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TalkBack / Astroneer (Switch) Review
« on: January 13, 2022, 04:55:18 AM »

This Space Port Is Astroneer-ly Perfect

Astroneer has been an under-the-radar sleeper hit since its release in 2019. It has a relaxed vibe of exploration that encourages experimentation with little to no punishment for zany adventures. System Era Softworks’ first foray into game development shows a high level of polish that has continued from its Early Access debut into the current Nintendo Switch release, with all content updates included. Astroneer provides a zen-like atmosphere that works surprisingly well docked or undocked, multiplayer or solo. In any form, it’s generally a positive, meditative experience.

Astroneer sets you down on an alien planet with your shelter, 3D printer, and a terrain tool. The terrain tool is a giant vacuum used to suck up the environment—including the ground—and use the materials collected to craft more equipment. What stands out immediately is the sleek artstyle of the game. Everything is rendered in a sleek, low-poly approach. The environment is given a smooth geometric look with bright primary colors that matches the character and material design. These characteristics play well with the Switch’s capabilities and don’t lose anything when translated from PC.

One of the most clever points of Astroneer’s design is the technology. Everything from your backpack to your shelter is modular, with points to connect everything seamlessly. If you make an oxygen tank, it slots directly into your backpack, but also can slot into a storage spot of your terrain tool. Want to connect your 3D printer to your research table? It slots right in, and that way they can share the same power connection. It all snaps together satisfyingly like lego pieces. As you continue to research, find more materials, and upgrade, you will craft more technology to integrate together.

Using your trusty terrain tool to suck up the ground and create vast caverns or raise giant land masses is tons of fun. Watching the geometry warp and mutate to your will is hypnotic. On the opposite end, the ability to lift and move objects with a mouse-like cursor can feel clunky at times but is a limited pain point overall. Getting the hang of the researching, backpack management, and crafting has a bit of a steep learning curve but not an insurmountable one.

The technology is expansive and leads to creating a massive base that can be fully automated for resource gathering. It’s a rather deep system that includes factory style production systems and multiple vehicles for traversal—including interplanetary journeys. I found it easy to start a project, blink once and realize hours had flown by. Though I will say, the tutorial is less intuitive than one might want, and by less intuitive, I mean it’s the equivalent of reading a PDF. The game is great for spending hours digging deep into the systems but not without a wiki by your side to avoid getting frustrated at the aimlessness of the unknown. I won’t say the learning curve hindered my enjoyment, but the game does little to onboard you, so finding enjoyment is through self motivation.

Once you’ve conjured up that motivation, though, Astroneer is a fantastic crafting game. Researching enough alien plant life to buy new recipes to mine new materials to build the recipes makes for  a satisfying loop. I generally felt good upgrading my equipment step by step to let me go further into my exploration to get more materials. It might sound monotonous, but it works. This also is true in co-op mode (now for the first time with local co-op.) Working with a partner makes delegating tasks a lot easier and hanging with a friend while performing repetitive tasks is just a lot of fun. Also getting a dune buggy rover and performing wild jumps with a friend is as crazy as it sounds.

Even the soundtrack inspires a set of wonder and calm. The music is orchestral in nature but with a sci-fi lo-fi twinge to it. Out of this world synth sounds punctuate every track making this my go-to work soundtrack on my low key days when I want to relax and focus. As far as how Switch handles the game, it performs well in both handheld and docked mode, though some slow down during occasional hectic moments can occur. I see that as par for the course when the game lets you alter the environment entirely on a large scale. Other than that, this is a port worthy of what the hardware can accomplish.

Astroneer is a small package that packs a lot of punch. There’s so much to dig into and explore that it’s easy to lose hours upon hours without batting an eye. Despite the learning curve, I found myself putting on my headphones and zoning out to the sweet soundtrack and some mindless digging. I wish that the systems were explained a little bit better but some light reading and personal discovery help this underrated indie shine.

TalkBack / Dungeon Munchies (Switch) Review
« on: January 04, 2022, 10:34:03 AM »

Everything’s delicious but the gameplay

Shadowdropped during a Nintendo Indie World presentation and developed by maJAja,  Dungeon Munchies is an action platformer with varied combat elements, but there’s a lot more to consider with this new title. You see, Dungeon Munchies is an odd duck. It’s a cooking themed game that combines poor combat and frustrating physics with a dash of charming story and beautiful art design. Then for dessert we get both frustrating level progression and a fantastic soundtrack. I wasn’t ever sure whether I was excited or disheartened when playing, which leaves a weird aftertaste overall.

I want to start with the stand outs of Dungeon Munchies. The story is a quirky mystery that combines necromancy, interstellar space travel, and evolution; it’s both entertaining and engrossing. Most of the human population has left Earth in hopes of finding a new planet to live on after the Sun has left (leaving you a Dear John letter in the process). What has remained on Earth has evolved, giving birth to intelligent plant and animal life. You are a zombie reanimated by a necromancer named Simmer. She is a ghost who was once a fanciful chef of some renown but now is trying to get in contact with the humans that fled Earth. She raises the protagonist to assist in her efforts and from there you meet a colorful cast of characters that are comedic and a delight to talk with. The zombie and living vegetable fauna are quick with the quips regarding the events of the story so each event feels impactful.

The music is also a stand out, with catchy battle music and weirdly off putting atmospheric sounds in the interim. It stands out more so when it works to amplify the ongoing situation. The boss battles are bombastic bullet hells in scope and design, so having the music kick in to increase the chaos is always good. Along with that, the character design and artwork are topnotch. In dialogue, characters are animated in a lovely anime style while the boss designs are really out of this world. Not to get too spoilery, but at later stages Dungeon Munchies pushes the demonic tones reminiscent of Carrion, and that’s a fantastic turn for the artwork and the game as a whole.

Those would all make for a great experience, except that the core gameplay and level design are severely lacking. The game is a 2D platformer with combat mechanics, a classic meat and potatoes we’ve seen many times before. Unfortunately, the jumping feels floaty and slippery to a frustrating degree. Add to that challenging platforming sections that just aren’t built for these floaty levels of physics or uncontrollable sliding of the player and we’re going to have a bad time. Luckily the levels are short, so brute forcing them becomes the real solution but also sort of another problem. The level design is a set of short platforming sections, then a checkpoint, and repeat until a hub to talk to NPCs or upgrade your character. The stages are strangely short, which makes it possible to plow through them If you are bad at them (which isn’t all that satisfying.) In the end, you don’t feel like you learned anything. Also with level design like this, the world feels flat and lifeless. Short confined corridors to the next hub,repeat ad nauseum. There are no branching paths and little variation in the world design.

The combat is pretty minimal, too, with primary and secondary weapons plus a dodge that has a short invincibility window. These all work competently, with food being used as equippable buffs to strengthen your weapons and abilities. For example, having a bow and arrow with a specific food equipped will imbue your arrows with lighting or could give you double health. So while there’s a lot of ways to adjust your style of combat, the cooking aspect stagnates. You get food items from enemies and use them to craft equippables but once you’ve crafted it, you have it forever. That means there’s rarely a reason to grind or go back; additionally, there are set items or gear to craft, so cooking never felt meaningful except as just another way to craft. It just was a basic mechanic that was woven into the story (and barely so) with no room for experimentation. That said, the combat itself was solid enough. There are plenty of ways to customize your kit, but this inclusion generally didn’t wow as I felt like it should have.

Dungeon Munchies surprised me with its poor level design and platforming but shined  in its story and characters. I wanted more from the characters and would probably have really dug  this as a visual novel. As it is, however, the drifty platforming with floors that feel like ice are a slog. Combat wasn’t bad, but I always generally wanted more of the better parts of the game, like the slick soundtrack. By the end of my time with Dungeon Munchies, I certainly wasn’t full. I felt like it deserved more and could be more, maybe a little more time in the oven.

TalkBack / Skul: The Hero Slayer (Switch) Review
« on: October 29, 2021, 02:23:34 PM »

Worth Losing Your Head Over

Coming by way of Korean developer Neowiz Games, Skul the Hero Slayer promises tight roguelike gameplay, but what we get is a loving homage to games like Dead Cells, Rogue Legacy, and Hades. The developers wear their influences on their sleeves, which is definitely not a bad thing as they are still able to inject their own unique charm into what is a well-worn genre.

   Skul the Hero Slayer flips the script on the typical hero-stopping-evil-demons story with a tale of humans encroaching on the world of the mystical. In this world, humans had an ancient pact with the demon king that each would respect the boundaries of the realm. The story begins with humans reneging on their promise and slaughtering all non humans they can find. You play as Skul, a lowly soldier of the Demon King, tasked with rescuing the remaining senators of the council as well as the Demon King himself.          Skul is special because he has the ability to take off his, well, skull and replace it with the skull of another, giving him new abilities. The skulls vary in wide ranges from class shield knight with defensive capabilities to a treant skull that brings Groot-like qualities like powerful ground smashes and root attacks. There are even rarer skulls like a genie skull that shoots magic and floats; heck there’s even a skull that turns you into the protagonist from Dead Cells (speaking of reflecting your influences). Two skulls can be held at a time and swapping is easy but with a slight cooldown. This way you can mix and match two separate skull builds and use them interchangeably. Using the grim reaper skull for distanced magic is great but sometimes you need to swap to the berserker for hard-hitting melee. The name of the game is synergy.

   Speaking of synergy, there are items you can buy or receive that adjust your style of play. One item may give you bonus physical damage or magical damage, for instance. What makes these items special is that they also come with inscriptions. These will add additional perks like giving enemies a slowdown chill effect, or whenever you double jump, an arrow will shoot out at your enemies. The items on offer will completely change up your tactics. There are also special usable cooldown items called Quintessences that, once equipped, will add an extra ability like an explosion that will toss you backwards for quick escapes while also damaging enemies. Throw in a dozen or so enemies and we have pure chaos. Dodging, double jumps, cooldown abilities, and skull swapping all combine to form a wonderful pandemonium of abilities and reflexive combat that feels absolutely fantastic,and trust me the game does throw in dozens of enemies at a single time. I rarely had the same build twice and that’s saying something.

   The levels are procedurally generated within each biome with bosses at the end of every three stages, plus mid bosses and sanctuary sections to buy new items or heal yourself for gold. Much like its predecessor Hades, at the end of every level there will be two doors to choose from. These doors represent getting a new skull, gold, shops, or bosses. When it’s a boss door, there isn’t a choice, but the rest let you pick your path on what you want to receive in the next section. Maybe you haven’t found a skull combo you love yet? Need some gold to buy an upgrade? The choice is yours!

   While the combat is fast and frenetic, the downtime between bosses, biomes and resetting runs gives a drip feed of story that barely passes as a narrative. The story of the hero child befriending the demon king is a relatively simple one, with details being sparse throughout. It does wrap up with an understanding of the proceedings but lacks depth and detail. At the end of the day, the story isn’t the important part. When resetting each run, you are returned back to the destroyed Demon King castle and can interact with the freed senators to get starter skulls, and buy upgrades with essence you’ve collected. These upgrades are mostly incremental, percentage-based boosts to your damage and life pool. They don’t feel satisfying as it’s hard to really feel their impact. Also their value ramps up to a large number quickly making it feel like it’d take several runs to see any meaningful progression in the upgrades. When upgrading from one tier of damage costs 80 essence but then upgrading your magic damage costs 900, it feels disheartening.

   Outside of the reset upgrades and story, Skul the Hero Slayer is largely successful. Runs and levels have a timer for speedrunning fans, but the timer also shows how bite-sized they feel. Depending on your skill, runs can last 10 minutes or an hour. The game moves at a good pace and when finding the perfect combo of skulls and items, the gameplay is very satisfying. When in the midst of high-intensity action, there are some framerate dips but it rarely hindered my fun; in fact, it kind of felt good to know that I had caused so much chaos that the game couldn’t handle it all. In the vein of run-based, combat-styled platformer games, Skul the Hero Slayer proves that there’s still life in these old bones yet.

