Hades Review

Developed and Published by: Supergiant Games
Platforms: Switch (Reviewed), PC
Release Date: Out Now


They’ve done it again; and got me, too, coming back again and again. In Hades, Supergiant Games have crafted a masterful take on the roguelike that blends the brutal yet rewarding appeal of said genre with the immaculate, characterful art and music direction the developer is known for. I have never played a roguelike that encourages you on in such a way; not only are you seeking to better yourself on skill, but you’re motivated to find out more on the richly developed characters as well. If I was making a list of my top ten developers, Supergiant would probably be in there, and Hades is another example of why (again, a great idea for a list article there… I should start doing those)!


Going Rogue

The story premise, whilst deeply layered within the Greek Mythology it employs, is quite straightforward in the goal set out to you. You play as Zagreus, son of Hades – the God of the Dead – and having grown tired of your constrained life within the Underworld, you set about trying to escape to discover more about your family. This means fighting through multiple areas, including Tartarus and Asphodel, in order to reach the surface and the secrets that await you there. It’s set out in familiar roguelike format; you battle through consecutive, randomised chambers of enemies and traps, with boss fights capping each of the sections; as well as this, there are surprise interludes; this includes fountains to restore health, and a shop run by Charon, Ferryman of the Underworld. If you die, you are kicked back to your starting point of The House of Hades, where you regroup (more on that below) before setting off again, undeterred.

Controls are deceptively simple; you play from a dynamic isometric perspective – it is reminiscent of previous Supergiant games, in particular Transistor – and this means that whilst Zagreus maneuvers around a open area with a sense of depth, it is in a 2D style (see the screenshots in this review). There is more surrounding space compared to roguelikes such as Rogue Legacy or Dead Cells, which are strictly from-the-side 2D and often claustrophobic – arguably to a fault. In contrast, Hades has a bit more freedom that is delightful to operate within; the game goes a long way to balancing out this extra space by throwing a barrage of enemies at you. Still, this approach does supply slight breathing room for the player, and I found it much less daunting – and, overall, easier (though not easy) – than other roguelikes, especially once you settle into the rhythm.

The start of another quest for the surface!

You have an attack and a special that are determined by your choice of Infernal Arms – there are 6 strains of weapon, from your starting sword to a spear, bow, and more. They each handle very differently and cater to different playstyles. Finding your preferred weapon (shock, I mainly go for archery) provides a sense of personal customisation to your repeated escape campaigns, especially as you unlock different Aspects to further fine-tune your loadout. Furthermore, you have a ranged cast attack, and in terms of movement, your dash is crucial to keep up momentum and avoid the smorgasbord of threats coming your way; the frenetic pace of the action means that mastering this is very important to being successful in Hades. There is then an extra ultimate-style move named a Call that you can only get as an offering from one of the Olympian Gods.

Which is a great way to segway into the Boons themselves. Another way that Hades brings distinct personality to the familiar roguelike set-up is with the way it portrays the Greek Mythology, especially the characters within it. You see, as you progress through an escape attempt, the Olympian Gods attempt to help you out; you will come across offerings from them – Lady Artemis (my favourite character in Hades), Lord Zeus, and Lady Athena, to name three – granting you Boons that affect the nature of your abilities. This may be a refinement of one of your attacks or your dash, or perhaps a passive improvement such as increased move speed. Two examples: Lady Artemis grants perks that focus on critical hits and pinpoint damage, whilst Lord Poseidon applies wave splash damage that pushes enemies aside and away from their trajectory. Utilisation and combination of these specific effects is the source of much possibility within Hades; experimenting to see the sets that work best for you is the source of long-lasting fun.

Be wary on all sides…

That fresh feeling on each attempt is supported by other elements too. Completing each chamber gives a reward: this could be a Boon, but also could be an increase to your Max Health that run, a modifier for your current choice of weapon, or another besides. You often get a choice of path at the end of each chamber, where you can see the next rewards on offer, again putting the initiative in your hands. Enemies along the way challenge you in different ways; at one moment you’re avoiding the close-range swipes of a skeleton, the next you’re dashing your way around incoming butterflies (no, really). It ensures that whichever set-up of skills you’re going with, you feel thoroughly tested. A subsequent pace to proceedings prevents encounters from getting stale – skipping from weapon to weapon, trialing different Boons, seeing how they work together in complimentary combos… It’s so, so enjoyable.


Home Comforts

Importantly, this variety and sense of character is present whenever you go back to The House of Hades. Effectively a hub area that you visit before your next try, it is packed full of customisation, character interaction, and overriding charm. After appearing from the Styx, you’ll happen upon Hypnos and his sleepy demeanour as you approach the seat of Hades, who finds time away from judging the souls in front of him to berate you for one act or another – it’s not always the most healthy father-son relationship. Beside Hades is Cerberus, complete with petting option, and on the other is the House Contractor. The latter is the source of much longevity, as the resources you gather through your skirmishes can be exchanged here for a multitude of unlockables – some cosmetic, some very much gameplay-oriented.

Communication is important for a healthy relationship…

From here you can explore more of the House; the Wretched Broker offers further options for currency exchange, fish you catch can be swapped with the chef, and Dusa – a Gorgon Head taking care of the House – is adorable. The more you progress in your escapes, the more facilities and conversations are available here, and this creates an air of anticipation for the content awaiting you here even when your fights don’t go as planned – there is a constant sense of progression that hooks you in for that one-more-go feeling. When the character interactions are so intrinsic to the feeling of reward, it means that the game needs to pack a lot in, as that approach could quickly fall apart if you started encountering repeat dialogue and repetitive systems. This, though, is where Supergiant has shined before, and that has translated to Hades in spectacular fashion.

Seriously, it is so impressive how much content is in this game. Even where I am now – post-credits and very much in the endgame – I still get surprises pop up in conversation and gameplay, and could perhaps count on one hand the amount of times I have run into repeated dialogue in well over 50 hours. Staggering detail is within Hades and goes towards maintaining the motivation to keep trying new escapes. The Darkness you gather can additionally be put towards new permanent perks, courtesy of Nyx, that affect every run – not just the one you are on at that moment. Therefore, your proficiency constantly rises and helps you to make more progress. Beyond this, from gifting Nectar to characters, you get Keepsakes in exchange that have traits of their own. You may be able to tell by this point that there are many ways to alter your experience and tactics in Hades, and well, you’d be right!

This floating battlefield gets intense

Ultimately, the narrative and the gameplay interweave beautifully to produce a story that feels as though it is always pushing on, just as you are always pushing gradually further in your escapes. At the heart of Hades is a touching story on family, and there are even multiple side quests where Zagreus is a driving force for improving the existence of others around him. If somehow that isn’t enough, the Fates’ Prophecies act as tracking for your advancement in different departments, whether that be acquiring every Boon from each God or getting two characters to reunite. There are sections later on I’m not going into due to spoilers, too! With engrossing combat and an expansive suite of progression, Hades has plenty to hold your attention.


Super Style

Supergiant have really found their trademark style that makes their games distinctively theirs even as they hop across genres. It’s not a surprise at this point – Hades has artistic flair that takes all that which I have mentioned and presents it in a strikingly inviting manner. Stunning character artwork exudes eminent personality, even when static; and the models in motion are fluid and, as aforementioned, wonderful to control. The use of colour and stroke to make the world so vibrant allows the player to fall in with ease and start soaking the lore in. That clarity of art direction lends itself to the fast-paced roguelike genre too, as even when lots is happening on screen, it doesn’t descend into an undecipherable cacophony.

That art though

As much as visuals are a strength of Supergiant, so is audio design, and wowzas, the soundtrack is superb. Compared to the more dulcet tones of Transistor and Pyre, Hades is a slight departure in the more rock-oriented vibe. It’s as though the awesome Thrash Pack tune from Pyre has been expanded into a full soundtrack! Continuing on another Supergiant theme is the inclusion of heartfelt lyrical, voiced tracks, – this is another vinyl purchase to add to the collection… Similarly, the voice work throughout is another piece of the puzzle that gives Hades cohesive character, with the specific traits of everyone coming through as much in the speech as in the text itself, from the booming and often condescending tones of Hades to the endearingly sarcastic and witty Lady Artemis.

The energy of the audio suits the relentless nature of the game, and itself escalates to a peak as you get to the final fights. One endgame track is perhaps the pinnacle of this… Speaking of boss fights, they’re integral to the pace I have been talking about. They punctuate the different areas of the Underworld nicely, and include characters that impact the non-combat side of the game too; that is to say, referential and dynamic dialogue carries into these too. As instances where narrative and gameplay cross over, they’re exceptional examples of the strengths of Hades. Oh, and they’re very tough, so prepare yourself for that!

Tartarus, the first step on your way to the surface

As I near the end of this review, a word on the way this game evolves with playtime. The roguelike nature is one the game stays committed to, but the way that your goal changes is part of how Hades regularly shakes itself up. Just be aware that the roguelike framework won’t disappear, even if your in-game position alters. Hades does a fantastic job of keeping this going, though to make another ever-so-slight criticism, the level at which it succeeds on that does fluctuate – never to the point of dissuading me from playing, but there was one section around mid-way where the main task felt slightly more repetitive than at other times.


Final Thoughts

The idea of a new Supergiant Games release is one that excites me, and I eagerly followed the route of Hades from Early Access to the recent 1.0 launch on Switch and PC. It’s remarkable that, even still, they surprise me as they glide seemingly seamlessly from genre to genre, maintaining their high quality and distinctive style as they go. With Hades, they have dived into the roguelike genre and put a new and unique spin on it to phenomenal success, not only nailing the gameplay cycle but giving it a personable and character-fueled element; it is currently the main contender to Resident Evil 3 as my Game of the Year. Is it my favourite Supergiant game? For me personally, no – the grace and precision of Transistor just edges it. A wonderful aspect of Supergiant is that it feels as though their releases form a lineage of evidence for how the studio has developed over time. Perhaps the greatest praise I can give Hades is that it fits into that emphatic aplomb.

9.5/10

Rating: 9.5 out of 10.

