Tag Archives: Action games

Valfaris Review

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A couple of years ago now, a small independent action platformer got some attention. Slain had a brilliant art style that was combined with a soundtrack by Celtic Frost’s Curt Victor Bryant. If you wanted a video game that instantly made you think of Heavy Metal music, Slain could easily come to mind. It had a botched launch as there were a lot of technical problems. But the developers truly did overhaul everything to do customers who backed the game justice. And with Slain: Back From Hell they largely succeeded.

Valfaris is the new game from Steel Mantis. Much like Slain, it has a gristly, horrific art style. It too has a soundtrack by Curt Victor Bryant. But it seems to be advertised as more of a Contra inspired game rather than a Castlevania inspired one. Did the folks at Steel Mantis give us an exhilarating Run N’ Gun that old-school NES era Konami fans the experience they remember?

PROS: Builds on everything the developers learned when making Slain.

CONS: It’s a triumph! But it isn’t quite the Contra-like the trailer teases.

METAL: Everything you see and hear screams “Crank it to 11 & break off the knob!”

One thing you can absolutely tell if you’ve played Slain before playing this game is that Steel Mantis learned many good lessons from that process. Right on the title screen, you can notice some cool details. Just like Slain, it oozes Heavy Metal. Your character is dressed like a Warhammer 40k Chaos Marine. There are mountains of fossilized remains of people and creatures everywhere. And you can notice a faded 3D render of the face of the protagonist as if it were made for an early Windows 95, PlayStation, Saturn, or Nintendo 64 game. It brilliantly blends the eras of the 16-bit and early 32-bit and 64-bit processor powered consoles.

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Upon beginning the game you’ll see a cut scene setting up the story. As Therion, you’re off to a mysterious space station; Valfaris upon it reappearing near a red giant. It was once your home and with its discovery, you decide to investigate. Upon landing on the citadel world it immediately becomes apparent that evil forces have taken it over. So right out of the gate, you’ll be confronted with enemies.

Now while many might think of this game as a Run N’ Gun in the vein of Contra or Metal Slug, it really isn’t. You will be getting many cool weapons throughout the game, and you will be shooting a lot of stormtroopers, monsters, space insects, and more with them. But it doesn’t have that constant, “Go! Go! Go!” pace of a Run N’ Gun. Save for a couple of enemies that actually spawn enemies and a couple of auto scroller moments you can take moments to breathe. And while the game’s stages are linear, there are a number of hidden areas you’re going to want to seek out. In reality, it feels somewhere in between Konami’s two biggest franchises of that bygone era.

 

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Basically, it builds on the core gameplay introduced in Slain, and it does so beautifully. It feels very refined in the melee combat. Of course, all of the game’s enemies have an entirely different speed. So while you can indeed, expect to use parrying to your benefit you can’t expect it to be predictable. In Slain, knowing exactly when something was about to hit you was, strangely enough, easier than it is in Valfaris. Fortunately, parrying isn’t quite as necessary as it was in Slain, although there are definitely some moments where it is beneficial. So beneficial in fact, you’re going to want to get that timing down for when these moments come up.

So like Slain you have the ability to swing melee attacks, and you have a block button. The block can not only block attacks but as mentioned can also parry attacks if you hit one a split-second before it hits you. Underneath your health bar is a second bar that is tied to the blocks. Killing enemies with a melee attack can often refill it by dropping blue mana. This meter will deplete when you block attacks, and some enemies have powerful attacks that can take it to zero after one block! So there’s another reason to try to master parrying.

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Of course, the big addition to the gameplay here is the shooting. The game starts out by giving you a laser pistol and a lightsaber. But as you play through the game, you’ll discover newer weapons to use. Some of these are out in the open, but other ones will require you to find secret rooms or alternate paths in levels. Which is why the game never really hits the pace of a proper Contra game. You’ll need to take your time to look for these visual cues. It definitely is a bit peppier than Slain though. And while this game doesn’t have as many one-hit deathtraps in the background as Slain did, you still have to pay a lot of attention to the background. Some enemies really blend into the scenery and can knock you into pits, pools of acid, as well as other deadly places.

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Speaking of scenery, again, I have to point out the painstaking detail of the graphics here. There is a brilliant use of color shading and terrific palettes for every possible section. The environments are wide and varied in Valfaris. One moment you might be in a war-torn battle station. Another, you’ll be in a space bug-infested jungle where even the vines are sentient and lethal. Each stage has a multitude of bosses, most of which are insanely difficult while at the same time being completely fair. When you die in this game, 95% of the time you know it is your own fault. There are a handful of times where a Boss will pull a cheap trick at the last second or the rare platform that looks wider than it actually is. But on the whole, everything feels on the level. So the game fosters an environment where even though you’re going to die a ton, you’re also going to feel determined even if you find you’re getting mad at yourself for messing up.

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Obviously, the soundtrack goes along with everything perfectly, as Curt Victor Bryant returns from Slain to continue the shredding. Honestly, the music in this also feels a lot more varied than in Slain, as he touches on the many subgenres of Heavy Metal. There are orchestral moments that lead to a Symphonic Metal opus. There are classic Power Metal moments, Speed Metal tracks during some intense moments, and more. There isn’t much in the way of vocals here, but it’s totally fine. In fact, vocals might even distract from the action going on at any moment,

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And like Slain, you can expect to see a lot of intense, unsettling animations as enemies explode into gibs, get cut in half, smashed by parts of the scenery and more. Getting back to the gameplay, there are also Super Weapons you can use that also uses the mana the blocking function does. These do a lot of damage while consuming a lot of your meter so you may want to use it sparingly. In my playthrough, I tried to use them mostly for the more intense boss fights. Of which there are many. All of the weapons, the melee ones, guns, and super guns you find can also be upgraded at checkpoints. Throughout the game, you’ll find special items you can use to do so. Each of these can be leveled up to around four times and the cost to do so increases each time. As you play you’ll really want to think about what weapons to upgrade. Each weapon is effective on all of the enemies, but some are more beneficial on some than others. So there’s an element of Mega Man here for you to consider as well.

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When you do clear the game it will give you a pretty satisfying ending. Throughout the game, it definitely leaves some nods to Slain, but you don’t have to have played Slain to understand what is going on here. After the credits roll you’ll be given an end screen showing you how many times you died, how long it took you to beat the game as well as how many items you’ve found so that you’ll be inspired to play through the game again. It does try to get you to at least attempt a 100% completion run.

While as of this writing I didn’t see it on my physical Switch version of the game, the game’s Steam page does list a New Game + mode being added to the game. So if you want an even bigger incentive to go back to it once you’ve beaten it, you potentially have one. Ultimately though, even if you only play through it once you’ll feel very accomplished. This game pulls no punches. Even the most grizzled video game veteran will be challenged to the nth degree. But again, the whole thing generally feels fair. When you start to notice patterns and understand what you need to be doing things don’t feel so frustrating. They make you feel more determined. You can win the day, you really can. Valfaris is one game you should definitely look into. It’s gorgeous, sounds amazing and is filled with challenges. Just don’t come into it expecting a Contra-like. It is more of an Action-Platformer than Run N’ Gun. But still one of the best experiences you’ll have.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Cave Story + Review

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Cave Story probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. It was one of the earliest indie games to garner a cult following. A Metroid inspired adventure game, Studio Pixel’s effort was praised and landed on Steam, even the Nintendo Wii’s WiiWare service.

