers, while wheelies or “manuals” are on the ZL for regular, and ZR for off the nose. There are other button combinations for special tricks, but those are few in number and need to be earned through the game’s progression system.

   While the controls are simple, they are actually kind of genius in their contextual functionality. As you move through the maps, there will be obstacles to skate like stairs or ledges that will appear slightly in the foreground or background. This is where the 2.5D kicks in. These obstacles can be grinded by doing a trick onto them or just ignored entirely. How you grind is based on your positioning. If you do a 180-degree rotation near an object, you will land on the nose or tail of your board in a nose slide or tail slide. As a skateboarder myself, it’s intuitive since that’s how you would get into those tricks anyways: by landing on an obstacle at a 90-degree angle. It makes sense in context.

   The same goes with landing on an obstacle in a wheelie. If you were to land on a bench with only the nose wheels down, that would be a nosegrind. The manuals and spins play into the grinds as they would in real life. Adding in variations like spins, flips, and button holds for additional grinds, there are lots of tricks in your arsenal to rack up sweet unrealistic or realistic combos. There’s also a balance meter akin to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater that makes combos require some skill to execute. The balance meter wavers left and right, and the triggers are used to balance in between; otherwise, you'll end up on the floor.

   There are three maps to explore: Los Angeles, Oslo, and Barcelona. These three cities are known for being skate mechas in their own rights with dozens of skate spots within the culture. So in each challenge set, you'll find yourself skating the famous MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona) ledges, or the L.A. courthouse without even realizing it. The landmarks are subtle but unmistakable for those with a keen eye. The maps themselves are very wide, with challenges taking place in small chunks of them. There is a free skate mode that lets you skate the entirety of the map from beginning to end and then loop back, with challenges you can do at your leisure.

   The challenges in the game are diverse, with some being to run from security guards while doing tricks or complete trick requests, races and difficult combo challenges. Every level also comes with some bonus objectives to get 1-3 star ratings on each challenge. These can be both fun and repetitive as they recycle quite frequently in limited map options. By completing these, you are rewarded with skate city currency, which is used to buy stat upgrades, cosmetic gear, and bonus special tricks. The cosmetics are relatively cheap and barely factor into the game as the art style doesn’t give a ton of detail. The stat upgrades are expensive but are necessary to do more advanced combos and maneuvers.

   Outside of the basic challenges, Skate City feels pretty limited. There are only three maps, and the challenges reuse the same five or six variations of goals. The gameplay is smooth, and this makes you feel cool landing the tricks, but there is some slow down that definitely ruins the flow at points. There’s a quick restart by pressing up on the D-pad but that was definitely not explained well. The menus for selecting barely highlights options making selections hard to see, which was a minor frustration throughout my time with it. The music, on the other hand, gives the relaxed coffee shop “chill beats to study to” vibe that’s oh-so-attractive. When it’s bedtime and I’m going through an endless free skate session to relax, it definitely puts me into a zen state.

   Skate City is a new port coming from Apple Arcade. It’s a laid back, short session skateboarding game with a great style. Unfortunately, it does feel like a mobile game with its simplistic gameplay loop, reused challenges, and few maps. Despite its limitations, I found myself returning over and over again to try to 3-star every challenge long after I maxed out my stats. That’s what Skate City brings to the table. A breezy, no-stress experience that’s addicting for 15-minute intervals. If you are looking for some low pressure coffee shop skateboarding, this is the game for you.

TalkBack / There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension (Switch) Review
« on: April 23, 2021, 09:58:30 AM »

An innovative puzzle game that twists expectations but sometimes wears out its welcome

There Is No Game was originally created in 2015 during a NewGrounds game jam where it won under the theme of “deception.” Developed in HTML5 by Draw Me A Pixel, the game was deceptive because its primary task is to convince the player that there is, in fact, no game. Pushing that short idea into a full, fleshed out release, we have There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension (TINGWD), a follow up that expands the original idea into a fully fledged adventure game. It breaks the fourth wall in all the best ways and uses multimedia art to punctuate some major plot twists.

   TINGWD presents itself as an old school point and click adventure. Using a mouse cursor to interact with the events unfolding, you explore a variety of precarious situations, find hidden objects and use them on the environment in unexpected ways to solve the current puzzle. This may sound generic, but it’s tricky to pin down what exactly this game is as it changes from chapter to chapter. The premise purposely tries to alter your expectations and surprise you with new and unpredictable ways to think about games as a whole.

   It all begins with a title screen, “There Is No Game.” All options and credits also suggest that this game does not exist. Then we are introduced to the narrator known as “Game” who does his darndest to convince you of the non-existence of said game. Get the idea? By clicking on the sign we are able to break apart letters, create a version of Brick Breaker, unlock hidden locks and mute, all against the protests of Game. This process of exploring the screens for hidden interactables and using found key items properly remains throughout, but the context continues to change.

   Following the initial start menu first chapter, the story continues throughout a Legend of Zelda knock off (complete with fairy companion and secret-discovery sound effect), a-free-to-play mobile game, and even a LucasArts adventure game. TINGWD pokes fun at the process of game design and developing games as a whole, while remembering to point the camera at itself a few times, too (including a couple of jabs at a failed kickstarter campaign as well). The writing is top notch and corny, but in the best way. Regrettably, some puzzles do take longer to parse than others, so hearing the same voice lines repeatedly can be grating. Luckily, the handy hint system does provide enough clues that you’ll rarely get stuck (unless you’re stubborn).

   The story feels well rounded and the characters that do exist become loveable, even the pesky narrator. Despite the shorter run time, some chapters did feel like they overstayed their welcome. Ideas were often reused and one chapter was simply a rehash of a previous one but with more annoying mechanics added in. You could tell that there was a joke to be made, but it was dragged out until it was no longer funny. Pushing past these segments does lead to more satisfying moments such as the adventure game meta moment. Retreading games of the past, you interact with a classic PC adventure game but solve puzzles by interacting with the actual TV set. It’s actually pretty brilliant with tons of “A-HA” moments and NPC interactions.

Creating a genre-spanning adventure game is no small feat, but to do so while subverting all expectations is something to be applauded. TINGWD does all these things and more. It’s successful in melding comedy and thought-provoking gameplay. Some tropes wear out their welcome eventually, but pushing past the annoyances yields a gaming triumph. It fits among other progressive games like the Stanley Parable or Thomas Was Alone but carves out its own unique space. There isn’t anything like There Is No Game. Well, there isn’t really a game at all, right?

TalkBack / Bamerang (Switch) Review
« on: April 21, 2021, 08:36:39 AM »

Fun  party game is short lived with limited options

Bamerang is the freshmen outing for Lululu Entertainment, a small Zurich based game studio. If this is a sign of what’s to come from Lululu, then they are a team to keep an eye on.  They have created a local couch co-op party game that’s easy to learn for gamers of any skill level. While your mileage may vary, there is a spark of brilliance in the pure simplicity of Bamerang.