TalkBack / The Jackbox Party Pack 8 (Switch) Review
« on: October 20, 2021, 07:20:27 AM »

More pooper than party

During these COVID isolation times, the Jackbox games have been a bedrock for keeping my sanity. The possibility of playing online with friends (no controllers necessary) and a party atmosphere all from the comfort of your home generally equals one fantastic evening. It’s a known quantity that the different party packs are hit or miss, with varying degrees of quality amongst the games, and some packs only having one or two enjoyable events. Unfortunately Party Pack 8 seems to be more in the miss category rather than hit.

   If you aren’t privy to the Jackbox series, they are a series of party games that run online with players able to connect via the URL and play via their browser on phone, tablet or laptop. From there, it’s a mix of trivia, drawing, typing, and silly actions on the device to interact. Anybody in view of the screen can play along, and even those who come in late can join in as the audience to throw their own mischief into the mix. Over the years they’ve also worked hard improving that online system, so being disconnected doesn’t hinder the party and you can reconnect easily. Also, when connecting to a game it displays what game is currently being played so you have pre-warning as to what you’re getting into.

   The pack comes with your standard five party games. They are: Drawful Animated, The Wheel of Enormous Proportions, Job Job, Weapons Drawn, and Poll Mine. Each is unique in the ability to gather embarrassing data or funny anecdotes amongst your friends in pursuit of hilarity.  A new quality of life improvement to the set are the descriptions of each game. Each game comes with what kind of game it is, like drawing or typing, how long the game will roughly take, how many players can join in, and whether it’s family friendly or not. These types of improvements make deciding the next game a breeze.

   Breaking Jackbox Party Pack 8 down to it’s base game components, let’s start with Drawful Animated. Drawful and Drawful 2 were in previous packs. The crux of those games were that players would receive a silly phrase and were expected to draw it within a time limit. Then players would write guesses of what the phrase was based on the drawing. Afterwards, the artists would get points based on if people were able to accurately guess the phrase they were given, while non drawers would get points for tricking people into thinking their phrase was the correct one.

Now with Animated, you are given the same premise but now a second image is overlaid over the first like a clear piece of tracing paper. This allows for you to draw the same image but slightly adjusted, then when the two images are flipped back and forth they appear animated. This idea is surprisingly intuitive but the tools you were given to draw the phrase feel limiting in a way that the animation cannot help. It’s a neat conceit but could be expanded to make the process feel less impossible.

The Wheel of Enormous Proportions is a trivia game with a funny giant wheel host that rewards players with slices in a wheel like wheel of fortune, for answering trivia questions. The questions are often fun, engaging, and light hearted but spinning the wheel is random. You can control where you put your slices to strategically try to get points but there’s hardly any skill involved and can lead to a speedy win but hardly earned. This is one that can end with players who were ahead all game losing to a last minute turn and that’s much less fun in practice.

Job Job’s premise is to create an expansive word bank by each player writing a five word minimum sentence in response to two prompts. Once everyone has entered their prompts, the rest of the game uses a randomized bank of words to rearrange them into new phrases to answer further prompts. After each round the responses are put head to head for players to vote on their favorites. This can lead to a lot of crazy responses, and humor is sure to be found but also can feel limiting. Missing certain key phrases due to arbitrary word pulls like “and” or “is” or “was” can feel really limiting. That’s part of the fun but getting a bad run of words doesn’t feel fair. There’s an added clever catch of being able to grab words from the menus and instructions as well, but it doesn’t fix the small flaw in the game design.

For more drawing, we have Weapons Drawn.  A game about drawing with the caveat that a letter from your name must be used in every design. You are given a character to draw but with an uppercase letter included (provided for you.) Then you are to draw murder weapons, with the letter as part of the design used as your “calling card.” The letters can be lower case or in cursive to really switch up the game. Once that’s done, players can bring a guest who is murdered by the players. Then as a team, they analyze the murder weapons and try to tie them to the murderer themself. This one can get complicated and feels like a slog until it ramps up, usually around round 2. After that it can flow relatively well, though flaws appear with members of your party who have an L chosen from their name. At that point it’s just a straight line and damn near impossible to suss out, but the overall issue is just pacing. Each step takes a lengthy amount of time to set up, including introducing guests with a long parade that has no interaction at all. There’s too much downtime and even when playing feels like… drawn out. (I’m so so sorry)

Finally we come to the Poll Mines. This is essentially a game of family feud but the audience survey comes from the players themselves. The more players, the more answers are available and teams make for fun versus dynamic. The polls give fun insight into each player's history, which is a great ice breaker, while the guessing of the answers isn’t always which is the most popular. Oftentimes it’s guess which answer got the least amount of responses, which is a way to split up the rounds but otherwise feels unremarkable. This is a great way to break the ice for new players but doesn’t have the lasting power as others do.

Jackbox Party Pack 8 brings a fresh slate of games that can liven up any party. The voice acting is as high quality as it’s ever been in both humor and characters but at the end of the day, I found myself wanting to go back to Jackbox Party Pack 3, 4, or 5 again. There are new twists on the drawing and quiz formula, but I doubt their staying power overall. These devs have a history of making high quality fun games so if you are a completionist or are new to the series, I would recommend it, just not over many of the older ones. Jackbox is like pizza, even when bad it’s still pretty good.

TalkBack / Eastward (Switch) Review
« on: September 14, 2021, 08:09:44 AM »

Started From The Bottom Now We're Here

We’ve seen our share of post apocalypses in the last decade but rarely have they come with the sense of spirit and personality as Eastward, the debut offering from Pixpil. You play as John and Sam, an unlikely duo from a mining town underground. Their journey is a narrative adventure riding the rails to unexpected locales and meeting a cavalcade of interesting characters. This story weaves mystery with discovery and encourages you to tag along as our heroes trek Eastward.

   Our tale begins with John and Sam. John is a silent gruff miner in an underground town that discovered and adopted a child in Sam. While they are content in their daily routines, they soon become entwined in a mystery regarding the above world where Sam really came from. After their apparent exile from their home to the surface, they find that it isn’t exactly as damning as initially foretold. The surface is actually a thriving post apocalypse filled with bustling cities, farming villages, and a deadly miasma that threatens to destroy all of civilization. Onward they travel by train helping new and fascinating people along the way.

   While John and Sam are the focal points, the game is filled with full fleshed-out side characters that fill what feels like a realized world. Each interaction is well written and conversations feel authentic to even the most minimal bit players. Interacting with each person you meet fills the world with even more rich backstory. Not to take away from our protagonists but everyone shines here, from the lovable knucklehead explorer Izzy and her robot sidekick to the bumbling mayor of the underground. These characters are rendered in a cartoon art style that is playful but doesn’t downplay the story when things get serious. The landscapes change from dreary dark mines to bright blue skies, which makes for striking contrasts. This is all accompanied by a catchy dystopian chiptune soundtrack that punctuates every scene.

   As far as playing Eastward, it’s a straightforward narrative game as you move from quest marker to quest marker exploring more of the world and seeing what interactions you can find. It’s not necessarily on railsdefinitely trying to tell its own specific narrative. There are dungeon sections as well that have you switching between John and Sam to use their own unique specialties. John uses weapons like a pan or flamethrower to fight off enemies while Sam can use her mysterious light powers to stun. Puzzle sections split up the duo, forcing you to swap back and forth to allow the other to proceed. The difficulty is relatively low in both accounts as I died only a handful of times throughout my play and was rarely stumped for too long on puzzles.

   Upgrades are also available to do more damage with your weapons, increase inventory space and even a cooking system that looks and acts suspiciously like Breath of the Wild. No, seriously: this includes red and yellow hearts with specific food buffs. Also with its story, allusions can be made to Last of Us but in a lighter pixel art tone. It wears its influences on its sleeve and isn’t shy about it. Other than that, there isn’t much as far as a progression besides paying for upgrades or carrying capacity. Other weapons can be acquired, but nothing that deep. Truth be told, I’m not sure if the weapons need to be that deep.       While there isn’t too much in the way of gameplay mechanics, the story was compelling enough to drive me towards its ultimately satisfying conclusion. This is both a testament to its strong writing but also a statement to shallow mechanisms. Upgrades feel superficial and the combat falls flat. The boss battles do well in introducing engaging battle puzzles of their own but otherwise Eastward feels like I’m just moving from story beat to story beat. It’s not boring by any means but it is missing that special something to keep the player engaged.

   Eastward delivers so well on the writing and soundtrack front that it’s easy to forgive its otherwise simplistic gameplay. The fully realized world has its charm, but it hardly breaks the mold anywhere else. While it doesn't do anything necessarily offensive, it does demand more when the rest of the game is so well done. It’s clear Pixpil have got the writing chops down, now let’s tighten up some of the stuff around it.

TalkBack / Prinny Presents NIS Classics: Volume 1 (Switch) Review
« on: August 31, 2021, 10:03:00 AM »

A PlayStation 2-pack of classic NIS Games that are still throwing out new ideas.

NIS (or Nippon Ichi Software) has a deep catalog of games ranging back to the Super Nintendo and PlayStation 1 days. To celebrate the rich history of NIS, they are releasing the first in their series of collections, Prinny Presents: NIS Collection Vol 1. This collection brings together fan favorites Phantom Brave and Soul Nomad & The World Eaters. Both are highly regarded games from the early PlayStation 2 days but offer unique spins on the RPG genre to differentiate them. Despite both being previously released on PC, now you can enjoy these classics on your Nintendo Switch in one package.

   Since they do vary, I’ll address each game individually starting with Soul Nomad & The World Eaters. In it, you play as a hero infused with the soul of the demon Gig, who had previously been imprisoned in a sword after attempting to destroy the world. On your travels to eventually destroy the giant monster World Eaters, you amass a team of merry cohorts who bring tons of personality to the ongoing story. From your human cow childhood friend Danette to the draconic wizard Odie, each lends a particular flare to the group.

   What sets Soul Nomad apart from the usual NIS fair is the wild story variations. While you get your soul merged with Gig from the beginning, you can choose his amount of participation in the story. You can give him full control from the jump leading to a very dark story about destroying the world. Even if you don’t give in, he has special abilities in combat that if you use them, will give Gig more control, thus affecting story beats. The number of story variations are fun to explore, though I will give a warning: they go to a darker place than some might be comfortable.

   The combat differs as well from other NIS’ grid based entries in that it leans more towards strategy by way of Fire Emblem. You create “rooms” that will give you troop positions. Then during a combat scenario you will summon your troops, with each group represented by a single unit. Attacking an enemy with a unit will result in the full team attacking the enemies and then the enemy team attacking in retaliation. This creates a risk-reward system as you will rarely leave an encounter unscathed. The room system is interesting as you’re essentially creating an army, deploying troops, and moving across a war map to complete specific win conditions. You can also “decorate” each room with trinkets that buff stats and explore a procedurally generated dungeon to upgrade the room for some extra customization.

   Phantom Brave, on the other hand, is more of a classical NIS-style RPG. This means more basic character types and turn-based combat. Heroes are spawned on a map and will take turns performing special attacks based on the weapon they have equipped. The twist here is that your main character is Marona, and she is the primary controlling factor in combat. You use her to summon “phantoms” into environmental objects. Summoning a phantom from a rock will yield higher DEF but will be slower. Summoning from a flower will provide higher INT for spellcasting.

   Other twists to the phantom summoning is that there’s a limitation of only 16 phantoms possible. Weapons are included in that limit, so if you want to summon a phantom with a sword , that counts as 2 towards the maximum of 16. You’re really encouraged to use objects on the map as weapons. In addition, summoned phantoms have varying countdown timers for the number of turns before they disappear from that combat encounter. There’s a lot to account for, but it can lead to some fun and intense situations. This is especially true when you can pick up rocks and throw them for better summoning positioning, environmental buffs or knocking characters off the map out of bounds. It feels pretty solid per today’s modern JRPG sensibilities.