PROS: An excellent Metroidvania with a few new enhancements.

CONS: Subsequent releases added costs.

SWITCH: Between the original and enhanced content.

Released by Studio Pixel in 2004, Cave Story was originally a freeware game with some updates over time. It was continually praised in gaming magazines and sites of the time. Eventually, after being picked up by Nicalis, the game would finally see releases as a digital product in 2010, most notably on consoles.

The 3DS, in particular, has two versions of the game. There is the downloadable version off of the game which features a lot of the things represented in the + version here. The retail version, Cave Story 3D was rebuilt from the ground up in order to properly take advantage of the console’s 3D effects.

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Which takes us to Cave Story +. What makes this version of the game different than the original release or its other many ports? Well out of the gate there is a big one: Graphics. Cave Story + has an updated look. Things look much sharper and as a result, you can make out a lot of little details you might have missed if you’ve played one of the earlier releases. The soundtrack has also been overhauled with enhancements. The result is the same songs you know and love, just in a much more produced form. It feels a lot like when you hear the difference between a stock Sega Master System soundtrack and the same songs on an FM Sound Unit. Undoubtedly some will prefer the original sound or look of either the graphics or audio. So Cave Story + will allow you to choose the original release’s video and sound or these enhanced versions. They also add a famitracker version of the soundtrack so if you want more of an NES -esque sound that is also an option. Other than that, there are challenges you can unlock as well as characters to use in a two-player version of the campaign.

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Cave Story + is basically the same game as the original release with the minor tweaks outlined above. Though there is also a new Wind Fortress area here. If you’ve never played Cave Story, you play the role of a Robot named Quote. You start out in a cave (hence the title) but before long, you’ll find yourself in a village of creatures who resemble rabbits. These creatures are called Mimigas and are quickly terrorized by a mysterious mad scientist. He calls himself “The Doctor”, and employs a couple of traitorous Mimigas to do his evil bidding. They kidnap one of the key Mimigas from the village, and so it’s up to you to rescue them.

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And from here the game begins to open up in the way the classic Metroid games do, allowing you to explore new areas as well as finding new ways to enter previous ones. One of the big hooks in the game are teleporters that let you fast travel between these sections. Combat in the game is entirely different than in Metroid or Castlevania though. While this is often thrown in the hat of names when the word Metroidvania comes up, there isn’t any real melee combat to speak of. It’s much closer to Mega Man in some respects, as well as early Commodore 64 games like Turrican. You will need some pixel-perfect jumping skills. And you’ll also have to become accustomed to the floaty gravity of Eurocentric computer platformers of the 1980s. Quote has a little bit of slide momentum when landing so when you need to land on that one tiny brick, keep that in mind.

Most of the weapons in the game allow you to shoot horizontally in a line as well as vertically. Though it is much like their later game, Kero Blaster. So there are no arcs. It’s straight up and directly in front of you. There is also an interesting leveling system in Cave Story. You have health pickups. You can also find items to lengthen the health bar. But you also have a weapon upgrade system. You can fill the meter of any of your weapons by picking up chips that resemble Doritos. Eat enough of them and they’ll become more powerful. You can max them all out at level three where they will do an insane amount of damage. It’s imperative you do this when encountering bosses as most of them are proverbial tanks and you’ll need to take down their health quickly.

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But there is a twist. When you take damage, not only does your health meter go down, so does your weapon meter! That means your weapons can actually decrease in power and if you get swarmed by baddies not only will you be coughing up oil, you’ll also barely break their skin when you shoot them. Fortunately, as with Metroid, there are times you’ll be able to farm small enemies to fill up before you move onto a tough horde or a boss encounter.

One really nice thing Cave Story has going for itself is the wealth of secrets and multiple endings. Depending on your decisions and on your puzzle-solving skills you can find a slew of items to give you a competitive edge near the end of the campaign as well as end your quest with a few different ends to the story. The best of which has quite a bit of fanfare and pizazz going along with it. It also gives the speedrunner crowd a lot to shoot for as well as anyone who is obsessed with 100 percent completion of any game they play.

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As mentioned earlier the cleaner graphics are quite good. But the original game was no slouch either. No matter which aesthetic choice you decide to roll with, the character designs look great. And no matter which version of the OST you play it’s going to feel right at home with everything else. All of this said, Cave Story is a lot of fun, but it also isn’t something you’ll blow through on your first run. There are certainly some difficult challenges near the final areas of the game you’ll uncover and while it can feel cruel at times, it is fair about it. The game also gives you a few difficulty settings to choose from.

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Overall, there’s a reason why this game has been so lauded for over 15 years. While I don’t know you need to pick up the + version here if you’ve played an earlier version, those who have never played it would do well to pick up this one for the bonus content. And with the Switch version (That I played here) the added portability of being on a dockable tablet makes it versatile. But if you don’t have Nintendo’s hybrid, the game is equally viable on any platform it appears on. And with fairly low requirements nearly anyone with a computer can play it there. In short, whatever way you have to play it, you should play this one. The general greatness overshadows the minor problems. Sure, it doesn’t have the most original story, but the character dialogue and design are top-notch. You’ve explored in a ton of games, and yet many don’t do exploration as well as this does.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

ASTRAL CHAIN Review

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon Review

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Ah, Konami. These days it’s become fashionable to belittle their games with good reason. But that’s partly because they used to be one of the kings of game publishing. From Pooyan to Gyruss. From Gradius to Contra. From Crime Fighters to Metal Gear. From Quarth to Super Cobra, this giant has scores of legendary games under its umbrella. But over the last decade there has been a shift in its focus. One that has led many of its best known talent to leave the company. Most know about Hideo Kojima’s departure. But less known is Koji Igarashi, the man behind many of Konami’s better Castlevania games. In 2014 however he would leave the company as he felt his console roots weren’t a good fit for the company’s shift toward mobile phone, and tablet games.

Taking some inspiration from what Keji Inafune had done after leaving Capcom, Igarashi, also took to Kickstarter to raise money for a new project. Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night. This was a successful enough endeavor that today’s game, Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon came out of it as a stretch goal for backers. For the rest of us, it’s an indie game inspired by the classic game series its producer worked on. It may sound like a familiar story. But is it one of the ones that ends as a success?

PROS: A nearly 1:1 representation of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse’s look, and feel.

CONS: It’s almost too similar. Minor bugs.

CASTLEVANIA VETERANS: Will wish you could start with Miriam.

Bloodstained, truly does take many of Castlevania’s mechanics, tone, and visual flair to heart. In fact, this game plays nearly identically to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. That game had you playing as the protagonists ancestor, with the mechanics set up in the original NES version of Castlevania as a baseline. From there it added other characters you could choose to join you, and depending on which path you took through the game each had specific roles. This was to give you an incentive to go back through it multiple times.

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This game is very similar in its approach. Except that to set itself apart, you aren’t a vampire slayer. You’re a demon hunter named Zangetsu. You’ve been cursed by a powerful demon, and so you’re on a mission to find, and kill him in order to break the curse over you. You also don’t use a whip. Zangetsu is armed with a sword. So unlike Castlevania, you won’t have the range you’re likely accustomed to. What you will have however is the same walking speed, and knock back from the NES Trilogy of old. You’ll also find yourself facing very similar attack patterns as in those old games. Sure, the bats, and Gorgon heads may have been replaced with new faces. But you can still expect those wavy patterns over pits, and other traps that will make traversing a trial.

