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Messages - riskman64

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sowing concord but reaping shallow gameplay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proof that beauty is only skin deep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hacking and slashing through feudal Japan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A gorgeous papercraft RPG with time manipulation at its core.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A discount will also be available for the full game.

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


Can we negotiate with a demon to move this release date up?

A new story trailer just dropped for the upcoming demon-fusing RPG, Shin Megami Tensei V. A number of features for the game we're also listed, some of which will be very familiar to fans of the series:

- Unfold an allusive story filled with tragic choices, make sacrifices to uphold your ideals as you pursue light or covet darkness to discover your role in the new world

- Fight through a demon-infested wasteland with the Press Turn Battle System, pinpoint enemy weaknesses so you can perform consecutive actions but make one mistake and it may be your last

- Turn formidable foes into worthy allies by recruiting them via negotiations, then fuse them to create demons customized to fit your playstyle

- Explore the expansive world of post-apocalyptic Tokyo, fully rendered in stunning 3D utilizing Unreal Engine 4, a first for the mainline Shin Megami Tensei series

Check out the latest trailer for the game below, and let us know in the comments if you'll be picking up SMT V when it launches on November 12.

TalkBack / Zombies Ate My Neighbors and Ghoul Patrol (Switch) Review
« on: July 08, 2021, 11:13:48 AM »

Zombies should have eaten the ghouls as well.

The package of Zombies Ate My Neighbors and Ghoul Patrol makes a very good case for why it’s okay to keep clamoring for more games like these to be added to the Nintendo Switch Online service. If they had been released there, players would have access to multiple save slots, a rewind feature, and even online play. None of these benefits are part of the recent dual-release published by Disney Interactive and originally developed by LucasArts. While Zombies Ate My Neighbors still holds up today, with its Hollywood-monster slaying, great level names, and catchy soundtrack, Ghoul Patrol is still very much a dud of a sequel.

In Zombies, players navigate more than 40 top-down levels in pursuit of various neighbors who must be saved before they are turned into mince meat by werewolves, chainsaw-wielding maniacs, or tiny dolls of death. Boss stages pop up every so often, and almost every level has a new theme and set of enemies to destroy with your arsenal of weapons or sprint past. Your default water pistol takes down the basic zombies with a single squirt, but other creatures, like a green one from a certain lagoon, are weak to other tools, like a six pack of soda that explodes upon hitting the ground. Moving and shooting are quick and still feel really good, even 28 years after originally launching on the SNES and Sega Genesis. The cool, cartoonish monster designs remain a standout, and without question this is the better game of the two.

Ghoul Patrol, on the other hand, feels like a bad licensed version of Zombies Ate My Neighbors. The same two characters, Zeke and Julie, are tasked with saving even more civilians (not just neighbors), but this time from a more demonic horde of foes. The enemy variety is nice, but the charming enemy design of the first game is lost here. Worse than that, the addition of a jump and slide actually make Ghoul Patrol more cumbersome, and movement in general feels sticky and sluggish. Another culprit is the addition of a sprint ability, mapped to the same button as your primary weapon. The number of keys to collect and locked doors to open also seems like overkill. With fewer than 20 stages, the lack of content is both a blessing and a curse: it won’t take you long to finish it, but that also means that a bad game doesn’t drag on too long.

From the opening menu, you can start up Zombies Ate My Neighbors or Ghoul Patrol, and each title has its own Museum section. Both are pretty barren, however, unless you just want to see the EU and NA game manuals, a handful of concept art, and the same player and monster animations from the games themselves. A developer interview is the highlight here, but it’s only for Zombies. The two games share a list of achievements but have separate online leaderboards, adding value to the package. Local co-op play is present, as it was in the original, and a single save slot is available for each game. All in all, the extras included in this two-pack definitely leave something to be desired.

As someone who loves Zombies Ate My Neighbors, it’s disappointing to see it brought to Switch in this way. I can happily recommend that game to top-down arcade-action fans, but the weighty ball-and-chain that is Ghoul Patrol really isn’t worth anyone’s time. Once you’ve played Zombies, Ghoul Patrol is only a letdown from there, and I still find myself wishing these titles had simply been dropped onto the NSO service considering how little has been added to this compilation.

TalkBack / Ys IX: Monstrum Nox (Switch) Review
« on: July 05, 2021, 09:00:25 AM »

Another solid and familiar Ys adventure with a dash of acrobatics thrown in.

Ys IX Monstrum Nox brings the total number of Ys games on Switch to three, and while much of it feels similar to its predecessor, Lacrimosa of Dana, there are enough new tricks and a unique setting to keep the proceedings fresh. A mysterious prison, interesting movement and exploration mechanics, and loads of side quests add lots of flavor to the city of Balduq, where most of the game takes place. While Ys IX is another stand-out action RPG in its own right, the Switch version does make a fair few compromises that are hard to overlook.

The story begins with series-staple protagonist, the red-headed Adol, and his pal Dogi showing up at the gates of Balduq as intrepid adventurers looking for their next jaunt. It isn't long before Adol is surrounded by city guards and locked away, at least temporarily. Shortly after escaping his cell, he meets a mysterious woman named Aprillis who inflicts him with a curse that gives him the power to transform into a Monstrum, a powered up, almost demonic, version of himself with special abilities. However, he's not the only one cursed in this way. Adol ends up as part of a group tasked with entering an ethereal space known as the Grimwald Nox and defeating monsters called Lemures. In addition to the summons of Aprillis, Adol also has his own quest to discover what exactly is happening underneath Balduq Prison, and along the way he'll befriend and recruit followers to his cause. These individuals take shelter in an abandoned building turned tavern dubbed Dandelion, which serves as a base of operations. Even up to the final chapters of the game, new patrons make their way to the pub, often bringing with them a new benefit to the cause.

Across more than eight chapters, Adol will go on side quests, take advantage of the services offered by newcomers and familiar faces at Dandelion, and work with his fellow Monstrums to clean up the city and dig up the skeletons in its guard-patrolled closet. Most chapters follow a familiar formula of exploring the city and helping out its scores of citizens followed by a raid battle or two to open up new locations in the city. After that, Adol and his companions will head into an extended dungeon that usually leads to a new segment of the Balduq Prison. Two or more boss fights close out each chapter.

For those who like to stop and smell the roses, ore, and animal parts used in crafting, there are dozens of merchants to discover and collectibles to seek out. Special landmarks function as fast travel points once you mark them on your map, and even just exploring and mapping out the city can yield bonuses upon returning to Dandelion and visiting with specific characters. The concept of building up your stable of allies is alive and well, even if Dandelion doesn't feel as compelling a home as Ys VIII's Castaway Village. Even the pursuit of new Dandelion patrons feels more incidental compared to how deliberate it was in Lacrimosa of Dana. Still, the cast of playable and non-playable characters is quite likeable, and it's hard not to become fond of them as you learn more about their lives in Balduq.

