Monday, December 10, 2018

A Hat In Time Review


 Spend any amount of time on Kickstarter, and you will encounter countless projects that claim to be revivals of classic game series or genres. One of the most high-profile of these was A Hat in Time, a game whose goal was to bring back 3D “collectathon” platforming in the style of Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie. After raising almost $300,000 and spending 4 years in development, developer Gears For Breakfast ended up delivering a product that I found to be a remarkable contribution to the 3D platforming genre. I played through this entire game on my Twitch channel and it really hooked me. Now that I’ve collected all the magical McGuffins, here’s a breakdown of my thoughts on the game:

Overview
In A Hat In Time, a young time traveler, Hat Kid, lands on a strange planet to collect her missing Time Pieces that she needs to power her ship. The game is structured similarly to Mario 64, with the ship serving as hub world that grants players access to Chapters that represent different locations on the planet. Each Chapter is composed of several Acts that advance the story and provide the opportunity to pick up another Time Piece. There are also bonus Time Warp stages that offer short platforming challenges with additional Time Pieces as a reward. There are a total of 40 Time Pieces in the game, however, it’s possible to reach the final boss after collecting 25. The “Seal the Deal” DLC campaign adds a new chapter with an additional six Time Pieces to collect.

Pros
  • The website for A Hat In Time describes it as a “Cute-As-Heck 3D Platformer” and it delivers on all three of those fronts (i.e., the cuteness, the heck, and the platforming).
  • The Cute: The world of A Hat in Time is full of colorful cartoon characters. Exploring the game’s vibrant world and meeting the zany cast of characters is a big part of the appeal of a cutesy 3D platformer, and A Hat In Time pulls it off exceptionally well. I was always excited to unlock a new chapter to see where the game would go next.
  • The Heck: While A Hat In Time might look like a Saturday morning cartoon, it goes to some fairly dark and mature places. For example, in one chapter, Hat Kid’s soul is stolen by a monster and she is forced to complete a series of quests through a spooky nightmare world to get it back. The monster’s taunts about the torture that awaits Hat Kid get pretty grim. Other levels don’t get as dark but feature subject matter and humor that would likely only appeal to adults (e.g. there’s a level full of commentary about cybersecurity). I got a kick out of this content, but some of it may be too scary or confusing to young children.
  • The Platforming: Most importantly, A Hat In Time gets 3D platforming right. Hat Kid is an especially agile 3D platforming character and moving her around the stages just feels good. She starts off with a double jump, diving leaps, and wall kicks that allow her to cover a lot of ground right off the bat. Throughout the game, the player can collect yarn and pons (money) that allow her to craft or buy new hats and badges that expand her arsenal of abilities. Two of my favorites were the grappling hook badge, which features great swinging mechanics, and the scooter badge which allows Hat Kid to summon a moped out of thin air. The level design features a balanced mix of items and secrets to find as well as challenging, but approachable, platforming sections.
Cons
  • Considering that this is a Kickstarted indie game, it’s quite polished, however, there are a couple of times when the game’s tech struggles to keep up with the action. I had a few occasions where the camera would get stuck at awkward angles that would throw off my jumps. I also had a case or two where a glitch would cause my character to fall through the floor. In general, these issues were rare enough to have minimal impact on my enjoyment of the main game but were quite prevalent in the DLC.
  • Some of this game's boss battles seemed overly long to me. Late game boss enemies had far more forms and took far more hits than I've typically seen in 3D platformers.
I had an absolute blast playing A Hat In Time! Its tight controls, fun mechanics, and bizarre sense of humor comfortably place it in the upper echelon of 3D platformers.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 19 hours (All 40 Time Pieces in the main campaign)

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Game Awards

 

