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Messages - lolmonade

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TalkBack / Monster Sanctuary (Switch) Review
« on: December 22, 2020, 06:44:44 AM »

Interesting mish-mash of genres that doesn’t equal the sum of its parts.

Indies are at the forefront of creative new ideas, lovingly crafted homages to beloved defunct franchises, and iterative refinements as time marches on.  What drew me to Monster Sanctuary is the mash-up of different genres/gameplay types – a dash of role-playing game, a healthy dose of Pokemon, and a smattering of Metroidvania-like exploration.  In Monster Sanctuary, you play the role of a (totally not Pokemon Trainer) Monster Keeper, a member of a guild who raise spectral familiars to battle them with wild familiars, mutual Keepers, and enemy Keepers throughout its world.

That mish-mash of genres starts off feeling compelling.  Monster Sanctuary starts low effort as you’re introduced to the systems, selecting one of four spectral familiars that have different element strengths/weaknesses (sound familiar)?  Combat is typically a three-versus-three match of monster team vs wild monsters (or when facing-off against other trainers, six-versus-six).  These turn based battles go back and forth with your monsters each having a turn, then the enemy team having their turns.  Each familiar has elemental strengths and weaknesses that are exploitable, attacks that buff friendlies and debuff enemies, and can equip weapons and items to bolster stats like attack, defense, health, crit, and elemental damage.  Each familiar has a skill tree that gets unlocked as they level up.   After each battle, your team is given a rating for how efficiently the opponent was defeated, which affects the quality of loot you’re given.

Another wrinkle that comes from Pokemon is a familiar-catching mechanic.  Rather than having to catch them like Pokemon, they become a reward for completed battles in the form of an egg.  Hatching an egg produces a creature from the team of wild familiars you defeated.  Mercifully, the familiar starts at the same level as the rest of your team, with a pool of abilities to dump into the skill tree that would have been gained from regular leveling to that point.  As you gain more familiars, rather than sending them to an inbox, they sit on a bench from the main six in your team that can be swapped out at will.  They also all each gain experience from battles, so no worries about having to swap different familiars in and out if you have a team you’re comfortable with.

The metroidvania side is standard fare with 2D platforming exploration.  After getting an introduction to the world by an NPC, you’re sent along your way to explore, filling in the map along the way.  As expected, you’ll reach roadblocks that need a key to open or ability that hasn’t yet been obtained.  The implementation of this is neat in that each familiar has an inherent ability that can be used in the platforming sections.  For example, a fire familiar might have a fire attack that can burn down structures, one might have a scratch that breaks down walls, another might have an item they can leave on the ground to engage switches to open doors, or flying types can carry you a little farther across empty stretches.  It’s a fresh way to marry the capture mechanics with exploration.

The problem is that each of the individual pieces, while sound, are unremarkable.  I felt like I was able to break the combat difficulty when I chose to lean heavily into status effect attacks and crit damage increases.  Each match began with me attacking enemies with status effects that chipped away at their damage enough to cut them down within a few turns.  Even with that, the matches are all slow, becoming this war of attrition over the span of five or ten minutes that feels unnecessarily long.  The gathering of new monsters is a neat twist, but because it takes little effort beyond finishing battles, feels like it’s lacking something more active to do with them.  The exploration of the map is a nice deviation from the top down perspective of most RPGs, but the spaces feel largely empty without the typical smattering of enemies that are strewn across them, and the backtracking required in this case feels like a chore when having to confront yet another team of wild familiars.

I like Monster Sanctuary for what it tries to accomplish, I just wish I liked the execution as much as the concept.  I could see the threads of its attempt weaving into a better cohesive whole, but instead each different ingredient feels incomplete or misses the mark of what makes each genre it pulls from so compelling.  There’s still fun to be had if setting expectations right and wanting a unique twist that is no muss, no fuss, but I was hoping for more that Monster Sanctuary wasn’t quite there to give.

I've been picking away at Hollow Knight.  It's beautiful, the combat is sound, the exploration is good, and the little bread crumbs of lore are the perfect amount to be mysterious without being opaque. 

I should have played this game sooner.

TalkBack / John Wick Hex (Switch) Review
« on: December 04, 2020, 09:14:58 AM »

The Baba Yaga’s debut game is a tactical ballet of murder.

In 2014, Keanu Reeve’s movie career was revitalized with the release of John Wick, a super stylish, fast-paced action movie where the titular character exacts revenge on his former co-workers (a murderer’s row of assassins) for their part in killing his dog (the last gift to him from his deceased wife).  While this has spawned a trilogy of movies, John Wick Hex is the first attempt to translate the action into a video game.  Having released a year ago for PC and mobile, the strategy game has now made its way to the Nintendo Switch.

While on its face translating the high octane movies to a strategy genre seems like a bad fit, the end result is surprisingly sound.  Each set of levels is like a movie sequence, broken up into several scenes of that locale.  A level puts you at the start, with small dots on the floor indicating the move spaces.  Movement pauses each time an enemy gets in your line of sight, at which time options become available like shooting your gun, throwing it, performing melee or takedown attempts if close enough, or taking other tactical actions like trying to evade attempted attacks.  Each action has an assigned success rate determined by how far away you are from the enemy or if they’re behind obstacles.  

Rather than explicit turns, the order of operations is dictated by a timeline system shown above the action.  Selecting movement spaces, shooting a gun, rolling out of danger—these all will be previewed before making a decision, with enemies in range also showing in that preview where their turns will land.  Want to take a surefire shot but the enemy will get to you first?  Better look at your health and see if you can withstand the damage to make that trade.  Have several enemies coming at you?  Better consider which one to approach first and make a plan before executing it.  

The end result is a string of dynamic action sequences playing-out on the board.  In some parts I was able to slowly and methodically pick off grunts one-by-one.  Other times I found myself surrounded, turning the events into an improvisational effort of shooting one person, getting close enough to the other to take them down, stunning them long enough to throw my gun with no ammo left at a third, picking up a stray gun, and taking the finishing shot on the person I took down earlier.  There’s some really fantastic moments that feel like huge victories when you pull them off.

Once a level is completed, you can see a replay before moving onto the next one.  In theory, it works like Superhot, taking these disjointed moves and attempting to piece them together to make it look like a choreographed, fluid sequence.  In practice, while the turns are put together, the replay still feels stunted.  Each turn is still very visibly seen as a separate piece, with pauses that seem comical in the perspective of an action sequence.  It’s a neat idea that doesn’t quite flow as seamlessly as you’d like; I really wanted to see my completions put together as a slick action sequence, but this isn’t it.  

The tone and look are true to the form of the John Wick movies.  Lots of techno music that thumps in the background.  The animated style is simple but effective, with lots of neon interspersed throughout as trim to a largely purple and black backdrop.  It can become kind of samey through the course of the experience, but it’s a minor quibble that does not detract from it.  Another small complaint I have is that the story is throw-away to the point that I have a hard time recalling an overarching narrative looking back on it, but the narrative of the first movie was pretty unremarkable as well.

John Wick Hex is an example of what can be done when someone approaches a movie-based game from an outside-the-box perspective, taking an action movie more naturally at home in that type of game genre and molding it wonderfully to a more methodical, tactical experience.  Small nicks like the imperfect replay system or underwhelming story are insignificant in the face of just how satisfying it feels to embody Baba Yaga, and it’s a laudable effort that I hope gets reiterated and refined in a potential sequel.

TalkBack / Doom Eternal Interview with Panic Button Games
« on: November 30, 2020, 07:12:00 AM »

We were given the opportunity to speak with Cody Nicewarner (Senior Producer) and Travis Archer (Lead Engineer) of Panic Button Games to speak about their work on the Switch version of Doom Eternal and collaborating with id Software.

Nintendo World Report (NWR):  In working on Doom Eternal, how does the Switch port compare to the original ?

