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Messages - riskman64

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TalkBack / Date Night Bowling (Switch) Review
« on: November 23, 2021, 07:00:00 AM »

When the date ends on a gutterball.

Dinner and a movie makes for a pretty typical night out between consenting adults, but bowling has certainly earned its place among the pantheon of fun date activities. Date Night Bowling's title doesn't leave much to the imagination, but after throwing my fair share of strikes, spares, and gutterballs, it's hard not to wish more of the focus was on the date part and less on the bowling.

From the main menu, one option is Casual Bowling, which removes all of the dialogue between characters and mini-games. This is bowling plain and simple. The 10 available characters have slightly different stats in terms of power and spin, and each one has a variety of basic outfits that you can swap between on the selection screen. The other option is Date Night Bowling, the meat of the game, where you can compete against an AI opponent in a friendly match of knocking down pins. In between frames, your chosen pair will engage in some light banter and commentary, but phrases are repeated frequently. The game doesn't tell you this, but one way to unlock more than the initial three characters in the Date Night mode is by bowling a round with them in solo play first. Two players can also bowl against one another, with options to choose a heavier bowling ball, how slick the lane is, and left or right-handedness.

One unique element of Date Night Bowling is the variety of mini-games that play out between frames. Most are fairly rudimentary quick-time events; others involve memory or rhythm mechanics. Depending on your performance in these, you'll earn a Great, OK, or Bad rating, with the first two adding to your compatibility score with your bowling partner. What's frustrating is that most of the games are very easy to fail and leave almost no room for error.  Refilling your partner's drink, bringing them food, or cleaning your teeth without them catching you provide a nice distraction between frames, but they end too quickly and punish you too harshly for failure. The simple appearance and design of the mini-games ends up detracting from the charm of the "date night" portion of the title. Fortunately, you will probably still be able to see most of the dialogue between characters, but the exchanges are brief and forgettable.

With only two bowling alleys, a smattering of forgettable background tunes, and no voiced dialogue or animated cutscenes, the overall presentation does little to buoy Date Night Bowling's flailing prospects. The character designs are largely fine, but the mini-games don’t give these eligible bachelors and bachelorettes any time to shine. For what seems to be a more casual and lighthearted experience, there are some major timing and reflex requirements for these side activities, and I'm not even talking about the bowling. Ultimately, the payoff for earning high ratings in the games or high scores in the bowling just isn’t there.

Sometimes a date doesn't go so well, but the restaurant was good, or the movie was enjoyable. Maybe you bowled a 200, even if you left the alley alone at the end of the night. That's kind of the feeling of playing Date Night Bowling. The bowling itself is fun and challenging, even if the presentation of it is quite bare bones. The dating elements, however, are a major letdown, especially considering the strength of other Serenity Forge-developed games like Half Past Fate and A Case of Distrust, which have particularly compelling narratives and dialogue. There isn't much of a reason to recommend what ends up being a pretty consistent gutterball, with the occasional spare thrown in to save face. I don’t foresee a second date happening.

TalkBack / Pokemon Brilliant Diamond / Shining Pearl (Switch) Review
« on: November 17, 2021, 04:00:00 AM »

It didn't take billions of years or immense pressure, but these gemstones are still precious in their own right.

Pokémon's strict adherence to a specific template can make reviewing new or remade mainline entries a bit of a challenge. The matter is compounded by the sheer number of people who love and follow the series and the fact there really is so much passion for Pikachu and his fellow pocket monsters. For context, I'm coming to this review having played and finished essentially all of the mainline Pokémon games, including the original Pokémon Pearl from 2007. This time, I went with Brilliant Diamond, however. One major takeaway upfront is that while it's an excellent game in and of itself, the faithful recreation of Gen 4 and the Sinnoh region is less interesting than the more experimental Let's Go games, which really resonated with me. Still there's a lot to like for those who are new to Pearl and Diamond and used to the quality of life features that have gradually been added to Pokémon games over the years.

From the small town of Twinleaf, you emerge from your quaint home and follow your friend into the tall grass and its ever-present danger. Just before you are attacked by wild Pokémon, a briefcase opens and a choice becomes available. Choose your starter from the familiar water, fire, and grass type triangle: Piplup, Chimchar, or Turtwig. Having always gone for the water option, I changed things up and went grass type, and so Turtwig and I began our two-fold quest, to collect all eight gym badges and become Pokémon League Champion and to help Professor Rowan complete the Sinnoh region Pokédex. Fortunately, the tried and true formula of visiting each town and completing a side mission before fighting each gym leader remains fun, with the equal parts bumbling and nefarious Team Galactic serving as a fairly compelling antagonist throughout your journey.

In a lot of ways, if you've played one Pokémon game, you've played them all, which makes it even more important to highlight what makes Brilliant Diamond stand out. First off, the chibi-style characters end up making a positive impression and fit well with the game's toy-box trappings. Second, while I can't comment on specifics, the post-game does appear to be expanded and offer more of a challenge to veteran players. Third, the outdoor environments are genuinely attractive, with water and water effects managing to impress on many occasions. Finally, the Grand Underground brings a literal depth to the world that is sure to add dozens of hours, but more on that in a bit.

Pokémon battles play out much as they did in Sword and Shield, with one addition being stickers that can be put on top of your Pokéballs so that special visual effects appear when you throw out that particular Pokémon in battle. There does seem to be more flourish to all of the battle animations; the backgrounds during combat also look good and even entering a battle from the tall grass has a bit more flair to it. I can admit that my initial impressions of the game's aesthetic during its announcement were much less favorable than my current ones, and I don't think that's entirely the result of most of my playtime being on a Switch OLED in handheld mode. The wide array of colors and even the pronounced lighting effects, especially in the day and night cycle, are certainly praiseworthy.

Of course, the latest Pokémon remake is certainly not beyond reproach. It continues to baffle me that these games only have a single save file, when even the RPG standard of three isn't enough. Unlike in Sword and Shield where random battles were less common than just seeing Pokémon in the overworld, that convention is flipped in Brilliant Diamond. It's only in the Grand Underground where you'll see Pokémon roaming around and can choose whether to battle or catch them. The Experience Share mechanic is on by default and can't be turned off, which may appeal to new players while frustrating others. Finally, there's an absurdity to watching characters walk in a halting style during cutscenes, as they have to stop and turn to face a new direction. Similarly, sometimes your Pokémon partner that can walk behind you glitches out and starts sliding along instead, or just popping up in front of you, impeding your progress.

Turning the spotlight back onto the Grand Underground, it isn't actually that far into the game before you can burrow beneath the surface to uncover an entire map of tunnels and what are being called Pokémon Hideaways. These different environmental habitats house a variety of Pokémon that are visible on screen, so you can choose which ones to engage. In addition, you can search out walls with hidden treasures inside, such as fossils, statues, and gems, and these can be exchanged for other in-game items or used to decorate your secret base. Depending on how you arrange things in your base, certain Pokémon types become more common in the Grand Underground. You can also find higher-level monsters here and ones you may not encounter in the various above-ground areas of Sinnoh. It's definitely an interesting element of Sinnoh that I'm eager to explore more thoroughly.

The experience of playing a Pokémon RPG is still solid. Whether your objective is to form the best team for online battles, complete the full Sinnoh Pokédex, or even win all of the Super Contests, there truly is something for everyone in Brilliant Diamond. A simple run straight through the game to the end credits only takes 10 to 20 hours, but it really becomes a choose-your-own-adventure type of experience at that point. For me personally, I fell off the competitive battle scene a few generations ago, but finding joy in filling up the Pokédex helped breathe new life into these games. It also gives me a natural stopping point so that I can move on to the next game. For a series synonymous with choice, there's more than enough ways to pass the time in this revamped Gen 4.

Taken on its own, without the history of the franchise and the desire to see it be more, Pokémon Brilliant Diamond is a great RPG. There's a wide variety of content, the gameplay is fun and polished, and the presentation of the remake is charming and warm. While it's easier to recommend to newer Pokémon fans than those who played the Nintendo DS originals, taking another trip around a much more visually striking Sinnoh region turned out to be more satisfying than I anticipated. I'm certainly not in a hurry to leave it any time soon; that's for sure. However, with Pokémon Legends on the horizon, this one-two punch of Pokémon titles could be a winning way to close out one year and welcome in another, with a blast from the past followed by something we haven't really seen before. That's a Jigglypuff double-slap I can get behind.

TalkBack / Circa Infinity (Switch) Review
« on: November 05, 2021, 06:45:08 AM »

Time is a series of flat, dangerous circles.

Circa Infinity, from developer Kenny Sun, turns the brutal platformer genre on its head almost literally. The objective of the game is to leap from circle to circle as you make your way to the center of the screen. Your entire journey through each stage takes place on a single screen, with new obstacles appearing as you clear each circle. While there aren't many bells and whistles to speak of, the solid gameplay and stout challenge are sure to appease those looking for a unique spin on the genre.

Across a total of 50 levels, you guide an avatar character from the beginning circle deeper and deeper until reaching the end. High-skilled players may be able to complete most stages in under 60 seconds, but even veterans are going to have a tough time escaping each level without a death. Running into one of the red demons patrolling the circles sends you back two segments, which is a fair punishment until you chain a few deaths together and get sent back even further. Five bosses appear at the end of every 10 levels or so, and these add a neat wrinkle to what can become a fairly repetitive circle-jumping process.

The controls are easy to pick up, with a single button to jump and then the stick to move left or right around each circle. Mastering the jump timing and the different ways to avoid danger will take a bit longer to master. Given the short length of the stages, a timer at the top of the screen, and a little icon to show which stages you managed to complete without a death, there's some obvious replay value for those who get caught up in the simple premise of Circa Infinity.

The presentation is fairly basic, too, with only white, black, and red used throughout. That said, there's an almost hypnotic style to the movement patterns of enemies and the way the screen changes as you make your way from circle to circle. The final circle of every stage spawns a twisting pattern of white and black, that harkens back to the familiar hypnosis image for inducing sleep or the like. As well, an upbeat, electronic soundtrack serves as an enticing background to push you through each stage. While I didn't experience any issues, I get the sense that the visuals  could be irritating or cause discomfort to those sensitive to particularly vivid or eclectic patterns.

While I had some fun with its unique premise, Circa Infinity does wear out its welcome quickly. The boss stages make for a fun break in the action, but I didn't feel compelled to play for more than 10 minutes at a time or return to previously completed stages. Those looking for a set of tough platformer-like challenges that work better in short bursts should give this one a try. Some post-game unlockables add even more content and incentives to keep returning to the game. It won't be for everyone, but Circa Infinity makes for an interesting, if somewhat repetitive, experience on Switch.

TalkBack / Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars (Switch) Review
« on: October 27, 2021, 07:00:00 AM »

He whispers, "Deal me in…"

Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars, from Yoko Taro and others who worked on the Nier and Drakengard games, is not a 40-hour RPG. It's not even a 20-hour RPG, unless you want to do absolutely every last thing the game offers. No, it takes a breezy 8 to 10 hours to roll credits, and that's largely a good thing. What's most interesting about Voice of Cards is how it takes a handful of familiar elements and creates an experience that feels paradoxically like a known and unknown quantity at the same time. While it might be a few cards short of a full deck, Voice of Cards offers its fair share of RPG intrigue.

