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TalkBack / Fuga: Melodies of Steel (Switch) Review
« on: July 29, 2021, 05:38:00 PM »

Furry Fury

Who would have thought that in 2021 developer Cyberconnect2 would revisit the world of Tail Concerto and Solatorobo: Red the Hunter? For those out of the loop, Tail Concerto and Solatorobo were colorful 3D action platformers featuring a world inhabited by anthropomorphic cats and dogs that were released on the PS1 and DS respectively. Solatorobo was released in 2010, and outside of a Japan-only mobile game in 2014, there hasn’t been a follow-up since. That all changes with Cyberconnect2’s first venture in self-publishing with Fuga: Melodies of Steel, which trades the 3D action of previous entries for on-rails turn-based RPG combat with base building elements. And yet, maybe the most notable departure is tone.

The opening is downright haunting. In an unmistakable allusion to the Nazi invasion of France, our ragtag group of anthropomorphic puppies and kittens—the oldest of which is 12 and the youngest 4—are robbed of their homes and families in the Gasco countryside by the Berman empire, and are guided by a mysterious voice over the radio to the location of a hulking tank called Taranis. The tutorial begins with the voice instructing the children how to operate the steel behemoth and its weapons as they plow through the Berman military. The nightmare culminates with a boss encounter, where our crew of tweens and toddlers meet their match. Facing certain doom, the mysterious voice suggests the Taranis’ secret weapon: The Soul Cannon. This giant weapon will eliminate the enemy in one shot, however, to use this weapon, one of the children must be sacrificed to power the cannon. Choosing that first child sacrifice was alarming and uncomfortable to make, and though the choice is quickly reversed, it left me determined to never have to resort to such drastic measures again.

But as effective as that opening hour may have been, it quickly became apparent that the horrors of war, child soldiers, and death resulted to be in service to what is essentially a paint-by-numbers save the world story. Our main characters are revealed to be one-note archetypes featuring tropes like the plucky farmer boy lead, the maternal childhood friend, the nerdy type that has trouble speaking with girls, the villain seeking world domination… I could go on.  The darker elements of the story, much like the use of World War II imagery, are more of a tonal backdrop to hang the narrative and gameplay on rather than the earnest exploration of the loss of innocence or the traumatic effects of war on children that I was expecting given the premise. Much of the narrative is comprised of the children making new friends, learning to work together, and bonding as a crew. These moments can be genuinely cute, and I imagine there is an audience that will appreciate the juxtaposition of childlike innocence and wartime peril. That’s not to say that the writing never attempts to touch on heavier material, just that it ends up coming off as toothless when taken all together. In other words, the story’s bark is worse than its bite.

The core gameplay remains solid throughout, however. Fuga is structured into about a dozen chapters, with each chapter playing out with your tank slowly making its way from left to right along a dotted path. Each dot indicates an event or item, most of these are combat encounters but some are pickups to refill your pools of health and skill points or materials for upgrades, and others are intermissions where the fighting takes a backseat and you’re allowed to manage the characters and base building. As you progress, chapters will include forks in the paths, and it will be up to the player to choose between either the safer paths with less combat and more HP and SP refills or to brave the more dangerous paths for the boosted experience points and material rewards to upgrade the Taranis’ many weapons and facilities. The difficulty curves for these paths feel just right. I never felt consistently capable to handle the dangerous paths and neither did it feel prudent to only ride the safe paths either since both experience points and weapons and armor upgrades were so valuable.

Combat plays out in turn-based battles with speed-based turn orders. Knowing when your opponent is about to strike is important since enemies hit really hard, but can be staggered if they are hit by the right weapon type denoted. The Taranis is equipped with three battle stations that can be armed with either a machine gun, grenade launcher, or cannon. Each child in your party is tied to one of those weapon types which all have their own traits and roles. Machine guns are the weakest but most accurate and typically carry skills that can puncture enemy armor, cannons hit like a truck but have difficulty with precision, and grenade launchers land somewhere in the middle of damage and hit rate while also specializing in inflicting status ailments. Those descriptions hold mostly true across the board, but each child plays a little differently. For instance, Socks and Hanna wield grenade launchers but Socks focuses on having a wide array of status ailments that he can inflict, while Hanna trades offensive capabilities for some of the best healing in the game.

