Another Tag! Plus a challenge of my own.

Well, they’ve done it again. A while ago I was once again tagged by Red Metal to answer a few questions. Unfortunately for me, life was a bit busy and I was also playing through a lot of Astral Chain to get out the review.  But I’m ready now! so here we go. These are fun so I hope you enjoy them. And give Red Metal a follow. They put out some rather in-depth long-form reviews.

 

Here are the questions I get to answer:

  1. Have you ever been involved in an emergency situation (e.g. a burning building/an earthquake)?
  2. What is the worst film you’ve ever seen in theaters?
  3. What is the best film you’ve ever seen in theaters?
  4. What is the strangest method by which you discovered a work you enjoy?
  5. What do you feel is the greatest compilation of collected works in your collection (of games/films/music/books/etc.)?
  6. Have you ever re-experienced a work you enjoyed a long time ago only to determine it has not aged well?
  7. Have you ever re-experienced a work you hated (or were indifferent towards) a long time ago only to warm up to it?
  8. What is your favorite opening theme to a television show?
  9. Excluding Western comic books, what series with a single, ongoing narrative do you feel has (or had) gone on for far too long? In other words, I’m not counting shows or other forms of media with entirely self-contained episodes such as The Simpsons or anthological works such as The Twilight Zone with this question.
  10. Have you ever been invested in a series only to be heartbroken when it was cut short with no resolution?
  11. Do you prefer hardcover or paperback books?

 

1.) The closest thing I can say I’ve come to an emergency situation is coming home as a kid to find our home had been broken into. If it’s never happened to you, it’s an awful feeling. Not only did someone potentially take some of your most prized possessions, the feeling of violation really takes a toll on you. You feel your stomach sink completely out of yourself. You fear they may be around somewhere. Your mind really goes to dark places. Even though the second time there was evidence they were scared off by our arrival and they dropped something they stole from a previous robbery we still feared they may come back. It sucks and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

2.) The worst film I’ve seen in theatres? It’s probably a bit cliche to say at this point. But I’m going to say Mac And Me. You can find all of the YouTube rants in existence to go over how bad it really is. But even seeing it on TV isn’t nearly the same. Again, I was a kid. My Father thought, “Hey my kids liked E.T. this is being advertised as an E.T. like, let’s go see it.” When you’re a kid going to the movies is a thing of wonder. Even a mediocre movie is something you don’t experience the same way at home. We all came out kind of disappointed we’d essentially seen a 90-minute product placement vehicle with an uninteresting and sometimes incoherent story. While it isn’t the worst movie you’ll ever see, it isn’t good, and it’s made worse in a theatrical setting.

3.) By contrast, this is a very hard question. Because I grew up at a time when a lot of good things were coming out. Star Wars, Back To The Future, Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan. There were tons of great films. But I’m going to say The Last Starfighter for a few reasons. Is it the *best* movie I’ve seen? No. And from a critical standpoint, it might not be the best I had going to the movies. But from an entertainment standpoint, I think it probably was with The Neverending Story right behind it. I can still vividly remember the day I went to see it. We had been pretty good all week, and my parents had a little extra to have a family day out. We went to Chuck E. Cheese (this was at a time when the food wasn’t completely terrible and they had actual arcade games. Have you ever taken your nieces or nephews to one these days? It’s ticket redemption prize machines. Where is Berzerk? Where is Pac-Man? Hell, where is Street Fighter II?) After that we went to Toys R Us where I got a Roton for my Skeletor to grind heroes into gibs with. Then met my Aunt for dinner and saw The Last Starfighter on the big screen. And any child of the 80s will tell you, alien Robert Preston showing up to tell you that getting the hi-score on a spaceship rail shooter meant that you got to defend the universe from an army of reptoids with bloodlust was one awesome scenario. And even rewatching it today is one hell of a fun time. Sure there are some hokey moments. But on the whole, it’s a pretty fantastic popcorn movie. Perhaps since they tagged me to answer these questions Red Metal should revisit the movie and write about it? 

4.) The strangest method I’ve discovered an awesome piece of work? Probably the day I left on the TV as background noise on my day off several years ago now. I heard a funny line of dialogue and before long had become an instant fan of Regular Show.

5.) Best compilation? That’s tough to say because while a lot of them are great they come with some baggage. I’d love to say Unreal Anthology, as it gives you every major Unreal and Unreal Tournament entry as well as a partial soundtrack album. But, UT2004 is missing a major bonus content patch. It also came out ahead of UT3 so that game isn’t in the box. I guess in lieu of that I’m going to say the Metal Slug Anthology on Nintendo Wii. It truly does include every game in the series up to that point, the emulation is rather good, and it costs far less than buying each entry digitally on storefronts. It’s certainly cheaper than getting a working Neo Geo and all of the cartridges.

6.) I wouldn’t say they haven’t aged well, but their control schemes have been far surpassed so it takes some time getting reacquainted with them and for this spot, I’ll say Rare’s two groundbreaking console shooters Goldeneye 007, and Perfect Dark. Still fantastic games, but having spent decades on mice, keyboards, gyroscopic controllers, and thumbsticks these games take some getting used to. Other N64 shooters fared better using the D-pad or C- buttons as a stand-in for WASD, and the thumbstick as a mouse.

7.) A game I changed my mind on for the better? Again, going back to Frogs & Flies. My Grandmother gave it to me one year for my birthday as a child. I faked a smile and thanked her but inside I was disappointed by the lack of killer robots, spaceships, and lasers. But later that night after all of the other toys and games had been played I fired it up. Only to find that it is one of the most surprisingly cutthroat and challenging multiplayer games ever made. Even today you may think it looks primitive and the premise bland. But Frogs & Flies is amazing. Pure one on one competitive bliss. Honestly, if an updated version showed up tomorrow I wouldn’t think twice about trying it out.

8.) This is a two-way tie because they’re both so great. He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe because it’s MOTU. It sets up everything you need to know in 60 seconds, and that Shuki Levy penned music is just great. Right next to He-Man is Magnum P.I. You can put that Mike Post music as a backdrop to anything and it instantly becomes awesome. Don’t believe me? Put it on while doing your dishes. Driving to work. Taking out the garbage. Vacuuming. Dusting. And it was one of the coolest shows ever made to boot.

9.) I don’t know any serialized show has gone on too long, as long as someone behind it still thinks of compelling stories within the scope of its universe it’s fine. Really this question is about jumping the shark moments where things even betray the series in question with something so over-the-top it’s not even believable by its own standards. I don’t watch much TV these days though save for some Pro Wrestling, and reruns. And while there are some stupid things in Wrestling programs, it’s not enough to want the operations to stop doing shows altogether. Just to wrap up the bad stories, and get better bookers to tell good ones. That said, I personally do not see the fascination with these Reality TV shows.

10.) Who hasn’t? Nearly anyone who played the two Half-Life games and their episodic add-ons will know this pain. I can also throw The Conduit and Conduit 2 into this category. I enjoyed both of these and although the latter began to veer into the very silly, I still kind of wanted to see where High Voltage Software was going to go with it.

11.) I’m of two minds. I like Hardcovers. They hold up better. They stick out nicely. But Paperbacks are smaller, cost less and allow you to have more books in a smaller amount of space. I guess it depends on the book and if it’s tied to a series I’m heavily invested in or something that just really captured my imagination and got me to really love it.

And I suppose with that I’ll come up with some questions for a couple of people.

1.) When you’ve had 1 hour of sleep and need to do a full-time shift do you reach for: Coffee, tea, soda, or something else to stay awake and why?

2.) What is a video game/series you really wish had more attention than it does and why?

3.) Pair your favorite game with a proper wine or beer.

4.) Pick one game that came out “Before your time” that you think looks interesting and tell us why.

5.) Pick one game that is outside of your comfort zone that you think you might be willing to check out.

And I nominate:

Red Metal

The Otaku Judge

MoeGamer

PlayLegit

The Well-Red Mage

Yheela

HungryGoriya

Shameful Narcissist

Lightning Ellen

Esperdreams

Mike at XVGM

sirhcman

Whoever takes up the challenge, I await to see your responses!

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ASTRAL CHAIN Review

ACTitle

PlatinumGames has always been known for its fast-paced action games. MadWorld took the brawler in an interesting comic book meets film noir direction while implementing a scoring system based on how brutal you could be. (A location People Can Fly arrived in when they made Bulletstorm as well it would seem.) Bayonetta made for a great action hack n’ slash game that implemented guns, swords, and interdimensional mechanics as well as themes. The sequel improved upon all of that stuff. Vanquish was a terrific third-person combat game with great cover shooting mechanics. The Wonderful 101 was a quirky action game that had elements of all of these all while doing things on the Wii U gamepad that couldn’t be done on other consoles of the time.

