Tag Archives: Indie Games

Sakura Stars Review


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(Full Disclosure: A review copy Steam key was provided by Super16bits. All opinions are my own.)

As big as independent games have become over the last 15 years, there are many, many games that get lost in the sea of titles. Some of these titles are put out by very small studios, many of which are even one-person operations. Today’s game is from one such small studio. Sakura Stars is a bullet hell shooter from Super16bits, and it’s something shoot ’em up fans may want to look into.

PROS: Bright, colorful characters. Tight controls.

CONS: Some gameplay imbalances. Minor hitches.

CLASSICAL: Hopefully you like classical music because the OST entirely made up of it.

When a demonic threat arises, a team of three appears to fight the menace. After a brief introductory paragraph, you’re greeted with the title screen. Sakura Stars is a shooter that allows you to choose between two girls and a raccoon. Each of the characters has their own attributes. It hearkens back to some of the classics of old in this regard. Games like TRUXTON, UN Squadron, or Strikers 1945.

One of the girls can shoot a single shot. The second girl can shoot a double shot. The raccoon can fire a handy spread shot. And while the first two characters give you two lives, only the raccoon will give you three.  Honestly, if you’re new or lapsed to the genre you’ll really want to start with the raccoon.

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The game is relatively short, only going on for four stages. But don’t let the short-run dissuade you from considering this one because Sakura Stars is tough. There are no continues, nor are there any 1-Ups. At least none that I found in my time with it. And when I say this is a bullet hell shooter I mean it. There are bullets everywhere. Each enemy type will fire anywhere from one to ten bullets in a myriad of patterns. Destroying enemies will often create another ten bullets in the explosion. If you were hoping for an 8-bit era horizontal Giga Wing with anime influences you’re in luck.

At the end of each stage, is a boss encounter. These are anime-inspired demon girls who do insane bullet hell attacks. Much like the rest of the game it’s going to be a war of pattern memorization as you try to avoid getting hit while doling out enough damage to defeat the bosses. All in all, it’s easy to describe the core concept. But it’s also going to take you many, many attempts to get anywhere close to beating the game.

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The game gets a lot of things right. I loved that it had a fairly memorable regular enemy or two. Flying space eyeballs with optic nerves flailing around and flying tengu faces are prevalent and have several different flying patterns. Sometimes they’ll come in horizontal rows, other times vertical. Sometimes they’ll zig-zag about. Early on, the eyes don’t shoot at you at all, but by the second stage you can expect a volley of bullets flying at you.

I liked the rather large sprites of the playable characters and their different firing mechanisms. But there were a couple of small things that I felt could have been done differently or improved. First of all, while the large character sprites are nice, it’s going to take you several deaths and restarts before you realize that their hitboxes are actually quite smaller than the characters themselves. You really have to navigate the characters’ eyes. If their eyes or the small circumference of pixels around them get hit, you’ll die. But hands? Feet? Hair? Bullets pass right through them.

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Once you get used to that, it becomes a much more manageable game. But that still doesn’t mean it will be easy. It’s still a pretty challenging if short game. Maybe not to the degree of the hardest Toaplan, Treasure, or Cave shooter, but still pretty challenging for what you’re given. Keep in mind you’re not going to see the crazy options, multiple power shots or other items you’ll get in those major names of yesteryear. That’s another reason why this one is such a trial. The other thing that seemed a little off to me though is really the balance between the first two stages. After dying a ton, you’ll begin to realize you can breeze through the first level without firing a single shot. As I said earlier, the eyeballs don’t fire at you at all, and the Tengu faces’ shot patterns can be navigated. Plus you avoid a ton of bullets by not killing anything. Because killing things creates more bullets. You still have to kill the boss to progress however.

But all of that goes out the window in the second stage as everything does fire at you and the challenge makes a large jump rather than an incremental one. It could have perhaps helped players get a better handle on the game’s rules had it been a little different. Be that as it may, I still enjoyed my time with the game. I could nitpick about the bosses’ minimal animations or the game playing chiptune renditions of classical music as it doesn’t seem to fit with the look of the rest of the game to me. But that’s exactly that: nitpicking.

