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

Half good, half I've played before

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

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

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

Sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not exactly what I was expecting.

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

It’s finally here!


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

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

That sounds…underwhelming.

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

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


How about Haruka?



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

What do you do in this game?

Did you play Hyperdimension Neptunia U: Action Unleashed?

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

I do.

Yeah, it was mindless fun.

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

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

So typical hack and slash fluff?

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

Do the characters differ?

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

RPG stuff?

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

That’s annoying.

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

Soul Gems?

Are you sitting down?

…should I be?

Yeah, ‘cause this is gonna take awhile.

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

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

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

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

Does the Soul Board apply to every character?

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

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

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

Are they cool?

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

Combo attacks?

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

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

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

Are they good costumes?

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

Dare I ask why?

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

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

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

Yeah, you haven’t mentioned the story.

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


Instead of Gamindustri.

*rolls eyes*

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

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

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

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

Okay so you didn’t like this one.

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

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

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

Geeze, that sucks.

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

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

What a time to be alive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can't keep a good kaiju down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shinji Nishikawa

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

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

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

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

Zander Cannon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Frank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yuji Kaida

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

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

It didn't have to be this way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, man.

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

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

Co-starring the River City Girls!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TalkBack / Demon Gaze Extra (Switch) Review FAQ
« on: February 10, 2022, 09:56:35 AM »

Love live the PlayStation Vita.

Review FAQ time, ya’ll. I utilize this format when a traditional review isn’t really coming together. For some recent examples, check out my reviews of Hyperdimension Neptunia V-II and Senran Kagura: Peach Ball. With that introduction out of the way, let’s get to it.

I hate to say it, but your prediction is coming true—the one about the Switch becoming the new Vita.

Oh, isn’t that lovely? The Vita was once the home of bizarre anime waifu games with questionable content, but now those games have arrived and continue to arrive on the Switch. We’ve already got two Gal*Gun games, a couple Neptunia games, and a few Senran Kagura games—with a third on the way in April. And today we can talk about another one: Demon Gaze Extra.


Demon Gaze was a 2013 Vita dungeon crawler (think Etrian Odyssey) that was mildly successful and received largely middle-of-the-road reviews. For some reason, it’s been cleaned up and ported to the Switch as Demon Gaze Extra (DGE) and, well…


It sure is a video game.

Hold on a second, what makes this version "Extra?"

I have no idea. Based on the videos I watched, there don't appear to be many noticeable differences. In fact, I've included a Vita screenshot in this article (on purpose) because I thought it was a Switch screenshot. I saw that exact same thing, although some of my player character portraits were different.

Not a fan?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the game, but it’s wholly underwhelming for a lot of reasons. First of all, the dungeon crawling isn’t nearly as interactive as Etrian Odyssey. Since you can’t draw the dungeon map yourself (which probably would be possible on a system that boasts at least one art program), maps feel impersonal and simplistic. They also tend to be loaded with damage-dealing tiles like lava or poison gas, which can be negated by using a specific demon (more on this later). Enemy encounters are usually random, but there will be times where encounters show up as icons that you can’t avoid.

When you’re not trying to find and battle demons in dungeons, you and your party are encouraged to take up quests, but most are poorly explained, or accessible before you can really do anything about them. Quests also inevitably involve leaving, and then returning to, your home base. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, but in DGE, every time you come back home, you’re charged rent. You could leave, go to a dungeon, realize you forgot to buy a critical piece of equipment two seconds after arriving, and go back home and you’ll be charged rent. And like Etrian Odyssey, rent increases each time you walk through the door.

In Etrian Odyssey, at least, you’re only charged if you decide to sleep (restore all HP/MP).

That’s not great. Is it a problem, though? Is casheesh hard to come by?

It’s not actually that hard to find cash. You’ll collect gems throughout your journey, mainly by killing monsters. Gems are sorted into several categories, like “Sword Gems,” “Hat Gems,” or “Shield Gems.” Each of the game’s dungeons has a handful of spawn points where you can place up to three gems, which triggers an encounter. Different gem rarities produce different results. Winning the fight nets you a random piece of…well, sword equipment, hat equipment, or shield equipment in this case. The most common gem type is the “Nameless Gem,” which gives you a random prize, but often something low-level. I fell into a nice rhythm where I always bought two or three “Nameless Gems” from the Inn’s item shop, used them in the dungeon, and then sold the spoils back to the item shop to recoup the cost of the gems and my rent, along with any other equipment I found but didn’t want. I eventually amassed a nice nest egg by doing this.

What do you use the money for?

Buying increasingly-expensive equipment from the item and/or weapon shops, of course. You can try to rely on gem drops to improve your party’s firepower, but that’s not going to get you very far. You’ll want to buy mid-level stuff pretty quickly out of the gate. You can also find/buy furniture, revive downed party members, and recruit new party members—although each new party member (up to five) costs an order of magnitude more than the last.

Did you say furniture?

Yes! One of this game’s admittedly charming aspects is that you can place a piece of furniture in a party’s member’s room at the Inn to give them a permanent stat boost, and you can swap it for better furniture later on. You don’t, unfortunately, see the furniture. And that, in fact, speaks to my biggest issue with DGE: the aesthetic.

Lay it on me.

Here’s the thing, guys: It’s 2022. Even the Etrian Odyssey games, which were exclusive to the Nintendo 3DS, utilized polygonal character models, and those character models were animated. Your party members were represented by static character portraits, sure, but the environments and enemies were very pretty 3D characters. That’s not the case in DGE, which looks like a mobile game.

Hey now, even mobile games have 3D character models. Some of them, anyway.

Okay, fair enough. DGE looks like a cheap mobile game. The environments are 3D models, although they’re pretty barebones, tile-based maps. All of your party members are represented by static character portraits, the quality of which varies greatly from illustrator to illustrator. But the thing that kills me is that all the enemies, too, are static portraits that don’t animate (aside from maybe floating around the screen). I know for a fact that the PlayStation Vita can do better than this, and you’d better believe that the Switch can, too. Hell, the 3DS can! This may be an unfair characterization, but DGE just plain looks cheap.

That’s disappointing. How’s the combat? So many RPGs live or die based on the combat. I really like the combat in something like Dragon Quest VIII, but couldn’t stand the multitude of confusing systems in Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Where does DGE land on that spectrum?

It’s more towards the DQVIII side of things, but lacks that game’s sense of teamwork, in part because your characters are mute, static character portraits. DGE has several different races, which are then divided into classes. You can have an Elven Paladin, for example, or a Dwarven Healer. Ideally, though, you pick a class that capitalizes on the chosen race’s base stats. You can have five party members total, with some on the front line, and some in back line.

Always with this front line/back line nonsense.

It gets old, right? I’ve seen this dynamic creep into just about every JRPG in recent memory, and I don’t really like it. Front-line characters attack while back-line characters provide support. In theory, you store your weaker characters in the back line so they don’t take the hits. The problem is that you can’t control them directly. Taking control away from the player is never the way to go in my book. But combat basically comes down to hammering your melee or magic attacks, making use of items when necessary; the usual JRPG stuff, but it feels weirdly impersonal, like you’re going through the motions.

Is there anything that sets the game apart?

In fact, there is.

Do tell.

The core tenant of DGE is that you’re a human who can trap and control demons who you defeat in battle. There’s a demon hiding in every dungeon (who is the boss) and if you defeat them, you can eventually take them into battle, where they provide AI support. This support generally means applying buffs on your party and debuffs or attacks on the enemies. Demons level up in battle, but it’s unwise to bring them out for every scrap—they have a set number of turns before they become uncontrollable, after which time they may go after your party instead. Doing battles without them revitalizes their turn count. Plus, different demons have different effects, both in and out of fights.

Ooh, what’s that mean?

It means that one demon can spot fake walls in a given area, and another demon negates environmental damage, like lava tiles. Clearly, switching up your demonic companion gives you a new perspective on every map, so exploration is (sort of) encouraged. I really like this system, and you can swap demons at gem circles.

I guess that's something. Anything else worth mentioning?

A couple things. There’s a lot of character interactions back at the Inn (and sometimes in the field). This occasionally devolves into potentially creepy anime trope territory, like sniffing panties or watching the loli character parade around in her underwear. Your tolerance for that sort of nonsense probably varies from mine, but I generally find it annoying. DGE requires a generous amount of grinding in order to get past the frequent roadblocks it throws at you. You may beat the boss, for example, but they will run away and become much stronger, and only in that fight can you truly defeat them. You’ll have to grind for money, gems, and items in order to suit up for the next encounter. After you beat the first two demons (Mars and Chronos), you’ll be thrown into an unexpected boss fight that will probably decimate your party, and you don’t have too many options apart from further grinding.

Of course, grinding and questing usually means leaving and returning to the Inn, which also requires paying rent all the damn time. There’s a storyline, but since all of your characters are mute character portraits, all the dialogue and interactions come from the Inn’s colorful cast, most of whom I didn’t care for. I just don’t see the appeal of DGE. In the very crowded marketplace of JRPGs, there are way better choices out there.

Well, they can’t all be winners.

Very true.

TalkBack / Shadow Man Remastered (Switch) Review
« on: January 20, 2022, 11:27:00 AM »

I'm not the one who's so far away...

Night Dive Studios, one of my favorite developers, seems to specialize in taking old N64-era games and cleaning them up for modern consoles—video game preservation, but in HD. They already have an impressive portfolio, and much of their content is available on the Switch: Turok, Turok 2, DOOM 64, and Quake (which we don't have a review for...I should remedy that) are all extremely impressive and enjoyable. I must admit I was surprised to learn that Night Dive would be tackling the old Acclaim game Shadow Man, largely because I can’t imagine it has much of a fanbase. This is an ancient 3D platformer from 1999 that released on the N64, Dreamcast, and PlayStation, and was rated “M”—one of the few N64 games to be given that rating. Praised for its dark tone and ambitious design at the time, I was curious to see how this forgotten gem has aged over the last twenty years.

Like Turok before him, Shadow Man was originally a successful Valiant Comics title. When Acclaim Entertainment bought Valiant in 1996, it relaunched Shadow Man and began developing a video game series based on the character. Shadow Man is the alter-ego of Michael LeRoi, a former college student who became indebted to a voodoo witch after his family was massacred. LeRoi was rescued by Mama Nettie, a voodoo priestess, who sewed the Mask of Shadows to his chest, which allows LeRoi, as Shadow Man, to venture into the parallel world of “Deadside.”

It’s difficult to discuss Shadow Man Remastered without getting into the philosophy of game preservation. On the one hand, this game is an extremely faithful remake—which includes a lot of cut and restored content—of a 1999 3D platformer/adventure game, warts and all. Clearly, Night Dive did an extremely impressive amount of work here, restoring previously cut areas, unused dialogue, unused animations, cut or censored character models, enemies, and bosses, and various other additions. The control scheme has been modernized as much as possible, with a new weapon wheel, localization improvements, and changes to the control scheme (no more tank controls). Of course, they’ve also added a lot of toggle-able audio and graphical options, including a film grain filter, which I adore.

What Night Dive has not done (and rightly so, I think) is fix the game. Think of Shadow Man Remastered as a Director’s Cut, something closer to Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence than to Spyro Reignited.

The removal of tank controls doesn’t change the fact that combat is laughably simplistic.

The new lighting effects don’t change the fact that Shadow Man’s map is overwhelming and difficult to navigate. Sometimes infuriatingly so.

The new bosses aren’t necessarily good bosses.

On its face, the gameplay of Shadow Man Remastered is surprisingly barebones: you explore a profoundly confusing (but impressively massive) world looking for Dark Souls and little red masks. The more Dark Souls you find, the more powerful Shadow Man becomes, and the more doors he can open, leading to more areas of Deadside. He can trade in 100 of the little red masks for an extra heart container. At virtually every turn, Deadside is filled with death-defying obstacle courses and frustrating corridor mazes, and Shadow Man traverses this hellscape with what amounts to Tomb Raider controls: jumping, grabbing ledges, shooting, and dodge rolling. You’ll find new weapons, but none of them significantly improve combat. You’ll find items and “tattoos” that allow you to find new paths through old areas, but they’re few and far in between. Most troubling, though, is the lack of any sort of referrable map, and Deadside’s labyrinthine structure will confound your efforts to make your own.

