Tag Archives: Microsoft Windows

Mortal Kombat 11 (Switch) Review

MK11Title

A few days ago the highly anticipated Mortal Kombat 11 came out, and has mostly gotten praise. But the Nintendo Switch version is often left out of the conversation. Like many people I was curious about how the game was going to work out on the console. So I picked it up after work on its launch, and I’ve been playing it after hours since. This is what I’ve found about the game on Switch, and the game in general. Much of this will likely apply to the other three versions out there as well.

PROS: Everything in the other versions is here. Plays great.

CONS: The visuals are downgraded. Crashes. Issues with the Krypt, and Towers.

WB: Still pulling pre-order shenanigans with Mortal Kombat.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room right away. The graphics. Between the trailer we saw at the Game Awards 2017, and subsequent footage, everybody was wowed. NetherRealm studios did a terrific job building some of the most beautiful backdrops, and character designs in a Mortal Kombat game yet. They didn’t do this alone though. The level of graphics, and animation work in this game is staggering. So it should be no surprise upon seeing the end credits you’ll notice over 20 software developers, and animation studios were paid to help the game along. You can tell a lot of hard work went into the visual aspect of the game alone.

MK11Cinema

So how does the Nintendo Switch version of this massive, illustrious fighting game fare? A small developer out of Miami, Florida called Shiver was contracted to port the game to Nintendo’s gaming tablet, and they did a fantastic job. While none of the consoles have bleeding edge tech in them at this point, there is a gap between a Tegra II tablet chip, and the AMD processors, and graphics chips in the Microsoft, and Sony boxes. As such there wasn’t much of a question that Unreal Engine 4 (the software that powers the game) would work well on those. It was possible to use on tablets, but how well was in question for the average player.

MK11Graphics1

Shiver has gotten the game running insanely well on the Nintendo Switch. It has all of the content the other versions have, and it looks pretty good too. It even runs at a high frame rate like the other versions. It just comes unsurprisingly, at a price. The best way I can describe it, is that fights look like you’re playing the PC version on just above the lowest settings. Which tells me that Shiver had the option to either make the game look like the other versions, but have a lower frame rate. Or they could have gone the route they did. And if I’m right about that, frankly, everyone should be happy they took that route. Mortal Kombat 11, much like previous games, requires very fast movement in order to pull off some of its best combos, and other moves. Frame rate doesn’t just effect what your eyes are seeing. It can often make a game feel more responsive. Something you need to have in order for a fighting game to work. Especially at a high level of play.

MK11Graphics2

And the end result still doesn’t look bad. You’ll notice the game changes visual quality at times too. During the pre fight banter the game looks like it runs at the lowest settings possible, and then ticks up to the lower, or medium settings when the fights begin, and stays there during them. The most noticeable downgrade is that the UE4 lighting effects have mostly been toned down or turned off. You won’t see a lot of reflections, or sheen on costumes, or metal objects in most of the game. Antialiasing effects are lowered, or off so you’ll see “Jaggies” as we used to know them. Most of the textures are still rendered at the standards of the other versions. But some of the background objects aren’t so they won’t look as crisp. Rather they’ll have a slightly blurred quality to them.

MK11Graphics3

And on some stages very little of these downgrades are that noticeable right away. It’s only going to be the absolute worst nitpickers among us who this will be a problem for. And at that level one could begin to nitpick the other versions too. Mortal Kombat 11 on the Switch may not look as nice as it does on the PS4 or XB1. But it doesn’t look bad either. If I had any issues with the graphics its that during the story mode it can be a little jarring to have the cut scenes running at their higher settings, then going to the lower settings for fights, and back to higher settings for more cinematic story.

MK11Kronika

That said, Mortal Kombat 11 has a lot of content in it. As I’ve said before, the Switch version has everything the other versions have. The main single player mode on display is the Story mode, which has been an expected feature since Mortal Kombat 9. I didn’t play the tenth game, so I can’t really compare the story in this one to that game’s. But I did play through MK9, and I can say it is a substantially better storyline here. I don’t want to go too in depth here as a lot of folks still have yet to experience it. But the game introduces a new villain. A Goddess known as Kronika. She looks suspiciously like Sinead O’Connor, and can control time, and space with a magic hourglass. She sets up a plan to wipe out the realms, and so our heroes, and villains in the roster set out to stop or help her. There are plenty of moments that will make you laugh, surprise you, and the story even tries to make you cry a few times. It doesn’t really earn that much from you, but you will be entertained. Thanks to some terrific voice acting performances, top-notch animation, and pretty good writing it does feel like one of the old 80’s action movies that inspired a lot of the classic Mortal Kombat games.