   As far as the story goes, Phantom Brave follows a young girl named Marona. Her bounty hunter parents were killed alongside their partner Ash while fighting the evil demon Sulphur. Upon their death, they are able to resurrect Ash as a phantom to watch over Marona. As she grows up with her faithful protector phantom she follows in her parents bounty hunting steps, while also generally being feared and often ostracized by the community she helps. It’s a pretty straight-forward story that remains serious without a ton of twists and turns, but it’s successful overall. You learn to love Marona, and her relationship with Ash is nothing short of heart warming.

   The art and sound for these two feels pixel accurate to what you’d remember from the PS2 era, so the nostalgia is in full effect. These remasters also come with all of the DLC bonus content that was added in subsequent re-releases and versions, which is nice for those wanting to dig deeper into the content but no special frills for the NIS collection itself. This is a great little package that is sure to make some classic RPG fans feel sentimental and it holds up to modern sensibilities. I will note that some of the verbiage and story beats can get a little on the graphic side (i.e., not playing to contemporary tastes), but otherwise I would recommend this collection. As it turns out, NIS’ catalog, while grindy, still holds up compared to what you’d play today.

TalkBack / Necrobarista: Final Pour (Switch) Review
« on: August 17, 2021, 11:27:28 AM »

One of the best visual novels now gives you developer controls

Necrobarista was one of the sleeper hits of 2019. The visual novel about death and coffee in Australia was released to very little fanfare but a lot of critical praise. The story of a coffee shop on the edge of the afterlife has a deeper message of grief, acceptance, and the meaning of existence. The employees are goofy and lovable but be prepared because this indie packs an emotional punch.

   As far as visual novels are concerned, the gameplay is very straightforward. You move forward throughout the story beats clicking through the dialogue with occasional highlighted text that will reveal more detailed info usually laced with a joke or two. There aren’t any choices or interactions with the story except to experience what it offers: hilarious scripted dialogue between characters that spans a two day period. The dialogue is text scripted with no voice acting but the animation between each frame is slight but impactful. There’s minimal animated action but the art is cinematically striking when it does. Quick cuts enhance the scenes and long shots build anticipation.

   The story plays between Maddie the barista with an attitude problem and her coworker Chay. They work in a coffee shop known as the Terminal. The shop is the last stop for the dead before moving on into the afterlife. Both the living and dead frequent the terminal but the dead can only stay 24 hours or risk their souls deteriorating. Maddie and Chay are joined by their thirteen year old assistant Ashley who’s as hyperactive as she is dangerous. These three make up the rag tag staff of the Terminal. Together they serve customers (poorly I might add), dodge the corporate council of death, host an illegal gambling ring and perform some light necromancy.

   The writing stands out as the quips fly fast and the questions of life’s deeper meaning  is always bubbling under the surface. It follows the philosophy of grieving but in the way Clerks was based on Dante’s Inferno. There’s a loose tie throughout but the character work is the real star. Maddie comes off as every sarcastic 7/11 employee with a heart of gold and Chey is the passive boss always trying to bring out the best in people with minimal actual effort. Ashley is a child who often sneaks shots of espresso and acts accordingly. Bouncing off the walls and building battle robots to destroy but rarely accomplishing much more than making mere pets.

   Within the adventures of bad coffee creation we have an audience surrogate in Kishan, a man visiting the terminal for his last 24 hours. He stands to ask the questions regarding what his last day on earth means in the context of the world around him, you know, the simple questions. There’s other side characters such as Ned, the representative of the council of death threatening to shut down the Terminal, or a gang of rambunctious teens loitering and waxing about who is more emo. Everyone plays their part to bring their stories of life and loss leading to an overall message of moving on.

The best part about the thematic nature of Necrobarista, is that it’s sandwiched between these quirky asides and misadventures. It doesn’t hit you over the head with the overall message. It feels natural to discuss these feelings but between teens attempting to sneak alcohol or Ashley pushing to find the lethal dose of caffeine the comedy soothes the emotional hits without downplaying them. The emotions are fully fleshed out and dig deep into the basic human experience.

With this new Nintendo Switch port comes a change to previous PC versions where secondary side story text content is (happily) no longer gated between passphrase mini games. Now those side stories are found in the environment between chapters. Also included are new drawing mode, studio mode and bonus side stories. The drawing mode is a minimal addition where you have the option to draw faces on the robots that act as intermission conversations between acts. The drawing sadly doesn’t use touch screen functionality so it’s a bit on the wonky side and forgettable.

The big addition is the Studio mode that acts as developer tools. With these you are given the ability to create your own visual novel. All character models are provided with tons of different poses, animations, text, camera control, lighting control and even props. After an hour of playing with the tools and a single game crash I was able to make a two panel comic but the tools are not intuitive. It’s interesting that they allowed for such an intricate engine to be manipulated but option highlighting isn’t always clear and unless you have a deeper understanding of game development a lot of the intricacy is lost. Perhaps a small tutorial or some better selection indicator could have improved the experience. Overall I was able to be semi-successful despite feeling like I was fighting the tools themselves to wrestle them into doing what I wanted.

Even if visual novels aren’t your thing, Necrobarista is one I implore you to play. The comedy is top notch and the conversations around grief are nuanced.The new side stories and available text entries give great extra content on par with the original story. Even with the DLC content the staff and patrons of the Terminal are so lovable that I still wanted more after the credits had rolled. The studio mode has complicated unfettered access to the game’s engine which is both fascinating but almost impenetrable. I understand that visual novels are a high barrier for entry but the charm and style in Necrobarista are worth the effort.

TalkBack / A Plague Tale: Innocence Cloud Edition (Switch) Review
« on: August 12, 2021, 10:29:20 AM »

A functioning but fuzzy online experience

A Plague Tale: Innocence is a suspenseful adventure game released in 2019 by Focus Interactive. In it you play as Amicia, a noble girl who, with her brother, is on the run from the Inquisition and a seemingly never ending onslaught of plague rats. The story is an intense roadtrip that rarely offers a reprieve from constant pursuers and peril. Unfortunately for the plot, the performance of the Nintendo Switch’s cloud version muddies much of the experience.

   Playing as Amicia, your world is quickly thrust into upheaval as the inquisition kills your parents trying to get to your brother Hugo. Escaping has you traverse dangerous attacks, sneak around treacherous guards, and avoid large swarms of plague rats. The story is mostly linear with stealth sections giving some variability. Amicia is armed with a sling that can be loaded with different forms of ammo like sleep or fire bombs. These tools are used on enemies or as key puzzle-solving mechanics. Throwing a rock can distract a guard, but it’s also used to cut a chain to release a bridge.

   The stealth is tense because once you’re found out, it’s pretty much an instant death. Fortunately, there’s convenient tall grass and wooden barricades to hide amongst. Outside of the Inquisition, the plague rats act as a secondary protagonist. These are used as puzzles because the rats fear fire and light, so it’s up to you to find creative ways to clear a path forward. Lighting brazzers with firebombs and pushing flaming carts and torches are some of the many ways to avoid the lethal swarm, but the game keeps it inventive. These coupled with the stealth fail to pose too much of a challenge, but with a story this thick it’s not necessary.

   Amicia is largely likable with her character shining best when she is protecting those around her. Her growth into a leader role is believable and drives the player into rooting for her. Her brother Hugo, on the other hand, can come off as frustratingly whiny in the face of danger. In most cases, it’s ignorable but can sometimes make the game feel like an elongated escort quest. The entire game is voice-acted to perfection, and the audio design also brings its A game. The sound design is atmospheric, with the sound effects making the chilling events uncomfortably real.

   Along the path, there are materials that can be gathered to upgrade your tool kit. You can add inventory space, better your aim, or create bombs faster. This upgrade system is reminiscent of the one in the Last of Us, but feels right at home here. The upgrades don’t feel game changing but adjust your tactics enough to still feel meaningful. This also encourages deeper world exploration. Searching every nook and cranny can be dangerous, but it always feels good to find that extra piece of leather you needed for the next level up.

   The setting and story put Amicia through the ringer. One moment she could be ridding a castle of rats in a storm or escaping a city on fire crawling through corpses. The story really goes places and is consistently enthralling. It sucks you in and keeps pushing forward, which is great for the pacing. I was always excited to keep going into the next chapter. Also I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent checkpointing in this game. I never felt like I was set back more than a minute or two of progress after a game over.

   Now, this is a Nintendo Switch Cloud title, which means the game’s software was never installed but runs streaming from Nintendo’s servers. This supposedly lets the Switch run more powerful games than what it would normally be capable of. Regrettably, I found the streaming experience subpar for my own desired form of gaming. First off, since this is a streaming title, it requires a constant online connection. That’s fine but it removes any sleep mode functionality. Every time I’d want to take a break and come back, I’d have to reboot back into the server, load the game, connect to the server, and then start the game from scratch. This entire process took roughly two and a half minutes from home screen to gameplay (for argument's sake, it takes a minute and a half on XBOX Gamepass for iPhone.) If you don’t have a PC or other consoles, this is a functional way to play A Plague Tale, but it isn’t ideal compared to the competition.

   Secondly, with the server side streaming, visuals and textures appear muddy and washed out. It’s as if someone smeared Vaseline on the lens of the game. This bodes poorly for on-screen text as it’s tiny and hard to parse at times. As far as the graphics are concerned, it appears that the settings are a step down comparatively. Animations can be stiff, making both characters and the rats look out of place, almost robotic. Pop in is not uncommon, and I found myself falling through the world due to unloaded ground on more than one occasion.

   Despite its faults, I enjoyed my time with A Plague Tale: Innocence. The story is compelling and the characters feel alive. Contrasting with every long load time of the streaming connection was my excitement to find out what the next chapter brought. It's as addicting as it is enthralling. I think that’s what was most disappointing about the streaming software. It kept me from enjoying the game that much sooner. Chalk it up to impatience but if you have another way to try this game, you should. It’s worth the time; I’m just not sure if it’s worth the Switch edition.

TalkBack / Eldest Souls (Switch) Review
« on: July 29, 2021, 06:11:00 AM »

Boss rush game lets you play it your way

Eldest Souls is a pixel art indie debut from Fallen Flag Studios. With it, the developers are bringing a boss rush game with tons of customization options to create unique character builds for any combat encounter. The game attempts to employ a Dark Souls aesthetic but truly ends up in a lane of its own.

   The world of Eldest Souls is populated with sparse amounts of characters that fill in the backstory. You are a lone warrior entering the citadel: A prison that was created to house the old gods, with your task being to defeat the last of them. There are notes from survivors about what went wrong in the citadel as well as mysterious items strewn about. These items, when given to the right character, will reward you with stat boosting items or further lore, though these interactions are minimal at best.

   Right off the bat, Eldest Souls is a fairly straightforward boss rush. That means there isn’t really any enemy fodder, complex platforming, or intricate puzzles. It’s environmental storytelling between larger than life boss battles that will test your skills (and your patience). Your combat kit has a light attack, a charged attack, and a dodge with a short window of invincibility. The dodge has a recharging meter to limit its usage. Charging your attacks will build up a “bloodthirst” meter that when maxed will restore health or can be used to do a devastating “bloodburst” attack that will hit hard but use up the meter entirely.       That kit is expanded with three skill trees that are based on varying styles of play: Attack, defense, and agility. Going with the Berserker Slash tree will provide damage-boosting buffs and an attack meter. On the opposite end, the Counter tree will provide damage mitigation and a counter attack system that rewards defensive timing-based ripostes. Lastly, the Windslide tree will give your dodges a boost with damage over time, flying leaves, and health benefits.

