Category Archives: Playthrough

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!

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!

Fart Art

We probably shouldn’t be here…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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