In short, this is a studio that has always had a knack for making fun, action games that seem to go a step beyond similar ones. It’s rare they put out something nobody likes. Every project also seems to have something special about it. Even if there are a million other games of a similar vein, there’s something that stands out about it.

PROS: Brisk, rewarding gameplay. Replayability. Storyline & characters. Co-op.

CONS: Menus lag. Inconsistency reading chain jumps.

COPS: Fighting crime in a future time.

Astral Chain continues that trend of great action gaming with visual flair. When you start the game you’re dropped into a character creation menu where you choose to either play through the game as a male or female police officer. Once you choose one and customize them the game begins. Whichever you didn’t choose appears in the storyline as your twin. Once the game starts it immediately begins to feel like a big-budget action movie in the vein of Timecop or Robocop.  You’ll find yourself riding a motorcycle in a tunnel when you answer a call. This immediately transitions to a rail shooter filled with the kinds of stuff you’d see in a Dolph Lundgren vehicle.

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When you get through it you’re off to fight off a tough challenge, and this is when the game’s storyline picks up. As new recruits, you and your twin sibling have been sent to fight crime for NEURON the police force for the bustling city of Ark. Without giving away too much, the gist is these aliens from another dimension begin crossing the Astral Plane and kidnapping people, giving them diseases or both it’s time for our heroes to investigate.

 

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And investigate you will. Because even though this game is in many ways the action game you’d expect from the people who brought out those other games it is also a police serial. Over time you’ll begin to see the pattern the game has to offer. You’ll have a combat section, and that will be followed many times by a detective section. In these parts of the game, you’ll have a primary objective to perform or complete, but before you can do so, you’ll need to interrogate people to get information.

You don’t need *all* of the information to move on, but if you do go ahead and get everything there are bonuses to be had. During any of the sections, there are also side missions you can do. Sometimes these will get you items like medicine to heal with or a booster to increase your attack damage. Other times they will be things that can actually affect the storyline to some degree.

ACBatman

Another cool thing they’ve done in these investigative sections is sprinkling a dash of Batman: Arkham Asylum in here. In its own way of course. You’ll have some sections where you’ll have futuristic recordings of events where, much like Batman, you have to deduce what happened to get more evidence or track a character down.

And throughout the game, you’ll have side missions that take you into the Astral Plane for some enemy closets to open up on you. Surviving these, as with other side missions, can net you some bonuses. Some of these aren’t just out in the open you’ll need to find them. How do you find them? In many cases, you’ll have to employ the use of a Legion. What are Legions? Well, you’ll discover through the storyline that the aliens from the Astral Plane are known as Chimeras. Among these Chimeras are Legions. These are more powerful aliens that have specific abilities. In fact, NEURON uses them as Police animals after taking control of them and using them to fight crime, there is a point where they get loose and go rogue.

 

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Of course, yours (a Legion with swords for arms) doesn’t escape. So this leads back to the structure. You’ll do detective work, then go hacking n’ slashing. Eventually, you’ll get to a fantastic boss, and upon defeating it you’ll go to the police station. The police station is a preparatory area where you’ll talk to colleagues, use a training room, buy or upgrade weapons, maintain your Legions, buy medical supplies and even use the bathroom.

It is also where you’ll be introduced to the game’s comic relief character; Lappy. Lappy is a giant mascot meant to keep youngsters on the straight and narrow. But they also show you around the station through a series of jump scares. They also narrate the training exercises as well as become a part of the storyline.

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You’ll want to listen to Lappy though. While they sound suspiciously like Sandy Cheeks they do cover some of the more advanced techniques for solving puzzles and getting around traps. All while getting accustomed to using the various Legions. After you leave the police station you’ll continue the cycle of missions. But the thing is the game is so engrossing with its story, characters and combat you will barely notice it. Even if you do notice it you won’t care.

Throughout the campaign, you’ll come across the other Legions. When you do you’ll have a bit of a fight on your hands because you also have to take control of them again. When you do, you’ll be using them not only in a combative role, but to solve puzzles too. They also add a bunch of replay value, because you can go back to previous areas with them to find secrets or side missions you might not have been able to before. You’ll also find items over the course of the game that you can add RPG like buffs to each of your captured Legions. You can add moves, or unlock new abilities or simply make them deal out more damage.

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You also can’t leave out the Legion all game long. They have a meter that empties, and if it does there’s a cooldown period before you can use them again. There are of course items you can find to reduce the consumption but make a good habit of putting them away for a little bit mid-battle for a few seconds. In each stage, you can also try to collect a bunch of the red matter poisoning the world to make your way toward other goals.

As for the combat itself, it feels classic PlatinumGames. There is a slew of elements that you may have seen in other games they made. Notably Bayonetta. The RPG elements can also feel a little like the ones implemented in Bayonetta, although I’m reminded more of The Wonderful 101. Be that as it may, they are expanded here. On top of that, the use of the Legions really makes this game stand out a lot. You’re essentially controlling two characters. One hand is your Timecop and the other is your Legion. You can do a bunch of different attacks between both of the characters. Plus you’ll eventually reclaim all of the missing Legions. You can switch between them on the fly, which you’ll need to do as some enemies are weaker to certain Legions. Plus as I alluded to before, some Legions can access some areas when exploring the others can’t. Or in some battles, you might need to switch between them depending on the form a certain boss may take.

ACK9

Among them is the Sword Legion you start with which fights with rather brisk sword swings, and can also be used for recon moments. There’s also the Arrow Legion which is a great option for airborne enemies or getting the jump on distant ones. The Armor Legion is basically a hulking beast of armor you can wear or send out to beat the tar out of bad guys. It can also be used to move things. Then there’s the K9 Legion which behaves like a dog. You can have it dig through things to find items or have it chase a scent. You can also ride it like a horse! And finally, the Axe Legion which can put out a forcefield, destroy key objects, or attack things with an ax.

If all of that wasn’t enough, you’ll want to use the IRIS system the game implements. This puts the visuals into a sort of wireframe mode which allows you to spot some objectives, items, or weak points easier. It’s also a handy way for you to use stealth tactics when necessary. It’s also a must if you want to measure that boss health. And it does all of this under some of the most appealing visuals on the Nintendo Switch. PlatinumGames has always had good looking games but they really push some great details in this highly stylized action game. There are some terrific vistas you’ll see. Some wonderful skylines. Some abstract art, and some unsettling yet minimalist sections as you visit parts of the city and Astral Plane.

ACDad

The characters are also splendid with a nice blend of modern, and futuristic themes. It shouldn’t be a surprise as they brought in Masakazu Katsura who is famous in Anime and Manga circles. He’s best known for Tiger & Bunny, but he’s been in those worlds for years. His character designs pop off of the screen here. And that isn’t to say everything in the game is top tier visually. There are some things in the background that are clearly enabling lower textures or details. Sometimes you may notice a certain wall or floor looks a little flat. But overall these decreases in visual fidelity are minor in the grand scheme of things. You’ll likely be too busy being mesmerized by flashy finishing moves, and trying to survive waves upon waves of enemies.

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And all of this is married to a storyline that is honestly quite good. It has characters you’ll get attached to. It has some swerves. Some you’ll see coming. Some you won’t. It has some terrific performances by the voice actors involved. And while the story does have some of the tropes you may expect to see in a tale like this, it still earns some genuine emotional responses. Going back and analyzing things in it is something you’ll likely find some depth in. It isn’t going to be as profound, and thought-provoking as some of the films or novels you’ve read. But it does go deeper than a simple “This is the antagonist. This is what they did. Stop them.” you might expect to get from most action games. And the fact your decisions impact how things play out a bit means you’ll want to go back to it for a second or third playthrough. And before I forget, the soundtrack is great too. There are some insanely good heavy metal tracks when the action heats up, and a few electronic pop tracks that fit the theme well when exploring, or sleuthing.

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There are a couple of problems I did have while playing the game though. Mainly with the chain jump mechanic, you’ll get to use at some point in the game. The problem with it is that in a couple of situations it isn’t clear where you’re going to land. Unfortunately, this means you may lose a ton of energy or even a life missing a jump that you (at least in your mind) should have made with no problems. These aren’t frequent moments. At least they weren’t when I played through it. But it is something to make a mental note of. The other thing is the game sometimes has inconsistent load times between areas. Again, nothing that makes you crazy, it’s just a strange minor annoyance.

