Tag Archives: indie

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.

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

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

Retro World Expo 2018 Recap

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It seems like only yesterday I attended Retro World Expo 2017, and here I am talking about the fourth iteration of this convention. RWE 2017 was an absolute blast, and RWE 2018 was also an absolute blast. I made my way to the Hartford Convention Center Saturday morning to find that this year’s entry was different. Instead of going up the center’s escalator, and lining up, this year used the ticket booth section of the lower floor. This was an improvement, as it made figuring out where to go much more seamless. There was however one piece of confusion that a convention center employee had to solve, and that was the front door. Some guests inadvertently cut the line by going right to the booth before it was made clear they had to go to the rear entrance of the lobby to enter a line.

That said, everything moved smoothly, and even though I’d arrived behind a few hundred people, I was getting my bands in less than ten minutes. For whatever reason the QR code did not display on my pre-registration form when printed. But the ticket attendant was easily able to find my info, see I had prepaid, and give me my wristbands for the weekend, and after party. Once inside, I went upstairs to find not one, but two amazing custom vehicles.

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The first was a really cool Jurassic Park themed vehicle. The paint job was right out of the films. Impeccable. The pattern was spot on, and had a nice gloss finish. There was also a plastic triceratops near by to finish off the movie vibe. Great stuff. Next to that vehicle was none other than Russ Lyman’s Super Mario Kart 2.0. Sadly, earlier this year he lost his original Super Mario Kart in an accident. Fortunately he was able to replace his vehicle, and over time modify it. The end result is an even better design than before, sporting a beautiful multicolored design, and a breathtaking Super Mario Bros. pit crew portrait by Tom Ryan Studio. Both vehicles were parked out in front of the convention floor so that attendees could take photos.

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Some of the earliest guests I met were Daniel Pesina, Rich Divizio, and Anthony Marquez who were character actors in the original three Mortal Kombat games. All of them were super cool, and down to Earth folks. I talked with them about how big a part of my teenage years that the MK games, and Street Fighter were for me. As well as pretty much everybody else. I ended up buying a promotional poster style photo, and all three of them were kind enough to sign it for me. If you ever have the opportunity to see them at a show, you ought to take it.

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As I wandered the floor, I veered into the arcade area where I saw something both wondrous, and disappointing. The KRULL arcade cabinet. Based upon the cult 1983 Sci-Fi Fantasy film; you’re sent through a number of action sequences loosely based on those found in the movie. It uses a twin-stick setup similar to the one in Robotron 2084, and it is a lot of fun to play. Sadly, the machine was out-of-order, so I couldn’t actually play it. I did however get a few photos of it, since actually laying your eyes on one these days is a rarity. Should you find one in working order at a barcade, amusement park, convention, or other situation, do play it. It’s pretty cool.

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Around this time Russ Lyman bumped into me, and we began catching up. Around this time I spotted the Imaginary Monsters booth, so we walked over, and I introduced him to the developers. (Full disclosure, I know two of them personally.) The team is working on a new Metroidvania style game called Abyxsis: The Demon Reborn. They brought a demo version to the show, and what they showed was pretty good! It obviously has a way to go before completion, but I liked what I saw. In it, you appear to play as a winged monster who has to traverse dark labyrinths to find NPCs, power ups, and other items. Like Metroid, there’s a sense of exploration. But at the same time, your character has the ability to do some really fun aerial moves. This looks to be one of the themes of navigation. What they showed was also pretty tough. Enemies take a lot of damage, and can put you down quickly. Again this is all subject to change being a fairly early demo. But the tight controls, wonderful pixel art, and map design are promising.

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Imaginary Monsters wasn’t the only indie studio to attend though! Adjacent to their booth was a studio called Jumpmen Gaming. They had two games they were showing off. The first was Project Myriad, a hexadecimal tower defense game with puzzle elements. I didn’t get much time with it so I certainly can’t review it here. That said, it might be something worth looking into if you’re a fan of the genre. I’m not fond of using the phrase “Fan of the genre” as it tends to be overused. But in this case I think it’s applicable. It clearly looks to do something different with the concept by going with a hex display, something usually geared toward a special niche of war games. The puzzle elements seem to add some flair as well. If any of that sounds like something you would like to try, it was recently released on Steam, and isn’t too expensive.

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The other game they showed was Sentinel Zero. This game was in its very early stages. This upcoming release is a horizontal shoot ’em up game in the vein of R-Type. What sets it apart are its cartoon vector graphics. The presentation reminded me a lot of early Newgrounds games written in Flash. Think Alien Hominid. But the little that was shown was pretty fun. You earn power shots by filling a meter. You fill the meter by shooting everything. The hook seems to be quickly filling the meter, and unleashing charged shots as fast as possible. They also had two bosses to show, one of which was a giant spider. Again, it has a long way to go before being ready for prime time. But it looked like good start for a project by a two-person upstart.

