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TalkBack / Happy Game (Switch) Review
« on: Yesterday at 07:33:31 AM »

Happy Game is not a happy game

The concept of taking something that is meant to be cute and heartwarming and twisting it into something disturbing and downright messed up is not exactly new; we’ve seen it dozens of times with properties like Alice in Wonderland for example. Likewise, Amanita Design is not a new player in the adventure game scene, with a pedigree of releasing games like the Samorost trilogy, Machinarium, and Botanicula. Their bread and butter is surreal, hand drawn imagery, but as far as I know they have never gone in the direction of taking their content into the realm of horror. That is until Happy Game, Amanita’s most recent release. A game who’s opening warning screen makes sure to immediately tell you that, despite what the title says, it is not in any way a happy game.

In Happy Game you play as a child who has been trapped in a nightmare by a terrifying ghost-like creature that manifests as a giant smiley face. In each of the game’s three acts you must help the child get back one of the things in their life that make them happy: a ball, a stuffed rabbit, and a puppy. This is no easy task, as the horrible monsters manifested by the smiley face would love nothing more than to lead the child into a gruesome death, whether that means devouring them, ripping them apart, or any number of horrifying fates. Gameplay is very simple: the left stick moves the cursor, the right stick moves the child, pressing A allows you to grab and interact with an object with the cursor. This is unfortunately where Switch becomes the not-ideal platform for Happy Game, as controlling the cursor with the stick is sensitive and clumsy. The cursor does snap to interactable objects when it comes near, but this gets iffy when you’re hovering around more than one interactable object at once. At the end of the day this game was very clearly designed with a mouse in mind, and the move to an analog stick just doesn’t work as well.

As said before, gameplay in Happy Game is very simple even down to the puzzles. Veterans of the adventure game genre or even players of previous Amanita titles may expect an exploration aspect where you are collecting items in order to use them elsewhere to solve those puzzles. You will not find either of those in Happy Game. It’s more akin to a series of vignettes in which the player must solve a self-contained puzzle that can range from feeding rabbits carrots so that they get fat and distract a much larger cannibalistic rabbit to something as simple as figuring out a way to interact with a certain object until something happens. Much like the gameplay these puzzles are very straightforward, sometimes to its detriment. A few too many of them are quite literally just performing the same action or series of actions over and over again until the game finally moves forward with the scene, and somebody looking for more complicated problem-solving than that likely won’t find what they’re looking for here.

Where Happy Game shines is its beautiful hand drawn artwork and environments, a signature feature of any Amanita game. The creatures that torture the child throughout their dream are genuinely creepy and a lot of them are really unique. While the idea of cute things being twisted into terrifying things isn’t new, the more surreal take on the concept makes one heck of an impact. It should be noted that the imagery in this game can get incredibly grotesque and disturbing, and if you don’t do well with that type of content I would suggest you give Happy Game a hard pass. If you don’t mind that type of content you will find it in spades in Happy Game, as the entire game is drawn and animated with a style that might approach the work of horror artists like Junji Ito.

Overall Happy Game is a bit of a complicated game to recommend, especially on Switch with its unruly controls, but one that ultimately comes off as a positive experience. Well… as positive as a game about waking nightmares can be, at least. Even with the sometimes overly simplified minute to minute gameplay, the art direction and sound design are masterful to a point that pulls this game up to a higher level than it would likely be if it had been in the hands of a less noteworthy developer. Those looking for a short, simple game that will work hard to creep you out and disturb you over the course of about two hours will likely come out of Happy Game happy, but those hoping for something more in line with a game like Machinarium have a chance of walking away at least slightly disappointed.

TalkBack / Death's Door (Switch) Review
« on: November 23, 2021, 05:16:54 AM »

Am bird swing sword good yes yeah

This year has been very generous with its fun and challenging action games, and Death's Door is no exception. Having made the rounds on other platforms already, Switch players finally have a chance to swing a sword as a small little crow taking on the world in order to open a single door. The portability of the Switch seems like a perfect fit for the minute to minute gameplay of Death's Door, but does it truly live up to all of the critical praise it's received? I'm happy to say that the answer to that question is yes, absolutely.

In Death's Door, the player is put in control of a small crow who works as a grim reaper retrieving the souls of the departed and bringing them into the afterlife, all under the command of the mysterious Lord of Doors. When these crows are on assignment, a portal in the form of a door is opened and it cannot be closed until that reaper has retrieved their assigned soul. While the door is open the crow is mortal and ages with time, and so it is encouraged that they retrieve those souls quickly. Our crow runs into a problem when he goes to retrieve the assigned soul when a larger crow steals it. This fellow reaper lost his assigned soul eons ago when it ended up behind a mysterious portal known as Death's Door, and he enlists the help of our little crow to retrieve three giant souls, which can be used to open the door and allow both crows to finally complete their assignment.

Combat in Death's Door is very simple: the Y button does a simple melee strike that can be chained into combos of varying length depending on the weapon you're using, while ZR allows you to do a charged heavy swing. Pressing B allows you to roll, giving brief invincibility from attacks, and holding ZL and A allows you to use various magic spells that you learn along your journey, from a magical energy bow and arrow to a simple fireball. Despite being so simple, combat is fun and flows extremely well, and enemy encounters become less about how strong you are and more about how well you learn to handle specific enemy types. Combat capabilities can be upgraded in the level hub, using souls gathered from slain enemies to raise your attack, speed, or magic stats. There is no massive penalty for dying; you keep all the souls you have gathered upon death, and you'll respawn back at the area's door. What does manage to be a bit frustrating about death is that there is lengthy loading screen between every one, something that I found to be a bit frustrating when in the middle of a longer run to unlock the next shortcut.

Speaking of shortcuts, the level design in Death's Door is heavily built around them, with a lot of areas essentially being zig zagging paths that lead to the unlocking of shortcuts in order to provide a fast way to get back to where you died. These areas are where Death's Door is at its best, providing a heavier focus on combat instead of exploration. The areas more akin to dungeons from something like Zelda are still very good, but they're specifically affected by my other qualm with the game: the lack of a map of any kind. This doesn't kill the experience per se—none of them are quite as large as a traditional dungeon—but it did get frustrating when I would end a session in the middle of a dungeon and come back hours later having forgotten where I had or had not been. It's a small frustration, but in places like the Mushroom Dungeon it felt like the game would have been heavily improved by the ability to look at a dungeon map.

Overall those are the only real issues I found during my time with Death's Door. It is likely one of the best action games of 2021 and stands apart using its beautifully varied areas to explore. The soundtrack is also fantastic, with composer David Fenn managing to strike a perfect balance between high energy action and peaceful contemplation. Not to mention the crow you're controlling is just a cute little bird. If you are a fan of action games and have an itch for one that will kill around 8 hours, Death's Door is a pretty good place to clock in and get to work.

TalkBack / Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water
« on: October 27, 2021, 02:05:35 PM »

Everybody say "haunted fuzzy pickles!"

Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water first released in Japan in September of 2014, making its way westward in October of 2015. As a Wii U exclusive at the time, it kind of got swept under the rug especially in the west where it was a digital only release on a dying console that few people owned. But now, much like almost every other Wii U exclusive there is, Fatal Frame is being given a new chance at success not only on the Switch but everywhere else as well. The question becomes whether or not the Switch is the best place to pick up this haunted adventure, and I personally think the answer might be yes.

In Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water the player is put in control of three protagonists throughout the story: Yuri Kozukata, a young girl that has become the apprentice of occultist and antiques dealer Hisoka Kurosawa. Ren Hojo, an author researching the practice of postmortem photographs alongside his assistant Rui Kagamiya. Finally, Mop it up Hinasaki, the daughter of a recurring series protagonist searching for her mother. Armed with a Camera Obscura that has the ability to exorcise ghosts, all three of these characters become submerged in a tragic and ghostly tale on the cursed Mt. Hikami. As they slowly unravel the mystery of the mountain with a history of human sacrifice and furious slaughter, they learn of the dark forces now at work on the mountain as a result. The world and lore building around Mt. Hikami is genuinely interesting, and settings are varied enough that it never gets visually boring. Unfortunately while the world around them is fascinating the cast of characters are really not, with everybody essentially having the same bland cardboard personality.

Gameplay in Fatal Frame is controlled from a third person over-the-shoulder perspective, while using the Camera Obscura brings the game into a first person perspective for combat. The Camera Obscura view can be controlled either using the right analog stick or through gyro controls, with the latter being closer to the original release which used the Wii U game pad as the camera. I personally found the gyro controls to be hard to get used to when playing docked using a Pro Controller, but as expected the handheld gyro controls worked much better. The analog stick works fine, but it is noticeably slower than using gyro aiming. Combat is quick, simple, and satisfying. When photographing a ghost you will see small circles on their body or floating around them, and the more of these you can capture in a shot the more damage that picture does. If you manage to snap a photo right before a ghost attacks you will enter Fatal Frame mode, which allows you to take rapid fire pictures for a brief period without having to worry about reloading film. Character movement outside of combat has a lot of issues though, with every character's turn radius just slightly too wide, something that becomes increasingly annoying when walking through more narrow areas such as hallways. Turning around is also consistently a bit of a pain. There is a quick turn function activated by holding down on the left stick, but I found this only really worked some of the time and even when it did, the camera does not move with the character. Instead the character now faces the camera, and the act of moving the camera yourself will often lead to your character turning around halfway there to put the camera behind them.

My final issue with gameplay in Fatal Frame is its use of the ZR button, which does several different things depending on what's around the player. ZR is used for picking up items, seeing a defeated ghost's final moments with a "fatal glance", viewing a "trace" which serves as a guide to keep the player on the critical path, open doors, open drawers, and interact with objects such as books or places of note. This is too many things for one button to do, and the game understandably gets very confused about which one to perform when close to multiple options. This doesn't happen all that often, but I found it to be incredibly annoying when it did. Speaking of picking up items, doing so in Fatal Frame is a slow and tense action, with each time having a random chance of a ghostly hand reaching out to grab you in the process, which you can avoid by letting go of ZR before it can do so. I actually found this feature to be very interesting, as it is well balanced in that it happens frequently enough to keep you on your toes but rarely enough to keep it from getting annoying.

Overall Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water is a fun action horror adventure to play through, with the specters of Mt. Hikami providing an interesting backstory and a fun combat experience. While the characters are more bland than I had hoped, this doesn't necessarily take away from the story all that much. Some control issues do get annoying over time, but even they couldn't stop me from continuously returning to the beautiful and creepy environments of the mountain. If you're a fan of horror games with a bit more of an action feel, you could certainly do a lot worse than Fatal Frame, and now might just be the perfect time to dive in.