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You may not see two dragon heads stacked, spitting fire. But there will be an equivalent. There may not be a chain of skeleton bones, and a lizard skull coming out from a wall. But here will be something similar. The list goes on, and on, and on. As the story, and stages progress you’ll meet other characters whom you can choose to add to your party. Miriam is the Simon Belmont clone you’ll wish you started the game with. She has a whip that works very much the same way, as Simon’s. This gives you that sweet balance of ranged, and melee attack power, and familiar gravity when jumping or walking off of ledges.

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Later on you’ll meet Gebel, this game’s take on Alucard. He’s also a vampire, and you can also turn into a bat as him. Finally, there’s Alfred who is a magician. He’s also elderly, slow, and has a fairly small health meter. He attacks with a small cane at essentially point-blank range. As in the Castlevania games, there are candles, and other hanging objects you can destroy for items. Some of these are ammo for special weapons, while others are weapons themselves. What sets this one apart a little bit is just how different each character’s weapons are. No special weapon is represented twice. There are a set exclusive to each character. For instance, Miriam can have a spinning disc attack that goes back, and forth. Alfred on the other hand can get a weapon that lets him turn enemies into ice blocks he can then jump on, or have another character jump on.

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There are all sorts of possibilities. The other thing is that each stage, even the earliest ones all have branching paths in them that only specific characters can go to. You may need to switch to Gebel so you can turn into a bat, and fly through a small gap for one path. You may need to slide under something for another, and so you’ll have to switch to Miriam. This sort of mechanic gives the game a lot of replay value, as in order to see everything each stage has to offer you’ll need to try each of them with the applicable characters.

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The thing is you have more options with them than you do with the ones in Castlevania III. What I mean by that is, you don’t drop one when you meet the next. If you choose to take one along for the ride, they stay with you the entire game. The game can be quite a challenge too, especially near the end of the game. So having all of the characters working together makes defeating Gremory, the leader of the Demons, more manageable. However, what makes the game worth playing over again even more are the multiple endings. Depending on which characters you take along, or leave behind you’ll get different outcomes if you clear the game.

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And beyond that there are a few difficulty settings. You can play the easiest setting if you just want to go through the game at your leisure. It reduces the knock back so it isn’t as cruel as the NES Castlevania trilogy could be. It also gives you unlimited lives, so you also won’t see the continue screen. But the veteran mode is the hardcore NES game difficulty you remember. Or if you’re too young to remember, but want to experience anyway. Getting knocked back into pits, crumbling bricks, rotating trap floor tiles. It’s all here. Clearing this will unlock an even harder mode though. So the absolute biggest Castlevania transplants will want to check it out, as it makes an already tough job more challenging.

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Visually the game also follows the Castlevania III mold. It has a very similar color palette, and a very similar pixel art style. This isn’t to say everything is exactly the same. There are background animations, and graphics based puzzles the old Konami games don’t have, and a slew of special effects the old 8-bit 6502 chip variants, and accompanying graphics chips simply can not do on display. The music in it, and synchronization with the cinema screen animations are spot on too. It sounds very much like a Famicom console game through, and through. Inti Creates has done a phenomenal job in the graphics, and sound department with this game.

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But all of this success might be a little too successful. In being so close to the Castlevania NES fill in so many wanted, it doesn’t retain its own identity as much as it needs to. Other than Alfred, the main characters are very much your Simon, Sypha, and Alucard stand-ins. As detailed, and beautifully laid out as the stages are, they could easily be mistaken for an NES Castlevania outing. The mini bosses, and bosses are where the game really begins to turn the tide on this a bit though. These are great multi part affairs that don’t look they would necessarily be in one of Konami’s games, but fit this spiritual successor at the same time. The game also has a handful of minor bugs in it. Mostly collision based bugs. There were a few sections with crumbling blocks designed to make you lose a life if you fail at navigation. At one point I fell, but landed safely in an area where I had to jump to my doom anyway. There was nowhere else to go. Some of these seem to be helping in speed runs. But for the rest of us, they’re the rare inconvenience.

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Still, beyond these observations I really enjoyed playing through the game’s many stages. Anybody who loves the old school Castlevania games probably owns this by now. But if for some reason you don’t, it’s an absolute blast. It’s a truly great action-platformer with some great obstacles to overcome, and some of the best boss fights I’ve been in. I only wish the game did a little bit more to make it feel unique. Sure the main protagonist doesn’t use a whip, but before long another character does. Sure, you’re fighting an army led by a demon, rather than Dracula. But that army still has a lot of skeletons, and zombies in it. Hopefully the upcoming Ritual Of The Night will address this while continuing to do everything else as well as this game does. Be that as it may, Curse Of The Moon is still a keeper.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

The Messenger Review

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Sometimes a game comes out with a ton of fanfare, but ultimately lets everybody down. This is not one of those games. The Messenger earns every ounce of excitement, and praise preemptively thrown its way. Nearly everything about this one is so on point you can stop reading, and buy the game. In the words of Triple H, it is “That damn good.”

PROS: Sprite work. Controls. Music. Story. Humor. Nearly everything really.

CONS: A bug that makes a certain section of the game nearly impossible to solve.

NINJA GAIDEN: The original NES designers were invited to play it, and loved it.

The Messenger was largely advertised as a love letter to the trilogy of NES Ninja Gaiden games. Upon booting up the game it’s easy to see why. The action, cinema screens, wall climbing, and secondary weapon throwing are obviously influenced by those classics. Devolver Digital even had the two lead designers of Ninja Gaiden play their demo before release as they couldn’t wait to see their reaction.

But while The Messenger would have likely done well enough as a mere homage, that wasn’t good enough for the team at Sabotage. The Messenger does so much more than mimic one of gaming’s best action platform games. It uses that formula as one small piece in a much, much larger puzzle. A puzzle that will likely take you hours to solve.

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The Messenger centers around a Ninja clan that gets attacked by monsters. As one of the Ninjas, you’re chastised by your sensei for not taking your training seriously. You’re told a super warrior is supposed to save the day, but unfortunately for everyone this person doesn’t show up in time. The monsters wipe out the village, and you’re about to be destroyed when they show up just in time. The enemies retreat, and this warrior gives you a scroll. You’re told to deliver the scroll to the top of a mountain, and so you go on your way.

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I won’t go into the rest of the surprisingly deep, and convoluted storyline here. But rest assured it is quite good. Filled with twists, turns, and even a lot of sardonic humor. I laughed a lot at the various jokes throughout my time with the campaign. But at the same time, I was pleasantly surprised at just how invested in the overall story I became. Plus the gameplay ties into everything very nicely. When the game begins, it truly will remind you of the NES Ninja Gaiden games. You have a similar run speed. You have similar jumping physics. You’ll even have a sense of familiarity as you can climb certain walls.

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But The Messenger throws in its own entirely new mechanics that set it decidedly apart from Ninja Gaiden. Most notably the extra jump you can get by killing enemies, or hitting specific targets. If you get the timing right, you can jump, hit a target, and jump immediately after to get extra air. You can also gain momentum by repeating the process on subsequent targets. This allows you to kind of hop distances between targets, and get through areas faster.  As you progress, the game makes mastering this technique essential, as it begins throwing in jumping puzzles, as well as highly challenging platforming sections where you’re surrounded by bottomless pits, spikes, or other death traps.