There’s a fast-travel system, but it’s limited in scope. You have unlimited lives, but checkpoints only exist at the beginning of every major area, leading to frequent re-traversal (my solution: save often and reload that save when you die).

All that said, Shadow Man Remastered does hold a lot of appeal for me. Viewed through a historical lens, this game is ridiculously ambitious for 1999. To have such an enormous map with varied environments (well, as varied as 1999 graphics could muster) and so much freedom to move through them was, at the time, essentially unheard of. Shadow Man’s tone and aesthetic, while somewhat quaint now, was deservedly lauded at the time. Deadside is a creepy, macabre, but beautiful place—a weird combination of Silent Hill (released earlier that year) and Clock Tower. Granted, it sure does look like an N64 game with better textures and cleaner character models, but that’s what Shadow Man is.

Sure, the gunplay is nothing special nowadays, but the various firearms—both traditional and mystical—were inventive for the time, and Shadow Man’s ability to duel wield would have been a nice surprise.

Yet I daresay that you must be of a certain mindset to genuinely enjoy Shadow Man Remastered. This is not a game you can rush through, both by design and by virtue of its age. It contains zero handholding, and in fact I had to download the instruction manual for the N64 game to figure out what the items were and what the control scheme was. I think Shadow Man Remastered will appeal to a subset of a subset of the gaming populace: those who were alive through the transition from 2D to 3D gaming and the bizarre experiments it engendered, but also those who have fond memories of those rough-around-the-edges games, whose reach exceeded their grasp.

You may recall that I was pleasantly surprised by how ahead-of-its time Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was while playing Night Dive’s excellent remaster, but I’m equally surprised by how of-its-time Shadow Man has turned out to be. Still, I’m happy that Night Dive didn’t try to fix the game for a modern audience. This is game preservation as it should be—keep the wrinkles, warts, and missteps; add cut content wherever possible (as it informs the game’s original intent); let the strengths of the original games speak for themselves. Shadow Man is not a great game in 2021, but in 1999, it was ambitious and inventive, and being able to experience this game as it was meant to be released and played is valuable and enjoyable.

TalkBack / Zach's Favorite Games of 2021
« on: January 13, 2022, 09:13:45 AM »

The nice thing about this article is that it's timely.

I don't play as many video games as I used to, but 2021 was a good year in that regard. I didn't play a ton of brand-new games in 2021, but rather tried to catch up on a bit of my backlog. My acquisition of an Xbox Series X in late 2020 has guided many of my gaming purchases, although I have a couple notable PS4 games on my list as well. Obviously, this isn't a strictly Nintendo-based list, because my time was pretty evenly split between all three of my consoles in 2021.

Best Nintendo Game: Metroid Dread

As if there was any doubt. Much like John Rairdin, I came away from Metroid Dread supremely impressed, and that’s after taking part in NWR’s 2D Metroid Game Club. Every part the experience was engrossing, from the fun combat, satisfying boss fights, and fast, butter-smooth movement. It looks great too, with sharp character models and lots of color flourishes. The zig-zaggy path through the map is initially confusing but Dread offers plenty of sequence-breaking opportunities. My only real complaint is aimed at the soundtrack, which isn’t nearly as energetic or atmospheric as previous Metroid games. Seriously, though, after not loving Mercury Steam’s previous Metroid attempt (Samus Returns), I’m kind of floored by how much of an improvement Dread is. I found the story to be mostly nonsensical, but there’s a story moment with Samus that I found surprisingly touching, and there’s another moment when Samus is leaving an area where I dropped my jaw and said aloud “oh fuuuuuuu…”

I wish she at least got her helmet off at the end, though. That was my favorite character moment in Metroid Prime.

Best Non-tendo Game: Guardians of the Galaxy

I know this game is technically available on Switch via the power of the Cloud, but it’s apparently not good (and for those of us with bandwidth caps, not practical). Based entirely on the high recommendations of all three co-hosts of the Player One Podcast, I bought the game on a Black Friday sale for Xbox Series X, and holy lord is it a fun time. If, like me, your Guardians of the Galaxy knowledge is largely confined to the Marvel movies, you may be initially put off by the off-brand character models for Peter, Drax, and Gamora but I quickly grew to love them (although Gamora is weirdly thin). The gameplay is extremely simplistic, involving light environmental exploration—which is largely corridor-based—and fun combat encounters where you work as a team to take out large groups of enemies. The game’s unique “Huddle” mechanic, where Peter psyches everyone up during long fights, is a lot of fun, too.

But it’s the story and characters that kept me coming back, and more specifically the discussions between them. They never shut up, but it’s always entertaining and genuine. Drax, largely reduced to a punchline in the MCU movies, gets a very strong arc here, and Mantis is hilarious. As a big fan of Frank Cho (please be surprised), the mere presence of Lady Hellbender put this game over the top for me. The soundtrack is also fantastic, including the bevvy of licensed music and original rock ‘n’ roll album which you can just sit and listen to in the opening cutscene.

Graphically, the game is beautiful, with imaginative alien vistas and great animation. I’m not sure how much flarkin’ legwork the Series X patch it doing, but you can’t argue with the results.

Best Game I Reviewed in 2021: Axiom Verge 2

When I was speculating about what the sequel to Axiom Verge would be, I never thought it would (a) not involve Trace; and (b) not involve Contra-like gunplay. Fittingly, perhaps, Axiom Verge 2 does not involve Trace and does not feature any gunplay. Instead, you take the role of a woman from Earth named Indra who becomes stranded on a parallel world—Kiengir—and spends most of her time trying to find a way back. In doing so, she learns of the planet’s war-torn past and finds unique technology to help her get around. The ties to Axiom Verge 1 are there, but they’re mostly subtle. Combat is relatively rare but surprisingly melee-flavored when it appears. Drone exploration makes a triumphant return—upgraded and better than ever, and the drone can access a secondary map that’s extremely fun to explore. Despite the surprising divergences from its predecessor, Axiom Verge 2 still manages to feel like Axiom Verge. It’s a wonderful game and I can’t wait to see what Tom Happ does next.

Please look forward to my perpetually in-progress breakdown of the games’ complicated lore.

Biggest Disappointment(s)

Last month, I finally successfully pre-ordered an Analogue Pocket, but my excitement was quickly tamped down by the news that it would not arrive until Q4 of 2022. Similarly, I would very much like to play Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart but Sony seems dead-set on selling PS5’s exclusively to bots and scalpers. To add insult to injury, Walmart and Best Buy are only selling (online) to customers who are enroll in their paid programs. For a system that came out at the end of 2020, it’s borderline offensive that both, but especially the PS5, remain out of reach for so many customers. For my Nintendo entry, I was very disappointed by WayFoward’s Bloodrayne Betrayal. I remembered it being a super hard game back on the PS3, but I didn’t remember why. Ugh, just don’t play it.

Best Game I Finally Played in 2021: Robot Dinosaur Zelda

I’m not sure how long I’ve owned the PS4 disk of Horizon: Zero Dawn, but in 2021, Sony offered it for free on the Playstation Store. I downloaded it, gave the disk away, and finally sat down to play what I’ve come to call “Robot Dinosaur Zelda.” I became instantly hooked, basically playing the game nonstop for about a month in the summer, which led to a Platinum trophy. This is basically Breath of the Wild with archery combat and robot dinosaurs (but sadly no climbing), and I would wager that there’s no feeling quite like taking down a rampaging mechanical tyrannosaur with grenades and armor-popping arrows. Even with maxed-out skills, you still have to approach combat strategically and it’s unwise to try and brute-force your way through a flock of robotic oviraptorids. Horizon’s lore is bonkers and learning about how the world wound up relatively human-free and robot-populated became highly motivating, though I was largely unmoved by the game’s primary storyline of a group of humans trying to control the machines, which resulted in hero Aloy’s quest to run errands for everybody in the realm to prevent disaster and fight approximately a billion Glinthawks. Robot factories (dungeons) and the ruins of ancient human strongholds provide a lot of fun as well and tend to involve some measure of Prince of Persia-esque platforming.

The game is also just plain gorgeous, providing some of the most beautiful environmental effects I’ve ever seen in a video game, and shockingly brief and rare load times on my vanilla PS4. Most of the game’s humans (including, sadly, Aloy) tend to fall headfirst into the Uncanny Valley, but goddamn the robots look amazing. I can’t wait for Horizon 2: Forbidden West which hits next month.

Best Game I Started in 2021 but Haven’t Finished Yet: DOOM Eternal

DOOM Eternal is fucking metal.

I was surprised how much I loved DOOM (2016), so when DOOM Eternal came out, it was a day one purchase for me. I ripped and tore my way through the campaign in no time, wholesale ignoring all the lore that the developers seemed to take incredibly seriously (sorry guys). I’m not particularly good at DOOM Eternal—at least compared to videos I’ve seen on YouTube—but it’s supremely enjoyable. This may be my favorite modern FPS franchise. Somewhere around August, the DLC (“Forgotten Gods”) was on sale, so I picked it up but haven’t played more than an hour because I got distracted by other things (see above). It’s also hard as nails, but I fully intend to get back into the Super Shotgun swing of things in 2022. DOOM Eternal is another game that already looked incredible in its launch state, but the Series X patch knocked it out of the park. Exploring a demon-infested future Earth provides a lot of stunning sights—at least when you can pause to appreciate them between waves of demons—and I was constantly delighted by what I saw. Being on this franchise’s art team must be great fun.

As in the first game, DOOM Eternal’s heavy metal soundtrack provides an excellent backdrop to the flamethrowing, chainsawing, spike-goring, heavy rifling action, and it’s even managed to cross over to my group D&D campaign, where our Dungeon Master routinely plays DOOM Eternal music during boss fights.

Best Game That I Played Through Several Times Since Release: Control

In early 2020, when it was on sale, I bought Remedy’s Control for my neglected Xbox One. I played through much of the game but eventually got sick of the spasming framerate and minute-long load times between (frequent) deaths. Control is gorgeous and clearly a fun, well-made game, but it ran like butt on my Xbox One. Unwilling to upgrade to Microsoft’s middleware console (Xbox One X), I bided my time until I could get an Xbox Series X. My some miracle, that actually happened in December of 2021. And the first game I played? Control. With the benefit of essentially zero load times and a butter-smooth framerate, I blew through the entire game and both DLC expansions in about two weeks. I feel comfortable saying that Control is one of my favorite games of all time. My parents bought me the Ultimate Edition for my 2020 birthday, which got me a free next-gen graphical upgrade in early 2021. I was sad to see, however, that the Ultimate Edition doesn’t carry your game save over, so I started a new game just to see the beautiful ray-tracing and reflection effects (which are fantastic, by the way).

And wouldn’t you know it, I found myself replaying the entire game and both DLC expansions again. I still dip back in from time to time, mostly to show the game to friends. Control is fun to, well, control, because the powers that you accrue over time function in a both a Metroid-vania exploration sense but also tend to augment your combat abilities, which are frequently exercised. No two fights are the same, so they’re never boring. The true star of Control is The Oldest House, a gigantic Brutalist structure, constantly shifting in perspective-bending ways, that you spent the entire game exploring. The environments never stop being the stars of the show, from the most mundane office spaces to the extra-dimensional Black Rock Quarry and Foundation and the vast emptiness of the Astral Plane. The game is also packed to the gills with lore, much of which is quite funny.

Based on how the “AWE Expansion” ends, it sounds like the recently-announced sequel to Alan Wake may tie directly into Control, so I guess I should play Alan Wake. Control is another game available on Switch through the power of the Cloud, but I couldn’t tell you whether it’s good or not. John Rairdin did a video comparison, though.

Biggest Source of Shame in 2021: Not Finishing Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1+2

I love this game so much. I have it on Xbox Series X and I've gotten through most of the first and second games' campaigns.


