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Messages - Halbred

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TalkBack / Hotshot Racing (Switch eShop) Review
« on: September 14, 2020, 11:39:00 AM »

As in life, hell is other drivers.

When I first got wind of Hotshot Racing, I incorrectly assumed that it would be similar to Horizon Chase Turbo, being a throwback racing game and all. That’s not the case, and Hotshot Racing may be better for it. This game has more in common with actual arcade racing games like Sega Rally with a low-poly look that reminded me a bit of Virtua Racing. It’s a fun time, great for multiplayer sessions, but requires a bit of a learning curve.

The game’s main stage is, of course, Grand Prix mode, in which you select a driver and a vehicle (generally organized into four categories based on handling), then go for gold by winning points over the course of four races. To win, you must maneuver around the other aggressive drivers and hit checkpoints in a certain amount of time--just like in the old arcade racers of yore. Once you start earning big bucks on the circuit (by winning), you can spend your moolah on different racing suits for the drivers and various body options for the cars. There are also three difficulty levels which modify the checkpoint time requirements and how aggressive the other drivers are.

There is a big hurdle, however: Winning races depends on your ability to learn and master the art of drifting. The closest analogue that I can think of is Mario Kart 8, but you’re not holding a “drift” button down. Rather, you tap the brake while going into a turn, which sends your car’s back end swerving. You can then widen or tighten your turn with the left stick before getting back to straight. This is tougher than it sounds, and different cars have wildly different handling. Some turn too tightly while others slide too far, but you’ll eventually find the cars that work for you. Drifting (and drafting--staying behind another car) refills your boost meter, which becomes more important as the difficulty increases. I was having a bad time with Hotshot Racing until I figured out drifting, so understand that there may be a learning period.

It would be helpful it Hotshot Racing had included a brief tutorial, but there’s not one, so my best advice is to hit a relatively easy Time Trial track (which can go on forever) to learn the ins and outs of this game’s physics without worrying about a gold trophy. Once you can get around a given track without sliding into a wall, go to another track with a different layout. Repeat until you know what you’re doing. The game offers several different viewpoints, which you toggle with the X button (at any time), and if you really want to capture that arcade experience, yes, there is a driver’s-eye-view mode.

The game also incentivizes learning how to drive each car competently. Each one has a list of achievements to work towards, like boosting so many times or drifting for so long. Hitting these goals allows you to unlock more body options for that car, be it paint jobs or various parts, like spoilers and headlights. I should note here that parts will not improve a car’s performance--they’re purely decorative. I did not find these incentives to be all that fulfilling and continued to lean on the cars I felt comfortable driving.

Despite the Grand Prix mode, the overall focus of Hotshot Racing is in multiplayer, which you can tackle in any mode, even Time Trials to some extent via ghosts (staff or downloadable). You can race with four players locally or eight players online. You can even use your Mario Kart 8 Joy-Con wheels, because Hotshot Racing supports motion controls. During my time on the review, I was never able to get in a functioning online room, either a quick match or joining a game. There is an option to play only with friends, which is appreciated. In addition to a standard race, two other multiplayer options exist: Cops & Robbers and Drive or Explode. In the former, some players are robbers trying to evade the fuzz while other players are cops. Robber cars have HP and will eventually explode after being rammed by cop cars. Drive or Explode is basically an arcade version of the movie Speed, except it’s not a city bus. If you go below a certain speed, your car starts taking damage and will eventually explode--it’s a last-man standing kind of game.

Aside from my previous comment about wishing for a training mode, I don’t have much to say in the negative about Hotshot Racing. There are only sixteen tracks, which is kind of a bummer and you’ll start cycling through them pretty quickly in multiplayer bouts. Your driver is a chatterbox during races, and they just don’t have many things to say, but the soundtrack and sound effects are great. Strangely there were a few times where I could not go back in the menus, which forced me to restart the game a handful of times. Finally, if the new body options for your cars doesn’t excite you, then playing by your lonesome might get old rather quickly (as it did for me).

Once I got the hang of drifting, I really started enjoying Hotshot Racing, but it will not sustain me as a solo player for long. Its utility (for me) will be multiplayer shenanigans, which is just fine.

TalkBack / Adventures of Pip (Switch eShop) Review Mini
« on: September 09, 2020, 05:41:23 PM »

Pip has remained the same; only I have changed.

Back when I reviewed Adventures of Pip for the Wii U, back in 2015, I thought it was a fun, charming little platformer with an interesting gameplay mechanic whereupon our pixelated hero moved between three distinct forms (a single pixel, an 8-bit hero, and a 16-bit hero) to move through each level. This Switch release has not changed significantly apart from some quality-of-life improvements. I find myself less impressed this time around. I’m older and crankier in 2020, and I don’t really have the patience for some of Pip’s idiosyncrasies.

I won’t rehash my 2015 review--that link at the top should bring you up to speed on my overall opinion. I’ll merely go over the things I appreciate more and appreciate less.

From what I can tell, a couple of new features have streamlined the game somewhat. First, Pip starts out with the pixel money (zenni) attractor, although its range isn’t very impressive. Second, you can go right from the map screen to the town now, and this is useful for purchasing new items without having to move across the entire map. Unfortunately, shop items still cost too much for how much zenni you acquire during any given stage, and you’ll find yourself at the final boss’ doorstep before you can buy everything--you’ll have to grind for money if you want to buy everything (which you do not need to do to beat it). The game’s difficulty spikes when you get to the lava level, to the point that the final level is a cakewalk by comparison. Despite that, there are a couple sequences in the final level that made my teeth grind. There’s a certain amount of jank in the level design in these later areas that I was more forgiving of five years ago.

I wish there was more to do in the town besides buy things from two shops and talk to the villagers you rescue, as they don't have much to say.

Pip features a number of audio cue issues that I don’t remember being there before: At times where sound effects would overlap, some are simply cut out or overridden, which is unusual. The boss music in the lava level failed to initiate, which made that boss fight somewhat less epic than was probably intended. Boss fights, I should mention, are a highlight of Adventures of Pip. Similarly, Jake Kaufman’s score is as wonderful as ever, a bit more subdued than his Shantae or Switch Force tunes, as is appropriate here.

Adventures of Pip is still enjoyable and inventive, but I’m less forgiving of its quirks now than I was in 2015. I still recommend it, though--the gameplay hook is lovely and the writing is charming.

TalkBack / Niche: A Genetics Survival Game (Switch eShop) Review FAQ
« on: September 04, 2020, 01:15:40 PM »

It's a better science lesson than game.

Have you ever played the tabletop game “Evolution?” It’s a compelling, if overcomplicated, lesson in evolutionary theory through the discovery and retention of genetic mutations that confer advantages and disadvantages on the player’s population of animals. Niche: A Genetics Survival Game, is a 2016 indie Kickstarter with a surprisingly enthusiastic Steam community that has now landed on the Switch. I figured this was a good time to pull out the Review FAQ format so that I can explain the lessons it’s trying to teach.

Hey look, you’re using the FAQ format on a non-fanservice game.

Had to happen eventually.

So tell me about Niche: A Genetics Survival Game.

It’s a population genetics sim by Stray Fawn Studios that aims to teach players about population genetics through what’s basically a virtual board game. The devs cite Creatures, Spore, and Don’t Starve as inspirations. While I can definitely see aspects of all of those here, I think it bears a closer resemblance to North Star Games’ “Evolution” tabletop game.

I haven’t played that.

It’s a game where each player has a population of animals in a given environment, competing for resources. Your animals draw “mutations” from a deck of cards, and those mutations can help your animals get food or avoid predators. It gets very complicated very quickly, and there are a few expansions. I played it with the old NWR Newscast crew at PAX South, it was fun but became overwhelming quickly.


Well, your mileage may vary. The point is that Niche does similar things, and I think does them better, but also isn’t much fun to play. It’s a sim/survival game where you’re not just maintaining a population of animals, you’re ensuring their survival in a variety of environments. You start the game’s Story mode with a single cat-like animal and, over the course of several turns, learn how to move, eat, mate, and incorporate mutations into your genes. You’ll have to forage for various kinds of food—all of which require certain traits—and defend against illness and predators. Each map is structured like a giant game board with individual hexagonal spaces, and your animals and everything you interact with are “pieces” that are moved around this board.


Your goal is to maintain a stable population of animals and eventually return to your original island (the original cat creature is dropped on a new island by a bird). This will inevitably lead to a “Planet of the Apes” style ending where your animals will look nothing like the animals they descended from, which is kind of cool. Throughout your journey, you’ll learn about science!

Explain it, as you would a child.

Each animal in your group has heritable traits, like “nimble fingers” or “short snout.” Each trait confers certain advantages in the environment. Animals with nimble fingers, for example, can pick more berries. Animals with shorter snouts can smell things in a wider range than other animals. You can give each animal two mutations (or one mutation twice) that may be passed to their offspring. The chances of passing those mutations along are greater if that animal’s mate also has that mutation. When you add new animals to your population, they may bring along new traits or mutations for your gene pool.

Hey that’s microevolution.

Indeed it is. At the most basic level, evolution is just a change in a gene’s frequency over time within a population. Because animal populations are set (by predators, environmental factors, etc.), passing mutations through that population’s descendants is just a statistical inevitability, especially if some outside factor confers a big advantage on specific mutations. For example, sea ice is becoming increasingly scarce due to climate change, so animals that rely on that sea ice to hunt (polar bears) or rest (walruses) will have a tougher time surviving.

How does Niche portray that?

Your group will eventually need to move to new islands (it’s not required, but the game becomes incredibly dull if you just maintain a stable population on one island forever), and each island has its own challenges. Food sources that were plentiful on one island—like berries—might be hard to find on others, and your pack will need to exploit new resources, like clams or termite nests. You also have to avoid—as much as possible—inbreeding. You do this by recruiting new “tribe” members and ensuring that breeding pairs don’t have the same immunity genes.

So what happens when you get to an island with different resources? Does everyone just die?

Each individual animal has a set lifespan, and during that lifespan, they can breed. Since you can choose two mutations per animal, you can in some way direct the evolution of the descendants, which is how you adapt to a new environment—just like real evolutionary change. Of course, in real life, if local conditions change faster than the fauna or flora can breed, you get extinction events. If all your animals die in Niche, you’re kicked back to the beginning and you have to start again.

So it’s a roguelike?

Sort of. You can choose to keep all the mutations you’ve unlocked for your next run.

Well, how’s the gameplay? Is it all menus?

Pretty much. There’s not even any animation.


The board game analogy is tragically accurate: you choose an animal, then either select another space to move it to (where it does, statically) or you choose from two or three available options in an adjacent space, like clearing grass, digging, or simply moving there. The most exciting thing that happens is that activating your group’s senses turns everything grey except the things that are “visible” to their senses of smell or hearing. When non-player animals in the environment move, they slide from space to space like…pieces on a board game.

Oh…kay. How does it look?

Frankly, it looks bad. Most of the animals look like generic mammals but different mutations give them a variety of features, like quills or long toes or different colored coats. Males and females are differentiated based on who has a mane, but that’s not always super clear. Luckily, you can identify which sex is which when you “click on” a given animal. Some of the animals you’ll come across are mind-flaying nightmare monsters who can somehow still breed with your animals. But even if you’re charmed by the variety of different “morphs” of animals (I kind of am), I find the whole game looks incredibly generic, and at times downright uninteresting. The game also doesn’t really tell you how to play beyond “here’s how to eat, breed, and choose mutations.” I had to go to the game’s Steam community to learn how to do basic things. By the way, the game’s Steam community is very informative, with lots of excellent guides.

However, it’s very apparent that to get the most out of the game, you have to spend a LOT of time with it, and if the core gameplay loop doesn’t click with you after many hours, it’s not going to get more fun. It might get more interesting, but it never really got more fun for me.

Did you feel like you had to rely on the Steam guides to be successful?

That is a resounding yes.


And although it’s charming that the character models can change so radically based on an individual animal’s unique set of traits, it’s also very clear that animals are made of “pieces,” a bit like Spore, that takes a lot of the naturalism out of the experience. It’s also strange to me that so many animals you find on islands can breed with your animals. In the wild, the biological species concept is largely not a rule (individual species cross-breed all the damn time) but you wouldn’t expect to see a squirrel mate with a housecat and have fertile offspring. But in Niche, you can basically cross-breed animals from radically different taxonomic classes and be okay!

