If you’re a regular reader, then you may recall that I absolutely loved the original NieR. Despite its many problems, most of which were gameplay-related, there was so much care put into the aesthetic sides of things that I came away with a new favorite. Its sequel, NieR:Automata, ably answers the question: what if the gameplay was just as good as the story, world, characters, and music?
As NieR maker cavia is long gone, development duties for Automata were handled by Platinum Games, the beloved studio known for its slick action titles. Some key talent from the ol’ NieR staff were involved as well, most notably director Yoko Taro and composer Keiichi Okabe. This turned out to be a fruitful collaboration, resulting in one of the finest JRPGs released in some time.
I didn’t play it on a console, however, but on a computer. As such, the first thing I did after installing Automata was patch it with FAR. This mod, which is short for “Fix Automata Resolution”, offers a number of graphical tweaks that publisher Square Enix couldn’t be bothered with, and I highly recommend it to anyone who chooses to play the PC version.
Anyway, on with the review. Upon starting the game, the very first sequence is a top-down shmup. Although there were a small number of similar sections in the first NieR, there are a lot more of them in Automata, largely thanks to flight units controlled by our android protagonists. From there, we move on foot to a string of fights mixed in with some light platforming. A crazy battle against a massive boss ensues, and then the game starts proper.
The aforementioned androids are 2B and 9S, models made for fighting and intelligence gathering respectively, who work for an organization called YoRHa. It is 11,945 AD—some 8,500 years after the events of the first game, and nearly 7,000 years after aliens invaded the Earth with robotic “machine lifeforms” serving as their soldiers, sparking the first of over a dozen wars. Operating out of a space station called the Bunker, YoRHa sends its androids to the surface to do battle with the machines on behalf of the remnants of humanity, who reside on the Moon. I wish I could talk more about the story—which is grim yet fantastic—in this review, but, even with a spoiler warning given ahead of time, such discussion would make this post at least twice as long.
The aloof and logic-minded 2B is our primary playable character. Along with two melee weapons she can have equipped at a time, she comes with a small hovering robot, Pod 042, who provides ranged and special attacks. Her AI-controlled sidekick, 9S, is less cold, but quite a bit prejudiced when it comes to machines. Guided by Operator 6O, who provides support and instructions from the Bunker, 2B, 9S, and their Pods spend their time exploring the desolate, ruined world; taking on sidequests; and fighting the machines, who have started to evolve in unusual ways.
Both the flight unit and on-foot combat is smooth and satisfying. 2B can execute a slick dodge that recalls the one in Bayonetta, and the addition of regular ranged attacks thanks to the Pods adds a bit more variety than the first NieR had. 2B can be customized with upgradable chips that enhance offense, defense, speed, and other stats, or even grant convenient little abilities, such as being able to pick up items automatically. Special moves for the Pods can be swapped in and out as well.
Outside of battle, there’s sidequests and fishing, both of which are much improved from NieR‘s iterations, though the latter is a bit more pointless this time. The sidequests have generally better rewards, often including hard-to-find crafting materials, and are not as headache-inducing as certain NieR quests I could name. These quests also frequently serve as mini-stories which help to flesh out the world, and range in tone from funny and uplifting to melancholy and depressing. Meanwhile, the fishing is Animal Crossing-style, using simple button presses to toss out your lure (or Pod, in this case), then reel it in when there’s a bite.
The overall story is as nihilistic as the previous NieR‘s, but thanks in large part to dozens of documents which can be found, it’s also easier to understand without having to run to an external resource. These documents are scattered all over the world, and most of them start to become available after the first ending is reached. On a related note, one thing I liked was that the weapon stories (a tradition in the Drakengard/NieR series) are in-game this time, rather than in a Japanese-only artbook, as was the case with NieR. These stories unlock piece by piece as a weapon is upgraded, and are often dark tales about a previous owner. Some of these tales even tie into the plots of the previous games, which is a welcome touch.
Speaking of which, there are a handful of other callbacks that crop up throughout Automata, including at least one that can be rather shocking to NieR players upon encountering it. A major difference between the two’s stories, however, is in how multiple endings are handled. Unlike in NieR, Automata‘s first major ending leaves out the biggest revelations; for those, one has to complete the next two loops. At first, I wasn’t sure if I liked this new arrangement, but it worked quite well in the end, with far less repetition in subsequent story loops than NieR had. There are even some new and newly fleshed-out gameplay mechanics after Ending A is reached—such as the return of NieR‘s visual novel segments—as well as some cheeky playing around with certain video game standards. Another change is in the number of endings: not only are there five related to the core plot, instead of four, but also twenty-one gag endings which trigger under certain conditions.
Visually, Automata is another step up from the striking but often muddy NieR. The character designs retain some ridiculousness—especially the fetishistic YoRHa androids—but are also just as memorable. In particular, the machine lifeforms strike a very effective balance between cute and menacing, with their beady eyes and mostly expressionless faces. The various areas, which include a ruined city, vast desert, and forest with gigantic trees, are likewise effective, though sometimes a little frustrating to get around; for example, though it seems like some of the empty buildings can be entered in certain spots, invisible walls block the way half the time.