Travis:  It’s comparable in terms of the end result, if you’re talking in terms of that.  In terms of the development process, it’s very different.  For one thing, we started working on Doom 2016 when it was a finished product with multiple post-launch patches and performance & bug fix updates, whereas with this project we started working with it early on.  So the game was still in development, there were things still being finalized about the final product, there were features that still looked at whether or not they wanted it put in the game.  Porting a game like that is kind of like trying to hit a moving target, so it’s a very different experience.  So we were involved a lot earlier, which was great. It wasn't just that it added challenges, but also gave us an opportunity to get involved early on, and offer feedback in terms of making features or systems play nice with the Switch.  Also gave us an opportunity to get their input and advice on things early on in terms of the right clean way to support a feature.  It’s a bit different when you’re working in a post-launch product - you’re kind of in a vacuum where you can make any change you want within reason because it doesn’t affect anyone else. But we were working with them, so changes we made could affect other platforms - bugs could be introduced that we caused.  So very different process.

NWR: It wasn’t developed quite in tandem with other console versions, correct?

Travis: Yeah, it was intended to be as much as possible in tandem, but we handled all the development effort for Switch.  What that means primarily is that the art was developed for a much higher spec platform than Switch.  Think about the bulk of the work that goes into making a title these days - a lot of it is the art.  And that art is designed for high end PC and consoles.  So we were responsible for taking that art and making it work on the Switch.

NWR: You had mentioned before that the work you were doing on Switch could potentially affect the PS4 and Xbox one versions.  Do you have any examples of that?

Travis: I mostly mean in terms of introducing bugs, since we were working in a shared environment.

NWR: Are you able to share any details about target resolution ranges for docked and handheld?

Travis: I can’t be precise because it varies so much, but I can tell you that it’s comparable to our previous titles with Doom 2016 and Wolfenstein 2 being the most obvious examples there.  We’re trying to achieve the same performance despite a much higher quality bar, and so that was a big challenge, but that was kind of our goal  - it has to be as good as the other titles despite the increased complexity.

NWR: I know that Doom Eternal was originally planned on being released at the same time as the other console versions.  Do you mind elaborating on how and why that slipped?

Travis: So basically as I mentioned, the quality bar was much higher.  Doom Eternal is targeting 2020 PC builds and really was a late generation title for the other consoles.  This is a lot of experience under your belt for those consoles and you’re learning to get the most out of those in terms of performance.  So the bar was a lot higher and the challenge of getting that ot fit on the Switch was commensurate with that.

Cody: It was one of the most ambitious projects they’ve worked on over at id, and making a faithful translation of that to the Switch in and of itself was a challenge.  We had a kickoff at the beginning of this project and we knew that it was going to be challenging, but we knew that with our previous experience on id Tech 6, taking id tech 7 in consideration that we could achieve a faithful translation.  At the end of the day we’re happy with it, and excited to get it into Nintendo Switch user’s hands.  

NWR: What were you able to learn from Doom 2016 development to build upon for Doom Eternal

Cody: So from production standpoint, there’s really the human element that went into and continues to go into Doom Eternal.  That’s really building and fostering the relationship with the devs at id software.  They have been instrumental through the entire process of getting Doom Eternal on the Switch.  That collaboration started early.  There were benefits from their team giving us guidance and support.  On the other hand, there’s guidance and support we gave them to help all the platforms.  From a human element, having worked with them previously to establish those relationships we knew where the domain experts were, had worked with them previously and had the confidence and familiarity with one another that we could get that help and support we needed.  And I’ll let Travis talk more about the tech side.  

Travis: And from the technical perspective, id tech 7 is a huge leap forward from id tech 6 and id tech 6.5, but there’s a lot of core things that are similar or the same.  So we were able to build on our previous knowledge and a lot of the changes and optimizations that we applied for Doom 2016 and Wolfenstein 2 did apply.  Not all of them, but we’re able to bring forward a lot of our tricks that we had learned for optimizing id tech for Switch.  We kind of learned as we went how to make id tech 7 work well on the Switch, because there were a lot of new features and new ways of doing things that we had to adjust for.  So it was definitely a help, but because the quality bar was so high, all the optimizations we carried forward with us gave us a starting point where we were kind of like starting back at square one.  Ok, we threw all our optimizations in and the title is running about the way it was before we had any optimizations on Doom 2016, so where do we go from here?  The big bulk of our effort was trying to find little places we could improve performance in addition to all of those previous changes.  But yeah, it was a big benefit to having worked with them before for sure.

NWR: Just for the layman like me, could you define id tech?

Travis: Sure, so id tech is the engine that id products run on, and it goes back to the original Doom and Wolfenstein.  There have been various iterations over time.  Doom 2016 ran on id tech 6, Wofenstein 2 was sort of informally id tech 6.5 which included some further enhancements for that title, which despite being developed by Machine Games it was in collaboration with id itself.  And so this new version of id tech 7 is the next gen engine, ready for high end PCs with tons of CPU cores and taking advantage of all new hardware features.  

NWR: What kind of experience did you gain working with id in trying to develop these ports?

Travis: They’re a very talented group of developers, some of the best and brightest of the industry.  Have a ton of experience, a wealth of knowledge they could draw upon.  So even though they may not be experienced with the Switch itself, we were able to talk about features and the engine itself and get their perspective on “here’s why we do things for this platform” and just peel it all back to see what was necessary and what could be best changed.  It’s a lot.  It’s hard not to be too technical so i’m kind of hedging my words.

Cody: Yeah, I think it kind of goes back to the layman framing on the previous question, it’s looking at just pulled back - they wrote id tech, they’re the domain experts, and when Travis says that they’re sharp minds, these are incredible minds, and to have them at our disposal for guidance for optimizations is really priceless, so they’ve absolutely contributed and been there along our side this entire process.

NWR: Doom 2016 was arguably the first of now many impossible ports we've seen come to Switch - stuff you wouldn’t expect could be run on it. Are there games you'd personally like to bring to Switch, or at least see?

Travis: There are definitely a lot of games I would love to personally play on the Switch.  Any game I can play handheld and take on the go with me is good.  I don’t think we have anything in particular to talk about today with that.

NWR: Ok, what would you personally want to play?

Travis: Man, I mean, honestly other Bethesda titles, if I’m going to plug my own desires. (laughter)

NWR: We’ve seen the introduction of game streaming on Switch - most recently with Control.  How does that affect the scope of what kind of project Panic Button would be working on?

Cody: I think it’s an interesting tech.  I think it’s young and that there’s a place and audience for it, but doesn’t necessarily change anything on our horizon.  We’re going to continue taking on challenging projects to get these on the hardware and for people to be able to use offline and when they want to.  I think that’s one of the greatest things about the Nintendo Switch - you have the ability to take it and go off the grid, so we’re going to continue doing what we do.  

NWR: Yeah, and I don’t know about you guys, but my ISP is miserable.

Travis: Work from home probably isn’t helping that (laughter)

NWR: Speaking of that, how has your experience been working from home since COVID hit?

Cody: It’s been a challenge, its definitely been a surprise to us amongst anyone else collectively that's challenged with this problem.  Just from the basic level getting infrastructure at home set-up and all the correct permissions, etc.  Took time trying to figure out how long we’d be doing this for.  And then as it started going wider and realized it’s not going away as quickly as we hoped, we had to adapt and be agile to the process of day-to-day.  We are a small team at Panic Button and we’re in an open office, so the benefit that we do get from being in a layout like that is we have immediate access to all disciplines on a project.  So if we need to escalate something we can go grab them in person and say “hey, look at this”.  When that’s taken away from you, you kind of rely on new channels of communication and getting used to those processes at a very fundamental level has had its effect on our team as well as I'd expect on other teams doing game development.  So we’re not necessarily unique, we just had to look athte problems and challenges and adopt to them

NWR: I guess we should consider ourselves fortunate that we have the option to work from home.