Each combat encounter is ranked with a letter grade based on turn count, damage taken, and technique with higher ranks netting you more XP and better item drops. This incentivizes highly efficient playstyles over simple brute force. When played well, each combat is a puzzle that challenges the player to maximize skills, weapon types, character synergies, and good old-fashioned RNG to stagger, weaken and dispatch the Berman forces. Combat becomes especially satisfying in the midgame as more useful skills and capabilities are doled out, but towards the endgame, battles became more rote as I became perhaps became too capable, and as chapters dragged on a good deal longer than I would have preferred.

Base building is the low point of the game, unfortunately. During specified points, the crew will take an intermission where the children can farm, cook, fish for scrap, conduct upgrades and build affinity with each other through conversations. I get the sense that this was supposed to be the heart and soul of Fuga, a place of refuge away from the violence. And yet I groaned anytime an intermission cropped up. These moments are incredibly valuable since they cannot be repeated and there are only a finite number of them, given the game’s linearity, so if you want the best outcomes, you’ll be sure to do everything possible to get the most of your limited Action Points that determine how many activities you can do in an intermission. But the vast majority of activities amount to running around the tank, selecting from a menu, and checking off a list. As I played these sections, I was too often reminded of the monastery from Fire Emblem: Three Houses which was filled with the identical tedium of doing chores that could not be ignored or sped through if you wanted the best results in combat.

I’m torn on Fuga: Melodies of Steel. There is more that I like than dislike; combat is satisfying, the graphical style is appealing, the music ranges from good to phenomenal and the story, as cliché as it may be, is told well enough. And yet I still can’t shake the feeling that Fuga could have been so much more if it cut back on the boring base building and truly committed to a tone that the premise deserves. If a solid linear RPG that can be beaten in under 20 hours is something you’re in the market for or if you’re curious about the successor to Solatorobo then Fuga is at least worth a look. But if your interest was piqued by the trailer or heard the premise of children, war, and permadeath; then you should know there is a lot less here than you may have initially thought.

TalkBack / Commandos 2 HD Remaster
« on: February 01, 2021, 11:42:14 AM »

This old war dog could learn some new tricks.

The stealth focused real-time tactics games of PC have experienced a bit of a comeback in recent years, with developer Mimimi Games’ Desperados III making a big splash at the tail end of 2020. I absolutely loved Desperados III, as well as Mimimi’s previous outing in the genre: Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun. So when I learned Commandos 2—one of the most influential titles in this subgenre—was being remastered by Yippee Entertainment! and being ported to Switch, I knew I had to try it. Unfortunately, outdated design, poor controls, and poor quality of life features sabotage this PC classic.

The premise of Commandos 2 is simple: you play as a small set of uniquely skilled Allied commandos infiltrating bases and thwarting Nazis. As a real-time tactics game, most of the experience revolves around creatively problem-solving enemy dense zones by carefully dispatching unlucky soldiers while avoiding detection from their ever-present view-cones. Each of your characters specializes in a certain niche. For instance, the Sapper is a British demolitions expert detecting enemy mines and deploying mines of his own; the Green Beret is your typical All-American muscle who can dish as much damage as he can take; the Thief is fast, agile, and limber, with tools up his sleeve to get in and out of places undetected. As the game progresses, you’ll be introduced to more and more characters that will expand your options for completing each objective.  

Objectives are detailed in the intro to each mission and displayed in the pause menu, and yet I found it difficult to keep track of them. Levels are designed pretty openly, leaving the angle of approach in the hands of the player. Some may prefer this, but I enjoyed the tailored maps of the Mimimi-developed titles since they naturally guided me towards the main objectives. I regularly found myself blindly crawling around and knocking out Nazis around the map without the assurance that I was on the right track.