Spellbreak Review

Developed and Published by: Proletariat
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: Out Now


Am I accidentally getting into Battle Royale games? If I am, it’s partly due to my friends. After their suggestions, I have recently played Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout and now Spellbreak, a new take on the genre that brings fresh ideas to the table. Whilst it undeniably relies on certain traits of previous Battle Royale games, there is a physics-based, magical spin that does serve to set it apart. So, how does Spellbreak stack up against PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Fortnite, Apex Legends, and so on? Well, read on…


I Call It Magic

Upon first entering the game, an aspect that struck me was the art style and accompanying slightly melodramatic, grand notes of the audio. This may be a random connection, but it stirred memories of the rousing Spider-Man 2 theme but with a fantasy, medieval edge. Spellbreak is set in Primdal, a world of mages and mystery, and visually has a vibrant sheen not far removed from Fortnite but with a bit more detail and intrigue to it. The aesthetic is reminiscent of Western animation – proportions are quite realistic, but they maintain clear segments of colour interspersed with signs and symbols to add that extra sense of lore.

To me, the style resides somewhere in that space from Fortnite to Apex Legends. Furthermore, the different types of magic flying around in-game creates a palette of colour spattering the surroundings, complimented by reverberating sounds of impact to keep the tension raised. As clarification before going any further; I played the Switch and PlayStation 4 versions of the game. The PS4 version is unsurprisingly more technically proficient; there are crisper lines and the game runs smoother, compared to the Switch edition which is a bit more blurry and can suffer slowdown when there is a lot happening on screen at once. It isn’t awful though, just a tad behind the PS4. It certainly isn’t enough to, ahem, break the spell.

The mix-ups of elemental attacks create some energetic scenes

Let’s get into that, then. Spellbreak starts, wisely, with a tutorial to get you accustomed to the basics of the controls. You play as a mage, and choose one of six different specialisms: Frostborn (Ice), Stoneshaper (Stone), Toxicologist (Acid), Tempest (Wind), Pyromancer (Fire), and Conduit (Lightning). The option you settle on decides your primary Gauntlet on the right side of your HUD; this, logically, takes up one of your arms, leaving space for a secondary Gauntlet on your other arm if/when you find one within the world map in-game. As you play, you start to get more accustomed to how each one works, and find combos that work for you as a player.

Each Gauntlet has two attacks, with varying effects and cooldown rates which at launch are impressively well-balanced, with no one Gauntlet being overpowered. Combined with your Rune, another pick-up item that can give you varying effects such as invisibility, dashes, and the ability to see enemies through walls, it creates a menu of actions at the bottom of your screen that reminded of the real-time combat in JRPGs such as Xenoblade Chronicles (see below). As far as I know, this is a new mash-up within the Battle Royale space, and is perhaps the defining element of Spellbreak.

Using the Ice Gauntlet, which can be held to zoom in for a sniper shot

The tutorial is actually really well put together, explaining all of this plus various other gameplay mechanics. To sum up other elements of the HUD: you find Scrolls in the world that improve one of your three custom Talents that have subtle effects on your character; Potions and Armour to bolster your ability to take hits; Belts to increase your capacity to carry Armour; Boots to up your Run Speed; and Amulets to increase your Mana supply. When you do enter the scary world of the Battle Royale proper with up to 49 others, finding these items and sufficiently preparing yourself for encounters with opposing players is – as with other Battle Royales – crucial. However, I will say that because of the added depth of the range of HUD options here, it does result in a more complex set of mechanics – particularly because of the mix of elemental Gauntlets.


Mix ‘n’ Match

This is because the game, and those Gauntlets, have a very clever, interweaving physics system based on their differing properties – a system that isn’t just about combat, but traversal too. Each of them are singularly fun; to take the Ice Gauntlet as an example, the trails of Ice it creates can be skated on for increased speed and mobility (Frozone in The Incredibles anyone?), and the Wind Gauntlet can spring you into the air for an improvised vantage point. The initial phase of Spellbreak where you are experimenting with these different Gauntlets is brilliant, as you discover how they all work and affect the space around you.

Whilst your character runs and crouches as you may expect, the jump has a hover function that allows you to float, further tying into the Mage idea and supplying a vertical dimension to the gameplay; skating on ice and then transitioning into a speedy hover over a gap is joyous, almost making you forget you need to keep an eye out for other players! There’s a decent skating game hidden in here, you know. Where Spellbreak really excels, though, is in the detail of how the Gauntlets interact with each other, whether it be with other members of your up-to-3-person Squad or the Mages you fight.

So, say your opponent puts up a wall of fire with the Fire Gauntlet, but you have the Ice Gauntlet; a shot from the Ice Gauntlet can cut through the fire with the Ice dousing a safe path. In the other direction, though, the fire melts your ice path quicker, limiting your skating. Moreso, if a player with the Thunder Gauntlet strikes that water, they can create a new barrier of electrified water! Another case: The Toxic Gauntlet can cause a cloud of poisonous gas, but then the Ice Gauntlet can freeze that, and another element – perhaps the Stone Gauntlet – can smash that gas away to clear the space.

Ice and fire meet again

These are just a few of the examples of this wonderful physics system that delivers surprise moments. It reminded me a lot of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and the way physics played such a part in that game, especially as the art styles aren’t that far apart – and also the hood and cape you can wear reminded me of the one Link can wear in Breath of the Wild, aha! Developer/Publisher Proletariat could have had the Gauntlets work individually and left it at that, but instead they have gone beyond and thought about the way they act in contact with one another, emphatically adding to the enjoyment of playing.


Safely Inside

On the other hand, not all of Spellbreak is so praiseworthy. The gameplay systems may have a new twist, but the world they are encased in has an admittedly generic Battle Royale infrastructure. It’s all-too-familiar for players who have experienced Fortnite, Apex Legends, et al: you land in a set map (this time without even the illusion of any vehicle dropping you in) with up to 2 others on your team. From there, you collect the aforementioned resources to kit yourself out, whilst being wary of other players around you. Then the “Storm” closes in, shrinking the circle of play smaller and smaller and closing the remaining players up until eventually only one Squad or player is left victorious. Put that way, it sounds very unoriginal, and well, it is, but as I say, those gameplay quirks are where the appeal lies.

Side note: I find it kind of amusing how each game has to find their own terms for their games: so, in this case, you don’t go down, you are “disrupted”, and you you don’t bleed out, you are “exiled”. One day we are going to run out of words! The first and currently only map, the Hollow Lands, is your typical fantasy world, with a dystopian tone again making me compare it to Breath of the Wild. It’s lots of green and brown punctuated by crumbling castles, but there are some welcome contrasts, whether they be an intricate maze or a misty, swampy section. We aren’t savvy to a lot of the lore of Primdal or the Hollow Lands yet, but the destroyed sites you encounter – including one that seems to have been a Colosseum or auditorium – do pique my intrigue. Narrative content is on the way for the future – the “Chapters” menu is currently grayed out – and I may do a further article at a later date to see how these affect the game.

Going back to the set-up of the game, I will note that as the game progresses and the circle – sorry, the “Storm” – gets smaller, the more the distinctive magical actions make their mark, as you’re naturally forced into deploying them once hiding becomes less of an option. Not that I’m hiding… Erm… next point! Early on, when you’re on the Battle Royale collecting merry-go-round, it’s a very similar cycle to other games of this type, but when you encounter others, that’s when the game really comes alive. Desperately maneuvering around as spells fly past your face, with ice, fire, acid, and more suddenly appearing around you, is a frantic and utterly fun form of chaos that legitimately gets the heart pumping, especially when you get down to the final few players. Staying on the move is so important in this game to make yourself harder to hit and to remain aware of those around you.

In-air fights are a regular occurrence

I tried playing Spellbreak with friends and without, and had engaging experiences with each approach. With friends you can discuss strategy on the go, but in a way it is also easier to get distracted and give away your position, aha; I am very appreciative of Proletariat incorporating cross-play, making the process of putting together a group of friends more efficient. When playing by myself in Solo it brought out that lone wolf determination, and then when in Squads with unknown people, there ended up being in-game camaraderie despite no voice chat! The inclusion of the pinging system that was so well done in Apex Legends – so, again, this isn’t a new idea – is helpful for co-operating without dialogue, too, letting you point out where you are headed, items you have found, and opponents you spot.


Running the Gauntlet

Free-to-play games such as Spellbreak can be made or broken by their progression systems and the way that the dreaded real-money payments are integrated. If we start with just the in-game side: each Gauntlet has a separate Class Rank, which as it improves unlocks new ways to optimise it – take the Ice Gauntlet, which is the one I have used the most. As that has gone up in Rank, I have acquired the possibility of it being able to temporarily highlight players I target, making them easier to keep track of. Being able to commit to one Gauntlet and feel as though you are mastering it is very satisfying! Similarly, there are separate “Mastery” stat tracking menus for each class, allowing you to see your record with each playstyle. As well as this, you have an overall Mage Rank that you get progression on whichever Gauntlet you are using, and the increase of this is the main in-game way to earn Gold for the Shop.

Okay, so the monetisation. It’s not great… The frequency at which you earn the Gold isn’t necessarily the problem, but the amount you earn, 50 each time? When items range from around 400-1200 in the shop? By Level 10 I had around 450, which gave me the option to purchase one item, but if I did that then I would be back to around 0 and even further away from those more expensive items. When you”re in the scenario of only being able to afford a “bored” emote, you know the system has gone awry!

It just seems as though for items in the Shop, realistically, they’re set up for you to pay real money for them. Spellbreak is free-to-play, so not as egregious as, say, Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, but it still isn’t an ideal situation for the player. To counteract this, the item unlocks in-game are decent, with fun designs for your Badge, Card, and more, solely from your level going up. Therefore, if you ignore the Shop, you’ll still get a decent variety to customise yourself from. I also have hopes that as they add new features, they open up new ways to earn Gold to make the Shop more viable for those not spending real money.

There are multiple ways to stylise your character

In terms of those prospects for the future, there is that aforementioned story-based content on the way which sounds promising, and there have already been updates, such as the addition of a Solo mode that I touched on earlier for those who would prefer to go it alone. It’s awesome to see how aware the game is of the community – take the very active Discord server as an example, where players are constantly teaming up. I’m very confident that this game has legs, and in my mind there are opportunities for ideas such as new elements being introduced to shake up the meta. A dedicated Water Gauntlet, perhaps? For now, though- as with Fall Guys – I can only review the game they have presented to us at launch, so my score is based on that, not what might happen.


