Bumbling Bunny

Ohcrapohcrapohcrap…

Sigh. As my back is on its fourth week of hurting, things aren’t looking particularly bright. The same goes for gaming, as the deceptively cute-looking Rabi-Ribi turned out to be an absolutely brutal bullet hell platformer. It features a story, even if it’s not much. A perfectly ordinary bunny, Erina, wakes up on a mystical island of Rabi Rabi, having transformed into a genuine bunny girl. Weird. She really misses Rumi, her master, but perhaps she could be found somewhere on the same island. At first, Erina is only capable of jumping but her chances of survival soon improve as she acquires a delightfully sturdy Piko Hammer. Soon after, she meets Ribbon, a little fairy capable of shooting magical projectiles. With these offensive moves, the duo is more than prepared to explore Rabi Rabi in true Metroidvania style, constantly bumping into hidden new skills, island inhabitants, and countless immensely chaotic boss fights.

It’s quite obvious from the very beginning that Rabi-Ribi is pure hardcore. All the bigger fights are hectic frays in which the player has to constantly dodge impressive attacks that often seem impossible to avoid, all while trying to spot openings for counter-attacks. In the middle of all this panic, the player also has to mind stamina that wears out with every attack made by Erina or Ribbon. Once it runs out, there’s no choice but to back off a little and wait for the meter to recharge. Erina also has an amulet that, for a limited number of times, grants her brief invulnerability. It is naturally only meant to be used for enemy attacks that are simply so massive that they cannot be avoided. Reacting to such times has to be instinctive, though, so the game requires a bewildering amount of skill, practice, and memorizing.

Erina’s adventure makes her stronger, too. The world contains dozens of vials that improve her attack, health, stamina, and its regeneration speed. As well as acquiring entirely new moves, Erina can also find badges that give her various beneficial buffs. If (when) even these items are not enough to help, players can always bin their self-respect and switch to a casual mode. That ensures that even us less-gifted individuals can enjoy the game, finding joy mostly in discovering all the stuff hidden around the various areas of the island.

Rabi-Ribi is quite vast. After 16 hours of playing, I still haven’t completed it fully, even if the closing credits have rolled twice and the map already shows a character that would activate NG+. There are all sorts of epilogues and extra chapters providing more and more to find and challenge, so this is another game I refuse to consider played through quite yet. Then again, I’ll probably leave it unfinished as some of its collectibles are apparently missable. The game also ramps up its already sadistic difficulty towards the end, often requiring pixel perfect jumps and seamless connection of moves that really require their own kind of mentality to find enjoyable. Professionals with godlike skills might be able to scurry through the game on its hardest difficulty in less than an hour and without even picking up any items on the way. Still, such feats are meant only for a small handful of gamers possessing enough dedication.

On whole, however, Rabi-Ribi manages to leave a somewhat positive aftertaste. It combines two different genres in an original way, and even if its story is a bit lightweight and vague, its gameplay has been honed to near perfection. Still, it’s remarkably challenging so those unable to pour hundreds and hundreds of hours into it are probably better off just enjoying it as a speedrun played by someone capable.

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.

From Poland with Love

After completing Nights of Azure with all of its trophies and everything, these past few days have been pure R&R. In-between more full-figured projects, I’ve taken quite a bit of liking to Sky Force Anniversary, this month’s PlayStation Plus freebie by the Polish developer Infinite Dreams. It’s a no-nonsense old-school vertical shoot ’em up pitting a lone hero against the massive air, sea, and ground forces of a pronouncedly evil General Mantis. Games like these don’t really need more story than that, so it’s all about wanton fire and turning tons of hostile metal into scrap iron.

Most games in this genre rely on three lives, a whole lot of memorization, and ever-increasing firepower that is quickly taken away by a single blunder. Sky Force Anniversary is notably more compassionate, even if it only provides a single life and pretty much no other pickup bonuses than increased rate of fire. Still, it’s possible to start from any previously unlocked stage, and stars picked up from destroyed enemies act as currency to steadily improve the player’s ship into a true force to be reckoned with. Such options are plentiful from thicker armor, more powerful shots, and homing missiles all the way down to limited use game changers such as lasers, force fields, and mega bombs. The game is more than happy to dish out punishment but the slow and steady grind is what keeps everything fair. Even a failed run is still a stepping stone towards a ship that will eventually allow even the less-gifted pilots to shine. Probably.

