A Monochrome Boy and a Great White Shark

Life in general is a bit of a mess right now, thanks to the revisit of my old pal from spring, Mr. Shitty Lower-Back. These past few days have been all about painkillers, mostly good for determining whether I have only a rusty nail or a fiery hot pitchfork stuck in my other leg. That’s pretty much my excuse for the lack of updates this week, even if I still managed a couple of playthroughs. The first one was this month’s PlayStation Plus freebie, Hue, which turned out to be quite a charming little 2D puzzle platformer.

The titular hero of the game wakes up in a bleak monochrome village with a yearning for his lost mom. Still, she’s bound to be out there somewhere, so there’s no choice but to chin up, go out, and explore. At first, Hue is only capable of running and jumping but it doesn’t take long for the tyke to discover his first color. It’s only good for changing the background color of the game, but at the same time it also turns all objects and obstacles of the same color invisible. One hue alone won’t a puzzle game make but as the palette eventually grows to eight colors, brain cells are in for a treat.

Despite such a simple game mechanic – or perhaps because of it – Hue is surprisingly enjoyable. Its puzzle rooms, filled with movable crates, pressure plates, spike pits, lasers, hovering platforms, etc. are delightfully compact, and even if the game isn’t particularly sadistic at any given time, trying to figure out the route to the next exit often requires quite a bit of brainstorming. While most of the puzzles can be thought out leisurely, some of them require fast reflexes. Thankfully activating the color wheel with the right thumbstick grinds time to a near halt.

Hue’s journey is accompanied by a minimalistic, yet beautiful piano score as well as a female narrator who conjures up a decent story context. The adventure takes about five hours to complete, further extended by 28 flasks hidden around the game world. Sadly, though, their only purpose is to be found. Despite this minor blemish, Hue is easy to like. Sure, it’s a bit of a one-night stand but it’s still a tasty snack between more sizable gaming projects.

The same goes for the other playthrough of this week. Giant Squid’s debut game Abzû is kind of like an underwater Journey; a tranquil and enchanting expedition through some breathtaking surroundings. Following a majestic great white shark, the player dives ever deeper and deeper, encountering dozens of fish species, submerged ruins, fascinating coral reefs, wild jet streams, and eventually even artifacts of apparently alien origin. There’s not really that much to play but all the more simply to experience. Abzû is a thrilling two-hour-long journey of discovery with fantastic visuals and music to back it up. The sea is chock-full of beauty, and a symphony orchestra upholds the joys of exploration and discoveries in a top-notch fashion.

Abzû, too, has artificial collectibles strewn here and there just for the sake of collecting, but such lazy design is once more forgiven; when hitching a ride on the back of a manta ray, or breaching the surface of water in a joyous leap together with a bunch of orcas, experiential gaming art truly feels like a thing!

Fart Art

We probably shouldn’t be here…

Any plans I might have had for this weekend were instantly rewritten on Friday, when the postman delivered my copy of South Park: The Fractured But Whole a few days in advance of its official street date of next Tuesday. As it has already been over three years since the really quite splendid The Stick of Truth, I immediately felt like taking the sequel for a spin. Now, after more than 20 hours and a playthrough, I’m happy to state that the humor of Trey Parker and Matt Stone remains as fresh as ever. That’s not to say The Fractured But Whole would have a particularly novel story, though. While the kids of South Park are still in the middle of their fantasy play from the last game, Eric Cartman suddenly decides that superheroes are the newest, coolest thing ever. And sure enough, in an instant everyone has come up with their own secret superhero identity and chosen their side in a battle between two feuding factions. As simple as that, all of South Park once again transforms into a battlefield limited only by imagination.

As before, the player is known simply as The New Kid, an unvoiced hero (or heroine) who joins Cartman’s faction, wielding the power of – you guessed it – flatulence. It’s a questionable skill but as the adventure goes on, wee little squeaks eventually evolve into massive discharges capable of ripping the very fabric of time itself. In other words, anyone playing the game should go in expecting a huge amount of deliberately crass fart, poop, and pee humor. Still, amid all this vulgarity, the youngsters of South Park once again teach the player to laugh at the incorrigible idiocy of the humankind in all of its forms. Brutally pertinent social criticism leaves no one unscathed, be it racists, bigots, or just people suffering from moral superiority and finding offense in the smallest of things. This wanton but intelligent anarchy is what the game (and South Park on whole) is all about, and once again it works wonders!

Story missions are strewn around town, tackled by a team of four superheroes. During the adventure, the player befriends up to ten familiar South Park characters donning an alter ego, each having one awesome special move and three slightly less formidable ones. The same goes for the player, too. At first, it is only possible to choose from a small handful of character classes but as the game goes on, all skills of ten different character classes become available for mixing and matching freely. As per role-playing standards, there’s moves for doing brutal damage up close and from afar, various healing skills, and a miscellaneous bunch of actions causing buffs or debuffs. Given an eventual pool of 40 different moves, it’s quite easy to find those four that best complement one’s playing style.