The important thing, to me, is that it gets population genetics, genetic drift, mutation, and environmental stresses on adaptation rates down pretty accurately.

But it’s not fun to play.

Important caveat: I, personally, did not find it enjoyable. There are a boatload of Steam users who think it’s the bee’s knees. If you’re big on sim or survival games, this might suit your fancy. Just don’t expect a lot of sizzle on this steak, aesthetically speaking. There’s a lot of micromanagement here. But also, there are a range of technical or gameplay problems.

The game was clearly made for PC, because menus tell you to “mouse over” icons to see what they do. Well, I’m using a controller. Control is awkward because you’re using the left stick for some menu actions and the D-pad for others. I would have appreciated some degree of control customization. You really have to manhandle the camera to get a good view of your surroundings and you never really have a comfortable vantage point. Map icons aren’t tied to specific spaces, but to the camera angle, so moving the camera will sometimes put icons in places that don’t make sense, or don’t make it clear what space they apply to. Animals cannot move across areas with tall grass, they can only move into a space with tall grass, and a lot of maps are filled with tall grass, so movement always seems restricted (until you start putting your animals to work cutting the grass down).

Okay, okay, you don’t like it. Anything else?

In addition to Story mode, there’s a “Sandbox” mode where you can set a bunch of parameters from the get-go, including the win condition. I toyed around with it but seems like it’s best suited to people who already know what they’re doing. If you’re wondering whether you’ll like Niche, you should probably watch some YouTube videos first. As a science lesson, it’s pretty nifty. As a game, I didn’t care for it.

Last question. Do you have strong feelings about the pronunciation of “Niche?”

Of course I do. It rhymes with “sheesh” or “yeesh,” not “switch” or “witch.”

TalkBack / Metroid's Untold Stories
« on: August 25, 2020, 08:51:47 AM »

Three New Metroid Games We Need!

There is still so much we don't know about Samus. Zach takes us through three blank spots in Metroid lore to try and guess where a new Metroid could take place.

TalkBack / Re: Inmost (Switch eShop) Review
« on: August 24, 2020, 02:21:44 AM »
Potentially upsetting topics:

Child endangerment, suicide, kidnapping, maybe a bit of child abuse.

TalkBack / Inmost (Switch eShop) Review
« on: August 23, 2020, 03:46:44 PM »

A lovely, but sometimes disturbing platformer.

I wasn’t completely sure what to think of Inmost when it was briefly shown in the recent Indie World presentation, but whatever I thought did not prepare me for what it turned out to be. Inmost is a side-scrolling platformer at heart, but it tells a dark and tragic story that at times had me sympathetic, anxious, scared, and even a little teary-eyed by the end.

You play as three different characters, each in their own setting: a middle-aged man in a maze-like area, a knight in lonely landscapes, and a young girl in her home. While their stories do eventually intertwine, they all play very differently: the man’s gameplay is similar to something like Limbo, where he must use items, tools, and some basic platforming to move forward. His area has a bit of a Metroidvania undercurrent, as every item or tool the man finds can be utilized throughout the maze. The man can also find collectible small white crystals that can be traded to an NPC for more background on the story.

The knight is combat-oriented, fighting hordes of blob-like enemies and using a grapple to travel across gaps. The knight serves a foreboding-looking entity who collects “pain,” embodied as small white crystals--but they seem to have a different meaning from the man's crystals. The combat is satisfying, if a bit rote, but there’s a dodge roll and a combo attack to keep things interesting. It helps that the knight’s sequences don’t overstay their welcome.

The little girl’s gameplay is similar to that of the man. She’s wandering around her house, having adventures with her stuffed rabbit, who has imaginary conversations with her. Her sequences largely involve finding items and pushing or pulling chairs and boxes around in order to climb to higher areas, like a high shelf or the attic. The little girl walks slowly and her while her segments tend to take too long, her story is the most immediately anxiety-inducing and give context to the man and the knight.

I can’t say much more without edging into spoiler territory, but I’ll say that Inmost is one of the darkest and most emotional games I’ve played in a long time. It tackles a lot of difficult, tragic subject matter and I was surprised by how invested I became as the three storylines began to coalesce. If you’ve seen the 1980 film Ordinary People, that’s the road this game is going down, although it takes things further than that movie did.

It’s a short game, barely clocking in at four hours, but uses its runtime well. The man’s gameplay was the most satisfying for me; however, much like Limbo, you’ll often be killed by things you don’t see coming or by puzzles you have a hard time figuring out; thankfully, death doesn’t set you back very far. That said, I don’t know what purpose death—in the man’s and knight’s stories—even accomplished, and Inmost might be a better game if that gameplay concept had been abandoned (a la Wario Land 2). The pixel art is incredibly beautiful, especially the backgrounds, and the developers pull amazingly emotive performances from the simplistic pixelated characters. Where narration occurs, it’s generally good, but...

Just as you begin to see how all the storylines intertwine, Inmost goes into an extended final cutscene where a narrator tells you explicitly what’s going on, which I didn’t love. I had already put together much of the puzzle myself, and I would have much preferred to watch that cutscene without the voiceover. Despite that, Inmost more or less sticks the landing, and just when you think things can’t get more tragic, there’s a ray of hope as the credits roll that brought warmth to my cold, cold heart. Though the gameplay may have some imperfections, Inmost is greater than the sum of its parts by way of its narrative, and for that reason alone, I highly recommend it.

I'll include a list of the topics this game delves into in the Talkback thread, as I suspect it may be upsetting to some folks.

TalkBack / King of Fighters R-2 (Switch eShop) Review
« on: August 19, 2020, 01:40:40 PM »

Are you okay?

After playing and enjoying SNK Gals Fighter for Switch a few months ago, I was hoping that SNK would continue to bring ports of NeoGeo Pocket Color games to the platform, as that’s a system I’d never experienced. Turns out somebody up there likes me, and two more SNK handheld fighters have been released: King of Fighters R-2 and Samurai Shodown! 2. Since my knowledge of the latter is rudimentary at best, I was more excited to try the former.

At its core, King of Fighters R-2 is essentially similar to Gals Fighter, although it feels like a more fully-formed experience. Here, there are fourteen characters to choose from arranged in four teams (the two last characters can be recruited to a custom team). You can unlock alternate versions of most of the fighters, as well—although they don’t differ strongly in terms of spritework or moveset. I will note right off the bat that unlocks are randomized but seem to happen with greater frequency than they do in Gals Fighter, a game that doesn’t seem to understand when characters are unlocked.

King of Fighters R-2 gives you two different arcade mode options: one-on-one or three-person team. Both are quite fun, although I found the multiple combatant excursions ultimately more enjoyable. Interestingly, there are two modes, “Extra” and “Advanced,” which really just delineates how your power meter is built up and spent. Despite its name, I felt that “Advanced,” which gives you more options, was the way to go.

Controls are a little finicky, as they were in Gals Fighter, but I feel like they’re better here overall. There’s still not a moves list, so you’ll have to pull up GameFaqs to see everyone’s attacks, which is a bummer but probably can’t be helped. I’m not sure if this feature was present in Gals Fighter, but in R-2, SNK made up for the lack of four attack buttons by differentiating between button taps and longer presses, so each fighter actually has four basic attacks, which is cool. For special attacks, holding down the final directional input while pressing A or B is also helpful.

King of Fighters R-2 introduces “Skills,” and these are unlocked through random chance and can be applied to a chosen character in “Maker” mode, which is essentially R-2’s version of a “Create a Character.” You then take that character through a traditional arcade mode. You’ll have to turn the difficulty up to Normal or Hard to actually unlock any skills, however. Doing so, however, will activate the typical SNK final boss cheapness, so you’ll be thanking your lucky stars for the ability to rewind when the boss starts reading your inputs.

There’s training mode as well, and a few options available to tweak your experience. The NeoGeo Pocket Color overlay is still present and remains charming. You can still access Versus mode on a single Switch, which is great. Back in 1999, R-2 players could connect their NeoGeo Pocket Color to King of Fighters: Dream Match ’99 on Dreamcast to unlock a picture gallery in the latter. It would’ve been cool to see that picture gallery here, but that’s probably outside the scope of this particular Virtual Console.I enjoyed King of Fighters R-2, mostly for historical purposes. It’s interesting to see KOF gameplay shrunken down and still very playable, and the Chibi aesthetic works, somehow. Samurai Shodown isn’t for me, but I sure hope that this series continues.

TalkBack / Megadimension Neptunia VII (Switch) Review
« on: July 28, 2020, 06:45:00 AM »

Is it a good game, or a good Nep-Nep game?

I’m going back to the Review FAQ format for this one, as I did with this game’s predecessor, Superdimension Neptunia RPG. Check that link if you’re not familiar with the back-and-forth style, but I think that a meta-analysis of a game known for its meta-humor is appropriate.

Well, you were right about Neptune games coming to Switch.

Of course I was. This series, which blossomed—for better or for worse—on the PlayStation Vita had to find a new home after the death of that handheld, and I predicted that they’d land on the Nintendo Switch. Once Superdimension Neptunia RPG hit, I knew it was only a matter of time before the back-catalogue found its way here, and so we now have Megadimension Neptunia VII, which came out on the PS4 back in 2016.

Okay, so what is Megadimension Neptunia VII?

Here’s a little history lesson. Megadimension Neptunia VII is a sequel to Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory (and so is pronounced “V-II,” not “7”), a PS3 game from 2012 that was remastered for the PS Vita and renamed Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth 3: V Generation in 2015. Thus, Megadimension Neptunia VII is one of the “core” Nep-Nep games and very different from Superdimension Neptunia RPG.

I’m so confused.

This series is nothing if not convoluted. Just go with it.

And that previous game…V Generation…is not on the Switch? How will I know what’s going on?

None of the previous Hyperdimension games are on the Switch, but I would welcome (to some degree) the Re;Birth remasters. That said, you probably won’t be too confused, as Megadimension is a self-contained story that actually does a pretty decent job of reintroducing all the major characters. If you’ve already played Superdimension Neptunia RPG, you’ll already have a pretty good understanding of heroines Neptune, Noire, Blanc, and Vert. Here, you’re joined by their siblings, Nepgear, Uni, and Rem & Rom. Vert doesn’t have a sibling (since she represents the Xbox).


Remember? The Hyperdimension games take place in a world called Gameindustri, which contain four areas: Planeptune (Sega), Lastastion (Playstation), Lowee (Nintendo), and Leanbox (Microsoft). They’re filled with meta-references to games, characters, and hardware—a lot of it doesn’t land, but it’s half the fun of this series.

How many words has your word processor marked as “misspelled” so far?

A lot.

How does Megadimension differ from Superdimension?

The gameplay is completely different. The one thing that’s similar is that half the game is a visual novel, and a large percentage of the visual novel portion is fully voiced. In terms of gameplay, your party (the makeup of which changes constantly) explores 3D dungeon-like environments, fighting enemies, finding items, and usually battling a boss or two. As in Superdimension, you can jump and swing your sword. Attacking enemies in the field with your sword before they attack you gives you the first turn in the ensuing battle. During battles, you can position your characters to a limited extent but you generally want to be in a position that lets you hit the enemies with melee attacks, or close to other characters to heal/buff them.

Do you rotate characters into formations, as in Superdimension?

There is a rotate mechanic, but it’s much more limited and doesn’t come into play until much, much later in the game: you can pair with another character, and that pairing results in a stat boost. You can swap characters on the battlefield but they can’t both be out at the same time. But like I said, you won’t get to that until very far in. In general, your characters have “attack zones” in front of them that are dictated by their equipped weapons, and once that zone is positioned over an enemy, you attack them with the face buttons.

That’s it?!

There’s some strategy here. As your characters level up, they learn new “combo” moves, which can be set in the menu. There are three kinds of attacks—Rush, Power, and Standard. Different weapons allow different attack patterns. You select moves from a list and slot them into the pattern slots. Your goal is generally to use patterns that result in combos, which increases that pattern’s power. It sounds abstract, but you’ll understand it pretty quickly once you get into the system. I liked it, and it’s much more fluid than previous Hyperdimension games.

Are there still magic attacks and HDD transformations?

Yes, magic attacks are “Skills,” which cost SP to use. HDD transformations are not always available (they’re heavily scenario-dependent) but—when they are—can be activated by draining one bar of your EXE meter, which replenishes as you attack enemies (for best results, use Rush attacks). New to the series are Formation Attacks that require one or more bars of your EXE meter and certain positioning of your characters around a target. Much later in the game, the four main characters will get upgraded (“NEXT”) transformations that look pretty badass.