   Going even deeper you'll find that each skill tree also splits into two secondary paths for even more customization. You can adjust your bloodburst to cause an explosion or give you 20% health over time. Need to get out quick? The Windslide tree can let your dashes recharge faster while also adding extra speed to your movement overall. There is so much extra customization that it really did feel like adjusting a couple points changed my whole strategy. This is punctuated by the fact that you can respec at any time, so playing with the systems is crucial.

   When defeating bosses, you are rewarded with their soul shard, which when equipped can alter specific pieces of how you play. Adding the fire shard to your dash will give it damage properties while also hurting you, but the corrupted shard will give you a grapple hook. Slotting in the moon shard to your Berserker tree slot will make your bloodburst attack create a small moon that follows you, boosting your damage. There’s so much to account for and ways to diversify the combat, but trust me, you’ll need it.

   The pixel art works well to emphasize the detail in the boss encounters. They are well designed and unique to what you’d see in a Souls game. Vicious deer beasts, gods made of light, and giant stone golems vary the menagerie of bosses you’ll face. They all stick to pretty strict attack patterns with clear tells of what’s incoming. The name of the game is recognition and memorization. Once figured out, the bosses are just rote repetition with what feels like insurmountable odds and a deluge of deaths. You will die a lot, but once you find a build that suits you, the game eases into a good groove. Originally, I was having a tough time with this game, and bashing my head against it’s difficulty was not a fun prospect. With time and adjusting my build, I found a sustained drive that pushed me through to the end.

   Eldest Souls straddles the line between frustratingly difficult and overwhelmingly satisfying. I had to stop playing before bed because I’d have trouble sleeping from the nervous tension it caused. Whether that’s appealing or not is up to you, but for me I eventually found my way around to really digging Eldest Souls. I was slow to warm up to it, but now welcome it amongst the others in the genre like Furi or Titan Souls. It builds up gradually but the fun is found in the depth of combat customization, and there’s plenty if you’re up for the challenge.

TalkBack / Akiba's Trip: Hellbound & Debriefed (Switch) Review
« on: July 20, 2021, 06:03:08 AM »

Akiba's Trip: Underwhelmed & Disappointed

Originally a PSP game, Akiba’s Trip: Hellbound & Debriefed is the first of the HD remakes in the franchise to be brought to updated consoles. The series acts as a love letter to Otaku trends, fan service, and Akihabara as a whole with the focal points emphasizing the culture surrounding what’s known as the electric town. The city is alive here with lots to find and explore but one thing I didn’t find a lot of was fun.

Akiba’s Trip follows a young “professional dork” named Nanashi, who is attacked in a dark alley trying to find a missing friend. After the assault, close to death, a vampire named Rui comes to the rescue but can only save him by turning him into a vampire as well. After turning, he’s recruited into NIRO, the anti-vampire task force. Straddling the line between human and vampire (or Kageyashi as they are called in the game,) Nanashi teams up with NIRO to rid Akihabara of the growing vampire threat. Armed with a team of Otaku (young pop culture enthusiasts) and a snappy fashion sense, Nanashi travels around Akihabara exploring the alleys of cosplayers while fighting vampire hordes that have infiltrated.

To combat the vampires, you have three attacks: A head attack, a body attack and a legs attack. Each one targets a specific article of clothing, and once you’ve done enough damage, you can grab and rip off that article of clothing leaving the enemies in their underwear. After you’ve removed all the top level clothes the enemy is exposed to the sun and disappears. This is a silly, fan service-y mechanic that feels a mile wide but an inch deep. Sure there are stats for specific pieces of clothing, or stat boosts to do more damage say to schoolgirl outfits, but it rarely feels profound.

The fashion aspect plays into Akihabara fashion culture, as it’s not uncommon to see cosplay displayed throughout the city. In Akiba’s Trip, it’s used as armor but some missions require specific real world outfits like school girl skirts or business suits so you better dress accordingly. Clothing can be found in tons of shops around the city or taken from enemies. Also there are skill books that will boost your stats against certain outfits so you can plan ahead. Outside of the gear, your stats improve from leveling up from combat encounters, and there are ALOT of those.

The flaw of the combat design is that being a vampire fighting for humans, you end up being attacked by both sides. This includes combat with any and all random NPC’s. At any given time you can randomly be attacked. This is super frustrating because it takes 2-3 seconds for your character to perform their intro combat animation and also combat will continue to occur in NPC conversations. You can get out of combat stance but that also takes 2-3 seconds and even after, you are still vulnerable to attack. The fact that these happen randomly may not be a big deal but I found myself in a combat arena 1 vs 1 story beat that was interrupted by roughly 15 random enemies joining into the frey. On the positive side, it was dynamic so they would accidentally attack and turn on eachother making it comedic but overall felt like a mess.

Adding to the frustration of the dynamic combat is that when facing multiple opponents in story encounters, it’s easy to find yourself stunlocked or encircled and unable to move being pummeled to your death. I found the best solution to strafe around constantly but that led to issues with the camera unable to keep up within the environment. Add in a lack of a targeting system and you are left wildly swinging your weapon and attempting to strip one enemy but accidentally grabbing another.There is a neat mechanic of using your flip phone camera to find hidden enemies but this was rarely used.

   The graphics, while HD, do little to improve what clearly looks like a PSP game. The characters art is crystal clear but doesn’t help the muddy textures or lack of detail in character avatars. Each map represents a block of Akihabara, so they are smaller in scale and confusing to say the least. Stores are highlighted with yellow arrows which is sadly a necessity, as some stores were just building walls with no storefront. Other issues are NPC’s. They are numerous in number but sometimes it’s required for you to speak with a specific one and it isn’t until you are right on top of them that a name appears above their head. Details like this make missions obtuse and confusing.

   There are tons of other issues that go along with the port such as music being louder than the voice acting, drowning it out, occasional frame drops or a dressing your underage sister for photos mini-game that feels uncomfortable and in poor taste. I know that there’s an implied sexiness to the game (yes I got the title pun) but still. Akiba’s Trip was a series I’ve always been curious about. I understand the fan service of  finding quirky excuses to strip your enemies but everything around this just feels outdated. The mechanics have not aged well, the story rarely gets passed ‘eye rolling,’ and combat is frustratingly repetitive. From my understanding, there are many quality of life improvements that have occurred in later entries into the series but this remastered version keeps it faithful to the original, warts and all. Strip away the Akihabara charm, and there’s not much left to enjoy.

TalkBack / Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny (Switch) Review
« on: June 25, 2021, 09:05:07 AM »

If It Ain’t Broke Don’t Fix It

Disgaea is a long running RPG series dating back to 2003 and since then it’s been slowly iterating on a set of gameplay rules that has served it well over the last 18 years. These rules follow tactical grid-based combat with a cartoonish art style and tongue-in-cheek humor. At this point, Disgaea is a known quantity. It does what it does very well with a slow and steady drip of new mechanics that adjust the gameplay without making any giant leaps forward. Disgaea 6: Defiance of Destiny does exactly that but cranks up some of the absurdity for a fun and exciting new addition.

   At its core, Disgaea 6 is one part tactical JRPG and one part visual novel. The story is laid out in chapters with multiple levels per chapter/world. Each level begins with a minute or so of conversation amongst the characters before launching into a combat encounter. This is the first warning for those curious about the franchise. While skippable, the amount of storytelling presented is fairly consistent. This means jumping into the action is always a bit stifled with brief back and forth banter. It throws the pacing off and might be considered a hindrance to the impatient.

   That being said, the story of Zed the zombie is charming. It’s easy to fall in love with his steadfast attempt to defeat the God of Destruction to save his sister. Zed with his faithful dog and straight man Cerberus stand as a solid comedic duo. Zed continues to attack and be defeated by the God of Destruction. After every defeat he is “Super Reincarnated” in a different world with new characters and combat maps. The fact that he’s constantly killed is definitely played up for laughs. As the story progresses, a gang of merry followers joins Zed and Cerberus (sometimes against their will.)  One by one, we are introduced to new quirky characters that dig deeper into the backstory like a weird anime Wizard of Oz.       The comedic dialogue is really well written this time around. Characters constantly chime in on the foolishness of it all while breaking the fourth wall. Phrases like “what kind of lazy developer would allow such a thing” or “if I kill you and you reincarnate, I can just keep leveling up!” are commonplace. In addition, characters will often physically hit each other in cutscenes for faux “Game Over” screens or for 999,999 damage in pixelated RPG font. It’s the attention to detail that really sticks out and adds to Disgaea’s charm.

   Concerning the tactical RPG mechanics between the set pieces, they’re pretty straight forward. Units are spawned from a central point and moved individually across the grid to attack. Each unit's attack range is based on its special abilities, class, and weapon type, so there’s a lot to experiment with. Higher proficiency with said weapons and classes will gain them even more bombastic special attacks and increased damage. I’m not joking when I say that damage numbers go into the quadrillions.  You can’t help but laugh at the outrageousness.

   Another returning Disgaea combat system is the “Geo Symbol” system where colored tiles on the map can be used to help or hinder you throughout combat. There will occasionally be designated spaces on the map where a colored pyramid can be placed, and this will give large sections of the map traits such as “DEF+10” or “50% damage.” If the Geo Symbol is placed on one such spot, it will affect the corresponding color grids, but they in turn can be moved or even destroyed. Destroying them will cause damage to anyone in the same colored spaces. It’s an extra wrinkle to account for, but when you get into the groove it feels good. Other times, though, it can slow down combat to a snail's pace when attempting to avoid them.

   Those are the basics of combat, but with grinding your classes, weapon proficiency, and stats, you’ll still need to replay some encounters. That’s where the game introduces some of the newer features: Demonic Intelligence (DI), Auto Combat, and Auto Replay. Demonic Intelligence allows you to essentially program your team so you can have them automatically fight battles for you with Auto Combat. The DI system lets you program a series of if-then statements that will dictate how your characters move and behave in every situation. It’s as complex as you want it to be. Then Auto Combat let’s your units fight the encounters for you, and once it’s done they can Auto Replay the same encounter on repeat loop until you tell it to stop. This feels like a carry over grinding system that exists in the Disgaea mobile game released earlier this year, but here it does feel like a quality of life improvement.       The next new improvement is with the reincarnation system where you can reset a character’s level back to 1 but now with increased stats. This is a necessity as the levels accrue relatively quickly. No, really, you’ll average roughly 40 levels per combat encounter. It’s kind of wild and works for the sake of humor because what’s the difference when hitting someone for 10k damage when their life pool is 5 million. What’s the saying? If everyone's super, then no one is.

   Along with the aforementioned improvements, there’s the other basic Disgaea systems such as item worlds (procedurally generated dungeons inside every item to level them), dark assembly where you bribe demon congress to pass bills for your benefit, and juice bars to upgrade experience, quests and stat boosts. That’s my secondary warning for those curious about the franchise. Games like Advance Wars or Final Fantasy Tactics seem simplistic when compared to the systems on systems that exist in Disgaea. Managing dozens of troops, upgrading weapon stats, leveling each weapon individually, reincarnating, grinding, bribing senators: there are endless new tasks to learn and master. It’s daunting at best and overwhelming at worst. The game onboards you slowly, but drowning slowly is still drowning. It may not be for everyone.

Disgaea 6 doesn’t break the mold from its predecessors but what it does add are welcome inclusions. The art is gorgeous and the story is fantastically written, being both hilarious and heartwarming. Unfortunately, the story does slow down the action to a screeching halt. As always with the series, there are systems on systems that can become quickly overwhelming if not taken in stride, but when engaged they let you customize the game in infinite ways. Overall, I enjoyed my time with the game. It has a consistent quality that has remained interesting over the years. It may not be the best tactical RPG, but the Disgaea name still holds weight within the genre, and this entry is no different.