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The game goes along much like those old NES action games. You’ll battle your way through a stage, then fight a boss, watch some dialogue boxes, or cinema screens, and move on. However each stage has a few checkpoints after every few gauntlets. Some of these gauntlets are shops, where you can spend the diamond shards you find on upgrades for your ninja. Some of these give you more resistance to damage. Some of these give you more attack power.

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Over time you’ll also acquire new abilities like a wind suit, and grappling hook. And later in the game you’ll need them because stages are built around their use. It’s crafted so well, and so engrossing you’ll want to keep playing until you get to the final showdown with the demon army, and win the day. Throughout it all, you’ll be blown away at the NES inspired sprite work, and Famicom-esque chip tunes. It’s nothing short of amazing, and you’ll love every minute of it.

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Another interesting mechanic is that while old school, this is another game that ditches lives. Instead of dying a set number of times, or having a limited set of continues, you simply keep playing. Now the original first two Ninja Gaiden games on the NES had unlimited continues. However this game does something a bit different. When you die, a little red bookie monster shows up. He steals any money you make until his debt for respawning you is paid. So while the game becomes more forgiving, at the same time you do well for not dying. Because not dying means more money, and more money means getting all of the items, and upgrades sooner.

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When you finally defeat the Demon army’s second in command you’ll probably do what I did. Think there’s one last stage where your endurance, and cunning are pushed to the proverbial limit. Then one grandiose boss fight, and a satisfying finish. Well this is one part of the game I have to spoil in order to talk about the entire package. I’m not giving away details, just know that nothing could be further from the truth. The game basically comes out, and yells “Surprise! Now you’re going to play a Metroid clone!” The game really opens up at this point, and connects every stage you’ve played together. This makes one overarching world, and you’ll be sent throughout it.

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However, The Messenger does not go sending you on power up fetch quests, in order access the new areas. Rather, you have to go find items that act as keys, and find NPCs to further the story. You can buy map markers in the shops, but even then, getting to those places is going to be very intimidating when you first attempt it. These new areas are filled with new traps, and puzzles. There are also challenge rooms where you can try to get these green tokens. If you find every one of them in the game there’s a surprise waiting for you. But that’s not even the best part.

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The Messenger also adds a dash of stage morphing. It may just remind you of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, although it isn’t done in the same way. The storyline adds an element of time travel, where you go through portals that send you 500 years into the future. And then other ones send you back. When you go into the future, the 8-bit NES aesthetics change to 16-bit Super NES aesthetics! The music also goes from sounding like the Famicom, to sounding like the Super Famicom, and Mega Drive decided to go on tour together. The soundtrack in this game immediately skyrockets from a pretty great one, to an absolutely stellar one. Not only that, but the game uses the time travel mechanic in some pretty intricate ways. Like Metroid Prime 2: Echoes did, The Messenger will make you go to one area of the map in the present, go through a portal to the future, so that you’ll come out in the right place in a different section of the map. Then you’ll go through a portal there to come back in the present where you’ll meet an NPC, or find a room with a green token challenge. Or something else entirely.

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The story also begins to get both more interesting, and more cryptic when you discover a hub section, and you’re discovering entirely new areas that were never part of a previous linear stage from the first act of the game. They’ve done a terrific job with all of this, and that’s before you even get to the impressive boss encounters that follow. They make the early bosses you may have found difficult seem like you were lifting feathers before. But it does this by easing you over time without you even realizing it. It’s an action game, that becomes an adventure game, that implements a feeling you get when playing an RPG.

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And I think that’s probably the best thing about The Messenger. It’s like you’re playing two completely different games back to back. You played Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword Of Chaos. But instead of credits, a dying Jaquio goes “It’s not over. You have to defeat Mother Brain now, or the world will end! Ha. Ha. Ha.” The fact that it makes you feel elated, rather than angry is quite the feat.

So with all of that said, is this a 10 out of 10 game that will forever be the title future indie games are held to as a standard? Not quite. Though it is very impressive, and should be something you should buy I had one major problem with it. At one point in the game there is a section where you have to navigate an area by listening for sound. Well for whatever reason, the game would not play the sound properly. It made finding my way through a complete crapshoot. I had to guess my way through as if I were playing the final stage of Super Mario Bros. And while this isn’t something that breaks the game, as you can still get through it. It does ruin the intended experience of hearing what you need to hear in the place you need to hear it in order to follow the right path. I’m sure in time they may fix it with a patch. But as it stands it’s just enough to keep me from calling it near flawless.

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Still, if you were hoping for a wonderful homage to Ninja Gaiden, you’ll get it. If you were hoping for something more than a wonderful homage to Ninja Gaiden you’ll get it. The Messenger truly is one of the best games to come out this year, and is something you really ought to check out. It’s one of the most engrossing games you’ll play this year. As impressive as the trailers may be, it’s still the kind of game you have to see to believe. Go buy The Messenger now. Even if you’re just stumbling upon this review 500 years from now.

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10

Mirage: Arcane Warfare Review

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It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Torn Banner’s Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Oh it has some issues. Weird bugs that don’t affect game play. Advanced tactics the community is split on how fair or unfair they may be. But overall it is a good game that a lot of people loved. Seriously, it’s done fairly well over the last few years. While things are tapering off of it now, it was a great example of a big game from a small studio. If you never played Chivalry, give it a spin. It goes on sale on Steam a few times a year, for a really low price. It basically took the Battlefield style of game play, put it in a Medieval setting, and gave it a deep melee system. The unique controls are a cut above most any other sword attacks in other First person shooters. Letting you “steer” your attacks. Mirage takes these swinging mechanics, and implements them into a different setting.

PROS: Improved mechanics. New magical abilities. Character designs. Customization.

CONS: Server connectivity issues. Team Objective mode isn’t as deep as it is in Chivalry.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: The swords, and sorcery bring many reminders of the IP.

On the one hand, you can think of Mirage: Arcane Warfare as Chivalry with spells. But on the other hand, you really can’t. Mirage does carry over the mouse swinging sword fighting of Chivalry. You can swing overheads, swing horizontally, and stab. You can still steer the swings (The community calls this “dragging”) in any direction. This gives you a way to fake people out. Turning vertical , and horizontal swings into diagonal, or curved swings. Or speeding them up a bit. Or slowing them down a bit. The difference here is Torn Banner has altered the system mildly. In Chivalry it was possible to move the camera so wildly, skilled players could do helicopter swings, or arch so far back, their swords could hit people behind them. Of course equally skilled players could see this coming, and either block it properly, or even back pedal, and tire the tricksters out.

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But here some of the really extreme stuff is toned down. You still have plenty of depth, but you won’t be doing some of the over the top stuff. However, Mirage adds spells into the mix. This alters the combat significantly, and while many had their doubts, it works. In fact it works so well, that it really does accent the sword fights nicely. Each of the game’s six classes, can choose three of six spells. Each unique to the specific class. To keep the game from being spam heavy these have RPG style cool down periods. So if you use a spell, it’s going to be awhile before you can use it again. The cool down periods vary depending on the spell. Spells can also complement another spell, and sometimes that means complementing a spell cast by one of the other classes on your team. This adds all kinds of depth to a pretty cool system. On top of that, blocking has been beefed up a bit over Chivalry too. Not only can you block the melee attacks that come your way, but the spells as well! Just like Torn Banner’s last game, blocking requires knowing the timings, and aiming at the tip of the attack. So becoming proficient will take a lot of practice.