The unfortunate thing about Formation Attacks is that everyone has to be in the same transformation state to use them. Early in the game, you’ll be joined by a “grown-up” version of Neptune who can’t transform, so if you want to use a cooperative attack, Nepgear and Uzume have to de-power to use a cooperative attack. This is largely in service of the story, which is, in a word, bananapants.

I think you said before that the Nep-Nep games are notable not for their gameplay, but for their localizations.

That is absolutely true, although I really did like the combat in Superdimension. The story in Megadimension is a lot of fun, if overly convoluted and filled with stereotypical anime characters and tropes. The game’s second part at least does something interesting with the four main characters and their younger siblings. Nep games are lighthearted and typically humorous, and the voice cast (especially Neptune) has a good handle on the characters. I still love it whenever Neptune jumps and says "Like a kangaroo!"

But the gameplay?

I’m not as big a fan here, for a lot of reasons. You have to crowd around enemies to attack them, which leaves you wide open for retribution. Encounters can have a seemingly randomized number of enemies in them. Some have one or two while others may have eight, and if it’s a tougher area, you might get punched in the gut by high-level grunts and drain your resources trying to survive (PROTIP: do some grinding, try to get your characters up to Lv. 30 in the second part of the game). Thankfully, enemies in older areas don’t level up with you, so backtracking—which will happen often—is a walk in the park. I still can’t figure out how attack order is orchestrated. Skills or standard weapons that can target multiple enemies are extremely rare, so fights tend to go on longer than they should.

I should also say that putting even a short amount of time into grinding often results in you dominating your opponents, although there’s still the occasional difficulty spike. If you grind your characters into the low 20's in the first part of the game, you'll dominate the opposition. Additionally, the second section gives you access to “Scouts,” which will patrol dungeons on their own and, once you have a decent group of them, automate much of the loot grinding. Also, should you limp all the way to New Game+, subsequent playthroughs are MUCH more enjoyable.

How does it look?

The story sequences look fine but pretty cheap; each character portrait has three or four different poses that are repeated forever. Backgrounds are similarly economical and sometimes don’t really match what’s being discussed. Every once and awhile you’ll hit an illustration that’s pure fanservice, and given how old (or young) some of the characters are, they can be great or borderline creepy. You’ll at least meet a bunch of new characters, including C-Sha (Capcom), S-Sha (Square-Enix), B-Sha (Bandai-Namco), and K-Sha (Konami). Character models look clean but pretty simplistic, and you’ll see a lot of recycled enemies and bosses.

And the gameplay sections?

They generally look bad, and in fact were initially so choppy that I got seasick. That’s not a joke. The solution was to go into the system menu and turn off as many graphical “effects” as I could, which at least got the framerate to a place where I wasn’t feeling ill. For some reason it performs better in Handheld mode than docked, so I played it that way most of the time. Even so, Megadimension looks rough. We’re talking PS2-era environments and textures, lots of invisible walls, and a good amount of jank when trying to navigate certain structures (all you have is a jump). Character models look okay but nothing that I hadn’t already seen on the Vita. If anything, everything in the Vita series looks better and runs smoother than Megadimension. On more thing I’ll mention--it’s extremely easy to get turned around in the dungeons. It happened to me way too often.


The game is also divided into three distinct sections, complete with title screens. The first third could be called a tutorial, but it goes on way too long, and the second part introduces so many new mechanics it’s a little overwhelming (although Hyperdimension veterans will have an easier time). The final third is where everything comes together, but by the time you get there, you’ll be so burned out on the gameplay that you’ll probably just watch a YouTube video of the story segments and say good riddance.Part of the issue is that you essentially play the second third of the game four times—once with each of the main characters.

Oh come on.

It’s not great, Bob.

Sounds like you’re pretty down on this game.

It’s not my favorite Nep-Nep game, that’s for sure. The combat isn’t interesting enough to sustain a game this long, it’s pretty abysmal from a technical perspective, and I can’t shake the feeling that there was no budget. The story is typical Neptunia fluff, and if you liked previous adventures in this series, it’s enjoyable. It’s just a shame you can’t skip the gameplay parts and watch the story sequences by themselves.

I mean you probably can on YouTube or something.

That’s true. At the very least, wait for a sale. Superdimension is the better Nep Nep game. Now, all of that said, I actually can't stop playing Megadimension. I don't know why. It's the Nep Nep fan in me.

In the Superneptunia review, you said you didn't have any Neptunia figures. Do you have any Neptunia dakis?

No. My one daki is from Freezing, thank you very much. I'll let you guess who it is.

Is it Bridget?


TalkBack / Panzer Paladin (Switch) Review
« on: July 21, 2020, 02:00:00 AM »

This loving Tribute tribute wears its inspirations on its sleeves but manages to find its own identity.

Once I found out that Panzer Paladin was developed by Tribute Games, who were also responsible for my beloved Mercenary Kings, I figured I’d be in for a good time, and indeed, it does not disappoint. Here, players take control of a rescue android named Flame who pilots a big mech called GRIT. The game’s story mimics an anime from the ‘80s—including sometimes questionable English—and concerns a massive hoard of demonic invaders intent on taking over Earth, and it’s up to Flame and GRIT to kick their asses. The story—told through cutscenes—is entirely too brief and I wound up wishing there was more, but it’s always charming.

To give you some idea of what Panzer Paladin is like, take the level selection and general level design of Mega Man, the sword combat of Zelda II, and the dual role of Blaster Master. That’s the basic recipe, but like the Darksiders series, Panzer Paladin successfully weaves these inspirations into something unique. Our daring duo travel to countries all over the world to halt the demonic threat, each of which is lorded over by a boss. GRIT doesn’t have a gun of any kind, but attacks with comically large melee weapons which are dropped by enemies or found in each level. There are a dizzying array of armaments, many of which reflect the areas they’re found in. Hockey sticks in Canada, katanas in Japan, macuahuitl clubs in Mexico, etc. You’ll also find frying pans, chainsaws, and massive skull maces. When you defeat a boss, they’ll drop their unique weapons, too.

Every weapon, however, has a durability rating—hitting enemies or breaking walls slowly decreases that durability, and the weapon will eventually break. The twist is that voluntarily breaking a weapon before it’s destroyed (by holding ZL + ZR) will cast a spell that will temporarily benefit you in some way. There are fourteen spells total, and every weapon has one. Some of these spells are passive buffs, but others can heal you, improve your next weapon’s durability, allow you to fire a Zelda-like energy ball from your next weapon, or even give you wings!

These spells are important for your survival, especially the healing spells, because enemies don’t drop health pickups. You can find health-restoring energy tanks in each stage, but they’re very rare and must be utilized by Flame while outside of GRIT.

In addition, GRIT’s swordfighting style is similar to Link’s in Zelda II. GRIT has an omnipresent shield which will repel many attacks, but you have to match your enemy’s high or low gambits. It’s unfortunately not always clear—I found some enemy telegraphing animations to be a bit too similar, but it’s not a big deal. Most enemies who engage in swordfighting also have a shield, and GRIT will also have to attack high or low to deal with them. GRIT can also use an upward jab and a down-thrust. The upward jab is also functionally your double jump. I was having a tough time with some of the platforming until I realized this. GRIT’s standard jump has about the same range and required precision as the old-style Castlevania games, but using the upward jab is a huge help.

Finally, Flame will occasionally have to eject from GRIT to explore areas that GRIT cannot fit through. Luckily, she’ll always eventually come across a teleportation pad that will summon GRIT to her. Despite her small stature, Flame is no slouch. She can jump just as high as GRIT, has her own health bar, and wields a long-range energy whip that doubles as a grappling hook. If GRIT is disabled via enemy or boss attacks, Flame will pop out and try to avenge her fallen comrade. I’ve finished off three bosses using Flame! Her Achilles’ heel is spikes, which merely damage GRIT but kill Flame outright.

I will say that even on Normal difficulty, Panzer Paladin is a tough game, especially early when your health has not been upgraded. In between levels, you can sacrifice saved weapons in a laboratory to enhance GRIT’s health. Until you start doing that, however, expect to rely heavily on healing spells, especially during boss fights. You can, however, toggle the difficulty on the stage select screen. The bosses are wonderfully diverse, deliciously metal, and each battle is completely unique, but expect some to put up a tougher fight than others. I also want to highlight the game’s music, which is generally excellent and, for some reason, brings to mind the score from Bionic Command: Elite Forces.

Outside of the game proper, Panzer Paladin offers some interesting bonuses. You can toggle a screen filter that mimics a CRT display, and even a curved CRT display, which is actually how I prefer to play it. There’s a super cool Blacksmith mode where you can design your own weapons which will then be found during the game. There’s a Speedrun mode, in which each level has its own leaderboard (you can even activate a ghost). Beating the story unlocks an interesting version of New Game+ in which the levels designs change pretty significantly, and Tournament Mode, which is essentially a leaderboard-leaning Boss Rush.

I was extremely taken by Panzer Paladin, but I do have some minor gripes. My biggest issue is that the game’s camera occasionally forces you to make some blind drops, a couple of which turned out be bottomless pits. The first part of the final area is the biggest offender here, but there were several times where I just wasn’t sure where I could and could not safely jump. I wish more folks would adopt WayFoward’s Shantae solution for bottomless pits, but here we are. Finally, each level is quite long and while that’s not a bad thing in itself, I wish there were more checkpoints. Checkpoints, by the way, are completely optional (you have to sacrifice a weapon). Each level has one main checkpoint and another one right before the boss fight. It’s always a kick in the teeth to fall in a pit right before the boss fight and have to go all the way back to the checkpoint.

Overall, though, Panzer Paladin is a charming, satisfying platformer that I enjoyed immensely. It even manages to do the impossible: make at least one aspect of Zelda II enjoyable.

TalkBack / Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 (Switch) Review
« on: July 10, 2020, 05:05:00 AM »

The gang's all here!

I was a big fan of Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon when it came out in 2018. Back then, it was a stretch goal for the Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Kickstarter and we all assumed it would be a fun little one-off game. It must have sold pretty well, because Inti Creates has now released a sequel that takes the original game’s formula and adds a few surprising layers. Mysterious swordsman Zangetsu teams up with allies new and old as they continue to explore a world informed by the pre-Iga Castlevania games.

As before, Zangetsu will find and team up with several new characters, each with different abilities. First is spear-wielder Dominique, who you may remember from Ritual of the Night. She has the highest jump of the four initial team members, and can attack enemies above and below her. Her down-thrust has the ability to bounce off enemies or candles, so if you get creative, you can combo towards certain doors. Her subweapons are spells, including one that can heal the party.

Next up is Robert, an old friend of Zangetsu. Of the three new characters, he has the most limited utility. He attacks with a rifle, and while his shots can cross the entire screen, it’s not a particularly powerful attack. However, he can lay down while firing, which gives him some advantage, and crawl forward through certain paths. His subweapons include an overhead lance (which makes him more useful), a grenade, and a mid-range energy weapon. Robert’s biggest problem is his extremely low health.

Finally, the objectively best new character is Hachi, who might be a winking reference to Gato Roboto. He’s a big tinker-bot mech...piloted by an adorable corgi. Hachi presents a big target, but has high health to make up for it. His melee attack has extremely short range, but he has a very useful hover jump and in lieu of subweapons, he can turn invincible (although it quickly drains your MP). Hachi is who I used most often thanks to his high health and hover jump.

As before, as you pick up these allies, Zangetsu (who plays the same as he did before) can switch to the other characters with the L or R buttons. Subweapons are mapped to the X button by default, but I found that awkward, and I was happy to see an option to remap the buttons (go with ZL or ZR). Having all four characters gives you lots of options, and your top priority will be making sure everyone has enough health. The maps are large, with tons of alternate routes, some of which will hide upgrades to your party’s health, MP, attack power, and defense. You’ll also see plenty of paths you cannot reach, at least when you first play through the stages.

Like its predecessor, Curse of the Moon 2 has several chapters that play out in different ways. Something happens at the end of the first chapter that forces you back to the beginning without one of your allies, and the boss fights in round two are much tougher. If you find certain items during your second run, you can save them from the final boss. Once you do that, the game really opens up in the final chapter, because in a post-credits scene of the second run, Zangetsu and his new pals get a real Avengers: Endgame moment (and then, later in the 3rd run, things get weird--in a good way).