   The game begins by players selecting their colors. Two to four players local only here, so bad news for you single players as there’s no options to be found. Each player has a boomerang they can throw either in a left or rightward circle. The throws can be charged for further trajectories as well. If you throw your boomerang and lose it, pressing the X button three times will respawn it to your hand. Boomerangs can be picked up off the ground as well.

   The overall goal is gold and lots of it. Triangle shaped pieces of gold drop from the sky into the arena, and it’s a mad dash to collect as much as possible.  The arenas are smaller, style-varying shapes that keep the action tight but not claustrophobic. With players scrambling to gather the gold, the boomerangs add wild cards into the mix because if you are hit by one, it can send your gold flying. You don’t drop all of it, but enough to swing the tides of gameplay. Also, if you are knocked or fall off the map, a giant hand of the gods brings you back, but not before shaking some of your gold out of your pockets. First to 30 pieces of gold wins the round.

   The character animations are twitchy to emphasize a spastic movement in the players, and the motif is ritualistic tribes people as each round is judged by giant deity like hands whom keep score. The art has an almost Claymation quality to it. After each round, the arena ascends higher into the atmosphere until a victor is crowned and handed the golden boomerang down by the gods. The gameplay can get hectic with 3 or more players but in a Covid-19 world, 1v1 matches aren’t where the game shines. The matches can have a fun back and forth tug of war feel to them but it’s not consistent. If one player finds a good strategy, it’s easy to get frustrated or worse yet bored.

   Seeing some online functionality with an increase in player size could really ratchet up the chaos but as of right now there’s only the single mode with no customization on the matches. This means the fun is a fixed quantity. You will know how much fun you can have with this game relatively quickly because options are limited. There’s fun to be had, but only in specific circumstances and even then in short bursts. Like it’s name implies, Bamerang comes and goes in your memory as quickly as it came. A good party game that shows promise, but is best used as a warm up for other activities.

TalkBack / Saga Frontier Remastered (Switch) Review
« on: April 14, 2021, 12:21:27 PM »

Old Classic shows what once was and gladly what isn’t now

Square, or Square Soft as it was once known, has a storied history with JRPG’s. They have created some of the most pivotal series of the genre that include Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire*, Chrono Trigger - the list can go on and on. The peak of Square’s rule over role playing games came in the 90’s where they released game after game, almost monthly. December 1989, they took a version of their lauded Final Fantasy series and brought them to Game Boy, under the title Final Fantasy Legends. These were turn based like their predecessors, but came with their own set of rules that set them apart. Over the years, the Legends brand became known as the Saga games (the proper moniker in the East.)

   The Saga series quickly established a fan base of their own due to the varied character mechanics, intricate progression systems, and detailed world building. In that vein, we have Saga Frontier, released originally in 1997 on the Playstation 1. Sandwiched between Final Fantasy Tactics and Front Mission 2, and entering the hallowed halls of what came before it. The new iteration brought a brightly colored cast of characters, a wide web of contextual interactions and a new “Free Scenario” system that pushed what soon became “open world” games. Now remastered on the Nintendo Switch, it’s been updated for HD and added back previously cut content, characters and scenarios. This is an exciting prospect for people like me who harken back to Square’s hay day with rose colored glasses.

   Saga Frontier takes place in a universe called “the regions:” A collection of planets and areas traversed by fast travel spaceships or boats. It’s a vibrant world varying wildly from vampire mystic castles, high stakes casinos and treacherous swamps. It’s a wide open world utilized fantastically within the game’s “Free Scenario” System. This allows for open world interactions with the same characters across multiple scenarios, giving the world a more dynamic feel and letting you tailor the gameplay to your own personal style.

   Starting with the main menu, you are able to select up to 7 different scenario storylines following a singular character and their journey. Despite them being separate characters and stories, in any one storyline you can find and interact with the other characters as well as a colorful cast of B-plot characters with their own development and plots. The interactions are unique within each scenario, giving depth to the cast and letting you build your own party however you like. The cross encounter interactions also make the world feel lived in and show the cast existing outside of their own story, something that was missing from Square’s newest offering Octopath Traveler.

   Unfortunately, Saga Frontier expects you to play by the rules set back in 1989 from the original Legends games, with little to no explanation. Character progression is tied to race-humans gain stat point boosts based on what they do in combat, while Mecs abilities are based on what gear is installed. Monsters gain abilities and upgrades from eating other monsters, which is randomized to a frustrating degree. Lastly, Mystics absorb enemies into their mystic gear to gain new abilities. If you know, you know. If you don’t, you are left to flail about wondering why your team gets wiped out in a single hit. The combat is turn based and new  combat skills are unlocked through repeated use of your already known skills, seemingly at random. These systems are all at play in how you develop your characters and party because there isn’t a traditional leveling system.

   On the back end, enemies level scale as you get more powerful, so grinding battles doesn’t necessarily improve your effectiveness. In fact, there’s a combat encounter number called Battle Rank. The more battles you engage with, the harder the enemies get.  It mostly comes down to strategy, building your team properly to handle the encounters in the story. Combat should only be used as a tool. Once a scenario is completed, the character progression rolls over into the next, incentivizing you to really take the time to build your optimal team the way you want. These systems are complex and without a full understanding or strategizing are frustratingly difficult, punishing your every indiscretion. Bosses are quick to use an ability that will single handedly wipe out your whole party, forcing you to lose hours of progression and rethink your team composition.

   The separate narratives tell compelling tales of revenge, superheroes, forced sibling rivalry and redemption. Their gameplay boasts the same turn based combat and overlapping locales but with different motivations. The style of gameplay also varies, as some are very narrative focused straight forward affairs, and others completely open-ended with the whole world laid out in front of you. The lack of direction is a real pain point because it expects you to know the world and is so open that it feels aimless. There is a story menu that will direct the player to what they should do next, but the directions are confusingly vague. When time is at a premium, Saga Frontier does not respect yours.

   The bonus content are quality of life updates such as a fast forward mode, auto fleeing combat, art gallery mode, auto save and new scenario character Fuse that isn’t unlocked until all other scenarios are completed. The updates are great for softening some of the rougher edges off the original but having the cut content not available from the start feels like a missed opportunity. Fuse appears throughout every other scenario to hilarious writing and dialogue so his narrative is written similarly. Having him locked behind a completion wall disincentivizes it as a feature because less people will get to experience what was originally missing.

Saga Frontier came out at a pivotal time in the JRPG space, attempting to do something never done before. Creating interlocking overlapping narratives within a complex world of mystical magic and technological marvels. Compared to modern day videogames this acts as more of a museum piece, exemplifying when game quality was based on hours of content and less on quality. A time when players would spend hundreds of hours exploring every nook and cranny with little motivation other than “to see what happens.” The lack of direction, confusing combat system and sheer difficulty made me take the rose colored glasses off to a much harsher game. One that refuses to let you play any other way besides the rules set originally in 1989. The story is intriguing with twists and turns throughout. The animation is still top notch and famed composer Kenji Ito’s scores are still awe inspiring but it’s tough to see whether that is enough to want to fully revisit it. It hits different by today’s standards. With Saga Frontier, the developers were asking more if they could, and never asking if they should.