Finally, there’s the music, which is once again one of the best game soundtracks of all time. Okabe is one of those rare video game composers who really knows how to take advantage of that most versatile of instruments: the human voice. The compositions themselves don’t slouch either, as is demonstrated by certain remixes which crop up starting from a specific point in the story.
I’m gladder than ever that I played NieR, as it gave me a good excuse to play NieR:Automata, a fantastic game in its own right. Most of the janky charm of the original is gone (most; as noted, there’s still an annoyance or two), but in the end, it’s for the better, and the story being told is as strange and complex as ever. If you’re sick of the same old thing in JRPGs, NieR:Automata is definitely worth playing.
Despite a nasty cold early in the month, January was fairly productive, gaming-wise. I started and beat seven games, both short and long, and started an eighth. That unfinished game is Etrian Odyssey V, the latest in Atlus’ cartographical dungeon-crawling series, which I had put off starting for a few months in order to focus on Holiday Card work. As of this writing, I’m close to the end of the first Stratum, and the difficulty is starting to feel more punishing. This is not to say that EOV is easier than past entries; I think I just had a good handle on what to expect from this series when I first stepped into this latest Yggdrasil Labyrinth.
One thing I’m really enjoying about EOV (besides the food-gathering and cooking, fantastic features which help cut down on trips back to town) is its back-to-basics approach. The previous two games in the main series introduced overworlds to explore between Strata, and in EOIV‘s case, I suspect that it was one reason why I was ultimately so bored with that game. EOV does away with such areas. Here, you’re in the labyrinth from the get-go, just like in the very first two games. While it’s a little odd to see this regression, it’s also quite refreshing. Hopefully, the game will continue to hold my attention as I ascend to new heights.
The first game I beat way at the beginning of January also involved dungeons. Fidel Dungeon Rescue, which is about a very good dog who sets out to save his kidnapped master, has its feet in both the turn-based dungeon crawler and environmental puzzler realms. Each room is a puzzle that can be solved in more ways that one, but the most optimal solutions have the greatest rewards, the best being the XP which helps Fidel level up, increasing his overall health. The game’s most prominent feature—and, at times, greatest obstacle—is the title character’s leash. Fidel’s leash drags behind him, leaving a trail of places you’ve been before, and can be quickly retracted to rewind time and try out a different set of steps. However, the catch is that no square can be touched more than once, which can lead to the leash feeling like a barrier if its placement gets in your way. It’s a simple but well-implemented system that, along with the generous time constraints and dungeon layouts, lends the game its challenge. Fidel took me a fair number of attempts to get through, and once I did, whole new sets of challenges appeared. I completed two of these before moving on.
Around the same time I started Fidel, I took up another, though very different, puzzle game: Alphabear: Hardcover Edition. This version is a “pay once” PC port of the mobile title Alphabear. To play, one has to arrange randomly-generated letter tiles into words, which are then assigned points based on each letter’s countdown timer as well as other factors, like which bears you equipped before starting that stage. Creating words eliminates the tiles used, which causes the bears around them to grow, leading to more points. Score enough points to gain new bears, level up existing ones, and/or unlock the next stage. The entire scoring system is… rather complicated.
Despite its cute, whimsical aesthetic and inventive gameplay, Alphabear‘s challenges can spike in difficulty without warning, and some are just about impossible if you don’t have the right rare bears in your arsenal. This was my situation with Chapter 4-2, so I went back to some older stages to level up the bears I had; I also unlocked at least one new one. After I got through that stage, which took quite a long time, there were one or two other tough spots, but none nearly as bad. The difficulty balance and/or the rare/legendary bear drop rates clearly need some refinement, but apparently, the game’s progression was tweaked today, so perhaps this complaint is moot now. It’s also free to play this weekend on Steam, so you might want to give it a go.
Anyway, because of those headaches, Alphabear was actually the third game I beat this year, since 4-2 led me to setting it down for awhile. The second was Danmaku Unlimited 2, which is another mobile port, as it turns out. If the title didn’t already give it away, this game is a vertically-oriented bullet hell shooter. Thankfully, the difficulty balance is perfect. As a casual shmup fan, I liked it so much that I reviewed it on Steam. It’s a lot of fun and very well made; there’s not much else I could’ve asked for.
A few days before starting Danmaku Unlimited 2, I picked up my 3DS and, with some reservations, started Kirby Triple Deluxe, which would later become my fourth game beaten in 2018. I say “with some reservations” since I didn’t like the last Kirby I played and was sure that I had become burnt out on the series. Roughly two years later, I was relieved to discover that Kirby, especially the standard Kirby formula of enemy-chomping and ability-obtaining that returns in Triple Deluxe, is still something I can enjoy. In addition to being a straight-up solid Kirby game, this entry also features some nice callbacks to previous titles in the series. The endgame is also surprisingly lengthy and tough. Like with Danmaku Unlimited 2, there isn’t much else to say about Kirby Triple Deluxe except that it’s very, very good if you’re into this sort of thing.