Cody: Absolutely, at the end of the day it was a decision our stakeholders took on pretty early to keep the safety of our employees as the paramount importance, and have just had to be real about how to face those challenges.  We’re very fortunate and at the end of the day, we’re able to wrap up a project like Doom Eternal on the Switch and get it out during one of the crazies years of our lives, and we’re excited and hopefully people stay indoors and play this game and continue to be safe through the holidays

NWR: How Do you think the release of Xbox Series X and PS5 will affect what’s feasible to be ported to Switch?

Cody: It depends.  It depends on the developer.  There’s going to be developers who are going to push the bleeding edge and only focus on that.  There’s other developers who are going to look at all the ecosystems and have those as a targeted platforms.  It’s really up to the developer and then if we’re going to continue working on Nintendo Switch as collaborative projects and we’re willing and open to the challenge.  At the end of the day it’s really up to the people creating the content and what they want to target.  

Travis: Yep, and keep in mind that as long as developers are still making an Xbox one or PlayStation 4 version of their game, they’re not going to be able to completely rely on ray tracing as their core rendering, so as long as there's a more traditional version of the game, that version will be easier to port.  Obviously it becomes a real challenge when you’re porting a game that only supports ray tracing.

NWR: Wait, you’re suggesting ray tracing can’t come to Switch?

Travis: It’d be a challenge (laughter)

NWR:  As we wrap up, what’s your favorite Doom game?

Travis: It’s an easy one for me - Doom Eternal.  Doom 2016 was my favorite Doom game, but as Cody mentioned we were involved in the early process and got to see their vision for the game early on, and we were in love with the gameplay changes, but also the scope - they really expanded the lore and content universe as it were, and that part was also really exciting to us and still is.  And so for me that’s what makes it my favorite game - they took everything I liked about it and then they made it even better and expanded on it, and you’re still seeing that with the release of ancient gods.  

Cody: Yeah that’s an interesting one because, if I tap into the nostalgia side of my psyche, I could remember as a kid just booting up the original Doom and being blown away and fascinated by this thing in front of me.  So that should not be ignored - it’s just kind of in my DNA in some way.  But the experience of Doom 2016 and building up on that for Doom Eternal, it’s really a toss up between those two.  I don’t think I could play one without the other because Doom Eternal did build off an incredible design, the action is incredible and Doom Eternal really just brought it to 11 with some new mechanics and options for players.  I think the modern day experience that it brings is crazy - it's fast, kind of taps into all your high level FPS player desires, and really leaves some options open to the player for customization.  So I would say yeah, the current iteration is for sure one of my best go-tos for FPS.

TalkBack / Serious Sam Collection (Switch) Review
« on: November 25, 2020, 07:03:22 AM »

There are seriously better options to get your shooting fix.

As a boy, I cut my teeth on Doom.  After that, the fun shooting with crass mannerisms of Duke Nukem 3D was alluring, if tawdry.  A serious gap in my PC first-person shooter experience was Serious Sam, which is cut from the same cloth as those other classics.  In this series, Sam “Serious” Stone takes a Terminator-like trip back in time to lead the resistance against an imposing alien force.

This collection comes with three separate titles—Serious Sam HD: The First Encounter, Serious Sam HD: The Second Encounter, and Serious Sam 3: BFE.  The first two are largely the same FPS experience, just in different locales.  The camera is free roaming, the movement is zippy, and the shooting is decent, with weapons that feel distinct.  Selecting weapons is done via a radial menu, which can be a bit cumbersome in more frantic moments.  Levels vary from Egyptian catacombs to underground sewers and jungles.  The “HD” in the first two titles is really stretching the meaning of the term.  Character models are chunky like those on Nintendo 64, and textures in the background are flat, but I will admit they are at least clean looking—no fuzziness to be found.

While the core gameplay in the first two games is sound, it’s the choices around them that make them show their age.  Inexplicably, the spawn points seem tied to picking up health or shield items.  At first, I thought it was completely random, but it became more evident as I played.  Enemies come in waves of dozens at a time in some spots, which can be overwhelming and borderline unmanageable unless you can find a bottleneck spot to run them through.  While there are some unique enemies such as kamikaze bombers that scream as they run towards you, giant skeleton-like creatures, and alien beings, there are a handful that look like they’ve just copied Doom’s homework with a few minor alterations.  Strangely enough, the larger creatures would get stuck on arches between rooms, inadvertently making them easy fodder.

Serious Sam 3: BFE is where the series jumps into what I’d consider the group of more modern shooters.  Graphics are cleaner and more well defined, with dynamic lighting that provides gradients of shade that didn’t exist in the other ones.  Dialogue, while excessively cheesy, fits in a narrative arc and series of events that feels more scripted.  Enemy spawning feels more directed by moving through different sections of the level rather than the inexplicably chosen spawn points of its predecessors.  One way it fails comparably is its framerate—tons of slowdown in the midst of action and unexplainable stuttering/hitching at moments where there’s nothing apparent that’d cause it.  The menu settings have an option to choose between fidelity and stability, but changing it didn’t remedy the issue.

Across the entire spectrum of games, there are some nagging flaws that really mar the experience.  It was nice of the development team to include online cooperative and versus modes, but there is no population to matchmake with whatsoever.  A healthy number of online multiplayer options are present here, but there are occasional music cues that start in moments of great battles taking place, and it’s jarring how it just starts and stops abruptly without any natural phase in and phase out.  The same sounds span the entire trilogy—Sam makes the same grunting noises when he jumps or melee attacks and the enemies make the same sound verbatim.  Not re-recorded, not altered, literally the same audio.  Finally, Sam’s dialogue is almost groan inducing.  It’s like they tried to tone down Duke Nukem’s writing to a PG-13 rating, but it almost feels more try-hard than even that with how it’s “tough guy without the profanity.”  

The Serious Sam Collection undeniably has a lot of content, but the purchase decision will hinge on what fondness you have for it.  This is likely an easy buy for the devotees or those who hold nostalgia for it, but as a first timer the flaws inherent in game design, technical performance, and audio design make the experience for me death by a thousand cuts.  The Switch has better classic shooters and many well-made homages to them; seek out those before you settle for this.

TalkBack / Tropico 6 (Switch) Review
« on: November 17, 2020, 06:21:08 AM »

Autocrat Simulator 2020

I’ve been a city building and management sim devotee for quite some time, cutting my teeth on SimCity and Civilization 2 ages ago.  Somehow, in spite of there being half a dozen entries, Tropico 6, the latest in the series, is my first foray into the Banana Republic development sim.  There’s always a power fantasy inherent in acting as a solo operator in developing a population, but the allure of also being a despot leader of a small island nation-state was a wrinkle I was eager to explore.

There are three primary game modes: Tutorial, Missions, and Sandbox.  The tutorial is pretty robust, with five total chapters that give a step-by-step instruction of how to interface with the game as well as describing the different systems.  Missions are individual scenarios with specific win conditions that must be met before moving onto the next.  While these missions are a nice way to chunk small slivers of the game into bite-sized pieces, it isn’t personally the way I like to play my sims.  Sandbox is the real meat of Tropico to me, an open-ended, build-your-own island nation where I could be the architect of my own flourishing nation or failed state.

As Governor of a colony under the crown’s control, you must steward your small colony from revolution to modern times, with each period having preconditions that must be met prior to progressing to the next era.  At the start, you’re weighing allegiances with the crown who controls how long you have an edict to rule, and revolutionaries that seek to overthrow the crown and elect you as el Presidente!  The crown’s tasks that allow extensions to your rule typically involve building revenue generators such as mines, plantations, or other buildings that extract resources that you can export on trade routes to profit the empire.  Revolutionary tasks tend to focus on improving the general welfare of the people with buildings like churches, taverns, or other areas of leisure.  