*Correction Square only published the first Breath of Fire

TalkBack / I Saw Black Clouds (Switch) Review
« on: April 08, 2021, 11:50:00 AM »

New FMV game brings the drama but stumbles in final act

I Saw Black Clouds is the newest “interactive movie” game to come out of Wales Interactive. You may remember them from such FMV (Full Motion Video) games as Late Shift and The Complex. Oh? You don’t remember those? I get it. FMV is a very niche genre, but it is one that’s been around since the ‘80s, hitting its high point in the zeitgeist with controversial entry Night Trap. Now, I Saw Black Clouds brings us into the world of psychological thrillers and choose your own adventure twists.

   I will give a warning that this game contains graphic and upsetting subject matter such as suicide, violence, implied torture, and drug use. The story begins as our protagonist Kristina returns home to attend the funeral of an old friend who supposedly committed suicide. This visit turns into a harrowing caper of questionable motivations, jazzy trip hop numbers, and awkward nature shots. The gameplay follows each set of scenes, preparing always for two options to present themselves. Selecting from either option can send the story down varying paths that can result in changes to the personality of the protagonist or optional scenes.

   The variability is a big draw but with multiple playthroughs, it quickly becomes apparent how some choices don’t actually lead to different circumstances. I can imagine it’s difficult to organize so many divergent branches, but the narrative repetition can feel like a let down at times. The decisions do matter in context of play as there are personality meters that fluctuate as you progress. These reference two things: your personality and your degree of dealing with situations.

As for personality, you are developing the character of Kristina and adjusting her mood, which equates to alternative takes in conversations sometimes giving passive, aggressive, or dismissive tones. The processing of situations gives feedback if Kristina is in denial or what process of grieving she’s working her way through. These meters increase and decrease per your decisions and determine which of the four endings you can receive. These factors can help you decide on your next snap decision or change up your experience from playthrough to playthrough.

The FMV genre tends to live and die based on two things: its cinematography and acting, and I Saw Black Clouds has success with both. Kristina and cast do well to convey great amounts of emotion and convictions in their roles. The cinematography is also strong, but it can be obvious which shots and sets were the most expensive as some scenes linger longer than necessary and some are reused multiple times. This is understandable as the filming was done by an independent film company, but does still cheapen the experience ever so slightly. Ghostly effects are used sparingly to give mood and ambience without overplaying their hand, avoiding the easy jump scares for suspense-building moments instead.

The biggest critique with this game is the story. While it remains interesting to develop Kristina’s story to find various endings, the messages and morals are lost throughout. Sometimes the story is about survivor’s guilt, but it spends more time in metaphors than actually addressing the issues at hand. Other times, it weaves ghost folklore of stories beyond the grave with little to no pay off. The final act in all playthroughs feels rushed as most conclusions result in confusing half thought-out twists or afterthought ambiguity. That mixed in with occasional jarring transitions in the editing department can leave the player longing for a smoother delivery.

I Saw Black Clouds does a lot of things successfully in the FMV genre. The acting and cinematography are impressive for a title with a smaller budget. The internal systems also lead to lots of interesting variations in the story. Unfortunately, the shotty editing and hap-hazard final act leave something to be desired. It’s a benefit to know that it can be completed in a single sitting, which might make for a fun, suspense-filled evening activity. Be prepared, though: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

TalkBack / Stick Fight: The Game (Switch) Review
« on: April 02, 2021, 12:02:01 PM »

Stick Figure fighting party brings the chaos to the switch

I like to think of myself as a party game aficionado. While my spouse has a closet full of board games, I always have a drawer full of XBOX controllers and a steam library full of crazy indie games. One of my all time favorites was Stick Fight: The Game. A physics based multiplayer fighting game published by Landfall Games. Now with its release on the Nintendo Switch, you can bring the party to your home console.

The aim is to kill your friends, but the game has such a rapid turnaround that it’s hard to get mad when the action just keeps rolling. The players each get a stick figure character. Bare bones art but fluid movement. The stick figures are well animated with floaty jump physics. There’s a regular jump, double jump and even a wall jump to expand upon your movement options. After that there’s a grab/attack and a block that has a cooldown to prevent constant blocking. The controls are simple enough that anyone can jump in and get the hang of it, which is good as there isn’t a tutorial at all.

   Once you’ve established your randomly generated colored stick figure, you’re placed in a flat platforming arena to battle it out. The players have health pools but they are not shown which heightens the intensity. Punches are wild and hard to control, which is okay as very quickly, weapons are dropped into the field. Spears give your hits extra range and the knife lets you use a dash attack. Winning is being the last stick figure standing, whether knocking your friends off screen to their death or taking their health to zero.

Now guns are truly what shine here. There are a wide swath of guns that range from pistols to full bazookas. Each is hard to master, with aiming being on the right stick and having cartoonish weight to the shots. Shooting a shotgun will toss you around wildly but a bazooka will send you flying off the screen to your death. There are also variations on the weaponry with snakes, yes snakes. Guns can also be snake guns. Shooting long floppy snakes that will wrangle themselves around you and overwhelm you to a slow death. Getting a snake minigun will fill the stage with snakes, and the game changes to who can get eaten slower. 1v1 is a very strategic cat and mouse game, but 4 players is free-for-all chaos. The amount, and which weapons are all variable in the settings if you’d like to customize the fun.

The stages can be randomized or move in a progression depending on settings. They range from a basic flat space, to lava fountains that kill instantly. The variability keeps you guessing. Some give you themes, like making a random player into a boss beast that needs to be killed to continue, or a volleyball space with the ball ready to explode on a timer. There are even randomized intermission levels where you are still killing each other, but there is text across the top of the screen giving updates on who’s currently in the lead. There are a lot of stages to go through so it’ll be a while before seeing repeats. Once every person is killed, the stick figures are picked up and placed onto the next stage to start all over again with little room for a break. Since there is only one mode for the game, over time the gameplay can eventually feel flat making this a one trick pony. Even if that one trick is done very well. Online works well, creating a lobby to invite your friends or joining other lobbies for some quick online combat.

In my time with Stick Fight, I did hit an occasional hard crash but they were few and far between. Otherwise the gameplay stays fluid with little to no slowdown. Unfortunately they did not include community generated content but this is a fantastic indie party game that fits perfectly on the Nintendo Switch. Stick Fight is a great way to jump start any family gathering… minus the guns and violence.

TalkBack / Later Alligator (Switch) Review
« on: March 29, 2021, 11:29:46 AM »

An alligator with no teeth but a lot of heart

Point and Click adventure games have quietly been returning in the zeitgeist via indie developers. Despite their resurgence, rarely has there been one with as much heart and soul as Later Alligator. A quirky collection of mini games developed by Pillow Fight Games that tells a heartwarming tale (tail?) of a small alligator named Pat who’s got some, let’s say anxiety about his family. The story brings the comedy in all forms but still tugs at the heart strings and finds time to slip in a message or two in between.