TalkBack / Murder House (Switch) Review
« on: October 25, 2021, 10:47:24 AM »

Happy Easter!

Back in the olden days when you needed a pair of binoculars to see your TV and people thought striped sweaters looked good, the method you used to watch movies at home was on VHS. The rise of these mysterious black boxes also fueled the rise of cheaper movies who found their main audience on the platform, and no genre made out better than slasher films. See, slashers were especially cheap to make and even when they were bad, they were a lot of the time at least fun, and this is the vibe that developer Puppet Combo has called home for years. Murder House is the first of their VHS/PS1 aesthetic horror titles to land on consoles, and it does not skimp on or shy away from that signature style in any way. Outside of a few issues here and there, Murder House manages to be exactly the type of game it wants to be.

Murder House begins with a prologue during which you play as a young child who wakes up in a mall photobooth way past closing time. Upon exploring the mall, he ends up kidnapped by a terrifying man in an Easter Bunny costume who wields a hook. Three years later, a small-time news crew comes to the now abandoned house that once belonged to a serial killer known as the Easter Ripper in order to shoot a story. At this point, the player is put in control of the team’s overworked intern Emma, who is sent to perform menial tasks around the house. Everything turns sideways when the team learns that the Easter Ripper is in fact still in his old house, and begins killing off each member of the crew one by one. If she wants to survive, Emma must complete the Ripper’s egg hunt and avoid being killed by him at all costs.

In terms of gameplay, Murder House isn’t doing anything all that new, with clear inspirations from old school PS1 titles, namely Silent Hill. Characters move via tank controls, where pressing up or down will always move the character forward or backward based on where they are facing, with left and right being used to rotate. These work about as well as tank controls tend to work, and your mileage may vary depending on your experience with them, but I found them to be incredibly unruly when using the Pro Controller’s D-pad, getting me stuck on walls and killed on more than one occasion. While it overall works well with the game’s fixed camera perspectives, there were moments where the camera just sort of felt like it had decided not to follow me, sending me down a dark hallway as it looked on from afar. As you explore the house you’ll find various items, usually keys, that can be used either for plot progression or for self defense. One such item is pencils which are required to be able to save the game, much like Resident Evil’s ink ribbons. There is no way to turn off this requirement, which would normally irk me, but the game’s length of about 2-3 hours makes it a little more bearable.

A major issue with Murder House reared its ugly head three separate times during my playthrough. When you die, the game will throw you back to the main menu so you can load into your most recent save. Multiple times when I went to load said save file, the game crashed, booting me back to the Switch’s main menu. Even when it didn’t crash, it was clear that the game was teetering on the edge of crashing as it froze and stuttered until the level had completely loaded in. This made dying a lot more frustrating and nerve wracking, which is the exact opposite type of tension a horror game is generally going for. Other than these issues when loading in from the main menu, the game runs rather well, though that should hardly be surprising given its low poly art style and simple environments.

If you are hankering for a campy, gory old school horror movie that you are in control of, you really can’t get much better than Murder House. It’s a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is not afraid to dump down a few buckets of blood every now and then. Dated things like tank controls or limited saves may be frustrating to a player not used to these types of games, but I honestly think this might be one of the better places to try those things out for the first time. The short runtime helps alleviate the stress of the controls and save mechanics, though the unfortunate crashing issues may replace that stress with frustration in the end. Hopefully a patch will be coming down the pipeline soon, but for now Murder House has found a good but technically troubled murder home on the Switch.

TalkBack / Teacup (Switch) Review
« on: October 17, 2021, 02:31:35 PM »

I like a good Earl Grey with some sugar, personally.

I have an on-and-off relationship with tea; some years I get real into it and some years I don’t really care for it at all. Though I cannot say I have ever been so passionate about tea as to have a handbook on all the different ways to make it, as is the case with the titular protagonist of Teacup, a short adventure about leaving your comfort zone and interacting with the people around you. Presented in a nice-looking painterly art style with a beautiful piano filled soundtrack, Teacup seems like the kind of game that would be perfect to play with your young child over the course of two hours. Outside of that specific scenario, however, I’m not entirely sure it will be everybody’s cup of tea.

In Teacup, you play as a young frog girl named Teacup. She loves nothing more than to stay at home reading a good book next to a hot cup of tea. There’s just one small problem: she is completely out of the ingredients needed to make that tea. To make matters worse, she is also scheduled to host a tea party the very next day, which is going to be quite difficult if there isn’t any tea to serve. With no other choice, Teacup packs up and heads out into the town of Little Pond in search of the various herbs and sweeteners she requires, reconnecting with friends and helping her fellow townspeople out along the way.

Gameplay in Teacup is incredibly simple, made up entirely of walking around an area in a 2.5D manner and talking to the people of Little Pond. Sometimes when talking to certain characters, they will offer to either tell you where you can find an ingredient or give you some from their own stash, but almost always on the condition that you help them with a problem they’re having. This will lead to one of many minigames you can encounter in Teacup, which can range from Simon says style inputs to a very simple game where you pull things out of a river. These are the exact moments that made me start to realize that this game was likely aiming at a younger audience, as each one is not only incredibly simple in terms of gameplay but also appeared to be impossible to fail. If I had to make a comparison to another game in terms of layout, the one that came to mind most often was Later Alligator.

My one real issue with the process of finding these minigames is entirely based around Teacup’s movement speed. When walking normally I found her to move incredibly slow. You can hold R to cause her to pick up the pace a bit, but honestly the change felt negligible at best. This is worsened by the fact that most areas only have one exit that will take you to the world map, with several sub areas potentially being between you and the only area exit. There is, as far as I could tell, no button to take you directly to the world map, meaning that wherever you’re going, you will be walking all the way there every single time. The town of Little Pond may not be the biggest town to be found in a game, but this movement speed issue causes it to feel as if it’s twice as big as it is, and not in a good way.

Overall, Teacup certainly has its place, but I feel as though that place is very specific. If you’re looking for something to play with a child or even just looking for a short but slow experience to unwind at the end of the day, Teacup may be something you should look into. For most, though, a mixture of the complete lack of any challenge in the minigames and the very slow pace may turn them off from the experience. Its art style is gorgeous and the soundtrack to accompany Little Pond is a joy to listen to, but at the end of the day those can only do so much to help the experience. If this sounds up your alley, you should absolutely give Teacup a playthrough! If not, well you may just have to look into a different blend to fill your cup.

TalkBack / Disco Elysium (Switch) Review
« on: October 11, 2021, 07:03:00 AM »

That’s right, you’re a *superstar cop*, you must be!

I honestly don’t have much experience with tabletop RPGs. I ran a campaign one time that still hasn’t finished, and this goes doubly for the games that have been heavily built on their foundations. Even without that experience, it’s kind of hard not to have noticed the heaping piles of praise that were being thrown on Disco Elysium back when it first released in 2019, and even harder not to be incredibly curious why. Disco Elysium is an isometric RPG with a focus on narrative and interactions rather than combat, which is a concept that could easily have been boring. However, the game is well worth all the praise it received back in the day, though its debut on Switch has a few problem areas you may need to look out for if you decide to make it your platform of choice.

Disco Elysium’s story begins with you waking up naked and feeling a severe hangover from the night before. At least you think it’s a hangover; you don’t actually remember what you did last night. In fact you don’t remember anything! Not your name, not your job, nor where you are: you are suffering from complete and total amnesia. As you slowly pull yourself together and get dressed, you quickly learn that you’re not just some dude with amnesia; you are actually a police detective with amnesia. You learn that you are in the city of Revachol, specifically the run down district of Martinaise, assigned to investigate a murder alongside your partner from another jurisdiction, Lieutenant Kim Kitsuragi. What follows is a rabbit hole of a case centered around a dock workers strike, and the potentially criminal schemes forming on both sides of the issue. Not only do you have to do your job and solve the murder case, you also have to figure out who you are and eventually choose a side in this growing conflict that could potentially engulf Martinaise in all out war.

The environments of Martinaise are lovely, painting the picture of a place that is almost entirely populated by people who are down on their luck and coping with that existence in whatever way they can. Some are like Cuno, a speed-addicted kid with a dirty mouth and a hobby of throwing rocks at corpses, while others are like Evrart Claire, the leader of the local dock workers union who is playing everybody around him for his own profit. As I stated before, Disco Elysium has a heavy emphasis on interaction as opposed to combat, with a majority of your stats being related to perceiving your surroundings or being able to talk to the people of Martinaise in specific ways. There are some physical stats, such as Physical Instrument, which is your ability to break things open or punch peoples’ lights out, but most of the time you’ll find yourself talking to people to get what you want, whether that be through the means of intimidation or pure persuasion. As you make your way through the narrative, each stat will talk to you, telling you things related to their purpose or sometimes trying to goad you into indulging them specifically. A good example of this is Electrochemistry, which represents your knowledge of and tolerance for ingesting drugs and alcohol. It will pretty constantly tell you that you should absolutely drink that entire bottle of vodka.

Because of this, every character in the game is memorable, and every interaction has the potential to lead to progression. These interactions are incredibly well written, whether they are asking important questions about how you perceive the world around you or are simply people looking on in horror at your very obvious mental decline. One of my favorite interactions was to tell every new person I met “I am the law,” which made Kim repeatedly (in an increasingly annoyed tone) implore me to not keep saying this, but I will never stop. In the end, that’s what I think is the most interesting thing in Disco Elysium; I have never felt so much like I got to choose exactly what kind of person I was and feeling encouraged to lean as hard into it as I could. For instance, I started the game with a physical build, basically a big meathead who’s good at breaking things, but as the game went on I built that personality up more, essentially becoming a dumb boy with a heart of bronze who also just sorta enjoys being a massive weirdo. This is not even close to being your only option, and the wealth of opportunities to make your own mark on the world is genuinely fun.

Sadly though, Disco Elysium’s move to the Switch is not flawless. The controls still feel very much like a game made for a mouse and keyboard with gamepad controls sort of tacked on. Movement is on the left analogue stick which always feels slightly clumsy, and you can cycle and select what you want to look at in a given scene using the right analogue stick, which itself could sometimes feel inconsistent. None of it feels bad overall, but it does feel at least a little bit compromised. Walking between areas will often dump you into an overly long loading screen, which is especially frustrating when walking between several small zones where each loading time is just as long as the big ones. There are also areas, such as out by the harbor where it is always snowing, where the game will start to drop frames as well as cause the audio to stutter. This one was rare but highly noticeable any time it happened. Lastly, and most unfortunately, Disco Elysium on Switch seems to be prone to crashes. I experienced three of these myself over the course of my time with the game, all of them happening during the previously mentioned long loading screens between areas. All these problems together make it difficult to suggest the Switch be your platform of choice, and I very much hope to see these issues patched out at a later date.