After an introduction from the voiced narrator, who also plays the role of game or dungeon master, the story proper begins in the Castle of Advent, where the queen has summoned adventurers from near and far to complete a single task: dispatch of a recently awakened dragon. From there, you are introduced to the protagonist Ash, whose name you can change, and his travelling companion Mar, who looks something like a sea lion or small whale. If you played the demo of Voice of Cards, you'll be familiar with the Ivory Order and three of its main members: Berwyn, Wynifred, and Heddwyn, who also accept the queen's challenge. By and large, the main story involves the pursuit of the dragon, but there are some interesting twists along the way. There’s also lore and background info to unlock from destroying each monster type multiple times. Given its brevity, I don't want to say much more about the story but it's solid enough to compel you from start to finish with its mixture of humor, sorrow, and tension.

It's the presentation of Voice of Cards that sets it apart from other RPGs. Playing out on a large table top surface, whose edges you can actually see if you scroll the camera to the sides of the map, cards are laid out in order to depict towns, seas, caves, plains, roads, and other landforms and structures. Outside of cities, every step of your avatar flips over adjacent cards to reveal the terrain underneath, and sometimes treasure chests, signposts, or even special events. Dialogue and narration derive from the same source, and while the voice work is good, it lacks variety and emotion. This may be in service of the tabletop aesthetic, but there's a reason why most games use distinct voices for the narrator and the characters. The sound effects, fortunately, work very well and really sell the idea of playing an extended session of a tabletop RPG. Keiichi Okabe, who composed the Nier: Automata soundtrack, brings a wonderful collection of music to the game, although the number of tracks does feel limited.

In the overworld, you'll maneuver what looks like a chess piece from card to card as you move from one destination to the next. Towns contain your typical RPG mainstays: inns, item shops, armorers, and villagers to converse with. Speaking to everyone in town is often part of your main objective, but it's worth doing so even when you don't need to as some interactions can lead to earning a mysterious card. Collecting all of these is necessary to unlock the best possible ending. While so many of the towns and other environments can end up looking very similar, there are a number of unique people you'll encounter along the way that add much needed spice to this literally card-based adventure.

In dungeons and outside of towns, random battles occur with regularity, perhaps too much so. Given that Voice of Cards likely won't be too challenging for RPG veterans, it's a bit surprising that the encounter rate is so high. In new game plus, which unlocks after you roll credits for the first time, you do get an item that effectively turns off the random battles, but during your initial playthrough it may be worth running from a decent percentage of fights. I avoided about half of random battles and only faced a bit of difficulty in the game's final dungeon.

As for the turn-based combat itself, your party of three takes on up to three enemies at a time. Each member of your crew can carry up to four abilities into battle, in addition to three passive skills that they learn over time. Every character has a basic attack that doesn't cost any gems to use and eventually acquires an ultimate attack that can require spending up to five gems. Gems basically function as a pool of magic or skill points that your party draws from to power their attacks, with a single gem being earned at the start of each combatant’s turn. You can only hold a maximum of 10 gems at a time, but you'll almost never get close to that cap. Overall, it's a simple enough system that works well and ramps up in strategy as you pick up more costly moves and see new characters join your ranks.

After completing the main game once and then doing a quick jaunt through new game plus, I'm left wanting more Voice of Cards. While I enjoyed what I played and I do like the idea of a shorter, more brisk RPG, it feels like the game's presentation is being asked to do some very heavy lifting. Another chapter or two and a few more playable characters could really elevate Voice of Cards into must-play territory, but as it is it's more of an interesting experiment that delivers in the moment but might not create a lasting memory. The use of cards to create a fantasy world and tell a simple but engaging story is fascinating to be sure; I just want more out of it. There aren't many places to explore, random card events in dungeons and the overworld are repeated frequently, and everything comes to a close too soon.  Without question, Voice of Cards represents a great entry point for RPG newcomers that employs a compelling and unique aesthetic. If you've shuffled your way through most of the RPGs on Switch, however, you might find this Isle Dragon more of a whimper.

TalkBack / A Little Golf Journey (Switch) Review
« on: October 13, 2021, 11:16:00 PM »

A charming and serene blend of golf and putt-putt.

While playing Metroid Dread, a review code for A Little Golf Journey made its way to me, and it turned out to be a wonderful foil to the dark, challenging, and tense escapades of one Samus Aran. From publisher Playtonic, A Little Golf Journey is exactly as its title suggests (or maybe even more): a series of 100 holes spread out across 10 distinct areas, including a desert, a snow-covered land, and even the ruins of a castle in the middle of a forest. The gameplay is incredibly simple and accessible, but what really stands out is just how tranquil and zen the whole experience ends up being. While trying to avoid the sand traps scattered about, I may have found a true diamond in the rough.

After a brief introduction to the controls, you are mostly left to your own devices as you make your way from hole to hole. A bit of narrative spice is added in the form of a conversation that takes place via postcard-like note between two golfers. The notes generally pop up before or after every hole, and some even offer tips on how to navigate particular holes or find secrets hidden therein. And secrets are incredibly plentiful in A Little Golf Journey. Many holes and paths are inaccessible until you discover how to unlock them, which usually requires completing a specific challenge on one of the surrounding holes. For instance, you might find a transparent block tucked away behind a tree, and striking it with your golf ball begins a timed mini-game where you need to hit four or so targets before time runs out. Another challenge involves seeking out a blue, flame-like spirit that scurries away every time your ball makes contact with it; after a handful of hits, a secret hole opens up that you need to sink your ball into to unlock a new path.

The golf mechanics are fairly straightforward and definitely skew towards the more basic side. By pressing the A button, you prepare for your shot and can adjust its distance with the control stick. There’s a bit of a sway to the ball that you can use to gain a bit of extra distance or alter its trajectory. By holding down the ZR button, you can perform a power shot (provided you aren’t in the rough or a bunker). The power shot has even more of a sway to it, but the ZL button can be pressed down for a couple seconds to allow you to focus the show and prevent the swaying. Putting is even easier with just a line that shoots out from the ball and can be extended to increase power. Each hole awards from 1 to 4 stars based on how many strokes you take to sink your golf ball, and how many shots you need for each star rating is clearly displayed on screen. You’ll need to collect a decent number of stars to progress as you can’t move to the next area within achieving a particular star total. Another collectable comes in the form of “Blue Things,” which can only be described as such. These encourage you to return to previously completed holes to find a single Blue Thing hidden there, and earning enough of them can unlock even more content, like a small course within a water-logged, underground ruins.

The presentation shows that A Little Golf Journey actually goes a long way, with its vibrant colors really popping on the Switch OLED. Holes on the overworld map spring to life as you complete them, as color returns to the map and signals your progress. A subtle yet beautiful blend of piano, guitar, and harp plays throughout the overworld and the individual holes themselves, and an particularly effective combination of day, night, and dusk settings both sets the mood and adds variety to the experience. The art style overall contributes heavily in making A Little Golf Journey such a pleasurable way to get your golf fix on Switch.

With 400 stars to earn, dozens of Blue Things to find, and countless secrets to discover, it turns out that A Little Golf Journey is actually much larger and content-full than its name would imply. I love having it to chill out with before bedtime as I need to wind down after multi-hour Metroid Dread sessions, and I think it might actually be my new favorite golf game on Switch, closely edging out Golf Story. I did encounter a few technical issues where my ball got stuck and I had to restart the hole, but this wasn’t a frequent occurrence. If you’re looking for a peaceful and zen-inducing golf experience, there might not be any better than A Little Golf Journey. I intend to relive this journey over and over as I shoot for the stars, and yeah, those little blue things, too.

Are both docks backwards/forwards compatible?

A regular Switch and an OLED Switch can use either dock; that's my understanding. The OLED dock does have the ethernet port now, but it did lose a USB port.

TalkBack / Navigating the Multi-Switch Household: Or SWOLED Makes Three
« on: October 08, 2021, 06:52:00 AM »

What to do with a Switch, a Lite, and now an OLED?

I’ll preface this by saying that I don’t need a Switch OLED, but I’ve got enough GameStop credit that it’s basically paid for already. I’m also such a dedicated portable player when it comes to my Switch titles, that I do feel like part of the target demographic and also someone who’s going to gain the most from the upgrade. As Nintendo has often done in the past, they’re pairing this upgraded Switch with an exciting game launch, in this case, the first new console Metroid title in more than a decade: Metroid Dread. The prospect of getting stuck into a 2D Metroid and basking in the glory of a larger and OLED screen is an enticing one to be sure.

That said, I already own a regular Switch, which is primarily used by my son. I myself use it sparingly to record footage for video reviews or when friends come to call, but since the Lite came out, that’s been my go-to system. It’s not a matter of the dock tethering me to a specific TV; I’ve got a dock connected to each of my two TVs. I just love curling up in my recliner with a hot beverage and my blue (formerly grey) Switch Lite. With a new challenger approaching in the battle for my pre-bedtime attention, I'm growing contemplative about how the three-Switch household is going to work.

One of my concerns is that the OLED screen will actually be worth the added weight compared to the Lite. This would mean I wouldn't have as much of a reason to even use the Lite anymore. If that's the case, why not just trade it in or sell it? I've already basically earmarked the regular Switch for my son; that's his console now. I might not even use it for recording purposes anymore once I have the OLED.

The reverse could also be true. The OLED is marginally heavier than the original model, and I've already basically dumped that for the sleeker, less hefty Switch Lite. Will I only use the OLED during that initial honeymoon period? You know, the one where your new toy is still shiny, flawless, just perfect in your eyes? My excitement for Nintendo's latest revision is tempered by the fact that I already have multiple Switches at my disposal, and I'm really not sure how the situation is going to play out long term. One thing is for sure, though: I'll be diving into Metroid Dread on day one on the Switch OLED. I'm much more curious what I'll be playing in three months from now. Next month, I’ll follow up with a situation report on how my multi-Switch household is handling things. Join me then, won’t you?

If you're planning on picking on getting SWOLED like me, let me know in the comments below. Are you facing a similar crisis of multiple Switches?

TalkBack / A Clouded Future: The Problem of Streaming Games on Switch
« on: October 07, 2021, 06:24:00 AM »

With the Kingdom Hearts games coming to Switch exclusively via the cloud, one NWR editor has had enough.

With Nintendo on the cusp of releasing their new OLED model, it would seem that a more powerful revision is at least 12 months away, if not significantly longer than that. We've already seen a number of high profile titles make their way to, or be announced for, the Nintendo platform as cloud versions: Hitman 3, Guardians of the Galaxy, and now Kingdom Hearts, the first of which started as a PlayStation 2 game. The main problem with all of these is how they can effectively nullify one of the Switch’s most enticing features, its portability. Yes, under ideal circumstances these games and others are absolutely playable, but even with a fast and steady connection, players are effectively tethered to their TV, and maybe even their router. There's an irony to releasing upgraded Switch hardware with a better screen, one that won't mean much when playing through cloud versions in docked mode.

It doesn't seem like cloud editions are going anywhere, either. Early next year, the Switch will see a day-and-date release of zombie-filled, parkour-action game Dying Light 2 Stay Human. The catch? It's another game that will only be available via streaming. It feels very much like a monkey's paw arrangement that the only way Switch owners are getting to enjoy the latest triple A titles is with a huge, nimbus-shaped caveat. With so many households owning a second or third console or even a gaming PC in addition to a Switch, it's harder to recommend these cloud-powered offerings that essentially prevent or severely limit handheld play.

