Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Gardens Between Review

My experience with Xbox Game Pass this year has been pretty evenly split between AAA games and surprise little indie gems. One such gem was The Gardens Between, which I played through blind on my Twitch stream.

Overview:
The Gardens Between is a puzzle game by The Voxel Agents that tells a story of childhood friendship. Rather than controlling the game's pair of protagonists directly, players advance the characters through each stage by manipulating the flow of time around them. Certain key objects can be locked in place within the timestream to modify the sequence of events and open new paths.

Pros:

  • The game's time manipulation mechanic is used in a variety of clever ways. By shifting time forward and backward, structures can be erected and collapsed, plants can grow and wither, and the characters route through the environment can change completely.
  • In addition to the puzzle aspect of the level design, I appreciated how each level's appearance was an abstract representation of the characters' memories. This helped add depth to the game's otherwise simple story.
  • The general aesthetic of the game reminded me of Life is Strange. I guess there's something about that compromise between realistic and cartoon graphics that just works for coming of age stories.
  • The Gardens Between is just the right length. I felt like it used its mechanics to their full potential without burning me out.

Cons:

  • Some of the late game puzzles get a little fiddly for my taste. On a few occasions, I found that I had figured out how solve the puzzle but minor variations in my execution of the solution (like having two objects in the correct position but slightly misaligned) would seemingly cause the game to indicate that I'd done something wrong.
  • While the way it was presented was interesting, I felt that the game's story itself was anti-climactic. At times it seemed to be building to a major dramatic event that didn't end up happening. 
If you enjoy environmental puzzles, I highly recommend trying out The Gardens Between. While I may have found the story a little lacking, the gameplay and art direction were more than enough to cement this as one the best puzzle games I've played in quite some time.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes

Acknowledgements:

  • This review was written as part of the Chic Pixel community's #PuzzleGameMonth event. You can find the Chic Pixel blog and its accompanying podcast at Chic-Pixel.com
  • I downloaded this game per the recommendation of the This Nintendo Life podcast. You can find them on Twitter @TNLpodcast.
  • Images in this post courtesy of The Voxel Agents.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Demons Crest Review


While most gamers are probably familiar with Ghosts n Goblins on the NES (usually in the context of joking about not being able to even clear the first level), the rest of the Makaimura series remains relatively obscure. Thanks to the SNES Online app on Nintendo Switch, I was finally able to try one of the other entries in the Makaimura series that I’ve heard such great things about in retro gaming circles, Demon's Crest.

Background:
Demon's Crest is a 2D platformer that incorporates some adventure game and RPG elements. The game focuses on the winged demon, Firebrand, who was an enemy in Ghosts n Goblins. Now on his own quest to wrest control of hell from his rival, Phalanx,  Firebrand must seek out various magical items and defeat other demon lords to gain their powers in preparation for the final showdown. I played through this game from start to finish live on my Twitch channel.