Curse of the Moon 2 is harder than the original, which is evident in the Veteran difficulty option that limits your lives and brings back the classic Castlevania knockback. It’s brutal, but the other option, Casual removes the knockback and gives you unlimited lives so you always have the option to retry from the last checkpoint with your entire party healed up, so stupid mistakes can be undone. If one of your allies dies, you’ll go back to the last checkpoint anyway, but without that character for the rest of the level. Is there any advantage to this? Sort of--if you lose a character during a boss fight, continuing on without them preserves the boss’ health when you died, so if the boss was on death’s door when you lost, say, Robert, maybe you can take it out in one or two hits once you get back. In all other situations, it’s better to simply retry from the pause menu.

Curse of the Moon 2 also introduces couch co-op, which is...there, I guess? Unless both players are good at Castlevania-style platformers, you’ll probably be more frustrated than anything else. I will say that the game is surprisingly playable on a single Joy-Con. Might be worth a shot if two people are big fans, but otherwise this game is best tackled solo.

I really enjoyed Curse of the Moon 2, especially once things opened up in the third run. And don’t take that the wrong way--I also had fun with the first two runs--but the game really turns into something ridiculously wonderful in that third run. In general, I didn’t like the boss fights, especially during the second run, because they started to exhibit Inti Creates’ bad habits when it comes to bosses--to avoid damage, you have to be be extremely precise, and I just don’t think the Curse of the Moon controls and physics are really up to that demand. And you know what I really love? Final, incredibly-hard-to-avoid gambits once you kill a boss. Switch to whichever character will survive the hit and pray!

Overall, though? Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 is a great game that pays loving homage to the classic old-school Castlevania games. Here’s hoping this does well enough so Inti Creates can go even bigger with a third entry.

TalkBack / Outbuddies DX (Switch eShop) Review
« on: June 29, 2020, 09:22:00 AM »

Not good now, but maybe later.

I got the review codes for Outbuddies DX and Ruiner at the same time. Never did I think that I’d wind up loving the isometric shooter and despising the Metroid-like. Outbuddies DX is the kind of game that you dread playing more of, and it’s also not the kind of game you can write a fun review of afterward, like Liberated. This is going to be a short review, kids. Right at the top, I’ll give you my recommendation: don’t bother.

In Outbuddies DX, you play as a scientist in a dive suit and his hovering robotic friend, who I'll call "Buddy." Your goal is to explore a massive subterranean area that is nonlinear in the traditional Metroid way, where finding new weapons or movement abilities allows you to explore more areas, with a healthy amount of backtracking. I found the game’s art design ugly, with bubble-covered tilesets that don’t always accurately reflect the boundaries of the area, and enemies that seem to be missing several frames of animation. Background objects will occasionally pepper a given room, but they're often awkwardly juxtaposed with "foreground" elements. Your initial moveset involves jumping, dodge rolling, shooting your ray gun, and running. You’re given some limited tutorials, and they’re communicated via little gifs that, while clever, are not immediately appreciable. You know what I’d prefer over cleverness? Clarity. You’ll also quickly learn how to pilot Buddy, which is awkward.

Buddy can be controlled by you or by a couch co-op friend. It can use a tractor beam to drag certain objects around, although it is finicky and frustrating to use, occasionally demanding some level of precision. It can scan walls to look for breakable tiles, but it can also scan enemies and environmental objects and give you icons that are sometimes self-explanatory, but other times, aren't. Sometimes it will show you a switch that isn't actually there. Within the first hour or so (assuming you’ve found three items), Buddy will be able to “hack” enemies. Remember the hacking gun in Axiom Verge? It’s kind of like that, except poorly done. Since Buddy can float around an area without taking damage, he could easily hack enemies by hovering over them and pressing a button. But no, he has to charge up a “seed,” and then slingshot that “seed” towards the enemy he wants to hack. And while every enemy type could be hacked in Axiom Verge to different effect, that’s not the case here. Instead, rather than limit hacking to specific enemy types, certain individual enemies can or can't be hacked in a given room. What this means is that you may have been able to hack a school of piranha fish in one area, this other identical school of fish in a different area cannot be hacked. There is no consistency, which means that you wind up having to scan every enemy in a given room every time.

What I just described for Buddy, where nothing is intuitive or user-friendly, is a philosophy that extends to the entire game. For another example, the subscreens are almost completely useless. The map is an unhelpful parody of a map you’d find in literally any other Metroid-like: rooms have checkmarks that look like “down” symbols and sideways “Ps” that are missing a critical pixel to indicate that one or more items were found in that room. Neither of these symbols hover over the spot where that object was found (the map's rooms are too small), but rather to the side of the room, which means they often hover over doorways, which doesn’t even make sense. You can’t zoom in on the map. You have a minimap on the top right of your screen during gameplay, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the room’s actual layout, and it uses icons that I can’t figure out. Your other sunscreen options are looking at icons of your suit upgrades and the weapons you have, but there is no text or explanations. If you forget how to do something, you could look a the game's Wiki but it's nonfunctional. You can also activate co-op, which you shouldn’t force upon your friends.

Gameplay is tediously slow, especially when you consider how many rooms are flooded. Combat feels like a chore, as you have few options and lack the mobility of something like Metroid to escape damage or get a better bead on your opponents. Scanning every room with Buddy immediately becomes a living nightmare comparable to surveying every room in Metroid II with the Spider Ball. At one point, I found myself in a large area that I couldn’t get out of, repeatedly going back and forth until I realized I lacked the firepower to beat the boss and the abilities required to escape, so I had to restart the game. Every facet of Outbuddies DX is either too simplistic or more complicated than it needs to be which results in a slow grind that will have you frequently sighing in frustration. In short, it’s just not fun to play. Granted, Metroid-likes are hard to get right, but it's not really the map that's lacking here, it's getting around the map. Interactions with non-player characters (Jawa-like creatures) don't give you the kind of guidance that you might find in something like Cave Story, which is probably Outbuddies DX's closest spiritual cousin.

If you look at the game’s Steam forums, you’ll see that Outbuddies DX is being updated continually (I suspect it was updated at least once since release), so I have some hope that it will, at some point, be a better game. Today, however, is not that day. If you’re itching for a Metroid-like, I did review an excellent one just recently. Without Outbuddies, I feel like the skeleton is there, but the meat needs some more time in the oven.

TalkBack / Ruiner (Switch) Review
« on: June 24, 2020, 06:26:00 AM »

Kill boss. Save brother. Shoot dudes.

Sometimes it takes a little time for a game to click, and Ruiner is one of those games for me. Granted, the intro level is too punishing and doesn’t do a good job of introducing you to the gameplay loop: dash around, shoot dudes, dash some more, land some melee kills, dash some more. There are some complications, some alternate weapons, and some environmental hazards, but overall, this game is about shooting a lot of dudes in a stylish manner.

You play as an unnamed, faceless mercenary in an Akira or Ghost in the Shell-type cyberpunk future, out to kill the big boss of the Heaven megacorporation. You go through bounty hunters, security details, cyborgs, and laser-spewing machinery, all in an effort to rescue your brother from Heaven’s clutches. Your base of operations is Rengkok South, where your hacking group sends you on various missions to take out high-level targets. It’s a quick game, with just three major areas (each divided into several sub-levels). Other quests also pop up in Rengkok, like finding and hacking robotic cats or giving collectible coins to a fortune-teller.

When out on a mission, survival is the name of the game. Our nameless protagonist (nicknamed “Puppy” by his hacker friends) gets by with his Ruiner machine gun and a melee sword, but both can be swapped for weapons found in the field. A LOT of guns can be found with a lot of different effects, and a similar number of blades. Even if you find favorites, guns run out of ammo and blades deteriorate over time, so you’re required to make do with what you find. Puppy’s main abilities are his gun, sword, a recharging dash (you can awkwardly chain several dashes together), and a handy personal shield that cannot be active while Puppy is attacking.

Skill points are earned/found and can be used to upgrade these core abilities as well as unlock and enhance several others, like stun grenades and an immobile energy shield. You can upgrade how Puppy handles his weapons as well as how much health and energy he has. The best part is that you’re never locked to a specific path; if you find you don’t care for the stun grenades, you can get those skill points back and sink them into something else. Experimentation pays off, although I suspect most players will wind up with similar "builds" towards the end.

As I said at the top, Ruiner doesn’t explain itself very well. You should focus on finding a rhythm with dashing forward, landing hits, and dashing away to safety. Use cover whenever possible. Destroying environmental hazards should be your top priority. Stay out of any spotlights! There were plenty of times where I felt like I was being repeatedly trounced by fights I should’ve won quickly, but once I accepted that you can’t really “brute force” this game and submitted to the “dash-attack, dash-away” loop, I had an easier time. The toughest fights are those that involve powerful opponents and two or more hazards to keep track of. Part of the challenge is keeping track of multiple bogeys.

Killing dudes nets you experience (“Karma”), which you can also find by activating Weapon Grinders after every mission (that destroy excess weapons) and in treasure chests. You might also come across random Skill Point pickups and Coins, which you can take to Rengkok’s fortune teller.

My favorite aspect of Ruiner, however, is the wonderfully detailed environments. Puppy explores dilapidated parking structures that give way to abandoned factories, an automated weapons manufacturing plant, and an experimental tech plant that features some disturbing human-tech hybrids. The machine designs and architecture absolutely scream Akira and Ghost in the Shell, with lots of bulky, squared off components of automated machines, enormous umbilical power cords, and character art that’s as freaky as it is beautiful. Despite the game telling you that enemies in THIS sector look different from THAT sector, they very quickly blend together once the bullets start flying. Between firefights, you have plenty of opportunities to stop and gaze at the industrial beauty surrounding you—it seems like the art department had a blast designing these environments.

Ruiner is also quite short, clocking in at about 3.5 hours, although there are a couple extra game modes (including New Game+) if you want to keep the ball rolling. There’s also a good reason to go back through previous levels to get better scores and find loot you’d previously missed or had been locked behind a Rengkok quest.

It’s surprisingly fun. Just don’t play it in Handheld mode, where you’ll be struggling to see things (the Joy-Con sticks aren’t necessarily up to the task, either). I will say there’s a plot twist that could not have been more telegraphed, which was a little disappointing, but this isn’t a game you’re playing for depth of story. Ruiner is a good time and is definitely worth trying.

TalkBack / Shantae and the Seven Sirens Interview with Matt Bozon
« on: June 15, 2020, 06:37:00 PM »

WayForward's own Matt Bozon talks all things Shantae.

Fresh off our review of Shantae and the Seven Sirens (which you should totally play), Matt Bozon was kind enough to answer some of my questions regarding my favorite half-genie hero. This is actually our second interview with Mr. Bozon, although the first in an official capacity. It was a pleasure, sir. I still have that sketch.

Zach Miller: First, I hope you and your family and colleagues have been safe through this crazy pandemic. Have you developed any new hobbies or interesting ways to pass the time?

Matt Bozon: Thanks! We’re all doing well, just working from home. I’ve had a lot of time to go through my old gaming paraphernalia and try to repair some of my aging hardware. I was able to fix my busted Virtual Boy thanks to the advice of a guy on YouTube, who suggested I iron it with some kind of airplane wing iron. That worked great, so next I’m tackling Game Gear repairs! Oh! I also had time to name all of the lizards in the backyard. Stumpy’s tail is growing back. Good stuff. I’m not stir crazy at all.    

ZM: Before diving into Seven Sirens, the previous Shantae game (Half-Genie Hero) was a Kickstarter project. Were you pretty happy with the experience? Was there any desire to go to Kickstarter for Seven Sirens?

MB: It was a great experience, yes. But we didn’t think it would be right to go back to the well for this one. Half-Genie Hero was developed only because fans generously funded it. The Kickstarter was very successful in our opinion. But since then, WayForward has tried out a few different funding models. There are some great business partners out there, and industry deals continue to evolve. These new models led to River City Girls, Seven Sirens, Vitamin Connection, and even a few other yet-to-be-announced titles. Running the Kickstarter campaign was a blast, but it is also time-consuming. For this one, we wanted to focus entirely on behind-the-scenes development as with Shantae 1, 2, and 3.