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There is one thing I wish the game had though, and that’s a deeper options menu. You can’t really change the volume at all. It would have been nice to have music volume, effects volume, or overall volume settings. Especially if you want to play the game on stream. As is, you’ll need to figure out the volume in your own PC settings or streaming software if you do stream. There’s also nowhere to remap buttons. Though it is nice you can use an Xbox 360 or Xbox One controller without a problem. I was actually able to use my Horipad for my Nintendo Switch without any issues.

In conclusion, Sakura Stars is a solid effort from a studio that has only one previous game on Steam. Hopefully, a fleshed-out sequel or future project can iron out some of the minor issues I had with the game because overall it’s a fun, challenging bullet hell shooter. If you’re looking for something a little bit different or something small to play between some other games you may just want to give this one a look.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Blazing Chrome Review

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It seems everyone loves classic Konami games. Yes, there was a time when the company was lauded for putting out some great stuff. Rather than be reviled for putting out mediocre stuff and then nickel and diming you within that mediocre stuff. Super Cobra, Gyruss, Gradius, Frogger,  the list goes on. But arguably the two franchises everyone can get behind are Castlevania and Contra. It isn’t hard to see why. One series puts you in the boots of vampire slayers out to kick Dracula’s ass. The other puts you in the shoes of 80’s action heroes out to save the world from extraterrestrial armies, and supernatural forces.

Over the years others have tried to put their own spin on these to compete or else pay homage to them as they’ve been largely dormant. And in the case of Contra, Konami’s attempt last year was almost universally panned for pretty much not playing or looking like Contra at all whatsoever. Although it did have a death panda. So I suppose there was something. Anyway,  it was a scant short couple of months later today’s game was released. Blazing Chrome actually does play like a Contra game, being heavily influenced by Contra Hard Corps on the Sega Genesis. Is it worthy of the praise it has gotten over the course of nearly a year? Yes. Is it an absolutely flawless game? No. Does that really matter? To most of us probably not.

PROS: Breathtaking pixel art. Neo New Wave. Great character and level design.

CONS: Some *really* cheap enemies on your first few runs.

KRISTINE: Why had I never heard of them before beating this game?

Blazing Chrome isn’t the first Run ‘n Gun to pay tribute to Contra and it certainly won’t be the last. But it is one of the better ones in recent years. When I first started playing the game I was immediately reminded of Contra III: The Alien Wars as both start you out in a war-torn cityscape. Though the pacing of the game veers a bit more toward Contra Hard Corps. The storyline, of course, is very different. Instead of centering around an alien invasion angle, Blazing Chrome has more in common with the Terminator movies. It’s the distant future, and we have a ragtag band of heroes fighting off the robot armies bent on snuffing out humanity. They even reference the machines as “Toasters” a pejorative that I suspect would raise the eyes of robot sympathizers in this fiction.

Be that as it may, you can actually play as a “Toaster” since Doyle, is a robot who has betrayed the sentient robot overlord to serve the human resistance. Mavra is this world’s Sarah Connor, a badass who takes down the robots with extreme prejudice.  After a very detailed set of cinema screens, you will start the game and choose which of our two protagonists you want to use. (There are others but you have to unlock them by playing through the campaign.) Then you choose the overall difficulty setting you desire. There’s a brief tutorial after this, and you’re then thrust into an exciting picture of a tablet.

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The tablet has each of the stages laid out, and you can play them in the order you wish. It’s essentially taking a page from Taito’s POWER BLADE games on the NES, where you can go through these in the order you want before going onto the final stage. This, in turn, is an offshoot of the Stage Select set up in Capcom’s Mega Man games. So Blazing Chrome is a big fan of more than only Contra.