Each of the classes suits a different play style. There are six, each of which has their own pros, and cons.  The Taurant is a big brooding tank character. He gets heavy swords, and axes. He dishes out a ton of punishment on enemies, and his spells continue that theme. The Vigilist takes a lot of inspiration from the Knight class in Chivalry. She gets a shield, and pole arm. Her spells are focused a lot on defending the team. Like the giant dome she can put down, that is temporarily impervious to enemy spells. Then you have the Entropist. This class acts as a combat medic, while also being a great backup. He has spells that are centered around healing teammates, as well as some nice ranged attacks. The coolest spell he has will summon a magic carpet he can fly on, and attack from.

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Rounding things out are the Vypress, who is a faster, attack-heavy class. She can dual wield weapons, and she has spells focused on movement, and misdirection. She’s one of the weaker classes, but a skilled player can avoid, and parry a lot of stuff coming their way. The Tinkerer is speedy, and has spells that are great for booby traps. The Alchemancer is Mirage’s ranged class. You can either play him as a purely ranged character, who casts fireballs from afar. Or as a melee attacker. The thing to remember though is he is even weaker than the Vypress, and doesn’t have the speed on his side. Still his spells are great for supporting teammates, and quietly sneaking around.

One departure the game makes from Chivalry is in the weaponry. Where that game had a ton of weapons for each class to unlock, and debate over placing in a load out, this game doesn’t. There are still a lot of cool weapons in the game, but each class can only choose from a primary or secondary weapon. You can’t be swinging a mace, and then decide to switch to a hatchet. This is due to the importance of the aforementioned spells. Still, the weapons you can choose from, are all pretty interesting, and have their own stats. Some have better range, while some weigh less, and can be swung faster. Some do more damage, but are slow. And the weapons can be paired with spell combinations to some great effect after you’ve experimented, and practiced enough.

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Mirage has a lot of modes to choose from as well. There is the traditional Team Death match mode, where teams compete for frags. As well as a Last Team Standing mode called Arena. Here, teams go head to head until only one of them has any survivors. There are also a variant of Capture The Flag, where one team has to grab their randomly placed Jinn, and get it to their designated spot to have it planted. While this is going on, there are control points called Demiglyphs that can be held for bonus points.

Then there’s an actual Control Point mode, where you capture Glyphs, and Demiglyphs. If you hold the point long enough, you’ll get 20 or 10 points depending on the size. Glyphs are the larger of the two, so conventional wisdom would say to go for those. But sometimes grabbing the smaller point can turn the tide too. Then there is also a push cart mode, like the ones you’ve played in other games.

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The Team Objective mode in Mirage isn’t quite the same thing as it is in Chivalry. It still works a bit like a Rush mode in that attacking, and defending teams are given objectives to perform. And they’re still a combination of game types. But it isn’t as well concealed here, as the objectives don’t have the same compelling trappings, and the variety isn’t quite as nice.

That doesn’t mean that Mirage doesn’t have anything to grip you in terms of setting or story. It just doesn’t have the historical intrigue Chivalry did, or some of the Battlefield, Medal Of Honor, Joint Ops, or even some of the Rainbow Six games did. This game goes much more into the realm of high fantasy. So think more along the lines of Hexen, Heretic, Ziggurat, or classic CRPGs in terms of setting. Though there is a lot of inspiration from ancient Arabian architecture, and design here.

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All of this does mesh together really nicely. The swords, and sorcery will likely remind you of stuff like Masters Of The Universe, Willow, or even KRULL. The story centers around two civilizations who use magic to better their societies. Upon discovering one another, they begin to have reservations about their counterparts’ ethical standards in using magic. Eventually, tensions rise, and the two go to war with one another. Again, the design on display is beautiful. Where Torn Banner’s last game went for a more realistic look, this game goes for a cel-shaded look that is neither cartoonish or complicated. It feels closer to something like Borderlands than it does something like Team Fortress 2 or Overwatch. I just wish the game showed off the story through the tutorial rather than being something you had to read about on the game’s website. The tutorial isn’t much to write home about. It does give you a quick series of battles that get you acclimated with the basic controls. But that’s about all it does. If you’re coming into this for a campaign, you’ll want to be moving along. But if you like competitive multiplayer read on.

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Another really cool feature in the game is the customization. It isn’t quite as intricate as something like a WWE wrestling game. But it does have a fair amount you can customize. You can choose different helmets, headdresses, hair styles, skin colors, tops, accessories, and more for each of your classes. On top of that you can do this for each class in both factions. So if you want your Taurant to look one way on team purple, but a different way on team orange, you can! This gives the game a lot of personalization as you can try to make characters look the way you want. Again, not quite as deep as something Yukes would do in a wrestling game. But far beyond what many modern competitive shooters would do these days.

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When actually playing the game, most of the time things are a blast. The fine tuned swinging mechanics are wonderful, and they do combine with the new magic abilities quite nicely. Getting into a game with a group of people who communicate, and strategize can lead to some really gripping, competitive match ups. It’s one of the most fun experiences you’ll have. Mirage also supports LAN play, which makes it a great game to play with friends privately.  The audio here is also really good. The voice acting fits the look, and motif of the characters well, and the soundtrack has a nice orchestrated arrangement. It feels like the sort of thing you’d hear in an old black & white serial.

There is one big problem with the game though, and that is the unreliable servers. Most of the time you’ll connect to a game, and have a great time. But after a couple of rounds, you’ll find your ping inexplicably spiking. Going from a ping of 60 to a ping of 300 leads to a sudden rash of rubber banding, unsynchronized animations, and generally bad performance. Eventually, you’ll notice things smooth out, as your ping sinks back down to an acceptable level. But this can really turn off a player. On a day when you experience it once in a while, it is merely annoying. But on a day where it happens every other game, it will make you put the game down, and play something else. One can only hope Torn Banner can work this problem out sooner than later. Now it doesn’t appear to be as bad as what was reported about Ubisoft’s For Honor when that game launched (as that game didn’t even use dedicated servers). But it is still a blemish on an otherwise splendid game.

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As far as performance goes, it uses Unreal Engine 4, and seems fairly well optimized as of launch. My aging 760 card, and i7 4770k was able to run the game maxed out, and still crack 60 frames per second except in really frantic spots. Setting things lower made things get above 90. The biggest drain on resources appears to be the number of blood pools left by dead bodies, and the length of time corpses stay on the map. Regardless of your other settings, you can lower both of these things in the options, and you’ll see a noticeable performance gain. Obviously if you have a fairly old setup, you’ll want to move other things like texture quality, and draw distance down. As well, as shutting off Vsync, and lighting effects among other things. If you have something mid tier or higher though, playing on or near the highest settings shouldn’t be too much of a problem in most cases. Obviously, there may be some setups where this isn’t the case. But at least in my experience, performance really hasn’t been an issue.

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Overall, Mirage: Arcane Warfare is a really good game. I can certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Chivalry’s melee combat, and is still open to playing other kinds of competitive first-person action games. Likewise, it’s a cool game for those who want to take a break from something like Overwatch, or a modern warfare themed shooter. It’s not character focused the way Overwatch is, and it plays completely differently. Likewise, coming from a more traditional experience is also a chance to be surprised. Mirage may share some similarities with these titles, but there are far more differences to be found. Good ones.

