Category Archives: Playthrough

Waifus in Bullet Hell

Must… Shoot… Must… Not… Shoot…

The success of PS4 has blessed the console with some surprising releases of which Game Tengoku CruisinMix is probably from the most peculiar end. It’s a port of a 1997 Sega Saturn game which in turn was an enhanced version of a 1995 arcade shooter by Jaleco. Going further, that one recruits six pilots from Jaleco’s arcade lineup from the eighties to step against the mad scientist Yamada who decides to conquer the gaming world by invading the cabinets of a local arcade. If that sounds a bit goofy then it’s perfectly normal as the game is a proud representative of the small but gallant genre of parody shooters, and even after all these years, it turns out to be none too shabby.

The game was originally a six-level vertical shooter that was given two additional stages on Saturn, all of which are focused on bona fide 90’s otaku fan service. You can play as an everyday space fighter jock, a sentient mecha, one of three cute girls, or even as a plump pork. The choice is fairly irrelevant as all of them have their basic gun that fires in some direction and a handful of mega bombs capable of clearing almost the entire screen in one way or another. At the beginning of each stage (or after each death), the game immediately gifts you with a couple of pint-sized helper drones while the main gun can be upgraded a few times with bonus icons picked up on the way. Each character excels in some parts of the game while sucking at others, but their differences are so minor that it’s almost disappointing. Actual shooting isn’t that promising either, introducing a model where constant button mashing only fires off weak shots while holding down the button gives a really short burst of rapid fire before starting to charge for a slow but admittedly powerful shot. That’s tactical, sure, but after a whole day of shooting my thumb is already screaming for mercy.

Each stage takes place in an arcadey setting, themed from an entire venue to pinballs, UFO catchers, racing games, or 80’s retro gems. The stages in the arcade version are mostly good for a wry smile but the additional stages of the Saturn version manage to raise a few genuine laughs. For example, there’s a level in which a cute gal is singing karaoke, filling the screen with hiragana that should either be destroyed quickly in hopes of a better score or desperately avoided so that your inner otaku can enjoy through the whole song. Even JRPG boss battles take a strange turn when Yamada, posing as an evil wizard with hit points and an entire role-playing user interface, faces off against some rapid-firing shoot ’em up justice. Should nothing else raise a smile, the destructive fetish bombs of the loliest character in the roster are likely to make the player both shake and nod at the same time. Oh, endearing Japan, never ever change!

Still, since we are essentially talking about a Japanese shooter, it can be a cold shower straight from the very beginning. I made the mistake of hopping straight into the Saturn port of the arcade version, which on normal difficulty and a 4:3 playing area was nothing short of torture. Bullets fly into your face with such intensity and accuracy that I was lucky to survive for 15 seconds and even if credits are infinite, constant dying ate away gaming enjoyment like a starved squirrel (fond of gaming enjoyment). Utterly demoralized by all this, I switched over to the original arcade version, changed difficulty to Very Easy, upped lives from three to five, and even activated a feature that automatically uses a mega bomb in case of an immediate death. After this, the game began to open up. The arcade mode is obviously even more narrow as far as the whole screen is concerned but at least I finally had time to react to things. Even with every possible training wheel in play, it took a few tries to complete a 1CC run but I’m happy the options were there. This is probably how learning any ruthless shooter begins, anyway.

After enough training, even the bonus stage inclusive story mode of the Saturn version became tolerable. Not only does repetition help in learning the enemy patterns, it also teaches when not to shoot at all. Since each downed enemy fires off one sizable bullet as a bitter thank you gift, it’s often better to concentrate on mere survival rather than a position on the high score table. Also, the story mode has an added benefit of adorable between-stage chibi cinematics. Nonsensical for those of us who don’t understand Japanese but still amusing, even if you can only pick up a word here and there.

