Category Archives: Playthrough

Punful Days with a Side Order of Cats

Spirry just being her (?) lovable curt self

Good quality games can pop up from anywhere around the world. Yesterday, this claim was proved by the Singaporean indie studio The Gentlebros, whose consciously tongue-in-cheek cat action RPG Cat Quest managed to glue me to the telly for all of its eight hours’ worth. Its nameless feline hero is in trouble from the very beginning. A wicked white cat, Drakoth, kidnaps his sister and starts terrorizing the hapless, peasant-filled kingdom of Felingrad with ancient dragons. As luck would have it, our poor hero turns out to be a descendant of the mythical dragon slayers. Granted, he’s also very much the silent type but that’s not really an issue as he’s soon joined by a jovial and chatty cat spirit Spirry. Together, these two end up pouncing all over Felingrad, foiling Drakoth’s dastardly plans while bumping into pretty much every imaginable, most awkward cat pun in known existence.

After a delightfully compact intro, almost the entirety of Felingrad is immediately open for exploration. The whole game world is literally a map that has been filled with amusingly named areas, villages, dungeons, and a bunch of cutesy monsters. The latter are beaten in fluent real-time combat that is based on skillfully simplified controls. One button is reserved for attacking and another for nimby rolling away from harm’s way. The four shoulder buttons of the controller, in turn, can be customized to fling spells sold and enhanced by Felingrad’s mage kittens. Although magic is powerful, it requires mana that can only be restored in melee combat, so all brawls require at least a modicum of tactical thinking. As for items or shops, there are none. Village inns are just free save spots and practically all weapons and gear are acquired from cat chests within dungeons.

In order to keep the player suitably leveled up for the main story, all villages have notice boards providing plenty of miscellaneous side quests. Some of them end up teaching the hero essential special skills such as the ability to walk on water or even fly. Most of them, though, are merely simple variations of themes such as “fetch something”, “go somewhere”, “kill all”, or usually all three rolled into one. While this sort of lazy and haphazard quest design would poison pretty much any game, Cat Quest sports a full house of cuteness and (good) bad humor but, most importantly, exemplary pacing. Since all the quests and dungeons are extraordinarily short, those eight hours are perfectly adequate to complete all 62 side quests, triumph over all 52 dungeons, and even level up the hero all the way up to 99. Even if the entire adventure ends up repeating itself from the very beginning to the very end, the pace itself is so delightfully brisk that the repetition never has time to turn into an actual issue. Since all quests and dungeons are even polite enough to hint what their recommended character level is, there’s not even need for pointless grinding.

Whereas so many games, indies in particular, expect their players to come around and then stay around for extended, often unreasonably long periods of time, Cat Quest is lovably honest. It is fully aware of its capability to provide goofy entertainment for no more than a day or so, but it also does its darnedest to ensure that day will be as entertaining as possible. That’s exactly how mine turned out, so mission accomplished and two thumbs up!

That aforementioned mini-gem also kicked off this year’s shopping coverage as Ron Gilbert’s Thimbleweed Park actually managed to find its new home during the very last days of 2017. Not only is it my first (and most likely last) physical PC release, it’s most certainly one of the finest commemorations to all those wonderful Lucasfilm graphic adventures of the late 80’s and early 90’s. You know, those games that were loved by so many of us modern day geezers who were too broke and flippant as teenagers back then. Even if the likes of Good Old Games have since then given us a chance to atone digitally, those big boxes of the past remain just as awesome as they once were.

Flogging an (Un)dead Horse

Even Clementine knows how the story will go

My gaming year seems to continue in a gloomy fashion, even if Japanese spirits have already been replaced by American undead. Telltale’s five-episode The Walking Dead: A New Frontier culminated in last May but I once again waited for a retail release to enjoy this third season in one fell swoop. Although the series’ long-standing heroine Clementine is still very much around, the spotlight now falls primarily on former baseball player Javier Garcia and his makeshift family. Not only do they have daily trouble with the undead, they also have to deal with the titular New Frontier; a notorious group of settlers operating from Richmond. As expected, in a collapsed society humans can be an even bigger threat than zombies, so both Clementine and Javier’s posse soon end up fighting not just for their survival but their humanity as well.