Though guns, bombs, and knives are weapons in your toolkit, the scenarios play more like puzzles than shooting galleries. These puzzles can be head-scratchers leading to many deaths and thus many failures. In fact, much of Commandos 2 is an exercise in trial and error. This is by design and it is mitigated by easy quicksaving at the push of a button.

Alas, if only the loading were as convenient. It’s easy enough to load a quicksave, but it’s nowhere near as fast as it should be. Loading takes about five or more (typically more) seconds to throw you back in the action, which severely slows down the pacing and makes the more difficult sections a headache-inducing slog. For comparison, both Desperados III and Shadow Tactics loading times are nearly immediate,avoiding this problem. My guess is that the Switch’s hardware is just not powerful enough to load in as fast.

Speaking of hardware woes, the controls just feel off on a traditional controller. Obviously, the original game was built around mouse and keyboard with RTS-style controls built around hotkeys, cursors, and clicking. The Switch port makes a commendable effort of translating the controls to a gamepad which, among other changes, replaces clicking to move with the left thumbstick directly controlling the characters. It’s a compromise that functionally works, but isn’t optimal.

As much as it pains me to say, Commandos 2 is not the game I was hoping for. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by modern games that built upon this predecessor, perhaps it was the clunky translation to console, or perhaps it was simply my impatience with the frequent loading times. Whatever the reason, this legend of the genre fell well below my expectations. If you are a fan of the original game, then by all accounts this remaster does wonders for the visuals and would probably be an easy recommendation. In this case, do yourself at least the favor of avoiding it on Switch.

TalkBack / Evolution Board Game (Switch) Review
« on: December 20, 2020, 06:50:00 AM »

Can this board game survive natural selection?

Evolution Board Game joins the likes of Catan and Carcassonne as another digital board game to make the leap to Switch eShop. While there is a case to be made that the lack of physical elements and human presence robs these experiences of their real-world coziness, Evolution makes a case for its digital incarnation by pairing excellent game design with modes, content, and features. Unfortunately, it also comes with its share of performance issues—at least on Switch.

   As the name implies, Evolution is about competing for resources, adaptation, and survival. You (and up to three other players) control a species congregating at a watering hole that produces plant food. Each species takes turns eating plant food to support its population. The more populous your species, the more food they can eat, with the accumulated food and population being key in gaining the highest score and winning the match. If a species fails to eat, they lose one population; losing all population results in that species going extinct and having to start over with a new species. Cards are played to either increase population, increase body size for attack and defense, create more species, or be added as traits to your already existing species. These traits typically fall into the category of increasing your efficiency in eating, defending from predators, or speccing into a carnivore to become a predator yourself.

If that all sounds like a lot to digest, you’re not wrong. It took me a couple of hours playing before finally wrapping my head around the rules, and that early learning period was rough. I spent a lot of time reading card descriptions, fumbling with combinations, and shamefully losing against the easiest AI. However, once the rules and systems finally clicked, I discovered just how deep and engaging the systems in Evolution can be.

Evolution is, above all else, precisely balanced. The game presents itself in a fashion similar to other digital card games like Hearthstone or Legends of Runeterra, but instead of being a deck-building game with players pulling from personal collections, Evolution has everyone pulling from the same set deck each match (though decks can change from match to match). This levels the playing field and creates a consistency with which cards appear, and the cards that do appear are never overpowered or useless.

The best part of this system is how it rewards flexibility and mindful adaptation to new scenarios. Creating several species may be good for eating the most food, but typically leaves you susceptible to droughts and carnivores, on the other hand, opponents tend to get wise when you rely on carnivore tactics and bulk up their defenses, which could lead to your species going extinct from starvation. Even with the luck of the draw being a factor (as it is with most card games), Evolution always rewarded mindfulness and skill. As resources and opponents change, so must your strategy.

   Making the most of its digital packaging, Evolution presents the player with loads of options. There is a campaign, offline AI quickplay, weekly challenges, leaderboards, unlockables, and multiplayer in three different forms: local pass and play, online public matches, and online asynchronous matches. The standout here is the campaign which helps players get over the difficulty curve and prepares them to learn the cards and strategies that will be found in the more intimidating online matches. The mode itself is not much more than a world map with levels that must be completed in a linear fashion dotted with bosses throughout, but it works well enough.