TalkBack / Sludge Life (Switch) Review
« on: June 11, 2021, 12:17:00 PM »

Psychedelic indie does minimalist storytelling right

I’m a big advocate for enigmatic and free form indie games. The art comes in removing the constraints of typical goals and replacing them with what can be best described as “fun in the experience.” Here we find Sludge Life, a grungy, awkward, open world game that lets you explore and discover the stories you want to find. It’s not the typical environment you’re used to and delving into the intricacies of that are what makes this title so intriguing.

   Sludge Life begins at a ‘90s computer desktop, complete with clunky login and boxy file windows. It’s a unique start to say the least, but this screen acts as your pause/inventory menu. Entering Sludge Life is as simple as clicking the icon and then you’re in the world: a sludge covered oil rig planet with a workforce strike in progress and a graffiti problem. You play as Ghost, a notorious tagger in the graffiti community.

The initial goal is to tag in hard to reach designated spots throughout the map, but with some exploration the world unfolds into psychedelic environmental interactions. Kaleidoscopic drug trips and uncomfortable lab experiments are very much part of the charm of Sludge Life. The view is first person but the art and character design are a surrealist, muppet-esque acid dream reminiscent of MTV’s Liquid Television. This motif is set to a retro synth soundtrack that brings some deep bass; you’re definitely in for an experience here.

While it may seem like I glossed over the goals of the game, that’s because Sludge Life is best played without a goal in mind: just explore the space. Poking at every nook and cranny to find a new story or interaction is what makes it special. Unfortunately, this lack of direction can leave some wandering aimlessly. If you want a linear path, this is not the game for you, and that’s kind of the issue overall. You either vibe with it or you don’t; it’s polarizing. The grimey beats hit weirdly, multiple endings can be stumbled upon accidently, and the hallucinatory nature of the story may not be for everyone.

If you do venture in, there’s deeper environmental storytelling about the oil workers’ strike, subpar living conditions, classism and mind-expanding drug trips. There’s lots to find, including secret lab equipment that lets you teleport to rocket ships and hang gliders. If poked enough, there are secrets around every corner. That’s where the shine is. There was rarely ever a time that I didn’t work hard to access an area and not be rewarded with some comedic conversation, environmental story beat, or new item. To accompany that thought, the world isn’t overwhelmingly large, so Sludge Life is relegated to a shorter experience game, and this works in its favor. It shows you insight into a fantastically stylistic world but leaves you wanting more.

Sludge Life is a stylish package that plays in both the absurd and experimental space. The art style evokes a feeling of being on psychedelics with a grungy style all its own. The visuals hit hard, and the bass beats hit even harder. I was always curious to find out more and usually there was something interesting around every corner. It’s understandable that this game’s drug use and lack of direction can turn some players off, but I found it wild and truly unique. There’s really nothing like it. Sludge Life is a vibe, for sure.

TalkBack / Skate City (Switch) Review
« on: May 03, 2021, 02:10:31 PM »

Ollie Ollie style 2.5D skateboarder that delivers the chill vibes

Fresh off of Apple Arcade comes 2.5D side-scrolling skateboard action with Skate City, a skateboarding game that brings the relaxed trick system of Olli Olli but mixes in some real world spots for a satisfying skate experience. The runs are short, bite-sized experiences and the art crafts an animated, almost-cell shaded look to realistic animations. With its debut on consoles, the pick up and play short burst action is now brought directly to your living room TV.

   Skate City comes in a pretty simple package. Left stick controls basic tricks. Pointing the stick in any eight directions will result in a trick, and they are listed as you rotate the stick so you aren’t blindly moving it around. The right stick controls “Nollie” tricks, which are down off the nose of the board instead of the tail. Rotating 180 degrees is on the R and L bumpers, while wheelies or “manuals” are on the ZL for regular, and ZR for off the nose. There are other button combinations for special tricks, but those are few in number and need to be earned through the game’s progression system.

   While the controls are simple, they are actually kind of genius in their contextual functionality. As you move through the maps, there will be obstacles to skate like stairs or ledges that will appear slightly in the foreground or background. This is where the 2.5D kicks in. These obstacles can be grinded by doing a trick onto them or just ignored entirely. How you grind is based on your positioning. If you do a 180-degree rotation near an object, you will land on the nose or tail of your board in a nose slide or tail slide. As a skateboarder myself, it’s intuitive since that’s how you would get into those tricks anyways: by landing on an obstacle at a 90-degree angle. It makes sense in context.

   The same goes with landing on an obstacle in a wheelie. If you were to land on a bench with only the nose wheels down, that would be a nosegrind. The manuals and spins play into the grinds as they would in real life. Adding in variations like spins, flips, and button holds for additional grinds, there are lots of tricks in your arsenal to rack up sweet unrealistic or realistic combos. There’s also a balance meter akin to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater that makes combos require some skill to execute. The balance meter wavers left and right, and the triggers are used to balance in between; otherwise, you'll end up on the floor.

   There are three maps to explore: Los Angeles, Oslo, and Barcelona. These three cities are known for being skate mechas in their own rights with dozens of skate spots within the culture. So in each challenge set, you'll find yourself skating the famous MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona) ledges, or the L.A. courthouse without even realizing it. The landmarks are subtle but unmistakable for those with a keen eye. The maps themselves are very wide, with challenges taking place in small chunks of them. There is a free skate mode that lets you skate the entirety of the map from beginning to end and then loop back, with challenges you can do at your leisure.

   The challenges in the game are diverse, with some being to run from security guards while doing tricks or complete trick requests, races and difficult combo challenges. Every level also comes with some bonus objectives to get 1-3 star ratings on each challenge. These can be both fun and repetitive as they recycle quite frequently in limited map options. By completing these, you are rewarded with skate city currency, which is used to buy stat upgrades, cosmetic gear, and bonus special tricks. The cosmetics are relatively cheap and barely factor into the game as the art style doesn’t give a ton of detail. The stat upgrades are expensive but are necessary to do more advanced combos and maneuvers.

   Outside of the basic challenges, Skate City feels pretty limited. There are only three maps, and the challenges reuse the same five or six variations of goals. The gameplay is smooth, and this makes you feel cool landing the tricks, but there is some slow down that definitely ruins the flow at points. There’s a quick restart by pressing up on the D-pad but that was definitely not explained well. The menus for selecting barely highlights options making selections hard to see, which was a minor frustration throughout my time with it. The music, on the other hand, gives the relaxed coffee shop “chill beats to study to” vibe that’s oh-so-attractive. When it’s bedtime and I’m going through an endless free skate session to relax, it definitely puts me into a zen state.

   Skate City is a new port coming from Apple Arcade. It’s a laid back, short session skateboarding game with a great style. Unfortunately, it does feel like a mobile game with its simplistic gameplay loop, reused challenges, and few maps. Despite its limitations, I found myself returning over and over again to try to 3-star every challenge long after I maxed out my stats. That’s what Skate City brings to the table. A breezy, no-stress experience that’s addicting for 15-minute intervals. If you are looking for some low pressure coffee shop skateboarding, this is the game for you.

TalkBack / There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension (Switch) Review
« on: April 23, 2021, 09:58:30 AM »

An innovative puzzle game that twists expectations but sometimes wears out its welcome

There Is No Game was originally created in 2015 during a NewGrounds game jam where it won under the theme of “deception.” Developed in HTML5 by Draw Me A Pixel, the game was deceptive because its primary task is to convince the player that there is, in fact, no game. Pushing that short idea into a full, fleshed out release, we have There Is No Game: Wrong Dimension (TINGWD), a follow up that expands the original idea into a fully fledged adventure game. It breaks the fourth wall in all the best ways and uses multimedia art to punctuate some major plot twists.

   TINGWD presents itself as an old school point and click adventure. Using a mouse cursor to interact with the events unfolding, you explore a variety of precarious situations, find hidden objects and use them on the environment in unexpected ways to solve the current puzzle. This may sound generic, but it’s tricky to pin down what exactly this game is as it changes from chapter to chapter. The premise purposely tries to alter your expectations and surprise you with new and unpredictable ways to think about games as a whole.

   It all begins with a title screen, “There Is No Game.” All options and credits also suggest that this game does not exist. Then we are introduced to the narrator known as “Game” who does his darndest to convince you of the non-existence of said game. Get the idea? By clicking on the sign we are able to break apart letters, create a version of Brick Breaker, unlock hidden locks and mute, all against the protests of Game. This process of exploring the screens for hidden interactables and using found key items properly remains throughout, but the context continues to change.

   Following the initial start menu first chapter, the story continues throughout a Legend of Zelda knock off (complete with fairy companion and secret-discovery sound effect), a-free-to-play mobile game, and even a LucasArts adventure game. TINGWD pokes fun at the process of game design and developing games as a whole, while remembering to point the camera at itself a few times, too (including a couple of jabs at a failed kickstarter campaign as well). The writing is top notch and corny, but in the best way. Regrettably, some puzzles do take longer to parse than others, so hearing the same voice lines repeatedly can be grating. Luckily, the handy hint system does provide enough clues that you’ll rarely get stuck (unless you’re stubborn).

   The story feels well rounded and the characters that do exist become loveable, even the pesky narrator. Despite the shorter run time, some chapters did feel like they overstayed their welcome. Ideas were often reused and one chapter was simply a rehash of a previous one but with more annoying mechanics added in. You could tell that there was a joke to be made, but it was dragged out until it was no longer funny. Pushing past these segments does lead to more satisfying moments such as the adventure game meta moment. Retreading games of the past, you interact with a classic PC adventure game but solve puzzles by interacting with the actual TV set. It’s actually pretty brilliant with tons of “A-HA” moments and NPC interactions.

Creating a genre-spanning adventure game is no small feat, but to do so while subverting all expectations is something to be applauded. TINGWD does all these things and more. It’s successful in melding comedy and thought-provoking gameplay. Some tropes wear out their welcome eventually, but pushing past the annoyances yields a gaming triumph. It fits among other progressive games like the Stanley Parable or Thomas Was Alone but carves out its own unique space. There isn’t anything like There Is No Game. Well, there isn’t really a game at all, right?

TalkBack / Bamerang (Switch) Review
« on: April 21, 2021, 08:36:39 AM »

Fun  party game is short lived with limited options

Bamerang is the freshmen outing for Lululu Entertainment, a small Zurich based game studio. If this is a sign of what’s to come from Lululu, then they are a team to keep an eye on.  They have created a local couch co-op party game that’s easy to learn for gamers of any skill level. While your mileage may vary, there is a spark of brilliance in the pure simplicity of Bamerang.

   The game begins by players selecting their colors. Two to four players local only here, so bad news for you single players as there’s no options to be found. Each player has a boomerang they can throw either in a left or rightward circle. The throws can be charged for further trajectories as well. If you throw your boomerang and lose it, pressing the X button three times will respawn it to your hand. Boomerangs can be picked up off the ground as well.

   The overall goal is gold and lots of it. Triangle shaped pieces of gold drop from the sky into the arena, and it’s a mad dash to collect as much as possible.  The arenas are smaller, style-varying shapes that keep the action tight but not claustrophobic. With players scrambling to gather the gold, the boomerangs add wild cards into the mix because if you are hit by one, it can send your gold flying. You don’t drop all of it, but enough to swing the tides of gameplay. Also, if you are knocked or fall off the map, a giant hand of the gods brings you back, but not before shaking some of your gold out of your pockets. First to 30 pieces of gold wins the round.

   The character animations are twitchy to emphasize a spastic movement in the players, and the motif is ritualistic tribes people as each round is judged by giant deity like hands whom keep score. The art has an almost Claymation quality to it. After each round, the arena ascends higher into the atmosphere until a victor is crowned and handed the golden boomerang down by the gods. The gameplay can get hectic with 3 or more players but in a Covid-19 world, 1v1 matches aren’t where the game shines. The matches can have a fun back and forth tug of war feel to them but it’s not consistent. If one player finds a good strategy, it’s easy to get frustrated or worse yet bored.