   Our story begins with a shady hotel meeting with Pat, a small alligator living in the big Alligator, New York. Yes, you heard it correctly, the alligator puns fly fast and loose here. Pat regales you of his worry of his family plotting to kill him. As part of a wide spread alligator mafia, he has spilled the beans with incriminating info and by the way he is easily giving away exposition, it’s clear he has loose lips (do alligators have lips? Not important.).  On his birthday, when he usually gets his own personal hotel room, he asks you to investigate his family and find out what their “big event” is and how they plan on taking him out.

   That’s the long and short of this mini game collection wrapped in a mafioso story. Using a point and click interface, you are moving along specific areas of Alligator New York, finding the members of Pat’s extended family and attempting to get information out of them with the only convincing factor being a mini game. The interactions with the family are wacky, short conversations that highlight the idiosyncrasies of their individual personalities. Not one identical, and each brings their own brand of humor making the interactions feel unique. From Pat’s grill loving dad who speaks in dad puns then full explanation of his jokes with grim dark undertones, to his gruff knife loving cousin who has a hidden sensitive side.

   The jokes are something worth discussing with Later Alligator. They stand out as a mix of parody, sight gags, physical humor, black comedy and so much more. It uses its setting beautifully to poke at the absurdity of having an alligator New York with 3 card monte games and back alley clubs with “girls girls girls” sign on the front (turns out, houses a women’s empowerment club with real world facts regarding the women’s suffrage movement.)

The mini games act as part of the story telling but also extended pieces of comedy. There’s a particular mini game where a member of the family wants you to mimic his movements with stabbing a knife between his fingers. While not funny upfront, it becomes apparent that he has a spoon and you up the ante after every round with an increasingly bigger knife. A fact that he continues to point out (“I bet you think you’re a real tough guy with those increasingly ludicrous knifes you weirdly had on your personage.”) Another has you playing a claw game to get a child’s favorite “Final Friendasy” character “Clod Stripes,” a play on “Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII.) From a heartwarming game of hide and seek you need to intentionally lose, to browsing fake 90’s internet briefly, there’s something for everybody.

   The family activities are low risk affairs with multiple attempts possible, some are practically won for you, and even in a fail state the conversations end similarly. The idea is to have fun and there are built in fail safes that if a puzzle is particularly difficult, the game itself attempts to offer assistance. This is done to keep the game moving forward at a brisk pace without stopping at a frustration point. I for one appreciated that as one particular slide puzzle gave me quite a bit of difficulty but the game promptly yet comedically presented me with a “hey looks like you’re having trouble, want some help?” message and I was good to move on. The developers have a clear vision and implement it well.

The minigames last a few minutes but take up a 30 minute chunk of in-game time. The story is paced out in chunks with interstitial conversations with Pat in between. This makes meeting the family time sensitive, and impossible in a single playthrough. That being said, each playthrough is relatively short and the chance to meet more of the zany alligator family doesn’t make it ever feel like a chore. Plus there is in fact a secret bonus ending for those wanting a reward for 100% completion.

From the unconventional adult swim style artwork animations to the hilariously written dialogue, Later Alligator presents a point and click adventure game with tons of heart. The cast all feel like exaggerated members of your own family and the mini games are refreshingly varied to rarely become cumbersome. Video game comedy is known to be hit or miss but with this game there’s fun to be had for everybody. After multiple playthroughs, I will continue to show off this game to anyone that will listen but until then… After while, crocodile.

TalkBack / Bladed Fury (Switch) Review
« on: March 22, 2021, 12:42:13 PM »

Beautiful Chinese artwork but shallow gameplay

Bladed Fury is a new PC port from NExT Studios coming to the Nintendo Switch. Their website boasts “a fast paced action set in ancient China,” which is largely true, but it doesn’t deliver any stand out features to write home about. Where it does shine is in how its art (akin to Chinese tapestry) tells a compelling story of betrayal between clashing dynasties based on the warring states period of China’s history.

In the middle of said conflict is our heroine, princess Ji. Ji is set up as the patsy for the murder of her father. Knowing herself to be innocent, she sets off an adventure of revenge through mystical lands while unlocking spirit powers along the way. The gameplay fits into the style of 2D platformer with beat ‘em up combat. The maps are roughly a screen long and you are expected to traverse a wider map made up of multiple screens. The troublesome thing is that when moving from screen to screen there are sometimes up to six seconds of load time between, and that really slows down the pace, discouraging backtracking and exploration.

Exploring does reward players with hidden yellow orbs, the game's currency. When fighting enemies, you collect both yellow and green orbs. Green orbs heal while yellow are used for upgrades on new moves or to enhance current ones. The combat consists of quick light and heavy attacks that can be combined together or enhanced later. There’s also a dodge and block that, when timed perfectly, can parry with even more devastating attacks. The movement and combo system is flashy while delivering variability, but it can feel unnecessary at times with the mediocre enemy AI. There are challenge and boss rush modes available, and that’s where the combo system has depth. In the main story though, the normal difficulty can feel dull and lack real challenge until later in the game.

When occasionally encountering tougher enemies or boss battles, the challenge is doubly frustrating when the game lags or drops frames, which is consistent on specific enemies (especially the final boss.) These encounters are often punctuated with death; being killed by enemies stops the action before you even get to witness the final hit. I found it confusing to be in the middle of a boss battle, see myself miss a dodge, and suddenly be faced with a “Continue” screen, left to assume that I was killed. Perhaps it’s a choice to make the scenes seem dramatic, but I found it jarring and bewildering.

Ji’s tale of revenge is told through cut scenes that are written in cryptic, whimsical almost-haiku. Each character speaks in the period appropriate manner but like a lot of folklore, not every story has an ending. In this case, there are multiple side stories that are left up for interpretation. The character design is striking, with bosses morphing into mythical creatures or bringing unique cultural interpretations to life. Bogu, the multi-armed mech, uses powerful punches to attack, while the Emperor of Zhou strikes from atop a giant shrine he rides. The boss battles are the clear standouts of Bladed Fury.

After defeating the key players of the dynasty, you are rewarded with their ultimate abilities, which are tied to cool downs and interchangeable within the upgrade menu. These are welcome variations to combat as fighting a lady in a mech rewards you with her arm cannon; the spider boss’ ultimate ability will spew webs on screen to slow the enemies down. The powers can be used mid-combo, but each use stops the action to cast said ability freezing all time. It would have been better if they were more fluidly integrated into the combat, but I did find I started using them as a respite to catch a breather in particularly hectic combat sequences. So I was glad to have them in my arsenal.

This PC port of Bladed Fury brings the good with the bad: a beautiful animated art style akin to Samurai Jack that lacks distinction in both combat and level design. It’s hack and slash combo system adds depth through replayability challenge modes and boss rush modes but is otherwise repetitive in single playthroughs. Along with that, the game suffers from occasional lag and stutters, and I even experienced a single hard crash. Bladed Fury is worth checking out as its run time is short and the story tells of the rich Asian culture that is the warring states period, but ultimately it stumbles to find its footing in the long run.  