Final Thoughts

For a game I tried out with friends as a potential way for us to spend some fun time together, I was pleasantly surprised with Spellbreak. Within the generic trappings of Battle Royale conventions it employs, it manages to create an identity for itself through inviting presentation and, most of all, the smart Gauntlet system and clashing of elements. This is a fantastic base from which Proletariat can work from, and I am especially excited to see how the story side of the game evolves into the future. Spellbreak may not do much to redefine the Battle Royale, but it does have enough new ideas to carve out a place in that genre in which to shine.

7.5/10

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Resident Evil: Revelations 2 Review

Developed and Published by: Capcom
Platforms: Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
Release Date: Out Now


After the successes of Revelations, a sequel is a welcome addition to the Resident Evil series, informing us further about the events that transpire in the gaps between the numbered entries. Whilst the initial Revelations game focused on Jill Valentine (in particular) and Chris Redfield in the gap from Resident Evil 4 to 5, Revelations 2 has a story set during the days from 5 to 6. It is built around returning characters Claire Redfield (Yûko Kaida/James Baker) and Barry Burton (Yûsaku Yara/Geoffrey Chalmers), giving them new backstory and development that is really intriguing to experience. Other than some familiar locations and names, there isn’t that much direct connection to that first Revelations game, but the episodic format, effort at introducing new gameplay ideas, and atmospheric vibe are carried across, even if it isn’t quite as neatly packaged. I am reviewing the 2017 Switch release here, with the original roll-out on other consoles in 2015.


Been Here Before

The game kicks off with a cinematic depicting a Terra Save work event where Claire Redfield and Moira Burton (Ayumi Fujimura/Marcella Mazde) are ambushed and taken away by a mysterious group. Next they know, they find themselves in a gruesome and enclosed facility where they have to work together to find their way out past the monstrosities known as the Afflicted – only to discover that they are on an unknown island and very much not out of trouble yet. Immediately, the environment design is of a different tone to that of the Queen Zenobia cruise ship of Revelations; whilst the cramped feel is present, Revelations 2 is much more grimy and evidently unclean, with spiked traps, prison cells of enemies, and dirty, blood-splattered floors to unsettle you. This goes some way to masking the rough edges in the visuals as they blend into that look, but is unrefined in places with quite frequent flat textures and blurriness. It reminded me a lot of Saw and that style of horror, and that continues on with the way the plot plays out.

Each episode of the story has both a section playing as Claire/Moira and also one as Barry with a new character, a child named Natalia Korda (Aoi Yûki/Gabrielle Pastore). They sync up to a degree, being in slightly different times but connecting as each duo makes their journey through Sejm Island. Barry Burton is going there in search of Moira – his missing daughter – and when he gets there discovers the lost Natalia, who seems to have some link to events that she herself is not yet aware of. It’s very much an even split of game time, in contrast to how the Jill sections were clearly most prominent in Revelations; there is a nice balance struck of making both sides of the narrative feel sufficiently developed. Whilst the environments can leave improvement to be desired visually, the characters models are proficient; furthermore, the cutscenes are fantastic, brimming with a self-aware, slightly over-the-top drama similar to Resident Evil 5.

Natalia and Barry on Sejm Island

Switching from one pair to the other also changes the way you approach scenarios; each has one character that is more orientated towards direct damage, and another who can help with that but is more focused on exploration. Claire and Barry are the ones best at dishing out the firepower through the solid and satisfying gunplay of shotguns, machine guns, and more, whilst Moira and Natalia are able to spot hidden items in the environment. This method of finding items essentially replaces the Genesis scanner device in the prior game – personally I found the Genesis more satisfying, as in that case I didn’t have to switch characters in solo in order to find items; yes, you have the choice to either play the campaign solo or with a friend! It must be noted that this is only for local multiplayer, as online play is not supported. That is a slightly disappointing drawback, but considering Revelations had no campaign multiplayer at all, it’s tough to complain, and I’m glad this was added in.

Keeping inventories stocked is crucial, so it isn’t an area of the game to ignore – whether they’re ranged weapons, or the medical items for healing, stopping bleeding, or wiping off gunk. These latter two both decrease your vision on-screen, with visual effects that up the tension dramatically; the other character is able to help you out with those items, encouraging that teamwork. This is the case when playing either solo or co-op, as you can manage both inventories when solo. I spent most of my playtime as Claire/Barry, but the different skillsets led to each duo feeling as though they were a team, instead of one being dragged around by the other.

It’s fine, Claire has this covered

Additionally, Moira has a crowbar to attack and open new routes, and Natalia can throw bricks to compromise enemies. Natalia has the ability to see enemies that others cannot whilst crouching; she can locate enemies through walls, and there are even some that Barry just cannot see, but Natalia can point out for him. This in particular is a thought-provoking inclusion, as it stops you running in and makes you be more considered in your approach if you don’t want to accidentally run into a fatal encounter. On the other hand, there are a bunch of other concepts that aren’t that original or even used much – for example, finding drills to take down the occasional blocked path, or as aforementioned, needing Moira to open certain doors. There are quite a lot of new ideas here, and it may have served the game better to cut some of them and better flesh out others.


Family Matters

As the story progresses, Claire and Moira meet up with a bunch of other survivors who have been fitted with bracelets similar to theirs, that change colour depending on the level of fear they are experiencing and allow the enigmatic Overseer to contact them. This is what is producing the Afflicted; people are being overtaken by the fear experiments. At this point it’s got that slasher movie vibe, especially as some characters are picked off one by one – the game didn’t do much to invest me in most of this new group, though, which limits the impact felt. After this sequence, the game quite quickly reverts back to a more expected Resident Evil approach of corridors and monsters – this is fine, but after the initial set-up it seemed to be going for a very different approach akin to torturous horror. For my nerves it may be helpful that it didn’t go that way, but it is also disappointing that they didn’t follow through.

Please don’t touch me

Despite this, as you’d expect from a game with the Revelations name, there are many dramatic moments interspersed through the episodes to hold your attention. The father/daughter dynamic between Barry and Moira sets this game apart in the series too, and is a developing bond that – whilst not a masterpiece of storytelling – certainly got me invested in hoping they would not only survive but also be able to resolve their differences. At first it seemed that Natalia may be the child you have to look after and slow down for, but actually she has a fascinating plot of her own and contributes to their survival. Natalia helps Barry realise aspects about the way he has handled being a father – again, this isn’t superbly layered stuff, but it is there.

The island setting has a decent amount of variety too, which prevents encounters from becoming too samey. People definitively used to live here, and the mix of rural and urban areas shows this, as well as some documents you find along the way that explain more about the downhill path that led to this. An eye-catching tower in the centre of the island signifies an action-packed ending, too! Without spoiling it, there are links to other Resident Evil games here that are welcome moments of continuity referencing. The game gathers momentum as it progresses and motivated me to see how it would play out in the ultimately cinematic finale. As with the first Revelations, the episodes are presented in a TV-style way, with recaps of previous events at the start of each and teases of the next episode at the end. This is such a great structure that lends itself to the way this series, and the Revelations games especially, use gameplay to build up to story beats.


Around Every Corner

That build-up inevitably means making your way past many infected opposition, and it’s praiseworthy that the new vein of enemy design is quite distinctive to this game. The underground style incorporates unsettling combinations of metal and organic elements; you will also go up against monsters made up of multiple parts of bodies that move in creepy, alternate ways. Having a variety prevents the fights from becoming samey – from insect creatures to infected that fire off ranged bomb attacks (seriously), you’re kept on your toes. Emphasising this is the previously mentioned way different characters tackle different situations. Furthermore, the boss fights are frenetic fun; even when not on the hardest difficulty, they’re a challenge, and supply that desperate sense of survival as you work out how to take them down.

Moira and Claire form a great partnership

It’s a shame that the puzzle design isn’t quite as inspired. It’s okay, but straightforward in comparison to some of the new combat ideas. I’d describe it as serviceable; not bad, but it felt as if I was just working through those areas in order to get to the thrills elsewhere. When the puzzles were combined with that aesthetic of being in a labyrinthine set of traps, there was at least that suspenseful setting to make them stand out more. Further hurting them, though, was that occasionally the solutions were not always clear, which breaks the flow of the game. It isn’t fun to fail and not really know why or how you were supposed to act in the situation. In a way, the best puzzles are in that combat – finding the enemies, deciding whether to sneak past or take them out, discovering their weak points.

Contributing to the quieter stealth approach is being able to hear Afflicted wandering around, and there are plenty of groans and shuffles to prick up your ears. The Revelations games are great at ambient sound, informing you through audio at which type of area you are in through the way surrounding noises are reverberating. They’re often combined with neat visual effects, such as the way that the screen and sound distorts when you go near an enemy you cannot see, letting you know to get out of there and find another way to judge the way forward. If this game had just had a bit more polish, particularly in the environment design, it could’ve reached another level of presentation and made the whole experience feel more cohesive.


Avid Collectors

One area of presentation where Revelations 2 does excel, though, is in the amount of extras on offer. The Switch release includes the two DLC episodes that focus on Moira and Natalia respectively, and they’re a mixed experience. Firstly, The Struggle has an intriguing premise where there is permadeath depending on the items you collect, and provides more details on a character from the campaign. However, it relies a lot on areas from said campaign and has an uninspired feeling as a result. After this, the Little Miss episode gives more backstory to Natalia and delves into her psyche; it’s short and isn’t the most refined example of stealth, but I much preferred this DLC as the gameplay better matches the story being told, and the soft mist applied to the spaces separates them from other parts of Revelations 2.

Two Natalias? What could be happening here…

Beyond this, there is a vast quantity of game modifiers, figurines, pieces of concept art, costumes, and more to unlock that provide incentive to continue on after finishing the campaign. The points you earn from playing the game can go towards either these, or to new skills and then improving those skills. Additionally, there is a selection of collectibles in the campaign that go towards the unlock progression. Resident Evil games are great at giving this plethora of challenges, and this is a substantial example of that!

The most substantial of all may be the Raid Mode, a returning feature from the first Revelations. If you are not aware, this is where you compete in specific stages to complete the objective (often defeating all the enemies) in as efficient a way as possible. You can customise your character, choosing from a roster including returning faces not seen in the campaign, and then kit yourself out from a selection of skills, weapons, and more. This mode has the option of co-op, but differing from the campaign, it can be either local or online! With a really generous selection of stages that can be played in multiple difficulty modes, as well as Daily Missions, there is a fun experience to have here.