Another interesting looking indie game demo was Depths Of Sanity by a studio called Bomb Shelter Studios. I didn’t get any real footage or screens of this one as I didn’t get the chance to try it myself. But it was intriguing. It appears to be an underwater action, and exploration game where you’ll pilot a submarine, and find all kinds of upgrades for it that allow you into previously inaccessible areas. Like a Metroidvania with elements of Blaster Master thrown in for good measure. Again, another early build. It does have a store page on Steam with a release date of Q4 2019.

Finally, Giant Evil Robot was back with the recently released full version of Mecha-Tokyo Rush. This is a combination of endless runner, and Mega Man clone. Things seemed a bit better than the build I saw last year. I didn’t have time to really play it though, so I can’t really say much in terms of its final state. The game does have a free to play model however, so you really don’t have anything to lose if you want to check it out.

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After taking my initial walk around the floor, I went to the first of the panels I attended. The Connecticut YouTube panel. This panel featured Ryan Alexander (RAXTheGreat1), Mike Levy (Dongled), Sam Hatch (Culture Dog), John Delia (The Video Game Years), Paul Barnas (Retro Gaming Arts), and Russ Lyman (Russ Lyman). For those who don’t know, Retro World Expo has roots in Retroware TV, one of the earliest video hosts before YouTube became the de facto delivery model video content creators use today. Many don’t realize Retroware has its own roots in Connecticut. So it only makes sense to have a panel dedicated to some of the online content creators who are local to the area.

But while the panelists are natives of the State, the information delivered in the panel is applicable to anybody getting into video content on the internet. I would even go onto say a lot of it is applicable to any creative endeavor online or off. A lot of the questions posed to the panelists revealed some insightful answers. When asked about the motivation behind creating content everyone unanimously agreed one has to do it first, and foremost out of a love of it. Few, if many creators of any medium become overnight success stories. One shouldn’t make a video expecting to be the next James Rolfe. If it happens, fine, but going in with that expectation is a recipe for disaster. More than likely, you’re not going to garner a massive flood of views, and subscriptions when you start out. Even the creators who are big names today, often took months or years of work to become those big names.

Continuing from there, Mike Levy brought up the importance of making content you, as a creator want to make. Chasing trends isn’t going to work because it isn’t genuine. Others pointed out that potential fans may be able to sense that as well. When the subject of potential collaborations between creators came up, Mike, and Russ also pointed out the need to have a fleshed out idea to present. It isn’t enough to simply ask another creator to do a crossover project. Especially since they’re often pressed for time for their own projects, jobs, and lives. Instead one has to have a project idea ready to go, ideally with what role the person has in mind for them. The creator may still decline depending on the given situation. But they’ll be more likely to at least listen to what it is you have to propose.

Other panelists also drove home the importance of consistency. Trying to keep content coming out for the audience to experience. At the same time though, they did acknowledge there were times where a legitimate break is needed. Commitments, responsibilities, and other things may eat into time normally allotted toward creative endeavors. Sam, Paul, and John also talked about the guilt creators often feel for missing self-imposed deadlines, but acknowledged sometimes it’s unavoidable. Another topic was the importance of lighting, and audio in videos. Even a high quality camera can’t compensate for a lack of light, or bad audio. If the audience can’t see you, or your audio is too distorted or too light or too loud it can turn them off. Even if the content is good. Russ pointed out an episode he made on this very subject.

There was also a discussion about the recent controversy over former IGN writer Filip Miucin’s theft of YouTuber Boomstick Gaming’s Dead Cells review, which led into a wider discussion of online content theft. While some felt Miucin likely felt pressured by deadlines, everyone agreed that plagiarism was despicable behavior. Some of the panelists were rather shocked when they found their own content re-uploaded by other people without permission.

On the lighter side of things, there were some humorous moments where the panelists discussed changing trends in online video. At one time, many preferred long form content. But these days some viewers complain if it isn’t quick, and digestible in a few moments. One particularly funny point was when the crew talked about the trend of unboxing videos being popular. The joke that stood out centered around an unboxing video where the box would house smaller boxes within boxes like a set of nesting dolls. It was also in this panel that Ryan would point out some new YouTube creators were in the crowd.  Nerdy, and Squirdy are YouTube newcomers, and after checking them out I think Ryan may be onto something. These two have a nice variety of different gaming content you just may want to look into.