TalkBack / Sea of Solitude: Director's Cut (Switch) Review
« on: March 11, 2021, 07:57:19 AM »

An emotional journey that almost sinks due to the weight of emotion and gameplay bugs

Indie adventure games historically seem to be perfect vehicles for emotionally impactful storytelling. Case in point: Sea of Solitude, the new Quantic Dream published 3D Platformer created by Jo-Mei Games. It’s a game with sailing chops that comes close to capsizing under the weight of its own lack of subtlety.

Players are quickly introduced to Kay, a young adult in a version of Berlin taken over by the ocean. You control her adventures as she swims, jumps, and rides a motorboat to uncover her deep-seeded fears and emotional turmoil. The world is limited to a few key environments, but they are reused effectively by covering them in a desert theme, submerging them, or employing other environmental effects. Using basic 3D platforming and puzzle solving (collecting glowing orbs to progress), Kay addresses her inner anxieties and interpersonal memories.

The gameplay has light, low-stakes platforming across the submerged city, all the while avoiding the personified forms of Kay’s internal dread such as giant killer fish, devilish fiends, and trollish mollusks in giant conches. One false move and you’re eaten alive in a fearsome fashion. The story progression keeps the barriers simplistic, with orb-collecting puzzles to continue the memory narrative or dangerous heights to ascend. The environments are punctuated with a “seagull” photo mode that allows for fantastic shots from brilliant heights and angles to display the beautifully crafted take on Berlin.

The movement can feel sluggish at times with occasional clipping or glitching of textures creating impromptu barriers or puzzles that are more difficult than they initially appear. Keeping with that thought, certain story beats land with shades of darkness, which while thematic also increases traversal difficulty in a way that seems unintended by the developer. Scenes become hard to parse, making for more frustration than challenge. This also comes into play when hurt by enemies. The screen darkens as damage increases so some events feel unfair rather than difficult. Despite occasional arbitrary deaths, the story intrigues enough to push through these barriers to delve into what is a heavy-handed emotional story of acceptance over pain.  

The overarching narrative follows Kay as she addresses her internal dialogue over her shortcomings within her relationships. They highlight her brother’s bullying, her parents' tumultuous near-divorce,and a problematic college boyfriend. Players experience each first hand via physical manifestation of the problem and hearing direct exchanges throughout. As you participate in the memories, you watch each play out to a satisfying conclusion.

These vignettes are serious conversations regarding suicide, depression, bullying, and toxic relationships. These are impactful conversations on how it feels to experience these situations while also struggling with your own responsibility regarding others. Kay grapples with each topic coming to an eventual endpoint, but the game itself struggles under the weight of these heavy topics. Each is worth addressing individually but to juggle that many serious topics doesn’t always give proper attention to each, and some even feel like their conclusions are brushed off for the next important emotion. It’s almost like Sea of Solitude wants so much to have something to say, but ends up feeling slightly inauthentic. It’s trying to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors such as GRIS or Celeste, but with the subtlety of a hammer.

Despite the lack of subtlety, Sea of Solitude is largely successful in bringing its positive affirmative message to a colorful world. The events that play out are often powerfully voice acted and complemented with incredible art. It wears its influences on its sleeve and is profoundly direct with its ,but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even though the gameplay is flawed with clumsy and inaccurate platforming, it’s not enough to capsize a strong overall presentation.

TalkBack / Hellpoint (Switch) Review
« on: March 01, 2021, 05:55:43 PM »

Soulslike port not ready for Switch

Hellpoint is the newest Souls-like to come to the Nintendo Switch. With it comes the staples of the genre: hard as nails combat, precise movement, refillable health items, epic larger-than-life boss battles, and shortcuts that connect to bigger areas. The differentiator here is the sci-fi mixed with hellscape motif, a mysterious story of cyber gods, and a looming insanity infection. Even though it does its best to stand out, Hellpoint rarely does enough to feel anything other than generic.

   The story starts by giving you a general message that you are a Spawn, a faceless entity created by the Author whose purpose is to explore the derelict space station Irid Nova. The previous inhabitants have all gone mad from a cosmic event called the Merge. The story is told from sparsely strewn messages and NPCs with cryptic dialogue that rarely feels direct. You will encounter a cavalcade of bosses that require a lot of precision and skill, or the occasional bugged positioning where they get stuck in one spot. Other than that, the environments blend together and the same greyscale metallic background makes up most areas with little variation. These visual elements definitely make navigation an issue, but the sections are at least separated by title cards and load screens so that can be a saving grace when backtracking.       The action is a balancing act of precise movements and committed attacks. Dodges and rolls are utilized heavily while swings of the weapons lock in animation, making each one feel like a risk. These all use up stamina, a finite resource that recharges over time. There’s a life bar and an energy bar as well for more magic-based maneuvers, but each is precious as the main healing injector only refills on landed hits or death, lending a risk/reward feel to combat. Death is the leading mechanic, with every new try feeling like another opportunity, but now new knowledge has been gained. Trying again hardly feels like a chore, but doing so after an unfortunate casualty caused by game stuttering is frustrating. The Switch cannot handle the action and it shows very early on. Handling two enemies at a time seems unfair when you also have to deal with frequent framerate drops.

   Exploring the maze-like halls of the not-so-abandoned space station is made more treacherous with its in-game invasion and black hole system. Taking a page from other From Software games, players can invade your game to cause chaos and attempt to kill you. This can spice up the action or severely inconvenience you away from your current task. New players to the Souls series may be confused as it’s not well explained until later. Throughout your play, there is a secondary glyph image near the lifebars that changes over time. This represents the position of the black hole, and depending on the positioning the titular “Hellpoints” can open up spawning waves of enemies posing a forever threat, which also can be largely ignored, funny enough. Experiencing a “Hellpoint” was rare (especially if you put the system into sleep mode frequently) and an explanation is hardly provided, at least one that isn’t just confusing.

   Progressing through the story takes less time than your average Souls-like, with my final count coming closer to 20 hours, but that should also mean the bosses and story would need to be more unique. Unfortunately, Hellpoint doesn’t succeed in that category. The boss design isn’t distinct enough, and that is accentuated by the graphical downgrade that’s been taken here. It wouldn’t be unfair to compare this Switch version with the XBOX 360 as harsh edges are smoothed and muddied. Along with that the font treatment is TINY and very hard to read. There aren’t any options to increase font size, so in handheld mode it was very difficult to read the dialogue and lore pieces. The story has great ideas, but it may have been more beneficial to have a more straightforward approach to feature the story beats more prominently. The overall narrative with the Author directing the Spawn to collect data by fighting his way through cosmic demon gods only works if people are aware of it. The Merge could have been a fantastic catalyst for a story if I didn’t have to decipher it from story clues. There’s a lot of Souls-like influence here, but that is one trope the developers could have avoided.