As a specific example, I reviewed Hitman 3 Cloud Version, and based on the gameplay alone it could have been my game of the year. However, it's basically become an afterthought given how disastrous the performance was. My Internet connection isn't lacking for speed, but the framerate drops and disconnects made for a miserable experience. Sure, not everyone will have the same issues I did, but I would imagine there are enough players who were either put off by the concessions of the Switch version or simply opted to play the game elsewhere. Looking at the critical reception, the PC and Xbox versions of Hitman 3 currently sit at 87 percent on Metacritic, compared to 70 for the Switch version, buoyed by a very flattering Nintendo Life score. What's more, that score of 70 comes from only four review scores, which might be just as much of an indictment of the game; no one wanted to review it, let alone play it, via the cloud.

With 2022 on the horizon, games made with Switch in mind and Switch exclusives are probably going to be fine; those won't have cloud versions and they should perform well enough, Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity notwithstanding. The trouble continues to be not only with cloud versions but also with third-party multi-platform games. Nihon Falcom's Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is a recent example of a game that suffered mightily with its Switch version. Muddy textures, framerate hits, and lighting issues plagued what ended up being an excellent RPG. On the horizon, Falcom is bringing over a handful of Legends of Heroes entries over the next two years. How will they fare?

Between the concessions of cloud versions and the rough performance and visuals of multi-plats, it is becoming a greater challenge to ignore the lack of a more powerful Switch. Understandably, chip shortages and a global pandemic can throw a wrench or three into the best-laid plans. There's no denying that. However, the Switch in its current state, even with a bigger and better screen, is no longer as fresh as a spring cucco. As the libraries of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X expand, the gulf will widen. Cloud versions have been a neat experiment, but they aren't the solution to Nintendo's successful but aging hybrid. Frankly, I'm hoping for sunnier days ahead, fewer clouds, and the prospect of a major Switch hardware upgrade sooner, rather than later. I'm sad to admit that to my Switch, I'm much more of a fair-weather friend

TalkBack / Monster Crown (Switch) Review
« on: October 05, 2021, 05:00:00 AM »

You come at the Nidoking, you best not miss.

Editor's note:  The developer has informed us that a patch is being prepared for around launch day that may alleviate some of the concerns expressed in the video.

While there are some games that have elements of Pokémon, you don't see too many entire experiences try to emulate what the Game Freak cash cow has been doing for more than two decades. Monster Crown is an incredibly ambitious video game. It's been in early access since July 2020, and with the 1.0 release on Steam and Switch scheduled for October 12, I've had a chance to put this more mature monster-catching RPG through its paces. Many of those paces have been filled with frustration and a lack of polish that borders on laughable. Pokémon may not be flashy, but it works, it's sharp and the presentation is top notch. Opposite this, you have Monster Crown, which is rough, in a word. Flying too close to the sun can do that to you.

At the beginning of the story, you choose your character's look and gender before being introduced to some of the basics, which will be familiar to Pokémon fans. At home on your parents' farm, you learn that the world is filled with monsters to be tamed by forming pacts with them. Monsters have their own desires to meet and lives to lead, but there are individuals known as Monster Tamers who have the ability to enter into the aforementioned pacts and work side-by-side with different monsters. Stop me if you've heard this before. After your father teaches you the basics of pact-forming and combat, as well as the five monster types, you're given your first major objective: take a shiny treasure to the ruler of the Humanism Kingdom to the north. Adding monsters to your team and leveling them up is definitely part of your journey, but there's always a specific destination or task assigned to you as well.

Even though the monster designs themselves are largely fine, few manage to stand out. You are offered an initial choice of five, with one of them recommended based on a brief personality test. I went against the test and chose Darwhol, a whale-like creature. One positive is that there is no limit to how many times you can use each of your moves, but one of the monsters I captured started with two moves and didn’t learn another one even after going from level 5 to 29. With shared party experience being toggled on by default, I found my party leveling up very slowly, so it may be worth switching it off to strengthen one or two monsters first before trying to equally raise your entire party. Similar to the mainline Pokémon games, you have monsters join you by weakening them in battle and then using a “Pact” item on them. Extra monsters are sent to a box that you can access in any town. So many of the trappings and settings are familiar, with even a seedy casino to gamble in and a power plant to explore, but then Monster Crown swings and misses at very basic video game and RPG fundamentals. The fact that interesting smaller elements, like how your decisions impact the story, a card-collecting mini-game, and special forms of each monster, go largely unnoticed is a testament to how problematic Monster Crown is at present.

Where the cracks in Monster Crown begin to show are in the minute-to-minute gameplay. At nearly all times, the screen stutters slightly as you move. Given the top-down 2D perspective, this issue is very noticeable, but it's minor in comparison to the issues that follow. The balance in terms of combat, monster strength, and typing is way off. Monsters above your level can be taken out with a single regular attack. Enemy monsters many levels weaker than you can one-hit KO the members of your squad with regularity. You're also as likely to run into a random monster walking about the overworld who can wipe your whole team as you are a monster that's a total pushover. You never know whether a battle with another Tamer will be your last, since most of them are quite formidable and bring with them four or even six capable monsters that could easily handle your roster of up to eight. Did I mention that you lose all of the items in your backpack when you die or surrender? I even lost what I believe to be this game’s equivalent of the Master Ball by having to fight a second boss right after earning the “Ultimate Pact.” The game’s also frozen on this screen; I had to reset the game to advance. Professor Oak, I don’t feel so good...

Now, I can live with characters glitching through walls and both enemy and allied monsters living with 0 HP and still being able to attack. However, I draw the line at game-breaking bugs, and unfortunately I hit a doozy at about the six or seven-hour mark. On a mission to retrieve secret powers from three of the cities across the continent, I was in pursuit of the final one when at the end of a dungeon I encountered a never-ending, looping boss fight. There’s no way to exit the dungeon, defeating the boss is essentially impossible, and even when I have defeated it, eventually the fight starts over again. Hilariously, pressing the + Button in this situation, which would normally bring up the main menu, would actually just activate the boss encounter once more. Since the game provides only a single-save file, I’ll lose all progress if I choose to restart from the beginning. As it turns out, I was apparently able to use the Ultimate Pact on this boss to capture it, but it required that I attempt the pact-forming action multiple times. I don’t think I was necessarily supposed to do this, but I was glad to be able to get out of a jam and continue through to the end of the game.

My prevailing feeling after rolling credits is that I could never really tell if an issue I encountered during gameplay was the result of a bug/glitch or an intentional design choice. Outside of perhaps MissingNo from Red and Blue, I’ve never gone through a Pokémon game and conflated programming errors with game design. I mentioned earlier a lack of polish in Monster Crown, and I do think that’s its fatal flaw. Different NPCs often have the exact same dialogue; I found one building where all four people in it said the same thing verbatim. There is a lot to see and do here, even if the somewhat rushed story can be completed in under 10 hours. It’s hard to feel compelled to dive back in for the post-game, however, given how likely it is that something can go wrong or fail to deliver.

I also mentioned how ambitious Monster Crown is, and I’ll give credit where it’s due. Online battling and trading, an intricate breeding system, and monster variants do add longevity for those who really get into the game. Items that grant new moves to your monsters, boost their stats, or perhaps create entirely new monsters are all up for the finding; just don’t die before using them or storing them in an item box in town. From reading about the game online and its journey through early access, I can already see a flock of dedicated fans who are delving into the nitty gritty details and even helping with bug fixing. The fact remains, though, that being listed on the Switch eShop connotes that a game is finished and playable, and I’m not sure either qualifier would hold up in a court of law.

With over 200 monsters to collect, many of whom can be traded for with various NPCs scattered about the map, a helpful in-town quick travel system, and some interesting story beats, I have no doubt that Monster Crown could become a brilliant and shining example of how to make a Pokémon-like. Regrettably, it’s really nowhere near ready for prime time. Steam users are certainly more accustomed to early access, and I’m sure they enjoy being part of the process of fixing and helping to improve a game that they have high hopes for. The console audience can be more discerning, though, and it’s hard to ask Switch owners to pay money for a video game in this state. One day, it might actually be worthy of some royal headgear, but as of now, Monster Crown is much more pauper than prince.

TalkBack / Knockout Home Fitness (Switch) Review
« on: September 27, 2021, 11:01:00 PM »

Not quite a TKO, but it does manage to break a sweat.

As far as video games that got you off the couch and moving, the Wii’s motion controls ushered in a generation with Wii Fit and Just Dance, the latter of which was still releasing a Wii version up until Just Dance 2020. At the end of 2019, Nintendo brought Ring Fit Adventure to the Switch, which added RPG mechanics and a story to complement its new fitness peripheral. There’s now a fair few options for those who want their Switch to be part of their exercise routine, and Knockout Home Fitness focuses on boxing and kickboxing to help players burn calories and get in shape. As someone who has spent the last few months working on getting in shape, I can say that Knockout Home Fitness can definitely help you break a sweat, but it awkwardly straddles the line between catering to beginners and more advanced fitness enthusiasts.

From the main menu, there are three options: Personal Training, 3-Minute Fitness, and My Report. The lattermost of these simply presents a calendar that tracks which days you exercise and how many calories you burned, which may be tailored to the weight you indicate in your profile. The mode where you’ll likely spend most of your time is 3-Minute Fitness, since Personal Training is only available once per day. 3-Minute Fitness features 60 different short workouts centered around activities such as Warm Up, Boxing, and Fight, and you can choose from any that are unlocked and repeat them as often as you wish. Personal Training selects about three workouts that you do in succession, lasting about 10-12 minutes. I found this mode to be a nice way of either starting off or ending my day. The problem here is that Personal Training is basically the only way to unlock new activities, and usually only one or two at a time. This means it takes weeks of play just to unlock all the workouts in 3-Minute Fitness. While this may not be an issue for someone just starting their fitness journey, I found the slow rollout of individual workouts to be a bit of a drag.

As far as the actual gameplay of Knockout Home Fitness, your selected trainer stands in the middle of the screen accompanied by two assistants. As they guide you through the different routines, the bottom of the screen features rows of eight beats that gradually scroll up and indicate which actions you need to perform while holding a Joy-Con in each hand. The bottom right corner of the display indicates your combo, and higher, uninterrupted combos will yield a better score at the end of each workout. It’s a bit unfortunate that achieving a gold crown and a score of 100 requires that every single action earn an “Excellent” rating; I’ve had dozens of perfect workouts spoiled by a single “Great” rating deriving not from missing an action but from a Joy-Con being overly sensitive.

As the actions to perform appear from the bottom of the screen, your trainer diligently coaches you through most of them. It can be a bit frustrating when they deviate from their pattern of shouting out the moves and interject with generic feedback and other comments, especially how often these are just recycled. There isn’t much unique dialogue across the trainers, either, and the models themselves could be a bit easier on the eyes given their prominence on the screen. The music is pretty generic as well, with no tracks that I was able to recognize: just your standard elevator-ish gym/fitness themes.

Overall, I was able to get a decent sweat on by pairing the Personal Training with about five or six extra 3-Minute Workout selections. As someone who does gravitate a bit more towards the type of activities in this package ( different types of punches, knee raises, and low kicks), I enjoyed my time here and will likely come back to Knockout Home Fitness when I can’t get to the gym or the weather makes a walk or run less palatable. Still, there’s an odd disconnect between how long it takes to unlock everything—including new backgrounds, music, and the four total trainers—and how little tutorializing there is for the actual movements you’re performing. After the first day of play, I never felt like new punches and other motions were explained as well as they could have been. With the judges having reached their final decision, it would seem that Knockout Home Fitness doesn’t quite live up to its name. It ends up being more of a split decision. If you’re looking for a fitness game focused on boxing, it’s worth going a few rounds with this one, but otherwise you might be better off with another trainer.