Inevitable repetition is also alleviated by stage challenges. They require destroying 70% or 100% of anything hostile, taking no damage whatsoever, and rescuing poor troopers stuck behind enemy lines by floating above them for a brief amount of time. After completing these four requirements (not necessarily during the same run), the stage can be challenged on a higher difficulty level. Even then the number and placing of enemies remains the same; they merely shoot more aggressively. This, too, helps in making Sky Force Anniversary the most refreshing vertical shooter in ages. Usually these games would be entertaining for maybe fifteen minutes, feel “kinda fun” and, if they were arcade cabinets, maybe swallow a quarter or two. In this case, however, the game is so delightfully approachable that hours just fly by.

Sky Force Anniversary also acts as good practice for times to come, as a couple of the latest arrivals are ruthless bullet hell games. Caladrius Blaze is assumably a traditional such shooter whereas Rabi-Ribi combines wild projectile dodging with platforming. As well as these, there’s a bit more semi-retro love courtesy of PS2-action-JRPG Dark Cloud, which makes a welcome return to the shelf. I used to have it as a kid but since I was young and stupid back then, I even sold some of my games. As an adult, such frivolities are thankfully a thing of the past.

Please Concentrate, Sir

Not the way to manage but he does such a fine job!

Sure… Any game can feel challenging, especially when not paying attention. Last time, I sneered at the seemingly sudden difficulty spike of Nights of Azure without considering Arnice’s demon sword. After a bit of slipshod grinding, it had already reached a whole new level. For quite some time, I thought it merely got automatically stronger but it actually took an innocent press of a d-pad button to unleash its true potential. Oh well, no biggie; once this trusty demon hunter utensil turned twice as long and powerful as its wielder, that once-bothersome extra boss swiftly got what was coming. So did the one that followed, as well as all the familiar acquaintances from the first run. All this was rewarded with an ending quite a bit more pleasant than the first one, so I can finally consider the game beat in good conscience.

Or maybe not quite, as I’m still hesitating whether to do a bit of cleaning up by going for all of the game’s trophies or not. Sadly, when it comes to those, Nights of Azure is rather unimaginative. I’m mostly left with a bunch of “do X of this” baits that, at this point in the game, only raise questions of why they’re still even there. Arena trophies might go in the same wastebasket as well. There are a few dozen challenges that pit Arnice and her Servans against slightly puzzle-esque scenarios with time limits. In a way, I suppose they demonstrate the designer’s perception of how the game was meant to be approached from the very beginning but as I’m already pretty much done with everything, such lessons in strategy no longer hold any value whatsoever.

Given how positive I’ve been about Nights of Azure in general (well, it really is rather good!), I feel almost obliged to whine a wee bit more. First, it certainly isn’t much of a looker, even if that’s probably more due to awkward timing and a small budget. The game was released as-is on PS3, PS4, and Vita, so even those of us on PS4 won’t witness any additional graphical fireworks. Still, that’s a minor niggle in comparison to the sorriest localization effort ever. The translated script is chock-full of typos and missing words, and while Arnice is Arnice in the game, she’s Anders in the trophy descriptions, and apparently Aluche in the sequel that is just a few weeks away by now. Seriously, come on!

That’s all the naysay I can think of, though, as I’ll forever remember Nights of Azure as a game that was pleasant in length, pleasant in humor, and pleasant in being a bit of an odd bird. Sure, it might be pure B-class but at least it’s B-class that works!

Hackety Slash

Somehow I feel Mr. Professor isn’t much of an artist :D

After retiring from my less-than-stellar golfing career, I have resumed kicking some good old demon butt. After only about 20 hours, Nights of Azure pitted me against a really feisty final boss followed by a short and slightly confusing epilogue and then the closing credits. For the third time in a row, I came to the conclusion that this game, too, coaxes its player to dig a little deeper. Even NG+ whisked me straight to the point before the final showdown, and as there are now new side quests and additional bosses all over the place, I’m once again forced to see just how punishing it is going to be to reach a proper ending.

At least until now, Nights of Azure has been pleasantly level-headed. It has been all about frenetic and mindless hacking and slashing throughout the entire game but at least it remains fun and well-paced. Unleashing wild combos and flashy special moves on hapless mobs is therapeutically relaxing, and the puny hordes frequently give way to tougher, appropriately big and nasty bosses. Should Arnice fall in battle, it’s not a game over as the game simply returns her and her Servans back to the hotel with all the experience gained on the way. That is a most welcome gesture, making even the occasional need to grind a breeze.

The cast is delightfully compact. There are only about half a dozen central characters, each given ample time to shine in the numerous cutscenes. Despite mild stereotypes and some repetition, character chemistry works well and is always silly. That’s definitely a plus, given how unimaginative brooding in a gloomy world overshadowed by a blood moon would be. Even if Arnice has to deal with incurable idiots, the comedy is still bad in a good way rather than just plain tired.