   Hellpoint is an action RPG that takes a lot of inspiration from the Souls series. While the combat is engaging, the framerate is a major detraction. Hiding the story as breadcrumbs in hard to find logs or cryptic messages is detrimental to what could be an interesting story. As well, the environments and enemy design did little to stand out overall. The bugs, framerate drops, and rare crashes were present, but as of this review the developers have plans to address these issues in future patches. While this is a new addition to the Soulsborne genre, there are far more successful examples out there. Fans of the genre may want to look elsewhere.

TalkBack / Home: Postmortem Edition (Switch) Review
« on: December 14, 2020, 10:46:35 AM »

A choose your own murder mystery.

Can horror exist in a 2D pixel art world? That is a question Benjamin Rivers and his team intend to answer. Home is truly a unique choose your own adventure that puts the story in the hands of the player. At first glance, it's easy to write this off as another indie pixel art game, but the writing is what really stands out.

You are an unnamed protagonist, stumbling his way through a myriad of environments. Our “hero” explores the spooky woods, traverses the underground sewer facility and other unnerving locales. All while finding gruesome scenes of death and confusion to set the bone chilling tone. The art design is a simple-yet-effective 2D art design reminiscent of the Super Nintendo days. The lighting and background designs give enough detail but can prove blurry when smaller details are necessary, specifically in some puzzles. The sound design is top notch in bringing minimal sound and tone, curating a creepy ambience that sticks with you throughout. It enhances the mystery and cryptic feel of the proceedings.

The gameplay revolves around basic 2D exploration of the environments with interactive points of interest that reveal more about the world around you. These points give clever notes, describing each item or area in vivid detail. The clues and items reveal more of the story but only inasmuch as the context you search for. Meaning while clues may be present, they are not the ONLY clues present and their interpretation is entirely personal and contextual. When receiving a clue regarding an item, it may not behoove you to pick it up with some items negatively impacting the player or choices leading to harmful conclusions.

Home has planned settings and situational items and responses to your exploration. Crossing a river will lead to wet pants and a later conclusion of leaving muddy footprint trails, but if you were to find the 2x4, you can cross the river without harm or leaving a trail. The game presents items and clues but doesn’t inherently explain them or their use until a later date. That’s what makes this fascinating.

The writing throughout the story is detailed and oriented with little to no context leaving infinite conclusions to be drawn throughout. Sections of camera footage lead to a subplot of a pair of mysterious murderers that I missed entirely on my first playthrough, giving me an entirely different interpretation of the story. That’s the point of how this is written. Each item sheds light on the proceedings but even then, it’s up to the player to interpret them however you want. With each run, I was left with a different story entirely and it’s nearly impossible to get every clue and item in a single playthrough. Some facts are the same, but the origins of the murders are always left up to the player.

Finding the right clues point towards one solution, while deciphering hidden video tapes can lead to a second set of conclusions. While game plots are generally always a matter of perspective, Home puts it directly in the hands of the player with actual prompts on how the player feels about each clue. This gives the game a high level of replayability with each clue giving a new perspective on the story’s plot in multiple ways when combined with other clues. After several playthroughs, I proceeded to the developer website and found a section that was strictly for people to speak on what they think was happening in the plot. A community full of their own theories on the murder mystery is a fascinating prospect.

Home has been an indie darling since it’s original release of 2012 but with the Post Mortem edition, you get bonus areas and clues that give new twists to the story plus director commentary throughout. The director's commentary really goes in depth on the design and intentions regarding how clues worked adding another layer to the already multilayered package presented. An indie darling indeed.

TalkBack / GoNNER2 (Switch) Review
« on: December 11, 2020, 08:36:50 AM »

A psychedelic punishingly good time.

The opening menu of Gonner2 says “press jump to die.” This sets the tone for a tough-as-nails 2D roguelike platformer/shooter. In a world of procedurally generated shooters, this is a stand-out choice in both visuals and fast-paced action. With a lack of explanation on rules, story, or mechanics, this game is all about trial and error.

The story follows the hero Ikk, a living water droplet tasked with helping Death rid her land of evil creatures that have started to invade. This was all explained via the game’s website and marketing materials and less so in the game, which keeps context, story and gameplay vague for the player to suss out. This includes non-verbal emotes and occasional bits of lore strewn about. The game keeps this all close to the chest.

Not much is out there that looks like Gonner2 in action. Ikk is a blob of a character that has a skull, rifle, and backpack. When moving forward through the world, the floors and ceilings fill in with patch work design scraps reminiscent of construction paper. The world builds around you and deconstructs when you leave it, which acts as both an eerie style choice and hard to decipher what the level actually looks like until you engage with it. This was not a feature I particularly loved. The papercraft animation still stands out as something worth admiring in action. The sound design is another stand out with quiet pitched insidious tones in some cases and punctuating action with carnival-style echo beats when the action picks up. There’s a definite gothic style to the game and I am here for it.

Otherwise, multidirectional shooting against blobs of enemies is the name of the game. Chaotic flying creatures fill the screen while brightly colored snails and octopi attack from all angles. Getting hit dwindles your heart meter and the parts you’ve amassed are lost to the ground. You must recollect your skull, backpack, and weapon as the blob or die instantly. Collecting some and not others will result in varying degrees of difficulty, specifically if you don't recollect your skull, then any hit is a one hit kill. There are upgrades to each with different variations like triple jumps and abilities that can change up gameplay quite a bit.

Finding and deciphering what these abilities are takes time as the levels are procedurally generated and the abilities are not consistent with each run. The persistent unlocks come in with discovering new skulls, backpacks, or weapons that once found in a run become usable from the beginning hub. That at least provides consistency when finding a loadout you like; you can stick with it and you will need it. Run after run, I found my game style changing from fast paced to careful and strategic with varying weapons and levels. You can choose the boss of the area you are going to but the levels vary with the beginning and end signaled by a world serpent that eats you and spits you out in the next level. The bosses are giant nightmare creatures that bring bullet hell chaos fuel or meticulous platforming challenges.

One key addition to the Gonner series is multiplayer where now friends can join in on the chaos the world of the dead brings to Ikk. The game plays the same but with two players it can seem even more hectic but equally as fun. Adding a second player is definitely a benefit here as it gives a second to breathe if one person dies. I feel that this is the ideal playing scenario and lowers the difficulty level to a manageable pace while upping the zanniness.

“Press Jump to Die” perfectly describes the difficulty posed in Gonner2. It’s a brutal unapologetic platformer roguelike that shows its style at all angles. In the character design, unnerving minimalist soundtrack, and world building there’s something special here. The game does a lot with a little and in the end it’s tricky to decipher what. That’s just up to you to “press jump.”

TalkBack / Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit Remastered (Switch) Review
« on: November 24, 2020, 08:42:26 AM »

More port than remaster.

Need for Speed Hot Pursuit Remastered is the newest resurgence in arcade racers bringing back the crazy crashes with less emphasized realism. This was originally released during the height of the franchise and is very much a product of its time. The reflection of game development past is represented with minimal UI and cops vs. racers action, capped off by a rap/rock soundtrack.