Still, it’s a fantastic game overall. One I highly recommend picking up even if you think it might not be your cup of tea. There is a bevy of difficulty settings as well. There are your usual Easiest, Easy, Normal, Hard, scale. But there is also a separate option for using the Legions. You can either control them manually, or you can have the A.I. control them. Frankly, even though it might take you a level or two to get used to them (there’s a lot of functions you can do with any given one of them),  it’s far better than relying on the computer to do things. That said, it is a nice option for those who feel they need more time to figure out how their main character works.

ACBoss

And if all of that isn’t enough for you it has a cooperative mode where one player controls the police officer and the second player controls the Legion whenever they’re needed. In an age where most any multiplayer option is online-focused, it’s nice to see a console game take the classic couch approach. That said, be prepared to have some classic arguments with your pals if they can’t keep up with you. Even on lower difficulty settings, Astral Chain is quite the challenge.

Ultimately though, Astral Chain is a must-play release. It’s classic PlatinumGames through and through. But it also improves on many of the features introduced in earlier games while giving you a bunch of new features and a wealth of content. This is a game you’ll complete and then want to replay to either find things you missed before or to see how different choices affect the story. There’s also the fun of turning up the difficulty as you replay it for an even bigger challenge. As contemporary action games go, Astral Chain is a keeper.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

ION FURY Review

IONFURYTitle

In recent years we’ve had a few high-profile games that hearken back to the early days of the PC FPS. There was a pretty great Rise Of The Triad reboot, a few years ago. Bethesda brought back DOOM, and New Blood Interactive has hit it out of the park by publishing DUSK, and AMID EVIL. But where all of these games bring back the elements of old using modern technology, Voidpoint went for the new game in the 1990s mold a different way. They actually went with technology that was released in the 1990s.

PROS: An excellent use of the 1996 3DRealms Build Engine in an all-new game!

CONS: There isn’t much for you beyond a terrific single-player campaign.

JON ST. JOHN IS BACK: But not as the gun-toting action hero he made famous.

Ion Fury had a few swerves on the lead up to release. When I bought it in Early Access eons ago it was called Ion Maiden. And it was one bug-ridden demo level. Once the issues were hashed out, it was one excellent demo level. But it hit other speedbumps like a potential lawsuit from a major record label and Iron Maiden because of the letter “R”.

IONFURYTeens

But a lot has changed since then and now that the game is officially out we have a new name, full-fledged campaign, and some other bonus content for good measure. Voidpoint also built this entire game on the very same technology 3DRealms used itself for Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior.  The game runs in a modified version of Build Engine that works under the modern Windows 10 environment. No need to fire up DOSBox, or write a batch file. It runs natively.

IONFURYSpiders

But they didn’t just reskin a bunch of Duke 3D content. Everything here is all new. A cast of wild and inventive new enemies. A bunch of fun and interesting new weapons. A plethora of crazy new enemies to turn into gibs. A slew of stages that will have you really thinking about how things work in between volleys of enemy waves and hellfire.  They did a lot to push 23-year-old video game engine technology beyond what was thought possible. It even simulates some room over room scenarios with some clever tricks as Build technically was never designed to do so. We wouldn’t see that until iD Software created Quake.

IONFURYJump

So the game is technically impressive, but how is the gameplay? Honestly, it’s quite good. If not for a few things I’ll get to later on, this could be the game people wanted Duke Nukem Forever to have been. You play as Shelly Harrison, the protagonist of the little-known twin-stick shooter Bombshell. Ion Fury is technically a prequel to that game. In any case, Shelly is after a mad scientist Dr. Jadus Heskel. Like many fictional insane villains with a Ph.D. Heskel has an army of twisted designs and is bent on taking over the world. He also has many acolytes in his group. So you can expect to go up against every sci-fi, and Saturday Morning Cartoon enemy trope you can think of.

IONFURYReflection

There are the cultists, zombies, cyborg ninjas, terminators, demons, death bots you would expect to face in a game like this. But there are a lot of other hidden surprises. But the game also gets points for being a bit more original with the designs of most of its rogues’ gallery. You’ve seen these kinds of enemies in many games over the last four decades. But they do have terrific, original costumes most of the time. Though there are a number of them that do not differentiate themselves from the henchmen in the late-night B-movies that inspired them. Though the ankle-biting enemies in this game will likely infuriate you as it can be impossible to see these heads with spider legs when they’re clipping behind 2D scenery sprites like trash cans or trees.

IONFURYPiano

Regardless of that annoyance, the stages in this game are very well thought out. As you get further in the game they become pretty intricate, rivaling some of the biggest maps from DOOM, Duke Nukem 3D, and Shadow Warrior. In late-game stages, you’ll often find the familiar color-coded keys bring you back to earlier areas or open up previously inaccessible paths. Simply trying to complete some of these can take you close to an hour. Possibly more. Then there are the secret areas. Some of them are obvious. If you’re going down a hallway, and see an air vent you may as well shoot the cover off and climb into the air duct. But others can be rather obtuse.

IONFURYMonsters

If you’re just looking to blow through the game without worrying about finding every last secret and Easter egg, it will still take you a considerable amount of time to do so. As I’ve mentioned before, these levels are quite large with intricate paths. Then there are the set-piece moments peppered in. These are the times where you’ll hear Dr. Heskel taunt Shelly while the game introduces a major puzzle, new enemy group, or a boss encounter. These are done exceptionally well by the actor who brought Duke Nukem to life in Duke3D; Jon St. John. Here, he does a fantastic job of portraying a stereotypical supervillain. Even if the rest of the game doesn’t do much to flesh out the character, Jon St. John makes up for it a bit with some great delivery.

IONFURYMap

And while Jon St. John isn’t reprising his most famous video game role, there is someone bringing you the snarky one-liners. That’s Valerie Arem. She’s the voice behind Shelly Harrison and Harrison brings the B movie quips as well as Duke Nukem did. Whether she’s blowing up cyborgs with bowling bombs, discovering new weapons or interacting with things in the environment you’re going to hear some great line delivery. Sometimes the game may replay them a bit too much. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. It really does feel like you’re playing a Duke Nukem 3D spinoff.

Of course, the modern standards that have been added here also make the game much easier to play than the old Build Engine games in their vanilla forms.  But it won’t be an easy game. When you’re not facing hordes from recently opened monster closets, you’ll rack your brain trying to figure out which path to take in the maze you’re currently in. And again, the visuals are all new in spite of running on modified old tech. The gritty textures and sprites will feel both new and familiar. For younger players who never experienced Duke Nukem 3D or Blood or Shadow Warrior back in the day, it might just give you enough understanding of why those games are considered classics while giving you a fantastic new experience.

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All told you’ll spend anywhere between 7 to 20 hours clearing the campaign, and for the completionists out there you’ll spend even further trying to get every last secret. All while jamming to some pretty great Electronica by Jarkko Rotsten that hearkens back to those 90s DTV films that used to adorn the video rental store walls.

When you clear the campaign there is a horde mode to play, but honestly, it feels pretty weak compared to the main game. Even if it can’t compete with the massive player bases of things like Overwatch I think a Deathmatch or Capture The Flag mode would have been much more fun. Barring that, an actual Co-operative campaign option would have been even better, giving players more replay value as they could play with friends on a second or third playthrough.

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Still, for what it is, it is a fun ride that gives you what it advertises; a fun, modern shooter built to appeal to the classics on a classic engine. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in playing, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy your time with Ion Fury. It’s a very well-made game that does what it does well. It pushes old tech to the limit while providing FPS fans with a new game. You’ve seen a lot of what it does before, yes. But it somehow doesn’t feel derivative. It’s a fun game with a cool protagonist.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Black Jewel Review

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Conan The Barbarian. The Beastmaster. He-Man, and The Masters Of The Universe. Swords and Sorcery were a staple of the 1980s  action genre in nearly every medium. Even in the realm of video games where we saw hits like Golden Axe and Rastan. The 8-bit powered computer scene had ports of these as well as games based on the aforementioned properties. The biggest being the Commodore 64.

PROS: Challenging. Recreates the look, and sound of a C64 Accurately.

CONS: Hit detection on traps could be a little more forgiving.

ONE LIFE TO LIVE: Like the title of a defunct soap opera, you have one life.

The Commodore 64 is one of the greatest platforms of all time. There were thousands of games released on it. Some are even coming out on it today. Black Jewel is not a C64 game, but it is a terrific sendup. From the moment you start the game you’ll see the unmistakable BASIC screen load the game. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear you were running an actual C64 image file in an emulator. But you’re not.