There is this great contrast where the land real estate isn’t all that great on your island, but you can tweak inputs at a pretty granular level.  Each facility has individual citizens listed at buildings that employ them, of which you can adjust a work mode between a level work week or more taskmaster settings that might improve output at the cost of worker health, and amend the place’s budget, which affects not only the cost of upkeeping it but also wages and job satisfaction.  You can go into even more specifics by selecting individual employees, and this gives you options like firing them and replacing with immigrant workers, bribing them, assassinating them, arranging an “accident in the workplace”, arrest, or even institutionalizing them if an asylum is built.  

Tropico 6’s port to Switch has been mostly successful in making it a solid option for all your tropical machinations.  The controls, namely, are mostly positive.  Most of the options like constructing buildings, creating trade routes, viewing the almanac that shows various metrics of success, among others, are tied to a radial menu that’s easy to navigate.  There’s a nice and easy grid to follow when placing down buildings or roads.  It all feels very intuitive; the only minor gripe I have is the default cursor moves a bit too quickly for my tastes, but thankfully that is one of several options that can be tweaked.  Additionally, this port undeniably has taken a hit graphically from its PC and other console counterparts.  It’s a worthy trade-off in my opinion, but fair warning if having the sharpest visuals is important to you.

Tropico 6’s port to the Switch is a full-sized city building and resource management sim in the palm of your hand, which is the only way I want to play this genre anymore.  The relatively quaint scope in comparison to the Civs of the world and the focus on more micro inputs to influence your nation is refreshing, and what compromises were necessary to make it here were well worth it.

TalkBack / Barbearian (Switch) Review
« on: November 03, 2020, 06:13:58 AM »

Taking the path to Growlhalla

Barbearian originally released on iOS devices before making its way onto Switch, which is amazing to me because it doesn’t at all feel like the kind of game that’d work well with touchscreen controls.  While an isometric hack-and-slash game doesn’t require laser-focus precision, this frantic and surprisingly difficult game requires the control a phone couldn’t adequately provide.  In Barbearian, you embody a bear-skin covered warrior taken from your home by an ethereal being who entered you in a contest of survival as a representative of your kind.  

That contest of survival is a series of challenges, each consisting of five sets of three levels.  Each level is a relatively small patch of land with flora and fauna as well as stone structures littered throughout.  In these levels, throngs of grunts, towers that shoot projectiles, and oversized generals litter the landscape.  In order to clear a level, all the generals must be downed, but before doing so you may want to find a test tube device and beat it to pieces.  These contain villagers you can collect, train as archers or knights, then bring into battle with you.  If your HP is chipped away, health restoring wells can rejuvenate you for a price: currency in the form of fruit and diamonds.  That currency can also be used outside of battles for health or grunt regeneration meter increases, alternate weapons, and additional foot soldiers.  

Introductory levels are simple enough, with the Barbearian able to mow down droves of enemies with his axe or smash into crowds with his dash, which evokes the parting of the Red Sea with how it clears the field.  Temporary power-ups drop from enemies such as a defensive barrier, attack buff, and rotating sphere that hits enemies.  Those power ups give an additional damage boost that turns you into a human (bear?) wrecking ball.  These early levels are empowering; there’s something so satisfying about how blunt an object I could be in the beginning levels.  

Later levels surprised me with how strategic I had to approach them.  Enemies swarmed me and my brigade of foot soldiers and hit like a truck.  Instead of pressing head-on, I began strategizing—kite a group of enemies, let my foot soldiers approach them head-on, then flank them from the side.  In some situations, it made more sense to divide and conquer, once again letting the army confront the opposing forces on one front, and turning my attention to another encroaching group.  The later levels also included spawn points for enemies, adding another wrinkle by needing to stem that root cause of a persistent wave of enemies before being able to clear the board.

I was pleased with the boss battles after each set of levels.  Every one had a primary monster or entity with several different phases of movement and attack to contend with.  As later phases came, waves of enemies would teleport in, creating an almost bullet hell like environment where I had to weave between mobs to get back to chipping away at the boss.  One thing I found funny is that the boss attacks did damage to other enemies on the field, making it advantageous to let them clear the field for you.  The bosses hit the right balance of difficult but defeatable.

There is a strange charm to the world of Barbearian.  Everything is hand-drawn in a fairly cutesy style, but juxtaposed with this mystic setting of an all knowing god-like entity and a disjointedly connected set of worlds.  NPC guides also embody this dissonance, like the chipper Penguin that mixes cheerful chatter of statistics with excitedly telling you it’s unlikely you’ll survive, or the deer-like creature with amnesia whose lack of memories have a direct connnection to gameplay at one point.  There’s also a withering oak tree that opens the gate to bosses and always speaks with a foreboding presence while saying things like “all is lost” before allowing entry.  These elements create an environment that is disarming with the adorable look and hits you with an uneasiness from its cryptic writing.

Barbearian might be one of the more pleasant surprises of the year.  Underneath the hack-and-slash simplicity in sending troops flying with a swing of your axe is robust strategizing and improvising on the fly when your best laid plans crumble.  The mystery inherent in its story coupled with the bright and neat visual style adds an additional dimension to the experience.  I can wholeheartedly recommend you add this to your Switch catalog.

TalkBack / Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty (Switch) Review
« on: October 27, 2020, 07:56:51 AM »

A remake worthy of the original’s strangeness

Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, the remake of the Playstation 1 classic Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee on PC and other consoles in 2015, is an odd duck.  The hero of our story, Abe, is part of a species called Mudokons.  Part humanoid, part Murlock from World of Warcraft, these creatures have been made indentured servants to RuptureFarms—a meat processing plant that uses other creatures to make snack foods like Scrab Cakes and Paramite Pies.  When their line of Paramite Pies sinks in sales because of the extinction of their food source, Abe discovers the CEO telling the RuptureFarms board members his plan to harvest Mudokons into their newest line of treats.  You’ll lead Abe on a quest of escape, saving his brethren and discovering the secret origins of his species.

Oddworld is a mixture of genres, but predominantly it’s a 2D side-scrolling puzzle platformer.  Gameplay is essentially a series of levels with a chain of actions that Abe must complete before opening a path to the next room.  Littered with antagonistic creatures, traps, and explosions, you’ll use levers that open paths or direct the traps toward them and employ Mudokon powers to clear the way to the next room.  Part of Oddworld’s uniqueness is integrating a Lemmings-like conceit.  As you proceed, some rooms will include a handful of Mudokons that are guidable by sending them commands to say hello, asking for their attention, commanding them to follow you, or asking them to pause.  If you can clear a path for them to a portal, they will escape their slave labor and you’ll be rewarded with signs counting how many you’ve been able to save.

For the most part, the foundation of this gameplay is solid.  Most puzzles are smartly put-together, with a clear solution outlined but enough flexibility to get through with improvisation when necessary.  A well-timed jump over a tracking bomb, using telekinesis to take control over Glukkons (Rupture Farms’ loyal but impressionable species of armed taskmasters) to mow down other enemies and running them into a pit, or trying to simply take a leap of faith and outrun them is one good example of how any room can go down.  Abe himself moves sluggishly, with a weight that can feel tough to work with through certain sections that require precision lever pulls, ledge grabs, or persistent jumping.  One particularly painful point is the sections with Elums, a rideable creature that is featured intermittently.  Its longer jump ability is used in several levels requiring precision jumping that is made more difficult by this sluggish movement, something that could be infuriating after spending nearly an hour on one section.  