This game brings a barebones approach to Hot Pursuit with a map of nine courses filled with varying events, ranging from full races and time trials to Hot Pursuits and Police Takedowns. Most are simple races that unlock cars via a bounty leveling system. The better you place, the more bounty you acquire. A simple premise that can feel like a grind if you don’t have a car fast enough to progress. The real variety comes in the Hot Pursuit races. Nitrous Speed Boosts? You bet! EMP blasts? Why not! Spike Strips? Sure throw those in there! These abilities add a fantastic level of chaos to an already wild police chase race. Placing well in these types of races level up these abilities but not much changes there. Sadly, Hot Pursuit and Police Takedowns are the only stand out events as the other variations are basic racing faire with little to no variety.

The car unlocks are all well-known racing cars that bring stat upgrades, but there isn’t a way to up your stats besides swapping cars. Brand loyalty means little here. Being the player character, I found it bewildering that during the police races, I was often the sole focus of the police leading to several frustrating restarts, accompanied by some lengthy load times. It does have a funny feature to show your avatar when leveling up your bounty, making me giggle at a “MOST WANTED” sign with my sleepy Tom Nook avatar. It’s a nice touch.

The soundtrack is a fun romp of rap, rock and EDM of 2010 bringing you back to the initial release with only six new tracks added. The game looks as it did back in it’s initial release of 2010 down to a black and white untextured review mirror that was present in the original. There’s a thought of bringing back the feel of the original but I don’t know if that was a necessary detail. Another detail brought in was the autolog feature which takes your friends lists and updates you when your friends have beat your times, and can take you directly to the event so you can try to beat their new times. It’s a neat social feature that can add a level of competition and keep the things fresh.

Need for Speed Hot Pursuit Remastered brings the classic 2010 arcade racer to the Nintendo Switch. It harkens back to the heyday of the series when they were at their peak. While it’s fun, it doesn’t bring much new to this port so It ends up feeling dated and the progression grindy. While nothing can match the chaos of a good cop chase, the rest of the package could use some updates. That being said, those looking for a new arcade racer will surely find a good time here.

TalkBack / Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials (Switch) Review
« on: October 27, 2020, 01:20:48 PM »

Bad name for a great game.

Metroidvanias are a beloved genre that combine sprawling maps that encourage exploration while often still presenting a gated progression. In this vein, we have Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials, brought to you by the developer Unspeakable Pixels. This quirky and funny 2D side-scrolling action game brings the charm of the SNES, but adds enough humor to exude a strong personality.

In Batbarian, the protagonist is a sarcastic quick-witted barbarian that lands into a heap of trouble with a rival clan leading to a pitfall into a complex cave structure that, as you find out, isn’t an ordinary cave. You and your trusty bat companion are tasked with exploring the varied biomes of the massive perilous cavern. Along the way are new companions to be met, zany boss battles, and crazy story beats to keep everything moving at a brisk pace. These scenarios are usually met with hilarious dialogue trees and interactions that always left me laughing. Sadly they are fewer and farther between as you progress, making me wish for more.

The gameplay is a classic 2D platformer style with rooms filled with traps and enemies. The traversal mechanics are jumps, throwing stones to trigger switches, and sending out your bat to light the way. The bat companion is used as a guide because the setting has dark areas and poor visibility. The bat can be sent ahead to show the path forward unless moths are there to distract it. Later on, the bat gets new abilities such as lighting on fire to burn plants and grant access to new areas. The cave gives the feeling of a new secret hiding around every corner, with each trap as a new puzzle to solve.

With combat, there’s a basic attack along with a companion second attack like a bomb or spell being cast giving variation to the move set. The bat companion also assists by swooping in and attacking when a berry is thrown, but those are limited and found in the environment so they must be used sparingly. The enemies come in the forms of bugs, worms, Venus fly traps, werewolves, stone cement monsters, and many more so there’s always more to learn about each enemy and how to defeat it. Beating enemies rewards players with experience to level up the main character that gives stat boosts based on a roulette wheel randomizer to pick from Defense, Offense and Awareness (the latter translates to darkness visibility or gold drop rate). Mix those in with occasional boss encounters that are animated beautifully in a pixel art design reminiscent of the games of yore and you get a nice nostalgic feel with a clever design.

The story is one of intrigue. It becomes clear that this is no ordinary cave as you are antagonized by a shadowy demon figure that hints at the cave’s sinister origins. The mystery is enough to entice through the 400+ rooms the game boasts but your mileage may vary as I found some of the traps and puzzles to be mean-spirited with purposefully obtuse solutions with traps that penalize you for merely existing. Luckily, accessibility options are available to boost defenses or regen health, which kept me playing in tough spots. This is a nice feature I’d love to see other developers use to encourage players to continue through, even if momentarily.

Batbarian is a tight package that blends 2D pixel art Metroidvania with a modern day humor aesthetic. It may be a mouthful but it brings a lot to the table. The art and music style bring the jams of the retro age as well as its storytelling and humor bring a modern sensibility. Despite the occasional difficulty spike (which can be adjusted with assists), Batbarian: Testament of the Primordials is a game worth trying out. If only to see what’s really going on in that cave.

TalkBack / Breakpoint (Switch) Review
« on: October 14, 2020, 08:31:40 AM »

Break out the melee with Breakpoint.

To have a generic name like Breakpoint, you would really have to stand out from the crowd. With that in mind, I am excited to report that it stands out in a chaotic mess of neon explosions. This game takes a classic arcade trope and adds a unique spin that is bound to bring the die-hard shooter fans and newbies alike.

Breakpoint is a top-down space shooter by way of Asteroids or Geometry Wars. You are an arrow ship on a square grid playing field. Neon wireframe enemies come out at you in waves. The attacker ships range from the green weak enemy fodder to more armored yellow rockets that leave a light trail that cannot be crossed to box you in. The enemy variety isn’t vast but has enough to stay fresh. The waves get increasingly more intense and are semi-random based on kill combos, leading to screens absolutely packed with enemies with no end in sight.

What makes this unique is that you are given melee weapons to dispatch your adversaries. These weapons include an axe, broadsword, double daggers, war hammer, and spear, each with a unique light or heavy attack that also differ as each level up. The weapons feel vastly different with pacing and style. Hammer attacks are slow, but provide a wide range of damage while the daggers are quick and precise. They have pros and cons for sure, but the variety encourages experimentation. I had initially stuck with the axe, but when I was deep into a run with a 18x multiplier score with the spear, the game truly clicked with me. Each weapon has its merits, and none give the impression of being overpowered, presenting a good balance.

Leveling up the weapons consists of gathering glowing lights left in the wake of killed enemies but there is something that offsets constant leveling up: the titular breakpoint of each weapon. The more attacks that connect with an enemy build a “breakpoint” gauge. Once you fill the meter, your weapon explodes in a large radius showering the screen and enemies in lights and force that can destroy large groups. This mechanic can be used strategically to time your breakpoints with a large group to clear the screen efficiently and save you in case of being overwhelmed. This also resets your weapons level, so while your axe may swing wider and hit more at level 3, that meter is still looming to give a massive blast that will send it back down to 1. Along with the weapon breaking, you can also perform a thrown weapon attack that doesn’t leave you defenseless and will play towards your breakpoint meter. It always felt so satisfying to throw your weapon into a large crowd of enemies to have it explode in the middle leaving nothing but dust in your wake.