One day on the easiest and most pathetic difficulty was perfectly fine to have a grand shoot ’em up time. The game might not have enough oomph to rival Konami’s ever-awesome Parodius series but I’m still thankful to Kadokawa Games for releasing this port of a port, even if only in Japan; at least in this household, silly shooters are always welcome!

This Is How to Sequel!

Another shitty day at school…

Minor disappointments in gaming are easily forgotten simply by shoving something entirely different into the disc bay. This weekend has once again been all about top-notch entertainment as I found time to let Life Is Strange: Before the Storm tickle my emotional strings. A few years ago, developer Dontnod introduced us to its five-episode graphic adventure Life Is Strange, which more or less shot itself straight to the top of the genre as far as I’m concerned. While I was kind of looking forward to Before the Storm, I also had plenty of reservations about it. An entirely new dev team, just three episodes, and focus no longer on the absolutely adorable Max Caulfield but instead her rebellious and slightly unpredictable BFF, Chloe Price, and don’t even get me started on the first adventure ending in a way that doesn’t really warrant a follow-up of any kind.

Still, Deck Nine was given the reins and managed to turn impossible into reality. Before the Storm predates the original, heart-rending adventure of Max and Chloe by rewinding back to the time when Max and her family had already moved out of the little town of Arcadia Bay, leaving the now 16-year-old Chloe still trying to come to terms with the car accident that claimed the life of his father. School sucks, friends are irrelevant, and mom’s new boyfriend is about the most repulsive douchebag on earth. All this changes when the school’s prettiest and most popular girl, Rachel Amber, suddenly shows interest in Chloe, and during the three days that follow, the two of them get marinated in such potent and genuinely believable teen drama that it occasionally manages to triumph over even the game’s outstanding precursor!

If Chloe Price might once have felt a bit too reckless and rowdy for her own good, Deck Nine does a stellar job inducing her with not just attitude but cracks as well. The paranormal elements of the first game have been bravely binned, so Before the Storm is “only” about the happenstance friendship (or perhaps even more) of two teenage girls, full of fleeting slices of life that can be as absolutely awesome as they can stink to high heavens. At least from the perspective of my middle-aged, fairly unscathed male self, experiencing life with such an overflowing dose of teen angst is quite striking, especially when it has been told in such a superbly plausible and touching manner.

As usual, the gameplay elements themselves are nothing but dressing for the story. Chloe has to figure out a handful of awfully straightforward puzzles, and frequently choose her point of view from two to three dialogue choices, each slightly altering the way things will go. Whereas Max Caulfield was once all about hunting down photo opportunities, Chloe focuses on spreading her laconic world view by finding suitable targets for her snarky graffiti. That’s about all the interactivity there is, although the real challenge lies in having to pry oneself away from the game’s most lingering moments. Whenever Chloe decides to sit down for awhile, the game digs into its wide repertoire of great ambient indie songs and goes into full-on chill mode, letting each song and each wonderful scenery give the heroines some much-needed solace. Many games are beautiful on the outside but it’s moments like these when Before the Storm truly gets under your skin.

One would probably have to be pretty dead inside if the game’s strongest moments won’t manage you to get at least a little bit misty-eyed. Although the second episode is dramatically a bit weak, both the first and the third fire on all cylinders and with such intensity that it’s enough to cause goosebumps. Should all else fail, the final one-hour bonus episode, Farewell, takes the player even further into the past, making them relive that bittersweet final day when Chloe and Max, still just grade school kids, originally had to say goodbye to each other.

Short put, this is games at their finest. Narrative, harrowingly beautiful, immensely powerful, and as two separate studios have already proven themselves capable of moving the player on an emotional level, here’s hoping Square Enix as a publisher keeps supporting this in the future. I’m not crying, you’re crying!