Another platformer was next up: Thomas Was Alone, which I received in a CAG Steam key trade. It’s a straightforward, puzzley game where rectangles and squares of varying abilities have to be delivered to specific points, much like Fidel, I and Me, and many other games. Controlling these objects is a little fussy, but the puzzles are generally well designed, albeit varying wildly in difficulty at times. What’s different this time around is the narration. Each of the quadrilaterals is given a name, personality, and motivation, making what would otherwise be a well-designed but bog-standard game into one bristling with life. Some are full of themselves, some start out with a bit less confidence than they find later on, and some, like Thomas, are mainly just happy to have companions. This is one of those Indie Games That Everyone’s Played that I ignored for a long time, and it seems that that was a mistake. Fortunately, it’s now a mistake that’s been rectified.
Finally, in wrapping up the month, I began my delve into Tale of Tales’ oeuvre via a Steam bundle I picked up during the last Summer Sale. Using the studio’s MobyGames page as a guideline for the release order, I started off with the oldest title in the collection. This was The Graveyard, an extremely short interactive black comedy. At least, that was how I read it, given what happens after the player guides the one controllable character, an old woman, to sit on a bench. To spoil what happens next: a jaunty song about death plays and then, at some random point, the old woman dies. The player can get up from the bench and leave the graveyard before the latter happens, but both of the times I tried to wait to do so after the song ended, she died.
After that, I moved on to The Path. Inspired by the fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood”, The Path has the player controlling one of six red-themed sisters, all with different ages and personalites, on a walk to their grandmother’s house. Stay on the path, and the game will decide you are a complete failure, and you’ll have to start over again. Leaving the path—and in doing so getting lost and discovering new things, including the Wolf—is how to succeed at the game. Each girl can go on their journey in any order you wish, and they each have a different, horrible experience at Grandmother’s House after encountering their own personal Wolves. It’s an ambitious art game thick with metaphor, but is clearly ahead of its time in how it incorporates gaming conventions. Rather than ignoring things like scores and stats, which a modern game of this sort might do, The Path includes them, and even relies on them to a certain extent. I’m not sure that this was an entirely appropriate choice except as a pisstake at more mainstream games’ expense. Other than that, I found The Path to be an interesting experience.
And that’s it for January! Next up, besides more Etrian Odyssey V, are the rest of that Tale of Tales bundle and who knows what else. I’ve started February in a healthier spot than I did January—both literally and figuratively—but I also need to whittle down the number of JRPGs in my backlog. Right now, I have no idea if February will end with as many games beaten. As usual, we shall see.
As usual, it’s been too long since my last post. Since then, I saw the rest of Nier‘s endings, rewatched the Utena movie, finished that Pile o’ Tezuka as well as three manga series that I’d been reading for awhile (My Love Story!!, Master Keaton, and Otherworld Barbara), and went on my first trip to Hawaii, among other things.
I’ve also been getting back into playing short games on the weekends. This time around, in addition to indies, I played a couple of promotional tie-in games, one of which was excellent for what basically amounted to an ad. Let’s get to discussing them all, shall we?
Digging and Derring-Do: Shovel Knight (2014, Yacht Club Games, Windows)
A disclaimer before I begin: the version of the game I have is Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, though this review is only for the main campaign. The other campaigns originally began life as free updates before the overall name change, but they’ve been put on the backburner for now.
Anyway, on with the review. When I first tried out Shovel Knight at PAX Prime one year, I was impressed by how much closer it hewed to the aesthetic of 8-bit games than other indie titles inspired by that era; the color palette and the insistence on showing single screens one at a time were its most memorable touches. After playing through the main campaign, it’s clear to me now that it’s not quite a true 8-bit throwback—I doubt it could run on a Nintendo Entertainment System without some further modifications—but it still plays as solidly as I remembered from that short session.
Some apparent inspirations for this platformer include Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Capcom’s DuckTales, but Shovel Knight has a bit of its own flavor as well. Though it’s not an easy game, it’s also not as difficult as any of those classics (especially the Capcom ones), and manages to be fair in its toughness. There are new abilities to collect throughout the game, though as best as I could tell, none are required to get through the main story. Speaking of which, one thing I really like is that it’s possible to go back to previous levels to grind for additional money to purchase those abilities and other upgrades. Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae’s soundtrack is delightful and catchy, but the story less so, consisting of a cloying plot involving an imprisoned knight (female, of course), whom the title character sets off to rescue.
The DS dungeon crawler Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey is one of the better MegaTen spinoffs out there, and as it happens, a 3DS rerelease has recently come out in Japan. To promote this new version, Atlus published Synchronicity Prologue, a free metroidvania for Windows PCs set in Strange Journey‘s universe starring series mascot Jack Frost (luckily for us English-speakers, a fan translation patch for the dialogue soon followed). For a piece of promotional material, this game wound up being very, very good.