TalkBack / Centipede: Recharged (Switch) Review
« on: September 28, 2021, 06:00:00 AM »

It might not have 100 legs, but that's okay.

Repackaging classic arcade games for modern audiences has essentially taken two forms: either a compilation with fairly faithful ports or a re-imagined version that changes up the formula in one or more ways. Centipede: Recharged, as the name suggests, falls into the latter camp. It makes some clever adjustments to Centipede's addictive gameplay, and the addition of leaderboards and co-op play, in particular, make Recharged a worthy, bug-filled glow up.

"Glow" is the operative word here, with the computerized, wire frame look of Centipede: Recharged. Even if fairly basic in terms of presentation, the gameplay remains largely compelling. In standard Arcade mode, you compete to survive as long as you can and earn the highest score. Centipedes emerge from the top of the screen and travel from side to side as they make their way down the screen. The bottom half of the screen has a line through it that can't be passed by your ship, and that restriction of movement adds to the challenge. Other creatures like spiders, fleas, and scorpions enter the arena from different places, so you need to keep tabs on every area of the screen to stay alive. Spiders are restricted to roaming around your bottom half of the screen, scorpions travel horizontally in the upper play space and generate poison mushrooms that send centipedes careening down into your space, and fleas shoot straight down from above.

What makes Recharged different from the 1981 arcade release of Centipede is the addition of 30 individual challenge stages, co-op play, and special power-ups dropped by killing spiders. The challenges are all self-contained with their own individual leaderboard, and they task you with earning a certain score, destroying a set number of enemies or surviving for a defined period of time. None of them last too long, but they mix up the gameplay in fun and interesting ways.

Playing multiplayer, either in Arcade mode or the challenges, has its own set of leaderboards. It's also just a great addition on its own that works well for what Recharged is trying to do: create an easy, pick-up-and-play arcade experience. In addition to spreadshot, rapid fire, and slow time power-ups, spiders will also drop extra ships in co-op that allow you to instantly revive your fallen partner.

While there isn't a lot of depth to Centipede: Recharged, it still manages to breathe new life into a 30-year-old arcade staple. In short bursts, Recharged plays well enough to earn a spot in my rotation for sure, and I'll gladly pop in from time to time to check out the various leaderboards. The art style does grow a bit stale the more you see it; some additional color palettes or unlockables would certainly be welcome here. It might not have 100 of them, but as far as arcade revivals go, Centipede: Recharged definitely has legs.

TalkBack / 8 Nintendo 64 Games We Need on Switch
« on: September 24, 2021, 05:17:57 AM »


With friends and family gaming on different platforms, a handful of titles make it easier to stay connected.

Together in Games

Amid special battles in the never-ending console wars, a number of titles look past participating in the pursuit of platform dominance through cross-play. Cross-play or cross-platform multiplayer allows players on one console, like Switch, to join up for online gaming sessions with their friends, family, or just other random players. With Sony being more resistant to the concept and Nintendo's console being less powerful than the PlayStations and Xboxes, it's all the more gratifying to see game makers strive for a connected community that can play on their platform of choice. Certainly, a larger, unified player base helps push sales and ensure that online matches are always available, but there's no denying that the removal of barriers to online co-op and competitive play is, at its core, a positive change. Take a journey with a few of the NWR staff as we share our memories and experiences with a handful of cross-play enabled Nintendo Switch titles


Neal - The magic of crossplay has helped me out a lot, most recently in Sea of Thieves, which I used as a way to connect with friends and honestly society during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Sure, that game’s not on Switch (yet?), but it’s a great example of how crossplay can be a good way to keep in touch with friends regardless of console ownership. More personally, though, Fortnite was a salve for me when I dealt with my first son’s birth. He was born early and spent three weeks in the NICU. My memories of that period are largely dark. I worked my day job during most of it, working through my lunch so I could get to the hospital as quickly as possible. When there, I’d spend time with my son, give my wife a break from being with him in the hospital constantly, and then as the night wound down, went home to do it all over again. This was around when Fortnite launched on Switch and I would go home, a relative hot mess of emotions and stress, not able to go to sleep. So I hopped on Fortnite with the fellas and tried to survive while shooting the breeze. I have barely played Fortnite outside of that three-week window, but I look fondly on my time with the game then because it sincerely helped me stay a little sane during an immensely anxious time. That involved playing Fortnite with Switch owners, PC owners, Xbox owners, and beyond. I even played with my niece as she was like a wizard playing it successfully on a phone.

Jordan - When I reconnected with some high school chums after a chance meeting at a mutual friend’s wedding, Fortnite ended up becoming the primary way we kept in touch. While reminiscing about people we used to know and events long past, on PC, Xbox, and Switch, each of us would link up without much trouble at all and within minutes be dropping down from on high, ready to get our battle royale on. Fortnite’s colorful and cartoonish aesthetic, combined with its fairly basic third-person shooter gameplay, make it an excellent candidate for a low-stress hangout session. The three of us don’t play as often as we did a couple years ago, but Fortnite is always part of the rotation when we do find an hour or two to shoot the breeze, and as many of our 97 opponents as we can!


Jordan - When it launched in February of 2019, turn-based strategy game Wargroove had crossplay with Xbox, PC, and Switch. It would later add PS4 to that list, opening up even more multiplayer possibilities. After reviewing the game and coming away very impressed, I was shouting from the rooftops to different friend groups that they should pick up Wargroove so we could play together. I reminded a few pals in particular of our past experiences linking up GBAs to battle it out in Advance Wars, one of the obvious inspirations for

While a handful of my Switch-owning friends did pick up Wargroove, there was one person in particular, playing on a laptop, whom I ended up having a month-long series of matches with. Because he and his partner were expecting their first child, we hadn't gotten together in person in a couple months. Through Wargroove and Discord, we were able to stay in communication; I was able to pass along some of the specific experiences I went through as an expectant father, and he could pick my brain about the myriad questions that come up as you await the birth of your child.

Wargroove's slower pace makes it a wonderful example of a shared activity that offers fulfilling strategy gameplay while also offering ample opportunities for discussion during each person's turn. My friend and I ended up playing over a dozen matches, and as much fun as we had with the game itself, it was how Wargroove helped us stay connected ahead of the arrival of my friend's firstborn that really resonated with the both of us.

Knockout City

Joshua - Online crossplay is a great thing for games, but it’s always had one oft-mentioned drawback: when an older or weaker console is playing with stronger or more open opens. Even the new generation of consoles faces this issue when playing with PC players. A lot has been written about Call of Duty Warzone cheaters this year. Switch online crossplay is in a rougher situation since every console is much stronger than the endearing portable hybrid. Online crossplay with the Switch version of Apex Legends is unplayable due to the other console's higher resolutions, wider field of view, and higher frame rates, for instance.

None of that really applies to Knockout City, however. The game is designed not to require fine movement since there really isn't any aiming; targeting opponents is a lock-on system. The lock-on system removes the need for auto-aim scripts. The arenas are small enough that the Switch shows the exact same information as the other consoles. The entire arena is readable even at a distance. Velan Studios included a 60 frames-per-second mode, so gameplay speed is less of a factor for Switch players. It's hard to imagine an online crossplay game more fair than Knockout City, and I’ve continued to pour hours into it since reviewing the game around launch.

Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid

Matt- If you ask me, every game should have cross-play. Every single one. Because we’ve already seen how easy it is to do. We got the very first hint of this back when Fortnite did it by accident. You may not have heard about this since it was only two weeks before Fortnite: Battle Royale came into the world and the game became...well, Fortnite. For a brief and shining moment in September of 2017, players on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were able to play together for the very first time, which Epic later clarified was a “configuration error.” It was that easy.

Okay, it’s not that easy. Developers obviously need to ensure that different consoles all have completely identical features and gameplay, which is easy enough for big studios and honestly pretty difficult for indie studios. Nevertheless, many games have gone to great lengths to connect players across different platforms, with an unexpected champion being Power Rangers: Battle for the Grid. I didn’t expect one of the best online experiences I’ve ever had in gaming to come from a clearly low-budget licensed fighting game, but Battle for the Grid not only stands out among fighting games for its use of the coveted rollback netcode, it also has full cross-play across five platforms (Switch, PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Stadia).

The Future of Cross-Play

Matt - Ever since Power Rangers proved that anyone could do it, my most consistent experience with cross-play is the trouble caused whenever a game I play doesn’t have it. My friends and I are all big fans of the indie roguelike Risk of Rain 2, and most of us play together pretty often on PC. The odd one out is one friend who doesn’t have a gaming PC, so he’s stuck playing alone on PS4. I actually ended up double dipping and buying the game on PS4 to play with him, but it’s not like this is an option for all of us; more of us have gaming PCs than PlayStations.

This is something I’ve been worried about with the looming specter of Nickelodeon All-Star Brawl. All of my friends are huge Smash Bros. fans and are really excited about this, but we’re not sure what we’re going to do about it given it doesn’t appear to have cross-play. The developers haven’t commented on cross-play specifically, but they have confirmed that while rollback netcode will be supported on all platforms, the Switch version will only be able to implement rollback in 1v1 matches, which seems to imply that cross-play is impossible. For this very reason the Switch release is unappealing because it has the potential to be an inferior version, but where else would we get it?

All of us have some other gaming platform, but some of us don’t have a gaming PC, some of us don’t have a PlayStation, and some of us don’t have an Xbox. We’re all a bunch of Smash fans; the only system that every one of us has in common in a Switch. If the game could have cross-play then there would be no problem, but unfortunately it looks like all of us are going to have to settle for a little less if we want to be able to play together.

Thankfully there are always new strides being made with cross-play. Another of my favorite multiplayer games, Spelunky 2, is very close to adding the feature. It’s so close that they just patched in an icon in multiplayer lobbies to indicate which platform someone is playing on. By the time you’re reading this it may already be available, and then for at least that game I’ll never have to worry about who has what gaming systems again. Another game I love, Project Winter, received support for cross-play last year (and also just recently released on Switch!). I hope this is the sign of a growing trend and not just a flash in the pan, since a future with universal (or at least pretty common) cross-play would be a very bright future.

TalkBack / WarioWare: Get It Together! (Switch) Review
« on: September 21, 2021, 08:05:00 AM »

When a game’s subtitle calls out the company who made it.

WarioWare has always been something of an oddity as a series, one that has both experimented heavily but also flirted with growing stale. Since its fledgling release on the GBA, Wario and his pals have taken advantage of touchscreens, motion controls, and cameras to deliver their signature brand of microgaming entertainment, to varying degrees of success. Almost every entry has attempted to make use of its platform’s unique features, and with Get It Together! on Switch, it’s co-op multiplayer receiving the spotlight. While there are brief bouts of fun to be had with its various modes, the omissions are much more glaring, especially when it comes to online play and what opens up after the story concludes.