A new and exciting mechanic unique to Monstrum Nox is the Monstrum "gifts" that act as special traversal abilities. Adol has a hook shot-like move that lets him fly over to designated ledges and outcroppings, but as the different Monstrums join his party, he acquires their specialties, such as Hawk's winged gliding and White Cat's vertical wall scaling. The gifts are used throughout the city and its dungeons to add verticality, making exploration a more involved affair. One sore spot, though, is how enemies encountered in the city will fall off buildings, requiring you to pursue them and perhaps setting you back a bit in your travels. Later dungeons force you to make effective use of each gift, so they don't really come off as gimmicky.

Touching on combat, it's dungeons and the aforementioned raid battles where most of the fighting takes place. Raid battles become available after filling up the Nox meter, which opens up a portal filled with enemies. Completing these segments takes down a barrier blocking off a particular section of the city. Combat itself is really fast-paced and probably a little too easy on the standard Normal difficulty setting, so consider pumping it up for more of a challenge. Adol and his companions have a basic attack, a dash, a block, and a double jump, in addition to special moves that are activated by holding R and pressing one of the four face buttons. These moves level up when you use them and cost SP, which regenerates in a few different ways. Another meter that fills up as you land hits can be spent on flashy super moves that are worth their weight in gold when fighting larger mobs and bosses.

The city of Balduq and the surrounding areas are filled with objectives to tackle, many of which are unavailable or impossible to reach until you gain the right Monstrum gift. Not including side quests, each segment of the city has its own checklist of treasure chests, special locations, and other collectibles, which is sure to please completionists. That said, it's hard not to feel like you're just seeing the same cityscape in each chapter, even if different quarters have their own distinct buildings. Because essentially every chapter starts you back at Dandelion with a handful of tasks to complete within the city limits, you can't avoid the repetition that comes from passing by the same shops, landmarks, and NPCs. The tropical island of Ys VIII provided more of a visual spectacle compared to the relative drabness of Balduq.

An incredible soundtrack, filled with entirely new tracks and ones reminiscent of other Ys titles, makes Adol's journey even more memorable. Something I'd like to forget, however, is the small, non adjustable font size. Subtitles also feature a black, transparent bar that stays on screen even when no dialogue is present, which seems an odd and distracting choice.

With Ys IX launching on Switch a few months after coming to PlayStation 4, many people interested in it may have been waiting to see if the ability to play portably is worth the sacrifice in fidelity. If you were to play on a PS5, you'll likely get 60 FPS as a target, but on the PS4 consoles the range is all over the place. That same inconsistency has made it into the Switch port as well. Frame drops during combat and city exploration are a very common occurrence. Some of the late game boss fights may as well just be PowerPoint presentations. Having played the demo on PS5, it was a very rude awakening to hop into Ys IX on Switch in handheld mode. Most of my playthrough took place portably, and it's generally serviceable, but object pop in, awkward shifts in lighting during cutscenes, and muddy visuals are hard to ignore across the 30+ hour runtime. I don't remember these issues being as pronounced in Lacrimosa of Dana, nor did they distract as much in the two Cold Steel games as they do in Monstrum Nox.

All in all, Ys IX is an excellent entry in the series with interesting new combat and traversal mechanics. Battles are fast paced and fun as hell; there's also no shortage of things to do, even if unlocking the city isn't quite as satisfying as opening up new island paths in the previous game. The Switch certainly isn't the best place to experience Adol's latest exploits, though, so unless portability is a must, I'd advise looking into other versions, if that's an option. Darker in tone, Monstrum Nox is largely a strong step forward, and Ys fans aren't likely to walk away disappointed. I, for one, am excited to see where Adol the Red's next book takes him.

TalkBack / Mario Golf: Super Rush (Switch) Review
« on: June 29, 2021, 07:00:00 AM »

A scratch golfer in some ways, but the lack of polish and content pushes it out of bounds.

Mario and his pals somehow find the time in between their normal adventures for a wide variety of sports and competitions. Mario Golf: Super Rush marks the latest in the series that formally debuted on the Nintendo 64, and it attempts to straddle the line between offering a robust single-player campaign and a smattering of multiplayer options. Ditching familiar swing and strike mechanics make for a puzzling twist, and the lack of overall content is very hard to ignore. Even though the online experience can be another tee shot rolled into the middle of a bunker, the retooled RPG mode of Golf Adventure is fun while it lasts. So how many fairways does Super Rush actually manage to hit?

From the start menu, players can select from three different play options in addition to Golf Guide, which offers tips and instructions. Solo Experience allows you to compete against yourself in stroke play to shoot for the lowest score, or timed play to see how quickly you can get through a given course. Golf Adventure is this game’s single-player RPG, and it takes you through the six total courses (mountains, desert, rainswept, etc.) with a light through narrative, side challenges, and a few boss encounters. While certainly distinct from the RPG modes of Mario Golf on GBC and GBA, it manages to stay engaging for a good eight or so hours until the credits roll. The Play Golf option is where you can set up local wireless matches and join or make online lobbies. There are some decent customization options in terms of creating shorter rounds of maybe three or six holes, turning off special shots, and starting on a designated hole within each course.

Even if there isn’t a shortage of ways to play, the additions of Speed Golf and Battle Golf might actually cancel each other out. With four players (its max number), Battle Golf is a neat and compelling mini-golf-like experience. In an oval-shaped arena, nine holes are up for grabs and the first player to sink a ball in one wins that flag, with three flags needed for victory. Items, super shots, and other hazards (like items raining down from above with Super Rush) can be the difference between winning and losing, and the hectic and quick-paced nature of Battle Golf make it a standout feature. Speed Golf, on the other hand, is an interesting gimmick that begins to wear thin after a few rounds. It involves running to your ball, potentially knocking out other players along the way, watching your stamina meter, and finishing the hole as fast as possible. In Golf Adventure, this form of play is pretty miserable and actually slower than just playing a standard round since you aren’t just focusing on the shots you’re taking. In multiplayer, the shine wears off almost immediately, but younger players may get more mileage from it.

Returning to Golf Adventure, we actually posted a fairly in-depth feature on it already, so I’ll just touch on a few key takeaways. It very much feels like Nintendo is trying to appeal to a younger demographic with it, while also throwing in enough that should appease longtime fans hoping for a return to RPG glory. Leveling up and choosing which stats to boost feels satisfying, and the benefits are noticeable. The mini-game challenges teach and hone more minor areas of the game. Ultimately, though, a lot of what is introduced is quickly left behind. New techniques are practiced and then used once. Characters you seem poised to bond and interact with throughout your rise from rookie to pro are discarded, some quite early on. NPCs have some funny dialogue, but most just mention the current state of the area you find them in. Is there really a need for three different Shy Guys to tell me the local course is temporarily shut down? The story is simple and accessible, with a few boss fights adding welcome variety, but the six total courses seem a meager offering at launch; even Mario Golf 64 had eight courses! Yes, we know that more content is coming as verified during Nintendo’s E3 presentation, and what Mario Golf: Super Rush ends up becoming may be a very full and enticing value proposition, but that can’t be said at present.