Overall, Disco Elysium is one of those games I feel like we’re still going to be talking about ten years from now. Technical issues aside, the writing and worldbuilding present in this game lift it high above a lot of the other entries in the genre. This is further helped by the fantastic voice acting and narration that was also recently added to all other versions of the game. The voice that narrates everything and also plays your different stats is really satisfying to listen to, keeping me around to hear it all even though I could personally read way faster than he could talk. If you enjoy games that lean heavily into their dice rolling foundations, you should absolutely put your time into Disco Elysium; you will not regret it. With its myriad of technical difficulties on the Switch, however, it may be a good idea to look elsewhere unless portability is your main concern.

TalkBack / Oxenfree II: Lost Signals (Preview)
« on: October 05, 2021, 12:34:23 PM »

These are some lost signals I simply can't wait to find

Oxenfree II: Lost Signals was a bit of a surprise announcement at a Direct earlier this year. The original Oxenfree is a thriller/horror title originally released in 2016 and it also happens to be one of my favorite games of all time. In it you control a young lady named Alex as she goes to spend a night partying on the beaches of the fictional Edwards Island, a party that accidentally takes a turn for the supernatural when the group’s radio opens a rift in space containing a rather unhappy collection of ghosts. It felt rather self contained, and as the development studio Night School has made several other games since then I never really considered the possibility of a return to Oxenfree’s world, and I am rather interested in seeing how it pans out. Late last week we were invited by Night School to get a hands-off guided demonstration of this unlikely sequel.

The plot of Oxenfree II takes place five years after the original game, focusing on a brand new cast of characters in the town of Camena. Specifically, the player is put in control of Riley Poverly, an environmental researcher returning to her hometown in order to investigate a series of strange radio signals occurring from various areas near the town. In the course of these investigations she encounters some new allies, but also finds herself in the crosshairs of a cult-like group known as The Parentage. In the specific demo we were shown Riley is joined by Jacob, an old acquaintance from her high school days. That is seemingly the biggest change narratively that Oxenfree II is going for, instead of the teenagers of the previous title this plot revolves around a cast of adults who are approaching these problems in their own way.

For the most part gameplay looks largely the same. Night School’s signature dialogue system is still in place, with the ability to choose several ways to react and even allows you to interrupt those you’re talking to, which can shape how those characters feel and act towards Riley. A new addition to this mechanic however is the presence of a walkie talkie that Riley can use to pick up transmissions from various people around the town, some of whom may potentially give her a sidequest to do for them. The game is still played from a 2.5D perspective. A bigger focus on traversal options seems to be present, with Riley at one point given the option to attempt a rather risky jump or take a longer safer path. Taking the jump has the possibility of failure, and success has the potential of leaving Jacob behind. In the demo the presenter chose to try the jump, which ended in Riley falling a good distance, risking potential injury. From here Riley and Jacob entered an abandoned mine, but we were told that there was no “correct” way to get anywhere on the game’s map, with multiple intersecting paths that can be taken throughout Camena.

In our case this mine was one of many paths through a series of interconnected caves throughout the town. It was here that they showed off the biggest new mechanic in Oxenfree II: time tears. When the characters encountered an elevator that had fallen apart due to the ravages of time, they were able to find a rip in reality that allowed them to travel into the past, stepping out into a world where that elevator hadn't broken down yet. This provided a way for them to continue on their journey, but the demo ended after. All these new additions show clearly that Night School is dedicated to making this game bigger than its predecessor in nearly every way, and with mechanics like time travel built into puzzles and traversal it certainly seems like they are on the right track.

Oxenfree II: Lost Signals is currently set to be released on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC in 2022.

TalkBack / A Juggler's Tale (Switch) Review
« on: September 30, 2021, 07:36:03 AM »

Can’t you see? The strings that hold you up, also hold you back!

To this day I have no idea how a marionette puppet works. Looking at the strings and the wood sticks in a cross that somehow controls various parts of the puppets’ body.  As far as I’m concerned it all might as well be magic. Luckily a knowledge of how puppets work is not required to enjoy A Juggler’s Tale, the debut title of German studio Kaleidoscube. A Juggler’s Tale is a puzzle platformer largely presented through the lens of a medieval era puppet show, complete with its own narrator. Despite a few issues here and there, Juggler’s Tale manages to pull off a stunning performance through and through.

As stated before, Juggler’s Tale is a puzzle platformer that draws comparisons to games like Playdead’s Inside. You take control of a young girl named Abby, a juggler in a travelling circus. While she is the star of the show during the day, at night Abby is forced by the cruel ringmaster to sleep in a cage. One night Abby has the opportunity to escape from her captivity and takes it without hesitation, setting off on a tense adventure that will see her braving the elements and evading a crew of bandits who have been hired to take her back to her cage. Gameplay is rather simple, with Abby having the ability to jump and interact with certain objects. She can also pick up small items like apples in order to throw them as puzzle solutions, though for some reason I always found the aiming to be a tad wonky.

As Abby and the world around her are represented as marionettes, the strings attached to her limbs can get in her way, getting caught in objects in the foreground. This is the basis for a large portion of the game’s puzzles, and later puzzles even involve using that same mechanic against a character who’s chasing Abby. This is an incredibly unique take on the genre that I think it pulled off extremely well. That being said, there were a few issues I ran into where it felt like the pieces to some puzzles were not as clear as I would have liked them to be, leading to some frustration when I missed items that were necessary. Another source of frustration were some of the chase sequences that had very little margin for error, which dumped me into a loading screen that was frankly too long for how easily it could occur.

But where A Juggler’s Tale truly shines is in its presentation. The game’s environments are beautifully rendered, and every character is incredibly emotive and full of personality despite the fact that they are literally made of wood. The story largely takes place on the stage of an old school puppet theater cart, with a narrator telling the story as it happens in a very similar vein to games like Bastion. This narration is read in an almost sing-songy, Shakespearian fashion, and the actor behind them has a very satisfying voice to listen to. There is unfortunately one problem that comes with this narration. When you fail in a way that requires a reset back to a checkpoint, the narrator will have something to say (usually in a mocking tone), and some of these lines get overly long while also being unskippable.

Overall A Juggler’s Tale is a very neat experience with fantastic aesthetic presentation, a fantastic medieval style soundtrack, and a heartwarming but simple story to tell. The only real issue I experienced were some readability problems when it came to figuring out what certain puzzles expected of me, but I was always able to figure it out on my own in the end. A playthrough goes quickly, only lasting around two to three hours, so it doesn’t overstay its welcome nor does it feel too brief. If you enjoy a good puzzle platformer, A Juggler’s Tale is a worthy addition to your collection, no strings required.

TalkBack / Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot (Switch) Review
« on: September 26, 2021, 09:39:45 AM »

It's more the Yamcha of the Dragon Ball games

When I was a kid, about three or four days a week I would get picked up from school by my great grandmother, head straight into her back office, and flip the TV on to Cartoon Network just in time for their Toonami block to start up. Through Toonami, myself and many other kids found their first experiences with anime like Rurouni Kenshin, Sailor Moon, Gundam, and towering above all of them: Dragon Ball Z. Based on the iconic manga by Akira Toriyama, Dragon Ball follows the life of a man named Goku as he aims to become the strongest fighter in the world, and later the universe. It’s a show known for its brilliant fight choreography, well written villains, and fantastic character designs, and is often considered among the most renowned anime ever made. You’d think, with all that said, that Dragon Ball would translate very well into the world of video games. It’s a show about fighting and getting stronger, perfect for this particular medium. Unfortunately, most Dragon Ball games range from just alright to plain trash. While much better than it could have been, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot can only be placed in the “just alright” category.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot follows the entire story of the series, all the way from Raditz to Majin Buu. This was a pleasant surprise upon being announced, as Dragon Ball games have a bad habit of getting to Frieza and rolling the credits. Despite the title, large portions of this game are actually spent controlling anybody but Goku, most often putting the player in the shoes of his son Gohan though sometimes also having them play as characters like Piccolo or Vegeta. Every character controls largely the same both on the open world and while in battle, with the only real difference being the use of their signature moves, though those are honestly rather samey in the long run.

And in the end that’s Kakarot’s biggest failing: much of the game feels like doing the same thing over and over and over again. Combat always seems to be the same string of quick combos followed by a Kamehameha Wave or Galick Gun, followed by dashing towards the opponent and doing the whole thing ad nauseum. Random encounters are few and far between, as you generally tend to fly faster than any enemy on the overworld and therefore will probably not encounter anything unless you actually want to. When not doing main story content, you will also have a chance to do sidequests, usually given by less important members of the cast like Yamcha or Yajirobe or even pre-Z characters like Eighter or Launch, but even these tend to be the same exact sidequest with a different coat of paint every time: get the item, fight the small fry enemies, have a short conversation, done.

For the most part I’m rather pleased with Kakarot’s performance on the Switch. When on Earth I didn’t really notice any significant frame drops or rendering issues, though in handheld mode shadows did admittedly pop into existence in front of me in some instances. Otherwise a few slightly muddier textures are the worst you’ll probably encounter while on Earth. Namek, however, was a much different story. I’m not sure if it’s because all of Namek is one large map unlike Earth, which is split into explorable chunks, or because the landscape of Namek is a lot less mountainous than Earth’s environments, but the entire time I was on Namek the framerate noticeably dropped, sometimes even in cutscenes. This did not seem to affect battle at all, and as a majority of the game after Frieza takes place on Earth it didn’t really strike me as a huge issue. Just be aware that there are performance problems in that area of the game that were not present in the PlayStation 4 version. A much smaller graphical issue can be seen on the pause menu when viewing characters, where the models are for some reason very blurry and much lower quality than anything else in the game.

Kakarot is at its strongest specifically when telling you the story of Z, with beautifully animated cutscenes that sometimes feel like they popped straight out of the anime. Certain boss fights are incredibly hype, such as the final battle between Goku and Frieza that had me cheering as every blow shook the screen and it truly felt like I was having a battle on a planet that was about to explode. That’s really what this whole thing comes down to in the end: for people that are already big fans of Dragon Ball Z, as a whole, Kakarot has some value as a walk down memory lane and a way to re-experience the show in an entirely different manner. However, if you’re not already a big fan of Goku and Co’s adventures, Kakarot sadly has absolutely nothing for you. Without the nostalgia factor this game ends up being a slow slog of samey gameplay that likely won’t keep your attention for very long.