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The game’s developers were heavily inspired by the classic computer, and it shows. The game’s video introduction sequence mimics the classic loaders of the ’80s showing off flashing colors, a detailed splash screen for the title, and music. And immediately the soundtrack will enamor anyone who hears it. Gianluca Pappalardo is the name credited with the soundtrack and they succeed with flying colors here. The music not only fits the Barbarian action hero vibe the game goes for but accurately simulates the sound of the SID chip as well. Despite being a game for Windows, it sounds like it could have come from the Commodore 64’s Sound Interface Device.

So it’s been established this game accurately mimics the look and sound of a Commodore 64 computer. But how is the actual gameplay? Here, the game continues that Commodore 64 inspiration. Black Jewel is an action platformer that requires meticulous planning in order to get through each scenario. It’s got the exciting battles you’d expect from something like Rastan, yet you’ll need to treat each stage as if you were playing Another World. While there are no puzzles, you still kind of need to see each room as a puzzle.

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At the beginning of the game, you’re told the story. It isn’t very deep. But it doesn’t need to be. An evil warlord named Darkor has stolen a Black Jewel. A mystical artifact that has allowed him to terrorize the land and enslave its inhabitants. As Ryan, you take up arms and go on the quest to save the land by reclaiming the Black Jewel. Of course, this will involve killing Darkor.

This is all much easier said than done. Because Black Jewel is a tough game. As I’ve stated before this is heavily inspired by early computer games. The controls are simple enough. You move left or right with the arrow keys and press the *D* key to swing your sword. And you’ll be pressing up to jump because there were only one button joysticks in 1983. You can, of course, use a controller with the game, but you’ll still be pressing up for jumps.

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The game moves along at a perfectly fine speed. But keep in mind you’re a big, lumbering barbarian. So you’ll have floatier jumping than in something like Mega Man. The scenes are also modeled after the flip screen mechanics of early home computer games too. Remember, scrolling games didn’t become the standard until the latter half of the decade. The level design in Black Jewel is also built off of the history of the time as well as the appearance. And frankly, it’s very good.

Each stage is made up of several rooms, each taken up by a screen. Each of which will have an enemy to dispatch or an obstacle to overcome. When you’ve completed it, you can go to the next one. Some of these will be simple things like jumping over spikes. Other times you’ll be tasked with killing two bad guys while avoiding fireballs. This is the kind of stuff you would see even in adventure platform games in 1994. Black Jewel will not only test your action game skills but your puzzle-solving skills too. Again, despite not having what many would call puzzles.

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At the end of each stage, you’ll fight a boss. Each of them has to be dispatched in order for you to continue. Most of them can be pretty tough as they utilize a couple of attack patterns. They’ll sometimes throw you a swerve by switching them up when you least expect it, so you really have to be on your toes. Defeating them opens up the next stage. It’s here you’ll notice something. Stages do not get splash screens or other introductions. You will just see the scenery change. Also, it won’t take you long to notice something else. That giant sword at the bottom of the screen is getting shorter.

That sword is actually your health meter. When it’s gone, so are you. Game Over. You have exactly ONE LIFE to clear Black Jewel. When I said this game was tough, I wasn’t lying. Now that doesn’t mean that it is impossible. It can be beaten. It isn’t a long game. And it even has health potions to restore your meter to varying degrees. Some will fill it 25% others 60% and others will top it off. That said, one ought to pay very close attention to what is going on at any given time. Because you can take damage without realizing it.

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My one main problem with the game is it doesn’t quite go far enough in showing what is a background, or what is a deadly trap you shouldn’t step on. Oh sure, you’ll figure it out too late eventually. But that also means you’ll be back at the title screen. Now some things are obvious. Skulls and spikes usually mean trouble. But another object might seem innocuous until your sword starts draining. Also, you should keep in mind when something does hit you, to back away immediately. You do not get to take a hit, fly back, and get 3 frames of invincibility as in some of the classic action games you’re used to. If you’re standing on a spike, a pixel too deep into an enemy or a boss that sword will be a mere hilt in seconds. Fortunately, you’ll find you can skip over some of the bad guys instead of fighting them. But this does not work on bosses.

Still, considering that Oscar Celestini set out to make an homage to these early Commodore 64 action-adventure style games, Black Jewel is a success. The animation is phenomenal. The sprite work and backgrounds are amazingly detailed. Plus everything looks so true to the C64’s 16 color palette and aside from a full widescreen image, it’s almost 1:1 to the untrained eye. I won’t lie, at times the gameplay might feel a little rough around the edges for people used to faster-paced arcade slashers. But once you’ve died a few times, and gotten used to the mechanics it becomes a remarkable game.

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If you grew up gaming on a Commodore 64 this love letter will very likely appeal to you just from the look and sound alone. If you didn’t, it’s still a pretty fun game. The combination of action and adventure elements are great. There’s a balance between hacking up bad guys and planning out how to get through each room with as much health left as humanly possible. You can’t just rush into it like you would a Golden Axe machine set on Freeplay. And yet it isn’t so cerebral you’ll need to do math equations. It requires both approaches and a bit of patience.  It’s highly unlikely you’ll clear it on your first attempt or even four-hundredth attempt. But it doesn’t wear out its welcome by going on for hours either. Black Jewel may be tough, it may be esoteric. But to borrow a phrase from famous YouTube star Metal Jesus Rocks, it certainly is a “Hidden gem.” You can pick it up on Steam if you like what you see here. Overall, I can recommend you do.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Earth Defense Force 4.1 Review

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Sometimes you have a rather hectic day. When you get home you want to play a game. But you want to play a game that doesn’t require a lot of detective work or puzzle solving. You just want something fun. In many ways, that’s what this series really is. Starting way back on the PlayStation 2 with Monster Attack, and Global Defense Force this is a line of games that sees you shooting waves of creatures.

PROS: A lot of old-school arcade action. Camp.

CONS: It could become monotonous for some players.

EDF!: You will hear this war cry constantly.

Originally released as Earth Defense Force 2025 on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360,  4.1 is an updated re-release for the PlayStation 4 that later came to Microsoft Windows via storefronts like Steam. It has everything EDF 2025 did, plus some bonus content. And on top of that, there were some DLC missions released one can buy if they wish. But there are a lot of stages in the base game to cut your teeth on.

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So what is the objective in EDF 4.1? As is the case in the rest of the series, you’ll be tasked with entering large maps and killing waves of monsters. Frankly, the game controls like a champ. Everything is pretty brisk, smooth, and responsive to boot. Especially on the Windows version which allows you to play it with a keyboard and mouse.

Over the course of 89 missions or so you’ll be tasked with gunning down, incinerating, and destroying thousands of giant insects, robots, and more. Generally, that’s what each mission boils down to. Going into one of the game’s 16 maps, and killing the biggest hordes you’ve seen this side of Serious Sam. But where Serious Sam has a path in each level with a horde/power-ups/horde cycle it also lets you spend hours hunting for secrets in any given level. EDF veers even more toward classic golden age arcade games in its play. It’s fast, and constantly throwing things at you like Robotron 2084, but then has a bunch of Role-Playing elements to keep things fresh.

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For instance, the game has three classes from the outset with one appearing later. You can be a Ranger, which plays a lot like the characters in most First, and Third-Person Shooters. On foot, blowing away monsters. There’s also the Wing Diver who gets a jetpack, and laser weapons. She can be very effective. However, it takes some time getting used to dashing around. She also has limited time she can fly around with the jetpack before having to land and recharge it.

From there you have the Fencer who is a heavy weapons expert. This class has a risk/reward element due to the expanded might, but complexity, and slower speed. Finally, you have the Air Raider who can call in pilotable vehicles, forcefields, and healing stations.

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Each class has several weapons to choose from in the fight against the threats. But here is where the game sinks its claws into you: You have to get the new weapons by finding them as drops when killing monsters. Moreover, the best weapons are more commonplace on higher difficulty settings. So to get the best gear for later missions you’ll want to play the first few on tougher settings. This way you have a leg up on the tougher ones.

But where the game really shines is in the multiplayer options. You can play the game in split-screen, or you can play the game online. The game was clearly meant for multiplayer as the different classes can complement each other when coming up with a strategy in any given level. The Wing Diver can be useful against the areal enemies while the other classes can deal with ground threats. It’s much easier to coordinate battle plans with friends than it is trying to get the NPC Allies to do their jobs.