The actual golf mechanics are very different here, too. Gone is the triple-button press system that has been ubiquitous in video game versions of the sport, where one press starts your swing, a second press sets the power, and a third determines accuracy or direction. It’s been replaced with a simplified system that exchanges skill and timing for randomness and cautious play, and even once you get the hang of it, it’s hard not to wish at least for an option to use the former controls. Now, a single press starts your meter, with a second determining power, but that second press has to try and avoid going for a full power at the top of your swing, lest you risk firing a wild shot through random chance. A perfect blast of a golf swing used to be a matter of timing your presses well; with Super Rush, players are forced to pull back on the throttle, which just seems a baffling choice. Perhaps in service of upping the tempo, curve, ball height, and spin are all determined during the swing now, when before these choices were generally decided upon prior to starting your swing. This is another reason why Speed Golf seems to bring down the pure golf content of the game.

The overall presentation shows off just how unpolished the product really is. If anything, maybe the game’s subtitle should have been “Super Rushed,” because the typically high level of Nintendo sheen simply isn’t present. The courses look fine, but there isn’t much attention to detail. The crowd of Mushroom Kingdom spectators is laughably dull and appear as if they were just plopped onto the side of a particular hole. Even during solo play, camera angles obscure shots or fail to capture dramatic moments and close calls. On the putting green, characters will often be shown in the foreground shooting towards the background, meaning that you can’t always see if your ball is even heading towards the hole. I noticed, even in Golf Adventure, characters flickering between their transparent models and their fully animated ones. I’ll only make one comment about the music and sound: why can’t I taunt the loser until Wario’s throat is sore?

Online play seems like it might be okay, and one of the fortunate things about getting to review the game post rather than pre-launch is that we have a better idea of what the community of Super Rush might look like. Playing with a couple friends, I experienced one major disconnection that ended a session before settling in for just under a dozen short rounds. A bit of lag here and there was the only noticeable issue, but we still had fun with it. By myself, I played with a handful of online groups, usually consisting of four players. Again, even though a bit of lag cropped up from time to time, no further disconnection issues came up after that initial one. Multiplayer will definitely add some life to a game that definitely needs it, but a lack of online leaderboards and rankings is another obvious oversight. A lesser one is that you can’t change game modes online without leaving your created lobby and starting a new one, kicking out any players who may have joined you. I should note that half of my online play was on TV while the rest was portable, and even while docked, I was still relying on a wireless connection.

Mario Golf: Super Rush is filled with potential; it’s a decent game that I’m going to enjoy for what it is. That said, I can’t help but lament what could have been. More options, polish, and content would make this the definitive Mario Golf experience. It’s entirely possible that in the next year or two, just like with Mario Tennis Aces, (free) DLC adds not only characters and costumes, but also full courses and maybe even a little something to Golf Adventure. Despite its short-comings, Golf Adventure is a wonderful iteration of past Mario sports RPG modes, and it stands as a definite highlight within a mediocre golf bag of lie-filled scorecards and broken tees. Mario Golf: Super Rush takes years of practice at the driving range and blasts a tee shot into the air, only to see it curve far to the right and into an unsuspecting water hazard. It should have been a culmination of the home and handheld versions of Mario Golf, and instead it largely squanders that potential. Only time will tell if content drops for the game will bring it up to par. For now, you’ll have to play it as it lies.

TalkBack / Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights (Switch) Review
« on: June 24, 2021, 08:51:02 AM »

An enjoyable and beautiful, if unoriginal, action-exploration experience.

You can't spend more than a few seconds browsing the eShop without finding a Metroidvania, a genre that's exploded in popularity, particularly when it comes to indie games. It would seem that so many developers want to follow up on the success of titles like Hollow Knight with their own take on the dark, melancholic adventure, spread out across a sprawling map filled with secrets to be uncovered. Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights will feel very familiar to anyone who has played Momodora, Minoria, or the aforementioned Hollow Knight, while also sharing similarities with Dark Souls, especially in terms of combat. It's hard not to feel somewhat fatigued after playing through so many similar titles, but Ender Lilies is well-designed and fun enough over its 10-hour runtime to firmly hold your attention.

The story unfolds gradually as you move through the game's various environments, but the world of Land's End has essentially been tainted and destroyed by a mysterious (and literal) Rain of Death. This advent has caused all living creatures into monstrous forms known as Blighted, and one of your objectives, as the young girl Lily, is to purify the souls of these denizens and release them from their grotesque existence. Much of the world's lore comes in the form of notes and letters scattered about, so intrepid explorers and readers will be rewarded with interesting backstory. The other major story beats arrive at the end of boss fights, as their purification reveals their purpose and who they were before the Rain came.

Mechanically, Ender Lilies does have a unique and engaging combat element that helps it stand out a bit from its peers. Defeated bosses and mini-bosses grant spirit abilities that can be equipped and improved over the course of the game. At rest spots that function as save, healing, and fast travel points, you can equip two different loadouts of up to three spirits and spend in-game currency to power them up. You begin with a standard sword slash attack, but more than 20 spirits can be obtained and equipped, including one that lays down a poisonous gas, one that summons a bird minion to attack enemies, and one that shields Lily from melee attacks. Boss spirits, in addition to their combat abilities, also unlock non-combat moves, such as ground pound or mid-air dash, that open up traversal of Land's End.

Much like other dark fantasy action RPGs, combat is brutal and challenging; engaging even basic enemies can be deadly. I'm not ashamed to admit that a few of the bosses too me well over a dozen attempts, and of course that frustration is matched by the relief that washes over you after finally finding success. Defeating enemies does bestow experience points and Lily levels up regularly, but the downside is that only her attack power grows, and very incrementally at that. Health meter upgrades must be found in the world, so a balance of not avoiding too much combat while also searching carefully for HP boosts is required. Your sword attack an exception, other spirit attacks have a limited number of uses, but relics found throughout the different areas can be equipped to provide more charges or boost your defenses. It's frustrating, however, that you also need to pick up items to give you more relic slots. It would have been welcome to see progression tied a little more to level ups than item discovery.

There's no denying the haunting beauty and atmosphere of Ender Lilies. The desolation and dilapidated structures strewn about each new segment of Land's End tell of its post-apocalyptic state. Lily's stark white appearance stands in direct contrast to the darkness and grime all around her. The backgrounds are incredibly detailed, and the visual contrast between them and the foreground yields a captivating layering effect. All of this is tied together by lilting piano themes and other subtle instrumentations that allow the action and exploration to breathe. The aesthetic experience to be had here is a profound and memorable one.

It's difficult to shake the feeling that I've already played this game before. It borrows so much from other Metroidvanias, albeit elements that make these games fun, and as a result it fails to wholly craft a distinct identity. From screenshots, I would have sworn it was a spiritual sequel to Momodora and Minoria (like the latter to the former). After playing through it, I still haven't been able to shake that feeling. Nonetheless, Ender Lilies plays well and provides ample challenge for fans of these types of games. Multiple endings will likely compel you to keep exploring every untravelled path, but the final sections of the game will test players to their limits. Ender Lilies may not stand out in a crowd, but those who pledge to cleanse its world of Blighted will be well rewarded.

TalkBack / Mushihimesama (Switch) Review
« on: June 23, 2021, 12:59:10 PM »

An unearthed vertical shooter relic.