ZM: I know that the animated intro stretch goal for Half-Genie Hero didn't quite make it; is that more or less where the Studio Trigger collaboration came from for Seven Sirens? What was the process of finding and working with them like?

MB: Well, there’s no direct connection, other than we really hoped to do some 2D anime-style cutscenes at some point. This time around, Shantae creator Erin Bozon came on to produce the animated intro, and she had Studio TRIGGER at the top of our wish list. It seemed like a one-in-a-million chance, but it worked out! We had help making connections through Amuzio in Japan, and Lab Zero here in the states. Studio TRIGGER had just finished their first movie, Promare, and they had a nice Shantae-sized gap in their schedule. They reviewed past Shantae games, and were enthusiastic about contributing. Some folks at TRIGGER knew of Shantae already, and hid a little Squid Baron Easter egg in the video. As for the process, Erin would meet with TRIGGER Naoko Tsutsumi (producer of Little Witch Academia) after hours for us - early morning for them - to coordinate production. I’d do very loose drawings and time them to the music, send that over to TRIGGER, and they’d add their own ideas and designs, re-envisioning it through their own creative lens, and turn it into something completely amazing!  

ZM: After producing all that extra content for Half-Genie Hero and the Ultimate edition, did you guys take a (well-deserved) break from Shantae or did Seven Sirens follow pretty quickly afterward?

MB: No, in fact we’ve been in Shantae mode for 10 years solid with each game rolling straight into the next! Not to say we don’t take vacations. But momentum has been continuous since starting Pirate’s Curse for Nintendo 3DS.        

ZM: When Apple Arcade launched, I was immediately envious because I use Google phones. How did that relationship come about? How did you like working with them?

MB: This was our second time creating launch content with Apple. The first was Watch Quest: Heroes of Time for first-gen Apple Watch. That game featured Shantae and Bolo going on a side adventure. We really wanted to prove that a game could run on the “iWatch,” and we got our chance after showing a lot of passion for the tech. I think that’s why we were invited back to work on Apple Arcade. Helping to launch Apple Arcade was a ton of fun. They even added PlayStation and Xbox controller support, too! Personally, I was very happy to support an alternative to the common “compulsion loop” gaming model you see so often on mobile. If you have an iPad or other Apple product and haven’t tried it out yet, I’d highly recommend giving it a shot.    

ZM: Can you talk about the new gameplay elements in Seven Sirens compared to previous games?

MB: Sure! This time out we’ve got a huge, interconnected world to explore. Towns and labyrinths are back, so you’ve got some Zelda and Metroid elements mixing together. Shantae has all-new aquatic-themed transformations, and this time you can pull them off instantly - no dancing required. Belly dance is still there, and this time it’s used to change into a creature that represents the fusion of Shantae’s magic and the magic of another Half-Genie. For example, fuse magic with Vera, the “healer” Half-Genie, to receive the Refresh Dance, capable of transforming Shantae into a sort of tree-mermaid that showers the screen with life-giving magic. We also added a collectible called Monster Cards. Destroying a monster might cause it to drop a card. Every type of card grants Shantae a new ability, and players can equip three of them at a time. So if you like firing magical heat-seeking rockets, there’s a card that increases rocket damage, one that increases rocket speed, and another that lowers the MP cost for rockets. Players can try different “Shantae builds” and see which combinations suit their play style.    

ZM: Do you already have her next adventure planned or are you giving our favorite half genie some time off?

MB: I think we’re gluttons for punishment. We have a few different ways we might want to go, assuming that Shantae gets another outing. Our wheels are already turning, and we’re seeing a lot of ideas from fans.

ZM: Are there any other past WayForward projects (Mighty Switch Force? Mighty Flip Champs?) that you hope to revisit and make new entries for?

MB: We released Mighty Switch Force! Collection not long ago for all of your Switch Force needs. We’d love to bring Patricia, Alta, or Luna back sometime, too! But we also have a lot of other original titles recently released like Cat Girl Without Salad, Vitamin Connection, and River City Girls. It's just tough to find time!  

ZM: WayForward has a history of making licensed games. Have those relationships changed over the years? How much freedom do you have to make licensed games these days?

MB: Adam Tierney, who directed River City Girls (and many of our past titles) has been running business development for the last few years. He’s been pushing hard to find licenses that we’re especially passionate about. Over the last 30 years we’ve always had to take work to keep the lights on, but right now we’re in a wonderful place where we can chase our favorite licenses a lot more than we used to. That’s pretty awesome. And we owe that to a huge number of hard-working, talented folks who contributed over the years to help put WayForward on the map!

ZM: Outside of WayForward, are there any games out there that have caught your eye? Anything you're enjoying or anticipating?

MB: Animal Crossing for GameCube is probably my most played game of all time, so naturally I’m neck-deep in New Horizons. I’m also going through a Panel De Pon (Tetris Attack) renaissance and replaying every existing version of that game. Next up is Doom Eternal. I’m also happy to see Prinny making a comeback. I hope we’ll see a lot of new announcements soon, since this is typically E3 season.  

ZM: Last question: why pulled pork sandwiches?

MB: If you were to slay a tropical monster, I’d imagine it would either drop 1) a pulled pork sandwich, 2) a Maui burger with roasted pineapple and teriyaki sauce, 3) some kind of spicy honey-glazed prawns, or 4) a mahi taco. But because pulled pork sandwiches remind me of pork chop sandwiches, which remind me of G.I. Joe, which reminds me how much I like Shipwreck in the episode There’s No Place Like Springfield - well, the answer becomes obvious. Pulled pork.

Thanks to Mr. Bozon for the fun interview! Here's to many more years of hair-whipping adventures.

TalkBack / Liberated (Switch eShop) Review
« on: June 08, 2020, 09:09:52 AM »

Liberate me from this janky mess of a game.

Here’s a free box quote for Liberated, from developer Atomic Wolf:

“Liberated fails at everything it tries to do.”

Is that too harsh? Let me put it a different way.

“Liberated has interesting ideas but squanders them at every opportunity.”

Would you like to know more? Liberated is a slow-moving black-and-white motion comic with an art style that I simply didn’t care for (your mileage may vary) with brief but noticeable load times between every page. It tells a hard-boiled, but well-worn story about the Evil Surveillance State and the Rogue Group (Liberated) who are trying to Free The People. Every once and awhile, without warning, there are quick-time events (QTEs) that either result in an immediate retry or affect the narrative in some minor, but not lasting, way.

Some panels of the comic turn into actual gameplay segments, which is kind of cool because the art style mimics the illustrations. The gameplay itself is mind-numbingly rote: shoot bad guys, push crates around, flip switches, pick up items, and sometimes take a swim. These segments are hindered by several things:

The framerate struggles to maintain any sort of consistency, which affects your actions.

Platforming is prone to input lag, so jumping is a big gamble. You may die repeatedly from falling into pits because your character didn’t jump far enough, or didn’t jump at all.

Enemies can see you when they’re still off-screen, and can start shooting you before you can get a bead on them. My solution was to walk slowly and keep my gun trained at headshot level at all times, which I’m sure was the intent.

Stealth is encouraged, but is only effective when you have cover. Most areas do not have cover.

You’ll be asked to swim distances which exceed the character’s ability to hold their breath without taking damage.

There will be a lot of times where gunfights simply come down to luck—how quickly you can line your shots up vs. how quickly the enemies shoot you, what the framerate does, and how input lag hinders your performance. The exact same encounter can play  out in shockingly different ways from retry to retry.

An elevator shootout sequence is simply unforgivable. How Liberated left the gate without addressing this chunk of gameplay will be one of the great mysteries of our times, akin to “whatever happened to Amelia Earhart?” or “Who killed Tupac?” and “Why do  people believe in Nessie?”

The only truly enjoyable part of Liberated, from a gameplay perspective, are the times where you have to guess a passcode (using trial and error) or play a version of Pipe Dream to line up electrical circuits. The whole game could’ve been like this and I would’ve been okay with it. If you’re going to have gameplay in your video game, at least make sure it runs well and isn’t terrible.

You may still be interested in the storyline, but rest assured there is very little here you haven’t seen before, but done better, in other video games, graphic novels, TV shows, and movies. I think Ubisoft has an entire franchise built around mass surveillance, social media, and dangers they pose to society. I just saw this narrative play out in Season 3 of Westworld. I seem to recall V for Vendetta and Mr. Robot utilize characters in masks hacking into live TV feeds to spread a message of liberation. What, exactly, does Liberated have going for it?

There are better games out there, folks. I appreciate Liberated’s attempt to blend comic storytelling with action sequences, but hopefully somebody will take this baton and do it better.

TalkBack / Re: Shantae and the Seven Sirens (Switch) Review
« on: May 26, 2020, 06:31:12 PM »
First time through took about eight hours. Second run, knew what I was doing and where I was going, got 100% item completion in something like five hours. Third run, went for speed (any percentage), got it down to less than four hours, I think. Right around four hours.

Yeah, I have issues with Half-Genie Hero. It didn't really feel cohesive, and her bat and spider transformations were REALLY under-utilized.

To be fair, the character art of Pirate's Curse could ALSO be described as "Everyone's a Sexy Girl," especially when you take the 3DS' 3D into effect...

TalkBack / Re: Shantae and the Seven Sirens (Switch) Review
« on: May 26, 2020, 02:15:21 PM »
Great question!

In terms of best > worst, the order is:

Seven Sirens/Pirate's Curse > Pirate's Curse/Seven Sirens > Half-Genie Hero (Ultimate) > Risky's Revenge: Director's Cut > Shantae GBC

I love the original but it's very hard, and playing its successors first will "train you" for it.

TalkBack / Shantae and the Seven Sirens (Switch) Review
« on: May 26, 2020, 05:40:00 AM »

It's hard to beat Pirate's Curse, but Seven Sirens comes damn close.

As the site’s resident Shantae superfan, you can probably guess that I was eagerly anticipating the Switch release of Seven Sirens, which had previously been exclusive to Apple Arcade. I’ve reviewed most of the series here, including the Game Boy Color original, DSiWare follow-up, and 3DS pinnacle. That game, Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, which also appeared on Wii U, is considered by just about everybody to be the untouchable exemplar of the Shantae formula, featuring individual stages with expanding maps (a la Order of Ecclesia), brilliant dungeons, a catchy soundtrack, and a healthy dose of fanservice. The next game in the series, Half-Genie Hero, was a Kickstarted game that I was unfortunately ineligible to review (what with the kickstarting) but Donald liked it a lot--more than me, actually.

Having now cleared the game three times, thus securing all five ending screens (another Shantae standard), I can safely state that Seven Sirens, while different from Pirate’s Curse in many ways, is nonetheless its equal. If you like “Metroidvania” games in general or Shantae games specifically, it’s a can’t-miss.

The story is fluff, but entertaining fluff, as the series’ writing continues to be on-point. There are subplots involving Sky and the Squid Baron that had me laughing out loud. Seven Sirens features a good amount of callbacks to all the previous games, including a new dance parlor (Shantae), timed battle dungeon (Risky’s Revenge), Squidsmith (Pirate’s Curse), and the character designs of Half-Genie Hero. The multitude of brief animated cutscenes and new character art give the game a lot of personality.

The gameplay has been overhauled somewhat. Instead of individual stages with expanding maps (as Shantae’s repertoire grows), Seven Sirens has opted for a single, surprisingly large, map. Metroid has always been infused into Shantae’s genes, but here, those traits are fully fledged, and it’s wonderful. The island--most of which is subterranean--is divided into several color-coded zones, most of which have a warp point associated with them. Unlike the case in Half-Genie Hero, where I felt that many of Shantae’s transformations were single-use “keys,” her powers here are utilized in unique ways throughout the journey. As is usual for the series (Half-Genie Hero notwithstanding), Seven Sirens also includes Zelda-like dungeons that were a bit on the easy side but I appreciated nonetheless. Boss fights are also surprisingly simplistic and over quickly if you’ve bought the right upgrades from the shops.

But even the system of transforming and dancing has been leveled up. In Pirate’s Curse, Shantae didn’t transform, but instead used pirate gear to get around. In Seven Sirens, Shantae still transforms, but her animal avatars are triggered by a button press. Her Dash Newt form, for example, activates by hitting ZR, whereby she dashes forward and, if she hits a wall, will stick to it. It’s similar to her traditional monkey form, but streamlined. Similarly, she can break blocks as the Bonker Tortoise by pressing/holding ZL. All of her moveset powers are utilized this way, which speeds the gameplay up significantly.