Story mode is both the primary single-player experience and the method through which new characters are unlocked. You can roll credits in about two hours, and doing so opens up some extra map sections with a few more characters that can be added to your stable. The premise is that Wario has developed his own video game machine but inadvertently filled it with bugs, and after he and his group are transported into said machine, they must go from game to game culling the bug infestation by playing a series of 15 or so microgames. As you meet familiar characters like Mona, Jimmy T, and Orbulon, you’re forced to play through their set of microgames with them in your crew of three or four, but the remaining members can be selected from anyone previously unlocked.

That’s another mechanic unique to Get It Together!: the individual characters all play slightly differently, and so you need to figure out how each one can use their own skillset to best complete each microgame thrown at you. Mona rides around on her scooter and can throw and control a boomerang; Orbulon floats around on a flying saucer and can activate a tractor beam; Jimmy T can dash repeatedly in any direction. Certain characters are better suited to the different microgames, and this does add to the variety when replaying the same ones over and over again. While some of the characters like Mike and Dribble & Spitz simply shoot projectiles left, right, or up, meaning they play in a very similar fashion, some of the later characters and the post-game ones, in particular, are a bit more interesting.

The microgames themselves are still excellent, and they're well-designed to be completed by all the different characters available. The dozen or so that make use of other Nintendo properties, such as Breath of the Wild and Yoshi's Story, are always a delight to see. Even if the total number is a fair bit short of WarioWare Gold's 316, the slapstick, nonsensical humor and imagery make playing them a treat. Given how important they are to the overall Get It Together! package, you'd think there would obviously be multiple game modes that just let you play through all of the microgames available. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

Before touching on the local co-op and multiplayer options, I’ll highlight that there is but one online mode in the game, and it’s basically just an online leaderboard. Wario Cup becomes available after finishing the main story, and it offers a single challenge each week with a set number of rounds to either earn the highest score possible or achieve the lowest clear time. The challenge at launch involves only one character, 9 Volt, but the mode promises that later contests will feature different characters and even the option to choose your own, which can affect how many points you ultimately earn. Placing higher in the rankings can yield in-game prizes, too, but I wouldn't get too excited about them since they really only open up some basic cosmetic options.

In both Wario Cup and Story mode, you earn coins that can be spent to purchase Prezzies from the Emporium, and these can be given to your crew members to have them get promoted, opening up new color palettes and gallery images. Further promotions can also increase your Wario Cup score, which I was able to see after promoting 9 Volt a few levels for the release-week challenge. In theory, you would need to keep playing Get It Together! for dozens of hours to earn enough coins to promote everyone and unlock all of the palette options and images, but there isn’t enough meaningful content to encourage this.

Another set of mini-games courtesy of the Variety Pack mode becomes available after finishing the story. These offer solo, two-player, and up to four-player activities, ranging from fleeting shoot-'em-up like games and volleyball, to one-on-one microgame duels and frantic air hockey-like contests. It's hard to say that any single one of these mini-games stands out; however, it's easy to say that the ones designed for solo play are the weakest of the bunch. These offer only the most basic of gameplay and feature simple high score chasing that might be worth playing if they had their own online leaderboards, which isn't the case.

Presentation has almost always been a homerun for the WarioWare franchise, and the same can be said of Get It Together!. The vibrant colors, amusing sound effects and cutscenes, and catchy tunes add much needed window dressing to an experience that feels lacking in many other areas. It’s funny how convinced I was to purchase the game after playing the free eShop demo and then how letdown I feel by the final product. I’m still baffled that there isn’t a sound test mode for how eclectic and catchy all of the music is. What’s worse is that the meager amount of dialogue isn’t even fully voiced. You’ll get a single word or brief phrase here and there, and then nothing. There’s evidence enough here to suggest that Wario himself was actually one of the people who worked on this game; I'm not sure how else the game could feel so sabotaged.

Get It Together! feels like a WarioWare D.I.Y. project that never got finished. As far as I can tell, there’s no mode or method for just playing a random assortment of all 220 or so microgames, in single or multiplayer. The Story mode arranges them in groups of approximately 23 around a set theme, such as “Nintendo Classics” and “That’s Life,” and in solo play that’s about it, especially given how the single-player options in Variety Pack are pretty joyless and feature no microgames at all. For those who are able to find another player or three, Get It Together! offers some decent value, but so much of the side content just isn’t compelling enough to justify a purchase, and it’s hard not to see the Switch’s WarioWare game as another Game & Wario, where the schtick is all there is. At the end of the day, Get It Together! hasn’t even heeded its own admonition. Ironically, the absence of any meaningful online experience means that most will be left to “get it together” on their own.

TalkBack / Wildbus (Switch) Review
« on: August 27, 2021, 01:23:22 PM »

Sometimes the wheels on the bus don't go 'round and 'round.

After 15 minutes with Wildbus, I was ready to throw in the towel on the review; I had concluded that this may be the worst video game I've ever played. Less than an hour later, I rolled credits, but my conclusion didn't change all that much. As a "thanks for playing" message flashed on the screen, my mouth remained agape. What the hell did I just play? Much of what follows here will be me trying to reconcile that.

Wildbus begins with some white text against a black background describing a story that doesn't really matter, especially when considering the gameplay. Without any tutorial or real explanation about what to do, save for a vague message in the corner of the screen telling you to search for the "Land of Light," you're basically left to your own devices. In this case, that refers to an odd bus that you drive around. The long and short of the experience is that you drive from one area to the next, from about five in total, completing incredibly basic missions on your journey to find the Land of Light. The missions include earning your driver's license, defeating bosses, and acquiring specific equipment for your bus. Did I mention the bus driver is a bear?

In addition to driving left and right, you can also move up and down the screen, but movement seldom feels all that good given the 2D visuals. Think Paper Mario, but then stop thinking that since everything about that game feels better than Wildbus. There is some rudimentary platforming, which is made all the more difficult and clumsy by the fact that you're a bus, and you might be trying to climb stairs by jumping up one or more steps at a time. You can't manipulate the camera either, making some objectives and platforms hard to see. In addition to purchasing different buses that have slightly different abilities or perks, you can use money earned by killing enemies and turning in bounties to buy weapons to mount on whichever bus you're driving. The weapons come in ranged and melee forms, but none of them are very satisfying to use, and the combat ends up being monotonous and weird; two words that certainly sum up the Wildbus experience.

I don't normally lean towards such an abrupt assessment, but Wildbus just looks and sounds unappealing. The art style is incredibly dull, and the different tunes that play as you travel the small and lifeless landscape are entirely forgettable. The backgrounds and objects do more to obscure your path and goal than they contribute to the game. There's also a map in another corner of the screen that fails to provide much assistance. Nothing in the presentation can be considered a strength of Wildbus. I'm not sure it actually has any pros to speak up, but I'll try to come up with something at the bottom of the review.

Characters you talk to couldn't be less helpful if they tried. The writing is either bad on its own or poorly-translated, likely both. Dialogue is skipped rather than advanced if you press a button before all the words have appeared, and what's worse is that certain tasks given to you are only mentioned a single time with no way of hearing them again. Apparently you can have passengers join your bus (who bestow special abilities) as you work towards a completion percentage of 100, but every time I offered a ride I was turned down. From the pause menu you can change your bus and see all the items you've acquired, so there is some value for completionists in trying to find every bus, item, and rider. That said, I can't imagine anyone would want to stick around long enough to 100 percent such a lackluster and unintuitive game.

With no handholding of any kind, Wildbus expects you to experiment and piece together how to actually navigate its world and solve its mysteries. After a lot of initial frustration, it's possible to figure out how to actually reach the Land of Light, but I took no pleasure in doing it. If Wildbus is wacky and odd for the sake of being such, then that might be the only way of deeming it a success. For anyone looking for a legitimately fun video game, don't go anywhere near this bus. The only ones who should be paying this fare are those who truly have a craving for something bizarre.

TalkBack / Astria Ascending (PC) Preview
« on: August 23, 2021, 12:00:00 AM »

Another gorgeous turn-based RPG, but after a few hours, is it ascending or descending?

Astria Ascending isn’t the first alliterative RPG with turn-based combat, but it shares more than just a naming convention with Final Fantasy. In fact, the DNA of a number of Square Enix properties seems to flow through its veins, and during my first few hours with a beta build of the PC version, I’m coming away intrigued by a title whose hand-drawn visuals are instantly captivating. Even if the 2D perspective might seem limiting, I still found lots to do and see in the world of Orcanon.

The demo seems to take place at the beginning of the game, in a fantasy city named Harmonia, populated by a variety of humans and fantasy creatures. What struck me immediately was how your party of eight characters is available to you from the start; it doesn't seem like you'll be recruiting anyone to your ranks but instead building up the main cast and changing their job classes. The protagonist, Ulan, is the leader of the Demigods, a powerful group in charge of protecting the citizens of the realm from threats. The Demigods seem to largely be revered among the populace, as banners featuring their likenesses hang outside their central base. A bit of the background information about them is provided before you gain control of Ulan, but the most important detail is that the Demigods have a shelf life, with this particular set having only three months left to live. The eShop listing indicates “a more mature experience,” so it will be interesting to see what direction the story takes.

For the sake of being less prescriptive, I’m going to try to describe more of the feel of Astria Ascending and specific elements that stood out as I played through its opening hours. I noticed immediately how fast Ulan runs outside of combat, almost too fast. You also have a jump, which was necessary in the first dungeon for seeking out treasure chests and solving a simple puzzle to progress. There’s no random encounters as enemies are visible on screen and can be struck with your basic weapon to initiate combat; they can also be stunned and jumped over should you want to skip that particular fight. When combat does start, it offers a fairly standard turn-based system. You won’t see a meter to indicate who’s next to act, but by choosing the focus action you can store points that can be spent later in the round by one or more characters to deal extra damage. Hitting weak points raises your focus, while using ineffective attacks can lower it, which incentivizes learning more about your opponents and fighting them more strategically. You can also swap party members in and out, but unlike in Final Fantasy X, this does take up their turn.

In addition to your main quest objective, individuals around town will provide side quests to complete, and there’s also a mini-game called J-Ster that involves placing monster tiles on a small board against an opponent to see who can capture the most tiles. The mini-game itself seemed fine in the few matches I played, but one of the characters in your party, a thief, actually has an ability to turn enemies in the field into tokens for use in J-Ster. Reminiscent of Final Fantasy IX was another line of secondary objectives in the form of Hunts you can sign up for at the local Guild. There are also over 250 in-game achievements, and the aforementioned sidequests seem to each have multiple components; there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of things to do.

There are some interesting customization options to tailor the difficulty and overall experience to your liking. You can toggle whether enemy weaknesses are displayed by default, turn off enemy respawning, add treasure and enemy icons to your map, or even reduce the amount of experience that reserve party members earn (for more of a challenge). Side quest indicators can be turned on and off as well. The ability to save your game anywhere is a welcome feature, especially in what figures to be a fairly lengthy game, and teleport portals are unlocked in dungeons that allow you to warp back to town, if need be.

Ivalice’s own Hitoshi Sakimoto was brought on board to do the soundtrack for Astria Ascending, and what I’ve heard so far is impressive. The visual spectacle seems like it will be matched step-for-step with an equally majestic musical score, and I’m eager to hear more of it after diving into the full game. The voice acting was largely on point, with a few side characters detracting a little from the overall effectiveness. Given that you have eight party members to handle from the outset, the menuing felt a bit daunting since there was so much choice in terms of whose abilities should be improved using the shared SP gained from combat and whose equipment should be improved.