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While EDF isn’t the best looking game out there, it does look really nice. The maps are large and relatively expansive. The textures are fairly sharp, and while the geometry may not match that of other contemporary titles it does allow for better performance. Even my aging computer ran the game maxed out, at a relatively high frame rate. The audio department is more of a mixed bag. Most of the music is standard fare, but the sound effects and voice samples are quite good. Some of it comes off a little hokey at times, but that just plays into the Kaiju theme.

Really this game can be quite a lot of fun. Especially when you have a few friends to play it with. It might not be the deepest experience as you’re going to do variations of the same thing most of the time. But it does mix it up quite a bit with the focus on multiple enemy types, and grinding away to better gear. That said, it isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea because it can get a little repetitive. Especially for those who choose to go it alone. Still, it is fun enough to recommend. If you’re easily distracted you’ll want to play it in short bursts. Nevertheless, as time goes on and you open up more content you’ll likely find yourself going back to it, shouting your war cry with your fellow brethren.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Update, and some Splatoon 2 goodness

Hello all! I know I lied a bit dormant the last week or two. My siblings went on vacation so I was bouncing between working and taking care of Brownie. He’s a 13-year-old Yorkshire Terrier who needs constant attention. As such it didn’t leave much time for writing up reviews.

But in the interim, I did discover a cool little video from a YouTuber NintendoCade. Here they break down how North American Splatoon 2 Players can nab some costume options that were previously only opened up to Japanese players. If you’re on the My Nintendo program it’s actually pretty easy:

Unlocking Japanese costume options in North American Splatoon 2

I should also note there are some Splatoon themed 3DS themes on there too. One of which will actually cost you 20 gold coins (The shop currency you get by registering your Nintendo Switch games). Still, if you have a 3DS knocking around, and you revisit it every so often, hearing Calamari Inkantation between games isn’t a bad thing.

I’m going to try to get back to regular updates again now that things have subsided a little bit in my personal life. I was gifted a couple of things for my birthday recently, so those are already in the pipeline of things to go over when I’m done with them. Hopefully, all is well with you! If you have a copy of Splatoon 2 go pick up your free gear while you can! And if that wasn’t enough, Nintendo just posted another balance patch!

Empire Game Expo Recap

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Over the last several years, I’ve visited ConnectiCon in July. It’s in my backyard. It’s a smaller show but every year the names become bigger. It’s got a sense of community, and it’s generally become something I look forward to. Unfortunately, this year with some stuff going on in my personal life and some shake-ups at work I wasn’t able to put in for the time off this year for the 3 to 4 days to visit. It looked like I wasn’t going to be able to get out to a convention this summer.

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But I unexpectedly won a ticket from Mike Levy for Empire Game Expo. And fortunately, I was able to get my schedule reworked to compensate for the one day. So I printed my QR code and directions for the trek to New York’s Capital. I hadn’t been that far into NY since I was a kid. Getting there was fairly easy for me. It was a jaunt from I-84 to I-87. A long, “L” shaped two-hours or so on the road. There’s a lot of beauty along that ride. A lot of scenery. That said, there were some really shaky moments in the early leg. I-84 needs a fair amount of work in my neck of the woods. It needs even more, the closer you get to Newburgh. But I’ve begun to ramble.

The convention was in The Red Lion Hotel in Albany, NY. The venue was actually quite nice. Clean, Spacious, and there’s even a massive indoor pool for those staying there. There was a slew of old, and current consoles set up in free play areas, as well as a rather impressive vintage computer exhibit set up where you could play on old computers.

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Imagine my surprise when I saw both models of the Commodore 64, both running on vintage Commodore monitors, running C64 games. Moreover, they had other classic machines like the Atari ST and Apple II running too. If that wasn’t enough, there was a bench filled with old DOS, and Windows configurations ranging from the days of the XT to the days of the Pentium III. It warmed my heart to see the classic computer formats get some well-deserved attention.

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I also got some time in with the Atari 2600 version of Missile Command and had a respectable score no less! There were many of the consoles you would hope to see at a convention, present and operational. There were also a handful of arcade cabinets above the pool area. It felt a bit anemic though as there weren’t very many games to choose from. After getting home and doing some research this wasn’t really the show’s fault. It’s whatever machines the hotel decided to have up year-round for guests.

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In addition to that, there were a few games that there were tournaments for.  There were Tournaments for Goldeneye 007, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. going on. There were also Events for Tetris, Apex Legends, Fortnite, along with a couple of fighting game tournaments for Tekken 7, and Street Fighter II Turbo. Not a bad selection of titles for competitive players.

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I did manage to get into a couple of panels. Mike Levy and Russ Lyman had a joint panel together talking about DIY projects, as well as going over some tips for people getting into collecting old games. Russ talked a bit more about how he made some of the cosmetic modifications to his car. Like making knobs for the stick shift, inexpensively painting the car, and how he had the custom decals made. He also brought up some simple, yet innovative ways to hang your photos, posters, and other framed art. Mike discussed simpler modifications one can do to their devices that don’t require solder jobs. He also shared some handy tips on removing used game store price tags from the DVD case overlays commonly found on games. He also brought up the importance of wrapping your wired controllers, and ac adapters properly. Both guests pointed to the episodes on their respective channels on these topics.

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Mike also had the opportunity to host a panel with Rodney Alan Greenblat. A renowned artist who you likely know as the father of PaRappa The Rapper. It was a fascinating panel. Not only for fans of the games and the stories behind their creation. But because of the long body of his work and some of the personal stories he spoke of. Mike Levy will have the entire panel up on his channel in the coming days. But some of the highlights for me were his work with bands. In addition to the sculptures and paintings, he’s done prior to being involved in game development he has done many album covers for musicians and artists. Two that really stood out to me were Shonen Knife and Puffy AmiYumi. 

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I did get to ask him about some of the differences between working on art for musicians and game development. And he pointed out that more than any other medium, video games were far more collaborative. While often times, a rock band may have a creative vision he or another artist has to work within, that’s about all the hands involved. In most cases anyway. With a video game project, there are artists to work with, animators to work with to ensure everyone is happy with how things move. Sound effects teams and voice actors have to have input or information to work with to ensure the voices properly portray the visuals, and mannerisms of the characters we interact with. That’s before factoring what executives and legal teams may do.

Someone else asked about the omission of a Hell-themed stage in Um Jammer Lammy. This was one such case. The executives in Japan and Europe liked how the game was coming along just fine. But the North American branch wasn’t behind the idea of a Hell level. So they pushed for it to be changed. As a result, the team was told they had to create an entirely new level for North American players. Which proved to be challenging because the game was nearing the end of production.

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He also talked a bit about his works on books and art about Buddhism. As well as his shop in Catskill, NY where he has a lot of his art on display. It’s open three days a week. He still works fairly regularly on new art and other projects. He also would love to do another PaRappa game, but due to the way, the rights fall it requires the approval of several decision makers. And many of the folks who worked on the old games aren’t with Sony anymore. Still, he holds out hope he’ll be able to get out another game in the series.

Overall, a fantastic panel. I didn’t talk about nearly everything in it, so I highly recommend you check it out for yourself when Mike gets it uploaded to his channel.

I didn’t get into any of the other panels, but Cherami Leigh and Mela Lee were there. Both of whom are well known in the realm of voice acting. Many anime titles and video games feature their work. Mela Lee was featured recently as Jade in Mortal Kombat 11.  There wasn’t much of anything in terms of food in the convention. But one vendor there was called Bard & Baker cafe, they made some fantastic pastries. I bought a carrot cake muffin which was able to tide me over until later. Their core business in Troy, NY combines a board game center and a cafe’. If you’re in that area and like having some good food while you play Stratego with a friend, check them out. 

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Speaking of vendors, there was a room filled to the brim with vendors selling everything from retro games to collectibles to crafts. I picked up a couple of things while I was there. A shop called Infinite Lives was there and among the slew of vintage games they had stood one lone copy of Polaris for the Atari 2600. This was one of the fabled Tigervision games. A line of games by the company that would become Tiger Electronics. This particular one is based on the Taito arcade game of the same name. And while this game isn’t nearly as tough or as expensive to find as the coveted River Patrol, it isn’t something you’ll see very often. As such, I pretty much had to get it and the price was fair.

A couple of vendors I recognized as they were friends and acquaintances from Connecticut. Antoinette who you might recognize from The Best Spuds channel does a lot of really great art. Glossed Over was there too. They take the best looking ads from old magazines and turn them into something you can easily frame. I picked up a Japanese Splatoon 2: Octo Expansion ad, and a gorgeous Sin & Punishment: Star Successor spot from them. Russ Lyman and Mike Levy shared a booth where they had some art and retro stuff of their own for sale.

