D’awwwww!

This gaming year sticks into mind not only because of its decent overall quality but also because colorful platformers seem to be making at least a moderate kind of comeback. Sadly, big companies still rely mostly on established brands and HD remakes of their past hits. Although playing safe like that is mildly boring, the world is lucky to have pioneers like Gears for Breakfast. It’s a small newcomer studio whose crowdfunded debut game A Hat in Time turned out to be quite the Christmas miracle. According to the developers themselves, the game is a “cute-as-heck 3D platformer.” Not only is that a very accurate description, the game has no trouble leaping to the very top of the entire genre, proudly showcasing how all it takes is a bit of fresh ingredients to bring back the once forgotten charm of its mid-90’s beloved brethrens.

The protagonist of the game is known simply as the Hat Kid, a young girl whose interstellar home trip is interrupted on the orbit of a mafia planet. After a brief toll dispute, her ship takes a bit of damage that sends both her and her ship’s fuel source, 40 magical hourglasses, plummeting to the surface of the planet. The journey back home can resume only after retrieving the fuel, so it’s time for another traditional collectathon. The planet has been divided into four reasonably vast open world areas, each featuring ten more or less story-driven acts. The girl’s ship acts as a central hub from where she can challenge these acts in any order, although entirely new areas require a certain number of retrieved hourglasses and some acts cannot be completed before acquiring specific gear from the others.

The nimble Hat Kid masters basic necessities like double jumping and air gliding from the get-go, while an ordinary umbrella acts both as a useful melee weapon and a makeshift parachute when daring leaps turn out to be a little too daring. On top of these rather ordinary skills, the stages feature balls of yarn that can be transformed into new hats that provide unique special powers such as sprinting, making massive leaps off special platforms, concocting explosive potions, or even slowing down time itself. The hats can be further enhanced by badges found or bought. They provide further bonuses such as faster recharging of hat powers, an immensely useful throw hook, or a magnet for automatically pulling in nearby collectibles.

In order for a game to be an action-adventure instead of “merely” a platformer, it needs a story and a bunch of great characters. This is an area where the game truly excels. Not only is the ever-positive Hat Kid perhaps the most endearing heroine ever, the planet is full of eccentric personalities. As well as whooping mafia butt, the girl gets tangled in movie world power struggle between penguins and owls, has to do odd jobs to reclaim her spirit after it gets stolen by a pompous shadow spirit, and hurtle around majestic mountains aiding the local goat people. It’s a highly amusing adventure with constant surprises and plenty of excellent voice acting and music.

On top of all this, A Hat in Time is pleasantly challenging. The end bosses of each area in particular are long, impressive clashes that require far more than, say, landing three easy hits. Instead, they are all about frantic dodging of massive attacks while trying to desperately spot brief openings for a bit of counter damage. It’s hard to avoid retries, hearty cussing, and maybe even a rage quit or two, but in some weird way the game never feels cheap. Sure, the camera can occasionally be a little temperamental, making it unnecessarily hard to leap with precision, but that’s a pet peeve of pretty much any 3D platformer. The trophies, however, deserve another tip of the hat, challenging the player to complete individual acts in unorthodox ways or simply as flawlessly as possible. To see and experience everything took me around 18 hours, so A Hat in Time is delightfully rich in content, too.

Hands down the best thing about the game, though, is how it takes a little rookie studio to show the whole game industry that it’s perfectly possible to create a first-class 3D platformer without always relying on Nintendo and Mario. I, for one, would have happily bought this even as a full price retail game and still feel like getting value for my money. A Hat in Time brings back a once cherished genre with such flair and admirable originality that bigger boys should definitely take notice. One of the most stellar shows in 2017, Gears for Breakfast! More of this, please!

Although a couple of deliveries are still on their way (hopefully, at least), it looks like games shopping for this year is now done. Come next year, I’ll be going for more indie kicks with Thomas Happ’s acclaimed Metroidvania Axiom Verge. Also, even if A Hat in Time will be very hard to beat, I still want to see if one blast from the past, Yooka-Laylee, would quench whatever thirst of 3D platformers I might have left.