Each of the stages has a difficulty number on it going 1 (easiest) to 5 (hardest) the thing is it isn’t really an indicator of difficulty. Each of the stages has something fairly tough about it. In fact, that’s one of the things that will become very apparent. The game revels in some very cheap enemies resulting in some artificial bumps in the challenge. Even if you play on the easiest setting you’re going to have enemies that jump in the exact place you need to be jumping. Or coming from the side onto the platform you need to be on at that precise second. It’s as if the designers knew where you were going to go and placed a Nelson Munz “Ha Ha!” there.

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Now one could point out that’s exactly what the Contra games do. But this does it to the nth degree at a couple of places in the game. However, don’t lose heart and give up so easily. Because Blazing Chrome is a rather brilliant game. Once you die in a spot the first time, you’ll begin to think of alternative patterns you might use to jump instead. Or you may simply discover you have to be patient in a setting that on its surface seems to require impatience. You’ll find simply waiting a second before jumping means the enemy pulls the trigger on that jump (no pun intended) first allowing you to get off the shot you needed to get by.

And really that’s the only major crime the game commits. Relying too much on “A-HA!” deaths. Beyond that, everything else is more than fair. Attack patterns aren’t impossible to spot. You might have to attempt a certain section or boss several dozen times to figure it out, but you’ll eventually be able to do it. The game also has unlimited continues on the easiest and normal settings. So you won’t have to worry about starting the entire game over again after a few fail states

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Blazing Chrome also has a wide variety of scenery it’s worth noting here. You have the usual war-torn cityscapes and mechanical underworlds you might expect from a game like this. But there’s also a beautiful snowcapped nuclear winter stage replete with one of three shmup sections. Another is a rather long battle train stage which also involves a motorcycle section. At one point in the game, you’ll have a section that will take you back to the glory of Sega’s Space Harrier. And it’s also one of the more challenging legs of the game.

Visually, as I’ve said, the pixel art on display is amazing. Blazing Chrome is a beautiful game. Joymasher’s artists have clearly put in a lot of love and care into the characters, animation, and backgrounds to bring this world to life. And the soundtrack keeps pace with it’s thumping New Wave Post Punk chiptune goodness. And while it all has the art design of something that should have come out on the Sega Genesis or Super Nintendo, the game has a slew of visual effects that would probably not have been possible on either of those consoles. This is especially true when you get to the final act of the game where everything becomes a TRON reference. It’s really awesome stuff.

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Beating the game also nets you a number of things. First of all, you’ll get two new characters, a cyborg and a ninja who play more like Mega Man X than the soldiers of Contra. All four of the characters also have a melee attack a la Metal Slug, so keep that in mind when enemies really start swarming you. Beating the game on normal also unlocks a mirror mode where all of the stages are the same but the scenes move right to left instead of left to right. It’s a bit weird at first trying to remember what obstacle comes next as it can be disorienting. But once you readjust it’s a novel addition. You’ll also notice if you start the game on easy, then play on normal a bunch of new surprises are in store for you. There are new pitfalls. extra enemies. Even bosses will have extra attacks they don’t employ on the lowest setting.

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You can also unlock a boss rush mode where you fight every boss in the game in a row. Not a major addition, but something to do when you’ve done pretty much everything else. That is until you decide to go for the Hardest difficulty where the game throws even more bad guys at you, everything takes more damage to kill, and you only get three lives. Also, you only get three continues. And as daunting as that may sound, after having played a bunch of the game I can say it is doable. The question is whether or not you would want to. If you’re the sort of player who likes to squeeze every last piece of content out of your game it’s something worth going for. If you’re more the type to beat a game once or twice before putting it away for a while you might ignore it.

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Still, in spite of some initial frustration, some out there might have, stick with the game. Eventually, you’ll get to the end of the game and enjoy the terrific finale. While the final leg is a bit of a gauntlet, it’s an entertaining one that consistently does something new. Being able to play the stages in the order you wish is nice too as you can get the ones you like the least done first or dive into the ones you like right away. Fire up Blazing Chrome, win the day, and listen to that awesome Kristine song. Which immediately made me wonder why I hadn’t heard of them before. Turns out they’re pretty great.