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Be that as it may, the server issues can be a bit of a turn off, and one can only hope Torn Banner is able to iron them out sooner than later. Otherwise, as fun as it is, it could be the realm of a niche player base rather than the fairly large following its pseudo-predecessor had. Still, even if the worst case scenario came to pass, the LAN play makes for an exciting game to play with friends.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Dark Chambers Review

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Ah, Gauntlet. A long running franchise created by Ed Logg. Games were put out by Atari, and (after the arcade division was sold to them by Warner Communications) Midway (which was ironically sold back to Warner Bros.) in the arcades, and a wide variety of platforms over the years. But there was an obscure game that inspired Ed Logg to create Gauntlet. That game was called Dandy.

PROS: Excellent play control. Challenging.

CONS: Two players instead of four.

WEIRD: The game came out after the one its predecessor inspired.

Dandy was one of the earliest arcade style dungeon crawlers. Created by John Palevich, it was part of Atari’s, Atari Program Exchange. Basically, a scouting program that allowed budding programmers, of professional or amateur levels to submit software. Software that met the criteria would become commercially available through a mail-order catalog.

Dandy was created while Palevich worked at Atari. The game made it through the A.P.E. process, and would be released for the Atari 8-bit family of computers. The game became a cult hit within Atari, and a scant two years later Gauntlet would build upon Dandy’s core ideas, and become the powerhouse it did. In fact, Ed Logg credited Gauntlet’s inspiration to Dandy in 2012.

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This is where Dark Chambers comes in. Years later, after Warner sold the home division of Atari to the Tramiel family.  Atari Corporation would finally release the 7800, and would re-release the Atari 2600 as a slim model that became known as the Atari 2600 Jr. By this point Nintendo had reinvigorated the home console market, and taken nearly every publisher along with them. Sega, and Atari would see scant support releasing too far behind Nintendo. Both companies would do fairly well for themselves in the console space, but would still fall very short of Nintendo’s performance.

In order to compete Atari would find itself going to its computer market space, and securing ports to fill the some of the void left by publishers that followed Nintendo. John Palevich’s Dandy would be retooled for the 7800, and 2600. It was given a new title to separate this version from its predecessor.

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Dark Chambers may not be quite as robust as Dandy or Gauntlet. But it is still one of the best games you’ll ever find for Atari’s two greatest home consoles. Like the other two games, you have to explore dungeons, look for treasure, items, and health. All while taking down enemies, and trying to stay alive.

Unlike Gauntlet, there aren’t any classes to speak of. There aren’t as many on-screen bad guys as in Gauntlet or Dandy. You’re also limited to two players in Dark Chambers. To compensate for this, Dark Chambers’ villains are more powerful, and take several forms.  You’ll find reapers, wraiths, skeletons, evil clerics, and more across the 26 stages.

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Much like Gauntlet there are teleportation devices that spawn in endless waves of enemies until you destroy them. Destroying them can sometimes leave a health pickup, a treasure, or even a power up. Power ups are broken down into three items. There’s a dagger. Picking this up makes your shots deal a lot more damage. These are the most important pickups because in later stages you’ll be running into newer, more difficult monsters.

Almost as important is the shield. Picking this up means that if you get hit you won’t take as much damage. But don’t get careless, because you can go down fairly quickly if you get cornered. Shields, or no shields. There is also a hand gun. This doesn’t give you an actual gun, but what it does do is make your dagger shots much faster. Finally, there’s the wick bomb. This basically acts as a smart bomb, and kills all of the enemies on the screen.

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But even with these power ups, Dark Chambers isn’t a  cake walk. Finding the exit in each of the stages gets harder as you find locked doors that require keys, maps that can prove to be pretty intricate, and difficult mazes to find your way through. The enemies in the game also don’t simply die. There is an enemy hierarchy. If you kill a skeleton for instance, it will turn into a zombie. You can then kill the zombie. What this means is some of the really tough enemies will go down the scale as you kill them several times, until they become zombies you can kill permanently. On top of all of this you only get one life. No continues.

Obviously the 7800 version of Dark Chambers is the better looking of the two versions. There are some great textures for background patterns, and the details on the enemies is really nice. It can hang with the NES versions of Gauntlet, and Gauntlet II in terms of visual presentation.  But the 2600 version of Dark Chambers isn’t a terrible looking game considering the divide in horsepower. Walls are single color lines, but the character sprites are pretty good, using shapes to a great avail. As such, characters may only be one or two color sprites, yet convey the impression that they’re a lot more detailed than they are. When you see the game in action, it comes off as pretty impressive in spite of its rudimentary graphics.

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Moreover, the 2600 version’s mazes are zoomed in, scrolling vertically, but not horizontally. There’s a really cool fade effect when moving horizontally into the next room. Because of this the 2600 version of Dark Chambers can sometimes feel like an Action RPG even though it very clearly follows the same gameplay cues the 7800 version does. By contrast the 7800’s mazes scroll in all directions giving the game a faster feel. It ends up feeling a bit closer to the original Dandy, or Gauntlet in this regard, though again, with its own distinct rules. To be honest it’s well worth checking out both of these versions if you have the opportunity.

Sound wise there isn’t much to talk about however. Neither version gives you much of anything in terms of chip tunes, and the sound effects are all rather generic. They get the job done for the kind of game it is, but there isn’t anything memorable in the audio department.

Beating either version doesn’t give you an ending, or credits. It just starts over with a higher difficulty level. However you can start the game on various difficulty levels. In the case of the 2600 version, the difficulty is represented by a teddy bear which becomes more grizzled as you choose higher difficulty settings.

All, in all I highly recommend Dark Chambers. Especially if you’re a big fan of any given version of Gauntlet. I would also implore fans of modern-day rogue-likes  to give it a chance so long as they own a 2600 or 7800. It’s a lot of fun, and the one life challenge can make the game even more compelling to those who love their video games tough.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Werewolf: The Last Warrior Review

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Last week I looked at a rare, expensive, and weird shmup from Meldac on the NES. Well the Nintendo Entertainment System was home to many oddball ideas. As we get closer to Retro World Expo, I thought I’d dig through my collection for another NES game to showcase. Werewolf: The Last Warrior is not only a little strange. It’s also very cool, and is a game every NES collector, and owner should play.

PROS: Graphics, and sound. Very challenging.

CONS: Some will find it too challenging. This is definitely NES Hard.

RISE FROM YOUR GRAVE: Aside from one similarity it’s nothing like Sega’s Altered Beast.

Werewolf: The Last Warrior is awesome. You play a human who collects items, and then gets to turn into a werewolf, and mess people up. I know I’ve just described Altered Beast. But this is nothing like Sega’s arcade cab turned Genesis launch title. Because it isn’t a beat ’em up game. It’s an action platformer.

But many of the best NES Game Paks were action platformers. In fact many of the best video games of the era were action platformers. So what sets Werewolf apart from the pack? (I think I just made a pun.) A number of things. Right away one thinks of the RISE FROM YOUR GRAVE moments. Throughout the game you’ll find power ups that beef you up, grow your attack power, and of course let you be a werewolf.

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As a werewolf, you do a lot more damage to enemies, and you can do cool stuff like climb walls, do awesome backflips, and more. You become the werewolf by collecting enough red *W* symbols you find. They’re often hidden on pedestals you have to punch. You can actually become a super werewolf that the game names Warwolf. You can become Warwolf by finding enough orbs. Giving you an even bigger reminder that Altered Beast is a thing.