A noteworthy element of the campaign is the use of AI; beyond the typical easy, normal, and hard, AI will follow a designated behavior depending on their personality. For instance, the Minimus Rex personality plays to survive even in low food conditions, the Glutto Vastus, on the contrary, emphasizes eating as much as possible while the Defensa Grandis will spec into protective traits to counter offense. These personalities give each AI encounter a fun wrinkle as you consider your decisions with their strengths and weaknesses in mind.

The game itself is excellent, but the software application it comes in, however, is not. At least on Switch, Evolution is sluggish and sloppy. I’ve lost progress in the campaign when I left a mission and returned to it only to find I was punished several levels back. Transitions between menus and matches lack fluidity; at times AI opponents will be playing swimmingly and then the next they’ll stall before playing their turn. Controls are unreliable when using the Intelligence trait, and I’ve repeatedly had to use touch controls to get myself out of moments where buttons and d-pads seemingly decided not to work. Needless to say, this port needs work. Out of curiosity, I tried my hand at a single match on the iOS version on my iPhone 7, and though some sluggishness in the menus remained, the overall experience within the matches was much smoother and snappier.    

   Once I got over the initial hump and learned its systems, Evolution genuinely surprised me with its depth of strategy and breadth of content. The Switch version leaves a lot to be desired in terms of performance, and for now, despite my usual misgivings of the platform, I’d honestly recommend the mobile version. But if Evolution wants to survive on Switch in the wilds of the eShop, it would be wise to take a queue from nature and find a way to adapt.

TalkBack / YesterMorrow (Switch) Review
« on: November 10, 2020, 12:32:52 PM »

A beautiful disaster.

Your once peaceful home of Forest Island is in shambles after the invasion of evil extra-dimensional shadows; and with the looming threat of these shadows summoning even more terrible horrors, the fate of the rest of the continent hangs in the balance. Thus begins YesterMorrow; you play as Yuri, a young woman who bounces between her child timeline and adult timeline to save her family, the divine guardians, and the world itself. If the story sounds ho-hum, that’s because it is. It’s your typical light versus dark, save-the-world fare. But really the story takes a back seat to the gameplay. This adventure plays out as a gorgeous 2D pixel art platformer that incorporates both puzzle and action elements, mixing the two in ways that keep both styles of play fresh. Unfortunately, YesterMorrow is plagued by its own shadows in the form of ugly, annoying, and even game-breaking bugs that infest the game from start to finish.

Zelda fans will likely notice that the time hopping premise has hints of Ocarina of Time, but the way this mechanic plays out is more akin to the alternating worlds of Hyrule and the Dark World in A Link to the Past (or Lorule in A Link Between Worlds). Similar to those titles, when Yuri jumps in time, the location remains the same, but the layout of said location will be different, allowing the player to progress through an area depending on which Yuri is needed for the task ahead. Though Yuri’s physical form changes from a diminutive child to a young adult, her skills remain identical across timelines. The major changes between these timelines comes in the form of the world; young Yuri’s world is mostly peaceful, focusing more on puzzles, while adult Yuri’s world is much more treacherous and action packed. This back and forth between both Yuris and both styles of platforming is at the center of the gameplay.