Oh hi there

Intriguingly, quite a few of the levels I played through in Raid Mode had settings from Resident Evil 6 (which I am currently playing through!), reflecting how 6 chronologically is after Revelations 2 in the continuity. After Revelations used areas from the campaign in that Raid Mode, this is actually a refreshing change, providing a markedly different set of places to fight through. I find myself returning to these two games to play their Raid Modes as they’re such robust offerings with great characters to play as!


Final Thoughts

If I had to pick my preferred Revelations game, I would go for the first as it has a slightly more focused feel, and, well, I’m a Jill Valentine fan! Yet, Revelations 2 continues the interstitial series’ penchant for satisfying gameplay and thoroughly enjoyable storytelling. The ambition to incorporate different characters and several new gameplay ideas is to be praised, flaws and all; however, it may have been better to practice restraint on certain game mechanics and side characters. Backing it up is the fantastic Raid Mode and superb longevity, an emerging trait of the Revelations games. I really hope there are more Revelations games in the future, as it is awesome to discover more about where these characters go when we aren’t with them in the numbered series entries.

7.5/10

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

Paper Mario: The Origami King Review

Developed by: Intelligent Systems
Published by: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Release Date: Out Now


There aren’t that many games that make me laugh out loud, but this one? I was frequently chuckling to myself whilst playing Paper Mario: The Origami King, to the point where it glossed over some of the major issues with this game – not to the point where they weren’t noticeable, but enough to make my 25-ish hours with the main story go by in an enjoyable way. In a year where Nintendo is being understandably more reserved about their first-party plans, it’s important to note that we are getting quality releases from them such as this and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Yes, I know a lot of you are anticipating a Nintendo Direct… but there is a smorgasbord of amazing games on Switch to play whilst you wait (woo, I got to use the word “smorgasbord”)!


Creased Up

It isn’t often that the star of a Mario game is the story, but that’s exactly the case here – though not necessarily in the actual main set-up. During the Origami Festival, King Olly steals away Princess Peach and the Castle with her, leaving Mario with the task of unwrapping the streamers blocking the way and also amending the trail of destruction left behind. Said in that way, it sounds rather straightforward and not unlike other Mario plots, but the assortment of wittily written characters you meet make the difference. The standout for me is Olivia, the sister of King Olly, who you encounter early on and accompanies you for your journey. Her design is wonderfully expressive, putting across a range of emotions with subtle movements of her eyes, arms, and head, and her dialogue effectively portrays a determined but also adorably innocent perspective.

Near the start of the game, with Olivia and Bowser (yes, that is Bowser)

Starting out around Toad Town, the adventure takes you to a nice variety of locales, including a theme park themed around Japan and the secret-laden Scorching Sandpaper Desert. Each area introduces its own group of quirky characters; one highlight being said desert and Professor Toad, an expert on the mystery of Khap’taan Teeowed (alas, no appearance of the main man himself, THE Captain Toad). The rough structure each area takes is reminiscent of some Zelda games; enter a new area, complete some overworld activities, then get to the dungeon and boss of that area to remove the streamer, before moving to the next area. Variations on that structure, plus that aforementioned humour, keep it from becoming too formulaic.

For example, roughly halfway into the game you discover a wide-open ocean space that reminded me of The Wind Waker; you get a map of the ocean, with islands to plot as you find them, and through your travels you unveil the way forward. This sort of exploration was where I had a lot of my most joyous experiences; wandering around, meeting new characters, and discovering secrets at my own pace. The characters that accompany you in each area add a unique flavour as well, and take the game to very emotional places. As well as joining you in battles (more on those in a sec), they have their own arcs that develop as you play – Bobby the Bob-omb is a particular example, really shocking me at the deep places the game went.

There is a really creative feel to the environment design

On your path to clearing each of the five streamers, there are holes in the world to patch up and Toads to save. For the former, you collect confetti through various means – defeating enemies, hitting various parts of the world with your hammer – and, frankly, it’s quite a straightforward mechanic that is a bare minimum of player engagement. Saving the Toads, which have been crumpled, hidden, and mistreated by King Olly, is a much more rewarding part of the game. The way they are hidden is much more varied, posing more of a challenge to the player. Plus, each one has their own reaction to being saved, often with hilarious one-liners that add a creative spark to each time this happens. I have so many screenshots on my Switch of the dialogue in this game, from meta jokes to brilliant wordplay to dancing Toads. Yep, really!


Going in Circles

It isn’t all humour, though, and this is where the most divisive part of Paper Mario: The Origami King arrives: the combat. For most enemy encounters, you are put into a turn-based system on a circular arena of concentric circles. You are in the centre, with the opposition in various segments surrounding you. In an allotted amount of ring moves, you have the options to either push them vertically inwards/outward, or rotate the entirety of one concentric ring. If you manage to organise them so that they are in either a straight line (for a jump) or a 2×2 block next to you (for a hammer blow), then not only can you strike more enemies with your attacks, but you get a damage bonus. Additionally there are items you can use (such as a Fire Flower), but they’re used within that framework. It means that every battle has these prelude sections where you plan your moves out, almost as if you are in a strategy game.

The comments from Toads watching on are amusing, even if they are repeated a lot

See, it’s a neat idea that makes you consider your attacks in a different way, but it also takes a lot of impetus and immediacy out of battles. Especially against enemy types that pop up frequently, it can get quite repetitive, to the point where I was, at times, less invested in solving the solution for the optimum line-up. More than once, I would settle for more of a mismatched layout just so I could get onto the move selection and get the battle going. That is a clear sign that I was not always enjoying the combat that much. Especially when you’re trying to relax with the game and have some laughs, you aren’t always in the mood to slow your progress with repeated, very similar, battle set-ups.

Improvements are in the more unique confrontations, in particular the boss battles, as you are given unique obstacles and board layouts to consider. In a way, I found some of these easier, as my mind was being engaged more compared to the more samey intermediary ones. Additionally, these fights are much more visually absorbing, with the one-off enemy designs and the ability to regularly use Vellumental attacks from Olivia that harness the elements. The whole battle system is very mixed for me – it’s certainly flawed, but also I must say it’s a neat concept that has clearly had a lot of thought go into it. Perhaps the amount of work that went into making the very distinctive layout work has also led to it becoming unwieldy and disconnected from other aspects of the game.


Get On Board

This isn’t the only type of combat in Paper Mario: The Origami King, with some real-time encounters thrown in too. Often, these take the form of real-time fights against paper-maché enemies – Goombas, Koopa Troopas, and more – which add a different, larger scale of proceedings. In terms of structure, they’re all quite similar; use the hammer to knock off a sticker to make them vulnerable, then proceed to hit them more until they disintegrate fully into confetti. Despite this, they remain refreshing breaks from the occasional monotony of the turn-based sequences. As you get stronger, you can also take out some enemies that would previously have been fought on the circular field, but not many. I actually would have appreciated a better balance of these fights, as the real-time ones are quite uncommon in comparison.

We’re gonna need a bigger hammer

With how this game tends to have new ideas and quirks throughout to play into the humourous feel, it is also hit-and-miss whether every departure of gameplay works. There are a lot of ideas going around in the overworld portions of this game, and whilst some were very entertaining, naturally I wasn’t as much of a fan of all of them. Later on in the game, as I was becoming more and more knowledgeable about the core gameplay mechanics, this became more of an issue for me, perhaps because I was becoming so accustomed to those main systems the game had taught me. Therefore, any sudden new ideas were especially jarring. A Shy Guy-related one later on in the final stages is an example; it’s an amusing set-up, but the brainteasers can be really tough (at least for me). If memory puzzles are challenging for you, then there are potential stumbling blocks later on that the game doesn’t do a great job at teaching you about.

More than once, my rhythm with the game was put on hold as a result of this; it’s as though this game isn’t entirely sure what it would like to be. On one side, it is a really joyful, funny, not especially lengthy RPG with clever writing and an energetic momentum to the story. On the other, it is a tough strategy/puzzle game that asks you to be more patient and calculated, being prepared to halt your progress and even retry certain parts in order to clear them. Neither is necessarily a bad approach to game design, but they don’t go together here very well. This game would have been a more focused experience if it committed more to one of the two styles.


A Fine Craft

Essential to mention, though, is the music. Oh wow, the music in this game. It’s amazing! It’s consistently impressive throughout, and really noticeable in the battle sequences when it kicks in with the intro screen. It mixes classic themes with modern arrangements really effectively, reminding me of the underrated Super Mario 3D World and the jazzy, contemporary tones of that game, and the numerous times I have been thrilled by the battle theme of a Pokémon game. There’s a wonderful variety too, with an example being the soft, mellow tones of Autumn Mountain early on. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by the audio in this game, but that is what has happened.

Benches heal you, and also initiate more clever dialogue

So how about the art direction? It’s… fine. It’s Paper Mario, with the fresh introduction of the Origami characters and the different style they bring, but mainly it’s not that innovative. There’s a pleasant contrast of environments, and they’re colourful and bright, but it’s not breathtaking. Animations are charismatic, especially the way different emotions are shown with only a few different animations of the paper-made characters (as aforementioned, this is really apparent with Olivia), and this contributes to the expressive humour. It all works well, but it isn’t going to be in the top ten Switch games for visuals.

I didn’t find any performance issues, I am glad to say, as they have popped up in several Switch games over the years. However, I will say that the – optional, bear in mind – motion controls are quite dodgy, especially when playing handheld. They feel a bit unnecessary and gimmicky; this is mainly when using the 1,000 Fold Arms to reach somewhere, or when shaking the controller to hit an object or enemy. It isn’t always clear which direction you should be moving the controller, and it can end up being another barrier to the continuation of the narrative. Motion controls can be fun when purposefully incorporated into a game, but this sort of use is really under-baked. Again, though, this is optional, and can be turned off.


Final Thoughts

If Paper Mario: Origami King had dedicated itself to being either a super-strategic game or a less-involved RPG, it may have actually been more successful. As it is, it’s a slightly awkward amalgamation of the two, with many, many bright moments, but also strange decisions that hurt the experience. The overall meta, self-aware, and intelligent vibe of the story is my favourite part of the game, and as I said at the top, meant that even in those rougher moments I was motivated to not put the game down, and instead power through, because I knew more fun was waiting for me. It’s not a top-tier Switch game, but as a first-party Nintendo release to play in this current wilderness of announcements, it’s an enjoyable way to spend your time.

8/10

Rating: 8 out of 10.