I Take It Back

At least it looks pretty at times…

Phew… After roughly 60 hours, I’m finally done with Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, platinum trophy and everything. As much as I wanted to like it, it turned out to be one of the most low-key JRPGs in a long time. Even ample development time and a generous budget matter little when the heart isn’t in it, and this is one of those rare occasions when Level-5 swings a miss. Half of my disappointment stems from the story. Young Evan’s growth from a displaced king to the savior of the whole world is a perfectly adequate motif but the adventure only ends up repeating itself in an awfully predictable fashion. Evan and his friends travel from one neighboring kingdom to another, listening to their problems, trundling through their dungeons, whooping a massive monster behind all the distress, and getting rewarded by some local notable deciding to tag along. After enough of this, an unimaginative main villain is given a thorough thrashing and that’s it. Sure, that’s basically how most JRPGs go but the story of Ni no Kuni II is so straightforward and uninspiring that it never feels like a proper, epic adventure. It only took a paltry 40 hours to get to the end credits, and maybe a fourth of that went to optional stuff.

Even that side content is a bit lackluster. At first building and improving Evan’s new kingdom is remarkably engrossing, and recruiting new inhabitants to live there almost feels as fun as hunting down the 108 stars in Suikoden. There are also adorable skirmish battles in which Evan leads up to four military units against enemy armies, utilizing simple rock-paper-scissors style strategy to emerge triumphant. Heck, even the world map is crammed full of dungeons, shrines, and treasures, so at least on paper there should be plenty to enjoy. Sadly, everything there is has been copy-pasted with such fervor that doing anything at all soon degrades into nothing but a massive chore. Skirmishes are silly fun for maybe half a dozen times but there are 50 of them. Slaying a dozen side bosses is okay but there are 50 of those, too. 50 Higgledies hiding around the world, another 50 to cook up in a magic cauldron back home, 64 facilities to build and upgrade, 170 side missions (most of which are just boring item hunts), hundreds of treasure chests full of inconsequential loot… There’s a ton of everything, sure, but none of it feels particularly exciting or worthwhile, especially during post-game.

Even the pleasantly original, semi-turn-based combat system of the first game has been replaced with chaotic, Tales-like arcade brawling that might encourage blocking in theory but which in practice regresses into mindless bashing of an attack button, throwing in an occasional special move or two, and hoping that your two AI allies make themselves even remotely useful. Leveling up slows down significantly towards the end but with minor equipment upgrades, it is quite possible to beat adversaries even 20 levels above your own by simply rolling away from their strongest attacks. Further advantage can be sought with meals providing temporary bonuses, or investing points won from battles to adjust certain attack types to deal lower or higher damage, but even these are just minor, largely irrelevant features.

If exploring the world of Ni no Kuni II never feels particularly rewarding, at least it’s delightfully fluent. The world map is full of not just cities and dungeons but also portals that can be activated and then warped to from absolutely anywhere. I also liked the enemy mobs that are always visible and even polite enough to leave the player alone if their level is lower than that of the heroes. Even if the battle system is nothing special, at least the game knows not to shove it down your throat. If only the game around these kinds of considerate little touches was better, it’d be truly something!

Still, there’s no two ways about it. Ni no Kuni II is nowhere even close to being the sequel I had been eagerly looking forward to all these years. It’s just a short, run-of-the-mill JRPG with way too much filler and none of that childlike charm and pure magic that defined its predecessor, and that’s a damn shame.

Thankfully there are plenty of other candidates keen on becoming my game of the year. Yakuza 6: The Song of Life could very well be such a title, should I only manage to find enough interminable free time to start savoring it. Detective Pikachu was just an impulse purchase as I have never been much interested in Pokémon but silly spin-offs are always an exception. On the retro side, I grabbed The World Ends with You, Square Enix’s decade-old urban JRPG for the Nintendo DS, as well as the slightly naughty (?) cutesy shooter Soreyuke! Burunyanman Portable for the PSP. Never found that one in Tokyo but thank the gaming goddesses for internet.