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After the panel I walked back down to the main floor, where I got in some arcade gaming in. Every year Retro World Expo has a respectable number of arcade machines set up, as well as console set ups where attendees can play without quarters or tokens. Every machine is set to Free Play mode. Some of the machines I saw this year that I don’t remember seeing last year aside from KRULL, were a Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi machine, The Simpsons Arcade Game, and a Dig Dug cocktail table. Over the course of my time at the show, I played a fair amount of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, Final Fight, Shinobi, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Dig Dug. There was also a Ghouls n’ Ghosts machine, but it was always in use. One of the guys in my local trade group managed to find some time on it though, and even cleared it on only a few lives! Impressive.

I also wandered the floor this year looking for some Atari 2600, and Commodore 64 game deals. On the first day, I managed to track down a boxed copy of Gravitar, and a loose copy of Cruise Missile. The latter of which I had never seen before. Apparently it was released in 1987, and is a shmup involving above ground combat, and subterranean combat in the vein of MagMax. I also saw many of the guys from RF Generation were back, as well as Steven Christina Jr, and Karly Kingsley from Super Retro Throwback Reviews. I sat down with them for a short interview they should be airing in the coming weeks. SRTR was also raffling off a bunch of cool PS4 releases, as well as an NES Classic, and a Super NES Classic so I bought a couple of tickets to try my luck.

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At around 4 o’clock or so I attended the Mortal Kombat panel with  Daniel Pesina, Rich Divizio, and Anthony Marquez. They were joined by Sal Divita. Sal was instrumental in bringing the NBA Jam series, and its spinoffs to arcades, and consoles. But he also had involvement as Nightwolf in Mortal Kombat 3. In addition to that, he still saw a lot of the development process on all of the early Mortal Kombat games. Daniel, Rich, and Anthony brought a lot of insight into the world of game development as they talked about the creation of Mortal Kombat. It was an idea that almost didn’t come to fruition, as Midway was hoping for a licensed project with Jean-Claude Van Damme. But when that fell through, Midway allowed Ed Boon, and John Tobias to move ahead with their ideas.

As it turns out, there was a great deal of painstaking work involved in the original games. Every video taped action the actors made, had to be cut down to 8 frames of animation due to memory constraints. Not only that, but many of the characters’ moves had to be shot multiple times when it was discovered that being even the slightest bit too close or far from the camera would make sprite sizes inconsistent. Midway also had a very low-budget for the early games so the crew had to use make shift lighting using office desk lamps, and some sessions were filmed using a camera owned by John Tobias’ father.

As for the controversy surrounding the game’s violence level, when it came to politicians, Midway’s stance was to ignore it. But the actors were contract players, not official Midway employees, so they were unabashed in defense of their work. All in all, a very informative panel not only for fans of Mortal Kombat, and fighting games, but for anybody interested in video game development, and history.

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After that panel I wandered the floor some more, stopping to talk to friends, and acquaintances whom were either shopping, gaming, or vending. I also finally met The Gamescape Artist in person. My first contact with him was during a fellow blogger, hungrygoriya’s live streams (If you love old school JRPGs, check out her blog, or channel. It’s great!). He’s a friendly guy, and quite the painter! He has a wide range of paintings of iconic video game scenes to choose from, and he also does commissions. They’re high quality, highly detailed pieces, so if you’re looking for something to spruce up your game room consider giving him a shout out.

I also ran into the makers of an independent games’ magazine. Old School Gamer Magazine is just what it sounds like. It’s a new publication with articles covering retro games, as well as modern stuff inspired by retro games. The format is a little bit different from what I’d expected. It reminded me a bit of 1980’s computer magazines like Compute!, Ahoy!, and Commodore RUN, minus the program code you could type in, and save to a floppy for free software. The issue they gave me was the fifth one, and it came with a cool poster of the cover art. The representative informed me that they give away the digital version for free via email, but for a fairly low price you can have the physical magazines mailed to you every month. If you miss the days of getting Nintendo Power, GamePro, EGM, and Computer Gaming World at the newsstand, go check it out to see if it’s right for you.

I also met a group of Video bloggers who do VLOG articles, and live streams. The Geeky Panda covers convention cosplays, as well as games, and have an active Twitch page you can check out if so inclined. They play a bunch of stuff including Resident Evil VII, and Fallout IV. If you’re looking for a new variety streaming channel to follow, they may be your ticket.

After the show floor closed I walked over to the adjacent Hartford Marriott’s hotel bar. Normally I would have paid a visit to the City Steam Brewery, but the after party started an hour after the main show ended. I felt I wouldn’t make it back in time. Fortunately the hotel bar did have City Steam Naughty Nurse, so I pre-gamed with the delicious Amber Ale. After that, I went back to the convention center for the after party event which was a lot of fun.