The world of Oddworld and its inhabitants are, well, bizarre (You thought I was going to say odd, didn’t you?).  Abe is a friendly creature with a voice that sounds like a folksy fish.  Beyond giving commands, some puzzles will require a Simon-like password consisting of two different whistles and flatulence on command.  You can imagine how much my two young boys were overjoyed to have a fart button they could mash ad nauseum.  A peculiar story is told throughout in brief cutscenes in which Abe narrates, each time in poetic format.  Glukkons talk in a gristly tone, laughing at your demise with a sound that can only be described as “Q-Bertian.”  The sensibility is reminiscent of its original release, curious if not distinct.

It’d be malpractice to review this remake without context of the original Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee.  After dusting-off my Playstation Classic, it only takes a few moments to see just how improved a package the new version is compared to the original.  Visually, the title has undergone a near-complete makeover; characters are smoother than its jaggy, pixelated predecessor.  The worlds themselves contain a much wider diversity of colors throughout, whereas the original is much darker, much dingier.  The gameplay has also undergone a refinement.  The original’s movement is even more sluggish than New ‘n’ Tasty, and things like jumping and grabbing a lever required standing in the exact right position, while the remake offers a larger window to successfully complete these actions.  The end result is a refinement in all the ways fans of the original could ask for.  

Context of the original really can inform what level of accolades someone might give Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty.  Without it, you might find the game a bizarre, competent, if clunky, 2D platformer with a few extra tricks up its sleeve.  Looking back at Abe’s Oddysee, it couldn’t be clearer how much refinement was done in the action, and how much effort was taken to make it visually pleasing insofar as this world can be.  There’s an undeniable charm in its oddness that provides a flavor to this Switch port either way, which makes it easy to recommend.  Just make sure to give your fellow Mudokon co-workers a friendly hello.

TalkBack / Re: Cold Stone Creamery Super Mario Promotion Review
« on: October 19, 2020, 06:39:02 PM »
How do I know whether you liked it or not without a review score?!?

My kids are going to love going to coldstone this week.

TalkBack / 9 Monkeys of Shaolin (Switch) Review
« on: October 15, 2020, 12:32:41 PM »

Channeling your inner Qi

9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a side-scrolling 3D beat-em-up with the motif of Medieval China and classic kung fu movies.  You are Wei Cheng, a fisherman whose hometown is burned to ashes by ruthless pirates, and whose goal is to avenge the death of your loved ones.  To do so, he connects with a Buddhist monk sanctuary, assisting them in their missions to aid villagers in staving off enemies and learning inner power through harnessing Qi.

The story is broken-up into missions, laid out in clusters on a map of feudal China with brief descriptions of the scenario you’re being brought into.  Missions are largely a straightforward affair—move from left to right with intermittent waves of enemies blocking your path that must be dispatched before proceeding forward until reaching the end.  Different teas found by breaking boxes or barrels can provide health, boost attack power, or sustain unlimited Qi power for a limited amount of time.  Upon completing missions, you’re awarded a currency spendable to increase ability stats and purchase alternate weapons, necklaces, and boots that add modifiers to equip back at the monk outpost.  Additionally, to my delight, the aforementioned spoils from completing missions have a meaningful impact on play style.  Staff variants range from granting health regeneration and critical strike chances to a chance to poison.  A necklace might offer a gradual passive regeneration.  One of the most impactful equips was a new pair of boots that replaced the dodge jump with a snappy teleport power, which fundamentally changed the way I was able to approach and execute enemies.

Wei Cheng’s battle skills as a fisherman are limited but effective to start, with a parry, jump kick, basic attack, thrust, and dodge jump.  I found the basic attacks easy to grasp, quickly learning effective ways to chain together attacks in order to stun enemies by, for example, leading with a jump kick, bashing them with the basic attack a few times, then prodding them until their life bar depleted.  As the story progresses, the Monks teach Wei Cheng how to harness his Qi, integrating charge moves and area-of-effect attacks that provide new ways to get out of a bind when surrounded.  One nagging complaint I have is that some of the enemies feel outright cheap.  Some ranged enemies that shoot darts or more heavily armored enemies that block make sense, but in later levels others have the ability to turn into shadows that my attacks went right through, making those areas drag on because I couldn’t find an effective way to counter that maneuver.  This was compounded by some areas so narrow that they effectively trapped me in an endless chain of attacks with a crowd surrounding me, with no possible chance of escape.

Visually, objects in the foreground are nondescript—characters have some detail in outfits but faces and body structures have a low-resolution blur to them.  Places like the monk’s temple or buildings in some missions lack detail or are just so dark that they appear muted.  Where 9 Monkeys of Shaolin shines is in its backgrounds.  Distinct vistas with a beautiful layering of backgrounds gives them a sense of depth.  Trees have a fullness that is accentuated with a hand-painted style.  These scenes often use lighting and color in a way that highlights their best features.  Finally, in between chapters, the storytelling is done with narration over beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds that are drawn in progress throughout, taking advantage of the style inherent in the era the game is based upon and which is stylistically pleasing.

I was pleasantly surprised by how satisfied I was walking away from my time with this game.  The growth in combat complexity was not only satisfying, but the various upgrades and equips allowed multiple strategies and approaches to levels that were surprisingly robust.  There’s a beauty to the clean but vibrant backdrops and interstitial drawings.  9 Monkeys of Shaolin is a rewarding beat-em-up that belongs in every fan’s library.

Well, lolmonade is officially the worst player this game. :P

(Watch him show up later talking about having been at the hospital looking after his wife after she went into a coma from a terrible accident to regain our sympathy and make me look bad with that comment.  :-X )

Nope, this time it’s just being busy.  Good luck to everyone else still playing!

TalkBack / The Long Dark (Switch) Review
« on: October 06, 2020, 09:52:16 AM »

Oh no, not I, I will Survive

The Long Dark, a survival game released on Switch by developer Hinterland Studios, elicits the feel of Hatchet, one of my favorite books growing up.  A lone survivor who’s dropped into the wild without hardly any supplies has to cobble together the resources from nature to sustain themselves, find shelter from the harsh elements, and build tools to keep predators at bay.  There’s something inherently relatable to the setting, and although The Long Dark explicitly warns in the first loading screen that it is not an accurate depiction of real-life survival skills, its world feels natural and understandable.

The name of the game here is managing meters, the four of which are hunger, thirst, body temperature, and rest.  The cold is oppressive, with rolling blizzards on and off throughout, requiring that you find or make shelters to insulate and build fires for a heat source to recover.  Hunger pangs are persistent, and food sources are scarce.  Thirst is a more manageable necessity; a can of snow boiled into water or more unsavory methods like harvesting toilet water will do.  Scavenging for canned food and drinks gives an essential but scarce resource that doesn’t spoil, so it should be saved in case of emergency while hunting wildlife like rabbits for meat where possible.  Eventually you’ll tire out, so while in that shelter a bedroll will come in handy to get some sleep in, or a bed in an abandoned home might suffice.

In order to meet those needs, the raw materials & resources must be gathered and crafted into the necessary tools.  That fire I needed?  Better have tinder, fuel, and an accelerant like lighter fluid, if you want it done quick.  Cloth sewn onto clothes to keep you warmer or wrapped around sticks to build a torch.  Whether by falling too high or being attacked by wildlife, fashioning that same cloth into bandages is necessary to mend injuries and blunt damage taken.

There are three modes—Survival, Challenges, and Wintermute.  The first two are pretty straightforward: Challenges are scenarios created to overcome, and survival is an open-ended mode to test your mettle by surviving as long as possible.  For my money, Wintermute, the episodic story mode is the best starting point for new players.  Through three episodes so far, it tells the tale of Will Mackenzie, a pilot in the remote Canadian wilderness, whom an implied former love interest, Astrid Greenwood, commissions to make a delivery gone wrong with a plane crash.  Upon waking, Astrid has gone missing and Will explores the dark winter wild to uncover the mystery of where she went.