Nostalgia

My slow crawl back to more active gaming has continued this week with modern retro. It was time to check out the only (physical) PC game in my collection, Thimbleweed Park, which after a lengthy development period finally saw daylight last fall. Courtesy of graphic adventure grand old man Ron Gilbert, it provides a really impressive time trip back to the late 80’s and early 90’s when wild adventures by LucasArts and Sierra pretty much defined the gaming childhood of us old farts. For some reason the genre, as popular as it was back then, slowly sank into oblivion. No wonder, then, that the stylishly retro Thimbleweed Park immediately felt like the second coming of adventuring Jesus.

The game promises highest quality old school entertainment from its very beginning. The year is 1987 when two federal agents, Ray and Reyes, end up in the tiny hamlet of Thimbleweed Park (population 80) to investigate a local murder. Thematically it’s something along the lines of Twin Peaks or X-Files while visually it’s back to the early Lucasfilm days, although with a much more vibrant color scheme and pretty decent voice acting. Fans of the genre should feel right at home. Action verbs on the bottom left, inventory on the bottom right, and plenty of locations to explore with characters, items, discussions, and events each stranger than the previous ones. The cast of two playable characters soon grows to five, one of them having already passed on no less. Their fates are mysteriously interconnected and for a single night, the town of Thimbleweed Park acts as a grand stage for an adventure experience most abundant.

Although the challenge of any adventure game always depends on the player’s own noggin, the balance between sensible logic and sheer absurdity initially seems pretty good. As a delightful innovation in a game that is otherwise so (deliberately) old-fashioned, each character always carries a personal notebook that keeps a broad but consistent track of their personal goals. As for the town itself, it’s pleasantly compact at first, and when the exploration area eventually expands, a handy guide map allows quick travel to any location. Those familiar with the old adventure classics are showered with generous fan service at every possible turn, and both verbal and situational comedy work remarkably well.

This time the elephant-sized hole lies in Thimbleweed Park being an uncompromising journey to both the good but also the bad of old times. When the game mocks its former rival studio about how their games featured cheap sudden deaths to artificially lengthen the overall experience, that is fun. When I lost almost an hour of my own progress in a similar fashion, that was not. When the game laughs at pointless items that were used to confuse the player, that’s fun. It’s still mildly amusing that this game, too, features such items (and a LOT of them) but that you can simply toss them in the nearest trash bin. What is no longer fun is that it is also possible to accidentally bin something of actual importance. Thimbleweed Park makes a lot of fun about the cheapness of old graphic adventures only to troll its player in similar but often even more unpredictable ways.

Towards the end, puzzles become increasingly more abstract. When all characters are available and the entire play area open for exploration, there’s just too much to cover. Sure, the automatic notes are always there to tell what should be achieved but it’s still easy to hit a roadblock with all five characters. When eventually being able to make at least a little bit of progress, the joy sometimes lasts for about five seconds before getting stumped again. Granted, some dialogue probably hints vaguely on what might be worth trying but such hints easily drown into excessive noise. You can never be quite sure if the game is trying to pass on a hint or if it’s simply entertaining you with (genuinely funny) dialogue as it does 95% of the time.

As a polite gesture, Thimbleweed Park does feature an in-game hintline. It can be called at any point in the game to receive progressively clearer hints on how to solve any given puzzle but it goes without saying that resorting to something like that pretty much equals virtual seppuku for most self-respecting adventure gamers. Despite that, I eventually got so fed up with aimless wandering around that during the last three hours of the game, I abused it on an almost constant basis. Some of the solutions were simple enough to nearly make me hit myself but there were also many that would’ve probably taken me days to figure out and even then the revelation would have been along the lines of “Oooookay… So that’s what it was all about… Yeah, suuuure…”

On whole, Thimbleweed Park left me feeling slightly conflicted. It definitely does an absolutely brilliant job of resurrecting all that was so magical about past graphic adventures but it fails to fix many of the things that might have been part of the reason why they went out of style to begin with. Despite that, the approach itself is so commendable that if there’s ever going to be more in a similar vein, we’ll meet at the checkout line once more!