Resident Evil: Revelations Review

Developed and Published by: Capcom
Platforms: 3DS, Wii U, Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
Release Date: Out Now


There have been gaming series that have been a noticeable hole in my gaming knowledge over the years. Resident Evil had long been one such gap, and so, especially with COVID-19 leading to more time spent at home, this has been a series I have dedicated a lot of time to playing through in 2020. Just, y’know, without trying to see too many parallels with recent events… I am going to write up reviews for multiple games I have played in the series, starting with the one I began with: Resident Evil: Revelations!


All Aboard

This may seem an odd place for me to start the series, considering it is set after Resident Evil 4 and before Resident Evil 5. Hear me out, though! The digital versions of Revelations and the sequel Revelations 2 are often discounted on the Nintendo eShop, and they were very appealing impulse purchases for me; purchases that led to me playing many other games in the series too, as Revelations got me hook, line, and sinker (yes, ship puns are very much going to be present in this review). This is a game that was originally released on the Nintendo 3DS back in 2012. I still have clear memories of Official Nintendo Magazine having the exclusive reveal… as if this game was EIGHT years ago?! Time flies. There were then HD versions released in 2013, and next-gen versions in 2017; the 2017 Switch release is the one I am reviewing here.

Revelations is mostly set on board the Queen Zenobia, a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea. BSAA (Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance) agents Chris Redfield (Hiroki Touchi/Roger Craig Smith) and Jessica Sherawat (Nana Mizuki/Ali Hillis) have gone quiet after going there on a lead about bioterrorist organisation Veltro, so Jill Valentine (Atsuko Yuya/Michelle Ruff) – who you play as for most of the game – and Parker Luciani (Mitsuru Miyamoto/Kirk Thornton) are sent after them. Veltro are attempting to infect 1/5th of the water of the planet by contaminating it with the T-Abyss virus, which, well, isn’t ideal. The Queen Zenobia is a brilliant location for the survival horror qualities of Resident Evil, having plenty of cramped spaces and narrow corridors to keep you in a constant feeling of suspense. It’s an ingenious setting; the idea of being stuck on an enclosed ship full of monstrosities in the middle of an ocean works so well at escalating the stakes of every encounter. The creepy, mostly empty spaces of a luxurious cruise ship supply that classic horror vibe that the series went away from – for better or worse – in Resident Evil 5.

Jill Valentine and Parker Luciani, the pairing at the beginning of the game

A focus on series regulars Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield really anchors the story and provides a solid base from which to then learn about the new characters that accompany them. There are plenty of Resident Evil-style twists and reveals in the game that keep the story cruising along nicely. This game has a really cool narrative approach, splitting the story into 12 parts that are presented as TV-style episodes, with a recap of previous events at the start of each. Not only does this add a neat cinematic edge to proceedings and an opportunity for exciting cliffhangers, but it really suits the handheld nature of the original game and, subsequently, the Switch version. Being able to play an episode or two at a time – perhaps even in bed with the lights off – in the way you might view a TV show has a satisfying pace to it.


Ship-shape

Speaking of which, the visual upgrades this game has had since the 3DS original are impressive, to the point where it would be hard to tell it was a 3DS game without knowing. On that console there was understandable constraints on the visuals that could be achieved, but the updates bring the game to a comparable level with the latest version of Resident Evil 5, the game next in the timeline of the series – though, note that the 3D visuals of the original are lost. The character models are impressively detailed and have engaging voice acting, a key element in the genuinely dramatic moments in the game. On the point of audio, there is a noticeable effort at spooking you out with ambient sounds as the stranded ship creaks and shudders whilst you explore it. Then there are the noises made by the enemies infected by the T-Abyss virus…

Revelations isn’t all on the Queen Zenobia; for example here with Jessica Sherawat and Chris Redfield

Said enemies have a different appearance in Revelations. Instead of the more traditional zombies of earlier Resident Evil games or the much more human opposition of Resident Evil 4 and 5, here you are facing pale, shambling creatures that appear as though they are melting away after being infected. You face off against several different types of these gloopy attackers – some are dangerous at close range, some can fire at you from afar… oh, and of course, one has developed a chainsaw-like aspect, because, of course. It is a nice touch to be able to hear enemies before you see them – the sound of that chainsaw one still sorta haunts me.

When analysing the presentation, though, the game isn’t without rough edges, and some parts of the cruise ship can get samey in terms of the murky, damp colour palette; even if arguably that also contributes to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the game. To be fair, there are sections of the game where we cut away from the cruise ship and get some different environments, such as a flashback to Jessica and Parker in Terragrigia when Veltro attacked it, or when fellow BSAA agents Quint Cetcham (Naoki Bando) and Keith Lumley (Daisuke Ono) follow in the footsteps of Jessica and Chris to a snowy, mountainous area. That latter environment in particular is a nice contrast to the cruise ship, a much more open space that gives you a short moment to breathe before being plunged back into the tension of the Queen Zenobia. In terms of the story I found the sections playing as Jill the most engaging, but those cutaways help add a bit of variety to Revelations.


Swimming? In Resident Evil?

In terms of actually surviving these locations and the horrors they throw at you, the gameplay is in the vein of Resident Evil 4 and 5 – which makes sense – with a third-person over-the-shoulder perspective. Maneuvering around in the tight spaces can be – intentionally, it seems – quite clunky, and contributes to the threat of enemies around you. Conversely, though, you can move and shoot at the same time (not always the case in this series!) and there are some other neat tricks available to you, too. You can quick-turn on the spot, run, and use melee attacks when enemies are compromised by your gunfire (Jill has a particularly awesome spin-kick). You can even swim! For a series that often restricts your options, it is pleasing that Revelations removes some of those barriers whilst maintaining an air of threat.

You can play as a variety of different characters in the Raid Mode

A vast range of weapons are available, from pistols and submachine guns to a selection of grenade types, and this gives a fun amount of options to try. Furthermore, you can modify the traits of weapons to suit your own playstyle. There is also a scanner, named the Genesis, which allows you to seek out hidden items in the environment. This is actually really helpful, as Revelations severely limits the amount of ammo and health you have at any one point. Giving you more movement options but limiting the amount of supplies is balanced well; it makes me feel as though you can really make a difference through player skill and utilising those supplies efficiently.

Your repertoire can also be put to the test in the separate Raid Mode, where you can play sections of the game in different ways and go for high scores. This is also a way to get access to different weapons and unlock new outfits for the characters. It’s a comprehensive offering, and the progression system encourages you to keep playing – it adds a lot of longevity to the game beyond the main story, and also provides the option of playing with a friend over local or online co-op. There is a distinct sense of attention to detail, with a lot of customisation choices for the player – other examples of that are the retro-style game that can be played when loading up the game, and the functionality that allows you to scan amiibo to get more BP to spend in the Raid mode. So… Jill Valentine amiibo? Jill Valentine in Smash? Okay, William, I am sensing it is time to wrap up now…


Final Thoughts

Resident Evil: Revelations has been my entry point into the franchise, and my thorough enjoyment of the game paved my way to playing others in the series. The way the game has been adapted to newer consoles is impressive, and the episodic story holds up well with a welcome emphasis on survival horror. Some of the scenes away from playing as Jill Valentine lack a bit of identity, especially when with only new characters, but these aren’t the focus and there is admittedly merit to be found in how they help break up the game. With intense gameplay and a rich, atmospheric vibe, Resident Evil: Revelations, is, well, a revelation.

8.5/10

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Pokémon Café Mix Review

Developed by: Genius Sonority
Published by: Nintendo
Platforms: Switch (Reviewed), Mobile
Release Date: Out Now


One of the many nice surprises out of the first of the two recent Pokémon Presents was the reveal of Pokémon Café Mix, a new mobile and Nintendo Switch puzzle game about running a Pokémon-themed Café where both the customers and the employees are Pokémon! Whilst built on a reasonably simple idea, there is a decent amount of depth and longevity to this game to match up to the charming aesthetic.


A Link to the Café

As I say, the set-up is quite straightforward; together with *the only other human you see* Leah (is this a Poké-apocalyptic world?!), you set up a new Pokémon Café. As you’d expect, at the start of the game, you are running quite a basic operation with limited supplies. The main section of the game is the 150 orders to complete, which took me around 10-15 hours to get through and into the postgame. New facilities are set up as you work your way through the orders, opening up new sections of the Café and enticing more Pokémon to visit and subsequently work with you.

Yeah, that’s great, Leah, but where are all the people?

First, though, you have to get through said orders! The core gameplay of Café Mix is essentially a refreshing Pokémon twist on the icon-matching so often found in puzzle games. Presented with a screen of icons of the different Pokémon currently in your game, you use the touch screen to connect them up in a way that will complete the conditions of your order. Once an icon is selected, you hold your finger on the screen and drag it around to connect it up with matching icons within a period of time; at the end of the timer, or if you release your touch, those icons then satisfyingly disappear (and can affect those surrounding it). You score increases as you link more icons together in one go. Furthermore, once you connect enough icons, the Café Skill of your Leader Pokémon is made available.

These Café Skills act as extra tools for clearing levels, and are essential for progressing through the game. Before tackling an order, you must select a Leader Pokémon, and this decides the Café Skill available, with different Pokémon having different Skills. As an example, if the order requires you to make a high number combo, then Togepi – who can make icons transform into those of the icon appearing the most at that point – is helpful to set you up. Before each order, the game does inform you of the most suitable Pokémon, though it is possible to power through with another if you do not have access to them. At moments such as these, I often used other resources to help me through.


Altaria Motive

As a game for both Switch and mobile, these resources are where the mobile influence is very noticeable. For starters, you have 5 Hearts, and every occasion that you retry an order uses one up. If you run out, you can no longer attempt the order; these refresh over time, or you can pay for another go through Golden Acorns. Whilst you do earn these – and the other seven items that can help you complete orders – through playing the game, you can also purchase them with actual money. As Café Mix is free-to-play, this is the way the game generates revenue; however, when it actively feels as though a pay wall is put up in front of you it leaves a negative vibe.

Look at Snubbull in their hat and apron… and how happy they are… c’mon, that’s adorable.

This was most intrusive to me when I didn’t have the Pokémon with the suggested Café Skill for the next order, and it felt as though I either had to wait, or purchase items that would enable me to push through. I did not pay in my time with the game, and this meant I had to wait at several points – sometimes, until the next day. More side modes where you can work towards getting Pokémon to join your staff would have helped this; there is only the once-daily party that gives you two orders with random Pokémon (you can refresh the two invited Pokémon once for free, and then with Golden Acorns). Pokémon Masters is a great example of how to have plentiful modes that give the player options.