The narrative focus was the driver I needed to really learn the mechanics of The Long Dark.  No matter what mode you choose, you’re just sort of dropped-in.  Wintermute’s story isn’t dense, but it is engaging enough to make me want to see what would unfold.  What fate befalls Will and Astrid?  What events led the small town of Milton to become destitute, with only a feeble woman who calls herself the Grey Mother the sole resident stoking the town’s dying embers?  These questions and more were compelling and an adequate driver for me to go through trial and error, stopping and starting a handful of times so I could get the hang of the cause-and-effect of using scarce resources and the most optimal way to keep each meter appropriately filled while exploring.  A liberal use of save scumming was my friend, and what felt insurmountable at first eventually enabled me to be self-sufficient in a way that was really, really satisfying.  It’s worth noting that only three of five episodes are currently released, so you won’t get quite the full story, but what’s there feels like a solid underpinning for what will unfold.  Hinterland Studios has let us know that future episodes are scheduled for 2021 and will be included in the base cost of the game.

In the end, The Long Dark won me over through the same war of attrition it demanded of me during playing.  What starts as an oppressive wilderness and battle of the elements eventually unfolds into a gratifying progression as I learned how to survive efficiently through trial and error.  They say that adversity builds character, and if you can grow some thicker skin, there’s a lot of character in The Long Dark to discover.


Windyman, more like Winning Man amirite!? MASB completes a single well and safely clears the screen for the first time!

Next up: lolmonade! Which Day One patch are you installing first?
-   Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla
-   Bugsnax
-   Destruction AllStars
-   Dirt 5
-   Gears Tactics
-   Godfall
-   The Medium
-   Sackboy: A Big Adventure

How has anyone not chosen Bugsnax?!? I choose Bugsnax!


Windyman, more like Winning Man amirite!? MASB completes a single well and safely clears the screen for the first time!

Next up: lolmonade! Which Day One patch are you installing first?
-   Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla
-   Bugsnax
-   Destruction AllStars
-   Dirt 5
-   Gears Tactics
-   Godfall
-   The Medium
-   Sackboy: A Big Adventure

How has anyone not chosen Bugsnax?!? I choose Bugsnax!

Super Mario Sunshine isn't as bad as some (including me) have made it out to be.

Super Mario Sunshine isn't as good as some contrarians make it out to be, either.

It's a fine game, my problem is that FLUDD makes it not feel like a Mario game.

I think Minecraft Steve is a perfect choice if you see Smash Bros as not just a fighting/party game but a gathering of some of the most influential characters in gaming.  Minecraft is prolific, has been for almost a decade.  Steve might just be an avatar, but he's widely featured in advertising and toys too. 

Whether or not we feel happy about the slot being used this way, it makes sense and IMO will help the fighter pack sell like hotcakes.

General Chat / Re: The COVID-19 Virus is Coming For Us All Thread
« on: October 02, 2020, 09:43:33 AM »
Welp, Hope Hicks, President & FLOTUS, and the RNC chair have now all been confirmed to have COVID-19.  The internet has handled this about as well as you can expect. 

It does kind of feel like a "you played with fire, no wonder you got burnt" moment though.

TalkBack / Atom RPG (Switch) Review
« on: September 28, 2020, 06:46:33 AM »

Fallout of a different flavor

Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs) such as the Fallout series, to me, are often tedious, bloated-feeling experiences with punishingly difficult restrictions.  Such restrictions include being encumbered and not allowed to move for holding too many items, making resources so scarce that calling each decision hand-to-mouth is generous, or skills and attributes that only work by min-maxing them to make you a powerhouse in one or two areas only.  This is a forewarning for anyone like me—ATOM RPG falls squarely within that category, even more so since it appears to line-up more with the first few Fallout titles in format & style, swapping the post-Apocalyptic Americana with a radiated Soviet Russia motif instead.

The story is straightforward: Mutually Assured Destruction happened in the mid-80s, bringing with it the advent of a post-apocalyptic world of scant towns, decrepit abandoned facilities, and scrap—so much scrap.  As a member of the secret society A.T.O.M., you are sent out to find a missing search party (ironically), and are shortly afterward mugged by bandits and left with nothing.  Combat is turn-based, using an isometric view with tile square movements and action points; offense and defense are affected not just by stats/perks chosen at level up, but weapons and armor you find along the way.  Different points of interest like towns and vacant facilities are identified on the map, and as you walk from point A to B, random encounters will occur such as traveling caravans to buy and sell goods from (with Rubles as currency) or bandits looking to kill you and pick your corpse clean.  For those sensitive to load times, know that ATOM RPG is rife with them: twenty seconds at a time every time you enter or leave a town or dungeon, have a random encounter, or explore some outpost.  It was excruciating how much it broke up the action for me.

That said, I did my best to take ATOM RPG through its paces and give it the fairest shakes possible for someone predisposed to not enjoy it.  I have for you a tale of two A.T.O.M. agents – Maria and Beavis (yes, Beavis was a custom name).  Maria had Sex Appeal and was a Slick Dealer, two distinctions that made her a sliver-tongued devil (especially with men), but in exchange weakened her and reduced her carrying capacity.  After the ceremonial mugging of the game’s introduction, she trekked to the closest town of Otradnoye, speaking to several locals, most of them with an understandingly myopic view of their plight and way of life.  After picking crops for an old hunter and being given a shotgun without any ammo, she took on a job to get a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” for the bartender from the distant town of Krasnozamenny.

Her walking across the wasteland was a slog.  Slow, plodding movement in the overworld made the trek from town to other areas of interest an exercise in frustration.  The wastelands were rife with random encounters, which coupled with the aforementioned oppressive load screens & times hard to swallow.  The separate locations for points of interest or random encounters were smaller slices of map which felt more interactive like the towns, but they similarly were often a plodding event, having to wander that map with no indication of where people or buildings were.  It may be more true to form for a wasteland, but it cuts into the fun.

Maria encountered a trio of men at a campfire, all three frozen in a stand-off.  The first one after some coaxing let her in on a secret: the other two men had been panicking about a tall tale of a worm that would burrow its way into the victim’s head, controlling its mind and rendering them unable to adequately recall all their memories.  They had feared each other had been infested with them.  Maria agreed to talk with the other two and report back, but all those conversations yielded was that each man was terrified of the other.  Maria in a cunning act informed the first man that they were both indeed paranoid and plotting against him, planting the seed for them to turn on each other, but she didn’t return to see the fruit of her labor.

The travel was plodding, and hunger clawed at her health until remembering she could set-camp and eat a can of pre-war meat that somehow didn’t go bad.  While checking the wastes for supplies, she encountered toxic waste that infected her with radiation poisoning.  In spite of that, she eventually stumbled onto Krasnozamenny.  While trying to find the bookkeeper, she noticed all the locals started speaking in strange reverse language, or worse, repeating that this existence isn’t real—she had contracted radiation poisoning!  Without being able to find a doctor, she was left the only choice to trek back to Otradnoye, which she did but only with a sliver of life left.  While still radiated, she was given treatment for the sickness and stocked up on food to regain her senses.

After being told of an abandoned Bunker 317 with possible treasures, she made her way there, encountering a trio of men who made a deal: if you explore and clear-out any wild animals or monsters, you can have whatever you can walk out with.  It was too good a deal for Maria to pass up, and after clearing out huge nuclear ants that were scarier to look at than to battle, her physical weakness suddenly became clear—all those treasures she amassed were too heavy for her!  She decided to drop everything except the most valuable items, figuring she could collect the remainder after finding a barterer.  

Upon leaving, she was accused by the group of hiding the best goods to be found later, and was ambushed.  The trio were well-armed, with guns and knives.  Maria was equipped with a brick.  This is a common issue - if you make the wrong turn or get the wrong random encounter battle, suddenly you’re surrounded with several men armed to the teeth.  The power imbalances are palpable.  Maria didn’t have a chance, and the three enemies made short work of her.  Because I saved prior to leaving the bunker, I was stuck in an impossible situation.  Thus, ended the story of Maria.