Dungeons are another apt Zelda comparison. YesterMorrow’s main platform challenges come in the form of different Temples that gradually increase in challenge and complexity and culminate in a boss fight. Upon beating these bosses, the player is rewarded with an item that expands max HP as well as a new ability to add to Yuri’s toolset, such as bombs, double jumping, and dashing. I have to add here that at least two of these boss fights incorporate an action-platforming obstacle course design that transforms the bog standard platforming boss into something exceptionally exciting, frantic, and blood pumping. These two encounters demand mastery over Yuri’s movement and abilities, and are without a doubt the high point of my playthrough. Unfortunately, these highs can’t save YesterMorrow from its long list of lows.   There is no getting around it: YesterMorrow is filled to the brim with technical problems and shortcomings. Early on in my playthrough, nasty glitches of flashing lights and artifacting cropped up, obstructing my gameplay—not to mention also inflicting real discomfort on my eyes. Later I came across physics issues with my abilities: at one point my bombs defied gravity, flying up into the air instead of following their usual arc. This bug came in handy when fighting a particular boss that had missing—or nonexistent?—sound effects for his attacks. I even experienced the game crashing twice, booting me out to the console’s home menu; this is the first time this has ever happened to me since purchasing my Switch. An update did release during my second day of playing which took care of the ugly visual glitches, but didn’t save the game from a myriad of other bugs which culminated in a softlock that stopped my playthrough dead in its tracks. I could easily fill the rest of this review simply chronicling all the bugs, glitches, errors, and other technical hiccups that I experienced. Suffice to say, YesterMorrow is only playable in the loosest sense of the word.

But I would be remiss not to call attention to the framerate dips. I’m unsure if this is a problem with the base game or the Switch port, but YesterMorrow will chug at times when onscreen activity is high. This is immersion-breaking at best, and rage-inducing at worst. There were moments I would be making my way through dungeons that demanded precise platforming, only to be derailed by frequent framerate drops.

These issues ruined my enjoyment of YesterMorrow as a whole, which is sad because there is a solid platformer underneath all the bugs. The controls are excellent (when the framerate allows); it’s a joy to roll, dash, and double jump, in particular.The pixel art is gorgeous, from the traditional garb of villagers, to the intricately crafted towns and the ominous abstract ruins; everything pops. This is high praise as the pixel-art-indie-darling-platformer subgenre is congested to the point of becoming its own cliche, but the devs at Bitmap Galaxy have what it takes to stand out. Unfortunately, their skill has been seriously overshadowed by the game’s technical performance, but also by something else.

Though everything I said above is true, YesterMorrow left me with a uniquely hollow feeling even from the beginning. For instance, the starting music incorporates elegant flutes and weeping strings that are wistfully melancholic; however, this conflicts with the point in the story when kids are playing tag and hide-and-seek while the adults prepare a festival. It’s musically beautiful, but tonally discordant within that point of the story, and this issue appears again and again at various other points. Beyond that, most characters, though elegantly rendered, are little more than static signposts, pointing you to your next task. I once came across a child in a cave hiding from the shadows that captured his family, but once I had rescued his family and saved his town, he remained in the exact same spot delivering the exact same fearful dialog. Add onto this a lack of voice acting or even just basic speech sound effects, and you’re left with beautiful husks rather than true characters. The world is full of color, but devoid of life.

The gameplay also has its own share of shortcomings beyond my technical gripes. Between dungeons, I’d often feel lost without any reassurance from the game that I was going in the right direction.There is a map for which you can collect pieces to fill in, but it’s practically useless and serves mostly as eye candy. It doesn’t show you the way you need to go or give valuable information about your location. Plus, the disastrous technical condition of YesterMorrow made me lose confidence in the game’s basic design. More than once I found myself lost or stumped on a puzzle, unsure if it was a glitch or my own ignorance holding me back.  

Typically, I try to think of who would want to play this game, even if it wasn’t one that I particularly liked. What audience would this appeal to? Is there a special use case or niche that this game fills? Honestly, I don’t have an answer to these questions. YesterMorrow could have been a real solid platformer, but it was released far too soon; more work is needed to bring it up to a point where it can be enjoyed. There are moments where YesterMorrow’s tight controls, level design, and artstyle all come together and shine. Unfortunately, the mountain of technical issues and the empty world eclipse any hints of excellence. At the end of the day, YesterMorrow is an incomplete, broken game, and broken games are neither for yesterday or tomorrow.

TalkBack / TENS! (Switch) Review
« on: November 05, 2020, 04:00:00 AM »

Can this math puzzler amount to more than the sum of its parts?