As is Blazing Chrome.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

PROJECT WARLOCK Review

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Well I know I’m once again way behind schedule and probably hemorrhaging eyeballs faster than Ric Flair would bleed in his wrestling matches. Not that it is anyone’s problem other than my own. But when there’s a scare, you’re told you’re essential and said essential gig is the one that pays regularly, online endeavors have to take a back seat. Well, that or you quit. But that wouldn’t leave me with many prospects. So we have to count our blessings, prepare for the worst while hoping for the best.

All of that said, I pray for everyone affected by this pandemic and hope those who haven’t contracted it never do. Personally, I know a few people locally whose relatives were infected and it hasn’t been easy for them. It’s been said a billion times, but unless you’re completely out of food, don’t leave the house. And if you are, go to the store, buy two months worth of stuff and go directly home. It isn’t worth the risk. I had a customer complain they had to spend time with their kids. I couldn’t believe it. I told them to appreciate the time with them now rather than regret not having the time when they’re in their 90’s lamenting the fact they never spoke to one another.

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Anyway, I was fortunate enough to find some time to stream a couple of nights last week. So I managed to play through two games and I thank any of you who dropped in. Whether you chatted me up or just lurked. The first of these was today’s game. PROJECT WARLOCK. While the second was BLAZING CHROME which I will get to in a future review. PROJECT WARLOCK (Which demands an all-caps introduction. It really is a cool sounding name. Like something out of the B movie selection in the action movie section in the video store, we had back in 1993. But I’ve gone on a tangent.) is another in a line of games that pays homage to First-Person Shooters of yesteryear. But this one takes a little bit of a turn by going way back. Way, way, back to the earlier games put out by id Software and Apogee.

PROS: Great level design. Great characters. Great aesthetics. Customization!

CONS: Some people aren’t going to like having a lives system.

SURPRISE!: The game loves to throw a few curve balls from time to time.

Many games, of course, are inspired by DOOM, Quake, or Duke Nukem 3D. Some of these have even gone as far as run on those games’ classic engines. But this one goes back even further. Back to the days where every room was designed with cubes and 90-degree corners. Catacomb Abyss, Wolfenstein-3D, Blake Stone: Aliens Of Gold are the types of games this one takes much of its inspiration from. However, the game runs on Unity, and as such isn’t completely bolted down to those games’ limitations. However, it sticks to most of them while allowing for different ceiling and wall heights as well as elevators. Plus there are some nice skyboxes and interactive sprites and textures. The end result is something that feels like a combination of the aforementioned games and Rise Of The Triad. A classic that was born of a heavily modified Wolfenstein-3D engine.

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Unlike Rise Of The Triad, there aren’t any bizarre cultic terrorist organizations portrayed with digitized actors in the vein of Mortal Kombat. But you will be gunning down many, many enemies, collecting boatloads of treasure, and looking for many secrets. For those who have never played any of the First-Person Shooters prior to DOOM, this game may seem fairly restrictive at first. This hearkens back to a time when FPS games only had one set height for the floor. There were no stairs. There were no cliffs. It was rare to even see a puzzle involving switches. Secret areas were accessed by physically moving cubes of the environment back so many paces. In short, these were mazes like you would see in an early arcade game like Berzerk or in Muse Software’s Castle Wolfenstein (A game inspired by Berzerk that in turn inspired Wolfenstein-3D) but in the first person.

That meant hours of pushing on walls for those who wanted to find every conceivable secret in between blasting enemies. A lot of that experience has been recreated here. But it also has a couple of modern conveniences that make the experience a lot more interesting as well as enjoyable. For starters, this game has a contemporary control scheme. Back before Quake gave us this control scheme, most FPS games were controlled by using the arrow keys to move forward, backward, and to turn. You would fire by pressing CTRL, and if you needed to strafe you had to hold the ALT key while pressing left or right. The Spacebar opened doors. Even today, many people will download a source port when they buy a classic game like DOOM because going back to that setup feels archaic. Even to many veterans who are used to it.