TalkBack / Road 96 (Switch) Review
« on: August 16, 2021, 06:28:50 AM »

Freedom. Nothing is more important.

I just can’t imagine why I would possibly think a game like Road 96, coming to us from French studio DigixArt, might feel timely and just a bit too real. With themes like changing an untrustworthy electoral system, the complicated mess that is the protest vs revolt debate, or the pessimism around whether or not a broken country can be fixed, this first-person adventure game has a lot more to say than I had initially figured it might. The main question from there is how well does the game handle these rather sensitive subjects? Does it have a valuable perspective or does it fall on its face?

In Road 96, the player is put in control of various teenagers attempting to leave the fictional country of Petria in 1996. The current president of Petria, a totalitarian named Tyrak, has been shipping teens who disagree with his policies into work camps in order to keep them from exercising their right to vote. As a result, the country’s youth are trying to cross the border as quickly as they can, facing numerous difficulties along the way. A runaway teen runs the risk of being arrested or killed over the course of their journey, and the rising tensions of an upcoming presidential election have only served to make their ordeal even harder. All the while, each teen has the potential to run into a cast of recurring characters, such as the trucker John, the police officer Fanny, or the unhinged taxi driver Jarod.

At the beginning of each episode, the player is given a choice between three randomly generated teens, all differing in ages, starting energy levels, distance from the border, and the amount of money they start their journey with. From there, the player will experience a series of vignettes that are procedurally generated and chosen as they go. Sometimes these vignettes will involve a simple minigame that can range from acting as a TV camera operator to playing soccer with a very drunk John. All of these games are simple and relatively interesting, with none of them really overstaying their welcome, and failing the games does not interfere with your story. As you talk to the people of Petria, you will sometimes be given a choice between things to say that will alter the direction the country starts to roll, and whether the election ends with Tyrak maintaining power, Florres winning the election and arresting Tyrak for crimes against humanity, or if Petria is engulfed in a violent revolution. Once one teen’s story ends, the next episode will have you picking another teen and making the trek to the border once more.

Each vignette also ends with a choice on how you can proceed towards your destination. You can take a taxi, hitchhike, steal a car, or even just walk. These each come with their own pros and cons. A taxi or bus would cost money, which can be quite hard to come by, and taxis themselves also pose more of a risk. Hitchhiking has the possibility of being picked up by an unsavory individual or potentially nobody at all. Walking is the safest option, but it also costs the most energy. Your energy levels are displayed in the top left, and if they hit zero you will collapse and be found by the police. This energy can be regained by sleeping, eating, or drinking. You’ll also have the opportunity to gain new skills, items, and abilities as you go, such as a lockpick from the robbers Stan and Mitch that allows you to open any locked door in the game. These abilities carry over to future episodes, meaning future teen refugees may find themselves having an easier time as a result. However, if you happen to make it to the border and attempt to cross, the method you used will become even harder for those making the journey in the future, such as when I got caught trying to stow away in a truck and security around truck crossings was upped to the point of making it no longer a viable option for others, an aspect that added to the tension down the line.

Unfortunately, Road 96 does have its fair share of technical issues and shortcomings. While the environments in the game are generally quite nice looking, the render distance for things like grass and brush is woefully small, meaning you’ll see it come into existence right in front of you quite often. The game also has the occasional frame rate dip that can be quite noticeable. Another issue is that characters, as memorable as they might be in terms of interaction, look rough with animations that are just a bit off. There are of course exceptions, such as the intentionally off-putting Jarod. Some of the voice acting can feel a bit stilted at times as well, but it was never so bad as to pull me out. While none of these problems hamper the experience too much, they can sometimes be hard to ignore if it’s something that bothers you. What did irk me quite regularly was the very long load times between each scene, sometimes lasting around 20 seconds or so every single time.

Luckily these issues do not detract from what I consider to be a fascinating narrative, with characters who are deeply conflicted and troubled that are a joy to interact with. Whether I was being threatened by Jarod, having deep personal conversations with John, or being made audience to the circus that is Stan and Mitch, I found myself continuing to go back for more over and over with Road 96. If you want a deeply political and sometimes downright scary experience, this is the place to be. Add to that a fantastic soundtrack of both folk style music and electronic synthwave that really hits the ‘90s vibe, and Road 96 is an experience you will not soon forget.

TalkBack / Mundaun (Switch) Review
« on: June 19, 2021, 02:13:50 PM »

Pencil shaded horror that continues to make me ask “Hey Europe, are you okay?”

Sometimes it feels like every visual aesthetic under the sun has already been done in one game or another, but every time I start that particular line of thinking, a game like Mundaun shows up at my door to prove me completely wrong. Mundaun is a horror game from Hidden Fields, an indie developer out of Switzerland. It’s gotten a lot of attention since release mainly for its very unique pencil-shaded art style, and this combined with the fact that more obscure European horror can be a gold mine that isn’t taken advantage of nearly enough had me heavily interested in the game. Was I right to be interested, or did it turn out to be a dud?

In Mundaun, you play as a young man named Curdin who receives a letter telling him that his grandfather has perished in a barn fire. When the letter, written to him by the village priest, goes out of its way to point out that his grandfather is already buried and therefore there is no reason for Curdin to travel to the village in order to visit him, Curdin of course gets suspicious that there’s something else going on here. He travels to the small village of Mundaun to investigate, finding that his grandfather’s supposed grave is empty and his charred corpse appears to have fused with the burnt remains of his barn. This investigation leads Curdin to learn about the history of Mundaun, and the dark forces now at play within the village as a result.

Mundaun is a first-person horror adventure game that doesn’t really do anything groundbreaking in terms of gameplay; you can walk around the mountain collecting various items in order to solve puzzles or open doors that gain you access to new areas. These items can be things like keys or story-based items requested by the townspeople, but you can also find items that can increase Curdin’s stats. Curdin can make coffee to increase his resistance to the fear effect that monsters can inflict, bread can be eaten to increase the amount of health he has, and rifle manuals can be found that improve his ability to shoot. These skills will become absolutely necessary as you encounter the monsters of Mundaun, the earliest of which is an admittedly goofy but still quite threatening hay-covered creature that kills you by smothering you in hay. Monsters can be fought with a rifle or pitchfork, but it’s more likely you’ll find yourself sneaking around them seeing as Curdin is not a soldier and combat is intentionally quite clunky.

All of these creatures and characters are depicted using Mundaun’s greatest asset: its visual art style. Every texture in Mundaun was hand drawn using pencil on paper before being scanned into the game, and this makes Mundaun one of the most visually unique games I have ever played. This paired with memorable character designs and locations make Mundaun a place worth visiting. Unfortunately, the usual problems of porting a game to the Switch rear their ugly heads to take you out of the experience somewhat. The render distance for small objects around the environment is incredibly short, and you’ll often see things like posters or road signs pop into existence just a few feet in front of you. This problem also affects when shadows appear, which actually makes one of the first puzzles in the game a bit more difficult as it requires you to find an item underneath the town chapel’s shadow, which goes away when you get too far from the building. It should, however, be noted that this was only really a problem in that puzzle, and even then the puzzle is very simple to figure out; past that, the render distance issues are less a problem and more an annoyance.

There are a few other issues with the game itself worth noting that likely are not exclusive to the Switch version. The story is rather on rails, with the game often not letting you progress to a new area if you still haven’t done everything you need to do in the area you’re in. This does successfully keep the player from wandering too far from their goal and getting lost, but sometimes it did feel as though the game was actively discouraging exploration. Another minor annoyance I came across often is the fact that interaction ranges for objects is almost always either too big or too specific, causing me to constantly close doors instead of pick up the item next to the door or set an item in a storage location and be unable to pick it back up because I had an issue finding the exact area it wanted me to be in again. These issues are small, but they did build up. Not enough to ruin the experience, but enough to be a bit frustrating.

Overall, Mundaun is a very worthwhile horror title, even if it may be a little rough around the edges in some areas. The compelling story mixed with the game’s unique aesthetic is enough to create a memorable experience that fans of spooky things are sure to enjoy. That being said, I’m not entirely sure I can recommend the Switch be your vehicle to explore the town of Mundaun. The short render distance and constant shadow pop-in can be very distracting and does detract from the game’s atmosphere; a brief period with the game’s PC release seemed to indicate that these issues are unique to the Switch. If you’re really dead set for a portable version of Mundaun, the rest of the game is still very good tech issues aside, but I would recommend looking into other platforms if those seem like something that would bother you.

TalkBack / Sumire (Switch) Review
« on: June 06, 2021, 10:56:10 AM »

Show me a wonderful day!

When I was 16 years old my great grandmother passed away of natural causes. It was my first experience with losing a family member I felt close to. It’s a harrowing emotional experience, one that can be all the more impactful if it happens when you’re still a teenager. Losing somebody like that when you’re already having to deal with a world and life that is also rapidly changing around you can be extremely difficult. Looking back, maybe that’s what drew me to Sumire upon watching the trailer for the first time. I am always looking for games that can get an emotional rise out of me and Sumire seemed like it might fit the bill, and boy does it feel like I made a good judgement call on that one.

In Sumire you take control of a young girl named Sumire, whose home life has been thrown into disarray by the death of her grandmother and her parents’ recent separation. As a result she has become depressed, lost, and emotionally distant from her friends in the rural Japanese community in which she lives. One night she awakes with a start, having dreamt of her grandma trying to whisper something in her ear. When she gets up to check on her grandma’s memorial a glowing seed flies through her window. Curious, Sumire plants the seed and falls asleep at the table. When she awakens the seed has sprouted into a flower, and that flower is somehow talking. Flower reveals that he has one day to live in the human world, and he will have to return to his world at sunset. All he asks is for Sumire to show him the perfect day. So, Sumire makes a list of things she’d like to do that could potentially change her life with the potential promise that she may be able to see her grandmother one more time.