Pros:
  • The dark and moody setting and themes of Demon's Crest remind me of a Castlevania game but told from the bad guy’s perspective. It certainly stands out from most other SNES games.
  • Firebrand can cling to walls and flap his wings to hover indefinitely from the very beginning of the game. I was expecting these would be powers you would unlock during the adventure, so this took me by surprise.  Have these abilities completely changes how you traverse the levels when compared to pretty much any other retro platformer I’ve played.
  • Firebrand's transformations and power-ups change his capabilities in both combat and traversal. This was a novel mechanic for the early 1990s and continues to be fun now.
  • The game's complex level designs work really nicely with the transformation mechanic. Returning to a level after gaining a new ability can open up new paths, secret areas, bosses, and access to even further character upgrades.
  • The music in this game is awesome (in fact, I'm listening to it as I write this). Composer Toshihiko Horiyama really knew how to make the SNES sound chip sound spooky.
  • If you want to see creepy or sometimes just disgusting-looking creatures, this game is for you. Good thing I wasn't expecting the generals of hell's army to be cute!
  • The game's overworld map is a great showcase of the SNES's Mode-7 effect. Flying from one zone to the next almost feels like a creepy demonic version of Pilot Wings. 
  • For a game of its age, Demon's Crest is fairly generous with checkpoints. That being said, I still made use of save states to shorten the distance between checkpoints since this game is quite difficult.
Cons:
  • Firebrand is a rather slow and stiff character. Often his movements feel slower than a situation calls for. Eventually, I got used to this and learned to plan my movements a bit ahead of time rather than just reacting to enemies and obstacles, but it still didn't seem ideal.
  • The controls and user interface for the various demon powers were counterintuitive at times. I ended up downloading a scan of the game's instruction manual since Switch Online doesn't include instructions for retro games.
  • Many of the bosses can be frustrating bullet sponges unless you have the right powers. It's often unclear whether I was underpowered for a boss or just needed to "get good". As a result, I save scummed my way through a few of the early game bosses until I was able to sufficiently upgrade my character. I was very thankful to some of the folks in my Twitch audience who pointed me toward the hidden items that I missed. Without their help, I likely would have been relying on a guide to get through this game.
  • There are a few areas in levels that I would consider to be annoying but not difficult, especially areas with flying bats or infinitely respawning ghosts. These enemies aren't much of a threat but are there just to pester you as you try to accomplish something else.
  • As a result of the game's designers really pushing the SNES to the limit, there is considerable lag and slowdown in some sequences. The Switch's emulation preserves this aspect of the Demon's Crest experience, I suppose for accuracy's sake.
Playing through Demon's Crest was very interesting from a historical perspective and definitely worth playing for me, despite some of the frustration I experienced. I can recommend this game, but only with a lot of caveats; players used to retro games will likely enjoy it, but it's certainly not a good starter retro game.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 9 hours to reach the good, but not best, ending

Advice for enjoying this game: Don't beat your head against the wall against bosses, either explore more for power-ups or check a guide.






Sunday, October 27, 2019

Resident Evil 2 Remake Review


While the Resident Evil series may be considered a classic of the horror game genre, none of the past entries have landed with me. Both times I played Resident Evil 1 (PS1 and Gamecube versions) the clunky controls and jump were just not for me. I also tried Resident Evil 4, which felt a little better from a gameplay standpoint, but its plot and tone pushed me away. So understandably, the Resident Evil 2 Remake wasn't even on my radar... but then it ended up being one of the free games included with the graphics card I bought earlier this year. Of course, I had to give it a shot!

Background:
Resident Evil 2 Remake (labeled as "Resident Evil 2/ Biohazard RE:2" on Steam) is an HD remake of the 1997 PS1 game that uses a modern third-person action game engine but retains the story and level design of the original game. At the beginning of RE2 Remake the player selects one of two characters, Leon or Claire, who play similarly but different paths through the game and a different perspective on the story. This review is based on Claire's path, which I played through collaboratively with my wife.

Observations:
  • Considering that this game came packaged with a fancy new graphics card, of course, it looked great and ran very smoothly.
  • The cut scenes and voice acting were pretty solid and gave the game a very appropriate 90s horror movie feel.
  • RE2 Remake's control scheme feels like a drastic improvement from the original PS1 RE games as well as RE4. I tried playing with both an Xbox controller and keyboard/mouse. While I ended up preferring the controller, both input methods seemed completely viable for this game.
  • Early in the game, the only enemies you face are standard zombies. The game appears to use RNG to determine how resilient the zombies are, meaning that many of these enemies are complete bullet sponges, often requiring you to empty an entire magazine of ammo into their heads to get them to stay down. While I guess this was a design choice to make zombies seem more menacing, but I found it to be more irritating than scary.
  • The game gets more interesting once more types of enemies are introduced. Among these, two enemy types were particularly effective at upping the tension level in the game:  Lickers, who are blind but very sensitive to sound, and Mr. X, a giant invincible monster that chases you in certain key scenes. I found that special enemies like these were used just enough to vary up the gameplay without getting old.
  • While the game world is very small by modern standards, a police station, an alleyway, and an underground facility, RE2 makes very effective use of them by having you traverse them via different routes or having events take place that changes the layout of the area.
  • In addition to combat and exploration, RE2 features some light point-and-click-adventure-like puzzles. Usually, they involve using a key item in the correct location or sliding around objects in the environment. I appreciated that these mixed things up a bit, but the puzzles themselves were a mixed bag.
A common theme of my reviews this year has been "pleasant surprises" and Resident Evil 2 Remake would certainly match that description. After we pushed through the first hour or two of the game, my wife and I found a very satisfying gameplay loop at the game's core that kept us engaged all the way through the campaign. If you're like me and bounced off earlier RE games, I would definitely still recommend giving Resident Evil 2 Remake a look!