I am currently angry at Microsoft because of this: allegedly, if you have the Digital Deluxe version of this game (which I do), you get the Xbox Series X upgrade version for free. Nope, it shows up as fifty bucks on the Microsoft Store. When I follow the Microsoft Store's instructions, I get some bullshit saying that I simply can't choose the Xbox Series X edition, because it's part of a bundle. But I also can't select the standalone Xbox Series X edition, because that costs fifty dollars. What do you want from me, Microsoft? I even bought the $10 upgrade patch to be safe, but no dice. I tried calling Microsoft but was connected to a customer support bank in India and I could not get the guy on the phone to understand the problem. I was then accidentally (I'm sure) disconnected and I was too frustrated to call back.

Get it the **** together, Microsoft.

Best Game From 2015 That I’m Still Playing Nonstop in 2021: The Binding of Isaac

In 2015, fellow NWR contributor Adam Abou-Nasr bought me a New 3DS game called The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth and I haven’t looked back. I genuinely fear how many hours I’ve pumped into that game, especially after getting Afterbirth+ on Switch. Seriously, there are still things I haven’t accomplished in that never-ending game. Just recently, the final piece of paid DLC, called Repentance, dropped and I was powerless to resist. It adds a couple new unlockable characters, a metric poop-ton of new items, and whole new alternate path through the game featuring new bosses and a gauntlet of increasingly ridiculous final bosses—which I still haven’t beat! Please look forward to an upcoming episode of Intervention in which my friends and family try to get me to go a treatment facility for my Isaac addiction.

Best DLC of 2021: Senna Forever

It’s been a minute since I finished Horizon Chase Turbo, which was my Game of the Year in 2018. This fall, that team released a massive single player campaign called “Senna Forever,” which chronicles the career of Brazil’s Aryton Senna, often considered one of the best F1 racers. I sank a ton of time into this impressive campaign. You can read about it in my review, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Best Multiplayer Game I’m Still Playing in 2021: TowerFall

Sorry guys, it’s not Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, although I continue to log hours in that and have been enjoying most of the new characters. It’s also not Fortnite, a game my honorary nephew keeps asking me to play with him and I always rebuff him since Fortnite is hot garbage. No, dear reader, it’s something much older and low-tech: TowerFall, from Matt Makes Games. If you’ve never played this local-only multiplayer extravaganza, you’re really missing out. Up to four players try to shoot each other with arrows in a screen-sized platforming arena. There are a host of items and environmental effects that gives the game a real Smash Bros. sense of randomness and leads to a lot of hilarity. Win or lose, you’ll have a great time. It also now includes Celeste from her self-titled precision platformer that I really wish I liked more than I do.

Most Anticipated Games of 2022

Well, assuming it actually comes out in 2022, I’m really excited about the Breath of the Wild sequel. I know it’s not going to happen, but wouldn’t it be cool if Metroid Prime 4 hit sometime this year? Speaking of Metroid Prime, the conveyor belt of rumors surrounding a Switch port of the Trilogy eventually have to produce said port, right? If that’s announced for 2022, that might be my most anticipated game of the year.

But if we’re going with games that have been announced for, and will probably release in, 2022, I’ve got several.

First and foremost, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge, from Dotemu and Tribute Games. It has a vague “2022” release date, but every time they show a trailer it looks so damn good, and as a TMNT superfan, I’m going to enjoy looking out for all sorts of in-jokes and homages. Can’t wait for that one.

In a similar vein, I’m eagerly anticipating River City Girls 2 from Arc System Works and WayForward. The original is fantastic, and the sequel looks to be the same game but just more of it in every sense of the word. I think it has a “Summer” release window but I would not object to an earlier shadow drop!

Finally, and you should’ve seen this one coming, I’m pretty excited to play Neptunia X Senran Kagura: Ninja Wars in the spring. Everything I’ve read about the PS4 release says that it’s a little light on content compared to other Senran games, but the Switch release allegedly includes additional difficulty modes, outfits and “sub events,” whatever that means. Let’s be real: the game could just be Asuka and Vert chewing gum and I’d probably buy it.

TalkBack / Aeon Drive (Switch eShop) Review
« on: November 18, 2021, 01:49:33 PM »

Speedrunning: The Game

If you’re the kind of gamer who goes bananas for speed running, have I got the game for you. Aeon Drive is a fast-paced platformer where your primary goal is to get from the start of every short stage to the end in the fastest possible time. This is different from something like Super Meat Boy or Celeste, where precision is the most important factor—not necessarily speed. Aeon Drive takes the opposite tack—while precision platforming does come into play, you're trying to plow through each of the game’s 100 stages in about 30 seconds, give or take.

The threadbare story sees our heroine, Jackelyne (usually shortened to “Jack,” which I found distracting) crashing her spaceship into the futuristic city of Neo Barcelona and racing through stages in an effort to find energy cores for her busted ship. For reasons I was never clear on, she only has 30 seconds per stage to do this or else her ship’s AI will Groundhog Day her back to the start of the stage. Thankfully, each stage is littered with little batteries to pick up and collecting five will let Jackie add five precious seconds to the timer.

Any platformer that deals with speed running must have rock-solid controls, and I’m pleased to say that Aeon Dive largely meets that demand. Running, jumping, sliding, and attacking all feel great, but it’s Jackie’s teleportation ability that gives this game a little extra oomph. She’s equipped with a knife-like object that can be thrown and stuck to platforms in any direction, then a quick tap of the A button will teleport Jackie to the knife’s location. This allows her to bypass various deadly obstacles, find bonus items, and just plain move through each stage quicker. I found that teleporting correctly has something of a learning curve—you’ll quickly be asked to throw the knife very accurately in between spiked floors or through narrow shafts. Once it clicked, I was fine, but it probably took the majority of the first ten stages before I really felt comfortable with this mechanic.

Jackie will also get sent back to the beginning if she’s hit by an enemy or environmental hazard, which means that getting certain bonus items becomes an exercise in tedium, which I did not enjoy. Most stages have at least one bonus item to find and grab (gems, hot dogs), but they're entirely optional and usually off the beaten path. This is not typically the kind of game I enjoy; Mighty Switch Force (and its sequel) is the singular exception. I did, however, find myself enjoying Aeon Drive once I suppressed my urge to get 100% completion. I’m sure there are people who will enjoy clambering all over each stage, but I’m just not that guy. Thankfully, once I quelled that part of myself, the game went by rather quickly.

I would not call myself a fan of game’s aesthetic. Different levels are essentially palette swaps of the same city environment. Granted, the backgrounds will change every couple zones, but the foreground elements are basically the same. You can choose different color schemes for Jack but I wasn’t particularly drawn to any of them. Her run animation appears to be missing a couple of crucial frames. The musical score is peppy, though, with some toe-tapping tracks that kept me going. Each different level (zone) includes at least one new wrinkle, like moving platforms, jump pads, or breakable walls, but for the most part you’ll be doing the same thing throughout. While this does mean you can finish Aeon Drive in 1-2 hours, it also means that it becomes somewhat rote by the end.

It does have a multiplayer option and online leaderboards for each stage, so if competitive speed running is your thing, Aeon Drive delivers. For me, it’s an interesting curio that I’m glad I played, but won’t be returning to often.

TalkBack / Horizon Chase Turbo: Senna Forever (Switch eShop) Review
« on: November 07, 2021, 09:32:38 AM »

A touching tribute to one of racing's greatest stars.

One might assume that, as Brazilian developers, the folks at Aquiris Game Studio would be big fans of Brazil’s Ayrton Senna, widely considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Formula One racer of all time—and you’d be correct. I know next to nothing about professional racing sports or their stars—except of course NASCAR’s Ricky Bobby—but thanks to Aquiris and this lovely Horizon Chase Turbo DLC, I’m considerably more knowledgeable about the remarkable career of Ayrton Senna.

Similar to previous DLC packs, Senna Forever is presented as a separate campaign. In it, players have two options: relive the racer’s run in Career Mode or take on a block of courses in Championship Mode. The latter is essentially Senna Forever’s version of Tournament Mode from the main game: you try to come out on top in an increasing number of races, and doing so will unlock new Senna-specific cars. I believe all the tracks here are new, which is appreciated.

The Championship tracks are pulled from Senna Forever’s main Career Mode, which follows Ayrton Senna’s rise in the F-1 arena. This is the most fun, goal-oriented way to play Senna Forever. Each of the mode’s five “chapters” consist of six races in which players are tasked with earning three “Senna Marks,” which are essentially goals for each race. Usually they’re pretty general, like “collect all the coins” or “get a perfect start,” but other times they’re oddly specific, like “get gas on the 2nd lap” or “don’t use any boosts in the 1st lap.” I’m not sure exactly how these goals reflect how Senna ran any particular race in real life—coins are extremely rare in actual F-1 races—but the Marks give you something to shoot for apart from simply winning races. After the third and sixth races, you get some details of that era of Ayton Senna’s career.

Two wrinkles to the gameplay change up how Senna Forever plays from the main game. Unlike World Tour mode, Senna’s car never earns permanent stat boosts. However, before starting every race in both Career and Championship Mode, you’ll select a different modification to your F-1 car. You can improve the tires (good for rainy weather), improve the speed (good for courses with lots of straightaways), or improve the fuel efficiency (which allows you to get gas less frequently and an extra Nitro boost). You’ll be able to see whether it’s raining or not and the layout of each course before selecting your car mod. Second, pressing the X button in Senna Forever puts the camera in the driver’s seat so you can see what Ayrton Senna sees. While very cool in theory, I found the first-person view difficult to get used to and it definitely made races more challenging. Folks who play a lot of more realistic racing games will probably feel right at home, though.

I was surprised by how well the F-1 cars fit into the overall aesthetic of Horizon Chase Turbo. Courses are still colorful and gorgeous, and the music is just as bombastic as ever—the new tracks aren’t so much brand new as remixes of existing tracks, but I didn’t care. This game’s soundtrack is just so phenomenal. Senna Forever is a great addition to Horizon Chase Turbo, and I was happy to have an excuse to jump back in. And better yet, I learned a lot about one of the sport’s greatest players.

TalkBack / Steel Assault (Switch) Review Mini
« on: October 05, 2021, 11:00:00 AM »

Steel thy zipline!

It would seem that Tribute, the studio behind such wonderful games as Panzer Paladin and Mercenary Kings, has gotten into the publishing game. They’ve partnered with developer Zenovia Interactive to produce Steel Assault, a tough-as-nails but mercifully brief action platformer. Even though it’s fun and inventive, it also toes the line between difficult and frustrating.

You play as Taro Takahashi, a soldier armed with a mean energy whip and zipline, out to defeat the evil General Magnus Pierce and his band cybernetic malcontents from taking over the world—which already appears to be in a post-apocalyptic age. Steel Assault looks and plays like an old 16-bit mascot platformer, and, personally, it reminded me of a GBA game. Tako Takahashi may not have the most complicated moveset in the world, but it gets the job done: he can double jump, slide for a few frames of invincibility, whip his energy whip in eight directions, and use a zipline (also in eight directions). The zipline really sets Steel Assault apart: Taro will often use it to bridge gaps between platforms, both horizontally and vertically. He can attack while moving across the zipline, as well.

The game moves at a very fast pace, and I found that I could beat Easy mode in less than an hour—although some of that time was repeating the final boss, who’s surprisingly tricky. Taro has a good-sized health bar, but health pickups are exceedingly rare. Thankfully, the stages are quite short, and his health refills upon entering a new area. You’ll also do a lot of melee combat, and your enemies are refreshingly diverse. However, there are times where the difficulty seems to stem not from enemies that are themselves tricky to take down, but instead because there are so many enemies on-screen at once.

Some fun Contra-like segments have Taro utilizing a gun turret to take down aerial assaults, including a pretty awesome robotic monster. The boss fights are incredibly fun and require some inventive thinking on your part to avoid attacks. That zipline will come in handy! If you die—and you often will—Taro will continue from the beginning of the last area he entered, which is usually on the boss’ doorstep. Steel Assault offers several difficulty levels, each an order of magnitude more difficult than the last.