Like Strange Journey, Synchronicity Prologue takes place in Antarctica and deals with an anomaly there. As Jack Frost, the player teams up with Jack O’Lantern (aka Pyro Jack) to track down an antagonistic Black Frost. There’s a handful of familiar demons and callbacks to Strange Journey, and the story is fairly basic though a little confusing at times. The areas are huge and sprawling, filled with the usual metroidvania-style barriers to encourage later backtracking to get at various hidden upgrades, and the boss battles each have their own unique flavor. If you’re a fellow MegaTen fan, especially one who’s played Strange Journey, you’ll get a kick out of Synchronicity Prologue. However, be sure to download it soon; it’s only available until December 24th.
Hyrule Graphics: My Nintendo Picross: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2016, Jupiter, 3DS)
This is the other promotional game I played recently, though this time, it wasn’t exactly free. It cost me 1000 Platinum Points over at My Nintendo. As a Picross fan, it naturally caught my attention, so I saved those points and picked it up.
For those of you unfamiliar with Picross, it’s an excellent puzzle game series by Jupiter and Nintendo where you use number hints to fill in squares on a grid to create a picture. It has a bit of a learning curve, but each game in the series tends to come with a good tutorial and starts players off slowly with small puzzles before ramping up to the larger, more complex ones. This particular Picross release is themed around Twilight Princess, so the puzzles’ images include tools, characters, and locales from said game. It’s a relatively short entry at forty-five puzzles, but for a piece of promo material, it’s a got pretty decent amount of content.
I normally love the games in this series, and this one is very good as well, though I do have two gripes. First off, the tutorial is mandatory; you can’t even see the main puzzle menus until it’s completed. Secondly, the Mega Picross puzzles are the same images from the regular Picross mode, just presented in a different order and with more complex rules. While I’d normally be fine with this, these modes are presented in such a way as to suggest that they’re two completely separate sets of puzzles. With these issues taken into accunt, this is merely an okay Picross release.
Spelunking… for America: Shadow Complex Remastered (2015, ChAIR Entertainment, Windows)
And here’s our second metroidvania for this installment. I haven’t looked up how this version is “remastered”, but at any rate, it’s a multi-platform rerelease of the 2009 Xbox Live Arcade hit Shadow Complex, which I remember being sort of a big deal back then. It combines the 3D sci-fi/military aesthetic of your average big-budget Western title with a genre that doesn’t normally see games in this style. Once again, the story is simple, but is somewhat amusing in its extremes: a guy goes exploring a cave with a girl he just met and reluctantly gets caught up in trying to stop a conspiracy to take over the United States. In the meantime, he comes across various weapons, special equipment, and upgrades to help him explore a gigantic underground base.
One of the abilities he gets, a dashing move which enables him to crash through certain objects, is rather tricky to use, and largely because of that, I ended up passing on a handful of upgrades because I wasn’t really sure how to get to them with said move. However, the others are fairly straightforward, and include things like double-jumping and infinite underwater breathing. There’s also the matter of the map, which could use a little bit more information in regards to marking inaccessible areas for later backtracking; many areas get noted, but not all of them. The final battle is gimmicky and too easy on Normal difficulty, but otherwise, the combat is fairly satisfying. Despite these problems, this is a reasonably polished, though imperfect, action-adventure game.
Nuts for Nuts: Super Little Acorns 3D Turbo (2013, Team Pesky, 3DS)
Finally, here’s something else I picked up as a My Nintendo reward. As of this writing, it is still available for the low, low price of 60 Gold Points (and unlike the Zelda Picross game, it can also be found on the eShop). I had never heard of the game before Nintendo started this promotion, but it sounded like the sort of thing I would like, so I decided to go for it.
The basic plot is that a papa squirrel sets out to get back the acorns that were stolen from his family’s stash. He does this by collecting all the acorns strewn across seasonally-themed levels before the timer runs out, avoiding obstacles like bats, bugs, and water. He starts off with a basic run and jump, and later gains a rope to swing from specially designated points; there are also timed power-ups, for higher jumps and other effects, in various levels. Each season wraps up with a level where baby squirrels have to be collected in addition to acorns, and every one of the game’s three “years” has a boss battle at the end, which is actually more of a boss race. Additional goals are included in every level for completionists, and there are unlockable costume options and achievements as well.
Though it reminds me of games like Toki Tori, it is less puzzle-oriented, with the main problem in each level being how to find the fastest, most efficient route. It should also be noted that the platforming physics run on the slidier side, with the rope-swinging in particular taking an extra bit of getting used to. Aesthetically, it recalls a second-tier mobile game from the Angry Birds school of visual design. Not a bad little game, but not noteworthy, either.
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I’ve been reading Osamu Tezuka manga the past few days; namely, a couple of the titles published by Digital Manga Publishing via one of their ever-present Kickstarters. Under the Air was the first; a seinen short story collection, it’s one of the better Tezuka books I’ve read in awhile. After finishing that, I started Melody of Iron, another anthology, but with a long title story (100+ pages) and few others, instead of many short tales. Though nowhere near the level that Vertical lavished on their Tezuka volumes, the localization and printing quality of these books is pretty good for DMP. However, after three backed Kickstarters, I may be done with buying new series from this company.