Taking inspiration from both sudoku and block-dropping puzzles like Tetris, the goal of TENS! is to line up dice in such a way that the sum of either the rows or columns is ten. Once you succeed, the dice clear away and add to your score, making way for more dice to be added; if the board becomes so congested that you can no longer make any moves, then you fail and can try again. The game revolves around making the most out of the dice you are given and playing around any obstacles on the board, going for either easy tens or opting for higher scoring combos. It’s a simple, yet engrossing design that feels right at home on the Switch.

There is a pleasant tactile element to the feedback of TENS! that elevates the experience of playing. Scrolling through tiles elicits a soft clicking sound, placing a die has a satisfying snap and completing a line makes great use of the Switch’s HD rumble. The best way to put it might be that it’s like playing with bubble wrap; it has that same snappy gratifying feeling. This is complemented by a colorful UI, and a soothing soundtrack. Admittedly, there are only a handful of tracks that end up on repeat throughout, but they’re a gentle and calming presence that sits nicely in the background so they never became grating to listen to over and over again.

Players can choose between three modes: an adventure mode, an endless mode, and multiplayer. Adventure is a campaign featuring ten worlds with five solo puzzles and two boss encounters each. There is a gentle difficulty curve as these puzzles slowly demand more from the player in terms of both score and skill. At the start, levels are simple no-frills puzzles; but as the adventure goes on levels begin introducing special tiles that add a layer of challenge. For instance, some tiles are blocked and must be played around, others may be burner tiles that destroy dice, but my favorite are the re-roll tiles that add a bit of RNG by rerolling dice for a different number that may help—or hinder—the player’s progress.

The bosses in adventure mode will feel familiar to fans of similar competitive puzzle modes. These encounters are head to head matches where each line completed by one player may inhibit the other by producing blocker tiles. These feel especially different from the rest of the levels by changing the typical slow methodical pace to a much more frantic one that demands fast thinking to stay ahead of the AI competitors. Some of these bosses were my favorite parts of TENS!. I’d even routinely come back to play one after beating the campaign whenever I had enough of the vanilla experience in endless mode.

Endless mode is exactly what it is said to be on the tin. Much like standard Tetris, endless mode is a game of TENS! that only ends when the player fails. But without the ramping intensity of Tetris or the special tiles from the campaign; the likelihood of a game over is rather low. That’s not to say Endless mode does not have its place; just that it’s better suited for those looking to zone out and decompress rather than anyone looking for a challenge.

Multiplayer is exactly like the boss encounters of adventure mode but player versus player. There is no option to play against AI which is odd, but since bosses from adventure mode can be replayed, that is not much of an issue. What might be a real issue is the lack of online multiplayer. If that is something that is important to you then look elsewhere; I know that for me puzzle games are more of a solo experience, so it did not bother me much. Multiplayer is still plenty fun, in the same way that the bosses are fun, even more so since it’s with another person.

The one sticking-point that keeps TENS! from being a standout is that it just doesn’t have much to offer once the adventure is done; especially when considering contemporaries in the eShop that are more ambitious or offer more reasons to stay invested. Bigger may not always be better, but TENS! struggles to completely justify its value amongst the competition.

TENS! is like a piece of bubble gum; it’s colorful and even delightful in the moment but loses its flavor too soon. That doesn’t negate the fun I did have though. I really enjoyed my time with TENS! as a casual palette cleanser between bigger releases, and it’s convenient to be able to quickly pull it up on my Switch whenever I feel the itch to play a puzzle or two. It’s not hard in the slightest, though the later puzzles in the campaign may have tripped me up a couple of times; I never felt like I was hitting a wall. Instead TENS! delivers relaxing puzzle gameplay that is just engaging enough to have your attention without ever pushing you to the point of frustration.

TalkBack / HyperBrawl Tournament (Switch) Review
« on: October 31, 2020, 10:38:02 AM »

Rough play is the name of the game.

HyperBrawl Tournament is as simple as sports games come: your team must throw a ball into a goal and stop the opposing team from doing the same. Only issue? This ball game is also a fist fight.

