Category Archives: Shopping

Uh Oh…

Adding some duet prowess for Hibiki

Those of you who have been following this blog probably recall that its strongest swear word so far has been The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars, that utterly abhorrent loot hell in which I masochistically dwelled for several months. Last January, I solemnly swore never to touch crap like that ever again but only a month earlier Bandai Namco had already released The Idolm@ster: Stella Stage. Darn. Thankfully all news coverage about that one asserted that it wouldn’t be nearly as inane as its predecessor, so while I was still extremely wary, I decided to give the idol girls one more chance to woo me over.

The premise of the game is not promising in the slightest. All the idols who I had painstakingly nurtured to shiny platinum stardom are once again just feeble F-class newbies, and the same applies to the player’s alter ego of Producer-san. The head of 765 Production talent agency entrusts you with just one idol out of 13 with the rest remaining behind lock and key until you prove your managerial worth. So, is this just the same nightmare all over again? Broadly speaking, yes, although much to my relief it seems like Stella Stage fixes pretty much everything that was so hopelessly broken in Platinum Stars.

First of all, this time around there’s actually content to speak of. The selection of 45 songs, 116 costumes, and 140 accessories is almost thrice as much as before. Granted, those numbers include practically everything that Platinum Stars had but should you have been lucky enough to miss that one altogether, Stella Stage is an even better reason to forget that it ever even existed. Even more important, though, is that the costumes and accessories are no longer random presents but guaranteed rewards for successful lives. They can also be bought from the local tailor or unlocked with coaching points in a brand new board game. It’s a cute little mini-game in which you walk around the 13 idols in their chibi form on a board that has tiles containing permanent performance bonuses, costumes, accessories, and new songs. Presents are also still around but now they only contain minor stuff such as fan letters and exp drinks, on top of which there’s always a bunch of them after each and every live. Playing is still as grindy as ever but at least those who are into collecting stuff will feel rewarded on a constant basis.

Also, the grind itself feels much more tolerable. Even if you’re once again tasked with raising all girls to sterling S-class, it now only requires one million fans instead of ten. Song levels improve after just five plays rather than 20, and even when enhancing costumes and accessories, their level cap has been lowered from ten to seven. New songs still become available in an annoyingly slow pace but on whole Stella Stage is – at least for the time being – actually fun to toil at.

As for the rhythm part, improvements are fairly modest. Songs can be played with ensembles of almost every size from solo runs to All Stars medleys that include everyone with each variety even being available pretty much from the get-go. The same applies to the second hardest Pro difficulty of each song, although anyone marinated in rhythm games will probably find that so easy that even with new songs, perfect chains on first attempts are more norm than exception. To counter that, the hardest Master difficulty is now even more difficult, mostly thanks to sections that require two right-hand buttons to be pressed or held down at the same time. This either requires baffling thumb acrobatics or moving your left hand to assist, which in turn causes panic with notes that require a simultaneous press on the d-pad. At least for me, Pro feels a bit too easy whereas Master is frustratingly hard, so an additional difficulty between these two really wouldn’t go amiss.

For a main project, Stella Stage feels a bit too familiar and grindy but it works remarkably well in short bursts between other releases. Only half a year ago, I never would’ve believed to have any sympathy left for Project iM@S, yet it still feels like Stella Stage could very well be the rhythm game I always wanted Platinum Stars to be, and that’s actually saying a lot!

Although my backlog of candidates to enjoy alongside Stella Stage is massive already, perhaps it still has room for a couple more. While Initial D: Extreme Stage provided a fun weekend on Japan’s mountain roads, Wangan Midnight promises similar fun but on the country’s highways instead. I’m certainly keen to see if its iconic Nissan Fairlady Z would be slightly less demanding than the AE86. Then again, perhaps taking it easy for a change would be nice, too; Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon promises carefree farming days in some sort of sci-fi setting, which doesn’t sound half bad at all.

Cold Hard Shoulder

Ha! Found a Trueno-sized hole to squeeze through!

After enjoying drifting in several arcade racers in Tokyo, I began to wonder if something like that would also be available for home consoles. Although there doesn’t seem to be much to choose from, at least there’s Initial D: Extreme Stage, a 2008 release for the PS3, which turned out to be pretty much exactly what I was looking for. It’s based on the late 90’s hit anime of the same name, starring car enthusiastic teens racing their souped-up rides up and down Japan’s twisty mountain roads. The player joins their ranks as a newcomer male or female with a customizable look and license plate, choosing from one of the 23 80’s and 90’s cars from eight different Japanese manufacturers (Civics, Lancers, Imprezas, Skylines, etc.) For devoted Initial D fans, of course, there’s only one viable choice: the unassuming, rear-wheel drive Toyota Sprinter Trueno AE86, which racing prodigy Takumi Fujiwara used to beat even the most bad-ass rivals out there.