There were a number of things to check out over the course of two hours. You could play arcade cabs that were set up in one of the rooms. Big Bucks Entertainment ran a special edition of Press Your Luck, where contestants who landed on a Whammy had to take a shot. Host Davira Kuy was also doing so in a rather impressive Quan Chi (Mortal Kombat 4) cosplay. The Imaginary Monsters developers were there, so I introduced them to my friends, and acquaintances, as everybody mingled. There was also a fun Drink, and Draw event going on. It was a nice way to end the first part of the convention.

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I commuted back home after that, put away the first day’s pick ups, and got some rest. Day two was a Sunday, so after services, I headed back to Hartford to catch what I could. I did manage to get into Pat Contri’s panel which had some updates on projects he has in the pipeline. He, and his team are working feverishly on the follow-up to his excellent NES collecting guide. This one will be centered on the Super NES, and will be in a similar format. There will also be an alternate cover for the PAL readership. He is also looking into updating the original NES book with some improved screenshots. So future print runs may include these. But the biggest news is that he is working with some other creators on a documentary video about the video game industry’s shift away from physical media. The project will talk about both the pros of such decisions, and the cons of such decisions. The teaser he revealed does look quite promising.

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At the end of the panel he brought back the NES Challenge, and I was able to be a contestant in the second bout! In a cut throat match of Donkey Kong Jr. Math, I barely managed to squeak out a victory! The first round pitted two fans against one another in Balloon Fight, while the third round pitted a couple against one another in an Abobo Vs. Abobo match in Double Dragon. The winners were granted a download key for a digital edition of his NES guide, while the losers were granted shoe string budget games for the Atari 2600, and Sega Genesis. A great panel overall.

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I also got to see Norman Caruso’s Gaming Historian panel again this year. This time he did a live episode centered around a certain Nintendo made boxing franchise. I won’t say anything else about it, but like all of his episodes, you can expect to be amazed as there will be some revelations you won’t believe. This year he also changed game shows. Instead of video game history themed Jeopardy, he did video game history themed Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? This year’s contestant won last year’s Jeopardy game only to discover he won a T-shirt that didn’t fit, so this year he was attempting to win the appropriate size.

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The last panel at the show I caught was a special panel centered around the history of Castlevania, and the Metroidvania formula used in modern independent games. Mike Levy was joined by Marc Duddleson (My Life In Gaming), Mike Desiderio (Rewind Mike), and Pam Dzwonek (Cannot Be Tamed.). Throughout the panel they went over many of the games in the series, and talked about the transition from action platformer to the Metroidvania style most think of today. But they also brought up the fact that there were times where the series hasn’t simply abandoned one style for the other. Marc, brought up the fact that the Nintendo 64’s entries in the series have many similarities to the NES trilogy with a focus on platforming, and combat. Pam, and Mike talked a bit about how even Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest had RPG elements that in some ways can be seen as a forebear to the labyrinthine designs seen in later games.

But they also discussed many newer games like Axiom Verge, Hollow Knight, and Mystik Belle. Here, Rewind Mike pointed out that some of these games veer more toward Metroid, while others veer more toward Symphony Of The Night in terms of design. He also mentioned Abyxsis after seeing it on the floor earlier in the day, and having liked what he had seen. Things closed out with some Castlevania trivia, with the winning attendee getting a Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest Game Pak signed by James Rolfe, and many of the online personalities who attended the show. From Mike Levy’s personal collection no less. And no, I did not win. My Castlevania knowledge is rudimentary. Although I do surprise people when I point out Konami did port the game to many 80’s era computer platforms. Also they’re expensive. If you thought the NES cartridge is steep, try getting the Commodore 64 floppy disk. Anyway, it was a great panel.

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I spent most of my final moments of the show on the floor again. I found a few great deals over that time. The crown jewel was the copy of Bubble Bobble for the Commodore 64 a friend of mine had at his booth. Most people remember the NES release, but the C64 version was pretty much on par, and you don’t see it as often. Another vendor had a slew of boxed, and unboxed games, so I looked through the vast selection where I found a copy of Pengo for the Atari 2600. It’s not a release that you see very often at all. It had no tag on it so I asked for a price. When they replied “It has a ripped label so ten dollars.” I just said “Done.”, and picked it up.

I was demoed a party card game called Cheer Up. It plays similarly to Cards Against Humanity, but with its own twist. It goes through rounds in three steps while also simplifying it with a three-letter system. This opens things up by having three card answer types, but also color coding them to make things easier to follow. It wasn’t something I got into, but that’s probably me not being as drawn to board games as other people. I can see the appeal though for those whom have guests over often. Basically, the person asking a question gets every other player to submit answers from their hand, with the funniest one getting points. If you have people over for regular game nights, you might want to see if it’s for you. They have a free digital download version on their site which is nice, because then you can try it to see if you’ll enjoy it before buying a copy.