Charted by the Book

Even if this year is already on its last legs, there’s still a few more days left to prune the backlog and bump into memorable experiences. In a way, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy could have been one such instance but just like the current year, the series, too, seems to be on its way out. I still remember year 2007 when the first Uncharted managed to set the whole action-adventure genre on fire. The charm of the delightfully roguish Nathan Drake worked wonders from the very beginning, climbing in breathtaking scenes was wild and exciting, taking out mercenaries in cover-based shootouts was the epitome of fun, and the story was pure Indiana Jones in the best possible way. “Why don’t developers make more gems like these?” I remember pondering. A decade later, this once so very enchanting formula has been replicated both by Naughty Dog and rival studios so many times that its taste has gone a bit stale.

The Lost Legacy is, for all intents and purposes, the sixth Uncharted. This time around ancient relic hunting takes place in the jungles of India, although the already weary Nathan Drake is given a well earned day off. Instead of him, the stage is given to two women familiar from the earlier games, the fortune hunter Chloe Frazer and ex-mercenary Nadine Ross, who face off against a local insurgent leader Asav. It’s a familiar setup followed by an even more familiar selection of incredibly beautiful scenery, loads of treacherous leaping and climbing, puzzles hidden in decrepit ruins, and plenty of confrontations with Asav’s troops, most of which can be handled just as head-on or as sneaky as one prefers. Before settling into a traditionally driven story, the game is even kind enough to provide a small open world area which Chloe and Nadine are free to explore in a jeep, checking out various interesting locations in their own pace and order.

It’s quite hard to be critical of The Lost Legacy as it’s pretty much the most polished and structured Uncharted ever. It brings in most of the stuff that worked in the previous games while ditching elements that were less entertaining. The balance between bombastic action and tactical stealth is almost spot on, and everything there is is bigger, better, and especially more beautiful than ever before. It’s even hard to miss Drake, as the chemistry between Chloe and Nadine is most excellent and the duo does a really good job keeping up that distinctive, jovial dialogue that has become a loved hallmark of the entire series.

However, the Indian elephant-sized problem lies in the fact that The Lost Legacy is, indeed, already the sixth Uncharted. As brilliant as it is both technically and in production values, absolutely everything featured has been seen way too many times already. Making death-defying leaps on treacherous mountainsides no longer feels thrilling rather than a boring and predictable necessity, the ancient ruins, statues, and puzzles are a dime a dozen, and taking out hostile troops is just plain perfunctory. The race against Asav for yet another priceless artifact begins, progresses, and culminates in the most expected of ways, and thus the entire eight-hour journey fails to leave any kind of lasting impression.

It’s not that The Lost Legacy does anything wrong as such. It’s just that despite the new leads and settings, it’s disappointingly by the numbers. Even the best of formulas is usually good for no more than a trilogy, and that’s what Naughty Dog seems to have forgotten. Even if The Lost Legacy is its developers’ obvious love letter to a decade-old franchise, it is the first victim of its own success. Fun but ultimately lackluster.

Demon Dating

It took a little while but everything is once again fine in Asteria. Demon Gaze II yielded after about 35 hours and, despite a few minor gripes, turned out to be a merry little adventure all the way to its ending credits and even beyond. During his journey, the Demon Gazer befriended so many demons that the inn actually ran out of stat-boost-providing rooms to accommodate all of them. No harm done, as leveling up absolutely everyone to a useful level would have been too arduous, anyway. As well as battle experience and lodging, demons are refined via dating. In practice, this means a silly little mini-game in which they are given “maintenance” by locating and poking sweet spots on their bodies. As their intimacy towards the hero grows, they gain new abilities and unlock humorous cutscenes that nicely deepen their otherwise somewhat inconspicuous characters. Although this feature is decidedly lewd and mischievous in nature, the demons include not just cute girls but also bishounen boys and burly men, meaning that there’s a wholesome amount of ecchi for players of both genders.

If Demon Gaze II started out as easy, it’s latter half is challenging enough to raise blood pressure. Grinding and constantly renewing (or upgrading) gear is a must, as an unlucky hit even in an everyday encounter can knock out a feebly equipped demon in one swing. This is especially aggravating as revival items are fairly rare and most of them only revive back to one pathetic hit point. It’s a traditionally cheap design decision that means knocked out characters are better revived by hightailing it back to the inn. Trying to revive them in the heat of a battle ties up too many valuable resources and, mostly thanks to capricious turn order, rarely even works. Although constant retreating is annoying, it’s at least possible to select any previously visited square on a dungeon map, causing the party to navigate there swiftly and automatically.