But she can still dance, and by holding X, she can select (eventually) four area-of-effect actions. The first of these is a power that reveals hidden objects on the screen. The second livens up certain objects and purifies poisonous water, as well as healing Shantae. I won’t go into the next two, but they’re just as useful. Like her transformations, these powers continue to be useful and meaningful throughout the game.

The other big change is the addition of Monster Cards. Monsters occasionally drop these upon dying, and they can be equipped on the subscreen--three at a time--to give Shantae various buffs. While it’s fun to seek out a complete set of Monster Cards, I was thankful that they don’t factor into the completion rate. Various NPCs in the game’s three towns hold boss cards, and they want gold nuggets in exchange. It’s fun to experiment with the cards, though, to figure out what card combos fit your play style.

One of my typical complaints about the Shantae series is that, in order to get 100% item completion, you have to grind for gems in order to buy the increasingly expensive items in the shop(s). I’m happy to say that in Seven Sirens, the game throws gems at you left, right, and center. I never had to grind, and had bought all the items long before the endgame.

The game looks great, ditching the occasionally awkward-looking 2.5D backdrops from Half-Genie Hero, instead going with backgrounds that match the character art. Everything is bright and colorful, but slowdown can occur when there’s a lot happening at once. The character art has been refreshed, and while I generally like it, I do miss the Inti Creates art from Pirate’s Curse (and not just for the 3D effect). Series mainstay Virt (Jake Kaufman) is oddly enough NOT involved in Seven Sirens, but his compositional replacements have crafted a toe-tapping soundtrack that manages to mimic Kaufman’s works, although most of the dungeon pieces loop a bit too quickly.

I don’t have many complaints, but here we go: Every time you warp, or enter/exit a town, or enter/exit a zone of the map, there’s a short load screen. Over the course of the entire game, it gets old, especially once you start warping around to get 100% item completion. Seven Sirens brings back the challenge caves from Risky’s Revenge but, like that DSiWare game, does not mark them on the map, so you will forget about them. Similarly, additional important objects that often produce Nuggets or Heart Squids are invisible on the map, as is any indication that you already found an item or solved a cave. My solution was to create a short-hand map on a piece of paper (which was an enormous help for my speedrun). I also have this complaint about most Metroidvania games, however, but nobody ever seems to solve it.

Apart from those complaints--which are minor in the grand scheme of things--Seven Sirens is a wonderful game and might well be the equal of Pirate’s Curse, which is no small feat. The game does feature several ending screens for completing the game in various ways and a second game mode that’s akin to Risky’s Revenge: Director’s Cut instead of Half-Genie Hero. There’s also a nice movie viewer if you want to sample the cutscenes. Like I said, if you’re itching for a good Metroidvania or just like Shantae games generally, Seven Sirens is a lock.

TalkBack / SNK Gals' Fighter (Switch eShop) Review
« on: May 01, 2020, 11:18:17 AM »

A new Virtual Console approaches!

There’s a whole host of handhelds that I never experienced but wish I had, things like the Atari Lynx, Wonderswan Color, and yes, even the Nokia N-Gage. One of the more obscure handhelds on the market was the NeoGeo Pocket Color, a 16-bit system launched in 1999 that failed immediately due to the strength of the Game Boy Color, the Pokemon series, and anticipation of the 32-bit Game Boy Advance. It was SNK’s last console before going bankrupt in 2001 (SNK has a wild history, ya’ll). The system itself was praised by the few people who actually played it, and it included a large number of well-received fighters, including SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millenium and SNK Gals’ Fighter. The latter just saw release on the Switch, and I hope it’s a sign of things to come.

You may recognize Gals’ Fighter as the prequel to SNK Heroines: Tag Team Frenzy, a Switch game that I enjoyed but it needed more content apart from DLC characters that somehow did not include Angel.* As my introduction to the NeoGeo Pocket Color, SNK Gals’ Fighter is a trip and surprisingly enjoyable. It’s not perfect, but we’ll get to that.

The characters—all women—are pulled from a range of SNK fighting franchises and are drawn in the same Chibi style of other NeoGeo Pocket fighters like King of Fighters R-1 & R-2. Eight are immediately selectable, and three are unlockable. The graphics are colorful and the sprite animations are, quite frankly, amazing considering the hardware and character design limitations. The way limbs temporarily embiggen reminds me a bit of Battletoads (in a good way). Specials attacks and super attacks are performed using complex directional inputs as there are only two attack buttons.

The gameplay modes are pretty standard: Q.O.F. mode (get it?) is basically the arcade mode. There’s local two-player vs., which is a huge plus (although read on). There’s a standard training mode, gallery of items you’ve won, and a good number of options for a handheld fighter, including difficulty and movement speed.

You will sometimes win items during matches. These can be equipped at the beginning of a round of Q.O.F.; some will help you out but most don’t have any measurable effect. Exactly how you unlock characters is a matter of some debate. Every online FAQ has a different opinion (some of which are contradictory). For me, it’s been largely random. At one point, one of the bonus characters challenged me to a fight (Smash Bros. style) but after beating her, she wasn’t on the character select screen. After taking a few more girls through QOF mode, she suddenly appeared. I don’t know if that’s a bug or what.

Gals’ Fighter is maybe a little too KOF for its own good when it comes to pulling off special and super attacks, though. Half circles and quarter circles are unusually tough to pull off with any consistency on the somewhat loose left stick of the Pro Controller or undersized sticks of the Joy-Cons. I cannot recommend playing 2-player vs. with Joy-Cons. Maybe I just need to git gud, but I’ve not been all that impressed by Switch fighters that demand KOF or Street Fighter inputs for attacks. These things need an actual arcade stick, and I continue to be gobsmacked that nobody’s made one yet. I’m also annoyed that CPU opponents, even at the lower difficulty levels, block every super attack unless it’s tacked onto the end of a combo, which is as much luck as skill due to the control stick issue. This problem would be remedied to some degree by allowing players to map super attacks (each character has three) to the X, Y, or shoulder buttons. Alas, this option is unavailable.

I wondered what the NeoGeo Pocket Color used as a stick, and I found out it’s a “clicky stick,” eight-directional D-pad, which I kind of wish the Switch had because that sounds better.

Apart from that, SNK Gals’ Fighter is a fantastic little game. There are lots of overlay options as well: you can toggle different screen frames, zoom in or out, swap between two filters, change the button inputs, reset the game into Japanese or English, view the game manual (which you’ll want to read), and there’s even a rewind feature. I hope that SNK continues releasing NeoGeo Pocket Color games on the Switch so those of us who missed out on that short-lived handheld can experience them for the first time.

*You had ONE JOB.

TalkBack / Gigantosaurus: The Game (Switch) Review FAQ
« on: April 06, 2020, 09:06:37 AM »

Might be fun for the younger set

Before we get into the back-and-forth of this review FAQ, it might help newer readers to know that my long tenure at NWR has eventually led to being automatically handed two types of games for review purposes: fanservice games and dinosaur games. Gigantosaurus: The Game is the latter. Let’s get right to it.

Hey there, that looks like a dinosaur game.

Why yes it is; want to hear about it?

Sure, I’ve got time.

It’s Gigantosaurus: The Game, which is based on a Disney Jr. series and produced by Outright Games.

Something fishy about that title.

Good eye—the proper spelling of the titular dinosaur’s name is Giganotosaurus (“gig-ann-OTO-sore-us”), although I’m ashamed to say I pronounced it “Gigantosaurus” (“jai-GANT-o-sore-us”) until 2007.

Did you also learn about Giganotosaurus by reading Dinotopia: The World Beneath?

I did. I suspect they’re misspelling it on purpose here, since it’s easier for kids to say and associate—“gigantic” with “very large,” which Giganotosaurus is.

Bigger than Tyrannosaurus, right?

Longer, anyway, by a few meters, but it didn’t have rexy’s bite force or speed. Giganotosaurus is a carcharodontosaurid, which is a super-sized allosaur. They were quite diverse, and we even have one—Acrocanthosaurus—in North America (Oklahoma). They mostly stuck to the southern hemisphere, though.

Well, what’s the game like?

It’s a cute little platforming game where you and up to the three friends take control of the main characters from the show—a baby dinosaurs—and wander around very large 3D environments. In all but the last area, your goals are to find eggs and carry them back to a nest area, collect acorns, find storybooks, and plant trees. Each character has a specific ability—Mazu, an ankylosaur, can build things; Tiny, a Triceratops, can knock over logs to form bridges; Bill, a sauropod, can disguise himself as a tree; and Rocky, a Parasaurolophus, can climb up vine walls. If you’re playing by your lonesome, you’ll have to cycle between the four friends anytime an ability is required.

How’s the platforming?

It’s fun enough. Each area has its own aesthetic, but the platforming is mostly the same between them all. You’ll be doing a lot of climbing large structures or finding your way through maze-like areas. There are some items within each environment that can mix things up a bit, like spring shoes or a parachute-like plant that lets you float down from a high ledge. Each area also has its own hazards. The desert, for example, has scorpions and cacti, while the river area has a prowling plesiosaur and the ice area has a lava river.

But you’re always doing the same things?

Yeah, and that’s kind of a bummer, although you only have to find three or four eggs before you have the option to move to the next area, so the game moves pretty briskly. The last area swaps finding eggs for helping Gigantosaurus escape a lava lake by routing boulders to stop up the lava flow. It’s the most fun area by far, and I wish each level had its own unique goal like this.


In between stages, the characters actually drive to the next area in a Mario Kart-esque racing segment. The courses are surprisingly long, very pretty, and have their own collectibles (Gigantosaurus skulls). There are no items, but there are plenty of shortcuts to find. I liked them.

Any problems?

Yeah, there’s some awkward level design; it’s not always clear how to get where you need to go, and the map isn’t super helpful. I feel like it’s not scaled right, and having to open it constantly with the “-“ button is a chore—a mini-map in the corner of the screen would’ve been preferred. There’s an underground area in the first level that’s a nightmare to navigate. Camera control isn’t as customizable as I would’ve liked, so I struggled with the camera quite a bit (is it so hard to implement inverted camera controls in games? Seriously, why isn’t it an option in every platforming game?). The nest in each area is not centralized, so you’ll be traveling quite far for some of them.

Is there a story?

Not really, no. And there’s no voice acting on the parts of the characters. There’s a narrator, but that’s it. I haven’t seen the show, so I can’t comment on how faithful this game is to it.

I assume you didn’t like the cartoony dinosaurs?

You know, I’m just as surprised as you are here—I did like their designs. Simple, but each character shows that species’ trademark features. Rocky, for example, has a backswept crest that clearly originates from the nasal bones. Mazu has a tail club. The raptors, although they lack feathers, have raptorial claws on their feet. There’s a Pteranodon who looks like a Pteranodon. I found myself charmed by the Stegosaurus who tells you where to plant trees in each area. I think I like these cartoon dinosaurs more than those in Dinosaur Train.

How do you think it would work for the target audience?

The goal of finding three or four eggs in each stage to move ahead is pretty low-hanging fruit, so that works. One or more dedicated players can tackle the longer-term goals, but there will have to be some coordination with the different abilities. Sometimes the frame rate is a little spotty, and objects have a weird habit of disappearing when close to the camera, but nothing game-breaking.

So you…like it?

This is the kind of game where there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but it’s also not super engaging. I suspect fans of the show will enjoy it most, and younger gamers will be able to hone their platforming skills. Everyone else can probably look elsewhere.

When did you learn how to pronounce Giganotosaurus correctly?

Sometime around 2007, when Gigantoraptor was described. Not that it’s NOT spelled “Giganotoraptor,” so I suspected something was amiss. My suspicion was confirmed a few years later a paleo conference where I heard the carcharodontosaur’s name spoken aloud for the first time.

The more you know.gif.

TalkBack / Stela (Switch eShop) Review
« on: March 13, 2020, 08:15:59 AM »

It's far less engaging than Streetcar.

Originally released late last year on Xbox One and iOS, SkyBox Labs’ "cinematic platformer," Stela, has now landed on the Nintendo Switch. While beautiful and engaging, Stela is ultimately an empty title that brings to mind the better games that inspired it: Journey, Limbo/Inside, and shades of Oddworld: Abe’s Odyssey. It’s a mercifully brief title, clocking in at under two hours, but I must admit I struggled to finish it.