Another big part of the game’s charm is its commitment to the 16-bit aesthetic. The game begins with a fun animated opening, and each level has its own title card. Several toggle-able options include a CRT filter, degree of CRT curvature, border art, and something called a “bilinear filter,” which gives the screen an additional layer of noise that I found exceedingly delightful. My biggest knock against the game has to do with the slide. In theory, Taro is invincible while sliding. The problem here is twofold: First, the slide is ridiculously short and there’s a brief recovery period—you can’t really chain slides together; and second, you have to press down and B to slide. In a feverish boss fight, that’s not a great combination. I would have preferred that the slide had a dedicated button, like A (which isn’t used for anything). The slide could stand to be a few frames longer, too. As is, I rarely used the slide effectively. This is a shame, because an effective slide would have made the higher difficulty levels much more tolerable.

I feel like I say this with a lot of games, but I really enjoyed Steel Assault until I didn’t anymore. Up to that point, it was really fun, and I have to commend Zenovia Interactive on their effective graphical filters, which are a big part of the appeal.

TalkBack / Re: Castlevania Advance Collection (Switch) Review
« on: September 30, 2021, 01:33:15 PM »
Just wanted to mention real quick that there is an option to change the button layout in each game under the system pause screen (ZL), under Control Settings. I changed my jump button to B and attack button to Y there for each game. I don't know if the reviewer missed it by accident, but wanted to let everyone know!

Oh snap, thanks Quantaur! I tried to change the button layout in Control Settings but I couldn't figure out how to make the changes. I'll try again tonight and change the text if I figure it out.

TalkBack / Castlevania Advance Collection (Switch) Review
« on: September 29, 2021, 11:01:00 AM »

Uh, Dracula X is not Symphony of the Night.

Well this is a pleasant surprise. A little more than two years after the release of The Castlevania Anniversary Collection, we’re treated to The Castlevania Advance Collection, which contains the three fantastic Game Boy Advance games (of increasing quality) and…the SNES’ dismal Dracula X, itself a “demake” of the Turbo’s Rondo of Blood. I previously reviewed all four of these games when they were released for the Wii U Virtual Console, so if you want the basic gist of them, check the links below. Here, I’ll be giving my updated impressions of the games and what makes this Collection unique.

The games included here are Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, Aria of Sorrow, and…Dracula X for some reason. We’ll talk about that last stinker in a minute, but first, let’s talk about the good games.

I’ve soured a little on Circle of the Moon since replaying it on Wii U. Protagonist Nathan Graves moves stiffly, and the size discrepancy between the tiny, but detailed, character sprites and the massive rooms they inhabit borders on hilarious. Warp points are few and far in between. There are some areas with extremely cheap enemy placement. The bosses tend to be extremely hard, and in fact Circle of the Moon is an order of magnitude tougher than Harmony or Aria. I got a lot more into the DDS system this time around, though, and was impressed with the wealth of effects created—it also clearly inspired much of Aria’s Soul System. Despite its sometimes crushing difficulty, I think Circle is a beautiful game with great music (I was wrong in 2014) and is well worth playing through (and you can unlock multiple stat-changing modes).

Surprisingly, I found myself really enjoying Harmony of Dissonance this time around, although my core complaints about it remain: navigating the castles is a real bear, since there are locked doors or stone barriers all over the place. The garish color scheme—an overcorrection of Circle’s muted colors—is just as bad in a different way. The music has a bizarre 8-bit quality to it, and the sprites are too big, too pixelated, and don’t animate particularly well. Juste’s jump is unusually floaty. All that said, I really like the design of the castle(s), and even though most of the bosses are ridiculously easy, I enjoyed being over-leveled and slaughtering them without any resistance whatsoever. Dracula’s final form might be the easiest Dracula fight in the franchise’s history. And hey, there’s a Boss Rush mode that you can absolutely tear through.

Aria of Sorrow remains my favorite entry in the entire Castlevania series—certainly the best of the Igavania games. It’s a slimmed-down, fast-paced game with an inventive collect-a-thon aspect (enemy souls) and a fun castle design. The plot is actually interesting for a Castlevania game, and the overhauled magic system—in which you absorb enemy souls and use their powers—is fun and leads to a lot of experimentation. The spritework is far superior to Harmony, as is the music and general level design. You’ll still need to equip certain things to get the true ending, but those things dovetail with the plot so well that I’m always impressed. In terms of difficulty, it’s eminently approachable but more difficult (in places) than Harmony, which is another welcome change. If you only play one game in this collection, make it Aria of Sorrow.

But seriously, Circle and Harmony are well worth experiencing as well.

We don’t even need to talk about Dracula X because you absolutely should not play it. The fact that this game was included instead of Symphony of the Night or Rondo of Blood—both of which inform the Advance games—is an utter mystery to me. I don’t understand why Symphony, in particular, remains out of reach for Nintendo systems. The original PSOne version is currently available on the Xbox store (it was an Xbox 360 Arcade game), but the retranslated Dracula X Chronicles (PSP) version, as well as that game’s version of Rondo of Blood, is currently only available on the Castlevania Requiem “collection” for PS4. The only other way you can play Rondo of Blood in 2021 is to break out your TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine Mini—which of course everyone has access to, right? This is patently ridiculous, and Konami is doing gamers a disservice by releasing two Castlevania collections that just happen to lack two of the series’ most important, influential, games.

And no, Dracula X is not an SNES port of Rondo of Blood. The two games do share art assets (which don’t look as good on SNES) but in terms of gameplay and level design, there’s no comparison. The only other thing I’ll say about it is that the final battle with Dracula (spoilers?) involves bottomless pits, hard-to-avoid fireballs, and infuriating knockback. Look, just don’t play it.

These ports were handled by M2, who remains the best at what they do. There’s a gallery featuring key art from all four games, as well as scans of the boxes in each region and instruction manuals—but no concept art, which I found disappointing. You can also listen to the soundtracks of each game and change the region—Japan, Europe, or North America. Unfortunately, your save files cannot swap regions, so if you start Circle of the Moon in Japanese, you’ll have to finish it in Japanese (which I don’t recommend).

The three GBA games have handy “Encyclopedia” options in the system menu (press ZL during each game) that displays helpful information about enemies, drops, magic combos, etc. This is especially helpful for Circle of the Moon, although it does not display the button combo you use to activate summons (half circle from down, to forward, to up + B). You can also change the button configurations for each game, although rather than simply pressing the button you want for that action, you have to press A first, which brings up a menu of actions for that button. A bit more complicated than it needed to be, but appreciated all the same.

You can also create save states, which will make some of Circle’s more difficult boss fights less frustrating, and rewind by holding ZR and pressing left on the D-pad or left stick. You can rewind a surprisingly good amount of time, which will make Rondo at least semi-tolerable (should morbid curiosity get the better of you). I will say that all three GBA games look better in Handheld mode than blown up on a 50-inch television--a consequence of their handheld origins.

So while the bells and whistles aren’t necessarily anything to write home about, the GBA games at the core of this Castlevania Advance Collection are easily worth the price of admission. I remain flummoxed and annoyed that Konami is holding Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night hostage for the time being, but hopefully that will be resolved someday.

TalkBack / BloodRayne Betrayal: Fresh Bites (Switch) Review FAQ
« on: September 14, 2021, 10:35:00 AM »

Certainly not the review I thought I'd be writing.

I feel like I'd done enough of these Review FAQs that an explainer paragraph probably isn't necessary, but just in case you're unfamiliar with the format, here's an example. I generally fall back on the Review FAQ format when I'm having trouble putting together a more traditional review, as was the case here.

Hey Zach, you seem down; what’s up?

Yeah man, the last couple days have been rough. I’ve been revisiting a game I remembering enjoying—more or less—back in 2011 and finding that now, in 2021, I’m not having a good time with.

Well that’s no good, what is it?

BloodRayne: Betrayal, which has been re-released on modern systems with some new features as BloodRyane Betrayal: Fresh Bites.

Is that the game with the sexy dhampir with scythes on her arms?


So you’re telling me that a half-dressed vampire girl slicing monsters to pieces isn’t winning you over?

Surprisingly, no.

Wow, this must be serious. First, though, I don’t really remember that game. Explain…as you would a child.

Here’s the elevator pitch: Betrayal is a 2D character action game in which BloodRayne travels through fairly large levels, slicing up monsters as she encounters them (which is often) and then traversing platforming obstacle courses in between combat encounters.

Okay that all sounds perfectly fine.

It does, doesn’t it? And in fact, Rayne’s combat prowess is not one of my issues with the game. To the contrary, she shines in battle, with a surprising number of flashy attacks, a dash, and the ability to both suck the blood of her enemies (to gain health) or infect and weaponize them against other baddies. She also has a giant pistol and, later, a badass heat ray.

So the combat is good?

It is, although it gets a little bit rote at times. There’s a points-based system where you’re rewarded for decimating your foes quickly and stylishly. You can mostly ignore this, because it seems like you have to be unreasonably good at this game to hit even the most generous time bonuses. Encounters often just wind up feeling like kill rooms that go on just a little too long, with several rounds of enemies appearing in every fight.

Do they ever shake up the formula?

Sometimes you’ll have environmental hazards to deal with, like a saw blade overhead, toxic sludge around you, or cannonballs being shot your way. Usually, you can use these things to your advantage, which is cool. The combat is never boring, though, and when you really get into the groove, it’s a joy.

Okay, so combat is fine but maybe gets a little boring. How’s the platforming?

In a word, terrible.

Uh oh.

It’s like WayForward knew that the game couldn’t just be eight hours of killing monsters—which is true—so they tried to take Rayne’s combat moveset and apply it to platforming sequences that become increasingly demanding. The problem is that the controls are just a little too loose for what they want you to do.

Maybe give me an example?

There’s a sequence towards the middle of the game where Rayne has to outrun a giant buzzsaw while jumping and dashing between platforms that decrease in size as she goes, and some of them move, and there’s instant-death toxic sludge beneath her. The controls aren’t as precise as they need to be, though, so you wind up under or over-shooting the platforms, or dash at the wrong time, or accidentally fall after you’ve landed because you think she’s not fully on the platform.

Or another time where, in the final level, Rayne has to bounce across toxic sludge by air-kicking floating insects that are a set distance apart, oh but also there are laser beams that will shoot between bugs, so she has to jump, attack, bounce up, dash to avoid the laser, hit the next bug right on the money, bounce up, dash to avoid the laser, etc. All this might be perfectly serviceable except that Rayne is in shadow, as are all foreground elements, but instead of the background being white or light red—you know, colors where you could still see the foreground—it’s an image of dancing flames, which is both too dark and too motion-heavy to adequately see anything in the foreground (which, as a reminder, is black). It’s terrible level design.

Neither of those sounds fun, especially the second one. What’s going on in the final level?

Yeah so the final level is basically Rayne escaping the castle (spoilers?)—the foreground and all the characters are black, the background is also black apart from the dancing flames, and the camera is tilting left and right. And you’re expected to perform acrobatic platforming sequences and lots of combat encounters where enemies overlap, or blend in with the back/foreground. I got through it, and the second half of that level isn't nearly as egregious, but good lord that first half. 28-year-old Zach might have powered through something like that out of some sense of pride, but 38-year-old Zach accepts that bad decisions were made in that final level.

If there’s a persistent platforming theme, are there collectibles?

There are—“treasure” boxes that are rather superfluous and only exist to boost your score, and Red Skulls. Most levels have at least a couple Red Skulls, and collecting four or five lets you improve your health total or pistol ammo total. Several of the Red Skulls are in places where you only have one shot to get them per level (or you can try dying and restarting from the checkpoint). More health and ammo certainly helps, but won’t really relieve your frustration during demanding platforming sequences.

So what’s new about this Fresh Bites version apart from being on modern consoles?

They’ve brought in Laura Bailey and Troy Baker as Rayne and Kagan, respectively, the original voice actors for those characters (on the PS2 games), which is cool. They’ve also re-balanced the difficulty from the original, which was nearly masochistic at times, but I think this change mostly applies to the combat encounters and how much damage Rayne takes/does. And it's something you can turn off on the stage select screen--although I don't know why you would. But for the platforming, even if they did pull back on the throttle somehow, 38-year-old Zach is not as spry or as patient as 28-year-old Zach.

Anything else?

Beating the game unlocks an art gallery, which is...fine.

You know, we didn’t really talk about the game’s art or music.