It was a bit surprising that only after about a dozen unique Servans, the game stated their collection to be already half done. Then again, it’s almost refreshing that there aren’t loads of them, especially as it’s deceptively easy to always fall back on the same four Servans. Arnice is eventually able to carry four such four-Servan groups, though, and that’s where the game is once again awfully considerate. Even unused Servans get the same amount of experience as the active ones, so leveling up frail newcomers into fighting shape is no bother at all.

At this particular moment I’m banging my head against the first, awfully temperamental extra boss but even if the “post”-game difficulty spike is rather noticeable, I still find myself smiling even when getting thoroughly beaten.

As well as Servans, past week was also about collecting games. The most unexpected surprise was the SNES Classic Mini, which I swore to get only if it would be absolutely effortless and not subject to price gouging. In the end, I picked up mine from the local supermarket during Friday evening grocery shopping, so it couldn’t have been easier. Looks like living in a small town has its benefits. PS1 JRPG Koudelka and the bargain bin PS4 trio of Abzû, Earth Defense Force 4.1: The Shadow of New Despair, and Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star complemented the backlog that only seems to be growing as time goes by. Oh well, such is game otaku life.

Open Tab

Yay…

A couple of days ago, while working my way through that day’s online challenge course in Everybody’s Golf, I wondered why merely logging in took a little while and why one of its holes was so full of people that the game actually began to lag. It didn’t take long to figure out that it was one of those rare few holes where players can score albatrosses and condors (read: three or four hits under par). Back then, that pack of lemmings only seemed silly and kind of sad, but since then I’ve come to understand why they were there in the first place.

After 26 hours of playing, I hadn’t managed even a simplistic sounding hole-in-one even once. Every course has its couple of par threes where one should’ve happened even by Mad Luck™ if nothing else, but to no avail. Slightly miffed by this, I first checked if the single player mode would allow you to practice a single hole. Nope. The only way to do that is to head online where every attempt is followed by having to run (or drive) back to the teeing ground for another go.

As a scrub casual golfer, I chose to challenge one of the easiest par threes in the game, solemnly swearing to score at least one hole-in-one, whatever it would take. Sure enough, after an hour and dozens of weary retries, it finally happened. What should’ve been a warm and fuzzy feeling didn’t really feel like one at all, given that this loveliest of swings was pretty much the same as the hundreds preceding it. If anything, it felt like everything just clicked together by sheer luck.

I’ve also figured out the timing of the game’s closing credits. On rank seven, it’s no longer about playing than it is about challenging previously beaten VS adversaries looking for revenge. Sadly, they’re served on a schedule of one per day, if even that, so making progress is now more about waiting for time to pass rather than wanting to play. I guess I’ll give this a few more days but once again, it seems like graceful closing curtains are but a pipe dream.

Edit: Win or lose, one chance per day. I think I’m done now.

Mashup Magnificence

Eat demonish hellfire, foul dragon!

Every now and then one might get a feeling that everything in gaming has already been seen and done. At times like that, it’s always a nice surprise to see how simply mixing and matching old ideas can turn into something fresh. Nights of Azure, a joint project between Koei Tecmo and Gust combines Dynasty Warriors and a JRPG, and at least based on its first few hours, it’s a union that works wonders! The adventure focuses on two young maidens; the able half-demon knight Arnice, and the virtuous saint Lilysse. They’ve been friends since boarding school days, and reunite after a couple of years of roaming around the world. It’s not a particularly joyous occasion, given that they meet in a town whose streets are overrun by minions of an ancient demon king. He was banished hundreds of years ago but is now showing worrisome signs of making a comeback. What’s worse, a human sacrifice is required to keep him at bay. Sadly, that honor is planned for Lilysse while Arnice is tasked to keep her safe until the ceremony can take place. It sure sucks having to pit the fate of the entire world against the life of your best friend.

Despite its gloomy premise, Nights of Azure is a dashing action-JRPG that is not afraid to brighten the dreary mood with a bit of comedy and unrestrained tomfoolery. During action-packed missions Arnice careers through the town’s streets and alleyways, slaughtering tons of small fry with abundant sword combos. To keep her company, Arnice can summon up to four Servans to her aid. They are utterly adorable, rather Pokémon-esque demons that use their own unique skills to pummel or hamper adversaries. These sidekicks are controlled by AI, but they can also use special attacks activated by Arnice. She, in turn, is capable of blocking, dodging, and delivering three kinds of blows; light, heavy, and one that consumes limited skill points for even bigger damage. With enough fighting, she can even briefly transform into a demon herself, unleashing punishment of massive proportions. As one can probably imagine, the fights are often unadulterated chaos where strategy easily gives way to mindless button mashing but damn if it isn’t loads of fun!