To close with a few odds and ends, the characters look like the beautiful portraits that are used for dialogue-filled cutscenes and not much else, except you actually get to control them and not just see them a fraction of the time. However, on some of them the mouth movement looks particularly weird when they’re speaking. After a battle concludes, items, gold, and experience gained aren’t displayed on a separate screen; instead, they’re indicated very casually back on the overworld screen. I found this change a bit jarring, as it almost made what are normally key details in an RPG feel like more peripheral information; however, transitioning in and out of combat was snappy, so probably a net positive. I’m not sure what the performance and loading times will be like on Switch, but everything was very snappy, and given the smaller environments of the 2D landscape, screen transitions were frequent, so I was glad to not be waiting more than a few seconds for each one. Something that wasn’t quite so snappy was the cutscenes themselves, which often hung for a few seconds in between lines of dialogue; their pacing just felt off, and with no means to speed them up save for skipping them entirely, I’m hoping some adjustments will be made to smooth them out.

Its colorful cast and vibrant world will be open to further praise and scrutiny when Astria Ascending comes to Switch on September 30. We’ll be right there with a full and comprehensive review, and if the demo continues to excite, things will definitely be trending up. Dare I say “ascending.”

TalkBack / Garden Story (Switch) Review
« on: August 19, 2021, 05:15:01 AM »

Sowing concord but reaping shallow gameplay.

Like a flower sprouting out of the ground in the dead of night, Garden Story was one of a handful of eShop titles shadowdropped during a recent Indie World presentation. One of the benefits in terms of sales is that many players might pick up the game based on its brief launch trailer and a smattering of screenshots, both of which work in the favor of this game. The 2D, top-down perspective, basic action-adventure style, charming villages set amongst trees and flowers, and light pastel colors are no doubt enticing, but unfortunately the minute-to-minute gameplay quickly wilts on the vine.

As anthropomorphic grape Concord, you emerge from your humble home in The Grove at the behest of your friend Plum. Eventually appointed as a Guardian to protect the inhabitants of their home, Concord sets out to cleanse four separate seasonal-themed lands of the destructive Rot that has seeped into The Grove. The narrative plays out in a familiar way, with Concord assisting with the development of the Spring Hamlet, eliminating the major Rot threat there, and then moving on to Summer’s End. The fairly contained world displayed on your map grows as you explore, but each area isn’t much more than six or seven screens in size. Given that, it stands to reason that across Garden Story’s 15-20 hours, repetition would eventually set in; this just happens to come to fruition sooner rather than later.

During a loose day-night cycle, you’re assigned two or three daily tasks in the morning upon waking up. Completion of each task works to raise one of three parameters for each of the game’s four towns. Increasing the level of the Conflict stat might make resources in the environment more plentiful, allowing Concord to gather more of the sticks, stones, and other resources needed to advance the main story or complete other daily tasks such as repairing fences. The tasks end up repeating themselves and become monotonous very quickly, whether it’s killing six or seven of the basic ooze enemies scattered about the world, raising the same bridge multiple times, or throwing four pieces of glass in the town collection box. Nothing is hard to do, until you realize that there just aren’t enough of a given resource to finish every task you’re assigned; then it’s just frustrating. Epitomizing its repetitive nature is a Lost Woods-like area late in the game that had me ready to flip my water table.

Concord starts off with a small life meter and an even smaller stamina meter, with sprinting, rolling, and attacking all requiring stamina. In true Zelda fashion, completing the main dungeon, with accompanying boss, in each town advances the story and adds to both meters. The dungeons themselves add a bit of variety, but each level within still just involves slaying all the foes on screen or pushing boxes onto specific tiles. A primary issue with the game’s progression is that early on while your health and stamina are low, combat is much more dangerous, boss fights in particular. You have a refillable jar of Dew that can heal you some, but it’s still very possible to fail a few times on the first two bosses. After you toughen up, though, much of the action of the game becomes a chore, even after powering up your selection of weapons.

Speaking of Concord’s arsenal and toolkit, none of the weapons, outside of maybe the sickle, feel all that satisfying to use. You generally get one or more new weapons or tools in each town that allow you to overcome obstacles specific to that setting, but they lack range, speed, damage, or a combination of the three. When you’re not fighting the same enemies ad nauseum, you can eventually plant seeds in the ground that yield new resources, some of which you’ll need to advance the plot. You can also build structures around town to appease some of the fruit and vegetable-themed NPCs, but these construction efforts seem entirely cosmetic, outside of one particular project that you need to build multiple times. While you can also use your hard earned cash to purchase hats and backpacks from the stores in each town, these don’t serve any purpose either, other than changing Concord’s appearance.

The music and art style of the game are clear strengths, with the visuals being reminiscent of Earthbound or even more appropriately Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion, which I reviewed here. The pleasant soundtrack that plays as you roam throughout The Grove makes for chill travelling music. One presentation element that doesn’t land as well is the use of symbols and pictures to indicate key information about required resources or weapons. NPCs also tend to repeat dialogue verbatim when spoken to a second or third time, trapping you in a conversation if you accidentally (or purposely) try speaking with them again. While the map screen always displays the next main objective, you need to visit a job posting board in town to see your daily tasks, so maybe use the Switch to take a few photos when you first learn what you need to do for the day.

Garden Story is another title that makes a good first impression but fails to build on the early momentum it establishes. Rather than adding new mechanics or interesting twists, Concord basically goes through the motions each day in The Grove until a new area becomes available. The story and combat aren’t compelling enough to make up for the uninspired gameplay loop that starts to repeat itself far too soon. It’s a title that would have been better had its length been pruned back to 8-10 hours. Anyone looking for a particularly chill experience that isn’t very demanding may derive more pleasure out of Concord’s adventure than I did, but it’s hard to overlook how so much of your in-game work just doesn’t really matter. The downward sloping difficulty curve, boring daily tasks, and lackluster enemies make Garden Story a crop that’s not worth rushing to harvest.

TalkBack / Out of Line (Switch) Review
« on: August 18, 2021, 05:00:00 AM »

A basic puzzle-platformer with a beautiful hand-drawn style.

Hand-drawn art styles can make for some of the most attractive backgrounds in video games, and 2D puzzle-platformers that involve interaction with the environment lend themselves well to these types of visuals. Out of Line may not be the most challenging or the most lengthy entry in that genre, but it’s well-paced and provides an enjoyable experience for players of all ages. That said, the rudimentary gameplay and lack of puzzle variety make it hard to recommend for those seeking something with more depth.

Through a story without words or dialogue, protagonist San works to escape a mysterious factory and the areas surrounding it. An interesting mix of mechanical and natural settings make up the world of Out of Line, with a number of helpful creatures lending you aid in activating switches and gears to help you progress. All the while, giant robotic arms seem to lurk around every corner, an ever-present threat that serves to break up the tranquility of some of the more peaceful areas in the game. There’s a good progression from the basic actions platforming sections to slightly more involved puzzles, but even by the end of adventure there aren’t too many tricks up San’s sleeves.

The almost-literal hook of Out of Line is a javelin that San can throw to push buttons in the environment, create a step to scale a wall, or even jam into a switch to activate elevators. The javelin can be thrown and returned to you at the press of a button (aimed with the right stick), and on many occasions you’ll need to leave it behind temporarily while you traverse a new path or overcome an obstacle in your way. In certain areas, you’ll gain access to temporary javelins that only return to a given spot on the ground; in others, you’ll be able to tie a rope around your main javelin to create a rope bridge for crossing larger gaps. While the puzzles themselves are fun enough, by about halfway through the two or three-hour runtime it’s possible you’ll be wanting a bit more variety and challenge than what’s on offer here. Checkpoints are sometimes further back than expected, forcing you to replay segments or perform tedious setups just to return to the place where you failed.

There’s no doubt that the high point of Out of Line is its visual presentation. San’s world is menacing and serene in equal measure, and it strikes a wonderful balance between light tension and calm reflection. The environmental storytelling is subtle but effective, and there’s no getting over how exquisite the watercolor backgrounds look. Even in places where the color palette leans to the drab side, the number of shades add vitality to the world, making it feel at times as if you’re playing a living painting, especially when background elements are moving or shifting as you run across the screen. In terms of audio, the soundtrack is more ambient than pronounced, but it doesn’t detract from the experience.

Out of Line is a good time while it lasts, but the gameplay is much less memorable than the art style. Overall, it feels like a light experience that could be enjoyed by players of all different levels, perhaps a good fit for introducing younger gamers to the medium. As someone with a lot of puzzle-platformer experience, I would have liked to see a greater variety of play mechanics, but outside of a few glitches requiring a restart (invisible walls preventing progress, for example), there isn’t much to dislike about the game. Out of Line simply ends up playing it fairly safe, so if that’s what you’re looking for, then maybe you’ll want to get in line.

TalkBack / Greak: Memories of Azur (Switch) Review
« on: August 13, 2021, 04:00:00 AM »

Proof that beauty is only skin deep.

The hand-drawn 2D art and animation of Greak: Memories of Azur is both eye-catching and splendid. Its world and character design calls to mind indie darling Hollow Knight, but where that game is a quality Metroidvania, Greak adopts the action-adventure style to tell a tale of a plagued land and the residents who must leave it behind. Even though the character-switching mechanic that takes center stage here certainly has potential, bizarre design choices can make playing Memories of Azur feel like more of a nightmare than a dream.

Protagonist Greak belongs to a race known as the Courines, whose lives in the land of Azur have become imperiled by an invasion from creatures called the Urlags. As the scourge-like Urlags destroy everything in their path, intent on survival the Courines set out to build an airship and escape. The main story consists of both aiding in the airship construction efforts while also rescuing Greak’s siblings Adara and Raydel, but the irony of this second task is that the game is at its most enjoyable when journeying solo.

After a brief prologue section, Greak awakens in a small village where the aforementioned airship is being constructed. He is given a few tasks to complete by the villagers in addition to his main objective, rescuing his sister Adara. A map gradually reveals the larger areas of Azur that you’ll be exploring over the game’s 10 or so hours; however, within each area there’s no indicator of where you are or how the area is actually laid out. It’s fairly easy to get lost for brief spells given how similar the different rooms and spaces of each area are, and this problem is made all the worse by the way Memories of Azur handles its multiple protagonists, but more to come on that point. Because the different characters have a few unique abilities and in order to hand in completed tasks, you’ll need to backtrack a fair bit. Fast travel is available, but it costs money; considering how sparse the fast travel points and in-game currency are, it’s unfortunate that the mechanic is gated in this way.

As you explore the painstakingly beautiful world of Azur, you’ll encounter a very limited variety of enemy types, in addition to a handful of bosses. Since you start off with only four hit points, every enemy encounter can prove deadly, so you always need to be aware of your surroundings and current health. Ingredients can be collected in the environment and cooked at campsites in the world to produce health-restoring dishes, but your inventory is quite limited at only four slots, a problem exacerbated by the fact that key/quest items also take up a spot in your pack. You can drop items and have Adara or Raydel pick them up, but the inventory issue doesn’t go away, especially when you’ll want each character to be carrying healing items at all times. Losing any of the three results in a game over, and since saving is done manually at not-too-common save points, loss of progress is a very real (and perhaps common) danger.