As you know, Disembodied Voice, I’m a sucker for 2D, hand-drawn art. And Betrayal does, in fact, look pretty great. Few studios are as good at this as WayForward is. Rayne’s animation is fabulous and I absolutely adore her respawn pose and the way she kicks the door off her transport coffin if you press Y when she lands at the start of a stage. Her combat animation is over the top and great fun to watch, although I rarely had time to appreciate it during fights. Enemies are a little less animate, but still full of personality. I was a bit disappointed by the dearth of distinct enemy types. If I never see another blue-coated vampire dude again, it’ll be too soon. The bosses, though, are fantastic—especially the towering, hard-rocking demon who caps off the game (before the terrible escape level, that is).

Jake “Virt” Kaufman did the music, so it’s already excellent, but he also provides a nice gothic-sounding soundtrack that’s distinct from his familiar Shantae or Mighty Switch Force tunes.

After you get into the castle, levels all tend to look pretty similar, and the game doesn’t always do a good job of telling you where you can and can’t land or wall-jump. In terms of design, you’ll be utilizing Rayne’s high-rising backflip for a surprising number of jumps that could’ve just be solved with a slightly-higher normal jump or a short secondary jump, a la Rachet & Clank or the old God of War games.

Hey, did you play that new God of War game?

I did.

What’d you think?

Well, it’s not a God of War game so I didn’t really like it.


Anyway, Rayne herself is more covered-up than her previous incarnations which is probably easier to animate but—because you’re talking to me—a little disappointing. I always preferred her BloodRayne 2 outfit because, again, it’s me.

So you did…not like it?

I did not. I mean, look, I’m a big fan of tough-as-nails platformers. My adoration for Super Meat Boy (but not its sequel), Hollow Knight, and The End is Nigh is well-documented. But the reason those games work so well is because the precision platforming is designed hand-in-hand with the protagonist’s moveset, and you very quickly develop a sense for that moveset and exactly what he or she can or can’t do. Here, it seems like WayForward tried to apply Rayne’s existing combat repertoire to platforming challenges, which absolutely doesn’t fly. The inconsistency with which her wall-jump can be deployed is a testament to this—it seems tacked-on, incorporated to justify some of the platforming segments and superficial exploration without really taking advantage of it.

The combat is generally enjoyable, but the scoring system is never explained and appears to require superhuman skill (or far more practice than I’m willing to entertain) to get good grades in. The platforming is generally miserable. The bosses are a lot of fun, though. Betrayal looks and sounds great. More often than not, though, it feels like work. Tedious, exhausting work. And 38-year-old Zach doesn’t have the patience for that anymore.

TalkBack / BloodRayne Betrayal: Fresh Bites Interview with Adam Tierney
« on: August 23, 2021, 06:20:10 PM »

We've got questions about the upcoming remaster and WayFoward has answers.

As you good people may or may not have heard, the old PS3/Xbox 360 game BloodRayne Betrayal will soon relaunch in a "New Bites" remaster on the Switch. For those unfamiliar with the series, Terminal Reality's BloodRayne began its life in 2002 with the PS2's BloodRayne, got a sequel two years later (Bloodrayne 2) before going into a vampiric dormancy until 2011, when WayForward resurrected my favorite dhampir in a 2D action platformer. Ziggurut Interactive holds the license now, and already re-released slightly-updated versions of the first two games on Steam. In case you're wondering, the sequel is the better of the two. The BloodRayne series is also well known for a trilogy of terrible Uwe Boll films, which you should avoid at all costs, and was the first video game character to pose for Playboy which, I mean, let's just say that CG renders have improved a lot since 2002.

At any rate, I recall having a lot of fun with BloodRayne Betrayal and will be looking to revisit it in early September. WayForward's own Adam Tierney was good enough to answer my (and Neal Ronaghan's) questions about the upcoming remaster. Enjoy!

Nintendo World Report (NWR): Was BloodRayne Betrayal always going to be so combat-focused? Given Rayne's abilities, I can certainly see an alternate universe version of Betrayal with Metroidvania tendencies.

Adam Tierney (AT): I think so, as far as I can recall. It’s true that WayForward does produce quite a few Metroidvania games in addition to brawlers and action platformers like this one. But given Rayne’s arm blades and unique style of attacking from the first two games, I think it was decided pretty early to go heavy in on the combat for this game.

NWR: What’s the process like for planning, animating, and iterating on the animation of a character like Rayne? Unlike Shantae, who basically has a hair whip, Rayne has a seemingly bottomless supply of flashy melee attacks.

AT: I would characterize Shantae as more of an action platformer, where the emphasis is on moving your character around the environment, timing jumps between platforms, and looking for the right path out of each area. But BloodRayne features a deeper system for combat and mobility, at the expense of some platforming complexity, at least in the earlier stages. The process for any of our games is deciding what sort of a mix between exploration and combat feels ideal for the brand, and then we’ll start planning out unique animations and attacks to support that style of play.

NWR: I will always and forever love the fact that Sean Velasco directed innocent, feel-good platformer A Boy and His Blob and then turned around and directed gothic gore-fest BloodRayne Betrayal. Historically, how has WayForward been able to balance between happy/cuddly/cute worlds and darker more violent fare? Are some teams focused more on different styles? Is there a lot of cross-pollination?

AT: Yeah, there’s no real consistency. I think every director at WayForward has done their share of all-ages kid games and darker fare as well. At WayForward, our guiding light is to go after the kinds of brands that excite us, and craft gameplay that feels like the best fit for each brand. That said, I think if you look at the kinds of games that WayForward developed back in the early 2000s versus today, we’re now moving away from kids games for the most part, other than kids brands that we personally love (like Trollhunters, TMNT, or Adventure Time) and most of what comes out from our studio as we head into 2022 and 2023 will be mostly action game brands or original titles aimed mostly at older gamers.

NWR: WayForward has made a variety of side-scrolling games. What makes Betrayal stand out from the rest of WayForward's library?

AT: BloodRayne Betrayal is one of our most complex and nuanced games in terms of character mobility and combat flow. It takes more getting used to than many of our games to really master the combat and mobility, but the payoff is one of the most aggressive, satisfying playable characters we’ve ever built for a game. And of course, it goes almost without saying, but BloodRayne Betrayal is the bloodiest game WayForward has ever produced. We even developed a dynamic fluid blood system for the game to accommodate all the gushing red that sprays from Rayne’s enemies in the game.

NWR: One of the new features of this remaster is that you brought in veteran BloodRayne voice actors Laura Bailey and Troy Baker as Rayne and Kagan, respectively, to provide voice work. Was said voice work ever planned for the original?

AT: It was briefly discussed, but back then we were still really getting our legs under us for VO work in games. Nowadays, it’s pretty much expected for any major WayForward title. And though we had quite a bit of VO in our Batman game on Wii a few years earlier, that was all recorded via WB, so we didn’t really know how to spearhead VO ourselves as a studio yet. It was fantastic to get Laura and Troy involved with this game, though, especially because Rayne and Kagan were two of their earliest performances in video games. And the game always had plenty of dialog, it was just text-only. Hearing that dialog fully voiced now, it’s hard to even remember the game without it, it’s such a natural addition.

NWR: How did that collaboration come about for the remaster? I imagine it took a little practice to get back into character for them—BloodRayne 2 was in 2004, after all!

AT: Not for pros like them! Within about a minute each, Laura and Troy found those voices again. We’ve worked with each of them a few times over the years and they never fail to impress us. We were also lucky enough to fill out the VO cast with Patrick Seitz and Todd Haberkorn, two of our favorite and most frequent voice actors, and they did a great job as well voicing all of the game’s minor characters.

NWR: I think when most people—myself included—think back on BloodRayne Betrayal, they think of two things: the jaw-dropping 2D animation and the absolutely brutal difficulty. I’m excited to see how good the game looks on modern HD displays, but I do have to ask whether you’ve tweaked the toughness at all. I recall the original crossing the line from “this is really hard, but doable” to “this is frustrating and masochistic” in several places.

AT: Yeah, we have. We’re not afraid of putting a brutally tough video game out there, but we’ve been told by some fans over the decade since Betrayal was originally released that a few areas felt so tough, they just weren’t that fun, or had become a huge dropoff point for people unable to complete the game. So we tweaked a few of those areas, and also slightly adjusted Rayne’s health and damage values, for what felt to us like a fairer gameplay experience. That said, all of these adjustments are on a toggle in the menu. So if you want to play the game with none of those changes, just as tough as it always was, that’s still an option for gamers.

NWR: Any tips for getting a good grade in each stage?

AT: You’ve really just gotta get into that perfect flow of combat and mobility. My advice would be to watch speedruns of the game on Twitch or YouTube, see what gameplay methods those experts are using, and try to learn some of those yourself.

NWR: Aside from the voice work and HD-ified graphics, any other bells and whistles you can tempt us with in this remaster?

AT: The added VO, HD visuals, and difficulty adjustments were the major adjustments, beyond console-specific features such as HD Rumble on Switch and Activities and DualSense controller features on PS5. We really didn’t want to tinker with too much because we still feel the game is great as-is, so we tried to limit adjustments to areas of clear benefit. I can say that there is a physical edition of the game planned with some very cool bonus items, though, so keep an eye out for that.

NWR: One of the nice things about the ten-year gap between the original release and now is that Betrayal will undoubtedly find a new audience. Might this be the first in a franchise resurrection? My favorite dhampir’s only been in three games, and I was surprised Betrayal never got a successor.

AT: Cross your fingers! It is not lost on Ziggurat and WayForward that there hasn’t been a new BloodRayne game since Betrayal. If the response from gamers toward Fresh Bites is positive, we would all love to work on more, brand-new BloodRayne adventures in the future. As for bringing WayForward’s older, licensed catalog games back to life, we gave a similar treatment to Double Dragon Neon this past December. And there are a few more beloved, classic WayForward games currently being updated for modern consoles, but you’ll have to wait and see to find out more on those…

Well, color me intrigued. I'm pretty thrilled that the difficulty's been revised, but even happier that it's a toggle.I also really look forward to hearing voice acting; I had actually misremembered that the original release did not have it. Fresh Bites drops on September 9th, ya'll; I'm excited to revisit it. Thanks to Adam Tierney and WayForward for granting us this fun interview!

TalkBack / Axiom Verge 2 (Switch) Review
« on: August 11, 2021, 09:00:00 AM »

Once more unto the Breach, dear friends!

It’s hard to believe it’s been six long years since Tom Happ gifted the world with Axiom Verge, a game I’ve since played through several times on several different systems. Essentially summarized as Super Metroid by way of Contra with a surprisingly heavy, sci-fi story, Axiom Verge has been living, rent-free, in my brain since its release. It’s not perfect, and the best version is, surprisingly, on Wii U, but if you’ve managed to avoid playing Axiom Verge over the last half decade, you should correct that mistake. Since the sequel was announced in an Indie World Showcase from December 2019, my frothing anticipation has only increased. And now it’s here, and I’ve played it, and it’s wonderful.

You won’t be controlling Trace in Axiom Verge 2, but instead a woman named Indra who finds herself transported to a parallel version of Earth that’s seemingly been overtaken by machines. The game’s most immediate differentiator is the change in scenery: whereas Axiom Verge 1 took place largely in dark, subterranean caverns, the sequel is content to show you the surface of the planet—a planet that is not, in fact, Sudra. Another big change is that Axiom Verge 2’s focus is not on combat, but exploration. Indra will find a handful of melee weapons and a couple projectile attacks, but nothing compared to the overabundance of imaginative firepower from the previous game. Instead, you’ll quickly be able to grab ledges, climb walls, and perform an impact attack that damages enemies and destroys cracked walls.

In addition to finding a steady stream of ability-increasing items, Indra will also find “Apocalypse Flasks,” which are analogous to skill points. You can customize her abilities using these vials for increased damage, health, and hacking potential. Once Indra finds a drone, it receives its own line of upgrades. As in Axiom Verge 1, Indra will also come across health upgrades here and there.

There was plenty of drone gameplay in Axiom Verge 1, especially once Trace gained the ability to warp to the drone’s location. In this sequel, the drone is essentially Indra’s co-star, as it can—and must—travel to an alternate map that runs parallel to the main map called the Breach. Oh yes, the Breach—the abstract storm between worlds that kept the Rusalki from killing Athetos in Axiom Verge 1—is now traversable. The Breach plays like an entirely different game, as the drone has its own suite of abilities (including a grappling hook) and the level design is tighter and more compact. The Breach has a unique aesthetic that I really enjoyed, complete with catchy chiptunes (the whole game has great music).