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 12 hours, 41 minutes (Claire's campaign, medium difficulty)



Sunday, October 6, 2019

Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice Review


Listening to gaming podcasts back in 2017, I felt like every week marked the release of yet another must-play critically acclaimed game. Here we are in 2019, and I still feel like I'm playing catch-up with titles from this one jam-packed year. Among all these 2017 critical darlings, Hellblade caught my attention since it was lauded for having a strong story and contained scope (a big ask in that year's onslaught of open-world adventures). 

Overview:
Hellblade is a narrative-driven third-person adventure game that features action combat and puzzle-solving. The story of the game follows Senua, a Viking warrior, who is descending into hell to retrieve the soul of her slain husband. In addition to navigating the perils of the underworld, Senua struggles with her mental health and is haunted by memories of her traumatic past. The developer consulted with psychiatric professionals in creating depictions of conditions like schizophrenia and PTSD for this game.

Pros:
  • Hellblade offers a variety of equally beautiful and creepy environments; putrid swamps, desolate beaches, and of course, firey hellscapes are all depicted with a level of detail that makes them feel very real. Some of the more surreal parts of the underworld are particularly visually striking. The use of flame effects and shadows are also very well done.
  • This game has fantastic sound design. Positional audio effects really make it sound like the voices in Senua’s head are coming from all directions. The game also uses spatial audio cues are used to help the player navigate the environment; using a good headset is essential. 
  • The voice acting for Senua and all voices in her head is quite strong, even though I found the script itself to be pretty one-note.
  • Throughout the game, Senua can find and activate rune stones that play voice recordings the explain the Norse mythology associated with the situations Senua finds herself in. These recordings are in-character as one of the voices in Senua’s head. This kind of made me feel like I was in a museum as I traveled through Viking hell, but it was interesting to learn about an ancient culture as I played.

Cons:
  • Initially, I liked the deliberate and weighty feel of the combat. However, as the game repeatedly presented kill rooms with wave after wave of the same few enemies, battles quickly began to feel like a chore.
  • Hellblade has some good puzzles, but much like the combat, the variety is extremely limited. Once I had seen a few examples of each type of puzzle early in the game, it was then just a matter of the same thing being repeated many times over for the rest of the game.
  • While the environments Senua explores look great, I often had issues with navigating them. The game is inconsistent with what terrain our Viking heroine can and cannot traverse; in some cases, she can vault over tall obstacles, in others, a 1-foot tall object obstructs her path. Which doors can and can't be opened is similarly inconsistent. While there are some visual clues as to where the context-sensitive interaction points are located, I still regularly resorted to trial and error.
  • A few areas of the game involve running through burning buildings or running from monsters. I had a couple of occasions where these tense moments were disrupted by Senua getting snagged on something in the environment, resulting in an immediate game over. 
  • Every time you continue from the game over screen, an infection in Senua's hand creeps a little further up her arm. The game warns you very strongly at the start of the campaign that getting too many game overs will cause the infection to reach her head, killing her permanently and resetting the campaign back to the beginning. This is a lie. I spent the latter half of the game worrying that my frequent deaths (several of which were not my fault) would result in complete loss of progress, only to observe that it spread of the infection would slow down or even reverse when it got close to Senua's head. While I get that from an artistic standpoint, this mechanic is supposed to enhance the player's feeling of tension in tune with Senua's situation, but I really resent that this game's messaging deliberately misleads the player.
  • The tone of the game's story is largely doom and gloom the whole way through. Since it's apparent that the heroine's journey is hopeless from the very beginning, I found it hard to find something to latch on to and feel truly invested despite strong presentation and performances.
  • Hellblade's campaign takes about nine hours to complete but still managed to feel long due to its repetitive gameplay and one-note story.
I really wanted to like Hellblade, but it just didn't work for me. There segments of the game that offer compelling gameplay or interesting themes but rarely did these elements gel together in a cohesive way. While I wouldn't say I regret playing Hellblade because it tried some novel things, I was eager to be done with it partway through. Since this is a case where the artistic vision is strong but the execution didn't quite land, I'd still be interested to try another game from this developer in the future. However, for Hellblade itself, I would only recommend it to those who value artistic expression highly enough to overlook the game's other issues.