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Project Warlock eschews that and retains the WASD, and a mouse control setup we’ve enjoyed since 1998. Be that as it may, this is still very much inspired by those pre-DOOM years so you won’t be jumping or crouching. But don’t worry, because these limitations actually forced the developers to get far more creative. Which is quite common when creating anything. Intentionally limiting yourself means inventing new ways to implement ideas you really believe in and Buckshot Software has done a phenomenal job with this game.

While the limitations may sound like a bad idea to some, they’re done very well here. Level designs are quite elaborate here and can get really deep. You may think you’ve hit a brick wall in finding the exit, then retrace all of your steps to find a door that was hiding in plain sight. Or you may think that secret you discovered was a monster closet because it was, but getting through it got you a weapon earlier than expected.

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The art design goes along with very well. They have done a fantastic job with all of this. Each of the game’s episodes has a completely different setting with a cast of enemies to go along with it. When you first start the game you’ll go through an initial stage that gets you acclimated with everything while being a surprisingly challenging stage. Frankly, it’s one of the toughest parts of the game. But you’ll want to press on and defeat it because things will become more manageable over time.

Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a small fortress stage that acts as a hub level where you’ll be able to level up your abilities, weapons, and choose missions. It feels a lot like the system in Bioshock, except you don’t have to choose to harvest Little Sisters and tick off Big Daddies. As you play through the game you can find stat building icons and you’ll also level up by mowing down hundreds of enemies. After so many stages you’ll find yourself back here, where you’ll be able to spend those upgrades on beefing up weapons, spells, and abilities.

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The game gives you two styles of assault. Traditional weapons you’d expect like guns or grenade launchers and Magical weapons like you would see in a game like Heretic. The magical weapons and spells use mana while the traditional weapons use their own ammunition.  Over time you’ll begin to make yourself bigger and better as you increase your health bars and add crazy enhancements to your arsenal. For instance, you can turn one weapon into a rail gun, or make a wimpy handgun go from a pea shooter to a hand cannon.

This actually means that earlier stages in many ways can seem more difficult to clear than some of the later ones. But this doesn’t make things feel insurmountable, rather it gives the game an RPG like affair in the sense that when earlier enemies that felt unkillable go down in a far more reasonable amount of time. Project Warlock also calls back to the old id/Apogee days by having episodes. Each episode has a few ranges of stages within them and culminates with a boss fight. Each episode also has its own particular look and feel. The first episode features a lot of horror and fantasy themed characters and settings. The episode after that goes for an icy tundra theme with winter stages, and enemies like abominable snowmen and creatures stuck in panes of ice. Other episodes have ancient Egyptian themes or industrial sci-fi themes. The final episode homogenizes all of these together.

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After a predetermined number of stages within each episode, things will take a break to send you back to the hub for more leveling up. Keep in mind the episodes have to be played through in sequential order. You can’t play them at your leisure the way you can in Wolfenstein 3D. At the end of each episode, the related aforementioned boss stage opens up and commences. Some Boss fights in this game do move beyond the typical “Shoot the Cyberdemon until it dies” meme battles you remember from games like DOOM. All of them are visually creative and have a number of things going on. One of the battles takes place against a giant Sphinx that goes in a different direction you might expect it to. Another boss implements a switch mechanic in its combat. Overall, these all come off as very memorable due to the combination of terrific character designs, sound effects, and attack patterns that really make them stand out.

In between episodes, the game takes some influence from DOOM by giving you a full-screen essay on what happens with your character’s following exploits. The game also does have a few really interesting options to go along with the entire package. One cool feature the game has is something that has also been done in other indie games. But usually, they’ve been completely different genres. That feature is the ability to put on different filters to emulate the look of older platforms. There are palates for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Nintendo Game Boy, and others. The game also has a CRT filter for those that want it. But rather than a simple on and off toggle, you can set a number of meters for the level of detail you want. You can also set variables for how pixelated you want the game to look.