As for the dungeons themselves, Demon Gaze II is fairly lenient. Sure, there’s the usual selection of devious conveyor belts, trap plates, one-way doors, and teleports, but at least they’re used in much more moderation than in many other games of the same genre. It’s not until the post-game dungeons that the game truly begins to troll its player but at that point the party is already tough enough to survive even if navigating through the dungeons requires plenty of trial and error. Such cheapness is even more tolerable as the post-game provides an exceptionally generous fan service treat to anyone who enjoyed the original adventure.

If the platform isn’t an issue, Demon Gaze II feels more suited for the Vita. As gorgeous as the enemy art can be, everything looks uncannily huge on a big screen TV and the PS4 version hasn’t even been enhanced in any way. Also, the guys responsible for audio have been slacking. Although the original voice acting is good quality as such, the voice levels themselves are strangely subdued and even fluctuate noticeably between characters. Still, that’s about all the naysay I can muster. Although the game brings nothing particularly new to a genre that might already be a little too tired for its own good, it still rises well above average due to its emphasis on storytelling, frisk pacing, and rewarding loot mechanics. It’s a very solid sequel to an excellent game, and that’s already more I dared to hope for!

Enforced Enrollment Fair

Avast, ye horny guinea pigs!

As expected, Demon Gaze II continues. Signa has already whooped enough demon butt to recruit more than a dozen of them to support the revolution, so it already takes a bit of thinking to choose the fivesome used to challenge the dungeons. Those with magic or ranged weapons are obviously best suited for the back row whereas the more abrasive ones can easily hold the front line, maybe even dual-wielding weapons if carrying a shield seems pointless. There’s tons of damage dealing weapons ranging from swords and katanas to slings and bows while protective gear covers everything from helmets to underwear. All items have not only their base stats but also an array of buffs and debuffs, so coming up with a proficient team and equipping it accordingly is an art of its own. This is especially true due to the demon circles constantly spewing out new and intriguing stuff.

Demon Gaze II handles its turn-based battles in a tremendous fashion as it is fully aware that random encounters are essentially nothing more than the genre’s necessary evil. It only takes a press of a button to make everyone repeat their previous moves, and another to fast-forward through an entire turn. If the characters are suitably equipped and leveled, a single encounter is over in less than ten seconds, making the equally typical need of grinding more like an empowering fete. To contest that, boss encounters are often so harsh that all carefree behavior is best replaced with proper strategical thinking. Still, the game wants to ensure everyone finds a comfortable way of experiencing it. Back in the home base, difficulty can always be freely adjusted between five levels. For some weird reason, the default setting was the second easiest but after a few deceptively easy hours, I turned it up a notch. I’ve since grown to regret that but even when the game gets brutal, it does so in a fair and encouraging fashion.

This journey will most likely last for several more entries. If anything is clear at this point, it’s that Demon Gaze II is just as brilliant as its predecessor and thus the merriest and most addictive dungeon crawler of all time. More praise to follow as the game is… It’s just plain adorable!

Guerrilla Radio

Me me me me me!

After so much time spent with western releases lately, I have reinvigorated my passion for proper, lengthy JRPGs. Despite an already massive backlog, it didn’t take long to come up with a suitable subject. Demon Gaze II is a standalone sequel to a three-year old-game that brazenly combined visual novels with hardcore dungeon crawling in a manner that left an everlasting impression at least in my JRPGing heart. Despite such a lengthy wait, the sequel is fortunately true to its origins, once more providing a boisterous adventure that might feel awfully familiar but only in a good and immensely entertaining fashion.

The story kicks off in the city-state of Asteria, ruled by Sirius Magnastar. Even if he enjoys immense popularity among his subjects, he seems to be up to no good. Restricted areas within the city are teeming with demons, and the city’s inhabitants are secretly used as fuel for an eerie Star Furnace. The protagonist, Signa, escapes such a sorry fate at the last moment possible, rescued by rebels. A revolutionary movement led by sibling sisters Muse and Prim might be awkwardly small in numbers but at least they run an illicit radio show from the basement of a local inn, trying to wake up the masses to a veiled deception. Their chances get a whole lot better with Signa, who has a mystical ability to absorb the souls of weakened demons into his eye and later recall them as members of the revolution.