Score:
Completion Time: 9 hours






Sunday, September 22, 2019

Forza Horizon 4 Review


As I mentioned in my review of TimeSpinner, most of my time with the Xbox Game Pass catalog has been devoted to indie games rather than AAA titles. The one exception so far has been one of the games that drew me to Microsoft’s subscription platform when I saw it demoed at E3: Forza Horizon 4. While most racing games I play are completely removed from anything resembling real-life motorsports (e.g. Mario Kart, Fast RMX), there was something about this game’s ability to balance simulation and arcade racing that caught my interest.

Overview:
Forza Horizon 4 is an open-world racing game set in an environment based on Scotland and rural England. Throughout the game, seasons can change affecting the weather and terrain. Players can drive a wide variety of automobiles, ranging from exotic sports cars to delivery trucks, around the map to enter in different racing events. Races primarily come in three forms: road races, dirt track races, and cross-country (i.e. off-road) races. Forza Horizon 4 can be played as a single-player game or as an online multiplayer game. This review will focus on the singleplayer experience.

Observations:
  • It probably goes without saying that Forza Horizon 4 is absolutely gorgeous. The car models look incredible and, considering the size of the map, the environments are impressively detailed. As you would expect for a game that prominently features changing seasons, the weather effects look splendid. Part of why I wanted this game was to test my new graphics card; running the game on Ultra did not disappoint!
  • The one graphical element that does not look especially polished, is the player character (aka the Drivatar). These racecar driver characters represent the player in pre- and post-race scenes. Their appearance and movements are a little awkward but in an almost charming way. The player can customize the Drivatar's appearance with unlockable outfits, but since outfits can only be changed at one map location, I found that I didn't engage with this feature very much.
  • Of the three main types of races, I found I much preferred off-road and dirt events. These events allowed for more jumps and corner-cutting, which made them more exciting. Also, the effects of the changing weather are much more pronounced in these types of races (mud pits during rain, frozen lakes, snow, etc). Regardless of race type, I generally stuck with all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicles for better handling on all types of terrain.  
  • I appreciated that the game lets you adjust the level of realism and AI difficulty independently. I used normal realism and advanced AI settings. This made for a somewhat forgiving driving experience that allowed me to pull off drifts and get away with scraping the occasion guard rail, but still have challenging opponents to race against. If you're consistently winning (or losing) by a significant margin, the game will recommend adjustments.
  • One of my favorite features is the ability to rewind time a few seconds at any given point in a race. This keeps you from having to restart a whole race due to having a single accident. This feature prevents the game from ever getting repetitive or frustrating. (The feature can be disabled for those who want a more hardcore experience.)
  • The game breaks up regular racing with a couple of side activities. Two such activities, Wheel Spins and Barn Finds, are fun ways to get new cars rather than just buying them with race winnings. Wheel Spins are game-show like random chance opportunities that are earned throughout the game. Barn Finds are hidden locations on the map where are abandoned cars can be found; after being restored, these vehicles tend to be some of the best in the game.
  • Stunt events are another way to break up racing and get new cars. These feature some pretty cool set pieces in exotic vehicles, but unfortunately, they often involve a lengthy commute because the car is often picked up at a location fairly far from where the stunt will take place.
  • Of all the special events, my favorites were the Showcases. These involve racing matchups between highly irregular vehicle pairings (for example, in the first one you race a pickup truck against a hovercraft). While these largely exist as set pieces rather than true racing challenges, they're still a lot of fun and unlocking them serves as a satisfying goal to work towards.
  • The single-player experience is structured as a year-long event in which the seasons transition after earning the required amount of "Influence" (basically experience points) from winning races, participating in special events, and finding hidden items in the environment. Usually, a showcase event unlocks right before the season change, making it feel kind of like the racing equivalent of a boss battle. This setup makes what could have otherwise felt like an aimless sandbox still feel like a proper single-player campaign. 
  • Once you play through all four seasons in the campaign, the game switches to a live game mode, where the seasons change automatically once a week. In this mode, new sets of races and special events become available on a rotating basis. Most of these can be played as single-player or multi-player events.
I'm generally not a car guy, but I absolutely loved Forza Horizon 4. It's been my biggest pleasant surprise of the year! Since the game features so many adjustable settings to make it approachable for players regardless of skill level, I highly recommend anybody with an Xbox One or gaming PC give it a shot!