This push and pull gives way to a fantastic mad dash and a high score leaderboard complete with a catchy electronica dance track that gets more intense with each passing enemy. While the song remains the same, it only highlighted the on-screen action without becoming annoying. That being said, the game only has a single mode of high score challenge. See how long you can last and compare to the only leaderboards both local and global. The pick-up-and-play addicting nature of this makes for fast restarts and little-to-no tutorial needed but could do with a set level mode, time attack, or challenge mode to give some variety in the gameplay.

Breakpoint brings an addicting and fast-paced arcade space shooter to the Nintendo Switch with neon colored action and a catchy techno soundtrack to boot. There isn't much else as far as modes, but the fast restarts can make anyone an addict in short 5 to 10-minute bursts. If the leaderboards do not entice, then the personal challenge to best your high score may be enough to keep bringing you back, if only for another quick run.

TalkBack / Unrailed (Switch) Review
« on: October 07, 2020, 11:58:00 AM »

Unrailed is rarely off the rails

Unrailed is a co-op multiplayer game and freshman outing for the new indie dev team Indoor Astronaut. It brings about a voxel co-op party with a well-detailed tutorial and an easy pick-up-and-play accessibility.  The mechanics of Unrailed are basic: You have a train on the tracks but they are unfinished. Gather resources from trees for wood or stone for iron using a pickaxe and ax respectively. Depositing piles of these materials into the building cart will automatically forge them into the required train tracks that you lay connecting the tracks to keep the train on the rails. The goal of each level is to get the train from the station at the beginning of the level to the station at the end, but there are a few wrenches thrown into the mix to make this a challenge.

The environment comes with wildlife such as llamas and cows to block your path. Along with that, non-player characters exist solely to remove tracks from your path and sabotage the train itself. These environmental hazards are procedurally generated, leaving a level of randomness to the map layout itself with rocks and rivers to traverse. Additionally, the train has its own internal heating issues that can cause it to start on fire. It doesn’t take damage but will make the cars unusable until each car is put out with a bucket of water (your third tool). These hurdles can prove difficult but never insurmountable being presented at the start of the level with plenty of time to plan out alternative routes and ways to avoid the incoming bumps in the road.

That is the central loop of Unrailed: building this train along its path with a partner. It is  co-op only, so if playing solo, an AI companion is provided with easy emote controls that allow for quick instructions to your partner without missing a beat. With two players, the work never feels overwhelming and its learning curve is low because there’s really only a single button interface. You can dash, or you pick up your tool of choice but to engage with chopping down trees or mining iron you simply have to be near the item and it automatically begins. If you have an axe and are near a tree, it starts chopping. This is great for new players but for me, it felt like it oversimplified the already basic gameplay. There is also an unlockable upgrade system that can increase mining speed or train creation speed providing a needed progression.

There is an endless mode, a difficulty-adjusting random level mode, and a versus mode so you can engage with the mechanics in a variety of different scenarios. In the versus mode, there is an added car to your train that when fed wood or iron can shoot a cannon ball to the opponent’s train area that makes it possible to set the train on fire or destroy important pieces of track. This adds another layer of variety but rarely determines the end results of any versus matches played. It allows for some fun competitive back and forth but with the simple playability, the excitement never exceeds a dull roar.

The graphics are voxel in setting, giving that beautiful curated Minecraft quality with intricate environments and fantastically designed cosmetic character costumes. The main issue with the way the game looks is that the levels are small and diorama-like in design but then pulled back in view so you can see most of the level. This loses all well-crafted detail and makes the action hard to see. This includes your tasks of chopping or mining, which is solved with a progress bar above your head but otherwise, this viewer couldn’t tell. This problem is then multiplied in versus mode with two stages being shown side by side making the action smaller and harder to differentiate tiles and place tracks. The struggle to see the details becomes part of the challenge, struggling with differentiating tiles instead of the obstacles built in. Especially when cosmetics are unlockable, they lose their appeal when you can’t see them equipped.

   Unrailed creates a party game atmosphere in a voxel diorama setting. The mechanics are simple for pick-up-and-play family parties of all ages but anyone looking for in-depth strategies and play will find it sorely lacking. While its graphical design is cute, the camera view loses a lot of this design quality leaving the players to squint to see any kind of detail. It brings the party atmosphere with an innovative idea but by simplifying the activities lowers the excitement potential. There’s fun to be had here but mostly as a warm up.

TalkBack / Deleveled (Switch) Review
« on: September 26, 2020, 06:01:00 PM »

A tale of two cubes.

Deleveled is a puzzle game from ToasterFuel - an indie live stream developer - and publisher The Quantum Astrophycists Guild.  Deleveled brings smart and clever puzzle design in a simple package that doesn’t bother with a lot of frills, which can be seen as positive or detrimental.

Deleveled’s puzzles revolve around two cubes. Each cube is separated by a line, with a gravity to each side of it. One cube is generally on top of the line and the other is underneath, with physics based on the ground, so to speak. When one cube is moved, the other follows in service of hitting the light switches in a level to reveal the exit. Each switch must be hit in pairs, so one underneath and one on top. The levels aren’t always the same on each side of the baseline, meaning sometimes one cube will be higher up then another. If a cube falls and lands on the baseline, its force makes the bottom cube jump and vice versa, throwing jumping puzzles into the mix.

Using this bounce technique, the cubes can travel over gaps, avoid spikes, and reach heights that may have seemed impossible. Also, the top and bottom of the ground aren’t always mirrored. This allows for one cube to be stopped by say a wall, while the bottom cube can keep moving. The puzzles get more advanced with a ramping period that starts simple and slowly progresses to what seems unsolvable, but it does a good job of teaching you new techniques as you go, so rarely are you stuck for too long.

There are 10 worlds with 10 levels each, with two bonus levels that can be unlocked. Within each world are additional mechanics, such as one way barriers, world rotation switches and gravity reversal switches. I always felt like I was learning new things and each puzzle felt like an “aha” moment. If you are able to finish a puzzle without resetting your cubes or dying you receive a bonus star for your efforts, which can be used to unlock bonus levels in each world. It’s a carrot on a stick that creates a need to not only finish a level, but to reset and do it perfectly.

While it has some clever puzzle designs, the game still feels very finite with its overall range. The aesthetic stays roughly the same world to world, with just a color palette swap and chiptune song change. This also means that for the length of time it takes you to finish all 10 levels, the same song is playing the entire time. This tends to get grating and I found it encouraged me to take breaks, if only to get away from the music for a bit. With the aesthetic being the same, I never felt like I lost a beat by stepping away and coming back.

Deleveled is a simple collection of puzzles that delivers clever design characteristics over a clean aesthetic and poppy chiptune soundtrack. This works in making the gameplay clear but lacks further charm that could make this an addicting can’t put down affair. Much like a book of sudoku, your mileage may vary.

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