Sumire is a 2.5D adventure game that doesn’t necessarily do anything special in terms of gameplay. You control Sumire herself as she explores the area around her, she can speak to people, animals, or objects - something the overall clever writing makes sure you know that she could not do before. I mean it when I say she can now talk to objects, whether it be a plant in her house or a scarecrow, and these things can also give her side quests that usually lead to a small minigame of sorts. For instance, the scarecrow is having a problem with the crows whispering hurtful comments into its ears, and Sumire helps him by playing a game in which she has to flip parts of encouraging comments around to complete them and counter the crows. Most of these games are rather simple, but every once in a awhile the game throws a surprisingly interesting one such as a trading card game you can play with one of Sumire’s fellow students. This keeps the gameplay relatively fresh for the two to three hours a full playthrough will take you, though admittedly the game is overall still a lot of revisiting places you’ve already been over and over.

Throughout the game’s narrative you will be faced with making choices for how Sumire will act towards certain people, such as her former best friend Chie. These are usually pretty binary options, are you mean to them or are you nice, but these choices almost always have the potential to change the opportunities or choices you will have to make later on in the story. All of this is wrapped up in what I consider to be Sumire’s most impressive feature: the gorgeous artwork that portrays this small Japanese town. Every character and environment is rendered in a way that makes this game one of the most visually striking experiences I have had so far this year. This beautiful art is accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack full of acoustic guitar and piano, and even features a vocal piece at one point, already having potentially earned a spot on my favorite soundtracks of the year.

All of this, the emotional narrative, the beautiful art, and the memorable soundtrack, comes together into a package that I am not sure I’m going to forget for a while. If I had to nitpick for issues, some areas of the game take a little long to load which can potentially take you out of the experience. Likewise there are also a few typos here and there in the game’s localization (I guess I should go get that frog a “juice fly”) which I found distracting, but these problems are few and far between. Even then I found myself sitting on the title screen after the credits rolled, listening to the music for a good twenty minutes before I finally turned off my Switch, spending that entire time processing the story I had just experienced. When a game can do that to me, I know that it’s an experience I want to recommend. If you enjoy emotional stories with admittedly shallow gameplay, you absolutely should be giving Sumire a try.

TalkBack / Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir (Switch) Review
« on: May 25, 2021, 01:28:05 PM »

Oh no, did I leave the heir at that rest stop!?

A few years ago while looking into things relating to Smash characters that didn’t make the cut, I came across the name Ayumi Tachibana and her series Famicom Detective Club. She was originally considered for a spot on Super Smash Bros. Melee’s roster, but was ultimately cut because the team rightfully didn’t believe she had enough recognition to warrant her inclusion. From that point on I found myself incredibly curious with the Famicom Detective Club games, none of which had ever left Japan. When remakes of both titles were announced in Japan I had some hope that maybe we would see them released in the West, but still did not believe they actually would. Cut to around a year later when they announced that both would in fact be making their way to the rest of the world, and I was reasonably excited to see what they were like. Did they live up to expectations or fall flat? Let’s solve this mystery together.

Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir is a remake of the first game in the series, even though it canonically takes place after its sequel. The player takes control of a young man having suffered an accident that has left him with amnesia. Instead of doing what a reasonable person would do and go to a hospital, he begins to try and figure out who he is and how his accident took place. He quickly learns that he is an investigator at the Utsugi Detective Agency, and was specifically working a case having to do with one of the most prominent families in Japan, the Ayashiros. When the matron of the family, Kiku Ayashiro, dies suddenly of heart failure, the family’s butler Zenzou hires the Utsugi Detective Agency to look into the suspicious circumstances of her death. This throws our detective into a web of deceit and murder as he investigates not only the death of Kiku but the mysterious circumstances of her immediate heir.

At first glance you would not be blamed if you figured this game was just a run of the mill visual novel, but that is not entirely the case. In practice, it plays more like one of its successors, Ace Attorney, though even that is not entirely accurate. During Famicom Detective Club you will find yourself in a sequence usually involving one to three locations you can travel between. During these sequences you will be able to look around the scene or talk to the people who are present, asking them for alibis and information. There is also an option to remember, in case something’s presence at the scene may unlodge a lost memory for the protagonist. The unfortunate part is that this is still a Famicom game at heart, with seemingly very few changes made to the overall gameplay.

Generally in Famicom Detective Club, your time will be spent trying to find the one menu option that opens the way to the next sequence. Sometimes while talking to a character, the game will expect one very specific command in one specific place, sometimes multiple times, in order to make the next scene’s location available. It’s not always logical at first glance what the game wants you to do, and sometimes it feels very much like something that should have been fixed as a quality of life improvement. For example, at one point in the game your character is given a flashlight before he walks into a dark area, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to get him to actually use it. After a while I realized I had to hit the “Remember” button so that he would remember he had been given a flashlight not two minutes ago and pull it out. Sometimes it will require you to examine a specific thing to trigger a flag, sometimes you’ll need to ask a character about a subject multiple times, sometimes you’ll need to ask a question and then immediately examine the person, sometimes you just have to shout out for somebody multiple times. The game generally doesn’t do a great job of communicating these, and the logic never quite felt consistent. While I’m sure these mechanics were kept intact in order to make this a faithful remake, there does come a point where the game very much would have been better off with more quality of life improvements overall.

Nonetheless, The Missing Heir is still an enjoyable experience, filled with characters that are bursting with personality using what seem to be Live2D animated models, a type of character model often employed by vtubers. Characters like your fellow investigator Ayumi or the town doctor Kumada are incredibly memorable, and I had a genuinely good time speaking to them as the story moved forward. The mystery itself is nothing special, full of familiar detective story tropes and twists that admittedly aren’t all that difficult to see coming. Strangely, however, that only seems to add to its charm. It’s a story out of time, the video game equivalent of a pulpy detective novella that you’d pick up on a discount rack, but in a good way. If you enjoy stories like this, you’re likely going to walk away from The Missing Heir happy.

Overall, Famicom Detective Club: The Missing Heir is a rather dated game both in terms of mechanics and story, but it somehow manages to use both of these largely to its advantage to create a rather charming, if cheesy, experience. There are also other small features that I appreciated, such as the ability to turn off the Japanese voice acting for every character or just for the protagonist, which I made use of because while I liked hearing the other characters’ voices, for some reason the protagonist’s was oddly distracting. I also very much appreciated the ability to switch back and forth between the new arranged soundtrack and the original Famicom chiptunes, as I found myself constantly flipping back and forth just to hear the differences. If you like yourself a fun junk-food mystery, or you’re just curious about this game finally hitting western shores after 33 years, you will probably be happy spending your time with Ayumi and company.

TalkBack / Mundaun Pencils in a May 27th Release Date for Switch
« on: May 19, 2021, 09:15:59 AM »

Why are so many goats appearing in horror games this year?

Ethan Winters is not the only person journeying into a village based den of terrible horrors, and I'm starting to worry about the people in Europe.

Mundaun is a horror game developed by Hidden Fields and published by MWM Interactive that was released for PC, Xbox devices, and PlayStation 4/5 back in March of 2021. Earlier today it was officially announced that Mundaun will land on Switch on May 27th, 2021.

Mundaun has gained a lot of buzz since release due to its incredibly unique art style, with textures drawn entirely in pencil. It's always nice to see more horror games land on the Switch, especially one that's been talked about as much as this one.

TalkBack / What Comes After (Switch) Review
« on: March 19, 2021, 07:25:45 AM »

Live life to the fullest

The afterlife is a subject that humans are pretty much obsessed with as a whole. What actually happens when we die? Do we just shut off and fade to black, or is there a place for us to go afterwards and see the loved ones who came before us? I tend to be a sucker for games that deal with questions like these, especially ones that seek to tear at your heartstrings at any given opportunity. This is what initially drew me to What Comes After, a game that attempts to discuss this question in a very intimate manner. I do think it succeeds in elevating this conversation overall, but the gameplay leaves a little to be desired.

In What Comes After, you play as Vivi, a young woman who barely manages to board the train on her way home. After she successfully finds a seat, Vivi accidentally falls asleep. When she wakes up, she finds herself still on the train, but everything feels and looks just a little different. While exploring the train car ahead of her, she learns that she is on a train full of ghosts on their way to "what comes after." At first, she believes she is dead but is quickly assured that's not the case. The conductor promises to take her back to the land of the living after the train drops off its current passengers, and Vivi is left to kill time until then, deciding to do so by talking to the passengers who have passed on.

There's not really a ton to talk about when it comes to gameplay in What Comes After, as pretty much the entire experience is spent in one side-scrolling corridor filled with NPCs you can talk to. There is no variation on this whatsoever, meaning the game as a whole suffers from a fair bit of tedium, and what will determine whether you can put up with that is largely going to be based on your personal taste in games. What Comes After is a narrative game through and through, and makes no effort to pretend it's anything else.

The writing is actually this game's biggest strength, though. As Vivi explores the train and has an opportunity to talk to the souls of those who pass, every NPC feels unique, even when most of them are not all that visually distinct. Every person has their own story and even their own outlook on the fact that they’re dead. Some are angry that this has happened to them, some are glad the suffering they've endured is finally over, and some are even pleading with the universe to undo their death. Subjects like suicide and grief are handled very respectfully throughout, and for that reason the game did resonate with me personally. However, some of this wisdom is hamstrung by a spotty translation at certain points. It is never so bad that you can't figure out what the character was trying to say, but I would frequently encounter sentences where tenses had been mixed up or certain words were just wrong, throwing a small wrench into the works of the story.

In terms of visuals, What Comes After isn't sporting any kind of unique art style, but for what it is the game looks overall interesting and memorable. While the first half of the game is made up of regular train cars full of ghosts of different people, eventually Vivi can wander into the section of the train where the non-human souls go, changing up the visuals in a colorful and fun way. Some of the later designs of these creatures and the stories they tell form the most interesting section of What Comes After, as they provide some points of view that are often missing from stories about the afterlife.

Overall, your mileage is going to vary in What Comes After. It is a very short experience, clocking in at just around an hour long, so even if you find the gameplay to be a tad tedious, the game at the very least does not overstay its welcome. If you're more interested in narrative as opposed to gameplay, you will likely find some enjoyment here, but those who are more interested in gameplay should probably steer clear. What Comes After has a lot to say, and even if a shoddy translation takes the impact down a bit, it's still worth a look if its premise has caught your eye.

TalkBack / Heaven's Vault (Switch) Review
« on: January 28, 2021, 01:03:17 PM »

What can the past tell us about the future?

Have you ever thought about the fact that there are countless languages that have just been completely lost in the span of human history? Languages that nobody speaks or writes anymore, no room for anybody to learn them and pass them on. It’s an interesting concept to consider, and it’s one of the main aspects that initially drew me into wanting to play Heaven’s Vault, a game that has been on PS4 and PC for almost two years but has finally hit the Switch. This game has a loop that honestly fits perfectly on the system, though there are admittedly a few hangups here and there.