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Admittedly, some of the retro settings can actually make some of the enemies harder to see, so in some cases, the game can become more difficult than it otherwise might be. You can also put on some more contemporary special effects like Ambient Occlusion. In short, the game does give you a lot of options if you’re into customizing the look and performance of your games.

This is also another game that has a fantastic soundtrack. Jerry Leha and Luke Wilson have put together a list of songs that fit the world of the game perfectly with a mix of Heavy Metal, New Wave, Industrial Electronica, as well as some orchestral elements blended into each of them. It’s a great game!

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Not everything in the game is as good as it could be. As I said, the optional filters can sometimes make things hard to see. The other thing some might not like is that the game retains a lives system from the days of Wolfenstein 3D. So, unfortunately, you won’t be able to press a button to quicksave the way you’ve been doing since the days of Quake. If you die, you’ll have to redo everything you have in that stage up to that point. Fortunately, there are ways to find extra lives, and updating your arsenal will definitely mitigate that.  Still, these won’t be considered transgressions by everyone. Especially for those that might point out how a quicksave feature could be abused by constantly pressing it after killing each and every enemy.

Ultimately though, this is worth picking up. It’s a great blend of Pre-DOOM conventions and modern conveniences of the genre. One that you really have to see to believe. A number of games today take inspiration from DOOM, it’s less common to see them take it from Wolfenstein 3D. The fact that this one does and does it well makes it really stand out. With it putting in current things like a WASD and mouselook control scheme it makes it still feel like a contemporary game when playing it. It’s got awesome art design, great characters, imposing bosses, and a solid leveling system. But be aware it does have a couple of early conventions you may not be used to if you weren’t around for the glory days of early id Software and Apogee.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

 

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

ION FURY Review

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

GUNLORD X Review

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Turrican. It was one of the most beloved games to come out of the European home computer scene. Created and published by Rainbow Arts, the game would go onto see a multitude of sequels across many computer platforms. Most popularly on the Commodore 64, and Commodore Amiga. Future games would be made by Factor 5. Yes, *that* Factor 5. The series would eventually make its way to North America where it would gain most of its prominence on the Sega Genesis, and then the Super NES.

But whether you prefer one of the home computer versions or one of the console entries Turrican is an all-time classic for a reason. It blended action-platforming, and run n’ gun gameplay very well. Plus it encouraged exploration over simply running in any given direction. There’s a good chance if you pick up any one of the games in the series, you’ll want to spend a considerable amount of time trying to complete it.

PROS: A wonderful send-up of Turrican. Fantastic Soundtrack.

CONS: Some enemies blend into backgrounds. Small bugs.

X: Features some modern tweaks.

GUNLORD X is a love letter to the Turrican series. It is also a modern update to a 2012 release on the Sega Dreamcast which in turn was previously a game on the Neo Geo. Previously, I had only heard of the Dreamcast game but never played it. Largely because of the fact that it wasn’t a wide release, and became pretty collectible fairly quickly. I was informed by Mike of DYHPTG and XVGM Radio about the Neo Geo original, which as it turns out is also quite expensive these days.

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In any case, the folks at NGDEV have made a fantastic send-up of Turrican. GUNLORD X plays very similarly to the old Rainbow Arts and Factor 5 games. Throughout the game’s 11 stages you’ll find yourself trying to get to the end of each, blowing away hundreds of threatening enemies in the process. However, the game only becomes that much tougher if you treat it as a typical 2D action game.

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While the game does have a more standard stage progression, each of these puts a huge emphasis on exploration. As was the case in the Turrican games, you’ll need to go off the beaten path looking for secrets, 1-Ups, and items if you want any hope of having enough in reserve to make it to the end. The game also has a gem system similar to that of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. Except that instead of giving you a star rating to unlock stages, these are needed to earn continues. So you’ll spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get to those giant pink gems that seem just out of reach.