I'm generally not a big award show person, but there's something about a big budget live show that honors the developers, artists, actors, and composers behind the year's biggest games that really draws me in. This years show was a nonstop barrage of award presentations and new game trailers. Instead of recapping the whole thing, here are some of my personal highlights and takeaways from the game industry's big night:
  • Unsurprisingly, Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War cleaned up most of the major awards. RDR2 took Best Music, Best Narrative, and Best Performance. GoW received Best Action Adventure, Best Direction, and Game of the Year. Between these two, I was glad to see God of War take the Game of the Year title since it had a better focus on gameplay mechanics.
  • With RDR2 taking so many other awards, I was disappointed that Best Music didn't go to one of the other nominees, I was really pulling for Octopath Traveler or Celeste on this one. That being said, I loved seeing that the composer of Celeste, Lena Raine, got to present an award and perform in the show's orchestra!
  • Even though a few AAA games took most of the major awards, it was still a big night for indies. I haven't played Dead Cells yet, but I was happy to see its surprise win of Best Action Game. I was also delighted to see one of my favorite games of the year, Celeste, win Best Indie and Game For Impact!
  • While I think nobody was shocked to see Fornite win Best Multiplayer and Best Ongoing Game, I don't think these awards were the biggest wins for Epic Software. The Game Awards marked the launch of Epic's new game store. A surprisingly large number of games shown at The Game Awards had their trailers end with the Epic store logo displayed where the Steam logo would normally be. With how popular Fornite is, I could see the potential for Epic's store to gain ground on Steam where so many other company's launchers have failed to gain traction. Even though I don't play Fortnite, these game announcements go me to open and update Epic's game launcher for the first time in months.
  • Unlike previous years, this Game Award's musical performances were entirely focused on playing music directly relevant to the games being honored. This was a welcome change as previous year's performances from pop stars always felt out of place and try-hard in my opinion. I thought the Game Awards Orchestra did a great time playing arrangements of music from the nominated games; the medley of music from all the 2018 Game of the Year nominees sounded fantastic!
  •  I primarily watch The Game Awards to see the winners get honored and to just witness the spectacle of the whole ceremony, however, the "World Premier" trailers are also a big part of the show. This year, I'm fairly certain there were more trailers shown than awards given. In general, there was an assortment of indie and AAA games shown that kind of all blur together for me. My main takeaway was that tonight was a big night for Fallout-like games. Ubisoft showed Far Cry New Dawn, essentially Far Cry meets Fallout, and Obsidian, the developers of the original Fallout games, showed Outer Worlds, a first-person RPG that looked like a more colorful Fallout 4.
  • The big surprise announcement of the show was that Joker, the protagonist of Persona 5 will be a downloadable character in Super Smash Bros Ultimate! This is an announcement I never could have predicted! Of course, this has now lead to speculation that Persona 5 itself will be coming to Nintendo Switch, which I'm hoping will end up being the case Currently, Joker's only Nintendo appearance is in Persona Q2 on Nintendo 3DS. Even though I was only introduced to the Persona series earlier this year (see my Persona 4 review), a new character reveal of this significance has pretty much sold me on purchasing the Smash Ultimate DLC pass.
Overall, I feel comfortable saying that this was the best show The Game Awards has put on yet. A big congratulations to all the winners and nominees as well as to Geoff Keighly and the rest of the staff that made this event possible!



Monster Hunter World winning Best RPG


The Last Campfire announcement (my favorite indie preview shown)



Persona 5's Joker receives an invitation to Smash!!



Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Battle Chef Brigade


I was craving something a little different right around the time Battle Chef Brigade was offered as a free game via Twitch Prime. I streamed my entire playthrough and found that this game’s bizarre combination of RPG, brawler, and puzzle gameplay was a delight.

Overview
Battle Chef Brigade takes place in a fantasy world overrun with monsters. The people of this world decide that the only solution to this monster infestation is to amass a legion of Battle Chefs to slay these monsters and then cook them into fine cuisine in Iron Chef-like tournaments. Mina, the game’s protagonist, is an aspiring Battle Chef who must complete a series of challenges and competitions in order to be inducted into the Brigade. The main focus of the gameplay is the culinary tournaments in which players must juggle their time between gather ingredients by slaying monsters and cooking these ingredients into dishes to submit to the judges. Combat with monsters is in the style of a 2D side-scrolling brawler, while cooking takes the form of a match-3 puzzle game in which each color of blocks represents a different flavor.