The Witcher Comeback

Oh, it’s February already? If sheer laziness doesn’t count, I only have two excuses for the silence of the past five weeks. Firstly, there haven’t yet been any new game releases this year that would’ve piqued my interest. Secondly, despite a sizable backlog, I ended up revisiting CD Projekt’s exquisite fantasy epic The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, complete with all the DLC and everything. Although I had already experienced all of that before, the adventures of the Witcher Geralt turned out to be just as enchanting and content-rich the second time around. Even the pivotal main and side quests once again took well over a hundred hours and the world map is still littered with tons of minor locations to explore. In both good and bad sense, the game is just plain massive.

In this entry, I mostly focus on how replay value holds up. Probably the most surprising thing was still the vastness of the game world. Even White Orchard, essentially just a tutorial area, felt delightfully large only to pale in comparison to the desolate quagmires of Velen and the hustle and bustle of the free city of Novigrad. There’s just so much to see and do that it might start to feel excessive even before embarking to the rocky shores of Skellige, let alone the duchy of Toussaint introduced in the Blood and Wine DLC.

The game’s story branching was surprising, too, given how often the player is given a choice to affect the outcome of pretty much every main and side quest, sometimes in minor but often in major ways. One might think that the second time would be perfect for trying out alternative ways of resolving things, yet I constantly found myself making the same choices as the first time around, even the same gross misjudgments included. I guess this is at least partially to do with the player’s own moral compass but also the fact that there are often no easy, predictable outcomes available. Besides, even the most tragic of fates have been written with such care that they feel like a natural, necessary part of the story despite there perhaps having been a chance for things to go better.

I was quite happy how well the game has been patched over the years, getting rid of a large number of minor bugs and improving the user interface. Still, some core problems were never addressed. For example, the most challenging Death March difficulty is absolutely thrilling for the first few hours when even the most basic of foes can pose a lethal threat to an inexperienced Witcher. However, after leveling up Geralt even just to character level 7-10, new skills and constantly improving gear start tipping the scales the other way. After a few dozen hours fighting becomes a routine and by the time of the DLC, Geralt has become so overpowered that nothing feels genuinely threatening anymore.

Also, the game’s economy is still as broken as ever. The street value of a magical sword can equal that of a roasted chicken leg, and if slaying a fierce monster is worth a few hundred crowns, that hardly feels like a reward when you already have tens of thousands in the coin pouch. Merchants practically never have anything worthwhile to buy as the game world is bursting out of its seams with useful and valuable loot of all kinds. The DLC introduce a couple of places where Geralt can squander away all the pointless wealth amassed during the main game but even those only serve to emphasize just how meaningless money in the game is.

In hindsight, the best way to truly enjoy this game is to approach it calmly. During both of my playthroughs, I made the mistake of going from village to village, eagerly picking up any and every side quest available. This caused my mission log and the game world to be so full of stuff that going through them turned into arduous, monotonic work. Sure, even the smallest of side quests are genuinely written but the basic theme always remains the same: go somewhere to find or kill something. I’m quite certain the game would entertain a lot better in small doses over the course of several months (or even years) rather than trying to wolf it all down in quick succession.

Despite all this, I have to admit The Witcher 3 earns all of its acclaim. Its fantasy is as stark as it is beautiful, and everything in it has been produced with such dedication and attention to detail that it’s a blast even when replayed.