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But the biggest purchase I made actually came from Underworld Gamez. This is an organization that puts fighting game tournaments together at conventions. I didn’t realize they had a lot of merchandise. However, I was elated when I found a pair of Callie and Marie plushies for well below the online prices. It was the perfect gift for someone other than myself, so I hope they’re enjoying them.

I did want to point out a couple of nice booths despite not buying anything from them because they did wonderful work. Toying Around is a store in Johnstown, NY. that deals in a lot of pop culture merch and games. But they also had some nice silk screened trucker hats. And while I didn’t see a print that worked for me, they appeared to be higher quality than I usually see at these sorts of events. Plus the representative was a rather friendly fellow. Another one was Sticky Kitty Studios. This booth had a lot of handmade crafts, but it also had these really nice custom winter hats decked out with video game graphics. If they pop up at a con near you go look at their stuff.

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All in all a pretty fun time. And from what I understand this is a spin-off convention from the much larger Retro Game Con which is held further west in the Syracuse, NY. area. For an inaugural year, this was quite a nice convention. It had compelling guests, a large number of vendors, and a few great tournaments. And it had a vintage computer gaming area. Something even some larger shows do not have. I didn’t even get to mention the Video Game Trivia event, Cosplay contests, Board Game Tournaments, or that Super Thrash Bros. was there to play a show. Extra Life also raffled off some great stuff for charity.

If I were to suggest anything for next year it would be to bring in a wider selection of arcade cabinets rather than relying on the hotel’s small segment. There was an after party too, but with the long commute ahead of me I didn’t stay for that. But ultimately I had a nice experience. I wish everybody involved the best. This has the potential to become a great event for anyone in that part of the State of NY, as well as visitors to the area. If you live in upstate NY and have longed for a local show to go to, do check it out if you can. There’s at least something for everyone.

GATO ROBOTO Review

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Like the term or not, Metroidvania games have seen something of a resurgence in the world of independently made games. Large maps where you have to slowly discover and uncover areas through exploration have been around for years. But the best games with this design philosophy have had their own little hooks that make them stand out from the crowd. Axiom Verge, VVVVVV, and The Messenger all had unique takes on the idea. And Gato Roboto also has its own things it brings to the table.

PROS: It’s Metroid, The Nodes Of Yesod, Blaster Master, and Mega Man. With KITTIES!

CONS: Short. Veterans may find their way through even faster.

HUMOR: This game will get some laughs out of you.

Let’s get this out of the way. Gato Roboto is an excellent game. I think most people who buy it will enjoy it immensely. You’ll enjoy the gameplay, laugh at the jokes, and the Undertale inspired character designs are pretty good too. Aesthetically, Gato Roboto also wears the clothes of games played on our IBM PC Compatibles, Apple II’s, Commodore 64’s, Atari 800’s, and ZX Spectrums back in 1984. Outside of a handful of other mentions, most games that take the retro look take inspiration from the NES. So Gato Roboto stands out from the crowd a tad bit more in this regard.

It also helps that everything about this game is so darn cute. It’s like the folks at Doinksoft pretty much knew this was going to have to resonate with the Hallmark Card crowd, and it really does. You play the role of a cat who is on a military vessel with its owner. You, being a seemingly oblivious pet step on a keyboard which causes the navigation system to go off course. This results in a crash getting you and your owner marooned on an alien world. Your owner can’t escape the wrecked ship, so you agree to go do the job they cannot. Fortunately, they know a little bit about the planet and give you some clues.

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Before long, you’ll discover a lab that looks suspiciously like the save stations in Super Metroid. You’ll also find a vehicle that looks suspiciously like the vehicle from Blaster Master. And like the latter, throughout your adventure, there will be times you’ll need to get out of it. The difference is in Gato Roboto you’re entirely defenseless when roaming on foot. These moments have an element of stealth gameplay, where you have to sneak around or approach a situation like a puzzle. When riding around in your vehicle you convert into a tiny kitten themed mech. And much like the Metroid games, you’ll have to find items to give you more powerful weapons, longer health bars, and the ability to go places you previously could not.

It also has a bit of the pre-Metroid exploration games like The Nodes Of Yesod, and The Arc Of Yesod. Those games also had you rolling around a large map for items. But they didn’t scroll. Gato Roboto has some areas like this, where the screen just flips to the next one. And with the art style used, it really fits the motif. Even if it can be jarring with the spots that do have four-way scrolling.

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If Undertale made you laugh, it will be apparent to you that Toby Fox was an inspiration here. There is a lot of similar humor here. Characters balk at certain interactions. They’ll make references that are just vague enough that the intended audience gets them. And there are a few spots where they go the opposite direction with reference humor to make sure everyone gets the gag. They also throw in some stuff that only pet owners or the friends or relatives of pet owners will get.

Through it all, everything feels pretty tight. There aren’t too many moments where you’ll die and wonder why. That said, things do feel different when exploring the world on foot than they do when you’re piloting a vehicle. You have a little bit more momentum when scrambling around on four legs. You have a different arc and sense of gravity when jumping. There are also places you can go on foot that you can’t when piloting your mech. It all feels really good.

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Boss fights usually feel right out of the Metroid games. Though there are a few that will hearken back to the NES Mega Man games. One fight, in particular, reminded me of a very specific Sonic The Hedgehog fight. While another reminded me of playing Super R-Type. So there are a number of old-school references geezers like me can enjoy along with the contemporary ones those I have a decade on will love as well.

Throughout it all, the audio soundtrack complements it well. If I had any complaints about it, there isn’t any particular tune that really stood out to me. Nothing that I know will make me go “I know this was from Gato Roboto!” years from now. But there’s nothing here that will feel out of place.

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The only thing I feel that some people won’t like is just how short it can feel. My first playthrough was done in less than four hours. I found nearly 75% of all of the items in the process. By contrast, I probably put a good 20 hours into The Messenger, and Axiom Verge each. Be that as it may, Gato Roboto’s vehicle mechanic and collectibles do feel unique from other exploration games. It’s also a good candidate for speed running. In fact, one of its achievements on Steam is centered around it. As for the collectibles, you can find up to 14 hidden cartridges in the game’s map. If you manage to get them, they’ll allow you to change the color scheme from black and white graphics to other two-toned visual solutions. But more importantly, finding them all will allow an NPC to give you better equipment. If you go for a 100% completion run this might extend that playtime a bit. Especially if you decide to do that before trying to speed run the game or getting through it without going for the better items.

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In conclusion, Gato Roboto does do enough to set itself apart from other Metroidvania style games. It’s very funny, has some challenging bosses, and some of the items can be pretty tough to get. I just wish it could have been just a little bit longer. On the other hand, a good game should leave you wanting more. Gato Roboto is a good game. One you ought to check out. Especially if you’ve already played some of its acclaimed contemporaries. And even if you haven’t, you’ll still likely enjoy it a lot. Especially if you like to get legitimate moments of comic relief in your games. Gato Roboto is one stray worth taking in.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

AMID EVIL Review

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New Blood Interactive is quickly becoming known for the publisher keeping 1990’s FPS design alive. One of their top guys Dave Oshry helped bring Interceptor’s reboot of Rise Of The Triad to market when he worked with them. As did composer Andrew Hulshult. Since then, both have been involved with New Blood. The company published the excellent DUSK last year, and recently Indefatigable’s AMID EVIL finally released.

With DUSK the concept seemed to be a celebration of Resident Evil, Deliverance, and the original QUAKE. All rolled into a mind-blowingly creatively designed shooter wrapped in retrospective trappings and design. AMID EVIL too, is an old school shooter at heart. But with a wistfulness for the old Heretic and Hexen games. But is this new game just a new coat of paint or is there something else going on?

PROS: Visual design. Level design. Responsive controls. Scalable experience.

CONS: Enemies sometimes blend into backgrounds. Inconsistent A.I.

EARTH: Will be blown up tens of thousands of times.

While it’s true AMID EVIL (I can’t help that they wrote their title screen with the Caps Lock key turned on.) does evoke memories of those classics ID produced with Raven way back in 1994, it doesn’t give you the whole picture.  Fighting monsters with magic-themed weapons are only one small part of the game. This game gives you a lot of elements that come from a number of places. In most cases, these elements work surprisingly well together.