In-between story and side missions, Arnice takes frequent breaks in the town’s hotel where Lilysse has enlisted as a maid. You have to do something while waiting for your bleak fate, I suppose. At home base, demon blood acquired from fights can be used to resurrect new Servans found from the field, and they sure have that “gotta catch ’em all” feel to them. Time between story missions is also spent by witnessing plenty of amusing events ranging from hilariously overblown girls’ love parody to dialogue so crass and camp that it genuinely works. As expected, the hotel soon becomes a central hub for many new acquaintances, some of who might eventually be of help when trying to figure out an alternative to sacrificing Lilysse. Time will tell what will happen but for now, I’m having the greatest of time since The Witch and the Hundred Knight, and that’s saying a lot!

Could this be the coveted hole-in-one? (Nope, wasn’t)

Amidst demon slaying, I’ve been making steady progress in Everybody’s Golf. I’m still hunting for my very first hole-in-one in the entire series but after 23 hours I’ve at least managed to beat all the versus professionals of single player rank six. That’s also when the game decided to roll its closing credits. I can’t really get my head around the way Japanese developers use end credits, as this was another case where the game simply continues after them with new challenges and whatnot. I’m slightly worried that just like with The Idolm@ster: Platinum Stars, this is the point where the average Joe is almost encouraged to consider the game beaten. Still, as the seventh rank is clearly a thing, I can’t help but chin up and see just how hard it gets. Thankfully it also feels like I’m slowly improving with strokes more and more often working out roughly as I planned. I still get a thorough trashing online but always find time to complete the daily challenge round. After all, every leaderboard needs people to make up the bottom half.

Stress by Relaxation

Grumpy codger happily descending towards the nearest settlement

This Saturday of mine was more or less stolen by the Australian studio Prideful Sloth and their debut game Yonder: The Cloud Catch Chronicles. It’s a story about a youngster – boy or a girl, as the player chooses – who shipwrecks on a decent-sized island full of wonders and trouble. Actually, mostly just wonders. Sure, there are random spots taken over by ominous purple fog, and the most massive monument on the island, known as the Cloud Catcher, is in pieces but surely a haphazard hero with an allure to draw in utterly cute spirits will set things straight.

Yonder is remarkably mellow in its way of not featuring combat or danger whatsoever; it’s all about exploring one beautiful scenery after another while hoarding loads of resources. The local NPCs welcome the player with open arms, soon gifting him/her with a mallet, an axe, a pickaxe, a scythe, and even a fishing rod. That quintet is more than enough to harvest pretty much anything that cannot be picked up otherwise, so the first few hours are merrily spent just running around picking up a myriad of stuff. Of course, individual items are hardly usable by themselves so making use of craftsmanship and new recipes, they’re turned into more complex fabrications. The handy hero can even restore run-down farms to construct fields for veggies or stalls for the local wildlife, first tamed with their favorite food and then led to the farm to contribute for the greater good.

Not only do the residents want their cloud thingy fixed, they’re also a steady source of side missions. Even if those are essentially just variations of “fetch/build me this”, they keep the game rolling quite nicely. An industrious explorer can also find dozens of cats waiting to be rescued, as well as spirits that use power by numbers to purge the island of its depressing spots of purple. Not that those spots would be lethal or anything; they’re just an eyesore that needs to go away from a world otherwise so bright and jolly.

All this lovable pacifism is reinforced with online. Contact with other players only happens via geocaches they’ve left behind. Wherever you are, you can always select an item from your inventory to be found by someone else. It’s such a gratuitous and unselfish act that I used it a lot, purely out of sheer joy. Whenever you bump into a gift left by a fellow player you don’t even know, and especially when it’s something grand from your own perspective, it feels as cool as the unspoken bond in Journey!

Enthralled by all this, I wolfed down the roughly seven-hour story mode in one sitting, only to be left at a standstill after that. While post-game would be the perfect moment to genuinely start enjoying the world of Yonder, it’s also the moment when its weaknesses start shining through. Not until this point did I realize just how horrible the map design truly is. When trying to get to a point that is seemingly nearby, it’s easy to spend 15 minutes going around all sorts of insurmountable obstacles only to realize you’re now twice as far away from your original goal. Also, should you want to construct something, it’s way too easy to not have a single ingredient which then requires a couple of other ingredients which then require 3-4 other ingredients, and while trying to cope with all that, the game whines about how your backpack is full and could use unloading at the nearest farm and the nearest farm is not really that near at all and… No… Just… No. Most of this isn’t apparent during the story when everything is new and lovely but as soon as the end credits have rolled, the remaining content turns downright repulsive.

Prideful Sloth still gets two thumbs up for their absolutely lovely angle but for the next game, more streamlined inventory management and a more navigable map are a must.

Random Rambling of a Gaming Otaku