I will say that Stela is gorgeous. You take the role of the title protagonist, a woman in white clothes who wakes up in a temple and, upon walking outside, surveys a mysterious and initially intriguing world. You will spend the majority of Stela jogging to the right, avoiding creatures and hazards and solving simple puzzles to progress. Sometimes you will stumble upon a collectable. You’ll die a lot, but you’ll respawn quickly right before you fell.

Stela will explore a spooky forest, a burning wasteland, a vast desert, a subterranean temple, and more. All of these locations are haunting, populated by unique creatures and interesting puzzles, but do not hold together: while the areas are not labeled, they are as sequestered from one another as the typical environments of a Mario game. The lines separating them feel arbitrary and inorganic. The collectables you’ll occasionally find don’t seem to affect your progress in any way, but instead funnel into an Achievement system that’s simply not present on the Switch.

Compounding this issue, Stela also lacks any sort of narrative thread, making her journey through sharply-delineated biomes all the more meaningless. The game throws breadcrumbs toward you throughout, hinting at a larger world: an army firing arrows in the distance, an Old God snaking its tentacles towards you, a moonlit woodland populated by ill-proportioned humanoids. Who built the dilapidated lookouts in the desert? What cataclysm befell these ancient ruins? And then, of course, that final level.

These are not questions Stela is interested in answering, or even exploring. One wonders if there was, at one point in development, some grander design in mind, an overarching narrative that, for one reason or another, had to be abandoned. That said, even ambiguous stories can be told well: Journey is one of my favorite games of all time and its through line is, at best, open to interpretation. This is because it’s so aesthetically consistent: it’s content to show, not tell, but also provides enough background information so that players have something to go by. Stela provides neither, and suffers for it.

Puzzles often utilize objects that Stela can drag or carry, but if you’re not playing it on your TV, these objects can sometimes get lost in the background. The game’s final geometry-heavy area is frustrating in that it’s not always clear what you’re supposed to do, and the blocky aesthetic feels less like a purely creative decision and more like a budgetary one.

Stela feels like a golem, crafted from the bones and sinew of better titles. Sometimes, this can be a successful experiment: Darksiders, for example, may not contain a single unique gameplay concept but manages to forge its own path through its worldbuilding, characters, and art direction. Stela accomplishes no such feat, and so I spent most of my playtime wishing I was playing its inspirations instead.

TalkBack / 3000th Duel (Switch eShop) Review FAQ
« on: February 21, 2020, 07:43:12 AM »

How much did you like Hollow Knight?

Dear reader, if you're not familiar with the Review FAQ format, please check out some previous examples: Senran Kagura: Peach Ball, State of Mind, and the Mega Man X Legacy Collection Volume 2 (among others). I generally go to this format when I'm having a hard time finding a through-line in a given review when written traditionally. In those instances, I find the Review FAQ format is a good fit.

Oh hello. I didn’t see you there.

That’s my line.

Sorry. I understand you’ve been playing a new Switch game?

I have, in fact. Would you like to hear about it?


I've been playing 3000th Duel, from developer NeoPopcorn.

Can’t say I’ve ever heard of that one.

I hadn’t either, but I’m happy to say it’s a pretty fun time, though not particularly standout. It shares a lot of DNA with Hollow Knight.

I played Hollow Knight for about an hour before I got tired of being brutally murdered by the first boss.

Okay, quitter. Hollow Knight is amazing. It is beautiful, haunting, creative, and incredibly difficult but also supremely satisfying. You probably won’t like 3000th Duel if you didn’t like Hollow Knight, though the former is much more forgiving.

I mean I like the idea of Hollow Knight, but it’s just so long and so hard.

Thankfully, then, 3000th Duel is shorter and not nearly as hard. The gist is that you’re a swordman (swordswoman?) who wakes up with amnesia and goes on a Journey to Remember Who They Are and, in doing so, kill a bunch of monsters and big bosses. Unlike Hollow Knight, you will find various types of weapons and equipment to mix and match, and magic attacks (“Occults”) that increase in power when you find new spell books.

Are the weapons like an Igavania game, where each weapon is different?

Sort of. In modern Igavania games (this includes Bloodstained, of course), weapons are divided into types, but weapons of a certain type perform the same way. So while there may be several kinds of broadswords with different effects or damage potential, they all result in a heavy overhead swing. It’s the same deal here, although there are only three kinds of weapons: swords, lances, and broadswords.

This is one way that 3000th Duel distinguishes itself from Hollow Knight, which depended on you becoming extremely familiar with the Knight’s single “nail” (sword). Each type of weapon has strengths and weaknesses: swords are quick and arc in a sort of half-circle in front of the character, but have poor range. Lances have great range but are limited in their applicability. Broadswords pack a lot of punch but are slow to use and won’t perform well against enemies that don’t stagger. Weapons may also have elemental affiliations. You can perform a “Mortal Blow” attack after building a purple meter. Mortal Blows are big, high-damage attacks. Finally, all three weapons have “charge attacks,” which are activated by holding down the attack button for a few seconds before releasing. Charge attacks have more complicated choreography and might not be wise in all situations.

Okay, that sounds complicated.

It’s really not once you get used to the controls. You can also dash, which is a lot like the dash in Hollow Knight, to the point where you become invincible while dashing, so dashing through enemies is encouraged (and sometimes required).

And how’s the combat? Is there a lot of combat?

There is actually a lot of combat. Normal everyday enemies won’t pose too much of a challenge, but early in the game you don’t have a ton of health, so you’ll want to take things slow. Enemies don’t appear to level up alongside you (thank god) so you do eventually become powerful enough to just plow through pretty much everything in your way, especially when backtracking.How’s the exploration? For all its focus on combat, Hollow Knight and Igavania games are just as centered on getting around and discovering secret areas.

It feels extremely superficial. This is partially because it’s so damn linear, but also because individual environments within the overall map feel like tile sets instead of organic localities. This is something Hollow Knight did extremely well. Igavania and Metroid games, too. Here, the spaces between boss encounters feel a bit like filler.

But don’t you find equipment and stuff?

You do, yes.

So what’s your beef?

It’s hard to describe. Okay, how about this. Have you played any Uncharted games?

I played Uncharted 2, it was great.

How long ago did you play it?

Like when it first came out.

Okay, try going back to it sometime. I think you’ll have a different experience. That game is extremely long, and most of the time, you’re shooting dudes. You spend 90% of that game shooting dudes.

I do remember there was a lot of dude shooting. But there was a great story!

I agree that a story was present, not that it was good. But here’s where I’m going with this comparison: did you ever feel like Uncharted 2 was a CGI movie with gameplay that you had to occasionally endure? Kojima games are the same way, though I find the gameplay much more rewarding. That is to say, did you ever feel like the gameplay was there just to get you from cutscene to cutscene?

Now that you mention it…

That’s how I feel about the level design of 3000th Duel. It exists solely to get you from boss fight to boss fight.

Couldn’t you say that about literally any platformer?

Touché. Look, I’m just saying the level design is dull and obviously isn’t the focus of 3000th Duel.

So the boss fights must be spectacular.

And they are, for the most part. Bosses tend to be large and imposing, with clearly telegraphed attacks and at least two phases. Generally speaking, you’ll be doing a lot of artful dodging and weapon switching to down these foes. I only wanted to throw my controller across the room once, during the Frost Mage fight, because it takes way too long and you can’t get hit. Common enemies wandering the map are much easier to take care of, but you can’t necessarily totally let your guard down.

And you’re just looking for swords and items?

For the most part, yes. Weapons and consumables. Sometimes you’ll find a Memory will tell you a bit about the bosses you encounter—who they were in a previous life. You’ll also find a couple shops where you can buy and sell supplies and upgrade your weapons. But this is where one of the game’s chief flaws is found.

Uh oh.

The entire economy is based on karma. You win karma from defeating enemies and finding karma crystals (which award bonus karma). You might think of karma as being similar to red orbs in Devil May Cry or God of War: they’re basically experience points. You sink karma into leveling up your swordsman’s attributes (although this gets a little more expensive each time). If you die—and you will—your karma will remain in the room where you fell as a little floating orb. If you get back to that area and defeat the orb, you get your karma back.

So it’s like Hollow Knight that way.

Yes, exactly. Upon death, you’re revived at the last save statue. Unlike Hollow Knight, the punishment for dying again on the way to your karma orb isn’t as severe, since you can just go wail on random enemies to get your karma back to where it was. In Hollow Knight, your zenni would disappear and zenni is unusually hard to come by in Hollow Knight. Still, it can be a pain. Anyway, when you visit the item shop, everything is bartered in terms of karma. It costs karma to buy a new weapon. You get karma for selling unwanted items. The problem, of course, is that you can leave the shop and immediately lose all your karma by dying. It will take a LONG time (or a lot of grinding) to earn enough karma to purchase the highest-powered weapons in the shop, and even if you have the required materials to upgrade your weapons at the forge, you will also need a good amount of karma.

Sounds like they needed a second money-like resource, separate from karma.

Yes, that would’ve been appreciated. Well, that and a bank, where you can store your money to protect it from your inevitable death.

Anything else you don’t like about it?

I don’t like that the D-pad is for consumable usage. Too often, I press “up” on the D-pad in front of a save statue instead of pressing “up” on the left stick, which means I wasted a consumable. This problem could’ve been avoided by mapping consumable activation to “down” on the D-pad. The camera is just way too zoomed in all the time, especially during some boss fights. Show me the whole playfield, not just what’s right in front of me. Remember in Symphony of the Night how you couldn’t see more than three feet in front of Alucard all the time? No? That’s because it wasn’t an issue in that game.

But I like 3000th Duel overall. The combat is fun and strategic, the hero has a good weight to him/her and control is responsive and fluid. It’s not perfect but it’s enjoyable. It will appeal to the kind of gamer (like me) who enjoys punishing combat in a game that, through practice and sheer force of will, can be overcome and winds up feeling great.

Well that does sound cool. And if it’s not as hard or long as Hollow Knight, I might check it out!

Let me know what you think, disembodied voice!

TalkBack / Pinball FX3: The Williams Collection Volume 5
« on: December 20, 2019, 06:01:32 PM »

This trio of classic machines is pretty funny.

Ah, the Williams collection. I was kind of lukewarm on the first wave of these classic pinball tables and hoped that they weren’t indicative of the collection as a whole, given how much praise the Williams tables generally receive. It sounds like David Lloyd enjoyed the second pack, however, and I’m happy to report that all three tables in the fifth pack are excellent.

My favorite is Tales of the Arabian Nights, which features a blue genie character and a lamp that spins around when you hit it. Your goal is to collect several “gems” and rescue a princess, and to do so you activate quests and then hit various objects or lanes to complete them. There’s some interaction with the dot-matrix screen here, where you select your rewards for completing quests. The music, voice samples, and general aesthetic of this table are fantastic, and all three challenge modes (One-Ball, 5-Minute, and Survival) are all perfectly doable. The Pinball FX3 overlay is also not as intrusive as I’d feared, and I generally preferred to play it that way.

I initially didn’t like No Good Gofers, which was apparently the company’s last pinball game. It’s quite ramp-heavy, and in fact one of the table’s most famous features is a “slam ramp” that contains one of the most difficult shots (“hole-in-one”) in pinball history. I don’t think I’ve made this shot yet. This is the only table of the three that contains a third flipper (upper right). My initial distaste was largely a result of thinking it relied too heavily on ramps, and while that’s true, there’s more depth here than I originally thought. It is, however, prone to more gutter balls than I’d like. I find that the Survival and 5-Minute challenges are pretty fun, but the one-ball challenge is tough due to the prevalence of gutter balls. As in Arabian Nights, the FX3 overlay is unobtrusive.

Another one of Williams’ final pinball machines is Cirqus Voltaire. It features a magnet that diverts the ball into the locks and a giant green “ringmaster” head that rises up and must be pummeled. It also moves the dot-matrix display from the backboard to inside the table itself, where it forms the back wall. This table features a whopping EIGHT multiball modes, although most of them are two-ball affairs. You can also stack multiball modes, but the highest number of balls in play will be four. This is my second-favorite table in the pack. It’s a large table with plenty to do and what ramps do exist have interesting tracks. All three challenge modes are quite enjoyable. Oh, and like Arabian Nights, I keep the FX3 overlay on here, too.

I’ve also discovered the joys of playing Pinball FX3 on my Flip Grip, which is actually preferable to playing on my TV. Definitely worth a try if you have that wonderful accessory.