Turn-based battles are fought on relatively small grids where everyone tries to position themselves to both dish out damage and avoid taking it. Even more important is to maneuver so that after a character’s turn ends, the next one won’t be blocked from carrying out their actions. Since nothing is sacred, enemies include not just the kids of the opposing faction but also parents, senior citizens, Catholic priests, crooked cops, bums, prostitutes, Korean ninjas, crab people, etc. Those with enough confidence can even challenge Morgan Freeman himself.

Collection fans are pampered with countless ever-so-popular selfie opportunities with the various citizens of South Park. As typical for this age of vanity, they are instantly posted onto the game’s social media, Coonstagram, where the aim is naturally to become the one with the highest follower count in all of South Park. There’s also plenty of yaoi fan art of the series’ beloved boy couple, Tweek and Craig, as well as dozens of costumes, hair styles, scars, masks, accessories, and whatnot. The customization options are so plentiful that anyone should be able to create a South Park look of their dreams. Furthermore, miscellaneous junk picked up from pretty much everywhere is used to craft new costumes, various healing items, and artefacts that enhance the player’s stats.

In broad terms, The Fractured But Whole is kind of predictable but still rather excellent. It holds together not just because of its delightfully prickly humor but also because – and I’m technically contradicting myself here – it never ceases to surprise. Hilarious minigames and totally unexpected scenarios pop up at a breathtaking pace, making it nigh on impossible to get bored at any point. Even if it pretty much just re-invents the wheel of The Stick of Truth, at least that’s a recipe that has already proven itself; after a break of a few years, coming back to South Park was nothing but refreshing!

Other new acquisitions this past week include Culdcept Revolt and Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. The former is presumably some sort of JRPG slash card game slash Monopoly hybrid whereas the latter is probably a tough as nails strategy-JRPG. All in all, the harvest season of this year’s gaming crop is so bountiful that my wallet has been weeping for quite some time already, and I really wish that I, too, could fart myself more time. Oh well, at least this is a positive problem.

From Poland with Love

After completing Nights of Azure with all of its trophies and everything, these past few days have been pure R&R. In-between more full-figured projects, I’ve taken quite a bit of liking to Sky Force Anniversary, this month’s PlayStation Plus freebie by the Polish developer Infinite Dreams. It’s a no-nonsense old-school vertical shoot ’em up pitting a lone hero against the massive air, sea, and ground forces of a pronouncedly evil General Mantis. Games like these don’t really need more story than that, so it’s all about wanton fire and turning tons of hostile metal into scrap iron.

Most games in this genre rely on three lives, a whole lot of memorization, and ever-increasing firepower that is quickly taken away by a single blunder. Sky Force Anniversary is notably more compassionate, even if it only provides a single life and pretty much no other pickup bonuses than increased rate of fire. Still, it’s possible to start from any previously unlocked stage, and stars picked up from destroyed enemies act as currency to steadily improve the player’s ship into a true force to be reckoned with. Such options are plentiful from thicker armor, more powerful shots, and homing missiles all the way down to limited use game changers such as lasers, force fields, and mega bombs. The game is more than happy to dish out punishment but the slow and steady grind is what keeps everything fair. Even a failed run is still a stepping stone towards a ship that will eventually allow even the less-gifted pilots to shine. Probably.

Inevitable repetition is also alleviated by stage challenges. They require destroying 70% or 100% of anything hostile, taking no damage whatsoever, and rescuing poor troopers stuck behind enemy lines by floating above them for a brief amount of time. After completing these four requirements (not necessarily during the same run), the stage can be challenged on a higher difficulty level. Even then the number and placing of enemies remains the same; they merely shoot more aggressively. This, too, helps in making Sky Force Anniversary the most refreshing vertical shooter in ages. Usually these games would be entertaining for maybe fifteen minutes, feel “kinda fun” and, if they were arcade cabinets, maybe swallow a quarter or two. In this case, however, the game is so delightfully approachable that hours just fly by.

Sky Force Anniversary also acts as good practice for times to come, as a couple of the latest arrivals are ruthless bullet hell games. Caladrius Blaze is assumably a traditional such shooter whereas Rabi-Ribi combines wild projectile dodging with platforming. As well as these, there’s a bit more semi-retro love courtesy of PS2-action-JRPG Dark Cloud, which makes a welcome return to the shelf. I used to have it as a kid but since I was young and stupid back then, I even sold some of my games. As an adult, such frivolities are thankfully a thing of the past.

Please Concentrate, Sir

Not the way to manage but he does such a fine job!