   Seeing some online functionality with an increase in player size could really ratchet up the chaos but as of right now there’s only the single mode with no customization on the matches. This means the fun is a fixed quantity. You will know how much fun you can have with this game relatively quickly because options are limited. There’s fun to be had, but only in specific circumstances and even then in short bursts. Like it’s name implies, Bamerang comes and goes in your memory as quickly as it came. A good party game that shows promise, but is best used as a warm up for other activities.

TalkBack / Saga Frontier Remastered (Switch) Review
« on: April 14, 2021, 12:21:27 PM »

Old Classic shows what once was and gladly what isn’t now

Square, or Square Soft as it was once known, has a storied history with JRPG’s. They have created some of the most pivotal series of the genre that include Final Fantasy, Breath of Fire*, Chrono Trigger - the list can go on and on. The peak of Square’s rule over role playing games came in the 90’s where they released game after game, almost monthly. December 1989, they took a version of their lauded Final Fantasy series and brought them to Game Boy, under the title Final Fantasy Legends. These were turn based like their predecessors, but came with their own set of rules that set them apart. Over the years, the Legends brand became known as the Saga games (the proper moniker in the East.)

   The Saga series quickly established a fan base of their own due to the varied character mechanics, intricate progression systems, and detailed world building. In that vein, we have Saga Frontier, released originally in 1997 on the Playstation 1. Sandwiched between Final Fantasy Tactics and Front Mission 2, and entering the hallowed halls of what came before it. The new iteration brought a brightly colored cast of characters, a wide web of contextual interactions and a new “Free Scenario” system that pushed what soon became “open world” games. Now remastered on the Nintendo Switch, it’s been updated for HD and added back previously cut content, characters and scenarios. This is an exciting prospect for people like me who harken back to Square’s hay day with rose colored glasses.

   Saga Frontier takes place in a universe called “the regions:” A collection of planets and areas traversed by fast travel spaceships or boats. It’s a vibrant world varying wildly from vampire mystic castles, high stakes casinos and treacherous swamps. It’s a wide open world utilized fantastically within the game’s “Free Scenario” System. This allows for open world interactions with the same characters across multiple scenarios, giving the world a more dynamic feel and letting you tailor the gameplay to your own personal style.

   Starting with the main menu, you are able to select up to 7 different scenario storylines following a singular character and their journey. Despite them being separate characters and stories, in any one storyline you can find and interact with the other characters as well as a colorful cast of B-plot characters with their own development and plots. The interactions are unique within each scenario, giving depth to the cast and letting you build your own party however you like. The cross encounter interactions also make the world feel lived in and show the cast existing outside of their own story, something that was missing from Square’s newest offering Octopath Traveler.

   Unfortunately, Saga Frontier expects you to play by the rules set back in 1989 from the original Legends games, with little to no explanation. Character progression is tied to race-humans gain stat point boosts based on what they do in combat, while Mecs abilities are based on what gear is installed. Monsters gain abilities and upgrades from eating other monsters, which is randomized to a frustrating degree. Lastly, Mystics absorb enemies into their mystic gear to gain new abilities. If you know, you know. If you don’t, you are left to flail about wondering why your team gets wiped out in a single hit. The combat is turn based and new  combat skills are unlocked through repeated use of your already known skills, seemingly at random. These systems are all at play in how you develop your characters and party because there isn’t a traditional leveling system.

   On the back end, enemies level scale as you get more powerful, so grinding battles doesn’t necessarily improve your effectiveness. In fact, there’s a combat encounter number called Battle Rank. The more battles you engage with, the harder the enemies get.  It mostly comes down to strategy, building your team properly to handle the encounters in the story. Combat should only be used as a tool. Once a scenario is completed, the character progression rolls over into the next, incentivizing you to really take the time to build your optimal team the way you want. These systems are complex and without a full understanding or strategizing are frustratingly difficult, punishing your every indiscretion. Bosses are quick to use an ability that will single handedly wipe out your whole party, forcing you to lose hours of progression and rethink your team composition.

   The separate narratives tell compelling tales of revenge, superheroes, forced sibling rivalry and redemption. Their gameplay boasts the same turn based combat and overlapping locales but with different motivations. The style of gameplay also varies, as some are very narrative focused straight forward affairs, and others completely open-ended with the whole world laid out in front of you. The lack of direction is a real pain point because it expects you to know the world and is so open that it feels aimless. There is a story menu that will direct the player to what they should do next, but the directions are confusingly vague. When time is at a premium, Saga Frontier does not respect yours.

   The bonus content are quality of life updates such as a fast forward mode, auto fleeing combat, art gallery mode, auto save and new scenario character Fuse that isn’t unlocked until all other scenarios are completed. The updates are great for softening some of the rougher edges off the original but having the cut content not available from the start feels like a missed opportunity. Fuse appears throughout every other scenario to hilarious writing and dialogue so his narrative is written similarly. Having him locked behind a completion wall disincentivizes it as a feature because less people will get to experience what was originally missing.

Saga Frontier came out at a pivotal time in the JRPG space, attempting to do something never done before. Creating interlocking overlapping narratives within a complex world of mystical magic and technological marvels. Compared to modern day videogames this acts as more of a museum piece, exemplifying when game quality was based on hours of content and less on quality. A time when players would spend hundreds of hours exploring every nook and cranny with little motivation other than “to see what happens.” The lack of direction, confusing combat system and sheer difficulty made me take the rose colored glasses off to a much harsher game. One that refuses to let you play any other way besides the rules set originally in 1989. The story is intriguing with twists and turns throughout. The animation is still top notch and famed composer Kenji Ito’s scores are still awe inspiring but it’s tough to see whether that is enough to want to fully revisit it. It hits different by today’s standards. With Saga Frontier, the developers were asking more if they could, and never asking if they should.

*Correction Square only published the first Breath of Fire

TalkBack / I Saw Black Clouds (Switch) Review
« on: April 08, 2021, 11:50:00 AM »

New FMV game brings the drama but stumbles in final act

I Saw Black Clouds is the newest “interactive movie” game to come out of Wales Interactive. You may remember them from such FMV (Full Motion Video) games as Late Shift and The Complex. Oh? You don’t remember those? I get it. FMV is a very niche genre, but it is one that’s been around since the ‘80s, hitting its high point in the zeitgeist with controversial entry Night Trap. Now, I Saw Black Clouds brings us into the world of psychological thrillers and choose your own adventure twists.

   I will give a warning that this game contains graphic and upsetting subject matter such as suicide, violence, implied torture, and drug use. The story begins as our protagonist Kristina returns home to attend the funeral of an old friend who supposedly committed suicide. This visit turns into a harrowing caper of questionable motivations, jazzy trip hop numbers, and awkward nature shots. The gameplay follows each set of scenes, preparing always for two options to present themselves. Selecting from either option can send the story down varying paths that can result in changes to the personality of the protagonist or optional scenes.

   The variability is a big draw but with multiple playthroughs, it quickly becomes apparent how some choices don’t actually lead to different circumstances. I can imagine it’s difficult to organize so many divergent branches, but the narrative repetition can feel like a let down at times. The decisions do matter in context of play as there are personality meters that fluctuate as you progress. These reference two things: your personality and your degree of dealing with situations.

As for personality, you are developing the character of Kristina and adjusting her mood, which equates to alternative takes in conversations sometimes giving passive, aggressive, or dismissive tones. The processing of situations gives feedback if Kristina is in denial or what process of grieving she’s working her way through. These meters increase and decrease per your decisions and determine which of the four endings you can receive. These factors can help you decide on your next snap decision or change up your experience from playthrough to playthrough.

The FMV genre tends to live and die based on two things: its cinematography and acting, and I Saw Black Clouds has success with both. Kristina and cast do well to convey great amounts of emotion and convictions in their roles. The cinematography is also strong, but it can be obvious which shots and sets were the most expensive as some scenes linger longer than necessary and some are reused multiple times. This is understandable as the filming was done by an independent film company, but does still cheapen the experience ever so slightly. Ghostly effects are used sparingly to give mood and ambience without overplaying their hand, avoiding the easy jump scares for suspense-building moments instead.

The biggest critique with this game is the story. While it remains interesting to develop Kristina’s story to find various endings, the messages and morals are lost throughout. Sometimes the story is about survivor’s guilt, but it spends more time in metaphors than actually addressing the issues at hand. Other times, it weaves ghost folklore of stories beyond the grave with little to no pay off. The final act in all playthroughs feels rushed as most conclusions result in confusing half thought-out twists or afterthought ambiguity. That mixed in with occasional jarring transitions in the editing department can leave the player longing for a smoother delivery.

I Saw Black Clouds does a lot of things successfully in the FMV genre. The acting and cinematography are impressive for a title with a smaller budget. The internal systems also lead to lots of interesting variations in the story. Unfortunately, the shotty editing and hap-hazard final act leave something to be desired. It’s a benefit to know that it can be completed in a single sitting, which might make for a fun, suspense-filled evening activity. Be prepared, though: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

TalkBack / Stick Fight: The Game (Switch) Review
« on: April 02, 2021, 12:02:01 PM »

Stick Figure fighting party brings the chaos to the switch

I like to think of myself as a party game aficionado. While my spouse has a closet full of board games, I always have a drawer full of XBOX controllers and a steam library full of crazy indie games. One of my all time favorites was Stick Fight: The Game. A physics based multiplayer fighting game published by Landfall Games. Now with its release on the Nintendo Switch, you can bring the party to your home console.

The aim is to kill your friends, but the game has such a rapid turnaround that it’s hard to get mad when the action just keeps rolling. The players each get a stick figure character. Bare bones art but fluid movement. The stick figures are well animated with floaty jump physics. There’s a regular jump, double jump and even a wall jump to expand upon your movement options. After that there’s a grab/attack and a block that has a cooldown to prevent constant blocking. The controls are simple enough that anyone can jump in and get the hang of it, which is good as there isn’t a tutorial at all.

   Once you’ve established your randomly generated colored stick figure, you’re placed in a flat platforming arena to battle it out. The players have health pools but they are not shown which heightens the intensity. Punches are wild and hard to control, which is okay as very quickly, weapons are dropped into the field. Spears give your hits extra range and the knife lets you use a dash attack. Winning is being the last stick figure standing, whether knocking your friends off screen to their death or taking their health to zero.

Now guns are truly what shine here. There are a wide swath of guns that range from pistols to full bazookas. Each is hard to master, with aiming being on the right stick and having cartoonish weight to the shots. Shooting a shotgun will toss you around wildly but a bazooka will send you flying off the screen to your death. There are also variations on the weaponry with snakes, yes snakes. Guns can also be snake guns. Shooting long floppy snakes that will wrangle themselves around you and overwhelm you to a slow death. Getting a snake minigun will fill the stage with snakes, and the game changes to who can get eaten slower. 1v1 is a very strategic cat and mouse game, but 4 players is free-for-all chaos. The amount, and which weapons are all variable in the settings if you’d like to customize the fun.

The stages can be randomized or move in a progression depending on settings. They range from a basic flat space, to lava fountains that kill instantly. The variability keeps you guessing. Some give you themes, like making a random player into a boss beast that needs to be killed to continue, or a volleyball space with the ball ready to explode on a timer. There are even randomized intermission levels where you are still killing each other, but there is text across the top of the screen giving updates on who’s currently in the lead. There are a lot of stages to go through so it’ll be a while before seeing repeats. Once every person is killed, the stick figures are picked up and placed onto the next stage to start all over again with little room for a break. Since there is only one mode for the game, over time the gameplay can eventually feel flat making this a one trick pony. Even if that one trick is done very well. Online works well, creating a lobby to invite your friends or joining other lobbies for some quick online combat.