Each match has you knocking out opponents with punches and kicks, wielding items on cooldown like hammers, bombs, and swords to defend or gain an opening to score. Once a player is knocked out, they are out of the game for a few short seconds and then respawn near their goal. Matches play out in a series of rounds, typically lasting 90 seconds, in which teams of two must score the most points to win the round; whoever wins the most rounds wins the match.

The short length of the rounds paired with the aggressive brawler gameplay and small arena-like stages create a very tense environment for every match. Because the stages are packed so tight, goals are easy to reach and points rack up quickly; it only takes a clever juke or a critical knockout to score that next goal, so each match feels like a tug-o-war. Even if one team takes a sizable lead in one round, the scoreboard resets for the following round, leveling the playing field so no one can get too comfortable. This ingenious design leads to several white-knuckle moments that make each match exhilarating to play.

The colorful cast of characters and a clean aesthetic complement the gameplay. Each character feels like they jumped out of a comic book panel or an action figure in the toy aisle. None of them are particularly memorable, but they enhance the game just by being so cartoonish and varied. Each character is also different in gameplay, typically landing somewhere on a spectrum between weak, frail, and quick to strong, tanky, and slow. The speedier characters are great at weaving through the stage and scoring quick goals, while the bulkier ones typically score best simply by punching any obstacles out of their way. A major strategy then is in how you compose your team: Do you want a dynamic duo of both speed and strength? Or, would you rather min-max in one sort of playstyle? Or maybe you want a balanced approach with two well-rounded characters? Though it was easy for me to find my preferred team, the characters are well balanced enough that no pairing feels particularly overpowered or particularly weak.

Each character can be given an item to wield on a cooldown. These range from offensive attacks for quick and easy knockouts to more supportive options like a barrier to block shots on goal. Players also have the ability to tap into the HyperForce, a charged up status that makes players faster and exceptionally stronger. Both the items and the HyperForce may feel overpowered to newcomers, but there are ways to play around these variables.

You’re presented with nine characters at first, but as you progress and level up you will unlock a few more. In fact, progression is a crucial part of HyperBrawl’s gameplay loop. Taking a queue from modern competitive games like Overwatch, as you work through the campaign, compete online or complete objectives, you will accumulate credits to purchase cosmetics and experience points for level ups, which unlock characters and reward you with loot boxes. These loot boxes, called Artifacts in-game, randomly reward skins, victory poses, and other cosmetics. As of this review, Artifacts are not monetized and are attained via natural game progression or spending the in-game credits; some skins, though, are paid-only through optional DLC.

That said, it’s hard to get too invested because there is no story to speak of and the characters, as colorful as they are, never really talk or express themselves. Sure, character bios give the player a loose idea of who these people are and the occasional flavor text might provide context for why HyperBrawl exists, but it’s all rather barebones. The campaign itself is really just a season of HyperBrawl and a tournament, so it’s more a series of matches than it is a true single-player story.

Thankfully, there is multiplayer. You can play up to four players locally or online and participate in 1v1 matches online in Blitz mode. If you want to just play against AI, the three difficulty settings are really well tuned despite the few options. The online is pretty reliable within the match; however, there are some rather glaring framerate dips before and after each game when viewing the character models. I’ve also experienced freezing after online matches that forced me to reset, but thankfully this has never impacted performance while playing either docked with ethernet or wireless in handheld mode.

What is actually a problem is the lack of options for matches. Whether online or off, each match plays with the same 90 second round, best of three ruleset. There is no way to change this ruleset, turn items off, or remove the HyperForce. This is especially frustrating because two different rulesets are in play in the campaign, but access to those is not available outside of said campaign. This would be understandable for the online Blitz mode where quick matchmaking is important, but to see no options in online private matches or the offline Arcade mode is disappointing.

HyperBrawl’s beat-’em-up-meets-sports gameplay is frantic fun that leads to tense matches and clutch moments. The progression means that you have things to work toward if enticed, but the lack of story and multiplayer options may limit your willingness to get too invested. Still, developer Milkytea has something special here in the core gameplay for those that are interested; that interest just may be short lived.

TalkBack / Space Crew (Switch) Review
« on: October 22, 2020, 09:33:49 AM »

A decent space sim soured by long missions and repetitive gameplay.