Rewinding time for about five years, Telltale had just published their first The Walking Dead which handily ended up rejuvenating almost the entire genre of graphic adventures. Although the game didn’t feature much in the way of actual gameplay, this was easily forgiven. The chilling story that delivered a constant barrage of tough moral dilemmas altering its flow took the gaming world by storm, myself included. It was a wild success story that surprised players and maybe even the studio itself. Since then, however, things have backfired. The studio churns out its episodic adventures with such a hectic pace that it’s hard to get excited about them. The likes of The Wolf Among Us and Tales from the Borderlands still worked because of their original source material but as for The Walking Dead, even its second season started to repeat itself and A New Frontier only manages to do the same in an even more pronounced fashion.

This latest story is less than seven hours in length, which is actually a good thing as everything is already overly familiar. The zombies are nothing more than a tired source of mandatory drama, nonchalantly dealt with in various gory ways via simple QTE button presses. All humans, in turn, are almost predictable in their capriciousness with all interactions irrevocably leading to increasingly more dire situations. The weight of having to make painful decisions and deal with the consequences worked once, in the first game. By the second one, that charm was already thinning out and now everything is just plain awkward; no matter the choices, things are guaranteed to only get worse. The game hasn’t got a single plot twist or action sequence that wouldn’t feel recycled in some way and thus even the saddest of fates no longer manages to raise any eyebrows.

If anything, it’s at least nice to see how Telltale’s notoriously stuttering game engine finally runs smoothly on PS4. Sadly Javier’s satchel in particular is prone to many weird graphical glitches that easily ruin cutscenes for long periods of time. The retail copy is a bit disappointing, too, as only the first episode is on disc while the remaining four have to be individually downloaded from the PSN store.

Despite all this naysay, A New Frontier is a passable Telltale production. It’s unsurprising, yet still reasonably entertaining one-night stand, especially if picked up from a bargain bin. Unfortunately it also teases a fourth season that will most likely meet the same fate; this series simply doesn’t seem to have any ideas or content left.

Chibi Scares

That’s not what I meant wanting to cut ties with you!

Scary merry New Year to all fellow gamers! Scary mostly because I lack all sense of sensible timing and decided to kick off 2018 with a release that would have felt more at home during Halloween. Then again, those who are not into horror have nothing to fear; Yomawari: Midnight Shadows draws much less from cheap jump scares as it does from gloomy melancholy and Japan’s exceptionally bountiful spirit mythology. The game revolves around childhood friends Haru and Yui, who enjoy a cheery late-summer fireworks show before heading back home through a dark and foreboding forest. Sadly, malicious spirits soon appear to separate the girls from each other. What’s worse, such apparitions even patrol the streets and alleyways of their suddenly desolated home town. Both girls wish nothing more than to be reunited, so they have no recourse but to brave the night and head out to the streets in search of one another while desperately trying to figure out what has happened.

Since it’s not very realistic to expect elementary school kids to have a fighting chance against forces of darkness, Yomawari is all about survival horror. Some spirits can be vanquished, halted, or at least made visible with the beam of a flashlight, and it might even be possible to harm some by pelting them with rocks. Still, hands down the best way to survive is to run away as fast as a rapidly depleting stamina meter allows. Billboards, discarded cardboard boxes, and bushes act as good impromptu hiding places when something wicked just won’t give up a chase. Ten yen coins picked up from here and there, on the other hand, are just perfect for activating Jizo statues that serve both as save points and handy warp portals to the various parts of the girls’ little home town (and eventually even the neighboring town).

Alternating regularly between Haru and Yui, the really quite loose and vague story has very little else going for it. Coupled with moments of aimless wandering around in free roam style, the adventure leads the girls’ to haunted mansions, sewers, derelict train yards, and many other spooky places that aren’t ever pleasant to explore in nighttime. Every now and then they come across slightly bigger menaces, although these confrontations, too, are mostly about madly scampering away from lethal attacks.