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 12 hours (main campaign with some side events)

Acknowledgment: This review was written as part of the #SportSeptember community event from the Chic-Pixel blog. Check out this post for their full calendar of monthly events!





Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Time Spinner Review


When I first signed up for Xbox Game Pass on PC, I had expected that I would be using the service to play through a lot of big marquee Microsoft titles (e.g. Halo, Forza, Gears). Instead, I’ve found myself primarily using the service as a way to try out indie games that I’ve heard good things about but haven’t been motivated to seek out and buy individually. One such title came out earlier this year, TimeSpinner.

Overview
TimeSpinner is an indie platformer that is heavily inspired by the Castlevania games directed by Koji Igarashi. The story follows Lunais, a time-traveler, who uses her time manipulation abilities and other magic powers to seek revenge against the Empire after they desecrated her village and wiped out her people.

Observations
  • I’ve played a lot of Metroidvania games, but this one is by far the most upfront about its source of inspiration. Everything from the UI to the controls looks and feels straight out of Symphony of the Night or Aria of Sorrow. 
  • Like the aforementioned Castlevania games, TimeSpinner has very nice pixel art. I liked the level of detail on the design and movement of the enemies. There were also some areas that used multiple layers of parallax scrolling to make for some very cool looking backgrounds. The color pallet in most environments is quite muted, which is not my preferred aesthetic, but it's fitting to the game's tone.
  • Lunais has a variety of weapons and special attacks that can be upgraded and swapped around as the situation requires. While the combat was very simple, customizing her loadout helped keep things feeling fresh.
  • The implementation of time manipulation mechanics ended up being much more minimal than I expected. At certain warp points, you can travel back in time, which brings you to an alternate version of the map. The other time power allows you to temporarily freeze time which is useful for avoiding attacks and using frozen enemies as platforms to reach high ledges. I was hoping that manipulating time would be used for puzzle solving, but that ended up not being the case. For the most part, time travel serves primarily as a plot device.
  • TimeSpinner has a surprisingly detailed story and very rich lore. While the player gets some of this via dialog in cutscenes, much of the material is delivered via letters, journal entries, and other text documents that you find by exploring the world. There are dozens of such documents to collect and each is several pages long. This might be appealing for some players, but for me, this method of world-building did not manage to grab me. The text file approach can work for me in lengthier games where it’s spread out over many hours of gameplay (for example, see my review of Final Fantasy 13), however, in a 9-hour platformer, I’m not looking to spend lots of time reading text in menus. 
  • Despite not reading the lore files, I was still able to follow and appreciate the story reasonably well. The characters felt a little bland, however.
Overall, TimeSpinner is a well-made platformer in the style of Symphony of the Night, whose main point of differentiation, it’s lore, didn’t really click with me. A few years ago, I think this game could have made a pretty big splash, but in 2019’s crowded field of Metroidvania titles, it doesn’t really stand out. For big fans of the genre, I still think playing TimeSpinner is well worth your time; for those just looking to play the crème of the Metroidvania crop, TimeSpinner can probably be skipped.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion time: 11 hours