Most of the game’s upgrades have to do with exploration, drone abilities, or Breach exploration. I also haven’t touched on another key aspect of Axiom Verge 2—hacking. The first game presented players with the Address Disrupter, which pixelated enemies in order to change their behavior. Here, Indra can “infect” any mechanical object, mobile or otherwise, and have direct control over its subroutines. As you sink skills points into your infection ability, your powers grow. Indra can cause platforms to move, doors to open, or enemies to work for her. Many larger enemies have multiple parts to infect, and at higher levels you can effectively cripple your foes. The drone can also infect, which adds another layer to combat.

Indra won’t come across any traditional boss fights, but there are plenty of larger mechanical monsters to defeat, and doing so provides Apocalypse Flasks. These fights can be tense if you’re not well prepared, but upgrading your infection abilities makes them considerably easier.

You may be wondering about the sequel’s story. There’s not much I can say without edging into spoiler territory, but it does eventually link to the plot of Axiom Verge 1—just not in the way I expected. While I really enjoyed the connection to Axiom Verge 1 and the parallel story of what’s going on in this alternate Earth that Indra’s exploring, I found Indra herself to be underdeveloped. Part of it is because there’s not as much dialogue in Axiom Verge 2, but another part is that I miss the character portraits of Axiom Verge 1, where I could really get a good idea of what Trace looked like, and his expressions during story segments. In Axiom Verge 2, characters speak using word balloons and character portraits are passé. As a result, I didn’t feel as connected to Indra as I did to Trace.

The game is gorgeous, with big outdoor environments and lively backgrounds. It’s one gigantic map now rather than being subdivided into distinct areas as in the last game. Before too long, Indra gains the ability to warp between save points, which is something I asked for specifically in my Wii U review, and I’m thrilled it’s been implemented here. Wayfinding and item cleanup is still something of a bear, however: the map doesn’t mark where items are or what has already been found. You do have a “reminder” mark for the map, and I recommend using it. Among the very first things Indra finds is a compass, but I did not find it particularly helpful. It will point you toward waypoints (which you tend to get through dialogue) but it will often point you towards things you can’t get to for a long time.

My only other real complaints about the game has to do with Breach-jumping. To get in and out of certain areas of the game, you’ll have to pay a good amount of attention to the structure of the Breach vs. whatever area Indra is in. In some cases, you’ll have to manipulate Breach portals. This led to a lot frustration later in the game once I knew where I had to go but couldn’t figure out how to get there. I’ll just say this—when in doubt, use the Breach Attractor. There are still a few Apocalypse Flasks that I’ve no idea how to obtain, but I’m sure the Internet will have a guide up in no time.

Axiom Verge 2 is a fantastic evolution of Axiom Verge 1—it feels like a different game, but with enough gameplay and story connections to remain familiar. My issues with the protagonist and wayfinding pale in comparison to the addictive exploration and beautiful vistas that Axiom Verge 2 revels in, and I can’t wait to speculate wildly about the storyline.

TalkBack / Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! (Switch) Review
« on: June 30, 2021, 08:24:00 AM »

You stare into the void, and the void stares right back.

Visual novels are usually pretty far afield from my wheelhouse. When I do encounter them, they’re typically broken up by gameplay segments featuring bouncy ninjas or meta-joke-wielding cyber goddesses. I remembered hearing, however, about Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC) back when it was originally making the rounds on Steam—a visual novel with a psychological horror twist—so I raised my hand when the review code came in. I’m certainly glad I did: DDLC starts innocently enough, but quickly descends into disturbing places, and I am here for it.

The setup is simple enough: you are needled into joining an after-school poetry club by your longtime friend and next-door neighbor, Sayori. The club is presided over by a girl named Monika. In addition to Sayori and Monika, there are two other members, Yuri and Natsuki. For the most part, this is a visual novel through and through: you’ll be pressing the A button a lot to move dialogue forward while various character portraits cycle to indicate who’s talking. After each story sequence, everyone will “go home” to write poetry to share the next day, which is where the bulk of DDLC’s gameplay takes place.

You’ll be asked to choose twenty words to incorporate into your poem (you never see the finished product). Your goal is to woo one of the three club members—Sayori, Yuri, or Natsuki—and each of them likes different kinds of words (you cannot romance Monika). The narrative will move forward when you show off your poem the next day. You’ll occasionally be asked to make choices that further affect the story, like whom to spend the weekend with.

All three roads, however, eventually lead down a dark path. Without getting too far into the weeds, all three classmates start acting strangely, and you’ll start seeing some interesting glitches that bring to mind something like Eternal Darkness. Part of the game’s structure is in restarting or loading up saved games, and this is where you’ll likely be introduced to DDLC’s meta-game: a virtual desktop. Here, you can view unlocked character portraits and music tracks, as well as gaze into the “game’s” file directory—another important aspect of gameplay.

I must admit I was surprised and lowkey disturbed by how far DDLC goes in terms of character arcs. To give you some idea of where you’ll be headed, one character eventually reveals that she’s spent most of her life depressed and hits you with something of an emotional hostage situation. Another of the girls starts interpreting your interest in her (via poetry) as infatuation and responds in kind.

DDLC definitely has a “what is reality” vibe that kept me interested, even as I found myself having to restart to move the narrative forward. Despite the restarts and reloads, DDLC is quite short. Thankfully, this version of the game also includes a few side stories that get you more familiar with your fellow club members, should you want to spend more time with them before things go sideways.

Doki Doki Literature Club doesn’t disappoint as an off-kilter visual novel. If you, like me, tend to avoid this genre, you might consider DDLC as an exception to the rule if you can handle some disturbing content.


This game has charm to spare, but that only goes so far.

Just over two years ago, my colleague Jordan Rudek reviewed this quirky little platformer and enjoyed it overall, but had some criticisms that made me hold off on dropping the hammer on purchasing the game. Since that time, we’ve learned that developer Christophe Galati parted ways with original publisher Nicalis, in part because they just wouldn’t let the man patch his own game because it didn’t sell well enough. Harsh toke, Nicalis! We’ll also since learned that Nicalis isn’t the best company to associate with anyway. Anyway, Save Me Mr. Tako was de-listed from all storefronts following the split, and Mr. Galati partnered up with Limited Run Games to release this enhanced, some might say definitive, edition of the Brave Little Octopus.

This version offers some improvements to the previous build. Perhaps most importantly, Tako now has a life bar: he can take two hits while retaining his hat, will lose it on the third hit, and will perish on the fourth. Tako’s hat-loving otter friend (I assume he’s an otter) will occasionally give you hints as to where to find other hats as well. You can swap the game’s difficulty at any time in a specific house in the Octopus Village. Mr. Tako wears its Game Boy influence on its sleeve, and there are a dizzying array of Super Game Boy color schemes and screen borders to choose from. If you don’t want to constantly mess with color selection, you can simply select “Auto” to let the game choose the color for you based on Mr. Tako’s location. There’s also a music player, should you feel the urge to relive the game’s many upbeat tunes.

If you’re unfamiliar with the life and times of Mr. Tako, here’s the general story: octopuses and humans are at war. Tako’s warmongering brother, Bako, is leading the eight-limbed army and he expects his younger brother to fight alongside him. Mr. Tako, however, does not have hate in any of his three hearts and rescues a captured human girl from Bako’s men. Tako then follows the army’s relentless march, rescuing humans they’ve captured, and generally gets involved in their plans of conquest and in the lives of various humans along the way.

In practice, the game unfolds a bit like Kirby’s Adventure: each “level” takes place in a small “overworld” map, within which appear numerous doors to specific stages or towns. These stages represent Tako’s movement from one story beat to the next but can be revisited at any time to find any important items (mostly captured humans) that you missed the first time through. Stages generally maintain that Kirby feel, with simple platforming, enemies to avoid, and the occasional off-the-beaten-path secret to find. Tako collects gemstones, one hundred of which earns him a 1-up. Extra lives, which look like feathers, are also judiciously sprinkled throughout each level. You will never be short on lives, which was another quality of life improvement of this Definitive Edition, as it sounds like the original game limited you to 9 lives.

Being an octopus, Mr. Tako can fire ink blobs at enemies that will freeze them in place, allowing him to use them as platforms to reach higher ground. Our hero does have a semi-limited supply of ink in his squishy body,  but he can find ink refills with some regularity.

In addition to his ink shot, Mr. Tako will come across a variety of hats in his travels. Hats grant our hero alternate attacks (mostly), like an ink blob that’s more like a Super Mario Land Super Ball, a short-range whip (really just his arm), archery arrow, or enemy-stunning flower “creep.” Some hats have no effect on Tako’s moveset and function as quest items. Tako will eventually find a short-range sword that actually kills enemies rather than freezing them in place, which can be handy in some situations but may limit your ability to move vertically in any given stage. Thankfully, Tako can equip two hats at once and switch between them by pressing X. He can also change hats at checkpoints, should a lengthy stage have one. There are a whopping fifty hats to try and find, although many of them are superfluous.

My biggest problem with Save Me Mr. Tako is that you’re mostly doing the same thing in the 30th stage that you were doing in the 3rd stage—the only real difference is how long the stage is. There are rare instances of taking control of another character, and while these segments provide a nice change of pace, these characters, regardless of species, still have an ink meter. When you play as humans, the hitbox is still based on Mr. Tako, which leads to some hilarious cases where the human’s head disappears into the ceiling during a jump. They also don’t necessarily endear you to the characters you’re controlling. Another issue is that there’s really no way to keep track of your quests, which are numerous and easily forgotten. Certain hats (like bombs) may help to progress in certain quests, but it’s never really spelled out as neatly as I would’ve liked. For the most part, you’ll going to want to keep a notepad by your Switch for writing these things down. Quest completion tends to reward you with gemstones and extra lives with the occasional new hat thrown in for good measure.

The plot is interesting to a point, but there are so many subplots, story tangents, and side characters that it just starts to feel like padding. The story is at its best when pitting Tako and Bako against each other.

The game wears its Game Boy inspiration on its sleeve and has a flawless aesthetic. Everything about the production, from the pixel art and color selection to the catchy chiptunes, will make you think you’re playing a lost Game Boy game. Christophe Galati really knocked it out of the park. I just wish the gameplay was a little more interesting! Despite my misgivings, I really do enjoy Save Me Mr. Tako, and if you’re nostalgic for the golden age of handheld gaming, this game absolutely delivers in spades.

TalkBack / Shantae Series Interview with Matt Bozon
« on: April 27, 2021, 03:35:48 PM »

Matt answers Zach's burning questions about Shantae's humble GBC origins.

Today, the original GBC Shantae game gets a long-awaited re-release on the Switch. I just posted my review of the plucky heroine's maiden adventure, and I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to bother Matt Bozon, the Shantae series director and WayForward's creative director, with some questions about that landmark game. Thanks to Matt, of course, for entertaining my fanboy ramblings; it's always a pleasure.

Zach Miller (ZM): Could you talk about Shantae's origin story? Where do she and her charismatic castmates come from, and how was that original GBC game made? It's quite a technical feat for the GBC.

Matt Bozon (MB): Shantae’s story begins in 1994 with my wife Erin, who came up with the character and game concept following our time together as animation students at CalArts. It was all about a hair-whipping, belly-dancing genie who could ride animals and summon magic. It sounded really fun! I helped out by fleshing out the world and the cast, introducing Risky Boots, Rottytops, Sky, and Bolo. We got help from programming legend Jimmy Huey, who helped pitch the game around to various publishers. It wasn’t until a few years later, when all three of us were working together at WayForward, that Shantae was greenlit for production, this time reimagined as a Game Boy Color game. After getting our feet wet with Xtreme Sports, which was our first GBC title, we moved straight into development of Shantae. We worked on the game for about two years, with other team members joining as needed. As for the technical wizardry, Jimmy found ways to get more tiles, extra colors, and even the illusion of parallax scrolling and translucency out of the GBC through a variety of programming tricks, somewhat blurring the lines between GBC and the Game Boy Advance. Compared to similar games of the era, I think it’s still pretty impressive!