The biggest issue about Yomawari is that it seems to love folklore more than it does storytelling. Haru, Yui, and their eventual fates are merely grace notes to a huge bunch of imaginative spirits. Sadly, learning the nature and how to either avoid or banish each of them is – at least from a western perspective – a matter of trial and error leading to dozens and dozens of deaths on the way. Not that game over itself would be much of a threat. Death simply means returning to the last activated save point, even with all collected items still in tow. The biggest hurdles in making progress are the excessive cheapness of some spirits and the sheer boredom of having to trek back to the point of last demise. Having only a couple of seconds to react to many threats, or even dying without knowing what just happened are fairly frequent occurrences. Both Haru and Yui are annoyingly slow when walking and not much faster when sprinting, especially as panic depletes their otherwise ample stamina meter within seconds. All of this contributes to the game being more about sheer frustration than actual suspense or fear.

The production values aren’t much better. The isometric chibi graphics can be beautiful and detailed at times but the sounds are overly sparse. There’s no spoken dialogue or even music (apart from the ending credits), so the roughly seven-hour-long journey is only about footsteps, heart bumps, chirping cicadas, and various moans and growls of nearby spirits. Even with a comprehensive guide, it takes almost as much time to locate everything the two towns have to offer, as they both feature plenty of small, inconsequential junk serving no other purpose than to be collected. At least it’s nice to be able to still grab everything during the post game but a chore is still a chore.

Sure, Yomawari can be amusingly weird in that unique, deeply Japanese way, and its rich assortment of spirits is at least moderately enchanting. As it stands, however, it’s mostly just a mundane slaughterhouse of cute chibi characters, which isn’t really that entertaining, especially as so many others have already done something similar in the past. Still, it’s at least an initial benchmark for 2018, so thanks, I guess, and with that I’m off to find the next contestant!

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!

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.

City of Angels v1.1

Truth by pantsu

While still enduring an aching back and waiting for the second MRI this year, everyday life is about as dark as the weather. These past few days my current mood has been nicely complemented by L.A. Noire. Its equally dark, cynical and harsh film noir world got remastered for the current console generation. While the improvements are mostly superficial, what worked in 2011 seems to work well even six years later. The story of Cole Phelps, a decorated WWII hero, follows his rise from an ordinary LAPD patrolman to the ranks of the most hard-boiled of detectives in 1947 Los Angeles. It’s a journey not without some quirks and annoyances but on whole, this is still a stylish and entertaining sandbox.

The main distinguising feature of the game are its interrogations of witnesses and suspects. By studying their expressions and body language, Phelps has to determine if their statements are true, doubtful, or outright lies that can be contested with evidence gathered during investigations. It’s a pretty novel and fun idea that always suffered from the hit and miss nature of interpreting the expressions correctly. It was never easy to determine exactly how the fairly hot-tempered Phelps would react to the selected choices. In this version, terms truth and doubt have been replaced with good cop and bad cop but that obviously doesn’t help much. The interrogations do provide a nice brain workout but it’s still deceptively easy to have a hunch and then double check the internet to ensure that it’s the correct one.

If L.A. Noire has been given a new lick of paint, it’s not particularly conspicuous. Despite additional makeup the game still looks somewhat dated and the streets of what is supposed to be a thriving metropolis often uncomfortably desolate. Luckily the cars, billboards, and landmarks of the era were originally modeled with such piety that merely cruising around aimlessly while listening to jazz and old radio plays is still delightful. Sadly the division between the main story and an actual sandbox has remained the same. While GTA style games often advance by driving to story markers on the map, L.A. Noire ushers Phelps from one story case to the next. Proper free roaming is only available after the man has solved enough cases to earn a promotion to a new division, and even then the free mode has to be separately activated by quitting back to the main menu.

Another nuisance that really should have been fixed is the inability to skip cutscenes. It’s hardly an issue the first time around but it’s not until a case has been concluded that the player finds out exactly how many pieces of evidence they missed, how well the interviews went, and how much damage they caused while driving carelessly around the city. Those aiming for perfect five star performance reviews probably have to redo a case or two, making it quite annoying to go through the same motions and cutscenes all over again. Even many of the action sequences are preceded by little intros that have to be watched after each failed attempt. That’s not to say L.A. Noire would be a particularly challenging game but especially in firefights, leaving cover is so awkward that Cole is often subject to some pretty cheap hits.

Those interested in collectibles will find that even if there were already plenty in the original release, there are even more in this remaster. Driving each of the 95 unique vehicles in the game is still a genuinely entertaining challenge but all sorts of film reels, badges, novels, and records are just the sort of pointless little trinkets that one usually bumps into only by accident or with a guide.