If you're really well-versed in the shoot-'em-up genre, it's possible that you've heard of Mushihimesama. For more casual players, that name might simply sound like something Goku would say on Dragon Ball Z. Originally developed by Cave and released in Japanese arcades, it's a bug-themed vertical shooter that definitely qualifies as a "bullet hell." The Switch release bundles in Novice, Normal, Arrange, and 1.5 versions with their own slight and major changes, but ultimately it feels like a package much better suited to dedicated fans and collectors.

I say that because there are only five stages in total and little to speak of in the way of narrative. Each stage features a wide variety of bug creatures, some of which err more on the side of realism, while others take on more of a mechanical appearance. Mini-bosses generally appear halfway through each level, and fortunately no individual area feels lacking in terms of length.

Presentation represents all the highs and lows of Mushihimesama. Bullets and gunfire are easy to identify, with all enemy shots taking on a purple hue. The music is fairly decent, with the boss encounter themes really standing out from the rest of the tunes. The menu fonts could be a little larger, but there are a fair number of customization options. Players can change screen orientation, backgrounds, number of windows displayed (which is oddly superfluous), difficulty, and number of lives per continue. There doesn't seem to be a limit on how many continues you can use, either. Noticeable slowdown occurs when bullets and loot fill the screen, which happens fairly often but doesn't totally disrupt the experience.

Visually, Mushihimesama has a very clean look and provides a sense of depth as you scroll through each stage. Even though all bullets are on the same plane, bugs appearing from different places on screen may seem to be coming from below, which adds to the spectacle. Most of the bosses fill the top half of the screen, and then load the rest of the screen with a tidal wave or purple bullets, with only the smallest slivers of safety to escape to. Power-ups, point crystals, and basically everything on screen is easy to identify.

The differences between the four primary versions of Mushihimesama on offer are subtle, and it's likely that only more dedicated shooter fans will really appreciate them. Arrange mode features a new point-multiplier system and starts your ship off at maximum power. Version 1.5 gives you a choice of starting at regular power or max and utilizes a remixed soundtrack, in addition to a few other minor alterations. For most players, I think it will be difficult to extract more value from what generally amounts to small variations on the same five stages. Even the game's three ships, in spite of unique main guns, all use the same bomb. Co-op for two players, a score attack, a novice mode, and online leaderboards round out the package, but it’s not entirely clear how to unlock the latter or whether it will just be available at a later date.

There's no denying that Mushihimesama has had an interesting release history, most of which seems to exclude the West. It's always great to see hidden genre gems emerge on the eShop, but this one is a little more rough than diamond. That might sound more dismissive than I intend; Mushihimesama is a fine shoot-'em-up, but the content on offer does feel limited. Unless you're into playing every obscure arcade shooter, it's likely you'll find more to love from other Switch library offerings. Still, blasting a bounty of neat-looking bugs provides a fun enough time while it lasts.

TalkBack / New Shin Megami Tensei V Trailer and Physical Pre-Orders
« on: June 21, 2021, 08:10:48 AM »

You have a few demon-slaying options if you opt for going physical.

Today, ATLUS showed off a new gameplay trailer for Shin Megami Tensei V, which is coming to Nintendo Switch on November 12. They also revealed two different physical versions of the game coming to retail: the Standard Edition or Fall of Man Premium Edition. The former comes with a steelbook case and the game cartridge, while the latter adds a sling bag, demon handbook, two-disc soundtrack, and a collectible box. Retailers mentioned in the press release include Amazon, Best Buy, and Gamestop, with the standard version going for $59.99 and the premium edition at $119.99 (both USD).

You can find images of each version below in addition to the trailer mentioned earlier. Is anyone else seriously tempted by the Fall of Man set? Let us know in the comments below.

TalkBack / World's End Club (Switch) Review
« on: June 07, 2021, 09:26:45 AM »

This world definitely goes out with a whimper, not a bang.

Given the pedigree of the team at Too Kyo Games, with individuals who played major roles in the Danganonpa and Zero Escape games, it was easy to get excited about World's End Club when it was first announced for Switch during a February 2021 Nintendo Direct. While the chibi-style anime presentation seemed to indicate a title aimed at a younger or less experienced audience, it wasn't clear to this reviewer how true that would be until I got my hands on the game. The most disappointing thing is that World's End Club fails not only to live up to the heights of any of the aforementioned games, but it also squanders an entertaining premise from its opening hours. If you've only played the demo, you've already played the best part.

The opening of World's End Club sees a group of 12 students, the Go-Getters Club, wake up in a creepy underwater amusement park after their school bus trip goes off the rails. They are introduced to a robotic clown character named Pielope, who forces them to play the Game of Fate, an event that feels very similar to similar situations presented in Danganonpa and Zero Escape. The kids are pitted against one another and have to cooperate and contest each other in an effort to emerge safe and sound from Pielope's challenge. It's a satisfying combination of lighthearted, tense, and dark, but after successfully navigating this first segment of the game, nothing that follows ever reaches this initial peak.

The rest of the story plays out across effectively two timelines, with choose-your-own-adventure options at a handful of branches along the way. The basic premise is that the group is trying to get back to Tokyo to discover what's happened to the world, as humans seem to have disappeared entirely. Each point on the timeline invokes either a story segment with just dialogue and maybe a final decision, an action segment with light platforming and some action events, or a camp segment, where you can speak to the members of the group and see some brief interactions among them. The primary point of view is that of Reycho, a silent protagonist, and it's a little funny to see him pop into scenes to deliver a quick thumbs up or some other simple gesture.

The main issue with World's End Club is that it doesn't have a defined identity. It feels like a Frankenstein monster of disparate game elements that never coalesce into anything meaningful. The main story is fine, but it leaves questions unanswered, concludes in a fairly unsatisfying way, and so often leaves what could be entertaining scenes and situations to play out off-screen. For example, when a member of the group is bit by a rat and needs an antibiotic; the collecting and administering of said medicine aren't shown at all. The mission goes from a defeated boss to the injured character appearing as good as new. The action segments are incredibly basic and lack any real challenge; a game over is more often the result of an enemy or hazard suddenly appearing from off camera, or the characters all controlling a bit differently.

In most action segments, different members of the crew will take over as protagonist, allowing them to show off a unique power they've been imbued with. Reycho can throw objects, Kansai can summon and swing a powerful baseball bat, and Pai can create a bubble shield to repel enemies and other dangers. The powers are one-note and rarely used in creative ways, making these levels more of a slog between story beats.

The Go-Getters themselves are interesting enough and have their own personalities and connections to other members of the group. The voice work is solid, and the writing serviceable, but there's no getting around the fact that everything lacks a seriousness and gravitas that would befit the actual end of the world. The characters are much more concerned with trivial squabbles, sight-seeing, and their own connections to each city than they are with the state of humanity. It's a struggle to reconcile the disconnect between the game's world and the actions and thoughts of its cast.