In my time with Stick Fight, I did hit an occasional hard crash but they were few and far between. Otherwise the gameplay stays fluid with little to no slowdown. Unfortunately they did not include community generated content but this is a fantastic indie party game that fits perfectly on the Nintendo Switch. Stick Fight is a great way to jump start any family gathering… minus the guns and violence.

TalkBack / Later Alligator (Switch) Review
« on: March 29, 2021, 11:29:46 AM »

An alligator with no teeth but a lot of heart

Point and Click adventure games have quietly been returning in the zeitgeist via indie developers. Despite their resurgence, rarely has there been one with as much heart and soul as Later Alligator. A quirky collection of mini games developed by Pillow Fight Games that tells a heartwarming tale (tail?) of a small alligator named Pat who’s got some, let’s say anxiety about his family. The story brings the comedy in all forms but still tugs at the heart strings and finds time to slip in a message or two in between.

   Our story begins with a shady hotel meeting with Pat, a small alligator living in the big Alligator, New York. Yes, you heard it correctly, the alligator puns fly fast and loose here. Pat regales you of his worry of his family plotting to kill him. As part of a wide spread alligator mafia, he has spilled the beans with incriminating info and by the way he is easily giving away exposition, it’s clear he has loose lips (do alligators have lips? Not important.).  On his birthday, when he usually gets his own personal hotel room, he asks you to investigate his family and find out what their “big event” is and how they plan on taking him out.

   That’s the long and short of this mini game collection wrapped in a mafioso story. Using a point and click interface, you are moving along specific areas of Alligator New York, finding the members of Pat’s extended family and attempting to get information out of them with the only convincing factor being a mini game. The interactions with the family are wacky, short conversations that highlight the idiosyncrasies of their individual personalities. Not one identical, and each brings their own brand of humor making the interactions feel unique. From Pat’s grill loving dad who speaks in dad puns then full explanation of his jokes with grim dark undertones, to his gruff knife loving cousin who has a hidden sensitive side.

   The jokes are something worth discussing with Later Alligator. They stand out as a mix of parody, sight gags, physical humor, black comedy and so much more. It uses its setting beautifully to poke at the absurdity of having an alligator New York with 3 card monte games and back alley clubs with “girls girls girls” sign on the front (turns out, houses a women’s empowerment club with real world facts regarding the women’s suffrage movement.)

The mini games act as part of the story telling but also extended pieces of comedy. There’s a particular mini game where a member of the family wants you to mimic his movements with stabbing a knife between his fingers. While not funny upfront, it becomes apparent that he has a spoon and you up the ante after every round with an increasingly bigger knife. A fact that he continues to point out (“I bet you think you’re a real tough guy with those increasingly ludicrous knifes you weirdly had on your personage.”) Another has you playing a claw game to get a child’s favorite “Final Friendasy” character “Clod Stripes,” a play on “Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII.) From a heartwarming game of hide and seek you need to intentionally lose, to browsing fake 90’s internet briefly, there’s something for everybody.

   The family activities are low risk affairs with multiple attempts possible, some are practically won for you, and even in a fail state the conversations end similarly. The idea is to have fun and there are built in fail safes that if a puzzle is particularly difficult, the game itself attempts to offer assistance. This is done to keep the game moving forward at a brisk pace without stopping at a frustration point. I for one appreciated that as one particular slide puzzle gave me quite a bit of difficulty but the game promptly yet comedically presented me with a “hey looks like you’re having trouble, want some help?” message and I was good to move on. The developers have a clear vision and implement it well.

The minigames last a few minutes but take up a 30 minute chunk of in-game time. The story is paced out in chunks with interstitial conversations with Pat in between. This makes meeting the family time sensitive, and impossible in a single playthrough. That being said, each playthrough is relatively short and the chance to meet more of the zany alligator family doesn’t make it ever feel like a chore. Plus there is in fact a secret bonus ending for those wanting a reward for 100% completion.

From the unconventional adult swim style artwork animations to the hilariously written dialogue, Later Alligator presents a point and click adventure game with tons of heart. The cast all feel like exaggerated members of your own family and the mini games are refreshingly varied to rarely become cumbersome. Video game comedy is known to be hit or miss but with this game there’s fun to be had for everybody. After multiple playthroughs, I will continue to show off this game to anyone that will listen but until then… After while, crocodile.

TalkBack / Bladed Fury (Switch) Review
« on: March 22, 2021, 12:42:13 PM »

Beautiful Chinese artwork but shallow gameplay

Bladed Fury is a new PC port from NExT Studios coming to the Nintendo Switch. Their website boasts “a fast paced action set in ancient China,” which is largely true, but it doesn’t deliver any stand out features to write home about. Where it does shine is in how its art (akin to Chinese tapestry) tells a compelling story of betrayal between clashing dynasties based on the warring states period of China’s history.

In the middle of said conflict is our heroine, princess Ji. Ji is set up as the patsy for the murder of her father. Knowing herself to be innocent, she sets off an adventure of revenge through mystical lands while unlocking spirit powers along the way. The gameplay fits into the style of 2D platformer with beat ‘em up combat. The maps are roughly a screen long and you are expected to traverse a wider map made up of multiple screens. The troublesome thing is that when moving from screen to screen there are sometimes up to six seconds of load time between, and that really slows down the pace, discouraging backtracking and exploration.

Exploring does reward players with hidden yellow orbs, the game's currency. When fighting enemies, you collect both yellow and green orbs. Green orbs heal while yellow are used for upgrades on new moves or to enhance current ones. The combat consists of quick light and heavy attacks that can be combined together or enhanced later. There’s also a dodge and block that, when timed perfectly, can parry with even more devastating attacks. The movement and combo system is flashy while delivering variability, but it can feel unnecessary at times with the mediocre enemy AI. There are challenge and boss rush modes available, and that’s where the combo system has depth. In the main story though, the normal difficulty can feel dull and lack real challenge until later in the game.

When occasionally encountering tougher enemies or boss battles, the challenge is doubly frustrating when the game lags or drops frames, which is consistent on specific enemies (especially the final boss.) These encounters are often punctuated with death; being killed by enemies stops the action before you even get to witness the final hit. I found it confusing to be in the middle of a boss battle, see myself miss a dodge, and suddenly be faced with a “Continue” screen, left to assume that I was killed. Perhaps it’s a choice to make the scenes seem dramatic, but I found it jarring and bewildering.

Ji’s tale of revenge is told through cut scenes that are written in cryptic, whimsical almost-haiku. Each character speaks in the period appropriate manner but like a lot of folklore, not every story has an ending. In this case, there are multiple side stories that are left up for interpretation. The character design is striking, with bosses morphing into mythical creatures or bringing unique cultural interpretations to life. Bogu, the multi-armed mech, uses powerful punches to attack, while the Emperor of Zhou strikes from atop a giant shrine he rides. The boss battles are the clear standouts of Bladed Fury.

After defeating the key players of the dynasty, you are rewarded with their ultimate abilities, which are tied to cool downs and interchangeable within the upgrade menu. These are welcome variations to combat as fighting a lady in a mech rewards you with her arm cannon; the spider boss’ ultimate ability will spew webs on screen to slow the enemies down. The powers can be used mid-combo, but each use stops the action to cast said ability freezing all time. It would have been better if they were more fluidly integrated into the combat, but I did find I started using them as a respite to catch a breather in particularly hectic combat sequences. So I was glad to have them in my arsenal.

This PC port of Bladed Fury brings the good with the bad: a beautiful animated art style akin to Samurai Jack that lacks distinction in both combat and level design. It’s hack and slash combo system adds depth through replayability challenge modes and boss rush modes but is otherwise repetitive in single playthroughs. Along with that, the game suffers from occasional lag and stutters, and I even experienced a single hard crash. Bladed Fury is worth checking out as its run time is short and the story tells of the rich Asian culture that is the warring states period, but ultimately it stumbles to find its footing in the long run.  

TalkBack / Sea of Solitude: Director's Cut (Switch) Review
« on: March 11, 2021, 07:57:19 AM »

An emotional journey that almost sinks due to the weight of emotion and gameplay bugs

Indie adventure games historically seem to be perfect vehicles for emotionally impactful storytelling. Case in point: Sea of Solitude, the new Quantic Dream published 3D Platformer created by Jo-Mei Games. It’s a game with sailing chops that comes close to capsizing under the weight of its own lack of subtlety.

Players are quickly introduced to Kay, a young adult in a version of Berlin taken over by the ocean. You control her adventures as she swims, jumps, and rides a motorboat to uncover her deep-seeded fears and emotional turmoil. The world is limited to a few key environments, but they are reused effectively by covering them in a desert theme, submerging them, or employing other environmental effects. Using basic 3D platforming and puzzle solving (collecting glowing orbs to progress), Kay addresses her inner anxieties and interpersonal memories.

The gameplay has light, low-stakes platforming across the submerged city, all the while avoiding the personified forms of Kay’s internal dread such as giant killer fish, devilish fiends, and trollish mollusks in giant conches. One false move and you’re eaten alive in a fearsome fashion. The story progression keeps the barriers simplistic, with orb-collecting puzzles to continue the memory narrative or dangerous heights to ascend. The environments are punctuated with a “seagull” photo mode that allows for fantastic shots from brilliant heights and angles to display the beautifully crafted take on Berlin.

The movement can feel sluggish at times with occasional clipping or glitching of textures creating impromptu barriers or puzzles that are more difficult than they initially appear. Keeping with that thought, certain story beats land with shades of darkness, which while thematic also increases traversal difficulty in a way that seems unintended by the developer. Scenes become hard to parse, making for more frustration than challenge. This also comes into play when hurt by enemies. The screen darkens as damage increases so some events feel unfair rather than difficult. Despite occasional arbitrary deaths, the story intrigues enough to push through these barriers to delve into what is a heavy-handed emotional story of acceptance over pain.  

The overarching narrative follows Kay as she addresses her internal dialogue over her shortcomings within her relationships. They highlight her brother’s bullying, her parents' tumultuous near-divorce,and a problematic college boyfriend. Players experience each first hand via physical manifestation of the problem and hearing direct exchanges throughout. As you participate in the memories, you watch each play out to a satisfying conclusion.

These vignettes are serious conversations regarding suicide, depression, bullying, and toxic relationships. These are impactful conversations on how it feels to experience these situations while also struggling with your own responsibility regarding others. Kay grapples with each topic coming to an eventual endpoint, but the game itself struggles under the weight of these heavy topics. Each is worth addressing individually but to juggle that many serious topics doesn’t always give proper attention to each, and some even feel like their conclusions are brushed off for the next important emotion. It’s almost like Sea of Solitude wants so much to have something to say, but ends up feeling slightly inauthentic. It’s trying to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors such as GRIS or Celeste, but with the subtlety of a hammer.

Despite the lack of subtlety, Sea of Solitude is largely successful in bringing its positive affirmative message to a colorful world. The events that play out are often powerfully voice acted and complemented with incredible art. It wears its influences on its sleeve and is profoundly direct with its ,but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even though the gameplay is flawed with clumsy and inaccurate platforming, it’s not enough to capsize a strong overall presentation.

TalkBack / Hellpoint (Switch) Review
« on: March 01, 2021, 05:55:43 PM »

Soulslike port not ready for Switch

Hellpoint is the newest Souls-like to come to the Nintendo Switch. With it comes the staples of the genre: hard as nails combat, precise movement, refillable health items, epic larger-than-life boss battles, and shortcuts that connect to bigger areas. The differentiator here is the sci-fi mixed with hellscape motif, a mysterious story of cyber gods, and a looming insanity infection. Even though it does its best to stand out, Hellpoint rarely does enough to feel anything other than generic.