Earth is being attacked by an evil alien race known as Phasmids, and it is your job as the crew of a United Defense Force ship to fight back and eliminate the alien threat. This is about as much story the player receives in this follow up to developer Runner Duck’s freshman outing, Bomber Crew. As the second game in the Crew series, Space Crew offers vessel maintenance and strategy simulation akin to Faster Than Light. But unlike Faster Than Light’s emphasis on roguelike elements and choose-your-own-adventure style game progression, Space Crew puts all of its focus on combat encounters. Unfortunately, all of these play out so similarly and are dealt with in such a similar fashion that once you figure out how the game works, Space Crew devolves from spaceship battle strategy to spaceship battle maintenance.    

Despite the choice of different mission types—be it escorting a freighter, dropping a probe, rescuing an astronomer or clearing out enemy Phasmids—each mission invariably plays out nearly identically. You pilot your shuttle, hyper-jumping from zone to zone until you reach your destination, complete your mission’s objective, and then jump back retracing your steps back to the UDF’s space station hub. Most zones you jump to are arenas for battles between your ship and dozens of enemy fighters. This is the meat of the gameplay.

These battles are initially exciting as you learn the roles of each of your customizable crew members. Having your engineer transfer power from engines to weapons as your captain steers wildly with his evasive piloting ability so your weapons officers can unload as much damage as possible while avoiding incoming fire is exhilarating, at first anyways. So is ordering your security officer to grab a phase rifle to eliminate a Phasmid boarding crew and cleaning up the aftermath of the wreckage with your engineer as the battle continues raging on just outside the safety of the quickly depleting shields. However, once you know the solution to each problem the game throws at you, tactical decisions fade into rote routines that are never truly challenged or strayed from.

And perhaps even that could be forgiven. The gameplay, though repetitive, is engaging in short bursts. Going through the combat routine is almost meditative; playing it while having a podcast or a show in the background is a fine way to relax and unwind if that is something you are looking for. That said, the missions themselves can drag—playing through one can mean up to twenty minutes or more of nearly uninterrupted combat—and once you string basically indistinguishable experiences along for 6-10 hours, you begin to space out.

It's worth noting that if a crewmember does end up fainting without being revived, then they die permanently. However, permadeath is not much of a threat when you can easily exit out of the game and start the mission over again, and if you do lose them for good the game will produce a replacement at the hub, albeit with lower stats. Yet once you know how to handle each situation, a dying crewmember will rarely ever happen, let alone be an issue.

Thankfully, the character and ship customization between missions does help break up their monotony a bit. At the Athena Station hub, you can deck out your crew with different gear, customize their appearance, and assign secondary roles once unlocked. Similarly, the ship may also receive upgrades to weapons, engines and systems paid for by credits accrued from both story and side missions. You’re presented with many viable options and it feels good to customize according to your playstyle and then immediately feel the difference once you set back out for another expedition.

The presentation and Phasmid champions are two other positives. The chibi characters and faux-Star Trek aesthetic never astonishes but always pleases. There is a charm to the simple colorful look and feel of the world; this is especially true of the Phasmids. Periodically, a Phasmid champion will show up with a horde of starfighters to put a stop to your campaign and taunt you while doing so. Some are typical arrogant bullies, and others are sadists looking to torture you, but the worst has to be Valadu Appakutt, a particularly annoying champion that relentlessly torments you with pop culture references. Although these named alien characters’ barks are much worse than their bites, they provide just the right amount of Saturday-morning-cartoon villainy to make defeating them that much more satisfying.

Ultimately Space Crew does have some notable moments and gameplay ideas, and it’s astounding that Runner Duck, a very small team, developed a game of this scale. But the core gameplay loop loses its luster far too quickly and drags on for far too long to give a full throated recommendation. That’s not to say this game doesn’t have its place; if you’re interested in space sims, but the complexity or difficulty of other games in the genre has put you off, then Space Crew may be for you. If you’re a vet of the genre looking for another dazzling adventure, though, then stay far, far away.

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