With two endings reached and nearly all collectibles acquired, my playtime came in at under 10 hours. There isn't much of a reason to return to the game after unlocking both endings either. The final two hours mark a drastic shift from the opening of World's End Club, as they drag on and force backtracking until you've basically gone through each branching path option you didn't explore. It just feels forced and nullifies the impact of your previous decisions.

It's disappointing that more of what made games like Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors didn't make its way into World's End Club. The murder mystery and puzzle elements of those earlier titles are basically absent in this new adventure, and the moniker of baby's first visual novel is both apt and unable to fully capture its conflicted essence. My recommendation, if you really must play this game, is to finish the demo and then know that it's downhill from there. Ultimately, this mishmash of genres fails to conjure up the magic of its forebears or carve out a space for its own limited bag of tricks.

TalkBack / Mighty Goose (Switch) Review
« on: June 04, 2021, 06:00:00 AM »

What’s good for the gander isn’t always good for the goose, no matter how mighty.

Arcade-action title Mighty Goose may immediately call to mind the Metal Slug series. With bullets flying everywhere, various guns to pick up, and even a smattering of vehicles to commandeer, the explosions of robotic and insect parts alike makes a good first impression. The thing about impressions is that they are always fleeting, and it’s up to a game to find new and exciting ways to keep any momentum it generates; this is where Mighty Goose has its wings clipped.

Chasing a villain known as the Void King through the galaxy, Mighty Goose and his handler Vark move from area to area across a world map, with the ability to revisit earlier levels to improve your performance and earn a higher ranking. As you run and gun through each area, you collect coins that can be spent instantly via an in-menu shop, with a handful of limited use weapons and even a vehicle for when the going gets tough. Unfortunately, for more veteran players, the difficulty doesn’t ramp up that much, and the abundance of weapon drops from enemies mean you’ll seldom need the coins outside of purchasing a vehicle for some particularly tough encounters. Annoyingly, health pick-ups seem to come in bunches, and it’s not always clear when you’ve reached a checkpoint. Most stages end with a boss fight, and the ones that don’t feel like a let down, given that the bosses are quite fun to take down.

In addition to a standard gun, Goose can pick up a machine gun, a tesla coil, a shotgun, and a rocket launcher. Each of these has a limited amount of ammo, and even if you collect multiple pick-ups, the total ammo for these special guns is capped. A jump, dodge roll, and a special attack round out your arsenal. New special attacks unlock regularly, and range from calling down a beam from the sky or summoning skeleton-like minions, to a buff that instantly fills your Mighty Meter. This meter builds up as you rain fire on enemies, and when full can be activated to put Goose into a temporary super state where they gain invulnerability and a massive firepower boost.

The stages scroll primarily from left to right with some verticality thrown in on occasion. Certain areas task you with activating a switch or lever to open a door or raise a platform, but these sections don't really add much to the experience. One of the main issues with Mighty Goose is that it’s over too quickly. You can roll credits in under two hours, and doing so unlocks upgraded versions of most of the stages you already completed. I was looking forward to some interesting twists in these “plus” stages, but they play basically the exact same way, and the challenge wasn’t noticeably greater. There’s apparently a reward for completing all the plus stages, but the game doesn’t offer enough to make replaying them all over again a worthwhile endeavor.

Unlockable buffs, special attacks, and even partner characters aren’t enough to justify the “Mighty” moniker. While fun for a little while, the repetitive gameplay, short main campaign, and lacking arsenal make Mighty Goose a tough recommendation. The pixel art, soundtrack, and performance are all solid, and the menus and base where you choose your loadout are presented well. There’s also something funny about Goose’s random honks and certain moments when the action slows down and a giant goose pops up in the corner of the screen. If you absolutely need more Metal Slug in your life, then I would say wing it, but otherwise maybe let sleeping geese lie.

TalkBack / Astalon: Tears of the Earth (Switch) Review
« on: June 03, 2021, 09:00:00 AM »

A time-worn formula with solid gameplay and an interesting twist.

The beginning of 2D action-platformer Astalon opens in very nondescript fashion: three adventures enter a dark tower after a trek through the desert. There's a noticeable combo of gravitas and humor to the brief dialogue interaction among them before you're given control of the blue knight, Arias. The tutorial area allows you to become familiar with the simple controls for movement, jumping, and attacking, but it also demonstrates the game's most interesting mechanic: switching between the three heroes to take advantage of their unique skills and capabilities. It didn't take long for Astalon to sink its teeth into me, and the blend of old-school Castlevania feel with RPG mechanics and modern sensibilities makes for a winning combination.

The Tower of Serpents, which acts as the setting, makes for an impressive specimen. A variety of different areas contain not only unique enemies but scores of secrets for the intrepid explorer. There are nearly as many items that are required to progress through the tower as there are those that simply make your characters stronger and more adept. Hidden passages, tricky jumps, and dangerous enemies are all part of the experience, but the way in which return trips through the various rooms can reveal something new and never before seen that truly helps the tower come alive. Different forms of fast travel can be unlocked as well, ensuring that you're never too far away from where you want to be after a death, and with such an expansive map (with new areas I was finding even after rolling credits), it’s nice to be able to warp around a bit easier.

I've mentioned the blue knight, who wields a sword that can slash opponents quickly at melee range. He also gains a dash and the ability to reflect certain projectiles, and his sword is the only weapon that can cut down certain vine-shaped barriers. The wizard Algus is the one I prefer to use; his staff shoots a fireball with decent range and attack speed, but it also activates switches and can penetrate walls. You may eventually come across a cloak that allows him to jump and then float down to the ground, making it easier to avoid spike pits and ground-based enemies. The final member of the trio is Kyuli, a rogue. With her trusty bow, she can launch arrows all the way across the screen, making short work of the Cyclops-type monsters you encounter regularly. Her unique talent allows her to scale higher walls and platforms by jumping off them, starting off with a single extra jump and later acquiring unlimited jumps through the Griffon Claw item. Taking different characters down familiar paths often leads to finding secrets or shortcuts, and the frequent feeling of discovery tied to swapping characters is very satisfying. And just as you start getting frustrated by only being able to swap characters out in specific campfire rooms, you'll uncover an object that lets you switch between them at will.

The challenge level of Astalon remains steady throughout, as new areas ramp up the enemy hit points and damage, particularly some of the end-game rooms. Greater risks, of course, often yield greater rewards, and such is the case here as well. Defeated enemies drop orbs that function as a currency to purchase character upgrades, temporary buffs, and special items. The amount of freedom ensures that different players can customize the party to their liking. As mentioned earlier, the wizard was my go-to party member, so I maxed his stats in lieu of raising the strength and defense of my other characters. Others might want to grow the stats of the party more equally so that they don't face as much of a risk when forced to use the knight for his sword or the rogue for her climbing.

There are some elements of Astalon that would benefit from more clarity, polish, and transparency, starting with the upgrade screen. Whenever you die (which will no doubt be often), you meet the character to whom you can sell your orbs, but the items they sell don't have any description until after you buy them. This means early and mid-game decisions are made trickier by a lack of information, and so you'll have to blindly spend your money until you figure out what everything does. The map screen, while serviceable, can be a little hard to decipher at times, too. Finally, while not necessarily gamebreaking, the longer I played, the more I noticed strange bugs, like enemies not displaying properly and even a boss's second form showing up before I had even started fighting its first form. Without question, the good outweighs the bad here, but sour notes like these did impact the experience to an extent.