   The story starts by giving you a general message that you are a Spawn, a faceless entity created by the Author whose purpose is to explore the derelict space station Irid Nova. The previous inhabitants have all gone mad from a cosmic event called the Merge. The story is told from sparsely strewn messages and NPCs with cryptic dialogue that rarely feels direct. You will encounter a cavalcade of bosses that require a lot of precision and skill, or the occasional bugged positioning where they get stuck in one spot. Other than that, the environments blend together and the same greyscale metallic background makes up most areas with little variation. These visual elements definitely make navigation an issue, but the sections are at least separated by title cards and load screens so that can be a saving grace when backtracking.       The action is a balancing act of precise movements and committed attacks. Dodges and rolls are utilized heavily while swings of the weapons lock in animation, making each one feel like a risk. These all use up stamina, a finite resource that recharges over time. There’s a life bar and an energy bar as well for more magic-based maneuvers, but each is precious as the main healing injector only refills on landed hits or death, lending a risk/reward feel to combat. Death is the leading mechanic, with every new try feeling like another opportunity, but now new knowledge has been gained. Trying again hardly feels like a chore, but doing so after an unfortunate casualty caused by game stuttering is frustrating. The Switch cannot handle the action and it shows very early on. Handling two enemies at a time seems unfair when you also have to deal with frequent framerate drops.

   Exploring the maze-like halls of the not-so-abandoned space station is made more treacherous with its in-game invasion and black hole system. Taking a page from other From Software games, players can invade your game to cause chaos and attempt to kill you. This can spice up the action or severely inconvenience you away from your current task. New players to the Souls series may be confused as it’s not well explained until later. Throughout your play, there is a secondary glyph image near the lifebars that changes over time. This represents the position of the black hole, and depending on the positioning the titular “Hellpoints” can open up spawning waves of enemies posing a forever threat, which also can be largely ignored, funny enough. Experiencing a “Hellpoint” was rare (especially if you put the system into sleep mode frequently) and an explanation is hardly provided, at least one that isn’t just confusing.

   Progressing through the story takes less time than your average Souls-like, with my final count coming closer to 20 hours, but that should also mean the bosses and story would need to be more unique. Unfortunately, Hellpoint doesn’t succeed in that category. The boss design isn’t distinct enough, and that is accentuated by the graphical downgrade that’s been taken here. It wouldn’t be unfair to compare this Switch version with the XBOX 360 as harsh edges are smoothed and muddied. Along with that the font treatment is TINY and very hard to read. There aren’t any options to increase font size, so in handheld mode it was very difficult to read the dialogue and lore pieces. The story has great ideas, but it may have been more beneficial to have a more straightforward approach to feature the story beats more prominently. The overall narrative with the Author directing the Spawn to collect data by fighting his way through cosmic demon gods only works if people are aware of it. The Merge could have been a fantastic catalyst for a story if I didn’t have to decipher it from story clues. There’s a lot of Souls-like influence here, but that is one trope the developers could have avoided.

   Hellpoint is an action RPG that takes a lot of inspiration from the Souls series. While the combat is engaging, the framerate is a major detraction. Hiding the story as breadcrumbs in hard to find logs or cryptic messages is detrimental to what could be an interesting story. As well, the environments and enemy design did little to stand out overall. The bugs, framerate drops, and rare crashes were present, but as of this review the developers have plans to address these issues in future patches. While this is a new addition to the Soulsborne genre, there are far more successful examples out there. Fans of the genre may want to look elsewhere.

TalkBack / Home: Postmortem Edition (Switch) Review
« on: December 14, 2020, 10:46:35 AM »

A choose your own murder mystery.

Can horror exist in a 2D pixel art world? That is a question Benjamin Rivers and his team intend to answer. Home is truly a unique choose your own adventure that puts the story in the hands of the player. At first glance, it's easy to write this off as another indie pixel art game, but the writing is what really stands out.

You are an unnamed protagonist, stumbling his way through a myriad of environments. Our “hero” explores the spooky woods, traverses the underground sewer facility and other unnerving locales. All while finding gruesome scenes of death and confusion to set the bone chilling tone. The art design is a simple-yet-effective 2D art design reminiscent of the Super Nintendo days. The lighting and background designs give enough detail but can prove blurry when smaller details are necessary, specifically in some puzzles. The sound design is top notch in bringing minimal sound and tone, curating a creepy ambience that sticks with you throughout. It enhances the mystery and cryptic feel of the proceedings.

The gameplay revolves around basic 2D exploration of the environments with interactive points of interest that reveal more about the world around you. These points give clever notes, describing each item or area in vivid detail. The clues and items reveal more of the story but only inasmuch as the context you search for. Meaning while clues may be present, they are not the ONLY clues present and their interpretation is entirely personal and contextual. When receiving a clue regarding an item, it may not behoove you to pick it up with some items negatively impacting the player or choices leading to harmful conclusions.

Home has planned settings and situational items and responses to your exploration. Crossing a river will lead to wet pants and a later conclusion of leaving muddy footprint trails, but if you were to find the 2x4, you can cross the river without harm or leaving a trail. The game presents items and clues but doesn’t inherently explain them or their use until a later date. That’s what makes this fascinating.

The writing throughout the story is detailed and oriented with little to no context leaving infinite conclusions to be drawn throughout. Sections of camera footage lead to a subplot of a pair of mysterious murderers that I missed entirely on my first playthrough, giving me an entirely different interpretation of the story. That’s the point of how this is written. Each item sheds light on the proceedings but even then, it’s up to the player to interpret them however you want. With each run, I was left with a different story entirely and it’s nearly impossible to get every clue and item in a single playthrough. Some facts are the same, but the origins of the murders are always left up to the player.

Finding the right clues point towards one solution, while deciphering hidden video tapes can lead to a second set of conclusions. While game plots are generally always a matter of perspective, Home puts it directly in the hands of the player with actual prompts on how the player feels about each clue. This gives the game a high level of replayability with each clue giving a new perspective on the story’s plot in multiple ways when combined with other clues. After several playthroughs, I proceeded to the developer website and found a section that was strictly for people to speak on what they think was happening in the plot. A community full of their own theories on the murder mystery is a fascinating prospect.

Home has been an indie darling since it’s original release of 2012 but with the Post Mortem edition, you get bonus areas and clues that give new twists to the story plus director commentary throughout. The director's commentary really goes in depth on the design and intentions regarding how clues worked adding another layer to the already multilayered package presented. An indie darling indeed.

TalkBack / GoNNER2 (Switch) Review
« on: December 11, 2020, 08:36:50 AM »

A psychedelic punishingly good time.

The opening menu of Gonner2 says “press jump to die.” This sets the tone for a tough-as-nails 2D roguelike platformer/shooter. In a world of procedurally generated shooters, this is a stand-out choice in both visuals and fast-paced action. With a lack of explanation on rules, story, or mechanics, this game is all about trial and error.

The story follows the hero Ikk, a living water droplet tasked with helping Death rid her land of evil creatures that have started to invade. This was all explained via the game’s website and marketing materials and less so in the game, which keeps context, story and gameplay vague for the player to suss out. This includes non-verbal emotes and occasional bits of lore strewn about. The game keeps this all close to the chest.

Not much is out there that looks like Gonner2 in action. Ikk is a blob of a character that has a skull, rifle, and backpack. When moving forward through the world, the floors and ceilings fill in with patch work design scraps reminiscent of construction paper. The world builds around you and deconstructs when you leave it, which acts as both an eerie style choice and hard to decipher what the level actually looks like until you engage with it. This was not a feature I particularly loved. The papercraft animation still stands out as something worth admiring in action. The sound design is another stand out with quiet pitched insidious tones in some cases and punctuating action with carnival-style echo beats when the action picks up. There’s a definite gothic style to the game and I am here for it.

Otherwise, multidirectional shooting against blobs of enemies is the name of the game. Chaotic flying creatures fill the screen while brightly colored snails and octopi attack from all angles. Getting hit dwindles your heart meter and the parts you’ve amassed are lost to the ground. You must recollect your skull, backpack, and weapon as the blob or die instantly. Collecting some and not others will result in varying degrees of difficulty, specifically if you don't recollect your skull, then any hit is a one hit kill. There are upgrades to each with different variations like triple jumps and abilities that can change up gameplay quite a bit.

Finding and deciphering what these abilities are takes time as the levels are procedurally generated and the abilities are not consistent with each run. The persistent unlocks come in with discovering new skulls, backpacks, or weapons that once found in a run become usable from the beginning hub. That at least provides consistency when finding a loadout you like; you can stick with it and you will need it. Run after run, I found my game style changing from fast paced to careful and strategic with varying weapons and levels. You can choose the boss of the area you are going to but the levels vary with the beginning and end signaled by a world serpent that eats you and spits you out in the next level. The bosses are giant nightmare creatures that bring bullet hell chaos fuel or meticulous platforming challenges.

One key addition to the Gonner series is multiplayer where now friends can join in on the chaos the world of the dead brings to Ikk. The game plays the same but with two players it can seem even more hectic but equally as fun. Adding a second player is definitely a benefit here as it gives a second to breathe if one person dies. I feel that this is the ideal playing scenario and lowers the difficulty level to a manageable pace while upping the zanniness.

“Press Jump to Die” perfectly describes the difficulty posed in Gonner2. It’s a brutal unapologetic platformer roguelike that shows its style at all angles. In the character design, unnerving minimalist soundtrack, and world building there’s something special here. The game does a lot with a little and in the end it’s tricky to decipher what. That’s just up to you to “press jump.”

TalkBack / Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit Remastered (Switch) Review
« on: November 24, 2020, 08:42:26 AM »

More port than remaster.

Need for Speed Hot Pursuit Remastered is the newest resurgence in arcade racers bringing back the crazy crashes with less emphasized realism. This was originally released during the height of the franchise and is very much a product of its time. The reflection of game development past is represented with minimal UI and cops vs. racers action, capped off by a rap/rock soundtrack.

This game brings a barebones approach to Hot Pursuit with a map of nine courses filled with varying events, ranging from full races and time trials to Hot Pursuits and Police Takedowns. Most are simple races that unlock cars via a bounty leveling system. The better you place, the more bounty you acquire. A simple premise that can feel like a grind if you don’t have a car fast enough to progress. The real variety comes in the Hot Pursuit races. Nitrous Speed Boosts? You bet! EMP blasts? Why not! Spike Strips? Sure throw those in there! These abilities add a fantastic level of chaos to an already wild police chase race. Placing well in these types of races level up these abilities but not much changes there. Sadly, Hot Pursuit and Police Takedowns are the only stand out events as the other variations are basic racing faire with little to no variety.

The car unlocks are all well-known racing cars that bring stat upgrades, but there isn’t a way to up your stats besides swapping cars. Brand loyalty means little here. Being the player character, I found it bewildering that during the police races, I was often the sole focus of the police leading to several frustrating restarts, accompanied by some lengthy load times. It does have a funny feature to show your avatar when leveling up your bounty, making me giggle at a “MOST WANTED” sign with my sleepy Tom Nook avatar. It’s a nice touch.

The soundtrack is a fun romp of rap, rock and EDM of 2010 bringing you back to the initial release with only six new tracks added. The game looks as it did back in it’s initial release of 2010 down to a black and white untextured review mirror that was present in the original. There’s a thought of bringing back the feel of the original but I don’t know if that was a necessary detail. Another detail brought in was the autolog feature which takes your friends lists and updates you when your friends have beat your times, and can take you directly to the event so you can try to beat their new times. It’s a neat social feature that can add a level of competition and keep the things fresh.

Need for Speed Hot Pursuit Remastered brings the classic 2010 arcade racer to the Nintendo Switch. It harkens back to the heyday of the series when they were at their peak. While it’s fun, it doesn’t bring much new to this port so It ends up feeling dated and the progression grindy. While nothing can match the chaos of a good cop chase, the rest of the package could use some updates. That being said, those looking for a new arcade racer will surely find a good time here.

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