All three of these tables are enjoyable, so I can heartily recommend this collection if you’re a fan of real pinball tables or previous Williams Collections.

TalkBack / Shovel Knight: King of Cards (Switch) Review
« on: December 09, 2019, 04:43:00 AM »

King Knight's got an ace up his sleeve.

Five years after its launch, Shovel Knight, the gift that keeps on giving, comes to a close. I was incredibly impressed with its maiden voyage, now called Shovel of Hope, in 2014. The expansions to that story, Plague of Shadows and Specter of Torment, were each impressive in different ways. This week sees the release of Shovel Knight’s final two addendums: King of Cards and the multiplayer brawler Showdown. This review will cover the former, but I can’t really do justice to the latter without experiencing it in a multiplayer context as it was meant to be played. That review will come soon.

In King of Cards, you take control of—surprise, surprise—King Knight as he goes on a journey to be the best Joustus player that ever was. To do so, he must travel across the realm, defeating the three Joustus Judges and building up his Joustus deck by winning matches of the card game in pubs during his quest. While previous Shovel Knight campaigns featured relatively long, Mega Man-esque levels that ended with a boss fight, King Knight’s campaign features a map filled with bite-sized stages which often only contain a single checkpoint. Despite their short length, many of these stages can be quite challenging, as several include alternate exits that are tougher to get to. In between these stages, King Knight can visit mini-stages that teach him new moves (like a roll) or incorporate a new Heirloom (aka subweapon). There are treasure rooms and optional boss fights. He can also visit his “home base,” a giant airship where he and his increasing number of companions stay. The map also includes pubs where Joustus is played.

As with previous Shovel Knight characters, King Knight has a unique moveset based on dashing forward (a bit like Wario). If he dashes into a character or a wall, King Knight will bounce upward and twirl back down. If he hits another enemy or certain objects with this twirl, he will bounce back up, and can then do another dash forward and repeat the whole process. Rolling involves double-tapping the attack button, which produces a forward tackle without the bounce/twirl. I found King Knight’s moveset harder to get used to than Specter Knight, but easier than Plague Knight. The short stages and overall lack of boss fights make King of Cards feel like a series of obstacle courses, which I appreciated as an interesting change to the established formula. While most stages take place in established Order of No Quarter-themed tilesets, there are some new places, such as Trouple Pond, that offer their own hazards.

King Knight makes use of several Heirlooms that I found myself making use of more often than I did in other Shovel Knight campaigns, not because King Knight’s default attack is weak, but because the obstacles he is faced with force you to think creatively/ Yacht Club has done an excellent job of crafting stages to make good use of specific Heirlooms.

Joustus, the card game introduced in this campaign, is not something I’m crazy about. It is less a card game than a strategy game, and involves laying and “pushing” cards onto gemstones on a grid. A typical grid is 2x2 or 3x3, and each side will have two or three spaces on the outside for pushing cards into. Your deck of 16 cards consists of pictures of various Shovel Knight characters with one or more arrows along their borders. For example, a card with a slime enemy has an arrow pointing down. The arrow means that another card with an arrow in the opposite direction (up) cannot push the slime card in that direction (up). It can still shove the slime card left, right, or down.

The point is to strategically lay your cards down so that you can push your own cards into gem spaces (you can’t lay a card directly on a gem) while pushing your opponent’s cards away from gems and/or blocking your opponent from pushing your cards away. The game ends when the central tiles are filled or when no other moves are available. I find the base game challenging enough, but Joustus constantly adds wrinkles to the formula, like cards with double arrows, bomb arrows, opponents with unique abilities (damn you, Black Knight), etc. Some Joustus clubs utilize strange boards: the one in Mole Knight’s area includes large boulders blocking tile spaces that can be destroyed with bomb arrow cards. The winner of a round gets to take one of his opponent’s cards for each gem space he took, so you can either win or lose between one and three cards. While I initially felt this was a very harsh punishment (goodbye forever, good cards?), I was relieved to find that your taken cards can be re-bought on the airship between stages. Thankfully, Joustus itself does seem largely optional, although skipping it will rob you of some prizes.

Joustus aside, I do have one beef with King of Cards: while level design is generally excellent, the difficulty ramps up significantly towards the back half of the game. This normally wouldn’t bother me, but I must confess to still not being 100% used to King Knight’s movement patterns. His speed, spacing, and stringing tackle-bounce combos together competently is something my brain just can’t solidify. It’s a more complicated standard moveset than Shovel Knight or Specter Knight. While I could fall into a rhythm with both of those characters and seamlessly move through a stage, I still have trouble doing so with King Knight. I wonder if the game’s shorter stages are a subtle acknowledgement of this difference. Oddly enough, though, I find that the more standard boss fights against others of the Order of No Quarter quite fun, where King Knight’s dash-and-twirl are excellent tools.

Despite my misgivings with our royal protagonist’s moveset, King of Cards is an excellent cap on what’s become a downright amazing collection of games. Players who already own Treasure Trove get this one for free, and if you’ve ever been on the fence about buying it, I really can’t recommend it highly enough, and keep an eye out for our review of the multiplayer component, Shovel Knight: Showdown, before too long.

TalkBack / Close to the Sun (Switch eShop) Review
« on: October 29, 2019, 11:29:08 AM »

Technical issues continuously threaten to sink this otherwise well-built ship.

My initial abstract was more of an homage to Andrew Ryan’s signature phrase, “Is man not entitled to the sweat of his brow?” from BioShock, a game that Close to the Sun will undoubtedly draw comparisons to. I decided against that, however, because Close to the Sun is a very different kind of game; there are no splicers, no combat, no Circus of Value. Instead, this game takes more inspiration from something like SOMA in terms of both gameplay and atmosphere.

You play as Rose Archer, an investigative journalist who arrives onboard a massive ship called the Helios after receiving a letter from her sister, Ada, asking for help. The Helios is a city-sized cruise ship built by Nikola Telsa, who in this universe beat Edison and is the richest man in the world. He employs a multitude of scientists to develop new theories and inventions, the latest of which threatens life on the Helios. When Rose climbs aboard, she’s one of the only people left alive on the ship.

A bit like BioShock and SOMA, you explore the Helios from a first-person perspective while various people chat in your earpiece giving you information and directions. Much of the Helio’s tragic backstory is told through, you guessed it, letters and documents left around the ship. At first, you’re just talking with Ada, trying to figure out where to meet, but before too long you’ll be getting help from Aubrey, a scientist who’s holed up somewhere and needs to be rescued, and eventually Mr. Tesla himself.

Games like this live or die based on their settings, and I can assure you that the Helios is an amazing piece of digital architecture. Like the benthic city of Rapture, a pervasive art deco theme dominates the public spaces, but the more industrial parts of the ship, like the laboratories and freight tunnels, have a contrasting industrial efficiency that I appreciated. Of course, Rose’s path is never straightforward, with requisite trips through dangerous areas in order to bypass blocked paths or broken equipment. Close to the Sun does, however, feature an intensely creepy atmosphere and there are a few jump scares and moments of real tension throughout.

Pretty though the game may be, this port suffers from some very unfortunate technical issues. First and foremost, Close to the Sun’s framerate is extremely variable, especially in large areas. This is confounding to me, because for 95% of the game, there is no action; you’re simply exploring the ship. If the framerate chugs while turning around, that’s a real problem. Aliasing is also rampant in areas with poor lighting. In fact, the game is often way too dark, and I kept wishing that Rose had a flashlight. Adjusting the game’s brightness settings don’t seem to offer much relief, either. Small objects often pop into existence as you approach them, as do many of the game’s textures—you can look at a blurry sign on the wall and after a couple seconds it will POP into focus. Do not play this game in Handheld mode.

The framerate problem really cripples the occasional chase sequences that you’re forced to endure. Sometimes, Rose is set upon by a crazy dude with a steak knife or an otherworldly horror (it’s not all petri dishes and Bunsen burners on the Helios, kids) and must FLEE by holding down a shoulder button and hoping she goes the right way. Because the game tends to have a seizure during these moments, it’s incredibly easy to miss your turn, hit a wall, or simply not dodge around objects fast enough to avoid being repeatedly stabbed. There is very little room for error here, so expect to die a lot before you find the right path and get to the end of it (one hint—if you see an “interact” icon some short distance away, start hammering that Y button while running towards it because that seems to suck you towards the thing you’re supposed to vault over).

Aside from that, the darkness, coupled with a few very large environments, make it easy to get lost. There’s an apartment complex area that had me cursing the game under my breath. It really needed a map or, at the very least, much better lighting, so I could easily differentiate the different quadrants of the two-story area. Most of the game is fairly linear, but when it asks you to wander around huge spaces, Close to the Sun is its own worst enemy.

The tragedy of what befell the Helios is uneven in execution, occasionally sigh-inducing (the Langoliers stuff), and I still had a lot of unanswered questions by the end. The game’s final third is pretty exciting, but overstays its welcome. The closest I got to a science-based explanation for what went down on the Helios was a brief mention of the “One Electron” theory, which really is a thing, but does not, by itself, seem to have much bearing on the overall adventure, so that was kind of disappointing (your mileage may vary).

Overall, I have pretty mixed feelings about Close to the Sun. I love the setting and the atmosphere, but the technical problems, chase sequences, and lack of story cohesion ultimately left me wanting.

TalkBack / Jet Kave Adventure (Switch eShop) Review
« on: October 21, 2019, 09:50:07 AM »

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

If you replaced Jet Kave Adventure’s Cro-Magnon man and his alien jetpack with a gorilla and a monkey, you’d wind up with a pretty good attempt by developer 7Levels to ape the Donkey Kong Country Returns formula. This is an enjoyable romp with some unfortunate design choices that ultimately left me feeling unsatisfied. Part of this may be due to my own negative feelings towards DKCR, but a larger part is that Jet Kave Adventure doesn’t really evolve the formula and plays things extremely safe.

You take on the role of Kave, the former chief of his tribe who’s been banished for reasons that don’t make a lot of sense. He comes across a crashed alien spacecraft and its pilot, who is attempting to repair it but needs an energy source. The alien sees a volcano in the distance and, naturally, believes that liquid-hot magma is the answer to his problems. He jets off into the distance while Kave finds his own jetpack in the wreckage and becomes prehistory’s first flight-capable human.

As you might expect, the jetpack’s main function is to extend your jump height and distance, a bit like Diddy Kong’s barrel backpack, although Kave’s jetpack has an extendable, replenishable fuel source that improves on Diddy’s version. However, its secondary function is just as important: by holding down the R button, time briefly slows while you pick a direction to boost Kave in. This ability is put to good use throughout the game, including breaking walls, activating switches, and reaching secret areas. While this isn’t really mentioned, the boost can also be used to pass through certain energy attacks unharmed.

Kave speaks softly and carries a big club, which you can power-up. He quickly obtains a rock sling as well, good for attacking from a distance, and this can also be upgraded. In each stage, Kave can find lots of seashells, which function as currency, and then use them between stages to improve his arsenal. This includes longer clubs, better slings, and more jet fuel. You can also buy more HP and food storage.

Most of the game’s stages are fairly by-the-numbers platforming ventures that are fun, if not particularly challenging. However, this wouldn’t be a DKCR homage without my favorite (read: least favorite) parts from that game: awkward vehicular segments and forced-scrolling chase sequences. The former are broken up into hang-gliding (never fun) and horizontal or vertical jetpack obstacle courses (your mileage may vary). The latter are frustrating because one wrong move and you’re dead and have to restart the sequence. I’m not sure why developers think these are fun. Somebody must like them because they keep turning up in platformers, but my god, enough.

I will say the game looks good, with a cartoony vibe and an interesting mix of prehistoric flora and fauna that try, in equal measure, to ruin Kave’s day. There are dinosaurs present, but I was impressed by the game’s opening disclaimer regarding them.

While Jet Kave Adventure does manage to be enjoyable for the most part, it never really hooked me; the formula rarely changes and the gameplay never evolves. Each of the game’s four levels is divided into nine stages, and by the time I reached stage nine, I was more than ready to move on to something else. Shorter levels with more variety would’ve alleviated this problem. There’s a good game here, but it’s best experienced in short bursts. If you keep hoping that Retro Studios would make a third Donkey Kong Country Returns game, you are probably the target audience for Jet Kave Adventure.

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