The presentation elements, the visuals especially, work to conjure up feelings of nostalgia for 80s and 90s titles like Castlevania III, The Adventure of Link, and I'll just say it: Milon's Secret Castle. The pixel art impresses throughout, and the use of color adds depth to the adventure. Admittedly, the music in certain areas can grow a tad stale, especially early on as you spend more time in just a few areas of the tower. Fortunately, as your mobility increases and you discover new places, the soundtrack starts to shine more brightly.

Astalon inserts itself into an ever-more-crowded genre that starts with "M" and ends with "vania," but it absolutely nails the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of progression, both through noticeable character improvement and the acquisition of unique items and powers. Underneath the solid gameplay lies an interesting story and premise, with neither trying to steal the spotlight from the action and exploration. A not-imposing set of achievements and unlockables, in addition to map and items found percentages push the longevity score even higher, and ultimately I just had an incredibly tough time putting this one down. Anyone who loved whipping through games like Bloodstained, Axiom Verge, and similar indies should do themselves a favor and delve into the amazing adventure that is Astalon.

TalkBack / Super Bomberman R Online (Switch) Review
« on: May 30, 2021, 01:48:44 PM »

64-person Bomber Royale.

A launch title for Nintendo Switch, Super Bomberman R stuck close to the tried-and-true explosive formula but didn’t manage to set the world on fire. One of the sore spots, at least for me, was a lag-filled online experience, a fatal flaw given the precision and timing involved in a Bomberman game. Fast forward more than four years later, and Konami is bringing a free-to-play battle royale style version of Super Bomberman R to Switch, less than a year after it came exclusively to Google’s Stadia platform. I’m happy to report that Bomberman makes the jump to online survival winner-take-all quite well, but progression can be slow for those who don’t purchase the optional battle pass.

For the uninitiated, Bomberman involves moving your choice of character around a top-down, 13x11 grid (at least that’s the size in this game) as you attempt to blow up the competition. Each area is filled with destructible blocks that can contain power-ups to increase your bomb’s blast radius, the number of bombs you can place at a time, and your movement speed. In Super Bomberman R Online’s Battle 64 mode, 64 players start out across 16 play areas with a timer counting down from 60 seconds. Once the timer hits zero, the play areas are gradually removed until only one remains, where any players still in the competition are left to duke it out until there’s just one Bomber standing.

Each player starts off with two hearts, which means you can take two hits before being eliminated. Occasionally, heart item pick-ups will show up, too, letting you replenish a missing one. The standard kick, punch, and grab items appear as well. Initially, only the eight different colored Bomber characters are available to play as, with each having slightly different attributes. White only starts out with one bomb, no speed ups, and two bomb radius, but he can go up to a maximum of eight in all three of those stats. Pink starts out with a total of five in each of the three primary stats, but she can’t go higher than that, and the punch and grab abilities are crossed out, so she can’t pick up those items. In terms of extra content, there are two additional free characters on rotation, from Konami franchises like Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania, and Contra, but the other 12 come with the Premium Pack DLC, which also allows for the creation of private matches with friends.

Another way that Super Bomberman R Online is monetized is through its two-tier Battle Pass. The silver tier is free and offers some minor rewards for regular play of the game. The gold tier covers a 90-day season and costs 800 Bomber Coins. This currency costs real money through the eShop, but it can be earned as a reward within the gold tier. Some of the other rewards include costumes, profile tags, poses, and even musical tracks. In each season, specific characters will also be up for purchase, with Old Snake Bomber (500 Bomber Coins) being available as part of Season 1, in addition to Bean Bomber (Free), as cross-promotion with Fall Guys. Bomb skins, taunts, and other cosmetics can also be picked up with Bomber Coins. There’s also a separate Start Pass that offers free rewards as you play. Each of the passes described here goes up to level 100.

Back to the business of bombing, how does the game actually play? Well, across dozens of matches I’ve encountered no noticeable lag. It doesn’t take too long to hop into a Quick Match, thanks to full crossplay, but I’ve experienced a few matches where the character selection screen countdown basically times out as soon as you reach that screen; fortunately, this wasn’t the case for most of my matches. In addition to the main field of play, all 16 areas are indicated in miniature on the borders, so you can see which areas are left and chart where your character is heading. The visuals are a little fuzzy, but all of the important elements are still easy to see. Regrettably, there only appears to be one standard environment, which Bomberman fans are sure to recognize. In private matches, there are eight arena types to choose from and other options to customize the experience. There are open spots in the menus that indicate new stages types may show up in private matches and in the standard Battle 64 mode, but we’ll have to wait and see on that.

Super Bomberman R Online is a welcome addition to the Switch library, and provides an engaging and lag-free online experience. The core Bomberman gameplay lends itself well to the battle royale format, and the fact that players can enjoy much of what the title has to offer without spending a dime is a nice bonus. Ranks, levels, and grades all provide incentives to shoot for, if you’re so inclined, but the grading for each season isn’t really explained anywhere. Another issue is that there’s no local co-op option; every player needs to have their own game and Switch console. Regardless, any Bomberman fan should be picking this one up. I can readily admit that I fall into that camp, and I’ve been having a blast.

TalkBack / Very Very Valet (Switch) Review
« on: May 25, 2021, 08:00:00 AM »

A new take on the chaotic, team-based co-op formula.

There are cooperative and competitive games on the Switch eShop that won’t even start if you have fewer than two players. With Very Very Valet, you can actually get about halfway through the stages playing solo, but eventually the demands of each stage become too much for one car-hop to manage. The premise is a simple one: help people park and store their cars and then retrieve the vehicles when they’re done. With each stage generally consisting of about 10-20 cars and a number of different obstacles to maneuver around, the action is brisk and the potential for hilarity high. Even if the mechanics lack depth and the controls feel imprecise at times, it’s pretty fun to play valet for a day when you don’t really need to be all that careful.

After a brief tutorial stage, you begin unlocking new stages up to a total of 20, with a few bonus stages thrown in the mix on occasion. With up to four players, you work together to pick up cars from outside of a restaurant, for example, as customers go inside for a bite to eat. In the meantime, you’ll need to drive their car to a parking lot or somewhere out of the way so that you can make room for more valet users and even just regular traffic. The early stages are fairly basic, perhaps with a straight road through the center of the level, a restaurant in the middle of it, and rooftop parking just above. Eventually, teleportation devices, trampolines, and even button-activated launchers will come into play as you create space and move cars around the stage. As your customers finish their business, they’ll form a queue near a designated drop off point, and this is when you’ll need to hop back in their car and shuttle it back over to them.