For several years now, DMP has had a reputation for turning to crowdfunding whenever it wants to print—or reprint—just about anything. Not only has this been the case for niche titles, which is understandable, but also reprints of their biggest hits. One prime example is the BL drama Finder, which is so popular that new volumes wouldoftenhit the New York Times’ manga bestseller lists back when they had them. Perhaps this overreliance on crowdfunding was a reason why Finder‘s Japanese publisher terminated its contract with DMP. Many of their readers haven’t been too happy with them either; their books tend to get delayed and often have unreasonably low print runs, and their lack of communication on classic manga Kickstarters leaves much to be desired (on the other hand, a BL Kickstarter of theirs that I backed—mainly for reprint add-ons—had timely updates and great communication overall, though I don’t know how they’ve been since). On top of all that, they have practically no distribution—it’s hard to get many of their books even through a manga specialist like Right Stuf—and it seems like a fair number of their former employees didn’t like the place, either. Although a handful of Tezuka fans have damn near succumbed to Stockholm syndrome when it comes to DMP, I sort of hope that Tezuka Productions’ deal with them is the next one to be terminated.
Anyway, back to the manga itself: as is customary for most all Tezuka printed in English these days, there is a disclaimer at the start of these anthologies that basically says that the depictions of various races in these works are products of their time, and that they should be seen as such. I would suggest to Tezuka Productions that they start mandating this sort of thing for gender depictions as well. Tezuka’s depictions of women are interesting at best but are more often problematic; Princess Knight and Message to Adolf have been some of the worst offenders for me, personally. The women in Melody of Iron (so far) and Under the Air are a bit more standard for Tezuka: not much more than love interests, wives, and/or relatives.
On a whole other end of the gender depiction spectrum, there’s the 1997 shoujo TV anime Revolutionary Girl Utena. This series, about a girl who was inspired to become a prince when she was younger, and the duels she finds herself embroiled in to win the hand of the “Rose Bride”, borrows heavily from both the magical girl genre and “girl prince” stories like The Rose of Versailles and the aforementioned Princess Knight to create something new. I talked bitprophet into watching the first dozen or so episodes with me—the Student Council Arc—and fortunately, he was intrigued enough that we ended up going through the whole show. This was my second full viewing of the series, so I was mostly interested in catching little details I had missed the first time around. Turns out that there were many: Anthy’s smiles, the consistent theme of animals in the humorous “Nanami episodes”, various spoken lines, even more props and objects. It remains a dense, character-driven series that requires a patient soul to fully deconstruct. This is a series where even its greatest weakness—its relentless reliance on reused animation, and indeed, entire scenes—ends up working in its favor. It’s glamorous while adhering to a certain routine, a routine which could be subverted at any moment. It’s the high drama and messiness of adolescence whirling around its simultaneously bland and eccentric title character in a series of duels accented by a primitive CG castle and hard rock choral music with strange lyrics. There’s nothing else quite like it, and I’m glad I watched it again. As for the other versions of the Utena story, a rewatch of the movie is being planned, and I’d already reread both manga series earlier in the year, thanks in part to a gorgeous new box set.
And now, games! After beating Persona 5, I tried Wolfenstein: The New Order, but sadly found that it is not to my tastes, being a methodical shooter more in the vein of Call of Duty than the classic high-octane Wolfie I had been accustomed to. However, I found myself absorbed into Puzzle Quest, enchanted by Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, and mildly amused by Mountain. I also played a pair of mediocre sequels in the forms of Elebits: The Adventures of Kai and Zero and Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, the latter of which was not nearly as bad as I’d been led to believe. There were also a few short Steam games—Quest of Dungeons and the two LostWinds adventures—which were okay. Then, there is the beautiful mess of Nier.
Nier is about a doting dad and his sickly daughter living in the far future of what is heavily implied to be our own world. It also stars a cynical magic talking book, a foul-mouthed huntress wearing the most ridiculous outfit in video games this side of Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness, and a sweet and dangerous boy. It’s considered to be one of the best works to come out of the late cavia inc., a studio that was generally known for average-to-bad games with crazy plots. All the best parts of Nier involve spoilers (or, at the very least, things worth discovering for yourself), and I’ve only played the first ending so far, so I’ll just say that cavia doesn’t disappoint and I’m sure there’s a lot more to come. In addition to its entertaining storytelling, Nier has a striking visual aesthetic that strongly recalls ICO and other Fumito Ueda games, a soundtrack that absolutely deserves its stellar reputation, and some excellent voice acting. However, it also has some janky animations, alternately fun and annoying combat, meh sidequests, forgettable farming, and bad fishing. It is not a great game, but at the same time, it is. Nier is a weird, wonderful exemplar of gaming’s B-tier and I’m looking forward to getting the rest of the endings, even the one which erases your save and prevents you from playing it again (well, at least with that one account…).