Sunday, August 25, 2019

Four Job Fiesta 2019 Wrap-up


This past weekend marked the close of my third Four Job Fiesta campaign! Once again, I managed to finish the game in even less time and lower levels than in previous years. Here are some highlights:

  • This year's Name My Butz charity auction was our most successful yet! The top bidder donated $20 (US) to Child's Play and selected the name "Waffle" for our party leader! As a special thanks to our generous donor, I let her pick which class Waffle would be assigned next whenever she was watching the stream.
  • At the Wind Crystal, I rolled a Thief. Considering this class can only use knives, it had decent physical damage output but without the ability to equip heavy armor, their toughness left a lot to be desired and made for some very tough early boss battles. The Steal and Mug abilities proved to be very useful, however.
  • My Water Crystal job was a returning one from my 2017 campaign, Red Mage. As is typical of Red Mages, they were valuable in the earliest parts of the campaign, primarily for healing but became obsolete about halfway through. After that, I got a little more utility out of them for their rod-breaking ability (i.e. sacrificing an elemental weapon to cast a higher level offensive black magic spell) during a few key boss battles.
  • The Fire Crystal delivered a blessing in disguise: Bard. I initially thought this class would be a dud but it proved to be extremely useful. Particularly, Bard's ability to put regular enemies in a sleep/stop state made random encounters so much easier. The Bard also has some very useful full-party buffs for boss battles. I'm really glad that this year's Fiesta gave me an opportunity to learn this previously overlooked class!
  • At the Earth Crystal, we had another repeat: Chemist. Even more so than last year, the weight of the last few dungeons almost completely rested on the Chemist's slender nerdy shoulders. Since I lacked any strong physical attackers this year, the Chemist ended up being my primary damage-dealer, using various Mix! formulae to attack bosses ("Holy Water + Dragon Fang = Holy Breath" was easily the one I used the most). Thankfully, the Thief in my party was able to steal plenty of reagents for my Chemist to use.
  • The battle against Exdeath was quite difficult this year since I was almost entirely reliant on buffs and chemistry to keep me alive and deal damage. After several failed attempts at level 35, I backtracked a bit to grind up to level 40 and gather more chemical reagents. While on paper, Waffle was my Chemist, everyone else in the party was still making use of the Mix! ability nearly every turn. After using buffing mixtures like Dragon Power (temporary +20 to level), Goliath Tonic (temporary double HP), and Turtle Guard (Shell + Protect) in the first phase of the final battle, it was just a matter of mixing up as many Holy Breaths (Holy elemental damage) as possible while keeping everyone's HP up. I ended up taking down Neo Exdeath with all four party members still alive!
  • Between donations from the auction, Twitch viewers, and my own contributions, $60 went to Child's Play this year. While I didn't beat my previous record, I'm still happy with this result and very thankful to the generosity of the donors! Next time I do this, I'll try to come up with more interactive ways to encourage people to donate (like the auction) since that seemed to get the biggest response. 
While I had fun with this year's campaign, I found it a little harder to keep motivated this time around. This was due to a combination of having two returning classes, which made the campaign less varied than before, and my work schedule being a lot more hectic, making it tougher to schedule streams than years past. I was glad that I played the mobile version of Final Fantasy 5 this year, so I could still make progress even when I wasn't able to stream. Thus, I may take a break for next year's Fiesta depending on my schedule. I will also be a little quicker to reroll if I get repeat classes going forward.

All that being said, I wanted to extend a heartfelt thanks to everyone who donated or tuned into my streams!