In addition to a rolling score meter at the bottom of the screen, an indicator at the top-left corner shows what phase of the stage you are in, usually culminating in phase 4. As customers roll in and leave their cars with you, they’ll often remark in a dialogue box about how long they expect to take: “I take FOREVER to eat” or maybe “BRB,” and these hints give you a bit of an idea of where you might want to park their car. Meters begin to fill up both when people are waiting to drop off their car and retrieve it, and if the meter stays full for too long, the vehicles end up getting beamed into the sky, a mystery that the bird-like manager of Very Very Valet seems intent on solving. In later stages, you’ll have less of a grace period as customers lose patience more quickly, and this is where you’ll need to rely on your co-op partners to be successful.

Up to three stars can be earned in each level, with each car beamed up (by Scotty?) subtracting from your potential total. Once three customers have reached their limit, you won’t earn any stars for completing the stage. Funny enough, it seems like you can actually get to the end of nearly every level without actually assisting anyone, but the final stage in each of the game’s four regions requires a set number of stars to unlock, so you’ll need to be a decent valet or valet team to see the whole game through.

Mechanically, the controls don’t always feel great. Movement, jumping, and even shoving actions are fine, but driving, which you’ll be doing most of the time, can be frustrating. Basically, the car moves in the direction in which you tilt the control stick, but to reverse you need to come to a full stop and then press in the opposite direction. A sharp turn can be activated, and with some practice used effectively, but it takes a long time for the basic driving to feel comfortable, and even then it leaves something to be desired. It would seem to be a fatal flaw in physics-based experiences like Very Very Valet where imperfect controls can be played for laughs but also inhibit the precision needed to accomplish what the game is asking for.

At the end of a long day of driving and parking cars, Very Very Valet is pretty, pretty good in terms of delivering a fresh co-op experience. It doesn’t directly relate to food prep, and that’s a definite plus in a genre filled with similar activities. Bonus stages in each area add some variety to the proceedings, tasking players with collecting garbage and tossing it or knocking over waves of bowling pins. High scores, fastest times, and even adjustable difficulty settings will accommodate players of all skill levels. Online leaderboards would have been a nice inclusion, and it’s hard not to feel like the basic premise of the game isn’t taken much further in later stages than earlier ones. Still, even playing alone I had a lot of fun shuttling cars around the different stages, and the potential for chaos and uproarious laughter in multiplayer is very, very high. Just be prepared to fight the driving controls as much as you fight for parking spaces.

TalkBack / Jetboard Joust (Switch) Review
« on: May 17, 2021, 06:00:00 AM »

A run-based mashup of classic arcade experiences that might let players off too easy.

Jetboard Joust joins the list of eShop titles looking to capitalize on nostalgia for classic arcade staples and the thirst for run-based experiences with staying power. The premise is simple: shoot down or slam your jetboard into waves of enemies attempting to abduct civilians on the ground below you before they take you down. Across five worlds, you complete 11 levels in each before taking on the boss of each world, and along the way you earn in-game cash to improve your character and your weapons. Something strange happened during my first run, though: I finished the whole thing.

It took a few hours, but my first run took me all the way from the beginning of World 1 to the end of World 5 and the game’s brief end credits. Does this mean Jetboard Joust is too easy? There were definitely some precarious moments where I saw my health fall to zero only to cash in an extra life I had earned. I may have been playing pretty well and picked up some powerful weapons, in addition to making smart upgrade decisions; however, I’m still scratching my head about what to make of this surprising turn of events.

The Jetboard rider materializes at the beginning of each level through a warp gate, and from there waves of enemies teleport into the space around you shooting all sorts of weapons and attempting to capture the citizens stationed on the ground. The stages wrap around, and a mini-map at the top indicates the position of enemies to make navigation and hunting easier. Along the way, you discover special weapons, such as the Gravity Hammer and Lightning Bolt, that have limited ammo, but ammo drops fairly regularly, as does health. Between levels you can choose your path to the next and also enter a shop to sell weapons, upgrade them, or improve your overall health and effectiveness of your board. The “Joust” from the game’s title is activated with the B button and launches you forward in a line, dealing massive damage to all foes in your path. Upgrading the Jetboard makes it faster and gives you more joust charges.

Like any good arcade game or shoot-’em-up, earning points and improving your high score is paramount to the experience. Enemies drop coins and diamonds that add to your score and your money that can be spent after each stage. Money can also be used to revive your character after a game over. Destroying your opposition in quick succession will create a combo chain that boosts the loot that drops and drives your score even higher. The lack of online leaderboards is a noticeable omission, but there are over 100 achievements to shoot for, which is nice to see.

Admittedly, the gameplay does grow repetitive, with each stage playing basically the exact same as the one before it, save for the boss encounters. Most of the basic enemies consist of rival Jetboarders trying to make off with the civilians under your purview. Their health and weaponry can change from level to level, but they never seemed to pose too much of a threat. Other creatures such as fish, spiders, and insects of various types are also thrown into the mix, and I did appreciate seeing new threats all the way up the final stages of the game. Ultimately, what I’ve learned is that longer sessions of Jetboard Joust are simply less enjoyable given the simplicity and repetition of the gameplay.

That said, had the difficulty been higher, I would have had the opportunity to take advantage of one of the game’s key mechanics; namely, using keys earned throughout the different worlds to start subsequent runs using unlocked warp gates. Put simply, you can jump ahead to later worlds after reaching certain levels. I didn’t actually see this in action until I had rolled credits, after a single run, and went to restart the game. Again, I’m not sure if this is a knock against the game.

While I had fun playing Jetboard Joust, it might need some balance tweaking to make certain mechanics more meaningful. Every stage features a different five or six-color palette, which both helps and hurts longer sessions, by differentiating levels but also offering less visual stimulation. Compounding this is the lack of gameplay variety; the boss fights presented a fair challenge, but the levels leading up to them had a tendency to drag on. Even the optional treasure rooms that are unlocked by engaging in a final duel at the end of every stage fail to provide enough risk for their reward—I went for them on each level and never failed (Did that make me too powerful?). Although I’m filled with questions about the validity of Jetboard Joust’s roguelite status, it plays well enough and can likely provide solid entertainment in short bursts. Fans of classic arcade games may dig this new twist on the high-scoring chasing arcade shooter, but after one full run through, I’ve had “joust” about enough Jetboarding to last a lifetime.


Part high school sim, part RPG, all heart.

Atlus has been nothing short of prolific in their development of RPGs, especially those of the turn-based variety. None, however, have reached the heights of popularity like their Persona series, games featuring a protagonist who transfers to a new school, befriends a bunch of his or her classmates, and eventually enters a demon-filled netherworld. For some, that may have been their typical experience in high school, but it's uncanny how well Persona 4 simulates the life of a 16 or 17-year-old student. The combat, story, music, and gameplay are all excellent in their own right. But it's the cast and residents of Inaba, the game's setting, that truly make it Golden.

Golden, sure. Timeless, though? I had known since the original PlayStation 2 release of Persona 4 that it was a highly-regarded title. The PlayStation Vita remake that added "Golden" to the title, in addition to major content and gameplay changes, really put the game on my radar. I wouldn't play either version when they launched, but I did eventually pick up a second-hand Vita off Craigslist for the sole purpose of finally hopping not just into Persona 4 Golden, but Persona 3 and other RPGs I hadn't played in some time. Persona 4 really does feel like a perfect mix of simulation, story, and strategy, and each of those elements harmonizes elegantly with the other two. Taking time to cultivate relationships unlocks more plot points but also makes your characters and minions stronger. Do you choose to spend time in dungeons fighting enemies for experience and money, or do you visit your classmates and help with their problems? It turns out that both paths are viable.