A barrier to gameplay such as this suddenly stops your flow and can be very jarring. It doesn’t help that the game is all over the place in terms of the difficulty curve; through the 150 orders, most of my troubles came with specific orders around the 50 and 90-100 mark. When I finally cleared these problematic orders, I would find that the next 10 or so are a breeze in comparison, whereas you would expect a more gradual overall rise of difficulty from 1 to 150.


A Mixed Bag

Personally, I reckon a reason for this is that the game sort of resets whenever new Café facilities are introduced. For example, the Whipped-cream dispenser causes blobs of cream to appear that take several hits of nearby combos to complete; the Nut tree brings nuts that can only be cleared by Café Skills; and the Honey pot introduces blocks of honey that multiply unless you remove them quickly with nearby combos. With the new type of gameplay mechanic, levels suddenly feel easy before then jarringly returning to being challenging again. Café Mix doesn’t hit the right balance of teaching the player whilst also understanding your rising skill level.

Whipped cream in action! Don’t question the physics.

Pokémon Café Mix is entirely touch-controlled (and on Switch, this means handheld play only), and whilst the touch control is responsive, the occasional moments where you select the wrong Pokémon as a starting point, locking yourself into those icons for that move, are not ideal. With icons so close to each other, it is very easy to select the wrong one. Once you get to the trickier, more complicated orders, every move can be crucial; the general inaccuracy of moving icons around with touch can be counter-intuitive to that.


Waffling On

The highlight of Café Mix is the presentation of the game. The Café itself, and the artwork for the Pokémon, have a colourful and trendy artistic appeal that befits a game about a modern Café. The game has a really warm, welcoming tone, and seeing Pokémon happily spending time in a Café and then wearing adorable outfits as staff is wonderful. The music is not intrusive, yet provides an undercurrent of soothing background tunes. I also recommend spending time going over the details of the orders you serve up; there are some brilliant and creative designs, from the Nutty Buneary Frappé to the Combee Waffles with Honey and beyond. Mmm, this makes me hungry and thirsty!

Those Fluffy Eevee Pancakes look GREAT.

My main complaint would be that there isn’t that many Pokémon currently in the game, with 17 at launch and 19 currently; the additions of Scorbunny and Sobble (and you would guess Grookey) from Sword and Shield suggest that they may be adding more over time, which would be great to see. In addition, as of writing this, tomorrow more orders are being added to bolster the 150 in the game at this point, which is another sign of how there are plans to support this game.


Final Thoughts

I was actually pleasantly surprised by the amount of content within Pokémon Café Mix. A very unrefined difficulty curve and issues with how the game puts up pay walls are my main problems with it; yet, I can see myself loading this game up regularly into the future, especially if they continue to add new content. This is mainly due to the varied levels and the delightful look and feel the game has. The name of the game – Pokémon Café Mix – is suitable considered how mixed it is, but overall I would recommend putting time in and seeing if you enjoy it; especially for Pokémon fans!

7/10

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Old Man’s Journey Review

Developed by: Broken Rules
Published by: Broken Rules
Platforms: Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mobile
Release Date: Out Now


This is a game I had my eye on for a long time whilst browsing the Nintendo eShop, and when it was discounted from £8.99 to under £2… well, it’s such a great deal that it’s hard to resist! Having now played through Old Man’s Journey, I discovered a touching story, even if similar subject matter has been tackled by many other games before. As an interactive experience you can feasibly finish in one or two sessions, there is both a lot to appreciate and a lot that could have been developed more.


The Wanderer

Old Man’s Journey is about an elderly man who, with you controlling, traverses through many different 2D landscapes with his rucksack and walking stick as he reminisces about his life. You start off at his house on the cliffside, and are not told his name throughout the game – there is no text dialogue at all, actually. Instead, you are intuitively led from point to point; the end of each area often has you taking a rest, taking off your rucksack, and zooming in as you see a memory of his life. These images are stunningly drawn, with the emotion of the situations evidently emerging from the screen. As you see past moments of his wife, child, and more, a picture of how he got to where he is now starts to form.

The screenshot functionality of my Switch was in use!

To get to these moments, you have to make your way through the environments first. To move, you either touch the screen or move the cursor to where you would like to go, placing a marker to signify the destination. You can also occasionally affect other parts of the world; open or shut a window, turn on a lamp, to mention two examples. The touch control is much more suitable, as it allows you to make quick decisions and movements, whilst the analogue stick takes time to position the cursor where you would like to put it – there are also some situations where you need quite immediate responses, and touch control works much better for these. This isn’t really a criticism, more a recommendation of which way to play given the two options.


Rise and Fall

As an extension of this, you then have to use the same type of control to alter the areas around you into a position that the man can get through. Each natural layer of the world – imagine the foreground, background, and more of a landscape – can be adjusted up and down, revealing undulations that – when arranged correctly – can be situated in a way that connect and form a path to traverse. It is a clever idea, and suits the slow, quiet narrative being told, but in terms of gameplay it is never used to the maximum potential. Especially towards the end of the game, I was waiting for that moment where the mechanic had a really intelligent new twist or extra element (the way a 3D Mario game takes a concept and makes many different scenarios out of it), but it never really happened.

Here, you adjust the different sections of ground to get towards the person in the background

There are, however, some sections where you are in a vehicle and that alters the dynamic, but often the core of the gameplay is the same – just with a different movement style. They aren’t really adding much different to the central idea, even if the different visual aspects are welcome. Instead, there is a repetition of the same concept, which becomes noticeable and takes you out of the moment. Also, there was one section where the way I moved the world left me stuck and unable to continue, and I ended up starting the section again, which didn’t seem an intentional option for the player. This seemed an oversight.

In a similar way, the story of this man and the people he cares about – although undeniably powerful (I won’t say too much about it) – is shown in a very direct way for the player. I am a person who really values it when part of the story is left to your imagination, but I feel as though a bit more on the characters would have helped me to have my imagination run with it. Not necessarily how they got to this point, but who they are as people. In addition, the game took me around 2-3 hours to play through, and is perhaps a bit on the short side for the £8.99 price.


Picturesque

Now a word on the art direction. I have talked about the amazing artwork for the memories; furthermore, the 2D world is vibrant and has a slight paper-crafted aesthetic, which accentuates the way you interact with the separate layers of it. The clearly defined shapes that make up the character models and topography also give the game a certain quirky charm, as if you are viewing an arthouse animation short. It really matches up well with the types of surroundings you encounter, from quaint houses to scenic hillsides. Complimenting this is the tranquil soundtrack, the delicate tunes subtly encouraging you along.

The game has a lot of charm

The characters dotted around each have their own distinct visual vibes, too. As aforementioned, there is no spoken dialogue, but the sounds characters do make have an endearing quality that perhaps tells you a little more about their personalities; this only happens now and then, though.


Final Thoughts

Old Man’s Journey is a narrative-driven game that has a smart central gameplay mechanic it very much sticks to without pushing to the full potential. It left me wondering if puzzles could have been made more complex, and yet it also has a forgiving feeling that makes it a great game for relaxing with one evening on your Nintendo Switch – especially as the game is not very long. The story is affecting and the presentation is welcoming; just, perhaps, some of those ideas could have been built upon more.

6.5/10

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Let’s Chat: A Long-Overdue Super Mario Odyssey Review

– This article was originally published on 30th April 2018; it is being updated and archived here as part of the newly-named Let’s Chat series –


It only took about 6 months, but I did it, everyone – after weeks of fellow Let’s Chat voice Ashley Harrison telling me to, I have finished the main story of Nintendo Switch title Super Mario Odyssey. So, now, it’s time for our first joint-review of the game, which will cover our thoughts on the game, how it compares to previous 3D Mario games, the DLC, and each of us giving the game a score. I hope you enjoy!


SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SUPER MARIO ODYSSEY

William Robinson: You thought the day would never come. But after roughly half a year, I finally got around to finishing Super Mario Odyssey (the story, at least)! I think I should take up speedrunning… Jokes aside, this Let’s Chat is going to be our first joint review, as we discuss and likely disagree on the game. To start with, then – where are you now in the game, and what were your thoughts as that awesome soundtrack played to the end credits?

Ashley Harrison: I’ve finished the game completely, with 999 Moons and every single costume unlocked, bar the new ones that they’ve added recently. Gonna go on to get those at some point, as well as trying to finally get this damn jump rope challenge Moon. When I’d gotten to the point you are now, my thoughts were that I had justified spending the £350 I spent on my Switch bundle, but felt that I wanted more because whilst there were a ton of moons to collect, I was shocked at just how few levels there were.

WR: Woah, you’ve managed to 100% it? I didn’t know that, that’s impressive. Yeah – the game is split up into Kingdoms, which are all large-ish open areas reminiscent of Super Mario 64 levels, with Moons hidden everywhere for different tasks. If you’re just blasting through the main story, though, each Kingdom is pretty brief. It took me around 10-15 hours to get to the final encounter with Bowser. Looking at the statistics afterwards, though, it’s almost unbelievable how many Moons are supposedly in each Kingdom!

AH: Yeah, it’s ridiculous how many Moons there are in each Kingdom. I just wish there were fewer Moons per Kingdom, and more Kingdoms to make up for the “loss” of Moons.

WR: I’m actually the opposite. I felt the Kingdoms felt too bite-size, and could’ve felt bigger and taken longer to get through. It all felt a little fast-paced for me. However, I was undeniably enjoying the game as I played. There is a certain magic to the design and feel of Odyssey that only 3D Mario games seem to have. The capture mechanic, where throwing companion Cappy at enemies lets Mario basically possess them, only helped that; I was surprised at just how many different forms Mario could take.

AH: It’s without a doubt my favourite Mario game of all time, and the capture mechanic is a major part of that. It’s something I wasn’t too sure on when it was first announced, but once I’d played Odyssey, I fell in love with it. I mean, who doesn’t want to be a T-Rex in a Mario game?

WR: Which were your favourite uses of the capture mechanic?

AH: I loved the T-Rex, obviously, and I thought the frog was pretty cool too. You?

WR: Come on, can it be anything but the Snow Kingdom and the Shiverians there? They’re a) incredibly adorable and b) so fun to roll around as. If the next Mario Kart doesn’t have a Shiverian track, something is amiss. Speaking of, the same question for Kingdoms; which were best designed or most surprising for you?