Beavis, on the other hand, is a physically imposing man, a martial arts enthusiast with an aversion to tinkering with technology.  He too helped the old hunter gather corn, but took the shotgun and sold it in exchange for a shovel and some canned meat rations.  While also encountering radiation, he benefited from the inherited knowledge of Maria’s prior life and kept himself well-fed, allowing him to stave-off the worse side effects.  He found a fortress where militiamen had set-up their own encampment.  There he asked around of the soldiers who were all mum on details to a stranger, except for one who had been smoking a bit too much of the devil’s weed.  Using this knowledge, Beavis told the fortress leader who then ran to reprimand him, and let Beavis ransack the office space for goods before taking his leave.

After making it to Krasnozamenny, he spoke the secret A.T.O.M. code to the bartender, who walked him back behind closed doors and confirmed his association with the organization, and agreed to group with you and assist in finding the missing expedition.  They encountered a group of acolytes of a strange sect, led by a charismatic leader named Devi Christu, who questioned Beavis’ faith and showed to be incredulous at his indecision.  After leaving, a member of a group called the Mushroom Cult asked him to track them back to Otradnoye, offering rewards for doing so and reporting back their plans.  While Beavis saw the Mushroom cult as equally questionable in motive, he wasn’t about to turn down riches in such a barren wasteland, so he and his new partner started the trek back to Otradnoye.

In my two saves, I spent enough time to acquaint myself with the systems, understand the way the world works, and became a better survivor in the world of ATOM RPG.  What makes it special is the world building through the character dialogue, learning how to play characters against each other to meet your needs, and leaning into your character strengths to uncover the outcomes you’re looking for.  ATOM RPG isn’t going to make you a cult follower in the church of CRPG, but those who are already ordained there can likely overlook its dated look and flaws to find an enjoyable experience on the Nintendo Switch.

Count me in.

TalkBack / #Funtime (Switch) Review
« on: September 23, 2020, 07:07:01 AM »

For a #goodtime, you can do worse than #Funtime.

Kudos to Developer One Guy Games for the naming convention of #Funtime.  Beyond being what I imagine is an SEO dream naming convention, it’s somehow indicative of the game without describing anything about it.  #Funtime is a top-down, twin-stick shooter, a genre well represented on the Nintendo Switch by now.  With that in mind, it might be fair to ask—what distinctions does this one have that makes it worth checking it out?

Starting with controls, #Funtime has a silky-smooth, blistering speed that is unmatched in recent games of this type, at least that I’ve played.  The speed creeps right up to the border of too fast without crossing it, making zipping in-and-out of tight spots between projectiles and hazards feel so, so good.  Regarding gameplay, the main distinction between #Funtime and its peers is a color-swap mechanic, mapped to the directional buttons on the left Joy-Con.  Shooting enemies often yields collectables that increase a score multiplier, a critical task to get high scores, but the multiplier ends when you get hit.  The four primary colors red, blue, green, and yellow match enemies and hazards, and timing it right can allow you to pass-through them without blowing up.  It’s a clever idea that is easy to understand, but hard to master—not only because of the coordination it took, but also the awkward positioning I had to take to both move and switch colors.  If you don’t have a thumb that can both move the stick and hit the buttons below it with its side, then you’re going to have a #badtime.

There is a challenge mode and five different arcade modes.  Challenge mode is a series of levels with different objectives and a 3-star rating system using the different level types from the arcade mode.  Survival and Large Survival provide an endless barrage of hazards to shoot and avoid until you’ve run out of lives.  Open survival is the same concept, except with an endless space to navigate.  Waves plops you in a constrained space, and metes out enemies in, well, waves.  Escape mode had me navigating a maze, avoiding traps, enemies, and hazards to reach the end point.  There are even more quirky ones like Wrecking Ball, where a colored ball is tethered to the end of your ship and hitting enemies with it is the only way to score points.  The challenge mode provides a nice set of goals to reach while teaching you the ropes, and the arcade mode feeds that need to reach for the stars with high scores.

The simple, clean aesthetic of black background with white or grey gridlines pairs nicely with the neon colors, although I can’t help but think that style has become a bit overplayed.  It’s not #Funtime’s fault—it is a look that stands-out, and I imagine that it’s tough to stand out as a twin-stick shooter, but over the past few years I’ve seen several games that use it.  The music’s techno sound and upbeat tempo similarly match well with the style.  

All that said, I can’t fault #Funtime for being overly familiar within the twin-stick shooter genre when the core of the game feels so good to play.  Not only that, but the diverse level types and modes make it so that once I beat the levels, I found myself having just as much fun going back to them, attempting to earn three stars on as many as possible before giving up in frustration at my own lack of coordination.  Some clumsy button placement with color swaps and an overplayed style isn’t enough to keep me from giving a solid recommendation to this game with a silly name.

TalkBack / Raji: An Ancient Epic (Switch) Review
« on: September 16, 2020, 09:22:00 AM »

Technical hiccups can't sink this Hindu-inspired odyssey

A festival’s reenactment of an ancient war between gods and demons acts as a prelude to a new demon uprising.  A young Indian girl’s brother, Golu, is kidnapped by the demons, starting a pursuit to save him and, in the process, the world.  Raji: An Ancient Epic has you embodying the eponymous character as she takes on a bevy of demons, towering beasts, and the lord of demons Mahabalasura.  This journey is reinforced by the gods that bestow ancient and powerful weapons and abilities in your journey to save Golu.

Gameplay is largely inspired by the likes of early entries in the God of War series.  Combating waves of enemies with light and heavy attacks coupled with a dodge feels right at home to anyone familiar with the genre.  It’s easy to get in the groove of chaining moves together in a combination that stuns an enemy, dodging a different enemy’s attack in the nick of time, then returning the favor to them.  In between each battle arena are various types of platforming challenges that are fairly rudimentary.  The puzzles, rotating segments of trees or circular tiles to put together a painting of Raji’s key memories with Golu, are simple but break up the action sequences nicely.  The staff Raji sets out with has a heavy damage focus, but as you proceed, additional weapons are doled out (such as a bow & arrow and sword & shield) that provide a wider set of combat options that feel distinct despite limited button inputs.

The story, setting, and style are the peak experience in Raji: An Ancient Epic.  The front and center tale of Raji chasing after Golu itself can seem rote, but the way it’s told, how it’s intertwined with a lesson in Hindu mythology, and its distinct art style makes it shine.  Cutscenes highlight key story sequences with a flat cut-out style; characters appear in silhouettes with tethers to their arms as if part of a puppet theatre.  As Raji walks along different paths, the gods tell tales of epic battles in history, using gorgeous mosaics in the background to tell their story.  The architecture of each environment is ornate, and lighting is used to great effect in producing appealing contrasts in color.

Regretfully, the game’s technical performance is where it falters.  Nearly any battle with more than a handful of enemies’ results in combat animation feeling like it’s moving in slow motion.   While Raji features an array of beautifully composed music, several tracks are split in a way that isn’t seamless, making the stop of the old loop and start of the new one produce a stutter that’s jarring.  Worst of all, certain bugs require a restart entirely.  A notable example for me was when I was climbing a structure to the top of a building and Raji got caught near the top and then was stuck air walking without being able to get unstuck.  While the free roaming allowed me to explore some of the infrastructure a bit, it’s never fun having to close a game because of a bug.  It’s worth noting the developer announced a bugfix update is in the works, but tread with caution if you decide to buy-in beforehand.  

But all that said, those demerits weren’t enough to sour my experience with Raji: An Ancient Epic.  The well-worn game structure is adorned with a decorative style that’s wholly unique in video games; a striking soundtrack with heavy sitar notes and an ancient Hindu history lesson compel you to see this personal story of sister and brother to its conclusion.  Even with performance caveats in mind, there’s a lot of beauty to uncover here if you give it a chance.