The silent protagonist, who is named by the player at the outset, serves as a magnificent foil to the mostly voiced cast. Named Yu by default, he functions mostly as a blank slate, defined by the countless dialogue choices present throughout the adventure. However, his relative plainness amplifies the charm and effervescence of his circle of friends. Personally, no pun intended, I would argue that the entire playable cast, and even Yu's new found family in Dojima and his daughter Nanako, represent the true soul of Persona 4. Their presence makes the game a real joy to experience, and it's no easy task to say goodbye to them after spending over 60 hours at their side.

She may not join your party, but Nanako, who refers to the player throughout the game as Big Bro, is its beating heart. She has a tragic backstory, endears herself to everyone she meets, and carries herself with a blend of child-like wonder and experience beyond her years. Living without a mother, in some ways she's had to grow up too fast, especially with her father spending so many late nights at the office as a police detective. Her Social Link, which is essentially a series of cutscenes that are unlocked and contribute to a meter symbolizing your bond with her and every other character who has an S-Link, allows you an even deeper glimpse into the loneliness she feels, being somewhat held at a distance by Dojima. She is a person who has endured but can still take pleasure in the simple things, like trips to the neighborhood grocery store, Junes. I love her, and I can readily admit that replaying Persona 4 after becoming a father has made me even more sympathetic to her situation and galvanized towards making her happy.

Nanako doesn’t fight alongside you, though. Yosuke, your punching bag of a partner, does, and although he may not be a crowd favorite, his dedication to the team and to Yu is laudable. The next to join the team is the spunky, Kung Fu movie-loving Chie, whose toughness hides insecurities about her self-worth, constantly comparing herself to the next character. Yukiko, heiress to the Amagi Inn, is often reserved, but also has the propensity for fits of laughter at the slightest joke. Kanji arrives on the scene as an apparent bully or misfit, but his journey of self-discovery reveals an inner struggle between who he wants to be and how he will be perceived as a result. The penultimate member of the squad is former idol Rise, who has to come to terms with leaving the fame and spotlight while simultaneously attempting to fit in at a new school and avoid being recognized as her alter-ego Risette. And finally, there’s Naoto: both the Detective Prince and a walking paradox of mature and naive. Every one of these characters contributes to the overall narrative in meaningful ways while also bringing satisfying and engaging individual tales of their own.

If you’re thinking that I forgot about Teddie, I wouldn’t dream of it. Instead, I’m singling him out for being an impossible mixture of dopey, innocent, horny, and rambunctious. I absolutely adore him, and I actually feel disappointed when he doesn’t make what I would consider to be obvious bear-related puns. His attachment to Nanako, among the other characters, thoroughly humanizes him, and it’s hard to imagine Persona 4 having the one-two punch of emotional weight and weirdness it does without its mascot character, who Yosuke ironically turns into Junes’ own mascot.

It’s always a delight when the dialogue of a lengthy RPG is buoyed by voice acting, let alone the work of Persona 4’s superb cast. Each one seems an impeccable fit and unceasingly brings the town of Inaba and its inhabitants to life. The writing and localization further add to the realism, giving the actors a solid foundation to work with. And again, it’s the silence of the protagonist that allows the voices of his friends and family to resonate even more poignantly. Even though the player character’s dialogue is voiceless, the reactions to it are resounding: the emotion in Rise’s voice, the excitement in Chie’s, or the exuberance in Teddie’s. You’d be doing yourself a disservice to play the game without audio, and that brings me to my next topic…

The outstanding soundtrack! Persona 4’s music is among the best I’ve ever heard, and it’s incredibly well suited to listening outside of the game. Composed by series staple Shoji Meguro, among others, this soundtrack absolutely soars, and adds a flair and vitality to an experience already filled with both. The upbeat jazz and the memorable notes sung by vocalist Shihoko Hirata come together in a tidal wave of nostalgia-inducing harmony. I’m not lying when I say that the in-game winter season’s theme, Snowflakes, has the power to bring a tear to my eye, seemingly at any time of day; it’s beyond compare.

Leaving any real mention of the story and combat of Persona 4 to this point is not to be taken as a slight against either; instead, for me, they are just somewhat overshadowed (pun fully intended) by the elements I’ve already discussed. The mystery at the heart of it all is compelling, and will certainly catch players by surprise. The structure of weaving everyday school life with rescuing people from a nefarious world hidden inside a TV turns out to be a winning combination, even if the former seems to dominate much of the game’s runtime. Final exams take up multiple in-game days, with no option to explore or converse with classmates after each day’s academics are through. This seems an effective parallel to one’s real life school experience: exams can be draining, both mentally and physically. We don’t always feel like hanging out or playing sports after a day filled with essay writing and multiple-choice questions. Even after finishing the game multiple times, I continue to be impressed with the way in which Persona 4 has the power to transport me back to my own high school and college days. And few video games have taken a fully formed and comprehensive in-game calendar and made it so engaging. That is to say, at worst stress-inducing and at best a careful planner’s dream.

At last, we arrive at the combat, which on the surface is a standard turn-based affair where characters act according to a set order that doesn’t change during battles. On the plus side, this consistency allows for effective strategizing: of your four-member party, one can attack, one can cast a healing spell, one can use an item, one can guard to protect their weak spot from the enemy’s attack. While the dungeons are fairly simple, the core mechanic of Personas sees each character assigned a single demon that bestows powers upon them, with the main character able to acquire new ones after combat or through a demonic alchemy of sorts. All of this represents another layer of depth within an already multi-faceted game. Fusing Personas to create stronger ones actually connects with the aforementioned Social Link system; deeper bonds with specific characters imbue your newly-created demons (of the same affiliation) with greater power. If you know, you know; if this is unfamiliar but perhaps intriguing, find a way to experience all that Persona 4 has to offer as soon as possible.

With some video games, returning to them after time passes shines a brighter light on their strengths and the qualities that perhaps made you fall in love in the first place. With others, changes in your perspective that may have resulted from life experience or familiarity with new works in their genres can taint, to some extent, what once seemed beyond reproach. Completing Persona 4 Golden again has only intensified feelings that I had been tip-toeing around for some time. In a word, I think this just might be my favorite game. It invades my thoughts, what with its infectious tunes and unforgettable personalities. I’m not just sad when it’s over. I legitimately feel crushed that, at least for a time, the friends I’ve made in Inaba are moving on with their lives, just as I have to do with my own. That’s the message, right? A slice of life is just that, and we can cherish it and recall it with fondness, but eventually we’ll be on to the next adventure. And I’ve done that. I’ll continue to do it. However, I won’t stop wondering if Teddie’s still living with Yosuke or how Yukiko’s doing with the family business. It really did feel like I was a part of their world, and now these characters will always be a part of mine.

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