In Heaven’s Vault you take control of a young archaeologist named Aliyah. When a friend of Aliyah’s mentor and adopted mother goes missing, Aliyah is assigned to go out and figure out what has become of him. Joining her on the adventure is a robot that Aliyah names “Six”, a robot who was built long ago and recently unearthed. In the process of investigating this disappearance Aliyah and Six find themselves drawn into a mystery involving the Ioxian Empire, an empire that fell over three hundred years before the game’s events. She also begins the process of deciphering their long lost language, and is even warned by an unlikely source that a great danger might be approaching to threaten the nebula in which they reside, kicking off a very interesting narrative about whether or not the past can tell us more about the future.

The main draw to Heaven’s Vault on a mechanical level is for sure its language deciphering aspect. As you explore the various moons of the nebula you will discover artifacts, structures, and scrolls featuring writings in the hieroglyphic style ancient script. When you discover writings, you will then be tasked with making an educated guess as to what each word means, with the game providing three options per word. In order to make the best guess you can you must take stock of context clues such as what object the writing is on or various symbols the word shares with other words you’ve previously figured out. As you discover more writings Aliyah will be able to figure out if your guesses are right or wrong, and will inform you either way. This aspect of the game is incredibly unique and is honestly by far the most interesting part.

That is not to say the overall narrative isn’t also interesting. The moons and cities of Aliyah’s nebula are well fleshed out and easily distinguished from one another, from the hoity toity Iox to the poverty ridden city of Elboreth, every area has its own distinct personality and points of interest. One issue the narrative does run into is the dialogue, while there are brief moments of voice acting in Heaven’s Vault, most of the dialogue is presented in text only. This is a bit of an issue because conversations can begin out of the blue and there is no sound to accompany them, and this becomes a bit of an issue when paired with the fact that all dialogue automatically moves on without any input from the player meaning that if you were to look away from the screen to look at your phone or your cat for even a brief second, you run the risk of having missed one or two lines of dialogue with no way to look back at what you missed. The speed at which the dialogue advances can be altered to be faster or slower, but I personally found the default speed to be far too fast for me to read every bit.

In order to travel between the moons the player must navigate the “rivers” of the nebula using Aliyah’s ship. This is the weakest part of Heaven’s Vault by far. After plotting a course the ship is controlled by pressing ZL or ZR to control the left and right sails separately. As you sail arrows and dialogue from Six will tell you which way to turn at forks in the river. After a while this mechanic starts to feel a bit mindless and repetitive, and dialogue is a bit hard to read while you’re focused on not missing the turn you need to take, and there are quite a few conversations that occur during these sections. While these sections are very pretty, once you’ve seen one you’ve essentially seen them all. I had at least one occurrence where the game gave me the option to let Six pilot the ship instead, but it never seemed to trigger again and I couldn’t figure out why it had triggered in the first place. While these sections are overall inoffensive and short, they do take a bit away from what is overall a very well put together game.

The other unique feature of Heaven’s Vault is its distinct art direction, putting 2D characters amongst 3D environments. This can be a bit jarring at times, but overall succeeds at giving the game a memorable aesthetic. In terms of technical issues, the only one I ran into was that the game tends to hang every once and awhile, both docked and undocked. It wasn’t frequent enough to ruin the experience, but was frequent enough to be noticeable. The game also features a bit of a branching narrative depending on what kind of personality you feel Aliyah has in terms of responding to the people around her. I was most impressed with this as I am usually a goody-two-shoes in games like this (social anxiety keeps me from being mean even in games), Aliyah’s backstory gave her such a compelling reason for her to be cold to most people around her that it became the route I tended to go, it just made sense.

Overall Heaven’s Vault is a very interesting and unique game that you should consider giving a try, especially if you have any interest in linguistics. While issues with the dialogue and a less than stellar space flight mechanic hold the game back from being truly great, there is enough good here to make it well worth your time. The relationship between Aliyah and Six is realistic and fun to see where it goes, and the environments and world building featured are top notch. If any of this caught your attention that may be a sign that you should be heading out to do some archaeology amongst the stardust.

TalkBack / Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory (Switch) Review
« on: November 12, 2020, 02:35:09 AM »

Keys, music, and I guess maybe a little bit of story, too.

Kingdom Hearts is a truly bizarre piece of the gaming landscape; on paper, this series about anime teenagers visiting worlds from various Disney films really shouldn’t exist. Yet, surprisingly, it does, and even more surprisingly it has some of the best selections of music in video games, largely composed by industry legend Yoko Shimomura. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest had already gotten the rhythm game treatment in the form of the Theatrhythm series, and many had been asking for years when Kingdom Hearts would get its turn. Enter Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory, the first game in the franchise to be on Switch and exactly what fans of Shimomura’s work had been asking for for years. Was it worth the wait? I certainly think it was.

Melody of Memory is a rhythm game built around a library of music from throughout the series history, from 2002’s Kingdom Hearts to 2019’s Kingdom Hearts III. Gameplay is split into three types of levels, with the most common being field levels. While playing a field level, the three members of your team will walk along a path as enemies appear in front of them. Pressing A, L, or R will make one of your characters attack the enemy, and sometimes you’ll have to hit two or even all three buttons at once to defeat a group. As you walk you will run into ability crystals, activated by pressing X. You will also encounter arrows informing you that you are about to have to jump with B, with red arrows indicating you have to jump over an attack, blue arrows indicating you have to jump to hit an airborne enemy, and green arrows indicating you are entering a gliding section. You can glide by holding B and using the left stick to collect green musical notes along a track. It’s a good thing that this is the most common type of level, because it’s honestly the most fun to play.

The other two types of level are boss battles and “Memory Dives,” which both play similarly. All the same controls apply as with field levels, with the addition of directional notes that require you to flick the left or right stick (sometimes both) in a certain direction. In boss battles, the notes will come in from the side as your team fights in the background. At certain points in the song, notes with a dark aura will begin to appear, meaning the boss is about to perform a special attack. How much of this attack your team will dodge is based on how well you hit these notes. I personally found boss battles to be entertaining, but not nearly as fun as field levels. Memory Dives are similar to boss battles, but the differences between the two are enough to make Memory Dives by far the weakest level type. Controls are completely identical, but instead of coming from the side notes come from in front of you, with a camera angle that not only is constantly shifting but also makes it hard to gauge timing. These levels are accompanied by a pre-rendered video that plays in the background, and sometimes these videos cause the notes to blend in with the background, making it even harder to see what’s happening.

The standout feature of Melody of Memory is obviously the musical selection, containing tracks from Kingdom Hearts, Re:Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II, 358/2 Days, Re:Coded, Birth by Sleep, Dream Drop Distance, and even the recently released Kingdom Hearts III. Songs can be unlocked for free play either by completing the World Tour mode or by creating them through the synthesis menu. For the most part, the tracklist hits all of the right beats, but there are some notable omissions. For instance, there is a complete lack of anything from the worlds based on Tarzan or Pirates of the Caribbean. Each world in the game has a normal track and battle track associated with it, sometimes multiple, with the exception being the selection from Kingdom Hearts III, which I can only describe as disappointing. Not only is there only one song from each world, but a majority of them are Memory Dive levels, implying the team simply didn’t have time to put together the assets to let you play these songs in field mode. Bizarrely enough, one of the songs missing is even Face My Fears, the opening of KH III, despite the fact that the other games’ openings and even III’s credits theme, Don’t Think Twice, are in the game.

There are four teams you can play as, with each playing identically: Team Classic (Sora, Donald, Goofy), Team Days (Roxas, Axel, Xion), Team 3D (Riku, Dream Eaters), and Team BBS (Aqua, Terra, Ventus). One of the missed opportunities lies in their appearances, as there are no alternate costumes to be found in Melody of Memory. Sora is stuck in his KH1 costume, Riku is stuck in his Dream Drop costume, and Roxas never leaves his Organization cloak. Even when going to worlds where traditionally a costume change occurs (such as Halloween Town or The Pride Lands), those default appearances still stay the same. I feel like alternate costumes would have added to the game’s charm, and I’m not sure why they’re not in there considering a bulk of the game is reused assets in the first place and especially since the teams are already cosmetic in nature. The last small disappointment is the story content, which is potentially a big factor on fans’ minds. I regret to inform you that the amount of new story is negligible, clocking in at maybe 25 minutes, and even getting to see any of it requires you to spend upwards of 9 hours in the World Tour mode. If you’re planning on buying this game just for the story, you should probably give it a pass.

All that being said, despite those small disappointments, Melody of Memory is a fantastic rhythm game that is heavily bolstered if you already have a love for these soundtracks. Not only that, there are two types of multiplayer. VS can be played locally between two Switches, online, or against a CPU, but this mode is honestly not that fun. The co-op mode more than makes up for this, however, featuring levels custom made for local two-player action that is incredibly well implemented. If you like Kingdom Hearts, and you like the music of Yoko Shimomura, I would personally call Melody of Memory a must buy. Just don’t expect to find a blowout story reveal buried in this title, and you should find yourself bopping along to the rhythm and having fun in no time.

TalkBack / FUSER (Switch) Review
« on: November 06, 2020, 06:09:00 AM »

The drums from Never Gonna Give You Up, the guitar from Jolene, the violins from Call Me Maybe, and the vocals from All-Star

Harmonix has a long and storied history with rhythm games. After their title Frequency in 2001 they would go on to dominate the world of music-based games with titles like Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and Dance Central. Back in 2017 they took a brief detour from video games to produce their NFC music card game Dropmix, and while that game was really cool it unfortunately did not sell a whole lot. Even so, the technology was still there and it’d be a waste to just never use it again, and so now we have their latest title FUSER. Is FUSER as good a use of this tech as Dropmix was, and is it more worth your time now that it’s been disconnected from the plastic board and physical cards? Honestly, I’d say yes.

FUSER is a game all about mixing and mashing different parts of different songs and different genres to create a cool DJ set. Before you begin a set you will be able to put together a list of songs that you can work with. Many of these songs must be unlocked using currency, leveling up, or completing certain parts of the game’s campaign. Each set in the campaign will have certain songs that are required to be part of your list, but outside of that you largely have free reign in regards to what you bring. For instance I rarely did a set where I didn’t bring Smash Mouth’s All-Star (because I’m that guy), Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, and weirdly enough Dolly Parton’s Jolene. These, and honestly every song I’ve heard in the game thus far, all fuse together way better than you’d think considering their clashing genres.