I've read the graphic novels, but never played this.  I thought it was supposed to be good, but you guys are suggesting otherwise.  I may still check it out.

Also, props for the sub-header.

I love this game, and don't have much affinity for Scott Pilgrim vs. The World's story.  Definitely the pixel art and soundtrack are what truly stand out here, but I love how zippy and powerful you get as you get more upgrades. 

Maybe nothing special for most, but as a beat-em-up fan, I love it.

TalkBack / Rock of Ages 3: Make and Break (Switch) Review
« on: August 17, 2020, 12:23:52 PM »


Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break might be one of the strangest mish-mashes of genres and styles I’ve ever encountered. Or, at least, me coming into it completely blind meant I couldn’t prepare myself for a grab bag that’s less eclectic than erratic, more schizophrenic than eccentric.  Ace Team brings us this fever dream of a game, the apparent third in the series which makes me wonder: Has the series become more or less abstract and strange over time?  I don’t think I want to know.

Focusing on this effort, for those like me who have no prior experience with the series, Rock of Ages 3’s gameplay is primarily focused on rolling a giant boulder through a set of checkered narrow courses, which consist of pathways with obstacles to derail your route to the also-checkered finish line.  These obstacles do different things: spring-trap platforms send you flying in the air and often off the ledge, catapults shoot at you, and giant buffalo-like beasts freeze the boulder in place for several seconds.  This base gameplay is used in a handful of game modes that all play out like some sort of race, either against the clock, against an opposing boulder to the finish line, or amusingly as a race to the end where a Skee-ball set-up awaits you.  A robust level editor toolkit is also included.  I found it easy enough to navigate the menu items and construct a crude level, but the core game doesn’t excite me quite enough to really put it past its paces other than to say it feels like it’d be a bit better served with a mouse and keyboard.

The most unique levels in the single player campaign are a blend of boulder rolling and tower defense.  Pre-match, I got to select a boulder type as well as a handful of traps and abilities.  Both my opponent and I each had an individual track and castle with an HP bar you’re tasked with defending with the aforementioned traps.  As I laid down the traps, a meter in the image of two men constructing the boulder slowly builds.  When complete, I was able to pause and start rolling on their track, which was rife with whatever bad intentions they had for me.  If either of us could roll to the castle door at the end before our boulders broke, it’d shave off HP based on how much damage we took on our trip, and then it was back to trap scheming.  The first to lose all their HP is defeated.  These levels can be exciting and dynamic, but as the game wears on they start to drag.  Rock of Ages 3’s best impressions are made when levels are short and sweet, and enough levels go against that grain in a really unpleasant way.

Stylistically, it leans very heavy into cribbing the Monty Python style.  Vignettes with paper doll like figures against a flat backdrop are the preamble to each segment of levels, themed with a period of history (caveman, times of Caesar, India Empire) that at times has clever humor and wonderful timing; at other times, it leans so heavily into grunts and fart noises that its off-putting.  Each segment of history represented has one primary piece of music, presumably from that era.  This isn’t a problem in and of itself, except that how much this game is focused on repetition to get the best possible score to progress means you’ll hear those tracks over and over before you’re done.

Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break is what I’d guess is a refinement more than a revolution of their ongoing series of paper cut out, boulder racing, and tower defense game using historical figures and public domain music.  My disappointment isn’t that it’s a bad game, more that I see the potential for a really special indie title that could have a diverse array of level types, well-crafted humor, and a well-defined creator tool to build a more evergreen creator community around.  I enjoyed my time well enough with it, but the decision to buy will depend on whether the drawbacks hit enough of your personal pet peeves.

TalkBack / Letting Go With Animal Crossing: New Horizons
« on: August 03, 2020, 06:08:41 AM »

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the moment.

2020 has been a hard year for all of us.  Whether it’s losing loved ones, your livelihood, or a friendship, or fear of losing your way of life, even simply grieving for others, COVID-19 has stripped us all bare like a tree with its bark ripped off.  Society has reached a tipping point in its struggle for equality and the pursuit of happiness, boiling over into persistent protests in the streets of the U.S.’ largest cities, and clashes between protestors and police that evoke the most grim parts of our nation’s past.

Personally, 2020 has brought a reckoning with unhealthy ways such that I’ve avoided rather than coped with changes in my life, in small part thanks to Animal Crossing: New Horizons.  At its release, a common sentiment was that it came at just the right time—what better game to sink your teeth into when we’re all stuck at home with no place to go than a charming life simulator?  What better time to have a game that gives small, attainable goals each day and gradually lets you develop your ideal house, ideal personal island town, and ideal set of friendly neighbors with persistent positive encouragement?  

I poured one-to-two hours a night into New Horizons, picking away at the landscape to squeeze in fruit trees of every variety, becoming a beast of burden for Tom Nook to fast-track island development, maxing out my purchases of turnips every Sunday and then leveraging every tool and acquaintance available to sell high and pad my bank account.  I used my scant work breaks to do quick meet-ups with friends to trade for items I need.  I did all of this while my wife & I spun plates of teaching our two young sons, improving our diet & exercise, learning how to cook, staying on top of chores, and attempting to work from home while being on top of each other in the same space nearly all the time.

Then my 8-year-old son wanted to play.  For those unfamiliar, Nintendo decided that all accounts on one Switch have to share an island.  Suddenly, the one space that was still all mine was being occupied by a small agent of chaos.  Fruit shaken off trees and left there, all the resources picked clean before I could get to any of them, and hundreds of questions on how to play the game in the middle of my work day.  I had reached my limit—the kids needed their own Switch so they could get off my virtual lawn (my wife & I had discussed rewarding their good work dealing with homeschooling anyway; this was just extra incentive).  

After transferring my account to the new Switch, to my horror I learned Animal Crossing: New Horizon doesn’t let you transfer your island with you.  I begrudgingly bequeathed the land I tilled to my sons, spending a few hours one evening having both switches on my lap, making visits between my former home and the new, untamed landscape I’d have to start over on, not wanting to start completely from scratch.  

Then something incredible happened—the space between my son & me in-game allowed our relationship to flourish.  Not being stuck on the same island gave him and his brother autonomy to build their ideal world.  Visiting each other’s islands became a special experience of receiving a tour: he shared with me all he wanted to accomplish along with what materials or bells he needed, and me being grateful I could share with him the fruits of my virtual labor to give him a leg-up in accomplishing those goals.  The special notes he’d mail me didn’t hurt, either.

I realized this mirrored unhealthy coping mechanisms in my life.  My fear of losing what matters most compelled me to exert control over my relationships instead of making them what they should be—a partnership.  My fear of losing my wife, kids, parents, grandparents, relatives, and friends manifests into controlling how much I share with them—what I allow them to know about my life, interests, aspirations, and struggles.  These are things I’m actively working to correct in baby steps.

So yes, for me, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the right game at the right moment of my life.  Not because it provided mental shelter from the world outside my front door,  nor because it gave me the little hits of feigned accomplishment I felt I was missing in real life.  It gave me an experience with my oldest son that allowed me to better contextualize my broader life struggles, and how my fear of losing control was consuming me.  I hardly touch it anymore, but I will always be grateful to Animal Crossing for expanding my own horizons.

General Chat / Re: The COVID-19 Virus is Coming For Us All Thread
« on: July 30, 2020, 09:02:08 PM »
I just came in here to say I hope you're all doing well in spite of world events right now.  This community has been great for me through the last decade or so.

While I hate to see everyone struggling with what's happening, selfishly it's a little reassuring seeing I'm not alone in this.  I lost my head for a bit the last few months, just finally starting to get to a level mindset.  Make sure you're taking care of your mental health as well as your physical health, everyone. 

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