I also spotted a booth hosted by another YouTube up, and comer GothamLounge who does Long plays with commentary. If you’re stumped on a game, you may want to see if it’s something he’s played through. He seems like a nice fellow, so I wish him luck on his online endeavors. As I was catching up with friends, and acquaintances before the show closed I was tracked down by the Super Retro Throwback team to discover I had won the Super NES Classic Edition raffle! So I guess this was my “steal” of the show as I ultimately got one of these ridiculously cheap. A special thanks to them for interviewing me, and hosting the raffles. I also nabbed some sweet Splatoon themed stickers, and buttons from the always great Elijah Taylor, and JustM3hStudios booths. If you see them at a con near you check them out sometime.

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All in all, I had another great year seeing some great panels, scoring some deals, and meeting up with friends like The Best Spuds. But there was so much going on it was impossible to get to everything. I didn’t get a chance to talk to a number of guests. I didn’t get to say “Hello” to The Gaming Historian, RGT85, Game Dave, or Bob Backlund. (Yes, the great wrestling legend Bob Backlund was at the show.). There were a ton of interesting people there this year, and I’ve undoubtedly missed some of them. I apologize in advance.

But even if you weren’t interested in any of the guests there were a lot of other things happening. The Arcade games, and console games were set up to go all day. There were pinball machines to play. There were tabletop miniature games to play. There were live musical acts to jam out to. There were several tournaments going on as well. The ever popular Fortnite had a singles, and doubles competition, there was a Mario Kart 64 competition, a Goldeneye tournament, even a Nintendo World Championships tournament.

There was also a cosplay contest going on this year, and the massive auction made a return. Unfortunately for me I missed it. I was told somebody won a complete Commodore 64 setup (including a vintage monitor) for well below value. Some years the auction can actually lead to deals for some con goers. And even if none of that appeals to you, there are always a lot of vendors to check out. You may not get insane deals, but you can almost bet at least someone will have something you never see when you go hunting locally.

Congrats to everyone at the convention for putting on another great show this year. I hope to be able to make it out again next year. And thanks to all readers who made it this far. As you can see, I had a lot of ground to cover, and I still didn’t get to everything. If you’re in New England next year when it rolls around, check it out. It’s well-organized, entertaining, and they squeeze a lot into it.

The Messenger Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10

Most anticipated titles shown at E3

Man, what a hectic last few weeks, with more to come. It’s kept me away from time to do much. Though at least I was able to get a couple of streaming nights in. Still, I missed most of the E3 conferences, and I’ve been playing catch up. All three of the platform holders had pretty average events this year. Bethesda did a 180 from last year, even if none of the people in attendance seemed to know who Andrew W.K. is.

Ubisoft seemed bog standard. I didn’t see EA’s though the reception doesn’t appear to have been too warm. But beyond the big conferences there were a lot of trailers, and announcements of smaller titles. And I tend to like to pay attention to those, because they can often turn out to be as exciting as the hyped stuff. So these are some of the titles I saw that caught my attention. Hopefully they’ll turn out to be great games we want in our computer, and console game libraries.

Daemon X Machina

Nintendo’s Direct was the first time I’d heard anything about this game. But a trailer’s job is to generate interest in the subject matter. So mission accomplished. It appears to be some kind of action game involving mechs. But what sets this apart (at least in the trailer) is the No More Heroes unsaturated art style, and a rocking industrial metal soundtrack. It goes really well with the depictions of exploding robots, and bloody skies. I want to hear more about this one. If you’re a fan of Voltron, MechWarrior, Metal Storm, Transformers, Gundam, or giant killer death bots in general, you may want to too.