When you go to put a record down on the turntable you will have an option of blue, red, purple, or yellow. Blue is percussion, red is often the lead instrument (whether that be guitar or trumpet or what have you), purple is often the bass part or whatever the song’s equivalent is, and yellow is the vocals. When a record is placed the game will alter it in some way, be it by changing the BPM or key signature, in order to have it mesh well with the other records that are already on the turntables. The technology for this feature was impressive when Dropmix came out, and it is no less impressive now. You’d think Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up wouldn’t mesh well with Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff but you would be wrong; the game makes it work near seamlessly. The results aren’t always a winner, but more often than not anything you make results in an absolute jam.

FUSER also prioritizes rhythm based gameplay by giving extra points for placing records on either a downbeat or a pickup. An indicator both above the turntable and below any record you have your cursor over will indicate when either of these are, and getting good at dropping records at the right moment is not only incredibly satisfying but basically a requirement if you want to do well. During a set there are three main things to keep track of. The first is the audience satisfaction, shown through a bar on the right side of the screen. If you keep your mix sitting for too long without changing it up, the audience will begin to get bored.If the bar depletes completely, your set will end in failure. Below that bar is where the game’s challenges will appear, usually telling you to place certain types or genres of record before time runs out. Above your turntable sometimes an audience member will make a request for a specific song or for a song from a specific era, and completing these challenges will also up your audience satisfaction.

There are a few criticisms that can be made of FUSER. I found that after a long play session gameplay began to feel slightly stagnant, and while the music and desire to experiment generally kept me going I do wish the gameplay had more room to evolve as you go on. I also felt that the speed at which you gain currency for buying songs was too slow, only earning enough for essentially one song whenever you level up, a process that is in itself rather slow as well. The game also has the occasional technical hiccup; every once and while I would notice the game hang for half a second and jerk back into action very suddenly. This never happened in a way that felt like it overly hurt the experience, but it was definitely noticeable. Some cutscenes during the campaign also seemed to be running at an inconsistent framerate, which made them a bit hard to watch at times.

Overall FUSER is a worthwhile game if you have an interest in music or just want to experience a unique entry into the rhythm genre. Its technology continues to impress me even if the gameplay has a tendency to get a bit stale after long play sessions. There is a Freeplay option that is a really fun way to mess with the game’s music library, and it may even be a cool thing to put on at a party to let guests mix and match songs at their leisure. Technical issues aside, the Switch seems to be the perfect place for this game, as it being easy to transport means the party can go wherever you go. I don’t think FUSER will set the world on fire quite the same way some of Harmonix’s earlier titles did, but I think it’s definitely a game worth looking at.

TalkBack / Re:Turn - One Way Trip (Switch) Review
« on: October 31, 2020, 03:19:30 PM »

An abandoned train car in the woods, what could possibly go wrong?

Earlier this year, I did a video on some of the standout demos I had played during one of the Steam Festivals, and one that caught my eye was a side-scrolling horror game that took place in a creepy abandoned train car. This game was Re:Turn - One Way Trip, which released earlier this month on various platforms including Switch. The demo had shown promise with its well crafted atmosphere and relatively interesting puzzles, and I was looking forward to seeing how the full game held up. While overall keeping the same sense that drew me to the game in the first place, Re:Turn begins to show some cracks fairly early on in some unfortunate ways.

In Re:Turn the player takes control of Saki, a young woman going on a camping trip to celebrate an upcoming graduation. She is joined on this trip by her fiance Sen and their friends Kanae, Yuuta, and Kazuki. After a misunderstanding causes a conflict within the group, they all agree to sleep it off. However, when Saki awakes in the middle of the night she finds her friends are gone. When she goes to look for them she discovers a group of abandoned train cars and, worried that her friends might be on board, enters the train to investigate. It turns out this train is crazy amounts of haunted, and Saki must find her friends while also unraveling the story of the train and the passengers who died on board.

Re:Turn is an adventure game played entirely on a 2D plane, with Saki able to find items to help her solve puzzles as she explores. These are usually pretty straightforward, such as finding a crowbar to break down some furniture blocking a door, or simply finding a key to a door. Every once in a while, a puzzle will require hints to be found around the environment, such as a poem about teru teru bozu that hinted at the combination for a lock, but even these are never really that obtuse. However, some puzzles can be a little more tedious, such as a chapter-long puzzle that required putting masks on doors in order to unlock them, which felt unnecessarily mindless in execution. All but one of the masks is found in the hallway where it was required, and leaving the area without placing it is impossible, making it barely a puzzle at all.

It's these puzzles that show the true major weakness of Re:Turn, one that is very difficult not to notice. Much of the game is built around walking back and forth between the same areas, and Saki's walk speed is dreadfully slow. Unlike most of its contemporaries, there is no run button in this game, meaning that Saki moves only as fast as she moves. It's not even that there is no animation for running, she runs in cutscenes all the time, it's just that you as a player are not allowed to. The lack of this feature unfortunately causes the game to drag its feet at a lot of points, making most actions take twice as long as they should.

My last big problem with the game is the fact that Saki as a character is one of the most dense horror protagonists I have ever experienced. She constantly fails to notice things that the player already has minutes prior, and some of her decisions are baffling in any context other than "if she doesn't do this, the game doesn't happen." It's not that she's unlikeable, but more that her characterization causes her to come off as incredibly dumb. Most of her friends also come off as jerks at times, discounting her experiences as just her exaggerating or being tired. Yuuta especially I found very grating, even if his chapter is probably the most well done section. Again, none of them are what I would call unlikeable, but their characterization sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.

Despite these criticisms I still think Re:Turn is a competently made horror game with some very good atmosphere and an incredibly interesting premise. The sprite art and character designs, while in a way overly "anime", are still memorable and fun in a way a lot of anime style games like this aren't. The occasional tedious puzzle and slow movement speed are frustrating at times but never really felt like they fully broke the experience for me. It's not perfect nor is it what I would call great, but the things it excels at lift it slightly higher than your average 2D horror game. Just not much higher.

TalkBack / Clock Tower, the SNES's Best Horror Game
« on: October 27, 2020, 03:57:20 PM »

Don't cry, Jennifer...

Video games have come a long way in the past few decades, and I think there are few specific genres in games that have a more interesting history than horror. Last year I highlighted Sweet Home, a game sometimes credited with creating the building blocks for survival horror as a genre. If you didn’t watch that video, because very few people did, here’s a very brief summary:

Sweet Home is a horror RPG developed by Capcom and released for the Famicom in 1989. It is a licensed title based on the Japanese film of the same name and likely for this reason never left Japan. It was directed by Tokuro Fujiwara, who would go on a few years later to direct Resident Evil which was actually originally pitched as a 3D remake of Sweet Home before getting retooled into a more original concept that would end up revolutionizing horror games as we know them.

Got all that? Good. Today we’re gonna talk about a different retro horror game, yet another one that predates titles like Resident Evil, though this one isn’t really considered quite as historically significant. Our story takes us to a period a few years after Sweet Home made its debut, jumping from the age of the Famicom to one much more Super than that.

TalkBack / The Red Lantern (Switch) Review
« on: October 22, 2020, 03:36:21 PM »

Chow down, pups!

When I was growing up, I was a boy scout and my troop went on a camping trip every month. The first one I ever went on was to a shooting range in the middle of December, and it soured me on the idea of winter camping basically for the rest of my life. What I’m getting at is that I would rather die than go camping in the Alaskan wilderness, which kind of sucks because there’s a lot of beauty I’ll probably never explore. This is one of the main things that drew me to The Red Lantern, a resource-management game about taking a team of sled dogs through Alaska to find a new home. While a survival-style game with roguelike elements isn’t exactly what I had expected from the game’s initial reveal, I still found myself quite interested in where it was going.

In The Red Lantern, you play as a woman who has decided to leave her city life behind, adopt a team of dogs, and move out into the remote Alaskan wilderness to pursue her lifelong dream of competing in dog sled races. The game starts as you go to visit a selection of eight dogs with the intention of adopting five of them. Each dog has their own personality and skills that may trigger specific events or have specific uses on the trail. For example, Fin has a really good nose that can sometimes lead her to some good finds but also a penchant for sniffing out skunks, while Barkley has no problem defending his owner and getting into a fight even when that fight is with something he probably shouldn’t be fighting. The personalities of each pup shine through perfectly and you’ll likely find yourself attached to each member of your team to varying degrees.

Overall there isn’t much control given to the player in The Red Lantern. Once you get on the trail your dogs will pull the sled on their own and you’ll occasionally tell them whether to go left or right at forks. Every time you pass a trail marker the dogs’ energy will deplete by one, and if you pass a trail marker while they have no energy that run is over. Sometimes you will come across animals that you can try to hunt or small bits of supplies in the wild, but interacting with these events costs hunger and if you keep going for too long on an empty stomach your character will starve and freeze to death. Both meters can be refilled by camping and consuming food. Dogs can eat any meat you have raw and gain one bar of energy back for each piece given to them, but as humans can’t really eat raw meat in order to refill your hunger meter you have to start a fire and cook that food, with each piece restoring two bars. Your and your dogs’ maximum energy values can also decrease as time goes on if you don’t sleep every once and awhile while you camp, though sleeping costs one hunger as well.

At its core, The Red Lantern is entirely about resource management, as you have to keep track of and be cautious with your supply of bullets for your rifle, food, fire starters, and med kits. Your first run leaves you with a very small number of each of these things, leaving you needing to find more as you go. For this reason your first run will probably be unsuccessful, but once a run has failed you are sent back to your van and the whole thing is framed as you imagining the worst case scenario. This morbid daydream will lead to your character making herself more prepared, raising the number of survival tools she brings with her on the next run. You can also find tools such as an axe or a flint and steel while on the trail, which make surviving far easier. Once you’ve found these items out in the wild you will then have “remembered” to bring them with you from the start for any future runs.

For the most part this all comes together pretty satisfyingly, but there’s no escaping the fact that in a lot of ways The Red Lantern leaves your fate almost entirely up to the cruel mistress of RNG. Several of my runs ended in failure not because I had messed up and used too many resources but simply because I just hadn’t been lucky enough to encounter an animal to hunt or any birch to start a fire before I had starved or the dogs had gotten too tired. While this is realistic, the Alaskan wilderness is a dangerous place where survival has a lot to do with luck and preparedness, it still had me slightly frustrated for the first hour or so. More than a few times I felt like I had lost through no fault of my own, and that left a sour taste in my mouth for much of the beginning. Couple this with the fact that the game frequently experiences graphical glitches, such as the few times it had spawned me off the trail and the sled clipped through hills and snow dunes galore, and Red Lantern’s first impressions leave a bit to be desired.