Around the Park in 79 Days

Since I was already shopping at PlayStation Store, I also ended up buying Firewatch, Campo Santo’s fairly well-received debut adventure from 2016. It stars Henry, a man broken by life’s surprising curve balls. He decides to get away from pretty much everything and takes a job as a reclusive fire lookout in the Yellowstone National Park. The only one to keep him company is chatty Delilah, a lookout on the neighboring watchtower. Although Henry has never met her, they quickly end up forming a long distance (work) relationship through radio. Days go by with small talk, long hikes, and dealing with drunken teenagers, although it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it should. There are shadowy people lurking about, park visitors either go missing or have gone missing ages ago, Henry and Delilah find out they’re being eavesdropped, and some areas have been suspiciously fenced up. Amid all these mysteries, Henry is still expected to take care of his post and ensure that an exceptionally hot and dry summer won’t end up in a catastrophic wildfire.

Probably the first thing the player notices is the openness of this first person exploration adventure. Henry has been put in charge of a fairly vast area and the game isn’t that much into hand-holding. If the man has to do some routine patrolling or spots something peculiar in the horizon, the route has to be figured out with frequent glances to a map and a compass. Even if merely walking around in the middle of beautiful nature has its charm, Firewatch is first and foremost about the chemistry between Henry and Delilah. They’re both adults, slightly broken personalities who possess a delightfully cynical attitude towards life, complemented by crude humor. Their abundant interaction supports an otherwise tranquil story most well, especially as the player is frequently given a chance to choose how Henry reacts.

In real-time, Henry’s two and a half month summer job takes about four hours to experience. This time consists of plenty of peace of nature, remarkable sunrises and sunsets, magnificent vistas, rappelling down cliffs, discovering abandoned campsites, and getting caught up in odd, increasingly unnerving events. As a slight blemish, gaining access to some areas can feel awkward and implausible, and even the overall story stumbles a little towards the end. This is, however, easy to forgive as the main attraction is still very much the chance encounter of two imperfect souls only via walkie-talkies. Granted, when all is said and done, Firewatch is another release that is game in name only but like so many of these “walking simulators” have shown, this media is perfectly suitable for mere stories, too. Me likey.

Edith, Edith, Who the F*** Is Edith?

That’s pretty much what I was asking myself when going through other players’ lists of the best games of last year. Quite many of them mentioned What Remains of Edith Finch, whose developer Giant Sparrow sounded oddly familiar. After a bit of thinking, I remembered that they were the studio behind the really quite lovely The Unfinished Swan back in 2012. Since What Remains of Edith Finch happened to be on PlayStation Store’s sale this month, I had no choice but to see what sort of potential hit had managed to fly under my usually so finely tuned radar. Now, only a couple of short hours later, I have to admit that despite the experience having been a fleeting one, it was also an extremely beautiful and touching little story.

Despite being just 17, Edith Finch is the last of her kin. As years have gone by, all Finches have either disappeared or died, often in the most peculiar of circumstances. After being away for six years, Edith returns to her childhood home in order to get better acquainted with her roots that some claim to be cursed. Although the doors of the derelict mansion are seamed shut, the house is full of hidden passages through which Edith finds her way around to learn more about the life and fate of her ancestors. Through letters and diaries, she gets drawn into flashbacks that make her experience the last moments of her family through their eyes. As creepy as that might sound, the game most certainly isn’t a horror adventure but a wistful and mystic journey full of captivating fantasy.

As a first-person adventure, What Remains of Edith Finch is pure exploration with all interaction limited to just walking around and activating miscellaneous hotspots with the controller’s shoulder button. The narrated thoughts of both Edith and other Finch family members float nicely around the environment, taking care of not just storytelling but also gently guiding the player along. Although the abandoned mansion is pretty huge, the adventure is remarkably straightforward and much more about soaking everything in than actually playing as such. And that’s about all that can be said to avoid spoilers. All the magic stems from the melancholic but also remarkably eccentric fate of each Finch, often ripping open the fabric of reality.

In a nutshell, What Remains of Edith Finch is an impressive fairy tale for grown-ups, one that can easily make the player even a little misty-eyed. Its short length, deliberate tranquility, and lack of genuine gameplay elements might not be for everyone but for those interested in emotionally powerful stories, it’s a journey most fine and memorable!

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!