There are only seven routes, although they are all driven both uphill and downhill, during daytime and nighttime, and possibly with a bit of rain thrown on top. On them wait at least 26 opponents familiar from the anime. All races are duels that last for about four minutes and are delightfully loyal to the original source material. They’re preceded by short, manga-like cutscenes full of the usual bragging, after which it’s time to get noisy. Engines growl, tires squeal, shift pedals are slammed audibly, and all this is, naturally, backed up by 13 songs worth of lovably trashy eurobeat. The most memorable songs from the anime are sadly not present but the overall atmosphere is still very much there, especially as your chatty opponents frequently engage in either smug boasting or cursing your speed and skill, depending on whether they happen to be leading or merely admiring your tail lights. Each race concludes by accepting a graceful win (or defeat) after which it’s time to see who’s up next.

All this comes with a driving model that is… Well, let’s just say interesting. Although the view from behind the car would be ideal for an arcade racer like this, it’s nigh on useless. The cars feel like weightless lumps that have been pinned on a cocktail stick from their exact center with even the smallest nudge of the steering wheel flinging them into a drift at any speed and even on straights. The handling becomes a little better after switching to the more boring road view but it never feels particularly enjoyable. Such an awkward model is justified by the game’s nature, though, as the sheer majority of time is spent sideways navigating 180 degree turns while trying to get the front bumper to caress the inside shoulder as closely as possible to block the opponent from passing. Faithful to the anime, each corner is taken at speeds well over 60MPH and brakes often feel like nothing more than a cosmetic afterthought.

After accepting the floaty driving model as a necessary evil, Extreme Stage briefly turns into a most entertaining experience. The speeds are always excessive but at least on the gentler corners of the wider roads of some of the routes, maintaining a steady drift with slight steering adjustments is rewarding. The races feel a little scripted but at least the rubber band is pure anime. More often than not the opponent will make an early overtake by brute force, if necessary, only to slightly slow down in some later sections to give the player at least a theoretical chance to make an impressive comeback.

Although wins are frequent at first, the game soon bares its fangs. Driving can feel deceptively easy, especially when frequent minor brushes with roadside barriers only dent your own self-esteem. Despite being excessively arcadey, however, it soon becomes a must not just to learn the game but to learn it exceptionally well. After later opponents start to repeatedly disappear into the horizon, there’s still the option to level the playing field by investing points won from races to improve car performance. The engine, manifold, wheels, chassis, and miscellaneous parts can be tuned up to seven stages but not only is this noticeably expensive and requires a whole lot of grinding with races already won, even that won’t help in the end. After ten hours, I finally managed to tune my AE86 to the maximum but I’m still getting my butt kicked. I suppose I could try some other car to see if one would be better suited for the harder opponents but not only would it take an equal amount of time to get them up to similar performance, I’m fairly certain the only cure would be to git gud.

Granted, banging your head against the story mode wall isn’t the only option. Each route can be practiced alone in time attack mode, and even if the game is a decade old already, its online mode was still alive and well, at least for the one brief go I had over there. Still, for this middle-aged Sunday driver, one weekend with this game is good enough for now. While I might never learn the intricacies of graceful, yet blindingly fast drifting, at least my Initial D fan service thirst has been quenched way better than I even expected.

There are a couple of other recent additions to the collection, too. Girls und Panzer: Dream Tank Match is most likely exactly that, although before hopping into that one, I really have to find time to watch the related anime (and movie) first to get a better understanding on why school girls are driving around in WWII era tanks. It’s important to know! And, to make future gaming days even more Japanese than that, there’s Gal*Gun 2, a first person on-rails shooter unabashedly touting itself as a pantsu paradise. Unconventional camp humor? Yes, please!

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.

Slow Simmer

Although the recent Japanese loot is awfully tempting, the exceptionally quiet start of the year finally turned into a veritable flood of slightly more interesting releases. Out of them, the first in line is naturally Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, the long-sought sequel to the PS3 JRPG gem Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch from almost eight years ago. The game follows the young, cat-like Evan Pettiwhisker Tildrum who loses the kingdom of his recently departed father, and nearly his life, to a coup led by dastardly mice. Roland Crane, a young man mysteriously sucked into this same fantasy world from a parallel universe helps Evan to escape. Together they decide that if a kingdom is lost then the only option is to form one anew. All potential rulers first need a Kingmaker, though; a massive, magical beast tasked to defend its owner’s country. In Evan’s case, however, such beast turns out to be Lofty; just a yellow, pint-sized runt of a mascot. Even if adversities seem to follow one another, Evan is not dismayed but instead finds a piece of suitable land, sets up the foundations of his new nation, and heads off to the neighboring countries for official recognition.