Aside from Nier, I’m currently playing NotGTAV, a crudely-drawn, humorous, and extremely British variant of Snake. I’m also playing my first Nintendo Switch game, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. One of my greatest regrets in not ever getting a WiiU was missing out on Mario Kart 8, so I was delighted when this Switch port, which includes all the DLC, was first announced. It’s a damn good Mario Kart game, with an unbeatable spread of both new and old levels, including a great Bowser’s Castle, a pair of killer F-Zero-themed courses, and personal favorites such as Music Park and Grumble Volcano. My only real complaint so far is that the new Rainbow Road is somewhat underwhelming. It’s also still a little weird to see non-Mario-themed elements, like the characters Link and Isabelle (and those F-Zero tracks), in a Mario Kart. Otherwise, the little tweaks they’ve made are mostly great, and I’m having a good time. I’ve recently started the 150cc Grand Prix, after clearing 50 and 100cc, and will devote my attention to those courses whenever I’m not diving further into the craziness of Nier.
We got back from a long, relaxing weekend jaunt yesterday, and although I didn’t touch any games other than a few Picross 3D Round 2 puzzles (which I really shouldn’t have done; I was dead tired), my husband did get back into The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, including a frustrating boss battle near the end of the evening’s session.
He has a love-hate relationship with the main Zelda series, much as I do with the main Mario one. It wasn’t all that long ago that I gave up on Super Mario Galaxy 2 (and, by extension, my husband as well, since he was in the “co-star” role), thanks to a badly-implemented 3D camera and a “helper” feature that felt more like cheating or the game taking pity on me than anything else. Perhaps more crucially, Galaxy 2 started feeling more like an obligation than something fun. Experiences like that are why I largely stick to the kart racers and RPGs when it comes to anything involving Mario. As for Zelda, well, it may be a long time before Breath of the Wild or any other new-to-us 3D entry in that series comes into this household. I will likely continue on with the rare 2D Zelda, but certain archaic quirks of the 3D ones continues to baffle both my husband as a player and myself as a spectator. The lag we’ve probably suffered with and the frequently convoluted and/or uncomfortable controls have also not helped these Wii games’ cases.
Anyway, on to this post’s mini-reviews. I recently played through three short indie PC games, none of which is quite like the other. The first is a pop-culture-laden pixel-art RPG, the second is a 3D moe action-platformer, and the third is an arty 2D puzzle-platformer.
Reference Materials: Knights of Pen and Paper +1 Edition (2013, Behold Studios)
This is one of a few games I received last year by trading Steam keys, and was not one that I’d ever had on any wishlist. Still, after looking up some info, Knights of Pen and Paper +1 Edition sounded interesting enough, so I completed the trade and added it to my library. In the end, it proved itself to be not a bad little game at all.
The premise is fairly simple: a pen and paper role-playing game is played out amidst the fantasy backdrops described by the dungeon master, complete with JRPG-style turn-based battling. Like far too many indie games with pixel graphics, there’s a ton of pop-culture references, but they’re easier to tolerate given that the story begins with a group of regular people in the “real” world. On top of that, while several references range from predictable (Doctor Who‘s Tardis) to insufferable (Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘s Knights of Ni), some are unexpected and even enjoyable; for example, though I disliked Chrono Cross, I appreciated KoPP‘s take on one of its most annoying elements.
The story itself is your standard JRPG fare with an appropriate twist or two, though told with a sometimes clunky English localization (Behold Studios is based in Brazil). The game also doesn’t explain some of its mechanics very well, if at all. On the plus side, the battle system is solid, with some nice variety between classes, and the difficulty curve is decent, though I did find myself having to grind a bit in one of the earlier sections. Aside from the inspired setting, it’s not a particularly remarkable game, but it is fun.
Speedy Angel: Angel Express (2008, EasyGameStation [via English ver., 2016])
Speaking of clunky localizations, Angel Express, also known as Tokkyu Tenshi, suffers a bit in its own way. During cutscenes with the player-named protagonist and her spirit partner El, there are often lines which seem like they should be said by the other character. This makes for some very odd dialogue at times, though most of the cutscenes are incidental and the core story is simple enough to follow. It’s worth noting that Angel Express is the first English-translated game by Japanese doujinsoft circle EasyGameStation not to have been localized by Carpe Fulgur, and, unfortunately, publisher Rockin’ Android just doesn’t do as good of a job.
As for the game itself, Angel Express is a platformer with a racing theme attached: individual stages are obstacle courses which are run through thrice at a time, and usually with a time limit attached or other characters to out-score. In addition to the repetition of the stages themselves, to reach the end of the story means going through most of them multiple times—and happening upon certain cutscenes multiple times as well. The stages are generally well designed and fun to play, so I didn’t mind too much, but it was still somewhat disappointing that there wasn’t more variety. Oh, and Angel Express is extremely difficult on “Normal”, so much so that I couldn’t beat the second part of the first stage on that setting. I ended up restarting and playing through the whole rest of the game on Easy, which is no slouch either.