AH: Snow Kingdom is GOAT Kingdom, followed by the Seaside Kingdom for me. Most surprising isn’t even really a Kingdom, but more the final level of the game, just for how ridiculously hard it actually is.

3D Mario games always manage to make such incredibly challenging levels that, somehow, still don’t feel cheap

William Robinson

WR: You don’t mean the final story sequence, but the traditional Champion’s Road ending or however this game names it?

AH: Yeah, it’s called “Darker Side” in this game and it’s ridiculous.

WR: I still rate my 100% file of Super Mario Galaxy 2 as one of my finest gaming achievements, and I’m looking forward to getting to the final level of Odyssey too. 3D Mario games always manage to make such incredibly challenging final levels that, somehow, still don’t feel cheap. Back to the game, though; how did you rate the general platforming design? Did you feel that some of the focus there was lost to the amount of play as different forms of Mario?

AH: I genuinely feel that whilst they’re not as good as the Galaxy games, the levels in Odyssey are some of the best Nintendo has ever produced for a Mario game. Everything is tightly designed so there’s always something to do or find, and the capture mechanic only adds to that, rather than feeling like anything was lost because of it.

WR: I was very rarely challenged by the platforming; it had more of a puzzle feel, figuring out which powers were needed when. That’s certainly a great side of the game that encourages intuition, but I did miss some of the platforming focus that I would have liked alongside it.

AH: See, I didn’t find myself missing the pure platforming elements at all. I loved the puzzle focus to it, and I’d be more than happy to see it make a return in future games.

WR: Did you feel that they were trying to recapture that Super Mario 64/Sunshine feel, rather than the pure platforming of Galaxy and Super Mario 3D World? If so, is that the kind of 3D Mario you prefer?

AH: Oh, without a doubt, they were trying to make it more like 64/Sunshine than Galaxy or 3D World. I wouldn’t say I exactly prefer it that way, as I’d rank both Galaxy games above either 64 or Sunshine, but I preferred it for this game.

WR: For me, Odyssey sits around the level of 3D World (which is possibly the most underrated game ever, in my books). Both Galaxy games are clearly superior to me, due to their sheer creativity and platforming prowess; Odyssey, despite the varied gameplay brought through the capture mechanic, still feels very grounded, you know? The joy of movement I have come to expect from a 3D Mario is there, but not that same freedom the Galaxy pair give. Still, being -slightly not as good as Galaxy– still puts Odyssey ahead of most games.

AH: Fun fact: 3D World is the only main series Mario game I’ve not completed, because I just didn’t like it one bit. So to even compare Odyssey to 3D World is blasphemous in my opinion.

You never really got to see every Kingdom properly unless you looked for Moons afterwards, so I would’ve preferred if more Moons were needed to progress so that I was forced to explore each Kingdom.

Ashley Harrison

WR: Right, before we start fighting, let’s put the spotlight back on Odyssey. In terms of the main structure and story, did you like the pacing and challenge? The Moons required to progress didn’t really require much extra grinding; I found I tended to naturally have enough a lot of the time.

AH: I think there was only one time during the whole game where I didn’t have enough Moons to progress right away, and even then I was only 2 Moons off, so I definitely feel it could’ve done with a change in pacing. You never really got to see every Kingdom properly unless you looked for Moons afterwards, so I would’ve preferred if more Moons were needed to progress so that I was forced to explore each Kingdom.

WR: I agree with that. Seeing the amount of Moons I have left to collect is almost unbelievable – I don’t know how they all fit in those Kingdoms! It’s exciting, though, that I can now slow down and enjoy exploring what Odyssey has to offer without feeling pressure to get to Bowser and see the credits. It’s similar to the modern Tomb Raider games, where you can go back to areas after the story and experience them as a relatively relaxed open world game. Considering you have all the Moons, I’m guessing you feel a similar way.

AH: Yeah, I do. It’s cool to go back after you’ve beaten the Darker Side level and restored peace to the Mario Universe, and seeing all the different animals and people you meet along the way interacting with one another in every Kingdom. It made mopping up the Moons I’d missed an absolute joy.

WR: It’s funny you say that; this game gave me a real feeling of a Marvel-like Mario Universe, in how you see different locations with different characters, such as Pauline in New Donk City. Also with how, as mentioned earlier, Odyssey references older 3D Mario games – particularly the ending with Bowser, which gave me a vibe of Bowser just wanting to be friends with Mario and Peach (but going too far with, you know, trying to force Peach to marry him, which gets into some pretty dark ideas actually).

AH: Bowser kidnapping and forcing Peach to marry him is essentially the storyline to every Mario game though, so does he really just want to be friends?

WR: I mean, sure, but right at the end he just wanted to come along. Mario didn’t need to jump on him and leave him on the Moon, after Bowser and him have just connected over Peach-rejection. Either way, the appearance of Captain Toad helps this game a lot. He’s just minding his own business, with hordes of Coins, being the real hero of the Mario Universe.

AH: Captain Toad is the MVP of the game, though how he manages to get to some of the places he does in the levels I will never know.

WR: I’m glad I’m making you see the majesty of Captain Toad. Also, yeah… he can’t jump, yet somehow he got to the cave at the end of that Wiggler section in the Lost Kingdom. How? The stickers, outfits and Photo Mode also gave Odyssey a more modern feel, with the extras we have now come to expect from big name game releases. One particular joy? No real-money purchases in sight.

AH: Photo mode is legit one of my favourite things about the game. Can we make sure every game from now on has one? Please?

WR: I’d also like to get your thoughts on the presentation of the game in general – 3D Mario titles are often so magical from a visual and musical perspective. I really enjoy how each game has a distinct vibe now; Galaxy was very orchestral, then 3D World had an awesome jazz feel, and now Odyssey has a rock undertone.

AH: I think the whole presentation is great. The game itself looks incredible, and the soundtrack is way better than it has any right to be. I genuinely would go as far as saying Mario Odyssey is the best game on the Switch right now.

WR: I’m in the Zelda: Breath of the Wild camp on that front, but I’m not going to get too into that, as I think there is a split of people who think either Zelda or Mario is the best Switch game (and best game of 2017). It’s down to personal taste, I think, as both are incredible. I played the whole of Odyssey in handheld and the visuals were pretty great – on the small screen some rough edges were occasionally evident, but overall it was slick if not revolutionary; it doesn’t stand out as a massive step from 3D World on Wii U.

I think there is a split of people who think either Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Super Mario Odyssey is the best Switch game of 2017

William Robinson

AH: I also played it in handheld mode, and I agree that whilst there were some rough edges in a couple of places, overall it was spectacular. It’s made me wish Nintendo would be willing to adopt technology like Sony and Microsoft do – imagine Odyssey in 4K!

WR: Did you try any other control or display options? On the 4K topic, I’m in no huge rush. The artistic direction of Nintendo is enough in these games, but I do have to admit, a Switch 4K Edition in a few years would be amazing.

AH: Not with Odyssey, no. With the way the game is designed, it felt like the kind of game made to be played in handheld mode rather than on a TV.

WR: Yeah, for sure – with Moons everywhere, you can literally just play a few minutes at a time and still have a sense of progression. So, how many hours did it take you to get where you are? Have you played the Luigi’s Balloon World DLC?

AH: Um, I think in total I’ve put in about 40 hours? That was just for the main story, and getting all the collectibles. I haven’t tried out the Balloon World DLC yet, though. As much as I love Luigi, sadly this concept doesn’t do anything for me.

WR: That DLC seems kinda light on substance, but I haven’t given it a proper shot yet?. Kingdom DLC in the future would be great, and make a lot of sense. It would allow the developers to get really creative; imagine Kingdoms based on other Mario games like SunshineGalaxy or even Kart, or maybe even other Nintendo properties! A Hyrule Castle Kingdom would potentially be incredible.

AH: I would absolutely love that. As I said earlier, my only real criticism of the game is that there aren’t enough Kingdoms, and at this point, I’d even pay for an expansion pass! Which completely goes against my point in our previous Let’s Chat about microtransactions and DLC and stuff, but Odyssey is genuinely just that good that I’d happily pay for more.

WR: Nintendo have so much goodwill in not exploiting players that I think they’re an exception. You think we see DLC announcements at E3?

AH: Hopefully! But at the same time I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t, to be honest with you.

WR: How so?

For me, Mario Odyssey is the quintessential Switch game.

Ashley Harrison

AH: I just think Nintendo will see Odyssey as a finished product now, and leave it to move onto the next Mario game.

WR: I can see that, but I can see them also realising how much money that massive Odyssey install base could produce. Remember that Super Mario Odyssey has sold over 10 million now! Either way, it’s a superb game on its own, like you say. Before we close out, I’d like a final thoughts from both of us and a score out of 999 Moons. Just to be awkward.

AH: For me, Mario Odyssey is the quintessential Switch game. It ties together the Mario charm everyone knows, with brand new ideas such as the capture mechanic. Whilst it might not be as good a pure platformer as the Galaxy games, it’s without a doubt a contender for the best Mario game of all time and more than worth picking up as a Switch owner. I give it 998/999 Moons; it needs more playable Luigi.

WR: My turn, then. Despite having played it a tinyyyyy bit later than everyone else did, I can see why Super Mario Odyssey was received in such a positive way. As a fan of the 3D Mario games, they are unmatched in that sense of pure platforming feel and creativity, with new ideas around every turn that could literally have entire games based around them. The return to a more hub-world feel has advantages and disadvantages – the rewarding exploration of 64 and Sunshine is back, but at the same time the game does sacrifice some of the tightly crafted focus that Galaxy and 3D Land/World had. As well as this, there is a very fast pace to the main throughline of Odyssey, and whilst there is plenty of opportunity to go back and revel in that exploration later, I can’t shake that that I felt hurried in that 10-15 hour story. I’m going to be playing this game for a while yet, and y’know, it has Captain Toad, so it has to be a good game, right? My score is 900/999 Moons.

AH: Missing out on nearly 100 Moons? What does it need to do for you to earn those?

WR: Hey, that’s -just- over 90%. That rushed pace and the smaller spotlight on levels that feel more exactly crafted for the purpose of platforming are just less to my tastes than previous 3D Mario games. It’s still a great score, just not the 998/999 you gave. Bear in mind, I wouldn’t give Breath of the Wild too much more (I guess that would be out of Korok Seeds?).