ZM: I know that Shantae's overworld and basic dungeon layout is inspired by Zelda II and Castlevania II (or at least, I have always assumed), but the animal transformations are wholly unique. The closest analogy I can think of is Super Metroid, but even that feels wrong. Where did that originate, and how did you decide on her animal forms/powers?

MB: Erin loves animals and dancing, and the idea of Shantae combined both. Her earliest designs had Shantae riding the animals, or sending them off on tasks based on their abilities. Players could take control of a monkey to collect out of reach items, ride an elephant to bash down barriers, or summon a tiger that could leap over long pits. Later it changed to having Shantae belly dance to transform herself into the animal forms directly, which eliminated the need to backtrack or swap between Shantae and her animal friends. Erin also wanted a heroic lead that didn’t rely on a traditional gun or melee weapon, so she came up with the hair-whip attack, inspired by the TV show I Dream of Jeannie!

ZM: Shantae's original publisher was Capcom; I've always wondered if you have to get their sign-off to continue the series without their involvement or re-publish the original game on 3DS and Switch? Did they ever entertain a sequel?

MB: Capcom focused mainly on the game’s distribution. So there were no set expectations for the series moving forward. But Capcom did entrust us with a Dolphin development unit sometime around 2002 in hopes that we could come up with a Shantae GameCube sequel. We did some very early exploration into this idea, but ended up focusing on Shantae Advance instead. GBA was where most of the work-for-hire jobs were coming from and, as always, we had to find creative ways to keep the lights on! So, unfortunately there was no second Shantae title with Capcom, though we have enjoyed a wonderful working relationship with them ever since!

ZM: Was it challenging to port the game to 3DS or Switch? I seem to recall hearing that Risky's Revenge had to be basically rebuilt for mobile, which was then ported to modern systems. I have to assume porting a 20-year-old GBC game would be just as difficult.

MB: We were very fortunate to have Limited Run Games handle the porting, and they entrusted the task to Dimitris, aka Modern Vintage Gamer, who knocked it out of the park. There were definitely technical challenges that I’m sure he’d be able to explain – but some challenges were in knowing which of the game’s little quirks were legacy bugs or exploits versus things that needed “fixing.” The quest is vast, and while working with him, I’d sometimes remember something from the original production that never was in the final product. Between Dimitris, WayForward’s QA team, and myself, we were constantly returning to the original cartridge, counting frames, checking for oddities, looking under different reflective light sources (remember, light bulbs were usually yellow, or burning-hot halogens – not LEDs – when the original game was color balanced). The original game had a very limited release back in 2002, and really has never been exposed to a large audience – returning only once in 2013 to Virtual Console. So in many ways I feel that the game is about to be put through its paces for the very first time by a wider audience! I’m really looking forward to hearing what new fans think of the original game.

ZM: I was kind of floored when I heard that Limited Run was actually making new GBC carts of the original game. How did that amazing idea come about? I didn't even think GBC cartridge parts were being made anymore (lord knows I preordered it immediately).

MB: I don’t know how they pulled that off, but we were similarly shocked to hear that this was even a possibility. It seems like it would be prohibitively expensive, especially considering that Shantae required the biggest cartridge available. But it would still be orders of magnitude cheaper than finding one of those original cartridges, new in box or even used. So, our hats are off to LRG for pulling this off!

ZM: One thing that I've (personally) appreciated about the Shantae aesthetic is that the character designs trend towards older "good girl" art (I'm thinking of guys like Gil Elvgren or George Petty) while also being more cartoony than either. Was that intentional or am I off my rocker? The series has also seen a lot of variety in character art--do you have a favorite? Has her "look" stabilized in this Half-Genie Hero/Seven Sirens era?

MB: Wow, that’s a very interesting question. Growing up, those artists could be seen all over the place, but no, I don’t believe there was any direct influence. But we did create Shantae’s look to be highly posable while retaining a strong silhouette, much like the artists you mentioned. The art style was really sort of a hybrid approach – we developed our own unique style, but there were plenty of influences from anime and manga. Some examples include Dirty Pair, Ranma ½, Outlanders, and Nadia: Secret of Blue Water, and there were many others as well! Right now, it’s hard to say if there’s one go-to Shantae style. Erin and I both often consider Half-Genie Hero’s portrait and box artwork to be the most “evergreen” of the designs. But the interpretations by Studio TRIGGER have been flavoring a lot of our decisions recently, too. Honestly, Shantae translates to varying art styles pretty nicely, so there’s always room for a new look!

ZM: It's also just a great time to be a Shantae fan. Apart from the games, there are T-shirts, a vinyl record, an upcoming art book from Udon, pins, some CharaGumin garage kits, and I'm probably forgetting a few things. Anything coming down the pipe that we can look forward to?

MB: Of the new products on the way, the Art of Shantae book from Udon is definitely a big one, collecting 27 years of artwork into one truly massive tome! We searched every nook and cranny for Shantae artwork, early designs, and even ideas that never made it into the games. Shantae fans will not want to miss it! We’re also working on a free update to Shantae and the Seven Sirens to open up a few more play options, as well as new merchandise. Shantae fans have been great at voicing which kinds of products they’d like to see, and we try to listen to everything! We know that fans would like to see more figures, manga, or even a show, so we’ll do our best to make as many of these dream projects come true as we can!

Well there you have it folks. Personally, I'm thrilled that somebody other than myself remembers Outlanders, which, along with Caravan Kidd (both from Johji Manabe) strongly influenced my own character designs. As always, thanks to WayForward and Matt Bozon for getting this fun interview together. If you're not aware of that Shantae art book from Udon, you are now. The publication date has slipped a few times no thanks to COVID, but it's currently slated for a June release. And hey, check out Shantae, which hit the eShop today. It holds up!

TalkBack / Shantae (Switch eShop) Review
« on: April 22, 2021, 09:12:41 AM »

What a long, strange trip it's been.

Shantae, our favorite half-genie hero here at Nintendo World Report, has come a long way during her 18-year history. You can play through that entire history now from the comfort of your own Switch, as every Shantae game is on the eShop. This is something of a miracle by itself, as the series spans several disparate systems: Shantae on Game Boy Color, Risky’s Revenge on DSiWare, Pirate’s Curse on 3DS, Half-Genie Hero on Wii U (and other concurrent systems), and finally Seven Sirens on current platforms. Of those five games, it’s still the original that’s the hardest to find. It had a legendarily-low print run on the GBC, published by Capcom, who sat on it and until the Game Boy Advance had been released. Shockingly, it was not a big seller. Consequently, that cart is now one of gaming’s Holy Grails.

Miraculously, Shantae was digitized for the 3DS Virtual Console back in 2013 and I heartily recommended it back then. Limited Run Games is the publisher on this new remaster, and they’re going all-out: in addition to this digital version, they’re publishing a physical Switch cart and, by some black magic alchemy, they’re reproducing functional Game Boy Color carts. As if I needed a better excuse pre-order an Analogue Pocket.

Well, I guess I mean TRY to pre-order an Analogue Pocket. I think we all know how that turned out (spoiler alert: poorly).

With the entire series under my belt, the original Shantae game is nothing if not incredibly interesting. So many aspects of this series have continued onward, virtually unchanged, while other things have been significantly streamlined or dropped entirely. The exploration, in particular, is a little rough—traversing the long, horizontal overworld takes a long time and the large sprites take up a lot of real estate. You can’t see too far ahead or above you, which results in a lot of cheap hits or accidental deaths. Shantae loses a life when she falls into a pit or lands on spikes. This happens more than it should, so feel free to lean hard on the game’s save state feature (quick tip for the first dungeon: by holding down Y, Shantae can run across small gaps).

Transforming (and warping) is accomplished through dancing, but it’s a slower, more deliberate process that I’m glad has since been changed. Here, you press X to start dancing, then press directions and/or the A & B buttons in time with a beat to produce a result. It’s workable, but it’s kind of bothersome, especially if you don’t get the timing right. Thankfully, each animal form gets a workout. The monkey can climb up walls, the elephant can destroy environmental obstacles (and kill most enemies quickly), the spider can climb up many "background" walls, and of course the harpy can fly.

The original game also features a day/night cycle which reminds me a bit of the Light/Dark worlds in Metroid Prime 2: getting around at night is generally harder because enemies deal more damage and take more hits to kill. However, you’ll only find Fireflies (this game’s collectable de jure) at night, and collecting all fifteen Fireflies lets you access a new healing dance that’s actually not all that critical once you’re in the endgame but probably nice to have.

The game’s four dungeons, however, are a joy. They’re tightly designed and, while floor plan maps would’ve been nice, aren’t so large and sprawling that you’ll get hopelessly lost (although I did manage to get turned around too often in the ice dungeon). You’ll also find five Warp Squids per dungeon, and you can deposit four in each of the game’s five towns to learn a warp dance. This becomes critically important later in the game during item cleanup. There’s a dance parlor in Scuttle Town where Shantae can earn gems by essentially playing Dance Dance Revolution, and a dice game in Oasis Town where she can win big bucks by essentially gambling on dice rolls. Unlike the GBC Pokemon Trading Card Game, the outcome is not fixed so you can game the system by leaning on save states and win every match. The dice game is the only practical way you’re going to earn enough money to buy all the items and attacks. I was tickled to notice that your opponents in the dice game are the same characters who eventually return, for more dice-based shenanigans, in Pirate’s Curse.

Oh yes, Shantae is the only game in the series that gives Shantae new offensive melee attacks, including a jump kick, diagonal drill kick, and elbow charge. These attacks simply do more damage than her standard hair whip, and can be situationally useful, but aren’t totally necessary, especially the elbow charge, which takes forever to charge up and can be dangerous depending on where you are. The game also contains a few challenge caves which are traversed with specific items, many of which make their only appearance in this game, including the Vanish Cream, Float Muffin, Twin Mint, and Greedy Jar.

There is a little bit of jank in this port, and I can’t tell if it’s because the GBC game felt this way or it’s been introduced: The dance timing seems a little muddy, but also using items (by pressing up + Y) never feels natural, and only seems to work half the time. I would have preferred a dedicated button for item use. There are some nice new features here, though: you can select the GBC or GBA enhanced versions of Shantae: the enhancement is brighter and includes an optional Tinkerbat transformation that you can and should buy from Bandit Town, as it streamlines exploration. This essentially gives you two different save files to swap between, and both allow up to three save states apiece. There's also a lovely gallery of concept art from the game.

I did encounter a bug during my playthrough: in the ice dungeon, there are “barrel cannons” (for lack of a better term), and sometimes they just didn’t activate, which stops your progress. However, I found out that reloading from the last save point (don’t forget to save often, folks) as opposed to my last save STATE, fixed the issue.

The original Shantae is a lovely little game that too few people were able to experience, so I’m thrilled that it’s available for mass consumption on the eShop. Franchise fans should, of course, jump on this as soon as humanly possible, but folks curious about the series or who just want some GBC nostalgia will enjoy it too.

TalkBack / What the Dub?! (Switch eShop) Review
« on: April 06, 2021, 09:22:26 AM »

This game is really (missing audio).

I’m a big fan of the Jackbox games, which are often a staple of my (now rare) game nights. I’m also a connoisseur, as I suspect many of you are, of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax. For those unaware, MST3K and RiffTrax are old, usually sci-fi, movies with essentially a running commentary of jokes from three comedians. What the Dub, from Wide Right Interactive, combines these two things into an excellent party game. Like the Jackbox titles, everyone will need a smartphone or tablet, and it supports up to twelve players.

Here’s the setup: everyone watches a short clip from an old movie, PSA, or educational film. Each of these clips will have some dialogue to give some context, and then there will be some obviously-missing audio. The clip ends, and each player looks down at their smartphone. You have 45 seconds to type something funny onto your phone. Once everyone has done that, the game plays each clip with the player’s entries added with text-to-speech automation. After all variations are shown, players vote on which one they liked the best (you cannot vote for your own clip). The more people vote for your entry, the more points you get. By default, there are only five rounds so games go pretty quickly.