Pros
  • My description may have not done it justice, but Battle Chef Brigade has one of the most original premises and gameplay loops I’ve seen in a game in many years. This game’s fantasy-meets-Food-Network world and brawler/RPG/puzzle mechanics all work really well together.
  • The gameplay is complemented by a story with quirky characters and strong writing. I found myself far more invested in the characters and story of this game than I expected.
  • I really like the voice acting in this game. Each character has a unique voice that conveys their personality even though the animation during dialog is often minimal. The standout performance for me was tournament chairman. His actor absolutely nails the corny and self-serious tone of an Iron Chef host. It brought a smile to my face during every bout.
  • The character designs are quite striking. Even minor NPCs have a distinct look. In crowd shots during story sequences, I’d often pick out a few individuals and find myself saying “I wanna know more about that person!”
  • Being a hybrid game, Battle Chef Brigade keeps each of its mechanics relatively simple. The combat only offers a handful of techniques, but they’re fun to pull off. Similarly, the puzzles build in their level of challenge throughout the game but the core is not complex.
  • I didn’t go into this game knowing what music would best go along with baking a dragon heart, but somehow Battle Chef Brigade figured it out.

Cons
  • Once you’ve gotten far enough to get the hang of all the mechanics, meet all the characters and figure out where the story is ultimately going to go, the gameplay begins to feel a little repetitive toward the end. Thankfully, this isn’t a game that outstays its welcome.
  • In one chapter you play as one of the side characters instead of the protagonist, Mina. This chapter offers some somewhat interesting one-time mechanics but otherwise feels like filler. I would’ve rather kept the main story moving.
  • The judges of the Battle Chef tournament judges use an inconsistent scoring system that takes getting used to. For example, dishes containing poison are penalized less than foods that contain the wrong balance of flavors.
Battle Chef’s interesting combination of mechanics and fun cast of characters make it a joy to play. While so many indie games are content to stick to formulas established in classic games, Battle Chef Brigade offers something new. I highly recommend it to any open-minded gamer looking for a truly original indie game.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 13 hours, 30 minutes

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Octopath Traveler Preliminary Review


 After writing two different sets of impressions (1, 2) and racking up over 60 hours of playtime, I’ve put a lot of time into SquareEnix’s Switch-exclusive RPG, Octopath Traveler. After all that, there’s still a lot left to do in the game, but having finished the campaign for my main character, Cyrus, I’ve seen the credits roll and feel comfortable writing a preliminary review. Similarly, to what I did with Ys Origin, if I return to Octopath and find the additional content changes my opinion of the game, I’ll be sure to update the review or write a follow-up.

Octopath’s art style and music continued to delight for the entire game. While the combat and story maintained their level of quality, it became clear to me as the adventure went on that what worked for the classic RPGs that inspired this game, doesn’t necessarily work for a modern game, especially considering that modern RPGs tend to have nearly twice the running time of their 16 and 32-bit forefathers.

The battle system of Octopath Traveler is built upon a strong foundation. Exploiting enemy weaknesses and figuring out the ideal combination of characters/classes to have in your party is a mechanic that I always find enjoyable. Octopath pulls this off well and builds upon its systems for the first half of the game. Characters gain the ability to equip secondary jobs and bosses pick up new mechanics such as increasing their shield point through the battle and changing weaknesses dynamically. Unfortunately, at about the 30-hour mark, I had seen every theme and variation that the game had to offer and had developed a playbook to handle any situation the game would throw at me. Thus, the second half of the game consisted of executing on the same handful of strategies as the game increased in scale with longer dungeons and bosses with even higher HP and shield points. All the classic RPGs (including my favorite, Final Fantasy 5) eventually get to this point, but usually that point is when 10 hours of gameplay remain rather than 30. That places a lot of extra burden on Octopath’s story to carry the player through the rest of the game. In my case, I finished Cryus’s fourth and final chapter, but set the game aside when I had the discouraging realization that I had seven more 30-45 minute long “final” boss battles ahead of me if I wanted to finish the remaining character’s quests.