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This is where GUNLORD X can even feel a lot like a Metroidvania. While there is no massive overarching map that you’re trying to navigate, the stages do have branching paths. There are also plenty of secret rooms, and areas that are hidden behind walls that must be clipped through. One of the key moves in the game even takes a page from Nintendo’s adventure series. You’ll need to turn into a ball to get into crevasses, tunnels, or discover certain tiles you can pass through. You’ll have to spend a considerable amount of time finding hidden platforms or ledges to reach other spots or in order to solve puzzles.

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As a result, you can’t really approach the game like a Metroid game or a traditional action game. The combat is far more hectic and fast-paced than in Nintendo’s acclaimed series. The platforming is very much an homage to the home computer games of the 1980s and 1990s. There is a very European computer platforming feel in this game. You’ll have to make very calculated jumps that require you to be right on the very edge of a platform in order to make it to the next. Again, like Turrican. Floaty, meticulous jumps. On paper, when combined with some of the firefights you’ll get into it might sound like an insurmountable amount of chaos. But with the brilliant level design on display, it really isn’t. This is an action game that doesn’t rely solely on your reflexes. Instead, you’ll need to be very focused on everything else going on around you. If you pay too much attention to enemies, you may not notice a trap. If you pay too much attention to a trap, you might not see that one tiny enemy hiding on a ledge.

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There’s a little bit of give and take. You don’t necessarily have to be the fastest shot or the absolute best jumper. But you do need to be aware of what is going on around you at all times. You have to give yourself some time to plan. But you also need to think on your feet sometimes. Instinctively you might want to blast everything in sight. But sometimes that might end up destroying your only path to a gem that might have netted you another continue in a particularly tough section.

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But it isn’t all branching paths, secret rooms, and hordes. GUNLORD X breaks up things with shoot ’em up sections and some auto scroll stages for good measure. Be that as it may, even in these stages you’re going to want to keep an eye out for those hidden gems. Sometimes that means looking for any kind of variance at the risk of potentially becoming crushed. The shoot ’em up sections are shorter stages than the rest of the stages, but they’re still challenging in their own right. While I wouldn’t call these Bullet Hell sections, there is still a ton of stuff to avoid and shoot down.

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GUNLORD X is by no means an easy game. but it isn’t an insurmountable one. There are plenty of tools the game gives you to get through even the most troublesome areas. For one thing, there are a wide variety of guns you can pick up. You’ll start with a standard issue gun, but upon shooting your first invisible platform you’ll find little cards jettison. If you pick one up you’ll change guns. There are all types, and as you play through sections multiple times (which you probably will because you likely won’t get through it on an initial playthrough) you’ll learn what weapon suits the predicament the best. There’s a spread gun that isn’t that powerful but can clear waves of low-level enemies and projectiles. There’s a flame thrower that takes down targets fast at the cost of not covering every angle. There’s a green laser that has a high fire rate. There are also rocket launchers, a blue beam, and more. You can also drop bombs when you’re in your *Not* Samus ball mode. There are also some generous health pickups and shield pickups. Be that as it may, you can’t afford to get careless. Three hits and you’re dead.

 

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The arsenal also includes a laser beam that can clear enemy projectiles, and destroy enemies themselves. Over time during continuous use, it becomes weaker though. There is a meter at the bottom of the screen that depletes as you use it. When you stop using it, it will slowly recharge. You use it by moving the right thumbstick in whatever direction you want. You’ll find many times you’ll have to stop firing your main weapon to use it, and then go back to using your main weapon. It’s a very handy tool in that you can go through most walls with it, which lets you get a jump on some of the tougher regular enemies.

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Of course, the major stars of the show are the enormous bosses. Some stages have one, others have multiple bosses, and others do not have a boss at all. Still, when you do go up against one it won’t be enough to simply memorize an attack pattern. Certain weapons do a better job against certain bosses. This gives the game a dash of Mega Man, and Contra spices into the proverbial brew. Fortunately, you won’t have to defeat the entire gauntlet of a game in a single sitting. The game has limited continues, but it does let you start on the last stage you’ve reached. This is something of a Godsend when you’ve made it to the end of the game only to reach a fail state.