The clips are usually excellent setups for jokes and it’s impossible not to get the whole room laughing as the clips are read out. What the Dub is short, uncomplicated, and easy to love; my friends and I really enjoy it. It’s kind of like Cards Against Humanity, but with movie clips.

There are some caveats that are smartphone specific, however, and these have also affected my experience with Jackbox games. First, if your phone goes to sleep at any point during the game, you will be kicked out of the round. You can jump back in by re-typing the room code, but it’s always jarring when it happens. If you’re going to play What the Dub (or any smartphone-assisted party game), turn off Battery Saver and do whatever you have to do to keep the screen on the whole game.

I do find that 45 seconds is not enough time to come up with, and type out, a real zinger. It wasn’t just me with this opinion--all of my friends brought up the time limit. Thankfully, What the Dub does provide a few options, including setting the number of rounds (from 3 to 10), extending the input time (to an impressive 112 seconds, although nothing in between), and even applying a curse word filter. That 112 seconds sounds like a lot, but since the game stop counting down as soon as the last person is done typing, it's not a big deal.

The only other hiccup, which probably can’t be helped, is that if your dub lasts longer than the original clip, the clip will (hilariously) simply freeze until the automated speaker stops talking. This can sometimes lead to some awkward lead-ins if there’s original dialogue after your entry, but can also be used to humorous effect. Of course, like any text-to-speech system, typos and misspellings will be read as normal, so check your work before you send off your entry (if you have time).

What the Dub is a great little party game in the tradition of the Jackbox series, and it will definitely see a lot of play at my house thanks to my own predilections.

TalkBack / NeoGeo Pocket Color Collection Vol. 1 (Switch eShop) Review
« on: March 31, 2021, 02:49:31 PM »

A fun, if somewhat redundant, collection of NeoGeo Pocket Color games.

I was pretty excited when SNK started porting NeoGeo Pocket Color games to the Switch, starting with fan favorite SNK Gals Fighter, because this was a system I completely missed. I imagine that’s the case with many of you, as the NeoGeo Pocket and Pocket Color couldn’t compete with Nintendo’s Game Boy juggernaut. The little rectangular handheld was known for its surprisingly adept handheld versions of SNK’s arcade fighting games, and in fact for a while, that’s all SNK was porting to the eShop. We’ve already reviewed many of them (see below), and I must admit I was getting tired of fighting games. They’re all good, quality handheld fighters, but do start to blend together. Surely the NeoGeo Pocket Color had more to offer?

Well, SNK just published the NeoGeo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1, a compilation of ten NGPC games—which unfortunately includes all six of the fighting games you might have already paid $8 a pop for over the last year. The remaining four titles run the gamut from just plain bad to very enjoyable. You can check out our reviews for Fatal Fury: First Contact, King of Fighters R-2, SNK Gals Fighter, The Last Blade: Beyond the Destiny, and SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millennium for the verdicts on those—I’ll just touch on the games that are new to me and the added bonus features of this collection.

Samurai Shodown! 2 is, like the other fighters, a surprisingly competent portable version of an arcade series that, unfortunately, never really clicked with me. This game has one of the biggest casts of the NGPC fighters, and like Gals Fighter and The Last Blade, SS!2 has a strong grinding-for-collectibles aspect: you can earn what are essentially trading cards featuring character art, and these can be equipped to character to give them specific buffs or new attacks. Unlike the more freeform style of King of Fighters, SS!2 is more of an offense/defense dance, looking for opportunities to strike and deal as much damage as you can while rebuffing your opponents. It’s more methodical, but not really my thing.

Metal Slug: 1st Mission is incredibly fun, arguably moreso than it has any right to be. Missions are short, and you’ll spend a good amount of time in the Metal Slug itself, along with its air-based counterpart (which I refer to as the Sky Pop, don’t @ me). The two Metal Slug games benefit greatly from the rewind feature that’s standard to all of these ports. I found the Metal Slug itself difficult to control, as it was weirdly difficult to get the canon back to a forward direction after shooting up or behind me. Due to the limited number of buttons, there’s some awkwardness in swapping from your gun to grenades with the “+” button, but otherwise there’s not much to bag on here.

Metal Slug: 2nd Mission, which might be the most unimaginative sequel title I’ve ever seen, is even better than the first. The backgrounds are more vibrant and detailed, there are more enemy types, and individual stages are longer and, often, more complex. SNK must have realized that people didn’t like switching attack types with the “+” button, because here they’ve just made the “+” button for throwing a grenade; it’s a surprisingly elegant solution. In addition to the tank and Sky Pop, you’ll also take command of a submarine (which I refer to as the Marine Pop, don’t @ me), which launches depth charges upward instead of firing torpedoes forward. The Marine Pop stages aren’t great, though, as they rely heavily on ocean currents to force you around. The Metal Slug is still awkward to control, but they’ve made its segments a little more forgiving, with more health pickups to grab. Again, that rewind feature will get a workout here.

Dark Arms is just a bad game. Nothing is really explained (even the instruction manual is frustratingly cryptic), and I had to use a FAQ to understand what I was supposed to be doing. Basically, you are trying to find, upgrade, and level up various weapons by running around killing monsters. Unfortunately, this just amounts to traversing small areas filled with enemies and using your weapons to kill them, then applying the enemy’s “soul” (or something) to the weapons to level them up and, eventually, evolve them. There’s a threadbare story, but Dark Arms is a chore to play through. While there are some interesting ideas here, it’s just not worth the frustration, and definitely the low point in this collection.

Big Tournament Golf is basically the handheld version of the excellent 1996 SNK arcade title of the same name (or this slightly different name). I’m never able to resist the siren song of video game golf, and was pleasantly surprised by this handheld adaptation, even though it’s about as bare-bones as you can get (Mario Golf for the Game Boy Color, it ain’t). I also take some issue with your overhead field of view, which can be hard to read because it’s so brutally pixelated. I did appreciate being able to choose my shot type, which helps as many of these courses have unusually sinuous layouts. Apart from the green, holes lack any sort of topography, which takes some enjoyment out of the driving game. Perhaps because of this, Big Tournament Golf relies on ambient wind and an overabundance of sand traps to slow your progression. This is another game that benefits enormously from the rewind feature: if your shot isn’t going where you want, you can generally rewind just enough to get back to aiming, before you take a swing. I’ve never hit so many birdies in my life.

The usual features from the solo releases are retained here—digitized instruction manuals, multiple NeoGeo Pocket Color skins to choose from, and the glorious rewind feature. A few new wrinkles are added as well: a few of the NGPC skins are of the original, non-colorized, Pocket, which gives some of these games an interesting look (although not available for every game). You can also see 3D models of the games’ boxes, cases, and even cartridges, which I was quite taken by. Alas, my usual complaints are unaddressed—still no system-level moves list to display during the fighting games, and, related to that, instruction manuals don’t save where you left off. If I’m playing as Mai Shiranui and can’t access a moves list, at least let me go right to her page in the instruction manual! I also maintain that the Joy-Con and Pro Controller’s stick is not a great replacement for the NGPC’s clicky stick for pulling off special moves with any consistency in the fighters.

Two-player local play is still a blast, but some multiplayer features are necessarily left out of the collection, including card-trading in Samurai Shodown and a player-vs-player mode in Dark Arms.

You’re getting a lot of good games in this collection—Dark Arms seems to be the edge case here—and if you don’t have any experience with the NeoGeo Pocket Color, this is probably the next-best way to experience its library. I’m still a little annoyed that it’s so fighter-heavy but that arguably tracks with SNK’s arcade output. Assuming we get a Volume 2, I’d love to see Rockman Battle & Fighters (an NGPC version of Mega Man: The Power Battle and Mega Man 2: The Power Fighters) and SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters’ Clash, a digital card game that predates Match of the Millenium. Since I assume somebody had to get a signature from Capcom to include Match of the Millenium in this collection, I’m hoping they’d be open to ports of those other two games in the future. Even if you’ve already bought some of the NGPC fighters by themselves for Switch, I’d recommend this package to have everything in one place, and you’ll get a couple of excellent Metal Slug games and a surprisingly fun little golf game.

Best part is that I don’t have to try and find a working NGPC in good condition anymore.

TalkBack / Cathedral (Switch eShop) Review
« on: March 03, 2021, 09:51:31 AM »

Shovel Knight x Metroid

Cathedral, a new eShop game from rookie developer Decemberborn, is in a bit of a tough spot: the eShop is already filled to the brim with Metroid-like sidescrollers with retro graphics—in fact, Neal Ronaghan already did a video about some of the better ones, and I know for a fact that more are in the pipeline. The challenge for Cathedral is to provide a unique experience that will cause it to rise above its competitors. Does it succeed? Yes and no.

Cathedral is what would happen if Shovel Knight and Super Metroid had a baby. You take control of an unnamed knight who, based on his death animation, seems to be an empty vessel akin to Alphonse Elric. The knight begins the game traversing the titular Cathedral, but quickly finds himself in a much larger world with an open floor plan. His goal is to travel to each of the realms and find four magical orbs that will open a doorway to another dimension where a great evil lurks.

Metroid-likes live and die by their level design, and I’m happy to say that Cathedral nails this aspect of the genre, with interesting platforming segments, environmental puzzles, and rewarding re-traversal. Visiting old areas with new equipment almost always pays off with a hoard of treasure, a new piece of equipment, or both. Interestingly, Cathedral has something of a Shantae-like structure: each major overworld area has its own dungeon to conquer and boss to fight off. The knight will find several types of equipment in his travels: armor buffs, new swords, equipable items (which act like Zelda dungeon items), and magical scrolls.

The scrolls are, perhaps, Cathedral’s most obvious point of divergence from its Metroid-like brethren: although you’ll find a wealth of scrolls, only three can be equipped at a time, and they can only be swapped out at Soul Shrines, which are relatively rare. Sometimes the effect is fairly benign, like upping your damage at low health, while others seem more crucial, like applying a double-jump. It’s an interesting take on what, in other games of this ilk, would probably be persistent effects, and I’m not sure I liked it. The knight also has a ghost-like friend who can be summoned with a shoulder button and briefly controlled in order to activate switches or collect gold and ammo. Often, however, the implementation felt half-hearted, as though it was intended to be a more important gameplay mechanic that was de-emphasized during the course of development.

If this rose has any particularly sharp thorns, they mostly have to do with combat and overall difficulty. Combat is unending, which is exhausting, and each enemy has to be dealt with in a specific manner. Cathedral combines the combat fatigue of Metroid: Samus Returns with the required precision of something like Hollow Knight. The knight has precious few resources: a standing attack, a downward thrust, a shield, and a crossbow-like gauntlet. Starting around the third major overworld area, though, enemies start doing significantly more damage while your armaments largely remain static. Several of the knight’s upgrades don’t have a combat component, so it rarely feels like you’re actually becoming more powerful. Extra heart containers are rarely found. You’ll die all the time, and checkpoints don’t feel consistently placed, leading to some areas being fairly forgiving, death-wise, while others more punishing.

The map is vaguely helpful in that it shows doorways, checkpoint statues, and soul shrines. You can also mark specific points of interest, which helps cut back on fruitless re-traversal. I’m unclear on why so many Metroid-likes are unwilling to implement the system in Metroid: Zero Mission, with one icon to denote the presence of an item, and another to show that you found the item and don’t need to come back. Axiom Verge has this problem, too.

Apart from the combat/exploration imbalance, I’m a little disappointed that Cathedral looks as generic as it does. Maybe I’m just getting tired of the “indie sidescroller with retro graphics” aesthetic, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate interesting character designs or backgrounds and tilesets. This is something Hollow Knight has in spades, and one of the reasons I liked that game so much. Cathedral never really sets itself apart, although it’s clearly going for a Shovel Knight vibe. In that it succeeds, but Shovel Knight already exists. The music, similarly, sounds altogether too familiar and loops a bit too quickly. Cathedral is a game without a strong sense of identity.

Cathedral is a fine Metroid-like in terms of level design, but I just can’t shake the feeling that it doesn’t hit the balance between exploration and combat—the latter so often gets in the way of simply enjoying the former. If you’re a big fan of the genre and are itching for a fresh take, Cathedral is a fine choice that, for the most part, gets it right. Just expect to get tired of fighting your way through every room.

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