There are a few additional features and modes, including a level designer, time trials, and multiplayer, though I didn’t touch any of that. I did check out “Totten News”, an in-game newsletter for delivery girls that includes gameplay tips as well as fictional features one might find in a real-life periodical, like recipes and horoscopes. Unfortunately, the last issue of Totten News suffers from a bug which makes it unreadable, so I’ll likely never find out how its serialized story, about two sisters in an alternate world, ends.
A Tale of Two Kitties: I and Me (2016, Wish Fang)
Incidentally, the last game in this Braincrumbs installment was also apparently made by a non-native English speaker, but has the best localization of the three, though one or two sections of text don’t linger on the screen long enough to read at a normal pace. The story being told here, though, is not as cheery as the previous two games’ are.
In I and Me, the player controls two identical black cats simultaneously, guiding them past hazards and lining them up perfectly so that they fit into a pair of picture frames somewhere else on the screen. It’s a lot like Toki Tori and similar character-based puzzle games, though controlling two characters like this requires a whole other set of skills, mainly a keen spatial awareness. It’s a challenging game, but fair, and the dozens of stages are cleverly designed.
As for the game’s tone, which I hinted at before, it is perhaps best described as melancholy. The story, such as it is, explores what it’s like to have “another self” in relation to being alone; the graphics make heavy use of black; and the music, much of it in the form of classical arrangements, complement the other moody elements very well. A handful of I and Me‘s Steam reviews describe it as “relaxing”, but it rarely fits that definition. Instead, it requires a bit of tolerance for a less colorful setting, as well as a certain degree of patience given the difficulty of a fair number of its puzzles.
Speaking of which, by the time I had gotten through about ninety percent of the levels, I and Me had finally gotten so hard that I skipped one of them. The next level happened to contain the credits. I still wonder if that specific level was the credits all along, or if some other sort of design was at work.
Some quick site business: It took a year, but I finally got rid of the “comments” links that were at the bottoms of posts on the main page.
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Here’s my top ten games played in 2016, presented in the order in which I played and/or beat them. Following each title is the developer/author, the platform I played the game on, the release year on said platform, and a little bit about why it has made this list. As with last year’s Selections, these games aren’t ranked, except for my personal Game of the Year and its runner-ups (the entries this time are a little less wordy, however). I have also added some Honorable Mentions at the beginning, since I played a lot of good stuff this year and didn’t want to overlook certain titles. Anyway, let’s get to it…
– Gurumin: A Monstrous Adventure – for its appealing main character, and being the type of “b-game” that lingers in my mind long after finishing.
– Firewatch – for its incredible sense of place, and realistic characters.
– Bravely Default – for its masterful battle and character customization systems, and outstanding art direction.
– Pokemon Blue Version – for being a deeper-than-expected foundation, and Professor Oak’s nephew, the antagonist I loved to hate more than any other this year.
– Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice – for returning the series to form, and bringing the “Justice Trilogy” to a satisfying conclusion.
There’s also a few great games which I played this year but didn’t beat or play enough of to consider for this list: Spelunky, Project CARS, and Picross 3D Round 2.
Diablo III: Ultimate Evil Edition Blizzard Entertainment | Xbox 360 | 2014
Playing a Diablo-style action RPG on a console, with my co-op partner sitting right next to me, is a wonderful experience I wish I could have more often. What’s most remarkable is that it happened with an actual Diablo game. The story is typical Metzen Cheese™, but told within suitably epic trappings and with a satisfying loop of fight and loot. For a console version of a very PC-centric game, the controls are remarkably good as well: somewhat complex, but thought out well enough that they soon become second nature. I do wish there was more variety in the loot available in the Resurrection of Evil expansion, and there’s only so much Metzen Cheese™ one can take at a time, but if you’re looking for a solid couch co-op game, this is one which I highly recommend.
Kero Blaster / Pink Hour / Pink Heaven Studio Pixel | Windows | 2015
Pixel’s follow-up to his masterpiece Cave Story is a run-and-gun shooter with a slightly more whimsical tone. In this outing, a frog gets teleported out onto the field to complete cleanup missions for his employer, but in the meantime, a problem manifests itself in the boss’ office. Despite the switching up of genres, the action should be familiar to anyone who has played Cave Story, and even improves on it in some small, but welcome, ways. Kero Blaster is, flat-out, a joy to play, and its two free tie-in games, Pink Hour and Pink Heaven, are worth checking out as well.
NiGHTS into Dreams… / Christmas NiGHTS Sonic Team | Windows | 1995-96 (Windows port: 2012) NiGHTS is the strangest game I played all year. It’s a mascot platformer with not much use for platforms; instead, the title character flies and floats around dense dreamscapes. I found the game disorienting at first, but once I got the hang of things, it was like nothing else. It is also not as difficult as certain similar games of its era, so despite one or two frustrating bits, I was able to beat it. One of the bonus features in the PC version of NiGHTS is Christmas NiGHTS. More than just a reskin of NiGHTS‘ opening areas, it is a charming demo with a standalone story and plenty of holiday spirit.
