Category Archives: PlayStation Network

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.

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 clichéd 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.

Child of Excess

Seems like it’s occasionally possible to get lucky. When Ubisoft’s slightly more artsy 2D-platformer-RPG Child of Light enjoyed publication and positive reception more than three years ago, it always felt like something that might be fun to try. That never happened, mostly due to the game never getting a physical release (well, it kind of did but a cardboard box with a download code is essentially nothing more than a cardboard box.) While the game never got my money, it was included in the pile of PlayStation Plus games for this September. This gave me a swell chance to see exactly how notable a gem I had been sitting out on for all this time. After a begrudging playthrough of about eight hours, I can’t help but say I didn’t seem to miss much.

In the game, a red-haired princess Aurora whizzes all around the magical kingdom of Lemuria together with firefly fairy Igniculus. While at it, they befriend a ragtag bunch of other adventurers and apparently get tangled into a family drama of some sort. Something along those lines, as the story is something I ended up skipping altogether due to it being told in verse. All narration, character dialogue included, has been forcibly adapted into awkward rhyme that flows as fluent as sludge in tar, bending the story into a shape so painful to follow that after ten minutes it becomes nothing more than drivel to fast-forward through.

That same ten minutes is all it takes for the initially promising Metroidvania-esque world to fall apart. Aurora, only capable of jumping at first, is almost immediately gifted with a magical ability to fly, wrecking half of all the joy of exploration and discovery there could have been. The other half is immediately wrecked by the most egregious display of Ubibloat™ there is. It’s nigh on impossible to go for 15 seconds without bumping into a treasure chest or a shoddily hidden cavern of goodies. What’s worse, almost every turn-based battle causes the characters to level up and earn skill points for their pointless ability trees. The game is like an ADHD patient’s dream come true with constant rewards so ridiculously frequent that in the end, nothing ends up feeling anything at all.

Granted, Child of Light is remarkably beautiful and even more remarkably well-animated. Heck, actually criticizing it in any way feels like kicking a puppy. Still, no can do. When something doesn’t work, it just doesn’t work. If the game had a more conservative method of storytelling and a world at least remotely worth exploring, it might’ve enjoyed a bit more scrutiny than this. As it stands, it’s only worth these four shoddy paragraphs.

This might have been a miss but in the meantime, four potential homerunners have joined the ranks. Of those, L.A. Noire is most likely the safest bet, given that it’s a remaster of a game that was already most enjoyable on the PS3. It’s certainly worth revisiting, especially as the PS4 version includes all the DLC (yup, I rather buy the entire game again than spend a dime on additional digital content.) As for NIS America, there’s two awfully promising sequels. Demon Gaze II is continuation to what I still consider one of the best dungeon crawlers ever while Nights of the Azure 2: Bride of the New Moon capitalizes on the positive aftertaste left by its predecessor not more than a month ago. I’m also slightly excited about Taiko no Tatsujin: Session de Dodon ga Don! which, with its drum controller, gives me the first chance to play Taiko games the way they probably should be played.

Rugged Rallying

Working my way through the PlayStation Plus backlog continues on the good old PS3. Back in the summer months, it was given WRC 5 and as it has been quite some time since my last driving game, I eagerly took it for a spin. This turned out to be not the best of ideas, as the game didn’t provide much in the form of entertainment. In terms of numbers, it should’ve been a good one, featuring rallies of a whopping 13 different countries, a total of 65 special stages, and 21 cars. All of these are instantly available either as single runs or in a career mode that guides the player through rally school and Junior WRC all the way to the very top of WRC itself.

I usually prefer my driving games in cockpit view but in this case, it doesn’t really work that well. Not only do the cabins look awfully spartan, general visibility is often so poor that the feeling of speed is very much amiss. Switching to bonnet view helps things tremendously but sadly the developers’ idea of rallying is rather eccentric. Only about a fifth of the special stages are such that one can press hard enough to even make it a little bit scary. Most of the stages, however, are just bends following each other with such frequency that driving becomes a chore. The most egregious stages are so twisty that average speed drops closer to forty miles per hour, which no longer resembles rallying whatsoever.

Although each car has a pleasantly distinctive sound, their handling is always uncomfortably floaty. Grip is still decent on dry tarmac but especially on gravel, snow, or in heavy rain, driving turns into slalom. While that is basically realistic, utterly hopeless brakes and almost unnaturally smooth road surfaces make the cars feel more like bobsleighs. There are no impressive crashes as straying off course simply turns the screen black and returns the car back to the middle of the road. Blunders closer to the track damage various parts of the car, though. Careless driving with wild abandon can knock out individual shock absorbers, chassis, engine, gearbox, or even the in-car radio. Should any of that happen, there’s no choice but to try and limp to the next service park where mechanics are given 45 minutes to mend the car as much as they can.

The career mode is hardly inspiring, given the short length of the races. Each rally consists of only six or seven special stages that take about 2-7 minutes each. What’s worse, these half-hour races aren’t really about racing at all as the player’s performance is effectively ignored altogether. Unless driving extremely slowly or absolutely wrecking the car, each stage yields the best time with the second best always being 0.2-2 seconds slower. As every stage and every race ends the exact same way, the career mode is just mind-numbingly boring.