Completing the game will unlock a speed run mode where you’ll try to complete the game again, as fast as humanly possible for your personal best record. I’m sure that this mode will attract a lot of hardcore fans, and runners since everything else in the game is just so good. The game also offers a couple of visual options one can tweak if they wish. It has a scanline filter you can turn on or off. If you leave it on, you can also fine-tune the look of the scanlines so that you can make them as authentic looking as you want. You can also render the game in 4:3 or a 16:9 aspect ratio and the game will let you put borders on or off when using 4:3. Generally, I found I left the scanlines off as I like the crispness of the pixel art. I also played in the classic 4:3 aspect ratio since that would have been what the original versions ran under.

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So other than the added letter to its name and some visual options what does this offer over the Dreamcast or Neo Geo versions? Well as far as I can tell after seeing footage from the original some of the stages have been reworked. Some of these are longer stages than they were before and the game appears to have more bosses to contend with. There are also a few minor aesthetic changes too. A background scene or two have seen some edits, along with some grammatical errors seeing a correction. One disappointing change is a slightly toned down introduction cinema. Where an enemy was previously gunned down, they now narrowly escape. It’s baffling since the Nintendo of today allows for things like Mortal Kombat 11 to appear unaltered.

Violence reduction aside, things look absolutely terrific in this game. The pixel art is breathtaking, allowing for a lot of details even the old Amiga computers would have had to have been really pushed to pull off without losing a steady frame rate. The 16-bit palettes are only one aspect of this one. Everything just has an awe-inspiring look to it. The character designs, backdrops, enemy designs, and bosses look fantastic. And while the story is very much a simple B+ Action film staple of a hero rescuing their spouse, the world building is intriguing. By the end of the campaign, you’re going to want to see more of GUNLORD X. The game’s soundtrack is equally great, taking a lot of inspiration from the Amiga 500’s sound chip, and the Sega Genesis’ sound chip. Rafael Dyll‘s soundtrack takes a cue from Chris Huelsbeck‘s fine work on Turrican too. As with a lot of the other Turrican homages, this one features a really nice New Wave synthesized sound that fits the cold, harsh, dystopian world of GUNLORD X. Not only has this wonderful OST carried over from the original version of the game, but the added trailer tune by Fabian Del Priore fits right in with it perfectly. This is a soundtrack that is very memorable in its own right, and while inspired by Turrican, sets it apart from Turrican.

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Frankly, GUNLORD X is an essential download for any Switch owner who loves Metroidvanias, Run N’ Guns, or Eurocentric computer platformer games of the action variety. It’s a cut above many of the other retro-inspired indie games you can find on the Nintendo e-shop. Those who absolutely demand a physical cartridge might be disappointed that (as of now) this is a digital only release. Be that as it may, you get more than your money’s worth in terms of content, and challenge. Plus there are just enough additions to make it worth nabbing even if you decide to splurge hundreds of dollars on one of the original Dreamcast or Neo Geo releases.

There really isn’t all that much to complain about here either. As far as gameplay issues go, some enemies blend a little too well into the backgrounds. So sometimes you may take damage, or lose a life to something a couple of times before realizing why. Annoying, yes. But far too rare to dilute the overall experience. On the technical side, there are a couple of bosses that don’t seem to load in until you move to a very specific place in their arenas. Most notably the dragon, and the initial henchmen of the final battle. Weird, but it doesn’t really affect the game much at all. But it is something to be aware of if you’re going to attempt speed runs as you’re not going to want to lose five seconds because you stood on the wrong brick.

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Beyond these two complaints which could very likely find themselves fixed in a patch should the developers discover them I can’t complain. GUNLORD X is one of the best games on the Nintendo e-shop. It combines action, adventure, and platforming elements in a way that the average player will love. Turrican fans will especially love it as the best elements have all carried over. But it still retains its own identity thanks to the excellent visual and sound design. As well as the excellent level design. This game is awesome.

In short: GUNLORD X is a really cool game you really ought to check out.

Final Score: 9 out of 10