Much like one of its predecessors, Saga Frontier, each of Octopath’s character’s stories vary in their tone and scope. Generally, the stakes are far lower in these tales than the world-ending crises that Final Fantasy heroes face. I think that smaller-scale stories can work well with the right characters and writing. However, halfway through the game, I knew which character’s stories I cared about and which ones I didn’t. Unfortunately, unlike a Saga game, it wouldn’t make sense to only play the Octopath characters that I was interested in because of the big jumps in recommended levels between chapters in each characters’ campaign. This made it such that playing all 8 chapter 3 stories was necessary to gain enough XP to be able to handle the chapter 4 enemies. Having to play through a few mediocre stories in order to continue playing the ones I was interested in robbed the best campaigns of their momentum. If I were to put on my armchair game designer’s hat, I would have made this game Quadpath Traveler or Hexapath Traveler and given each of the cream-of-the-crop stories an extra chapter to develop their characters.

This is probably sounding like a pretty negative review. The thing is, every positive thing I had to say about the game in my impressions (1, 2) is still absolutely true. Octopath Traveler is a great RPG at its core that, for me, began to feel like it was overstaying its welcome. If I were in a different stage of life, this game would probably be a strong Game of the Year contender for me, but in a time when I have to be so judicious with how I spend my free time and the shear volume of other games I want to play, Octopath needed to do more to justify spending the time that finishing all eight quests (and the option bonus dungeons) would require. All that being said, I’m glad that I played this game, enjoyed most of the time I spent with it, and am hoping that it gets a sequel with a little more focus.

Score:⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 61 Hours (Chapters 1-3 for 7 characters, and through Chapter 4 for Cyrus)

Note: There is a strong chance I’ll return to this game at some point in the future to finish off the chapter 4 quests for the other few characters that I liked. If that experience changes my perspective on this game, I’ll be sure to add an update to this review for write a follow-up post.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review


 After crowning Tomb Raider my Game of the Year when I played it in 2016, I’ve been meaning to return to the series for a while. Playing through the sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, recently, I found that this installment was iterative of its predecessor, with a few tweaks that made the gameplay experience smoother and addressed the gripes I had (the main one being the heavily scripted events). Some thoughts from my time with the second installment of the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy:
  • The structure is nearly identical to the previous game. That’s not a bad thing when the core design is good! It took me no time at all to get hooked by the combination of exploration, puzzle-solving, and third-person shooting that the Tomb Raider series is known for.
  • Crafting is a much bigger component of Rise of the Tomb Raider than it is in Tomb Raider. I was initially concerned that I would have to devote a lot of time to farming for wood, feathers, animal pelts, and other crafting supplies but found that the game provided very frequent opportunities to gather these items while accomplishing other tasks, so I pretty much always had all the necessary ingredients for healing items and special ammo whenever I needed them. My favorite part of the expanded crafting system was the ability to create improvised explosives and Molotov cocktails in the heat of battle by picking up bottles and other debris on the battle field.
  • The game’s story was entertaining but not particularly deep. It was about on par with what you’d see in an Indiana Jones movie which is perfectly appropriate for this kind of game. Just don’t go into this one expecting to be hanging off every word in the cutscenes.
  • I was happy to see that Rise of the Tomb Raider largely cuts back on the quick-time events (QTEs) that were used in the previous game to make scripted scenes feel more interactive. This style of “immersive gameplay” may have been a novel concept in 1999’s Shenmue (a game I love, by the way), but now it feels dated and incongruent with a game like Tomb Raider. Fewer QTEs make Rise a smoother Tomb Raider experience.
  • Since Rise of the Tomb Raider takes place in Siberia, most of the environments are snow-covered mountains, glaciers, and tundras. The first few areas of the game had me concerned that each area would just be a frozen wasteland, but as the game went on, there were some truly beautiful vistas (even as rendered on the Low settings by my aging graphics card).
  • As you would expect, there are tombs to be raised in this game (I found 9, not sure if that are more). Some of the puzzles were pretty challenging. I enjoyed these and wish there was a few more on the game.
  • Each area of the game seemed to feature even more types of collectibles than the previous game. I found that this lessened my desire to get 100% completion on any given map, but I was still easily able to acquire enough stuff to upgrade my character and weapons to make the endgame combat manageable.
Overall, Rise of the Tomb Raider took the core game that I loved a few years ago and removed most of the sticking points. This makes it a comfortable 5-star game in my book. I thought I would be done with the Tomb Raider formula after this game but instead ended up putting the next game in my Steam wishlist as soon as the credits were rolling on this one.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 27 hours, 89% map completion




Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Little Nightmares Review


 The third and final game in my #HorrorGameOct lineup is one that I played through with my wife rather than on Twitch. Little Nightmares is a horror puzzle platformer that was originally released on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 in April 2017. The 2018 Switch version that my wife and I played featured the main campaign, "Six's Story", as well as the DLC campaign, "The Kid's Story".
 

Each of the two campaigns follows a different child's path through The Maw, a giant cruise ship full of grotesque semi-human cannibalistic creatures, as the kids attempt to escape before they wind up as entrees in the buffet. This unique premise and the twisted and unsettling imagery that come with it are the game's biggest strength. The creatures pursuing the young heroes are creatively designed and also deeply disturbing to look at. The Maw features dark industrial areas in the underbelly of the ship as well the passenger accommodations with banquet halls and giant furnishings. It all comes together in an appropriately nightmarish visual package that feels like a fusion of the darkest parts of Nightmare Before Christmas and Spirited Away.

While the premise and sense of style are very distinct, the story that Little Nightmares tells is minimalist. Outside of the game's conclusion, there are no cut scenes, dialog, or text within the game. I was initially disappointed by this since the game's trailer make it look like a narrative-driven game, but after a while I adjusted to the subtle and purely visual form of story telling the game was using. What's there is mysterious but very bare bones.

The gameplay of Little Nightmares is very simple. There's no combat; all enemy encounters are resolved by either speed or stealth. In the quiet moments, there are basic environmental puzzles to solve and light platforming. Most of this works out reasonably well, but there were a couple of persistent sources of frustration throughout. Despite the character's limited capabilities, the controls were cumbersome. The main issue was that the right trigger needs to be held any time the character is carrying an object, climbing ladders, or pulling themself up a ledge. After an hour or so of play, my right index finger would get sore since I had to be holding down the trigger most of the time. The other issue is that the camera has very limited movement, which meant that I had several occasions where I would miss a jump and fall to my death due to bad camera angles throwing off my depth perception.

Control and camera hangups aside, we encountered a couple of technical issues while playing Little Nightmares on Nintendo Switch. The most glaring of which is likely a Switch-specific problem: painfully long load times. The stealth and platforming sections of the game often involved some trial and error, with mistakes leading to instant death. These deaths were punished by having to wait up to a full minute for the game to reload the last checkpoint. This was very discouraging during the tougher parts of the campaign. The other technical issue was more general; glitches in the game's physics and collision would sometimes cause the player character or enemies to get snagged on corners or doorways. On a few occasions this would happen at an inopportune moment, and then we were staring at a loading screen once again.

For my wife and I, we had enough fun and spooky moments with Little Nightmares that we willing to tolerate the technical and design issues that occasionally got in the way. Little Nightmares is unique enough from an artistic standpoint to be worthwhile for fans of the weird and creepy but is probably not mechanically sound enough to please those who come to it purely for platforming or stealth gameplay.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐

Completion Time: About 8 hours (both campaigns combined)

Note: This review is specific to the Nintendo Switch version of the game. It’s possible that the PC game addresses some of the issues I had with this game by having faster load times and reconfigurable controls.


If you're curious about the #HorrorGameOct event, be sure to check out this blog post on Chic Pixel.