WRC 5 isn’t that good technically, either. It’s prone to frequent crashes and every now and then the car apparently doesn’t hit a point that would activate notes for the next three or four corners. While the co-driver eventually wakes up from such naps, having to drive blind even briefly can be quite jarring. The graphics are fairly bland, too. Trees and whatnot are sparse and especially on stages run early in the morning or late in the evening, merely discerning the road becomes a needless challenge.

Despite all this naysay, WRC 5 is still decent enough to quench at least a casual thirst for rallying. Given that it was technically free, its faults are forgivable and I suppose there’s some longevity in trying to improve one’s own times or heading online, even if two years after release there are hardly any players around anymore. Still, on whole the game is mostly just lackluster. While it basically has all the ingredients of a good rally game, it only manages to feel uninspired with more emphasis on quantity than quality.

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!

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.

Möst Wöndërfül

First some speed and then a leap into the unknown

The beginning of this Saturday has been quite jovial. I chose to play Type:Rider, which is a French 2D art platformer that was included in this month’s PlayStation Plus pile. It touts itself as a typographical video game, and it stars a happy little umlaut (or perhaps it’s a colon?) that rolls and jumps its way through mankind’s character, font, and printing history ranging from ancient cave paintings to modern day digitization. Along the journey, there are plenty of famous typeface letters to collect, including asterisks that open up really rather interesting little articles about the pioneers and innovations of the printing industry. It’s fun and educational; not bad!

The minimalist, stylishly designed stages are full of woodcuts, lithographs, posters, and typefaces. Traversing them is all about honoring the laws of physics, except when they make you curse physics altogether. The player’s two rolling dots are capable of jumping and rotating in the air but it’s quite tricky to keep them in perfect control. Inertia is your best friend but when it either runs out or there’s too much of it, you usually take a wildly spinning plunge into oblivion. Thankfully there are loads of checkpoints, and the game isn’t that challenging to begin with. Every now and then, there are also lightweight puzzle rooms where you have to free a third dot and then push it to a pedestal that enables you to proceed.

All the collectible letters can be found with relative ease, and even if you go after all of them, the game shouldn’t take longer than about two and a half hours to complete. One hour more, and I even managed to unlock all of its trophies. Those who want more can still improve their automatically tracked completion times or head to a separate speed run track that provides considerably more challenge for competitive gamers. Also, each stage has been split into four sections, each of which can be warped into via the in-game menu. In this game, reliving its best moments or practicing its slightly more challenging parts is remarkably quick and easy.

Even as a little snack, Type:Rider made me smile a lot. It’s original and stylish in a way that many French game developers seem to handle so eerily well. Sure, it’s also short and easy but then again, it never outstays its welcome, and it’s actually quite relaxing to play a game that isn’t constantly trying to make its player lose their cool. What a delightfully entertaining morning this has been!

Feisty Fish

Three arms and a bowl. I’M INVINCIBLE!! Until next stage.

This lazy Sunday has been all about extravagant nothing. My only accomplishment has been grabbing the last few trophies of a two-year-old indie 2D shooter Shütshimi: Seriously Swole. It’s yet another fake retro style release that was given free to PlayStation Plus subscribers a little over a year ago. Back then, its humorous angle was much appreciated but since the game always felt awfully challenging, it ended up being something I played on and off in little bursts over a long period of time. Apparently each session still taught me something, as I finally managed to complete the damn thing. To be precise, I actually finished it last week, triumphed over its boss rush mode last Friday, and spent today cleaning off its remaining few trophies.

Shütshimi’s take on shoot’em ups is amusing and brisk. You play as a totally pissed-off gold fish that defends its home waters against all sorts of maritime nasties, be they laser-shooting sharks or even underwater bears. Each stage only lasts about ten seconds, and between them you get to quickly choose between three random bonuses. Some of them are genuinely useful (say, a protective fish bowl, extra arms for additional damage, or a bouncy castle where everyone plays nice), others mostly cosmetic (a huge pile of hats), and the rest downright nasty (inverted controls, twice the size, or plenty more enemies to kill). You only get a few seconds to choose between these verbosely described bonuses, so it’s either a matter of blind luck or getting good enough to spot the ones that are practical or, in the worst case scenario, at least remotely less annoying.

At first, Shütshimi seems easy and relaxed. Every five enemy waves, a brutal boss appears. You shoot them for as much as the time allows, and if that’s not enough, it’s another five waves to survive to continue from where you left off. Even if no stage lasts longer than those ten seconds, it’s often long enough for the enemy hordes to flatten your stalwart gold-scaled hero and, since the game plays like a dream, you always have no one but yourself to blame. It probably doesn’t take longer than an evening or two to deal with the three main bosses of the game, but when you are then challenged to beat their advanced forms… I haven’t kept track of time spent with this one but as mentioned, it’s a game that has been steadily bugging me for a year or so.

While the indie scene is hopelessly crammed with these pixel-art forays, Shütshimi was a pleasant little surprise. It’s a simple, challenging game that I ended up coming back to over and over again, just like back in my youth when some games were equally brutal and yet somehow inexplicably compelling. I guess that’s the best recommendation I can give.