Despite the minor issues that really could have used fixing, L.A. Noire is still well worth a second go. It’s a gritty crime drama with easily 30 hours worth of content, and its depiction of the post-war 40s is highly versatile, credible, and enjoyable. Sure, the game’s world is strikingly gruff and unabashedly sexist but then again, that’s what high-class film noir is about. It’s really a pity that the game ended up being its developer’s only production as even with its faults, it remains a refreshingly original take on the sandbox genre.

Last week’s Black Friday came and went without much ado in this household. Good game deals in particular were hard to come by. In the end, I only grabbed a modest pile of PS4 releases that mostly fall into the “I suppose there’s no harm trying” category. Still, the fivesome of Darksiders II: Deathinitive Edition, The Last of Us Remastered, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, and The Walking Dead: A New Frontier were all under twenty euros each, a price point that usually makes me bite if I’m going to bite at all.

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.

Peace and Love

Hey, that’s not how exploring NPC houses in RPG villages is supposed to work!

While frolicking in mud, I have also managed to pay a visit to a popular underground world. Now that Toby Fox’s breakaway indie hit from a couple of years back finally got a physical console release, it was due time to check out why Undertale enjoys such a widespread fame. Obvious straight from its pixel art intro, it’s a game that pays homage to the wonderful JRPGs of the SNES era. Its premise is as delightfully shoddy as one could expect; humans have once again fought a long battle against monsters that were eventually sealed deep underground. Life is once again peaceful and harmonious. One day the player, a young rascal, ventures into the caves of a nearby mountain, trips and falls into a deep chasm, and ends up in the secluded region of scary monsters. It would be really nice to get back home, but the journey is a long and perilous one, and the first monster encountered makes it absolutely clear that this is a bleak world where one’s fate is either to kill or be killed.

Or is it? The game’s slogan is “the friendly RPG where nobody has to die” and sure enough, what first seems like an uninspired and crude ugly duckling of an RPG ends up transforming into quite an original and emotive little charmer. While traipsing along the corridors of this new dark world, the hero bumps into increasingly peculiar monsters that can be fought in a normal fashion. Battles are turn-based and require a swaying hit meter to be stopped in the center of the screen for most damage. Victories are rewarded with money, experience points, and leveling up just like one would expect.

A more thoughtful player can, however, resolve conflicts by resolving to diplomacy rather than violence. By trying out all sorts of unconventional acts like complimenting, encouraging, or even hugging the foes, the hero can try to make them lose their will to fight and then spare them. While figuring out what works, the only way to defend oneself is to move the player’s soul, represented by a little red heart, away from adversaries’ bullet hell -esque attacks. Easier said than done, especially as pacifism leads to zero experience points gained, meaning that those choosing nonviolence are expected to complete the game eternally stuck as a level one character. No matter the approach, game overs tend to happen but thankfully save points are rather frequent.

Giving prominence to deliberately coarse pixel art but also exceptionally good and varied retro music, the game draws particularly heavily from HAL Laboratory’s SNES classic Earthbound. Undertale is an adventure that aims to charm with pure weirdness. While getting into the bottom of the origins of the feud between humans and monsters, the player bumps into increasingly more peculiar characters, locations, and situations. The path is beset by intentionally crappy puzzles, even crappier puns, and plenty of laughing at all sorts of RPG clichés and, exclusive to the PlayStation version, trophies.

Even if the journey progresses as a tight tunnel, it also features plenty of depth. Many scenarios adapt not only to the general approach of the player but also to the items they carry or the way they have acted in the past. The humorous story that eventually also plucks some emotional strings lasts about six hours and remains highly entertaining throughout. While it’s easy to miss out on some things, the epilogue is kind enough to tell what might still be worth trying, so reloading the final save and doing a bit of backtracking can still provide an hour or two of equally enjoyable post-gaming of sorts.

While Undertale is innately quite niche and mimics Earthbound a bit too blatantly for its own good especially towards the end, it’s still a game that worked well in this gaming household, too. It challenges established RPG conventions in a creative and amusing way, doesn’t outstay its welcome, and is full of just that sort of eccentricity that appeals to players who are broad-minded or simply prefer their experiences a bit different. Jolly good show, Toby, jolly good show!