When you’re a super werewolf, you’re practically unstoppable. The game instantly feels like a Dolph Lundgren movie. You dispatch enemies quickly. You can super jump into areas you couldn’t before. But there is a kryptonite to your furry Superman. They’re blue colored *W* symbols. If you touch one you’ll go back to being a human.

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You do not want to be a human for very long in Werewolf. Everything, no matter how weak, will ultimately kick your ass. The game throws a ton of stuff at you. The roster of enemies on display is actually pretty large, even if they aren’t necessarily the most original. You’ll run into ninjas, goons reminiscent of the ones found in Rolling Thunder, soldiers, bad guys with jetpacks, and more.

Every one of the game’s five stages are broken up into two parts. Sometimes they’ll be straight forward. Other times they’ll be a maze you have to explore your way out of. At the end of the first part of any given stage you’ll fight a mini boss who kind of resembles Street Fighter’s Zangief. After you defeat him, you’ll move onto the second half. If you can beat the second part of the stage, you’ll go on to fight the boss.

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Each of the five stages also has something kind of archaic about them. The first time you play it you’ll try punching any where a power up may be, and this is how you’ll most often hit a blue power down, and screw yourself over. There are also some holes in the cut scenes you can nitpick. The story is that a mad scientist named Dr. Faryan has assembled a group of super-villains to take over the world, and you have to stop them. It’s the paper-thin B-movie plot you’d expect, but it isn’t air tight. For instance, in one scene you climb up the right side of a building to chase a Juggernaut knock off. The next portion of the stage you move left, and have to jump off of the left side. Yet the following cut scene has you falling off of the same side you climbed!

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Nitpicking  aside, the game is really challenging thanks to the cues it takes from Castlevania. It has the same slow, plodding movement as that game, and a lot of enemies showing up right when you need to make a pivotal jump. Blend that with some of the moments where the game kind of expects you to know to do something when it hasn’t shown you how, and it can get frustrating. That’s really the only major criticism here. Werewolf can be quite cryptic at times, and it will take you many attempts at it to figure things out. Especially if you manage to find the game cartridge, but not a manual.

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And no, it isn’t the biggest deal in an age where you can pretty much run an internet search for instructions, or a walk-through. But it does make one wonder what the thought process was when putting the game together. Still, Werewolf is a really enjoyable game in spite of the difficulty, and being sometimes unclear. The soundtrack isn’t particularly long, but the handful of chip tunes are really thumping speed metal send ups, with catchy melodic hooks. Which goes with stabbing jet pack wearing mercenaries,  countless henchmen, and ninjas very well. Just make sure you’re grabbing not just health, from fallen enemies, and mystery places. Grab any hourglass too. Each stage has a time limit after all, piling even more pressure onto you in this high difficulty contest.

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Between the music, mostly solid platforming, and the detailed sprite work on display it is one of the more engrossing games in the NES library. I’m honestly surprised it doesn’t get as much attention as some of the more expensive games of its ilk these days. If you’re collecting NES games, and have been eyeing stuff like Power Blade, and Vice: Project Doom, you should have this on your radar. It isn’t quite as polished as V:PD. There are some times where the cryptic nature forces a restart. But it is still a terrific game nonetheless.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson Review

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As a game collector, I occasionally stumble into titles. Games I have no prior knowledge of. Or very little knowledge of. Like some of you this will begin online, and end in a storefront. Earlier this year, Mark Bussler over at Classic Game Room did an episode on Senran Kagura: Estival Versus for the PlayStation 4. A very bizarre, over the top hack n’ slash action game with an emphasis on endowed characters. I like to think I know a bit about esoteric games. But I had no idea that this was actually a series.

Imagine my surprise one day when I saw this sequel for the 3DS sitting on a store shelf. “They put a sequel out, on Nintendo’s handheld?” I thought. Well yes. Except this ISN’T the sequel to the PlayStation 4 game. After some research I discovered that the series oddly enough, started on the 3DS in Japan. So this game is the sequel to THAT game, and the one Mark reviewed on his show is actually a spin-off.

PROS: Great graphics, responsive controls, a simple combo system that isn’t mundane.

CONS: Some of the content isn’t for everybody. Can get a bit lowbrow.

COLLECTIBLE: Apparently the print run for this game wasn’t very high in the USA.

Senran Kagura 2: Deep Crimson is an arcade style hack n’ slash game. You’ll go through a variety of stages fighting hordes, and hordes of enemies. There are also, of course, bosses. As you play through the campaign you’ll be introduced to a wide variety of characters. Many of whom you will be able to take control of throughout the game.

The controversial gimmick in this series is where some folks may have some reservations about picking one of these games up. When you’re fighting enemies, you’ll find your attacks will rip their clothes to shreds. When they’re just about dead, they’ll be down to their undergarments. Your characters are subject to these rules as well. Take enough damage from opponents, and your clothes will be ripped to pieces. When you’re completely out of health you’ll be down to your underwear as well.

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The game plays the gimmick more for laughs, and less for eroticism. Even if the camera angles during transformations are peculiar. But like an R Rated B movie comedy on Cinemax in 1995, it can come off as kind of crass. Of course humor is subjective. Some are going to laugh at how over the top it is. Others are going to be totally confused. While some may even feel a little offended. The game is absolutely unabashed in its presentation. So again, this game is most certainly not for everyone.

Fortunately, there are enough good things about Senran Kagura 2 that action game fans may want to check it out. The fighting system isn’t the most technical, it’s actually fairly simple. But not so simple that things feel mundane. It feels a bit like the Rocksteady Batman Arkham games. You mix up attacks with a weak, and strong button which result in some really awesome combos. They aren’t deep, but the animations are brisk, and smooth. There’s also a nice variety of moves during these sequences as well.

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You can also jump, and do air attacks using the jump button with the attack buttons. There’s also a dash you can use. Finally, there’s a transformation sequence you can perform once you earn enough scrolls while playing. These are reminiscent of the transformation scenes from the old Sailor Moon anime. The off-putting difference being where the characters place their scrolls during these sequences. Once transformed you can then perform a super when you have enough of a meter filled. You use these by pressing the L button along with other buttons which do a variety of crazy animations. These are normally the kinds of things you can see in fighting games like Street Fighter V or Marvel Vs. Capcom 3.  There are even tag team combos you can do in some levels where you’re forced to toggle between multiple characters.

Senran Kagura 2 also has a couple of camera options when playing. By default the camera will stay fixed, and you can target enemies with the D-pad if you feel more comfortable locking on to them. If you’re playing on a 3DS (Sorry 2DS or 3DS XL owners) you can also use the optional Circle Pad Pro. This lets you run the camera freeform like a mouse, or a second thumb stick. The newest 3DS can also do this with its built-in Circle Pad Pro replacement. As I own the 2DS I really couldn’t test this option out, but I was able to play fine with the fixed camera.

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All of this makes for a hack n’ slash beat ’em up game that feels really good. Again, everything flows smoothly, and quickly. You quickly find yourself going from enemy to enemy seamlessly, and racking up crazy combos. Whether you come from classics like Double Dragon, Streets Of Rage, and Final Fight or modern games like God Of War, Devil May Cry, or Dynasty Warriors you’ll likely enjoy the fighting system here. Tamsoft were also the developers behind Onechanbara. But where that series can sometimes feel mundane, and repetitive this game doesn’t.