Insurgency: Sandstorm

I’ve been looking forward to seeing more about this once since it was announced. The original game is a wonderful blend of tactical shooter, and team shooter. There isn’t much of a HUD if any. There aren’t any kill cams. Most of the weapons will kill you in one or two hits. If you have body armor, maybe three. There aren’t any unlockable items that require grinding. If your class can use a weapon, you can use it. They balance this with a point system that forces trade offs. And it has all of the modes a Battlefield player might want. This sequel hopes to bring that experience to consoles next year after it launches in September on computers. Without the focus on loot boxes or battle royal modes this could be something Battlefield, and Call Of Duty veterans may want to check out. For those who don’t like to deal with sore sports online, it also offers a robust one player campaign. To sweeten the deal NWI is bringing it out at less than half the cost of a AAA release, and giving customers who bought the old game 10% off. They’re giving an additional 10% off to people who preorder.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Frankly, I don’t know how you don’t get at least a little bit excited for this one. Even if you’re a staunch fan of traditional fighters like Street Fighter, or 3D fighters like Soul Calibur or Tekken, this one should still impress you. Maybe just a tiny bit, but still. They’ve reworked the damage for 1 on 1 fights, heavily nerfed repeated dodges, and made short hop attacking a little bit easier. This is going to make the competitive end of the audience intrigued, and in some cases happy. For the rest of us, this is giving a lot of great stuff too. If you bought the figures, and adapters for your Gamecube controllers, they’ll all work on it. Every character from every previous Smash game is in here. Plus there is bunch of new assist trophies, items, and even some new characters.  This one comes out later this year, and I can already sense many will fire up the older games to practice up.

Serious Sam 4

Serious Sam may not have the star power he did back in the early 2000’s. But you’re always guaranteed a fun time filled with mindless action. For those who don’t know, this long running series by Croteam puts you in a large campaign of stages that have you constantly shooting, and managing resources. Some compare it to stuff like the original Doom. But that’s actually a long way off. The level designs are often interlocked arenas. So you’ll enter a room, destroy a wave of enemies, get an item, and destroy another. The thing is each room potentially has hundreds of enemies to contend with at a time. It’s more accurate to compare it to old Midway games like Robotron 2084, Smash TV, and Total Carnage. But the constant introduction of new enemy types, weapons, and the vast number of Easter Eggs to find keeps them fresh. This time they got the writer of The Talos Principle to write the story for Serious Sam 4. So who knows if Serious Sam will be Serious? Either way, I find these games fun so I hope to check this one out as well.

RAGE 2

Yes I know, there are a lot of shooters on here. But I did enjoy the original Rage when it came out. Abrupt ending aside, it was pretty cool. The desert was a hub world with towns in it. It had a pretty entertaining Mad Max inspired story, and it had the shooting you’d expect an iD game to have. So this sequel has me intrigued. The desert is more than a hub world supposedly, and there are a larger multitude of factions. The action looked good, and so I’m hoping for the best. The original didn’t sell horribly but it didn’t sell Doom, or Wolfenstein numbers either. So I was honestly surprised this sequel was green lit. Still, I liked the old one, and this one looks like it could be an improvement.

Tunic

I know there are a ton of Legend Of Zelda clones out there. But this one stood out to me during the Microsoft conference. It doesn’t look like it does a ton of new things with the gameplay, but at the same time it has an inviting art style, and I loved seeing some of the character designs. Hopefully it turns out really well. It displayed a fairly large map so there will be a lot of ground to cover.

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Similarly, at the Sony show there were a lot of big, anticipated games. But once again, something smaller showed up in the line of trailers. This one is by Remedy who invented the Max Payne franchise years ago. They also did the Alan Wake, and Quantum Break. While Quantum Break was derided for making people watch long, episodic cut scenes, this seems to have eschewed that experiment. The protagonist has this telekinetic ability allowing her to pick things up remotely, and use them as weapons. Sure it’s not the most original idea. But it looks cool in this one. When you’re done with The Last Of Us 2 you might want to pop this in. It looks fun.

Super Mario Party

I rarely get excited about a Mario Party game. Don’t get me wrong. I have most of them. Even the least exciting iterations are still a hit during holidays, and get together moments. But Super Mario Party is the first one in a long time that I kind of really want to play. For starters the frame rate (at least in the trailer) seems like it will be 60 fps on most modern HD TVs which will be pure glory for some of those mini games. Second of all, they seem to be doing interesting things with it if you network two Switches together. On the flip side, my nieces only continue to learn games in 8 seconds. So when I visit my Sister I’m likely leaving with the least amount of stars. They’re pretty good at Smash, and Kart too. But I suppose it happens to even the best of us. We get old, and our siblings’ progeny dethrone us eventually. Still, Super Mario Party looks pretty great even if it will leave me with zero stars.

Ninjala

I really want to see more about this one. Ninja kids Nerf sword fighting while doing parkour, and Baby metal is rocking out in the background? It looks like there is a big reliance on bubblegum. Not sure what that’s about, but it also looks like there is co-op, and versus modes in it. The trailer doesn’t go into much detail, but like Daemon X Machina, I am intrigued.

Ghost of Tsushima

This game looked really cool. The trailer didn’t show off much of what the objective or story was. But the combat, the environments, and characters looked really compelling. I would have liked them to have spent a little bit more time on it. But in any case, Sucker Punch got me talking about this game, and if you missed it or forgot about it, you may want to follow this one. Again, hoping it turns out great. But it looked really good, and like something those with a PS4 ought to look into.