I’m now about 20 hours in and at least so far, the game has failed to captivate in the same way that its absolutely marvelous precursor managed to. The story plays incredibly safe and straightforward, sending Evan and Roland from one kingdom and its related dungeon to another, making them solve conveniently appearing crises to forge new alliances and be joined by new party members. There’s a bog-standard, deliberately enigmatic bad guy dreaming of world annihilation, a ship to eventually enable traveling across vast seas, and an airship that opens up exploration even further but on whole, everything pivotal is such an overly familiar bowl of clichés that it’s really hard to get genuinely excited about any of it.

Even the unique charm of Level-5 doesn’t seem to be present in full force. The world map and some of the dungeons are once again astonishingly beautiful and in general, the game thoroughly looks like high-quality anime. Still, practically all event scens are not only woefully short but done with just the game engine, carrying no sensation of awe whatsoever. The same goes for the soundtrack. The orchestral music is always there and always “pretty nice” but the only track that has left a lasting impression so far has been the bombastic main theme of the first game and even that has been arranged more poorly. Even the amount of voice acting is remarkably stingy with most of the dialogue being delivered by text accompanied with a few random grunts and other utterances. This really isn’t the valiant Ni no Kuni we have been waiting for eight years but a feebly disguised Tales of game that Bandai Namco has managed to churn out four times in the same period of time.

There’s plenty of good in the side content and even in some of the design decisions, though, so expect a bit more positive rambling in the coming days as I dwell deeper into the adventure.

Almost all the other newcomers of this year fly the flag of PS4. Dead Island: Definitive Collection remasters two of last generation’s most impressive and entertaining zombie games in ages, so I’m definitely trying to find time to experience both of them again. Atari Flashback Classics Vol. 1, Atari Flashback Classics Vol. 2, Marvel Pinball: Epic Collection Vol. 1, and Yesterday Origins were all dirt-cheap bargain bin finds that carry no notable expectations. That’s hardly the case with Life Is Strange: Before the Storm and Final Fantasy XV, the former finally having been given a physical release and the latter having been released as a Royal Edition that contains all the DLC (although it was a massive disappointment to find out it’s just the vanilla game on disc and a download code for a few dozen gigabytes of additional content). As for The Witch and the Hundred Knight 2, that’s a sequel to one of the freshest and most beloved action-JRPGs I played last gen, so having really high hopes for it, too. Lastly, on hardware side, there’s the utterly adorable C64 Mini! It even features Winter Games, more or less the first game I ever played back in 1985 when my parents pampered me with a computer. Been a gamer ever since and wouldn’t trade away a single day!

Hanami Recharge

The complete lethargy that has been pestering me all this year is hopefully now a thing of the past, cured by the only way I know of. On Easter Monday, I flipped the bird at Finland’s cold and slushy spring and headed back to Tokyo after a break of a couple of years. That same day, the last winter storm hit the country pretty hard but the gallant professionals of Helsinki-Vantaa did a commendable job keeping everything running. Many flights were canceled, sure, but long-haul flights weren’t luckily among them. Although Finnair handled its part immaculately and the plane boarded on time, we still had to wait for connecting passengers from Sweden for over an hour. Because of Murphy’s laws, there also had to be that one poor sod whose luggage was already on the plane but the person was not. Still, we eventually got going and as a pleasant surprise, the originally overbooked plane had a couple of no-shows who would’ve been sitting next to me. The new Airbus 350-900 is a mighty comfortable plane even as-is with but when I had three seats worth of personal space, it was as much luxury as economy class can possibly offer.

Since my usual go-to- hotel, Ville Fontaine Kayabacho, had raised its prices uncomfortably high at least for the duration of the hanami season, I had to hunt down a slightly cheaper place to stay at. Equally near to the Tokyo City Air Terminal, I found a passable alternative in City Pension Zem. It’s a minuscule, 27-room family hotel that was quite modest and endearingly old-fashioned but as long as you don’t expect anything more than cheap accommodation, free Wi-Fi, and at least a little bit of breakfast every morning, it was most adequate. The sound proofing is abysmal but since each floor only has three or four rooms and fellow passengers were courteous enough to stay quiet most of the time, the nights were peaceful. The biggest drawback of the hotel is probably its location. It takes a five-minute walk just to the nearest metro station of Suitengumae, which isn’t even connected to anything noteworthy. Another five minutes of walking gets you to the slightly better aligned stations of either Ningyocho or Kayabacho but as these trips are always about plenty of walking, even short distances like these quickly add up to eventually murder your feet. Still, the hotel was good value for money and since the service was excellent, it’s certainly worth a recommendation on budget.