Thursday, October 25, 2018

Bloodstained Curse of the Moon Review


After finishing off Momodora last week, I decided to keep the #HorrorGameOct train rolling and jump straight into another Castlevania-inspired 2D platformer, Bloodstained Curse of the Moon. Since this is short game, I finished it off in a single streaming session. Both the stream and the game itself were a total blast! Now that I've laid the demon king to rest, here's my review:

Background
Bloodstained Curse of the Moon is an NES-style 2D platformer from developer Inti Creates. This game was released earlier this year as a prequel to the upcoming Bloodstained Ritual of the Night. Both of these titles come from former Castlevania director, Koji Igarashi, with Curse of the Moon being based on the NES Castlevania titles, and Ritual of the Night being based on the PS1 and Gameboy Advance entries of the series. Wearing its inspiration on its sleeve, Curse of the Moon, features monster-slaying heroes progressing through spooky linear environments such as haunted forests and vampires’ castles.

Pros
  • At first glance, Curse of the Moon looks like an NES game, but it features graphical effects than an 8-bit system could never pull off. The color pallet is much broader and backgrounds feature multiple layers of parallax scrolling to give the 2D stages the appearance of depth. Enemy sprites are larger, more detailed, and far more plentiful, than the NES would have been able to render. It makes for a beautiful retro-inspired presentation.
  • Unlike the original Castlevania games, Curse of the Moon features a set of four playable characters than can be swapped in and out on the fly. Each character has unique abilities that can be used for both traversal and combat. Switching to the appropriate character at the right time can provide access to shortcuts through levels and have a substantial effect on the difficulty of boss battles.
  • Curse of the Moon’s difficulty is much more forgiving than the NES Castlevania titles. There are options for Casual and Normal difficulty, with the former choice granting infinite continues and eliminating knock-back (i.e. your character won’t get pushed off a platform if he gets grazed by an enemy). Also, since each of the four player characters has their own HP bar, cycling through them allows you to take a lot more damage before seeing the Game Over screen.
  • This game has some really cool boss designs. The large detailed sprite make them visually distinct and most of them employ a unique mechanic during their battles. Rather than just memorizing patterns, dodging, and attacking, these fights often involve making use of platforming skills and knowing when to switch to the right character.
  • The level designs have some features that stand out from this game's 8-bit inspirations. I appreciated the way that utilizing each characters' special skills could significantly change the route the player takes through a level. I was also impressed with some of the visual set pieces in this game's levels such as the train barreling through the forest in the first stage.
  • While it might not have the iconic tracks like "Vampire Killer" or "Bloody Tears", Curse of the Moon's soundtrack manages to come pretty close to reaching the high bar set by its source of inspiration. Veteran Castlevania composer, Michiru Yamane, hasn't lost her touch! I'm looking forward to listening to her pieces for this game again as well as any orchestral or heavy metal covers that fans arrange.

Cons
  • Curse of the Moon is generally less difficult and frustrating than NES platformers, a plus in my book. However, the last stage or two represent a pretty big difficulty spike. Several areas feature instant-kill traps that require some trial and error to traverse. I ended up losing several lives in the last stage due to entering a room with a trap that would activate much faster than I could react if I wasn't already prepared for it. This felt a little cheap.
  • Like the original Castlevania, Curse of the Moon can easily be beaten in a single sitting. While I personally don't consider this to be a negative, as I felt the length was appropriate to the type of game it is, I'm listing this as a con since some players might not feel that a 2-hour game is worth $10.
As someone who has been a fan of the Castlevania series for a long time, I came to this game with a discerning eye and sense of cautious optimism. I was thrilled by the result! Bloodstained Curse of the Moon is an incredibly effective spiritual successor to Konami's horror platformer series that delighted an old-school fan like me and will probably also offer a fun, but manageable, challenge to newcomers as well.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 1 hour, 58 minutes (Regular ending, Casual difficulty)

If you're curious about the #HorrorGameOct event, be sure to check out this blog post on Chic Pixel.