While such setup is hardly Pulitzer for Drama material, it doesn’t really have to. Good characters and smooth gameplay immediately take over. Just like with the previous game, the inn serves as a comprehensive base with its own shop and an infirmary; a perfect place for Signa and his captured demons to embark on exploration trips throughout the restricted streets of the city. These grid-based areas feature both random encounters and demon circles. By using a bunch of cheap weapon and/or gear gems on the latter summons a bunch of nasties. Beating them is rewarded with useful stuff corresponding to the gems used as well as the seizure of the circle. After all circles in the area have been located and conquered, the area boss can be challenged. A thorough beating later, they then join the winning side.

Like its predecessor, Demon Gaze II shines with its exemplary pacing. Each location is first a threatening, uncharted area that opens up square by square. Exploration is frequently interrupted by having to retreat back to the home base to lick ones wounds and then returning to carry on. Still, thanks to effortless grinding and an ample supply of constantly new and inspiring gear acquired from demon circles, making progress is a breeze. After triumphing over delightfully challenging bosses, the game takes nice breaks building up on the characters and advancing the story. As before, the cast of characters is pleasantly compact, ensuring everyone has multiple moments in the spotlight. In fact, some of the side characters are already familiar from the first game. Having played that one is not a prerequisite by any means but more like a way of Demon Gaze II pampering to both new and returning players.

More about the game’s lovely nuances in the future, as even after a weekend of playing, I’m only getting started and the passion to dig ever deeper is as grand as ever!

Longing for the Olden Days

The usual, dear Nico, the usual…

Video game industry is a fickle beast. Even in the 90’s, graphic adventure games could still manage sales of a million copies. At least this was true for Revolution Software’s stylish and fondly remembered Broken Sword series, in which a French freelance journalist, Nicole Collard, and an American jack of all trades, George Stobbart, always seem to find themselves tangled up in murder mysteries and ancient, supernatural artifacts. By the end of the millennium, the gaming masses lost interest in the genre, and in 2013 the latest game in the series, Broken Sword 5: The Serpent’s Curse, had to rely on crowdfunding. Even if I was no longer gaming on PC back then, I spotted the game’s Vita version among last month’s PlayStation Plus selection. This was a nice chance to see if graphic adventures still do it for me.

For long-standing fans, at least, the adventure kicks off in an unsurprising fashion. Nicole and George meet in a Parisian art gallery, although it’s not a particularly pleasant reunion. A sudden robbery takes place, depriving the owner of the gallery both an exhibited painting as well as his life. Our investigative duo aren’t interested only in the killer but also the stolen piece of art that leads them on a trail of medieval cabals, gnostics, and the Spanish inquisition.

In general, The Serpent’s Curse is a fairly pleasant, beautifully illustrated and skillfully animated adventure. Its puzzles are solved in the usual fashion by picking up items, occasionally combining them in unexpected ways, and chatting with a whole bunch of eccentric characters. While adventure games can be notorious for getting the player stuck or wandering around aimlessly, The Serpent’s Curse alleviates this by penning all of its problems and their solutions in areas that are rarely larger than a couple of screens. Items, too, come in such moderation that trying everything with everything is never troublesome. Several puzzles carry rather absurd solutions but they’re rarely so obscure that the player wouldn’t have at least a modicum of an idea on how to proceed.

Sadly religious myths as a motif has already been thoroughly exhausted not only by this series but entertainment industry on whole. For the game’s first half, both the story and the overall pacing still manage to stay afloat. After that, the player is drowned in overly convoluted mega puzzles and plot twists so incredibly shoddy and clich├ęd that enjoyment goes straight down the drain. This Vita version contributes to that by only featuring touch screen controls. The small screen doesn’t really do justice to the game’s graphical splendor to begin with but it’s even worse when having to constantly use an index finger as a makeshift mouse cursor. Awkward and inaccurate.

The Serpent’s Curse is still very much a Broken Sword and very much a graphic adventure but for some inexplicable reason the taste of the series isn’t nearly as exquisite as it was 17 years earlier when The Shadow of the Templars kicked things into motion. I probably have to play that one once more to see if it’s just fond memories or still a classic. The Serpent’s Curse doesn’t feel like one.