Navigating the different dungeons, forests, and temples of Azur requires solving simple puzzles. As you might expect given the character-switching focus, most of these involve standing on a switch to unlock a door, sending a character into the open doorway to stand on another switch, and then bringing the others through. Replace “switch” with “crank'' and “door” with “ladder” and that will cover a fairly large swath of the other puzzles, at least until the end of the game. Greak’s double jump, Adara’s floating and ability to breathe underwater, and Raydel’s shield and hookshot are all used in different situations, and while it may be fun to use each individual character to solve specific puzzles or navigate certain situations, their combined implementation in Memories of Azur is just baffling.

The realization that something is off, that “Oh no” moment, really lands when Adara rejoins you after the prologue. Where do I begin? Perhaps with the one good thing: the d-pad is used to switch between the three characters and it works well. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. To move the characters together, you need to put them close together and press and hold ZL, bringing up a small circle that links them. As soon as you let go of ZL, the link is severed, which means you need to be holding down the button during platforming, combat, climbing, and every other action. No, characters will not follow you of their own accord. They might do some basic combat, but leaving a character by himself or herself--without the foresight to leave them somewhere safe--is probably as good as a game over. So why not just keep them all together all the time? Since Greak, Adara, and Raydel all have different jump mechanics, it becomes an exercise in frustration to keep them all together while moving through areas filled with an equal amount of horizontal and vertical movement. You might think that moving to an entirely different part of the map, which involves an exit prompt and a loading screen, might simply teleport all of the party members to the new place; you would be wrong. Pressing ZR can call a nearby character to the one you're controlling, but the range of this ability is very short.

The combat is largely fine, even if it's hampered by the issues just described. Incredibly short invincibility windows mean that you always have to stay on your toes, a task made all the more challenging when trying to manage multiple characters simultaneously or switch between them. Imagine during the heat of a boss battle trying to have Greak fight a moving target, switching to Adara, opening her inventory and selecting a healing item, and then waiting for the item to take effect, which isn’t instantaneous! Whenever possible, it might be better to just bring a single person into a boss fight, right? Naturally, boss battles won’t even start unless all members of your party are present. To say that most of my own memories of Azur are traumatic wouldn’t be far off the truth.

At first glance, it’s completely understandable to be entranced by the gorgeous environments and backgrounds of Greak: Memories of Azur. Don’t be lured unaware by its siren call! While there is a decent experience underneath, some inexplicable design decisions, the uninspired sidequests and serviceable story don’t buoy the adventure enough to make up for how badly implemented the game’s primary mechanic is. If you came away from the eShop demo impressed or you’re able to overlook a very obvious fatal flaw, you might be able to derive some pleasure out of Greak’s mission. Don’t expect to find me spending much time reminiscing about these memories.

TalkBack / Shadowverse: Champion's Battle
« on: August 10, 2021, 05:00:00 AM »

A compelling card battler with enough content to fill out more than a few decks.

I was about 15 hours into Shadowverse: Champion's Battle before I learned that it was based on both a mobile game and a recent anime. Developed by Cygames, who partnered with Nintendo in 2018 on another mobile title Dragalia Lost, Champion’s Battle provides a surprisingly robust and charming experience on Switch. Having really only dabbled in Hearthstone as far as collectable card games (CCGs) go, I still found Shadowverse quite familiar, and there’s enough tutorializing to bring new players into the fold and teach others about strategies specific to the Cygames’ product. While the story itself only adds so much to the overall enjoyment, the gradual ramp up of difficulty, different types of decks and cards to build and collect, and special modes combine to form a hand that doesn't feel overplayed.

Since the narrative and packaging are really what separate Champion's Battle on Switch from vanilla Shadowverse on phones and tablets, they represent a worthwhile starting point. After choosing between a male or female avatar—each with only a single appearance option—the player is introduced to one of the game’s primary settings: Tensei Academy. As a second year student and with the school backdrop, you might expect that classes and education would factor into the everyday life of you and your friends, but nope; nearly everyone at the school just plays Shadowverse. After making friends with a few classmates, Hiro, Mimori, and Kazuki, you’re introduced to the after-school club that doubles as the group’s homebase: the Shadowverse club. From here, the game gently provides you with a couple starter decks, helps you fill them out, and runs through a few tutorial battles to give you the lay of the land. As I mentioned earlier, some experience with other CCGs made getting into Shadowverse a breeze, but the earlier hand-holding is likely to help those completely unfamiliar feel comfortable pretty quickly.

In addition to expanding and legitimizing the Shadowverse club itself, you and the other members also aim to become champion players by climbing the ranks and winning the major tournaments at Shadowverse Stadium, practically a stone’s throw from Tensei Academy. Starting out in C rank and advancing to B and then A, it didn’t ever take more than a few attempts to conquer the competition. Moving to AA, however, was a very different story, one that involved moving away from starting decks and creating new ones to deal with the much stiffer competition. Even though the story picks up steam as you rise through the ranks, it’s the satisfying card battles that really make Champion’s Battle shine, and dueling opportunities are everywhere.

From a top-down perspective and in its simplest form, you take turns with your opponent playing cards and using your cards to attack your opponent’s cards or their avatar directly. After seeing which player gets to go first, you can exchange up to three cards from your hand of three for different ones. The player who goes first has a speed advantage, and so the second player to act is awarded an extra card on their first draw in addition to an extra evolution point (more on those in a bit). Every turn, the acting player draws a card and can play cards based on their mana cost, with a player’s mana pool starting at one and increasing by one each turn. In addition to creature cards that have an attack value and a defense value, other cards function as magical spells to buff your cards or destroy your opponent’s played cards, or even charms and amulets that have a persistent effect. Many creature cards have special powers beyond their ability to do damage or soak it up: some can attack as soon as they’re played; others gain or pass on stat buffs under specific circumstances. After the fourth or fifth turn, players earn the ability to “evolve” one creature card that they’ve played, which usually raises its stats and also allows the creature to attack immediately. Some creatures even activate their special powers upon evolution. It might sound daunting from this lengthy description, but wait… there’s more!

Each deck of 40 cards you bring into battle falls under one of eight classes, and this determines the types of cards you can play. Champion’s Battle starts you off with two Dragoncraft decks, and these are generally enough (with maybe a little tweaking) to see you through the first few ranks. The special feature of the Dragoncraft class is that once you reach a mana pool of 7, you enter a state called “Overflow,” which powers up many of your Dragon cards. Other classes, like Forestcraft and Shadowcraft, have their own unique traits and playstyles. In addition to winning cards from your opponents, you can also collect money to spend at kiosks throughout the city. At each one, you can purchase from a selection of individual cards or random packs that can be opened later.

Whether victorious or hanging your head in defeat, you earn experience towards the specific class you used, with level ups awarding currency or new cards. NPCs offer fairly rote sidequests to complete, but your fellow Shadowverse club members have their own bonding quests that are a little more involved and lead to special scenes with them. At all times, your objectives are displayed on the main screen or the map screen, making it almost impossible to get lost. The main objective, sidequests, and bonding missions are all clearly displayed, and if that wasn’t enough for you, your fellow schoolmates and even random people around town will often be up for a Shadowverse duel. At higher ranks, former opponents may even have a new deck in Hans, ready to put up more of a fight a second time around. Shadowverse Stadium even offers over 100 puzzle battles to complete. It’s easy to get sidetracked from the overall story with all there is to do, provided you’re actually into the card battles.

Focusing the spotlight on its presentation and performance, the load times are generally brief, with the notable issues being some characters and objects popping into view only at a very close distance and a bit of visual stuttering upon entering a new area. The card battles don’t seem to run quite as well as when playing on PC or mobile, but the Switch version is perfectly fine. Menus load up smoothly and quick travel allows you to visit the different areas around the town with ease. In addition to scores of sidequests, dozens of achievements and online play add replay value and longevity to the title, and it’s safe to say that Champion's Battle has actually gotten me more interested in trying out the mobile version.

While the look of the characters and the way you navigate the world calls to mind some of the recent Pokemon games, the card battling seems very much inspired by Hearthstone. I haven’t played enough of that to compare the two more thoroughly, but I can easily say that I’m coming away from Shadowverse both impressed and eager to see and learn more. Even if some of these feel like window-dressing, the sheer amount of voice acting, the light story, and the rankings and tournaments hooked me from the get-go and kept me invested for dozens of hours. Collecting as many new cards as I could and theory-crafting new decks and ways to play old ones is a captivating endeavor, made all the more accessible in Shadowverse: Champion's Battle. Anyone with an interest in CCGs or even Pokemon should at least try the playable Switch demo, or even the mobile game to find out if this is a universe worth exploring. I, for one, am happy to step out of the shadows and champion its cause.

TalkBack / Papa's Quiz (Switch) Review
« on: August 07, 2021, 08:12:02 PM »

A charming, family-friendly quiz-style party game.

For most party games, the proof is in the pudding, and from a glance it can be hard to tell whether the simplicity of Papa’s Quiz is more of a strength or a weakness. Booting it up during a week-long family trip was enough to convince me that Papa’s Quiz is more than worthy of a spot in your Switch’s digital library, provided you’re looking for a very basic multiplayer quiz game.

Much like with the Jackbox collections, players join an online lobby using their phones or even a single Joy-Con. After customizing your avatar’s name and appearance, you’ll jump immediately into the game. There’s really only a single mode to Papa’s Quiz, which involves five rounds of about five or so questions each. Prior to the start of each round (with the exception of the final round), players vote to select from four categories that dictates the flavor of questions for that round. The game’s eShop listing boasts a total of 185 categories and over 3000 questions, meaning you’ll get dozens of rounds out of Papa’s Quiz before repetition would set in. Some of the categories even include specific “Junior” versions with slightly easier questions to help younger players.

Most rounds involve basic multiple-choice questions with four possible answers to choose from. Some rounds use gradually uncovered pictures as clues or images that rotate through as you aim to be the fastest to buzz in on the correct one. A nice bonus is that questions are often followed by an interesting fact related to the correct answer. The final round of each contest gives each player a chance to emerge victorious as points from previous rounds are converted to a pillar supporting each player, with higher point totals awarding a taller pillar. Incorrect responses in this round lower your pillar, as do slow responses; only correct answers will keep you afloat long enough to win. It’s a clever implementation that ensures no one is left out even if they did poorly in the initial rounds of the game.

The simple presentation and accessible gameplay contribute to Papa’s Quiz status as a solid family-friendly experience. Veteran quizzers who own or prefer the more adult-oriented offerings in the Jackbox games might not find as much to like about it, but there’s no denying that Papa’s Quiz is a great offering for the right crowd. Silly dances between rounds, the quiz master’s accent, and the straightforward style ensure that I’ll be regularly pulling this one out after family dinners and other all-ages gatherings.

TalkBack / B.ARK (Switch) Review
« on: July 28, 2021, 06:00:00 AM »

A colorful co-op shooter that’s heavy on charm but light on substance.

While certainly not an impossibly challenging bullet hell shoot-’em-up, B.ARK manages to bring a vibrant presentation and solid co-op play to a genre that is filled with arcade classics, purist mainstays, and more recently (it would seem) multiplayer party-like experiences. Personally, I love seeing more four-person horizontal and vertical shooters come to Switch, especially ones where the adjustable difficulty and rudimentary gameplay mean my pre-school age son can get in on the fun. There’s a joke in here about its bark being worse than its bite, but at the end of the day, the real question is whether the slim amount of content on offer is worth your time.