Octopath Traveler

Even though I veer more toward the instant gratification of action genres, I do like a good RPG now, and again. This game has me interested for a few reasons. One is the look of everything. It reminds me a bit of the Ys remasters with its blend of 3D models, and 2D sprites. The filters on everything makes it look unique too. Another reason is that it’s giving players eight different characters to play with, each with their own career paths, and storylines. So it looks like it can be something a die-hard RPG fan can marathon for days. But also something someone with limited time can span out over a year by playing through one story, taking a break, then going back to it.

Mega Man 11

I’m a huge fan of the Classic Mega Man series. I’ve played through all of them. 1-10, as well as the GB line, and the side game Mega Man & Bass. This one looks like they’re trying to make it accessible to newcomers with a bullet time mechanic. But they’re leaving it optional so veterans can play completely old-school. They’re also returning to a more modern 2.5D look. It’ll be interesting to see how they do without Inafune at the helm. But the trailer does look decidedly Mega Man.

Cyberpunk 2077

CD Projekt Red always seems to deliver solid RPGs. (A few of which I still need to finish.) But this one looks like a big departure from what we normally see. It’s Sci-Fi instead of Fantasy. It’s taking inspiration from a pen, and paper series, and yet also seems to have action elements.  I do want to see where they take the not too distant future theme compared to some of the others that have ventured there.

The Messenger

They showed off a little more of this one in some interviews, and I’m even more excited about it than when I saw the initial trailer two months ago or so. It’s a love letter to both the NES Ninja Gaiden Trilogy, as well as action platformers on the Super NES. It’s fast, frantic, and being built with speedrunners in mind. The visual changes are tied to the game’s story, and it’s been confirmed to not only release on the Switch, but on PC as well. As someone who loves action platformers, I’m really looking forward to this one.

Metal Wolf Chaos XD

Originally released on the inaugural Xbox, most have never played this one. Because it was exclusive to the Japanese market at the time. These days, finding an original copy for your Xbox is an expensive endeavor. It’s a mech action game with the premise of a DTV B Movie.  By From Software no less. Devolver Digital is re-releasing this game with some updated visual options on Xbox One, Playstation 4, and PC. It’s completely silly, and over the top. If the high aftermarket prices online have kept you from getting this already, this is one remaster you might not want to miss.

 

So there you go. This year’s show might not have had the hype, and power of last year, but there was still plenty to look forward to. Whether you looked for grandiose blockbusters, or indie games, or somewhere in between. These were some of mine, and I hope you enjoyed this run down. Hopefully you’ll enjoy seeing some of these as much as I did. What were some of your E3 announcements? Feel free to comment below.

The Next Penelope Review

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Combinations. Sometimes they work really well. Most of us like peanut butter with chocolate, fluff, or jelly. In gaming, we often see developers experiment with different elements from one genre, and blending it with elements from another. The Next Penelope is one of many such games. But the components it assembles are far more removed from one another in comparison to other titles.

PROS: Minimalist art style works well.

CONS: Technical hitches. Lack of options. A.I.

HOMER: Expect Iliad, and Odyssey references.

The Next Penelope bills itself as a top-down racer in the vein of the old Codemasters Micro Machines games that appeared on the NES, and Sega Genesis. But in reality that’s only one part of the game. The Next Penelope utilizes these kinds of races, but attempts to cross-pollinate them with bits of F-Zero. You can boost, which drains the health of your vehicle, and you can drive over pit stop lanes to repair your vehicle.

But it doesn’t stop there. The game also includes elements of vertical, and horizontal shoot ’em up games like Raiden, and R-Type. As with the boost mechanic, using the weapons throughout the game will also drain your vehicle health meter. There are several great weapons to use throughout the campaign, and you’ll find that they’re almost always the key to victory.

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So how does the game work? The Next Penelope references Homer’s Odyssey. From the subtitle; Race To Odysseus, to names of characters, and places from the epic poem. In this game you play as Penelope who is trying to get to Ulysses. But in order to do so you’ll have to go to different star systems, and proceed to win different racing circuits. The reality is that each of these circuits has one race. Each circuit lists three races, but only the second race is actually a race. Your first race is usually a trial where you have to master one of the weapons or abilities. Complete that task, and then you’ll enter a race. A race you have to place first in. If you don’t win, you can’t advance. Winning the race will put you up against a boss for the third event. If you defeat the boss, you’ll get to take the weapon you gained in the first event with you through the rest of the game.