The storyline in AMID EVIL isn’t really its strong suit. Most of it is buried in the game’s menu system where you’ll get a cliff notes version. The gist of it is you’re called by a mysterious voice to be the Grand Champion of the universe. There’s been an evil being referenced only as an “Evil Force.” So much like the Avatar in the Ultima series of RPGs, you leave the comfort of your life to take up a magical Battle Axe and become a slayer of evildoers.

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From here you start out in what look like ancient ruins whereupon further inspection reveals a few paths. Depending on the one you take, you’ll find each is tied to a difficulty level. All of the paths ultimately take you to the same physical place. But the harder paths will give enemies greater strengths and numbers. Once you’ve chosen your path you’re off on your quest.

When you begin your quest, you’ll find it actually starts in a hub world. At first, the game will make you play the episodes in order. But after you clear the first two episodes of levels, the hub world changes. Several walls come down, and you can play the following episodes in any order you wish. Once you play through all of them, the final episode opens up for you to embark upon.

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This is why I said there is a multitude of elements earlier. This is the sort of thing often seen in platformers like Super Mario 64. It’s less common in FPS games. But in this case, it’s done rather well. You’ll find that each episode also follows a strain of Super Mario logic: giving each place you visit a distinct motif. AMID EVIL never repeats a theme. Each of these lands is themed after a different rogue gallery of villains. So every episode has a completely new area to explore. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some common settings here. There’s a volcanic area filled with tombs. There’s a space-age area where you may be reminded of games like The Conduit. But the overall, point is that aesthetically, each set of stages is set apart from one another.

Tying into this, are the enemies you’ll face. Each set has its own group of villains. Some of them may share a strategy or two, but their behaviors are still just different enough to keep you on your toes. For instance, one world pits you against flying enemies that feel somewhere between the Angels Bayonetta fights, and the Harpies Serious Sam has been shooting since 2001. But you can’t assume you know how to fight them off. They still have their own attack patterns going on. Even within this game’s worlds, going into the volcanic temple regions throws forth a floating rock with a face on it. A face that breathes fire. A fire breathing face you can’t attack the same way as the sun-worshipping winged guys you fought five stages ago.

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That’s what makes things feel different in each area. The fact that while you still may have enemies that charge you, enemies, that fly, or enemies with a great arm in each region, they have nuance. It’s never a 1:1 feeling across the board. As such, AMID EVIL has a lot of personality other games do not. It keeps you going because you always want to see what else is in store for you. Pairing along with all of this is fantastic level design. The fact that Indefatigable cut their teeth making mods for those classic ID and Apogee titles really shows. Each of these levels has a lot of emphasis on exploration. Partly because you’ll need those keys to get those color-coded doors open. But also because it incentivizes you to go off the beaten path for secrets.

Often the secrets will get you more powerful weapons earlier, or get you big boosts of health orbs and mana. The weapons in this game are about what you’d expect. You’ll have your starting ax and you’ll find magic wands early. As well as a sword. Most of the weapons in the game still operate as guns. However, there are a few really creative ones here. The morningstar is really fun to use. It shoots spikes at enemies, and if you get that critical hit with it, it will actually nail them to the wall! Another one is a wand that shoots planets like rockets. It may sound silly, but this game finds a way to make the silly plausible. Each of these weapons uses a different color of mana. Much like the weapons in the old Heretic/Hexen games. You’ll need to keep an eye on levels for each of these especially later in the game where they become more scarce. Resource management is a much bigger deal in these types of games than one might think. There’s nothing worse than an opening monster closet when you have 5% health and only 30 magic bullets for your wand.

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The stage layouts are terrific even if you’re not planning on 100%ing all of them. Many of them have some very challenging puzzles in between taking out squads of monsters. Sometimes you’ll have to go to a previous area to find a room you couldn’t enter before and have forgotten about. Then you’ll find something in there leads to that latest room you had left, only now you’ll have an item you need. Other times it’s less complicated than that, but might expect you to think vertically as opposed to horizontally.

At the end of each set of levels, you’ll fight a boss. A lot of these are your standard GamePro Cyberdemon “Shoot it until it dies.” meme. But a number of them involve puzzles. One fight, in particular, stood out to me because it involved forcing the boss to walk into a trap in order to make it vulnerable. Obviously, the final boss encounter is something of a grand challenge. Thankfully, the game has a slew of power-ups to help you out. You have an invisibility power up to keep enemies from seeing you for a short time. There’s an invulnerability power-up to make you temporarily invincible. There’s also one that allows you to fly like the one from Rise Of The Triad. Beyond all of that, if you collect enough souls from fallen enemies, you can also temporarily boost the power of your weapons with a right mouse click!

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AMID EVIL is a glorious game. Like DUSK before it, it keeps this style of shooter alive. Yes, it involves a lot of twitch gameplay as you’re blasting anything that moves. But there’s a sense of exploration modern games often don’t have as the focus is putting you through a linear set of areas to evoke a sense of being involved in a story. There’s definitely nothing wrong with this, but bringing back the classic formulas from the genre’s infancy is going to feel fresh to those who’ve missed it, as well as those who never experienced it. The important thing is AMID EVIL does it very well. The character designs, level designs, and unique themes for each area all go toward making this game a compelling one.

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Be that as it may, some might notice some of the blocky N64 era models, and wonder about them. This game was made using Unreal Engine 4, and so it does a lot of modern effects many newer games would have. And yet, the characters are much less complicated looking than nearly anything else you’ve seen from other games using the engine. AMID EVIL doesn’t go with contemporary trends. It goes with a retro look with contemporary touches instead. This makes the game look not quite contemporary, but not quite retro either. It beats to its own drum, and it works to its benefit.

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Andrew Hulshult comes back from DUSK to do the OST to AMID EVIL, and it’s far from the typical hard rock sound he’s known for. There’s a slew of ambient tracks that suit the mood of the visuals in any situation. Occasionally the music does pick up the tempo and begins to rock a little bit harder during firefights. But when you’re not killing things, you’re getting some very eerie sound effects, and tones. Especially during the final episode where the audio marries the visuals again leading to some of the strangest stuff you may have seen in a game. Stuff that can hang with the likes of American McGee’s Alice, or Disney’s Epic Mickey. When you clear the mainline game you can go back and play it again on a higher difficulty. But there’s also a horde mode included here to keep you a little busier for a little longer.

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AMID EVIL is pretty amazing. Whether you loved the era of early DOOM games or not. It has a great blend of action and puzzle-solving. It has a great soundtrack. It does, of course, have a couple of tiny issues I have to nitpick a bit. First off, some of the enemies have the same color schemes as some of the backgrounds. So occasionally, you’ll be hit by something, and won’t realize what it is until you’re just about to die. Second of all, some of the enemies aren’t always consistent in their behavior. Sometimes you’ll be getting hit from a mile away, but other times enemies may not see you even after you’ve snuck upon them. I also wish the story could have been told more through the gameplay, instead of just throwing it into a submenu. Because there are some cool things in there that could make for a better storyline. Still, it all takes a backseat to the action anyway, so it’s a minor thing to pick at. Overall though, I highly recommend checking this game out. If you love the classics, you might have looked into this already anyway. But if you’re looking to try something out of your comfort zone, this is also a solid choice. Take up the call! Pick up that ax.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Mordhau Review

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Every so often a piece of media comes out and becomes so inspiring it makes a group of fans attempt to improve upon it. Back in 2012, a scrappy upstart indie developer composed of modders created Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Built off of what they had done with their Age Of Chivalry mod they had made with Half-Life 2‘s Source Engine, it was a cult hit. It gave Team Objective based FPS multiplayer fans a new setting. It was the modes Battlefield style fans loved in a Medieval setting where two fictional kingdoms waged war. What really set it apart was an innovative sword fighting control scheme. It went on to make Torn Banner Studios a noteworthy small business.

PROS: Improves on Torn Banner Studios’ idea in many ways.

CONS: Some of the new ideas could use some fine-tuning.

FOR THE ORDER: How shall Triternion compete with their inspiration?

But Torn Banner Studios had their own steps and missteps with their new I.P. It was frequently updated, but some of the patches introduced minor glitches or competitive imbalances that would have to be worked out with follow-up patches. Their expansion pack project with the folks behind The Deadliest Warrior improved the combat but was light on modes. Then their last game Mirage: Arcane Warfare went in a completely different direction. While it was an excellent game, the built-in Chivalry audience didn’t gravitate toward it, not enough newcomers became interested in it and it sadly went the way of the dodo within a year.

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During this time, a group of European Chivalry fans quietly worked on their own project between classes and jobs. Initially, called Project Slasher, it evolved into the game we have today. Mordhau builds on nearly everything Chivalry was known for while bringing in some elements of its own.