A diabolical group known as the Dark Tide have taken over Earth and other planets in the solar system, and it’s up to the members of the Bio-Interstellar Ark (yes, the letter “B” is really pulling its weight in the acronym) to save the galaxy a legion of robotic fish. The four primary animal characters each come with their own ship, unique weapon, and special ability. More than that, you can also find a hidden item in each stage that unlocks a special cutscene to shed light on each animal. Marv, a rabbit, has a homing shot that seeks out nearby targets; Lucio, a bear, fires projectiles that explode on impact, doing extra damage.

The seven or so stages are themed around the different planets of the Milky Way. The mission on Jupiter sees your team head to the planet’s infamous Great Red Spot, and so you have to contend with storms and lightning strikes in addition to waves of enemies. Every stage has one or more mini-bosses before an end-stage boss, and defeating the minis functions as a checkpoint, which is a welcome feature even if the levels aren’t that long. Many stages also feature an enjoyable mix of horizontal (left to right), vertical, and even reverse (right to left) scrolling. Before starting each planet, you can choose between Normal and Hard difficulty modes, with a third higher option unlocked through gameplay. One noticeable difference is that you start out with less health as the difficulty goes up.

B.ARK’s focus on multiplayer is obvious but welcome. Even before reaching the main start screen, the Switch console prompts you to connect one or more controllers. Each player can create a three-letter profile that really only functions as a way of indicating which person has the high school for the stages on offer. There are no online leaderboards, unfortunately; local co-op is the name of the game. To that end, all of the stages record a high score for single and multiplayer. When playing with a group, you’ll only experience a game over when all of your ships are downed at the same time. If one person loses all their health, they can be scooped up by another player to greatly reduce their death timer, from 30 seconds to about 10. If only one person remains, they can play it safe until their partners get back in the fight. It’s an interesting feature that emphasizes teamwork and opens up the experience to newer or younger players.

In addition to a special ability that charges up over time, each character’s personalized weapon also powers up through item pick ups. Certain items can boost you to maximum firepower right away; otherwise, you can collect plutonium from defeated enemies to gradually raise the strength of your weapon. As you might expect, taking a hit or two will bring your weapon level down, but the stages are filled with not only health-restoring items but also firepower upgrades.

The presentation and art style of B.ARK really help it stand out from the crowd. The cartoon visuals and hand-animated characters add levity to a genre filled with destruction and gunfire. Bullets stand out well against the vibrant backgrounds of each planet, and the overall look is just really clean and attractive. Again, even though the aesthetic clearly skews towards a younger demographic, there’s definitely room for less serious shoot-’em-up fare on the eShop given the wealth of arcade staples and never-before-localized relics.

As a delightful space shooter that I can enjoy with the family, B.ARK gets two furry thumbs up from me. However, it’s not really for hardcore shmup fans looking for a more challenging and classic experience; much of its charm comes from passing out a few Joy-Con and shooting down giant mechanized starfish. Solid performance and good controls are pluses, even if a playthrough won’t take you all that long. Those who are generally looking for a more laidback, multiplayer focused title won’t be barking up the wrong tree if they give this one a spin.

TalkBack / Samurai Warriors 5 (Switch) Review
« on: July 26, 2021, 03:01:00 PM »

Hacking and slashing through feudal Japan

Musou games can provide a wonderful reprieve from more methodical and intense experiences. They don't require the patience and timing of Dark Souls, nor do they feature any real puzzle solving or brain-teasing strategy. You're basically just running around and jamming buttons to make hordes of bad guys go flying. Sometimes, you just need a musou to serve as a palette cleanser, and Samurai Warriors 5 definitely fits the bill, with surprisingly decent performance on Switch even portably. Although Japanese history enthusiasts may get more from it, the story isn't overly captivating, but a robust cast, dozens of missions, and lots of upgrades to unlock provide numerous ways to while away mindless hours of action.

Samurai Warriors 5 offers two primary forms of play: Musou Mode and Citadel Mode. The former follows the story of Nobunaga Oda, which plays out over six chapters and about 20 individual missions, some of which are optional. A couple chapters in, a parallel storyline involving Mitsuhide Akechi unlocks that lets you see Nobunaga's quest to unite Japan from another perspective. The narrative is dense with historical details and names from Japan in the late 1500s, which can be a little daunting. Fortunately, the more heavily animated cutscenes are quite nice on the eyes and represent a welcome break from the very repetitive gameplay.

Anyone who has played a "Warriors" game before will know what they're in for: slashing, spearing, and smashing thousands of mostly inconsequential enemies, dozens of slightly more powerful officers, and a handful of challenging bosses. Samurai Warriors 5 does little to divert from that tried and true formula. In addition to its 37-character roster, skill trees and weapons can be developed to empower each of your fighters. New allies join your cause regularly, and completed missions can be replayed with any of them to earn more experience points, gold, and building materials. For each character, you can improve their aptitude with different weapons, strengthen their mount, and even assign new special attacks to the four face buttons.

That said, each mission basically plays out the same as the one before it. You'll complete a series of objectives, some of which are optional, until a final boss appears. Said objectives are never much more than eliminating either one or more specific opponents or about 100 regular enemies, sometimes with a super move called a Musou Attack. On Normal difficulty, I never failed a single mission or really even saw my health drop below half, so veterans looking to test their hack-and-slash mettle should probably bump up the difficulty level. While some objectives are timed, these ones usually aren't required for the mission to succeed. When you aren't raining down sword blows on your foes, you're running back and forth across the map to tackle the next objective. Overall, the gameplay variety is very much lacking, but I suppose that's also built into the genre.

The other mode I mentioned earlier offers a bit of a departure from the story-focused Musou mode. In Citadel mode, you take on standalone missions while trying to score as many points as possible. The missions here are much shorter, with only three or so objectives to complete. Their primary function is to supply you with materials that can be spent on upgrading buildings from the main menu, such as the Dojo and Blacksmith where you can develop your characters and strengthen their weapons. The brevity of the missions in Citadel Mode make them great for shorter play sessions.

The most impressive technical aspect of Samurai Warriors 5 is that the framerate is mostly stable, even when fighting through the most abundant hordes of enemies. Compared with something like Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity, it runs like a dream. Not every facet of its performance is laudable, though. Enemy pop in can be particularly egregious, with groups of foes, even ones that are specific targets for competing objectives, not showing up until you're basically within striking distance of them. Still, the overall experience on Switch, both handheld and docked, is perfectly serviceable.

It's undeniable the amount of content that Samurai Warriors 5 boasts. Completing Nobunaga's campaign unlocks even more missions, and that's in addition to all of Mitsuhide's and assorted side missions not required to reach the end credits. While mission variety and challenge felt lacking, there are reasons to replay stages to complete every objective and shoot for S rankings, which are actually tied to opening up some of the post-game content. Ultimately, there's a type of mindlessness to playing a game like this that serves as both a nice break from more mentally demanding ones and also a reminder that musou games are still quite niche, and perhaps for good reason. If you enjoy breezy, repetitive gameplay with hours and hours of missions to play and stuff to unlock, Samurai Warriors 5 will do just fine. However, I can't see it doing enough to bring new fans into the series.

TalkBack / Cris Tales (Switch) Review In-Progress
« on: July 19, 2021, 02:00:00 PM »

A gorgeous papercraft RPG with time manipulation at its core.

As much as I enjoy rushing through RPGs to see how the story unfolds, certain titles are meant to be savored like a fine red potion. Cris Tales would definitely fall into that category. With multiple endings, interesting narrative choices, and methodical combat, it stands to reason that players would want to take their time (pun intended) with this whimsical experience. We're calling this a review in progress, so it won't have a final score just yet, but after about 15 hours, I can certainly share some detailed impressions.

Demo progress doesn't carry over, so Cris Tales begins in full tutorial mode. After a few turn-based battles that show off the game's timed attacking and defending, you'll reach a seemingly unbeatable boss fight. At this point, the story backtracks to the town of Nadim where the heroine Crisbell gains her time manipulation powers. Her abilities prove useful inside and outside of combat, but her story involves a journey to discover and awaken her abilities, while also sussing out the plot of an antagonist known as the Empress, who seems to be manipulating certain figures in each town towards nefarious ends.

A number of RPG mainstays are present here. Shops, inns, townsfolk, and side quests are all part of the experience, but the lattermost of that group is worth focusing on. Helping people with their requests can have real consequences for their homes and lives, with the game providing a brief glimpse into the future you create by completing the tasks given to you. In this way, each city stands alone to an extent with its own main story objectives and an assortment of smaller goals to work towards, if you're so inclined.

At nearly all times when walking through a town, the screen will be divided into three segments, with a triangle shaped slice in the middle representing the present, a sliver on the right the future, and the same on the left for the past. It's a unique and fascinating presentation that really drives home the theme of time and change that runs through the story. In addition to treasure chests and quest objects, conversations and points of interest within the past and future can be accessed by hopping back or forward in time with your frog guide, Matias. So far, the exploration and investigation of the towns, coupled with the ability to see immediately the changes brought about by your actions and choices is a clear standout of Cris Tales.

One noticeable weakness, on the other hand, is frequent loading screens. Moving to a new area or new room leads to a white loading screen of 8 to 10 seconds, but worse is the loading times that bookend the random battles found in dungeons. Combat itself isn't overly fast-paced, and this combined with the loading screens makes exploring the dungeons thoroughly a bit of a chore.

The battles themselves are enjoyable and emphasize timed button presses to increase damage doled out or reduce damage incoming. Much like in Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario before it, Cris Tales can really reward or punish players for failing to connect on these button inputs. Fortunately, the timing is fairly generous; however, the lack of tactile feedback when successfully making an effective strike or block is noticeably absent. Since new abilities are learned regularly, it's quite important not to skip too many random encounters, and because some of the bosses can put a serious hurt on your three-person party, you want to be leveled up and equipped with good gear as well.

One final note on the battle system is the importance of Crisbell's time manipulation powers. While fights take place on the present timeline, enemies can be thrust into the past or future to varying effects. An enemy situated in the past might take more damage, while activating a future slice of time against an enemy can cause them to grow old and perish. Paired with your teammates' abilities, status effects like poison can have all of the damage they would do over four turns occur on a single turn. You're rewarded for experimenting, but brute force can usually get the job done, too.

Aesthetically, Cris Tales is genuinely sublime. The music features piano-heavy traveling themes and an upbeat and catchy battle track, but the visuals are on another level. The papercraft art style gives every background a pop-up book style to it, reminiscent of Bravely Default and the Paper Mario series. Even though none of the animations are all that flashy, strolling through the different areas of each town and seeing the three timelines at once is truly special.

I still have a lot more to see and do in Cris Tales, but the strengths heavily outweigh the weaknesses so far. There's no getting around the frustrating load times, but these are primarily disruptive during dungeons. The lack of an autosave function is a curious omission, forcing you to save frequently lest you fall in battle and have to replay a particular segment. Fortunately, you can save anywhere on the overworld map and save spots in towns and dungeons are numerous. I'm excited to see how it all comes together, so please look forward to the full review posting soon, I suppose in a future slice of time.

TalkBack / Sci-fi Roguelite Crying Suns Gets an eShop Demo
« on: July 15, 2021, 09:00:00 AM »

A discount will also be available for the full game.

After launching on Switch in May, narrative-tactical game Crying Suns is getting a free demo today, which can be found by accessing its eShop listing. Until July 22, the full game will also be discounted by 20%, so if a free sample of the game tickles your fancy, you can go ahead and pick up Crying Suns on the cheap.

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