Sure… Any game can feel challenging, especially when not paying attention. Last time, I sneered at the seemingly sudden difficulty spike of Nights of Azure without considering Arnice’s demon sword. After a bit of slipshod grinding, it had already reached a whole new level. For quite some time, I thought it merely got automatically stronger but it actually took an innocent press of a d-pad button to unleash its true potential. Oh well, no biggie; once this trusty demon hunter utensil turned twice as long and powerful as its wielder, that once-bothersome extra boss swiftly got what was coming. So did the one that followed, as well as all the familiar acquaintances from the first run. All this was rewarded with an ending quite a bit more pleasant than the first one, so I can finally consider the game beat in good conscience.

Or maybe not quite, as I’m still hesitating whether to do a bit of cleaning up by going for all of the game’s trophies or not. Sadly, when it comes to those, Nights of Azure is rather unimaginative. I’m mostly left with a bunch of “do X of this” baits that, at this point in the game, only raise questions of why they’re still even there. Arena trophies might go in the same wastebasket as well. There are a few dozen challenges that pit Arnice and her Servans against slightly puzzle-esque scenarios with time limits. In a way, I suppose they demonstrate the designer’s perception of how the game was meant to be approached from the very beginning but as I’m already pretty much done with everything, such lessons in strategy no longer hold any value whatsoever.

Given how positive I’ve been about Nights of Azure in general (well, it really is rather good!), I feel almost obliged to whine a wee bit more. First, it certainly isn’t much of a looker, even if that’s probably more due to awkward timing and a small budget. The game was released as-is on PS3, PS4, and Vita, so even those of us on PS4 won’t witness any additional graphical fireworks. Still, that’s a minor niggle in comparison to the sorriest localization effort ever. The translated script is chock-full of typos and missing words, and while Arnice is Arnice in the game, she’s Anders in the trophy descriptions, and apparently Aluche in the sequel that is just a few weeks away by now. Seriously, come on!

That’s all the naysay I can think of, though, as I’ll forever remember Nights of Azure as a game that was pleasant in length, pleasant in humor, and pleasant in being a bit of an odd bird. Sure, it might be pure B-class but at least it’s B-class that works!

Hackety Slash

Somehow I feel Mr. Professor isn’t much of an artist :D

After retiring from my less-than-stellar golfing career, I have resumed kicking some good old demon butt. After only about 20 hours, Nights of Azure pitted me against a really feisty final boss followed by a short and slightly confusing epilogue and then the closing credits. For the third time in a row, I came to the conclusion that this game, too, coaxes its player to dig a little deeper. Even NG+ whisked me straight to the point before the final showdown, and as there are now new side quests and additional bosses all over the place, I’m once again forced to see just how punishing it is going to be to reach a proper ending.

At least until now, Nights of Azure has been pleasantly level-headed. It has been all about frenetic and mindless hacking and slashing throughout the entire game but at least it remains fun and well-paced. Unleashing wild combos and flashy special moves on hapless mobs is therapeutically relaxing, and the puny hordes frequently give way to tougher, appropriately big and nasty bosses. Should Arnice fall in battle, it’s not a game over as the game simply returns her and her Servans back to the hotel with all the experience gained on the way. That is a most welcome gesture, making even the occasional need to grind a breeze.

The cast is delightfully compact. There are only about half a dozen central characters, each given ample time to shine in the numerous cutscenes. Despite mild stereotypes and some repetition, character chemistry works well and is always silly. That’s definitely a plus, given how unimaginative brooding in a gloomy world overshadowed by a blood moon would be. Even if Arnice has to deal with incurable idiots, the comedy is still bad in a good way rather than just plain tired.

It was a bit surprising that only after about a dozen unique Servans, the game stated their collection to be already half done. Then again, it’s almost refreshing that there aren’t loads of them, especially as it’s deceptively easy to always fall back on the same four Servans. Arnice is eventually able to carry four such four-Servan groups, though, and that’s where the game is once again awfully considerate. Even unused Servans get the same amount of experience as the active ones, so leveling up frail newcomers into fighting shape is no bother at all.

At this particular moment I’m banging my head against the first, awfully temperamental extra boss but even if the “post”-game difficulty spike is rather noticeable, I still find myself smiling even when getting thoroughly beaten.

As well as Servans, past week was also about collecting games. The most unexpected surprise was the SNES Classic Mini, which I swore to get only if it would be absolutely effortless and not subject to price gouging. In the end, I picked up mine from the local supermarket during Friday evening grocery shopping, so it couldn’t have been easier. Looks like living in a small town has its benefits. PS1 JRPG Koudelka and the bargain bin PS4 trio of Abzû, Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair, and Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star complemented the backlog that only seems to be growing as time goes by. Oh well, such is game otaku life.