As in Chivalry, there is a big emphasis on melee combat. Just like that game, you’ll have an overhead swing, a horizontal swing, and a stabbing motion. Unlike Chivalry, there are no alternate swing buttons. Instead of pressing a different button to swing left instead of right you have to pay attention to a cursor. Depending on where exactly you’re facing there will be a line next to the dot. This indicates the direction of your swing. The swing always goes toward the dot. If you’re a long time Chivalry player coming into this, it will take a little while to get used to. But it is an improvement over what Torn Banner Studios’ cult classic started out on.

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In addition to this, there are other additions and alterations. In Mordhau you’ll find a new mechanic called Chambering, where if you time the same attack just at the right time you’ll actually get a prolonged parry effect allowing you to potentially get a combo attack going. You’ll also find if you can get the right angles and connections going in your swings it’s possible to disarm your opponent. Don’t be the least bit surprised if after a chain of blocks, and parries you drop your bow or melee weapon.

Speaking of bows, even the archery has had some improvements over what was introduced in Chivalry. For starters, drawing the string can’t be held quite as long. So you’ll really have to get better at leading targets. If you do hold it too long not only will your arms need to rest, but just before that happens you’ll see your arms wither and shake leading to very inaccurate targeting. Fortunately, you can still cancel the draw and start again. Also, bows, are projectile based again, while crossbows are hit scan again. Meaning bows move like rockets while crossbows fire like lasers wherever the crosshair is aimed.

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What is different now is that skilled opponents can now swat arrows away. If you can get the timing down, you can actually hit arrows with your sword like a baseball. Archers also have to take arrow drop into account. So for long distances, you’ll have to figure out what the angular curve is. And while that might not seem so bad for stationary targets, it’s much tougher to master when they’re on the run. On top of that, you don’t want to stay in one place too long because in any mode you can be flanked at any given moment.

One significant change Mordhau makes is the inclusion of added classes. Not only can you roll with equivalents to Chivalry’s four classes, but there are also entirely new ones. Most notably, the new Engineer class. This class allows you to build structures to help your team and hinder your enemies. You can build arrowslits for your archers or block chokepoints. You can build a ballista for your teammates to defend your line with or to cover your attackers with. This class also has very low health though so you have to be pretty stealthy to use it effectively.

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But speaking of classes, one of the coolest things about this game is the ability to create your own custom classes. Here you can spend the gold you earn in battles on customizing characters for your own specific play styles. You can unlock cosmetic items, armor, weapons and more with your gold to build some fearsome warriors. You may want to have a tank-like character with a lot of armor and a mighty billhook. Or you may want a nimble assassin armed with knives and a crossbow. Or you may want to make a class that lies somewhere in between. The game can even get pretty zany with comedic weapons, and improvised weapons too. You’ll see people swinging pans around. You’ll see people playing the lute before smashing someone over the head with it like a Medieval Honky Tonk Man or (for you more contemporary fans) Elias.

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Mordhau has the modes you would expect from a Chivalry inspired game. You’ll have servers set up for 1 on 1 dueling. These are a great way to get a handle on the mechanics of the game’s basics. The thing is, in other modes, you’ll be attacked from all sides so you’ll want to at least try the more traditional Deathmatch, and Team Deathmatch servers in order to get used to facing two or three enemies at once. These work like you think they do, with the former being a Free-For-All you’ve experienced since the original DOOM. But as you improve in these fights you’ll be better prepared for the game’s main attraction.

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There’s also a fairly robust tutorial in the game as well. This will give you a respectable handle on the basics of the aforementioned combat. The tutorial also covers some basic archery to give you some experience using a bow. The third major part of it goes over how to fight while riding on horseback. It then ends after briefly showing you how to use battlefield weapons like catapults. Overall, not too bad. While it doesn’t go over all of the nuances, it does go over the core concepts well. It also explains some of the more complex mechanics even if they’re something you’ll still have to learn by playing in matches online.

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The main mode in Mordhau is a mode called Frontline which is the objective mode of the game. To its credit, it really does a lot right. It adds a new vehicle to the formula: horses. You can take control of a steed and ride into battle, lancing people and flanking enemies using catapults or ballista structures. The mode works an awful lot like the conquest modes in the Battlefield games. You want to take control of points on the map by holding them which in turn drains enemy tickets. While in control of certain points the game then assigns your army objectives. You might have to go destroy a specific target or push a cart to a certain part of the map. If you can pull that off you’ll win the day. But if you lose the control point in the process you’ll also face a major setback in that you have to take it back to continue.

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This is really the one thing Chivalry did a little bit better. In the older game, the Team Objective mode took these mini-missions and worked them into something more akin to Battlefield’s Rush modes instead. This made it feel more centered around the missions themselves and made you feel more accomplished if you pulled it off. And it felt multi-tiered. First, you might have gotten dead bodies into the aquifer. But then you had to go break into a camp to find the enemy monarchs in hiding and assassinate them. But that part of the mission would prove far harder due to the tactical advantage the enemy team had. That sort of emotional ride isn’t here quite as much. It’s an absolute blast to play, make no mistake. The new mechanics, classes, and steed combat really mix things up in a good way. But knowing your progress can be completely shelved if you lose a control point takes a lot of the emphasis away from the missions. So in some rounds, you’ll find neither army goes for the objectives in a significant way, playing heavy defense on both sides in a war of attrition. It’s a bit disappointing since performing objectives can be so much fun.

That said, the developers have said they plan to continually support the game so something more akin to the Rush style of an objective mode could show up at some point. And again, what is here is a lot of fun especially with the tweaks on the combat. Plus the aforementioned create-a-character feature adds a lot of personality to the entire experience.

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Obviously, Unreal Engine 4 means better graphics and sound technology. Mordhau looks like a significant leap over the game that inspired it. The texture quality is highly detailed. Even on the lowest settings (which you’re seeing in these screenshots), the game looks great. Lighting effects, shadows, and pretty much every environmental effect are wonderful. And while the models themselves could look a little more realistic, it ultimately won’t matter to you because the action is non-stop. You won’t have time to analyze facial animation when you’re trying not to get stabbed.

The sound effects are right on par with those in Chivalry’too. The clanking of clashing weapons, the screams of anguish, the taunts all create a sense of immersion. The music is very good too, though not many of the tracks really leaped out to me. They just kind of felt like the sort of thing that fit the motif. I would have liked something a little bit more distinctive. Be that as it may, it really does fit the castle siege movie motif everything else in the game is going for.

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Ultimately, I’ve absolutely loved playing Mordhau, but I do have a few minor points of contention with it. First, I wish the time between switching weapons was a smidge shorter. If you’re using a bow, for example, you may hear those footsteps sneaking up behind you. You need to defend yourself! You quickly go to grab that dagger and your head gets chopped off. If you only had a split second more, you could have gotten in a parry. Assuming you’re good at steering the block. Again, this game does allow you to steer your swings and blocks so if the opponent is more skilled in this example you’d still be decapitated.

Another thing that I wish was executed a bit better were player counts in some maps on some modes. Deathmatch is probably the worst offender in this regard. It’s an excellent and fun mode overall but some of the maps are too small for a full server. It ends up making for a spammy match where blindly attacking will get you at least a kill or two. Again, not the end of the world and many games suffer from this. But it is a minor quibble.

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Frankly, Mordhau is an absolutely astonishing first effort from a rookie team. It succeeds in its mission to build upon the foundation their heroes at Torn Banner Studios started. The expanded melee combat truly does make the sword fighting more compelling while also cutting back on some of the unforeseen weirdness of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare’s exploitable mechanics. That doesn’t mean everything here is perfect. But you won’t be seeing people kill you with their backs to your eyes in Mordhau. Steed combat is a lot of fun too.  It’s just so great being able to lance enemies or shoot arrows from horseback. And even some of the stuff that’s detrimental to you is still entertaining. Getting knocked on the ground from a door then eating a claymore will make you laugh at yourself. Falling off of a horse from taking an arrow, or getting slashed in the leg feels out of a film. The added immersion really does deserve some worthy praise here. Really, the main thing holding it back slightly is the disjointed feeling in Frontline. Hopefully, that will be remedied in an update in the not too distant future. As it stands though, Mordhau is still a keeper. It will be interesting to see how the fans of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare do against their inspirations next year when Torn Banner releases Chivalry II. But whether you’re a huge Chivalry fan looking for something new, or a big multiplayer shooter fan who would like a different take on the idea Mordhau may just be the game you’re looking for.

Final Score: 9 out of 10