As for hanami, last year I was visiting the country a little bit too early and this time around a little bit too late. Japan had a chilly spring but at the last possible moment it turned into an unexpected heatwave that caused cherry blossoms to go crazy. Thankfully the first few days were still good enough to enjoy a bit of leftover spring celebration in Ueno Park, which was still teeming with people enjoying a relaxed picnic and food stalls offering all sorts of festival grub. Even Tokyoites seemed slightly perplexed of temperatures rising as high as 26° C but at least they later got down to more manageable 15-20° C. All in all, the weather was great for the entire week and for the first time ever, I never had to resort to an umbrella.

On whole, this year’s trip was mostly a best of selection from the past visits. I went to Odaiba to play some pinball and retro arcades (can be found from the fourth floor of Decks Mall Tokyo Beach), and enjoyed the new and impressively lit Unicorn Gundam in front of Diver City Plaza. For food, there was yakitori in the ever-wonderful Torigin in Ginza as well as on Omoide Yokocho, also known as Piss Alley, which featured loads of quaint little bars and grills on a narrow alleyway. The mandatory pilgrimage for Yakuza fans, Kabukicho, was also worth a visit. For thirst of culture, there was the Yebisu Museum of Beer, and a new Godzilla statue was featured in Hibiya, although it was a lot smaller than I thought it would be. Then again, the giant, steampunk-inspired Ghibli clock in Shiodome was truly a sight to behold, especially when it puts up an amusing three-minute show a few times a day.

I also checked out Yokohama, an hour away from Tokyo but easily accessible on the Tokaido line. For the second biggest city in Japan, it was a massive letdown. Sure, there was a little Nissan gallery, the observation tower of Minato Mirai, and Chinatown where steamed meat buns could be bought at practically every street corner, but that’s about it. The city is probably quite a bit more impressive during nighttime but as a day trip, it was just a waste of time. Thankfully Kawasaki, halfway between Tokyo and Yokohama, delivered big time. From the Kawasaki station, it’s just a five-minute walk to Anata no Warehouse, which very well might be the most wonderful arcade on this entire planet! This five-story complex, deliberately designed to look decrepit, imitates the Walled City of Kowloon and it’s just plain awesome! The entrance leads to a decontamination chamber good for a small jump scare, after which a dimly lit corridor leads you on a visually and aurally creepy time trip to the past. The elevator and the toilets in particular look like places to lose your life in bizarre circumstances, and the attention to detail is duly impressive. The main attraction, of course, are the games of which there are dozens and dozens, new and old, and many that can be played for just 50 yen a go. It’s a cheap, highly entertaining way to spend even an entire day, should your ears handle the cacophony.

Amid all this, there was naturally Akihabara. After paying a visit to the Kanda Myojin shrine and its wonderful manga prayer plaques, I rummaged through the arcades and game shops with huge fervor and ended up with a nice selection of all sorts of curios. For GBA, there’s Kessakusen! Ganbare Goemon 1+2: Yukihime to Magginesu, which at least looks like to be an action platformer of sorts. On PS2, it’s all about music (Taiko no Tatsujin: Tobikkiri! Anime Special and Taiko no Tatsujin: Wai Wai Happy Rokudaime) and bullet hell shooters (Dodonpachi Daioujou, Mushihimesama, Triggerheart Exelica Enhanced, and Twinklestar Sprites: La Petite Princesse). PSP retro comes in four flavors, namely Dariusburst, Capcom Classics Collection, SNK Arcade Classics Vol. 1, and SNK Arcade Classics 0. For the 3DS, SoniPro: Super Sonico in Production promises gravure, rhythm, and idol management while Vita is good for music (DJMax Technika Tune) and shooting (Dariusburst Chronicle Saviours). My PS4 collection is bolstered with the Japanese trio of The Idolm@ster: Stella Stage, Game Tengoku CruisinMix, and Hatsune Miku: Project Diva Future Tone DX, and I even happened upon an import shelf that had a EU region copy of Shovel Knight. That’s probably the next summer vacation all sorted out, then.

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.

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.

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.