AH: Fair enough, that’s a reasonable explanation.

WR: Y’know, I’m glad that settled pretty peacefully. We welcome differing opinions here, unless you don’t like Spyro or Captain Toad.

AH: Indeed. I’ve actually been watching a Spyro: Year of the Dragon speedrun whilst we’ve been doing this; bring on September for the remaster!

WR: Can’t wait! We may have to do one of these joint-reviews for that as well. Until next week!

AH: Until then!


Finally, then, we got to review Super Mario Odyssey. The joint-review is a fun format, and perhaps one we will use again in the future for certain releases.

For more Let’s Chat, you can see other articles here!

Oxenfree Review

Developed and Published by: Night School Studios
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mobile
Release Date: Out Now


In the ever-expanding genre of the “walking simulator” (where the narrative of the game takes priority over gameplay), Oxenfree manages to carve its niche thanks to a quirky setting and aesthetic. While it can be niggly to control and leave you looking for more at times, the first game from Night School Studios is overall a narrative success that channels the same retro supernatural spirit that Stranger Things managed on TV.


Teenage Dream

The premise is pretty simple in Oxenfree. You play as Alex, joining 4 other friends on a trip to the empty Edwards Island, a regular resort for these troubled teens. There is a feeling of aftermath to proceedings as you discover the group dynamic – affected greatly by the passing of Alex’s brother Michael –  through early discussion. Environments are 2.5D, with set paths that shepherd you through the story but also allow a small feeling of freedom and choice. You can interact at a basic level with the environment by inspecting objects, but the most interesting segment of the game is controlling the flow of dialogue.

Sreens_CYMK_Beach

You use directional inputs to decide on responses to the rest of the group in real-time, which adds a pace and natural feeling that is sometimes missing in walking-and-talking games (for example, the TellTale games). One of the best scenes of the entire game takes place early on, before anything supernatural kicks in, as the group gathers around a campfire to do what any teenagers do – pine over each other, bicker at each other, and generally provide gloriously entertaining teenage drama. Blue-haired Alex is a great protagonist, certainly flawed but also inherently likeable as your voice in all this. How you handle, say, the resent from the girlfriend of her late brother supplies plenty of player agency throughout. If you so choose, you can let the others talk without you, and just listen – it’s really seamless, and an approach other games in the genre would do well to look at.


Spook Station

Tonally, Oxenfree is a lot like Life is Strange, with teenage issues mixing with time manipulation to form a heightened yet believable story. After Alex inadvertently opens a rift inside a cave through the tuning of her radio, a frenetic island escape begins; puzzles are rarely challenging but often interesting, as an unknown entity starts playing with the minds of our main characters. Alex’s radio becomes your main way of supernatural interaction going forward – thought as a gameplay mechanic it falls a bit flat. All you have to do at major story beats is find fluctuations as you scroll through radio frequencies. As with many games of this ilk, if you are looking for much of a challenge, Oxenfree isn’t the game for you.

Sreens_CYMK_Bridge

The most affecting moments of Oxenfree come when it fully embraces the time travel aspect to allow greater insight into the relationship between Alex and her brother. Seeing the contrast to a brighter segment of her life is bittersweet, and serves the characters in the present. Oxenfree ends just as it is starting to experiment with more extreme uses of time, and it left a slightly unsatisfactory aftertaste. There is a New Game Plus mode waiting after the initial 4-5 hour playthrough, but it still isn’t quite enough – Oxenfree has amazing ideas, but lacks the full confidence to commit to them at the end.


Been Here Before

On this topic, it is worth noting that parts of Oxenfree can feel like padding. Alex and company have to backtrack across the island a couple of times towards the climax of the game, and it gets a bit tiring despite the continued conversation. Using an analogue stick (I played Oxenfree on Switch) to control your movement through the narrow pathways is often quite fiddly, too, making movement quite uneven at times simply because of the limited space in which to move. On the other hand, you do at least have some charming visuals to look at on the way.

Sreens_CYMK_Tower

There’s an almost handmade aesthetic in Oxenfree, with rustic textures making up the creepy, mysterious look of the island. Character models are oh-so-slightly exaggerated, giving them extra expression but maintaining a relatively realistic appearance. In this department, the game truly shines once you’ve started opening rifts and encountering teenage possession; Oxenfree uses neon glitches and harsh static effects to show time loops and other dimensional manipulation, escalating fabulously as you play. The music by Andrew Rohrmann compliments the visuals, knowing when to be tranquil and when to be eery.


Final Thoughts

Oxenfree brings some neat ideas to the walk-and-talk genre, with seamless continuous dialogue being the highlight. It also skirts around some bigger implementations of time travel, not quite realising the narrative potential that is set up. Nevertheless, for fans of story-driven experiences it is worth playing through – especially if you love some teenage drama. Come on, admit it, you do – there’s no judgment here!

7/10

Rating: 7 out of 10.

I Am Setsuna Review

Developed by: Tokyo RPG Factory
Published by: Square Enix
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC
Release Date: Out Now


Tokyo RPG Factory, the developers behind I Am Setsuna, were created by Square Enix for one purpose – to make RPGs. In particular, ones that harken back to the classics such as Final Fantasy. For better or worse, I Am Setsuna really defines what that mission statement is; as the 20-hour story unfolds, the game simultaneously delights and frustrates in how it brings back RPG elements.


An Important Journey

I Am Setsuna is about sadness and the value of being alive. In this world of monsters, protection is only brought about by a sacrifice – a female who gives her life in order to keep them back. After a time, the threat rises again, and another sacrifice is made. The main player character, Endir, is an enigmatic warrior who ends up as the guard to the new sacrifice. Named Setsuna, Endir’s job is to see her to the Last Lands, where the sacrifice is made.

Along the way, you will encounter enemies, new comrades, and characters in need of your help. It all interweaves into the main story seamlessly, fitting into the overall themes. Characters like Nidr, who has a subtle but unspoken relationship to the sacrifice, are well developed; this combination of character arcs makes you care about the group as a whole. When it comes down to it, though, it is really a story about the pairing of Endir and Setsuna. Just seen like that, it is a really touching and poignant tale of how one person can influence another.

2018011720583100-F5B8727C6EC23753411283E8A7B5F263

The journey to the Last Lands is navigated through a mix of enclosed areas and a limited overworld. While you may freely navigate this mini-open-world, there is little to do other than find some items, recover your party, and move from place to place. Generally, this includes forests, caves, and dungeons between the multiple towns. They’re the kinds of locations you would expect from a throwback to the likes of Chrono Trigger. The towns in particular have a charming nostalgia, being places to buy and sell items, obtain new abilities, and chat to the townsfolk. Many intriguing characters end up being involved as you go.


Cold as Ice

One factor that helps your journey is the presentation of the game. The island land mass this game is set on is under snowfall, helping to give I Am Setsuna a distinct look despite the many callbacks to past games. Everything looks slightly magical under the cover of snow, and the sense of cold extends into caves and forests. Along with vibrant character designs, it all plays into a nostalgic appeal – where it comes unstuck is in repetition. It is noticeable that the dungeon areas, which appear more frequently in the latter half of the game, are all pretty much identical in presentation. While they are the exception, it messes with the pacing when you come across places very similar to ones you have already progressed through.

2018011723132400-F5B8727C6EC23753411283E8A7B5F263

On the other hand, the soundtrack is beautifully composed. It rarely intrudes on things, but if you listen for it, you realise that the carefully constructed beats are fitting into the quiet mystery of the world. A word that can describe a lot of I Am Setsuna’s presentation is “understated”. It’s not in-your-face, but has plenty of character if you sink into it. Well, once you are past the opening hours. It’s a shame, really – in the opening hours, I Am Setsuna barrages you with screens of text explaining the intricacies of the battle system.

Unsurprisingly, given the inspiration, the combat is the meat of the game. This is one of the biggest nostalgia plays I Am Setsuna has, bringing in time-based live combat. It is a style used in entries of the Final Fantasy series. To the uninitiated, this involves removing the system of characters taking one turn after another. Instead, the combat has a continuous flow of time. Each of your party of 3 has an ATB (Active Time Battle) gauge that fills over time, and when full, they may use a move. Time only stops when selecting your next action (unless you go hardcore and have time continue then, too). Under this is your expected HP and MP metres for each character.


Old RPG, New Tricks

However, I Am Setsuna does add a few ideas onto the combat. Spritnites are crystals that can be equipped to different characters, giving them different abilities. These are basically the source of your special moves. Spritnite becomes a strategic preparation tool, as a combination across characters can enable a combo attack if both ATM gauges are full. Discovering and using these extravagant moves is a fun part of the combat, but it also ends up being a major downfall as well. Spritnites may enable you to change your movesets, but some combos are so superior that you stop seeing the reason to change.

2018011701324200-F5B8727C6EC23753411283E8A7B5F263

Once into the rhythm of I Am Setsuna – and especially in the latter half of the game – my battle strategy focused around only a handful of moves. Battles between bosses (which are, thankfully, much more testing) became an almost instinctive set of inputs that would wipe out the enemies. The smaller enemies ended up just feeling like padding between tougher encounters. When the aforementioned dungeon areas were combined with this, it all ended up feeling especially bland. It’s only emphasised by the quaint, interesting areas of the rest of the game.

The other major addition is Momentum Mode, which has a much more subtle impact. Different actions in battle fill up the Momentum metre on a character, and when full, it allows for extra effects on your moves. This may mean added damage or critical hits, to name two examples. Continued use of Momentum can even add permanent improvements (Fluxes) to your abilities. In contrast to Spritnite, Momentum feels more refined in how it is included – even if it lacks the dynamic visuals of a Spritnite Combo. In general, the combat feels like it needed more time to fine-tune the balancing of certain elements.


Final Thoughts

I Am Setsuna is one of that increasingly-rarer species of game – a mid-tier title, both in production and length. The charming presentation and characters only make the 20-hours feel more appealing and palatable, and Tokyo RPG Factory use them to tell a sombre but hopeful story.

However, the smaller scale does lead to some repetitive environments and enemy encounters, particularly as the game gets into the final act. The combat has plenty of interesting ideas, and nicely calls back to classic RPGs, but feels unbalanced in the implementation of Spritnite Combos. Yet, if you can get past these flaws, I Am Setsuna is rather engrossing. It doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, and beyond some obtuse issues, you’ll discover a touching game about the value of life.

7.5/10

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.