Nevertheless, Red Lantern is still a relatively good game. There are worse ways to spend your time than on the trail with some good dogs, and the game is honestly a perfect fit for the Switch’s portability. The length of an average run is pretty perfect for pulling the game out of your bag on a lunch break, and outside of the graphical hiccups the game still runs very well in handheld mode. The main character, played by Ashly Burch, is incredibly relatable and is yet another great role for the esteemed voice actress. I got my first successful run after about three hours of playtime, which depending on what kind of player you are could be seen as a good thing or a bad thing, though personally it felt a tad too short to me. Overall The Red Lantern is worth your time if you have an interest in the outdoors, a lust for adventure in the unknown, or just want to pet some fluffy sled dogs.

TalkBack / 10 Scary Games to Play on Switch
« on: October 01, 2020, 02:53:00 PM »

Just because the parties are cancelled doesn't mean you can't treat yourself to a bone chilling night!

Ah, October… When the leaves have changed colors and the jack-o-lanterns find their way onto doorsteps. Everybody’s getting their costumes ready and gearing up for the onslaught of trick or treaters, because at the end of the month the sacred holiday of Halloween shall soon be upon us! … Or at least that’s how it would normally go, but 2020 has been weird and bad and that likely means that for most of us Halloween is gonna look completely different this year. While it’s genuinely not a good idea to go out and watch horror movies with your friends and attend cool costume parties like usual, that doesn’t mean the spooky fun of the season has to be lost!

Being a fan of horror games is, in a lot of ways, a double edged sword. Horror is one of the hardest genres to get right because getting just one design detail even slightly wrong will inevitably cause your game’s scariness to give way to either hilarity or frustration, neither of which are really ideal for a game that’s trying to invoke fear. For this reason many smaller studios that jump on horror don’t exactly stick the landing. But don’t worry! I’m here to tell you about ten horror or horror-adjacent games on the Switch that you might not have given a shot, and can potentially liven up your cold October nights with some much needed anxiety!

TalkBack / Hades (Switch) Review
« on: September 24, 2020, 11:57:51 AM »

The House of Lord Hades provides abundant shelter for those both new and old to the likes-of-rogue

I’m not personally a big fan of roguelikes, I tend to not have the patience to throw myself at a game over and over again. I prefer games that you play once and are done with, and I’m mentioning this upfront because I think it adds context to the fact that I consider it impressive just how deep Hades has gotten its claws in me. The latest game from developer Supergiant Games, most well known for titles like Bastion, Transistor, and Pyre, Hades is their first foray into the roguelike genre and for the reasons previously stated I was quite hesitant about it. However it turns out that I had nothing to fear, because quite frankly they seriously brought their “A” game. Hades is their best work yet, by a wide margin.

In Hades you take control of Prince Zagreus, son of the lord of the Underworld himself, who has decided that living in said Underworld actually kind of sucks. He wishes to be with the rest of his family on Mount Olympus, as well as search for his now absent mother Persephone in the mortal realm. The only issue with this plan is that the Underworld is specifically designed to make sure nobody ever leaves, Zagreus included. He must make his way from the deepest levels of Tartarus all the way up to the mouth of the River Styx, fighting the shades and monsters that make up the Underworld’s defenses on his way. Along the way he can gain the assistance of his various relatives on Olympus in the form of boons, but if he dies on his journey he will find himself back in the home of his father with any boons he had acquired washed away with his blood.

As with any roguelike Hades is a game built around attempting different runs, and the amount to which each run can feel different is astonishing. Zagreus has multiple weapons he can choose from that all function completely different from one another, such as a sword or a bow at the most basic. My personal favorite weapon is an aegis shield that can be thrown Captain America style, ricocheting between enemies in a super satisfying manner. You’ll also eventually unlock the ability to upgrade these weapons, which can even unlock slight variations for even more new ways to fight. Hades heavily incentivizes players to switch up weapons for their runs in multiple ways. Sometimes when you go to pick a weapon you may notice one giving off a black aura, meaning that if you do your next run with that weapon you will receive extra Nyx Droplets, the currency used to purchase permanent skill upgrades at the mirror in Zagreus’s room.

As you go through the different realms of the Underworld you will encounter an assortment of boons as a reward for clearing each room, giving you a choice between multiple options to build your strategy around. These boons are provided by the various Olympian gods and learning what each god tends to give you is integral to a successful run. For instance Zeus will pretty much always add a lightning aspect to something of your choosing, while Hermes will usually up the speed of your movement or attacks. Many of these boons will add the ability to inflict status effects on enemies, or can even give you the ability to call upon the god in question for a massive special attack. Of course, since this is a roguelike, these boons are temporary and are lost upon death.

Every area in Hades ends with a major boss fight, each with its own special reward for beating it. For example the first area’s boss, the Fury Megaera, will provide you with a globule of Titan Blood upon her defeat, but only if you’ve never previously beaten her with your current weapon. These items are used to upgrade your weapons later on, and are yet another reason to always switch up the weapons you’re using. Speaking of bosses every single one of them is distinct from the last, truly helping each one feel more and more like a milestone. The world around Zagreus is rich and incredibly fleshed out, with every single character being fully voiced and likeable (except Hypnos, who is voiced but not likeable).

Most importantly of all Hades feels like it is a roguelike designed to be somebody’s first experience with the genre. The game manages to be challenging and varied while also not building the skill or luck based brick wall that many of its peers do. If you do find the game to be too difficult for your liking but want to continue experiencing the world and the story, Hades comes equipped with a God Mode that can be toggled on at any time and makes the game considerably easier. If you find yourself on the opposite end of the spectrum and think the game is too easy, starting a new save file gives you the option to turn on a Hell Mode which does quite the opposite. It really does feel like a package that can provide you whatever you’re looking for, no matter who you are.

I mean it when I say that I think Hades is Supergiant’s best game yet. When I’m not playing it I find myself itching to go play it, and despite my usual lack of patience with games like this I have yet to find myself succumbing to anything even remotely resembling frustration. I am not done putting hours into Hades, not by a long shot, and as somebody who is not usually a fan of this genre I really do think that says something. Add to this yet another incredible soundtrack for Supergiant’s catalogue and some of the best character designs these mythological figures have ever seen, and Hades is seriously a game that you should not miss. If you like the genre, this is an absolute must buy, and if you don’t it may still be worth it to give Hades a look.

TalkBack / Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 (Switch) Review
« on: September 24, 2020, 07:41:56 AM »

Teleport with me, back to the age old days of 2004! It sure was 2004, back then.

When I was a young lad in the late 90s/early 2000s, the Tycoon games were the talk of the house as my sister and I poured hours into the original Roller Coaster Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon specifically. In 2004 I used some of my allowance to pick up Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, this seemed like a no brainer since I loved the first one so much and this one had offered the promise of actually being able to ride my roller coaster creations. In the end this was probably my first experience with feeling let down by a game, as I found the third entry to be far less enjoyable than the first. So imagine my surprise when 16 years later I find out that Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 is heading to Switch, and to be quite honest I’m still not entirely sure why.

The concept behind Roller Coaster Tycoon is simple: you are in charge of a theme park. This not only includes managing the building of rides but also all of the other park operations that come with it. You have to make sure to put plenty of stalls for people to buy food, drinks, and souvenirs, that there are enough bathrooms and trash cans, ensure the park is adequately staffed - it’s actually a lot of responsibility. As you add attractions to your park more people will begin to attend, earning more money but also causing a spike in the things you have to keep track of. If you don’t stay on top of things you’ll find your profits begin to tank when your rides break down, your paths are covered in trash, and your staff has all quit. The game offers two modes of play, first being a career mode where you’re given an already started park and a set of objectives to meet, and a sandbox mode where you’re basically left to do whatever you want and build your dream park.

Your first question when it comes to this PC game coming to console is probably how gracefully the controls transferred over from mouse and keyboard, and I’m unfortunately here to tell you that they really didn’t. While the controls are usable they’re still incredibly clunky and sometimes straight up unpredictable. The zoom in and out feature that would regularly be the job of a scroll wheel is moved to ZL and ZR, which work fine enough. The right stick controls the camera’s rotation and panning, an act that moves quite slowly except at seemingly random intervals when it flung me at hyper speed across the map. The left stick controls the cursor, which once again moves quite slowly and yet manages to be slightly too sensitive, with the slightest nudge taking you past if you’re trying to select a small object. By far the worst part of the console controls is the radial menus in the lower left and right corners, which can only be controlled by holding down L or R (depending on which corner the one you want to use is in) and rotating the left stick, a process that is far more cumbersome than it sounds.

One of the biggest selling points when this game originally released was the promise that you would be able to ride your rides, which admittedly at the time was a very impressive idea. You can in fact still do that in this rerelease, but you’re probably going to find out very quickly that it’s not nearly as exciting as you remember. One thing that really got to me as I played was that if you want a ride to play any kind of music whatsoever you need to set it to do so, otherwise the ride defaults to complete silence. Going in to ride cam for the bumper cars and watching the 2004 era models with eerily soulless smiles ride around in silence was a moment that had me almost wondering if I was having some sort of fever dream. Some of the music you can put in the rides is actually pretty alright, but it’s bizarre that even rides like the Merry Go Round default to having no sound at all.

At the end of the day I don’t know if I can think of any reason to buy Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 on Switch outside of if you are just really that desperate to get your nostalgia trip in. In a world where games like Planet Coaster exist as a more modern take on the exact same formula with many of the same features, I don’t even know if nostalgia is a justifiable position on this one. If all you’re really interested in is the idea of a portable park management sim this one is still a pretty alright entry into the genre, but it definitely still feels and looks like a game that came out in 2004. Add to that the clunky gamepad controls and I can say for sure that if you’re dead set on buying Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, the Switch is probably not the place to do it.


Trust me: A person who willingly watched Tales from Earthsea

Spiritfarer is a game that is not going to be everybody’s cup of tea; it is made up of a lot of busywork mixed with a good amount of waiting around. If I had to come up with a comparison to other games I’ve played, it feels very similar to what would happen if you smashed together Stardew Valley and Wind Waker, but as you’ve probably guessed by now, I think it’s also the closest we’ve ever gotten to a playable Studio Ghibli film.

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