Undertale tobyfox | Windows | 2015
I don’t know what’s left to say about Undertale at this point. The characters are marvelous and true to life, and the plot slots them into archetypal JRPG roles in interesting ways (this is particularly true of Alphys). There is humor galore, from meme-ready running gags, to more traditionally funny scenes, to a certain unexpected and hilarious parody. There is also tons of heart, in several ways. Its fandom is crazy about this game and after one playthrough, and then another, it became easy for me to see why.
Doom id Software | Windows | 1993-95 (via Doom 3: BFG Edition, 2012)
Playing Doom—and beating all of its episodes for the first time—ended up being more than just a nostalgia trip. Despite the lack of modern niceties such as aim assist, weapon customization, and jumping, it plays just as well, and is as enjoyable and engrossing, as back in ’93. The only real low point is Episode IV, first introduced in The Ultimate Doom and included here, but even that would be a solid set of maps in most any other FPS. Doom is, and always will be, just that good.
Bejeweled 3 PopCap Games | Windows | 2010
A modern classic of match-three puzzling, with a sufficient amount of strategic depth and wealth of variant modes to keep things interesting, from the frantic (Ice Storm) to the relaxing (Poker). The epic music and voice-over were unintentionally funny to me at first, but after spending many hours switching gems around, I can’t imagine the game without them. Bejeweled 3 ended up hooking me so much that it became one of a small number of PC games which I felt compelled to get all the achievements in.
Catlateral Damage Chris Chung/Fire Hose Games | Windows | 2015
If you ever need something cathartic—no pun intended—to play for a few minutes or longer, I heartily recommend Catlateral Damage. It’s a first-person cat simulator where the goal is to knock everything onto the floor. The main campaign is short, but there is a decent amount of stuff to do and see, including some nifty themed maps, unlockable cat photos and playable cats, cat toys that grant stat boosts, and special limited-time events, like low gravity and chasing laser pointer dots. Playing a misbehaving cat is, as it turns out, an enjoyable way to pass some spare time.
Third Place Pokemon GO Niantic/The Pokemon Company | iOS | 2016
Looking at this strictly in terms of mechanics, and especially when it’s compared to its primary source of inspiration, Pokemon GO may be the worst game on this list. However, for me, it has also been one of the most engaging of the past year. There is something intriguing about going out into the real world to catch Pokemon and use them to fight at gyms. The team system encourages local rivalries, and periodic updates and special events have generally made the game better since it first launched. I currently have most of the Pokedex filled, plus a pretty beefy team of gym-fighting regulars, so I’ve lapsed a bit in my playing, but for much of the summer and fall, Pokemon GO proved to be a great way to get me out of the house for some simple exercise for an hour or three. If more second-generation Pokemon get added, I’d probably continue to do the same in 2017, since I’d love to see Skarmory, Marill, and other favorites in my ‘dex.
Second Place DOOM id Software | Windows | 2016
It feels odd to place this above the original Doom, which is one of the greatest and most important games ever made. However, in terms of how much I was captivated by each game I played this year, I feel that this new one deserves its place. It is, more than anything else, bone-crunching, and also metal, and at times quite witty. As a character, the Doom Marine is stellar, a silent first-person protagonist who brims with personality through mere eyelines and hand movements. The world he inhabits is sprawling, with some (mostly) cleverly hidden secrets, and incorporates the best ideas from all the previous numbered entries in the series and then some. The gameplay, and gunplay, is exhilarating, with one of my favorite parts being an ammunition and health drop system which, amongst other things, means one no longer has to hoard BFG ammo. It is everything I have loved about Doom made modern, and might be the finest single-player FPS campaign of all time.
First Place: Game of the Year Her Story Sam Barlow | Windows | 2015
My Game of the Year was decided early on. Rarely have I come across a game narrative that’s so pulpy, with so many what the fuck moments as in Her Story. It is very, very difficult to talk about why this is without giving anything away, especially that one word I felt compelled to search for after watching a certain amount of video, that one word which means so much to the plot.
First, let’s back up a little. In Her Story, you are an unknown and unseen person who is sifting through interview clips stored on a long-neglected police database. You start with the word “MURDER”. The interviewee is the wife of the victim. To progress, searching for additional clips through keywords, piecing events together along the way, is key. However, even after seeing the clip needed to trigger the option to end the game, it’s hard not to keep going, and yet, some hard answers remain just out of reach. I’ve seen every single snippet of video in Her Story and am still not entirely sure of what has happened. This is a game tailor-made for people who enjoy theorizing over vague endings, and love mysteries in general.
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you may have noticed that I’m a stickler for good storytelling in games. Some of the games on this list, particularly Undertale and DOOM, have very good stories, but nothing like this. Her Story is a must-play achievement in narrative games, one that excels in both concept and execution.