I think a major reason it doesn’t is because there is a wide variety of enemies on display, each with a different set of strategies needed to defeat them. There are various monsters, ninjas, soldiers, other students, and storyline characters to go up against. The vast number of playable characters also helps. Each character plays completely different from the rest of the cast. Some characters are faster, with attacks that do minimal damage, but also stun enemies so you can get in more hits. Others are slower with far more powerful attacks. Then you have others that fall somewhere in between. It can again, feel like a fighting game in that regard. You can try using the entire cast, or you can settle on one character you feel most comfortable with. Of course the campaign will make you play with each character as there are scenes that require particular characters for the storyline.

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The game has a fairly extensive campaign where you’ll follow the adventures of several stables. These are good, and evil students of Shinobi who rival one another. But as the story goes on you’ll discover that they also have common enemies. I don’t really want to give anything away, but it’s a halfway decent romp. It isn’t the most original story, and there are a lot of events you’ve seen dozens of times in other games. But I will give it credit for at least attempting to give each of the characters some personality beyond being simple eye candy. There are actual motivations, cares, fears, and some moments of genuinely funny dialogue. It has its share of common archetypes mind you. There’s the super serious personality, the hyperactive personality, the one that second guesses themselves constantly, the brash personality. But there are some original takes on them here.

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Don’t get me wrong, you’re not going to hold up the storytelling in Senran Kagura 2 alongside revered tales told in Portal, Half-Life, Deus EX, or System Shock 2. This is still a very silly, over the top game. But it does at least try to be more than a soft core button masher. That said, some of the extras don’t, like the  game’s costume decorator where you can pick the two outfits for any given character. You get to unlock new ones as you play the game. Some of them are actually pretty cool looking, while others are right out of Bikini Car Wash Company. Rounding out the extra features is the AR photo mode. This mode lets you take any of the player models, and super impose them over a photo you take with the 3DS camera.

Senran Kagura 2 also has a Co-Op mode, where you, and a friend can sync up your 3DS systems, and play the campaign together, or replay individual missions together. Back on the single-player  front, you can go back, and play any previous stage with any character to level them up. At the end of every stage you’re also given a rating. The better you do, the higher your score, and the more unlocks you’ll receive. Senran Kagura 2’s difficulty does start to really ramp up around halfway through the game. So going back, and replaying earlier levels with some of the newer characters you unlock isn’t the worst idea.

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In between levels you can also go back to a hub level, which changes between chapters. There are 5 chapters, each with several missions. Senran Kagura 2 is a pretty long game all things considered. The hub level lets you communicate with the characters for some back story dialogue. You can also choose to enter one room to go on missions, one for each of the various modes, as well as the options menu. Here you can change audio, and visual settings. You can also turn off the clothes tearing sequences if you want. You can also use the sub-menu on the touch screen to jump to any of these rather than walk around the hub.

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All in all, Senran Kagura 2 is actually a pretty fun, and challenging game if you can get past the exploitation B movie vibe of everything. There’s no full frontal nudity or intercourse on display so this doesn’t get into anything overtly pornographic. But it isn’t embarrassed about its suggestive camera angles, or dirty jokes either. Which is why  it still isn’t something for everyone. If, however you can look past the risqué elements you’ll find a pretty good action game, and R rated comedy underneath it all.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Jet Gunner Review

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These days it isn’t hard to find a game with graphics inspired by the Nintendo Entertainment System. Some of them are terrible, others are pretty great, and some fall somewhere in between. Jet Gunner is one of the better ones you can add to your Steam library. Because it does give you what it promises, and even goes beyond.

PROS: Nintendo hard. Performs well. Very generous Easter Egg.

CONS: Lack of options.

JETPACKS: May be making a resurgence in games.

Jet Gunner does give you what it promises, an action platformer that will remind you of NES games by Capcom, and Konami. The story is simple. A giant brain controlling the world’s robots has gone mad, and attacked humanity. As the last human in the military you have to single-handedly destroy the robots, and brain. Basically, a B movie level plot that could have been in many NES games.

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Jet Gunner is an action platformer that has the pace of NES Contra, with enemies out of Super C, and Castlevania. It also has the re-spawning enemies, and jumping challenges of Mega Man. Keep in mind when I say this, I don’t mean they’ve lifted any sprites or designs. Rather, that these elements were clearly inspired by those games. Jet Gunner also does a few interesting things with these elements so it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a cobbled together pretender.

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There are sections early on that will keep you on your feet, or off of your feet. Buildings crumble beneath you. Cars try to run you down. Chunks of the scenery fall from above. This game can be ambitious at times. It also has a jetpack mechanic. Double jumping will launch you into the air. Some of the game’s platforming is built around it, putting you through jumping puzzles to get 1-ups, health or weapons.

The weapon variety is actually pretty nice. Again, it will likely remind you of the NES Contra games. There’s a machine gun, a spread gun, a flame thrower, a gun that shoots flaming buzz saws that boomerang, and others. Most of the weapons feel pretty useful except maybe for the spread gun. It shoots a high, and low arc. But nothing straight in front of you. Each gives only a finite amount of ammo though, so you don’t want to shoot these things haphazardly.

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The game also borrows an element from Shatterhand, and that’s giving you random robot helpers. Weapon pickups have two different colored boxes. One color gives you the gun, the other will spawn a robot helper with that weapon. Unlike Shatterhand, you don’t need to collect multiple letter combinations to get them. One box is all you need.

Across the six stages you’ll go through the usual video game locations, cities, jungles, oil refineries, and the like. But again each of them does something different to keep things from getting monotonous. Ironically things can still feel a little monotonous due to the lengths of the stages. Each gives you a lot to see, but go on for six sections each. Every stage has multiple bosses though. Each one of these ranges from a spin on a Contra boss to something creative, and original. When you find the former, you’ll just smile, and remember the stage 1 fortress, or the stage 6 Robot. But when you hit the latter you’ll be amazed, and wonder why every boss couldn’t be on the same caliber. The game also does save your progress after you beat each stage, and you can continue as many times as you want.

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Jet Gunner has a couple of minor bugs, in the vein of things you’d find in some actual NES games. At one point I glitched through a platform on the second stage. They’re very uncommon, and sparse so you won’t really see them very often. The only other complaints I had were the lack of options. You can run the game windowed, or full screen. You can also turn off Vsync to get better performance. But this is one of the rare cases I’d advise you leave it on because everything flickers, and you’ll be running into invisible enemies. You can play with either a keyboard or an Xbox 360 game pad. If you have any other game pad you’ll have to use an external mapping program like Xpadder in order to use it.

The graphics, and sound on display do very well to emulate the feel of an old NES Konami game. It uses a nice palate for backgrounds, and the foreground characters have a fair amount of detail. The characters are all one color though, so they don’t have some of the definition  some old games had. Still, it’s nothing to sneeze at. The music isn’t all that memorable, but it does fit the general theme of the game. Jet Gunner also has one hell of an Easter Egg. If you dig through the game folder, you’ll find it includes a second game. An entire second game. It’s cool to see any developer go the extra mile to give you value. You basically get two games without even realizing it.

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Overall, I’d say Jet Gunner is a worthy addition to your Steam library. It might not be the best looking indie game, but it does give you what is advertised. A challenging action game with NES inspired graphics. It’s fun to play, and while levels can get a bit long-winded, the length is mitigated by the ability to save, and continue. Plus you’re getting a second game included with it without even knowing about it. If you were to give this to someone, you could actually get away with saying “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.