You can technically, go through the game in any order you want, a la Mega Man. But the game really wants you to go in a specific order. Because you’ll quickly find the races are almost impossible to win without the weapon or item required. Where as in Capcom’s games starring the Blue Bomber, you can get through an entire stage using only an arm cannon, here you can’t. You won’t even beat the course required to get to the boss to use your weapon on, without said weapon. That’s because the rubber band A.I. in this game is ridiculous. Even if you lead three laps because you’re good enough to do it, the last lap you will be bombarded with enemy racers’ firepower, and get overtaken.

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Over the course of the game you’ll get laser guns, a teleportation device, a grappling hook, and even a cloud that turns bullets into experience points. Win the races, and it’s off to fight a boss. Admittedly, the boss fights are some of the best parts of The Next Penelope. Most of them are pretty creative, and involve some level of puzzle solving skills on your part. There are a few that are disappointing though, because they boil down to trial, and error gameplay as opposed to the puzzle solving twitch action of the better ones. Still, these are where most of the fun times happen.

That isn’t to say the racing is terrible. Most of the tracks have some pretty cool designs, and you’ll have to get your turns just right, to drift around a corner or make a jump over a gap safely. Tracks have some interesting hazards too, like flooded streets, blockades that require specific items to avoid, and even have shortcuts that require expert timing, and speed to use. What kills the fun a bit is the aforementioned A.I. if you thought some of the old Mario Kart, Need For Speed, or Cruisin‘ games had cheap CPU racers, you’ll have flashbacks when playing this. The pain is doubled when you realize this game has the same steering scheme as games like Super Sprint. Your space car also moves automatically, so you can’t brake around corners, or to avoid hitting something.

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Thankfully the controls are responsive, and if you don’t want to use the classic D-Pad controls, you can use the triggers on your controller to steer left, or right. Once you have a handle on them, and you get a few circuits in, it will become a lot more manageable as the items, and weapons will help keep you in the lead a lot. Once you’ve gotten through a set of races you can move along a star map to the next set you want to attempt. There are also extra courses you can attempt. But these won’t be playable until you’ve completed the campaign for the first time. You’ll also earn XP throughout the game, and there is a store on the star map where you can spend your XP on upgrades. In my time with the game, I found it best to wait until near the end to do this, but you can also go into the shop whenever you want between circuits.

Once you beat all of the main circuits, you’ll be able to enter the final showdown. This is a two boss rush. Here the game ceases to be a top-down racer, and becomes a horizontal shmup. What makes these fights challenging is that the game continues to use the F-Zero drain mechanics from the races. So as you shoot at the bosses you’ll drain your health. Beating these guys will take careful resource management, and all of your cunning.

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The story here isn’t particularly great. It references Homer’s poems a number of ways, but it doesn’t do anything interesting with them. It’s really just there to set up each of the circuits so that the boss encounters make more sense. On the plus side, the artwork is very nice. It could easily pass for one of the late 90’s action shows that aired on Cartoon Network with minimalist designs that are accented with a wonderful use of color. This moves into the mainline game graphics too, which use an interesting blend of background tile art, and shaded shapes for the vehicles, and characters. It reminded me a bit of Another World’s look. vehicles appear to be almost like models when in actuality they’re an animated series of sprites. It’s pretty impressive for a such a small game.

 

The Next Penelope isn’t a bad game, by any means. But it isn’t going to be for everyone. The worst part of the experience is the brutal A.I., and there are a number of technical hitches in it that don’t help. Sometimes the game will hiccup for no apparent reason. I played the game on both my gaming desktop that far exceeds the requirements, and an old laptop. In both cases they came up at arbitrary times. It didn’t matter if I had the settings maxed or set to minimum. The game also has a CRT filter you can enable. Again, sometimes this would happen with or without simulated scan lines. In my case I had been playing for a few hours before it would happen. But when it did it was awful, as it would cause me to drive off course, or crash into an obstacle. I don’t know if this happens on any of the console versions as I haven’t played those. There was also the strange omission of any kind of volume controls in the game. This makes it a tough game to stream as you can’t just go in, and lower the sound if it drowns out your voice. Instead you’ll have to go tweak your system’s microphone, and sound settings. Which isn’t always a simple task depending on your configuration.

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That said, it’s worth experiencing if you’re looking for something a little bit different to play. It looks nice, controls fine, and there are some truly fun moments in it. But only the truly devoted will go through the bonus missions, or care to accomplish all of the game’s achievement milestones. It’s not a terrible game, but don’t expect the moon either. If you come into it looking for something on par with an F-Zero or Wipeout game, you’ll want to look elsewhere. But if you’re open-minded, and want to try something new, you might be surprised.

Final Score: 6.5 out of 10