MK11Graphics4

Like I said before, the Switch version can feel a little jarring as you go through it, because the game switches graphics settings on the fly between fights, and cinematics. There was a rare moment in my playthrough where the game hiccupped doing this near the final chapter. It didn’t effect the game or story, but goes to show there’s a glitch or two that may require a bug fix in the near future. Beyond that though, I enjoyed playing through the story mode. It held my attention, and a few times in it, you’ll get the option to control one character or another. So you do get some replay value by going back, and playing with different characters.

MK11Graphics5

Beyond the story mode, there is the classic arcade ladder mode you can play. Doing this more or less is what you’d expect. You play a gauntlet of opponents the way you have since the original Mortal Kombat. As has been the case since Mortal Kombat 3, you can choose longer, and more difficult arcade ladders as well. Clearing these with each character gets you those classic arcade style endings. Each told from the perspective of the character had they been the canon protagonist.

MK11Store1

Spinning off of the arcade ladder is something called Towers Of Time, where you play a similar series of arcade ladders. But the difference is the fact that each match has conditions in them. Such as “Don’t touch acid, or your opponent gets health back.”. These can be a lot of fun, and can even help you get better at avoiding certain attacks. The mode is also tied to the game’s returning Krypt mode. Winning in these towers, will give you a lot of the green coins, and other currency you’ll need to spend in the Krypt. It can be fun to go in to these fights to grind for money. But there’s one major problem with it. It takes forever. The rewards you gain, for some of these brutal fights can be miniscule. Plus on top of the main currency, hearts are another currency. Hearts are needed in the Krypt to unlock some of the biggest stuff in the game. And you can only get those by getting fatalities, and brutalities while playing.

MK11Store2

And before you spout off about Warner Bros. doing to Mortal Kombat 11 what they’ve done in their other games by closing stuff off with microtransactions, that isn’t the case here. Yes, there is a store. Yes, you can pay for easy fatalities. Yes you can pay to unlock Frost instead of just playing the story mode, and using her for free. You can spend money on a virtual currency it calls Time Crystals. But aside from a few skins, and one button fatalities for each character there isn’t much you can buy that would affect gameplay. So when it comes to the stuff in the Krypt, you really can’t. You can pretty much skip the store in this one. The one thing you can levy at WB is the fact that Shao Kahn was hidden behind a six dollar pay wall in order to encourage people to buy the game before it came out, or at least pre order it. If you didn’t put your trust in the game before having picked it up, it costs you another six bucks to play as the character. He isn’t in the DLC bundle pack either. So that is the one blemish here as far as microtransactions go.

MK11Store3

Be that as it may, grinding away the coins, green gems, and hearts for the Krypt can take a long, long time. Supposedly NetherRealm has addressed this on a recent video update, and will be putting out a patch soon as of this writing. This should make things feel a bit more manageable for players who don’t want to devote all of their game time to Mortal Kombat 11.

As for the Krypt itself, it feels somewhere between the ones in Deadly Alliance, and Deception. It isn’t a simple grid done in a graveyard style. But it isn’t a full-fledged adventure game involving NPCs either. You go around Shang Tsung’s island finding boxes. But there are some hidden walls you can break open to get to new areas, as well as puzzles to solve to gain access to certain chests. There are even a few booby traps. You can die in the Krypt.

MK11Card

Opening the chests gets you anything from concept art to stuff you can use in the game. There are a few extra costumes, second fatalities, and augmentation parts you can use to enhance how your characters will play. This is a system that has been carried over from Injustice 2, and refined for this game. It’s a neat system because it adds an RPG like element to the fighting genre. One that might entice someone whom may not play many fighting games to give it a look. Of course, when it comes to the game’s online play there are modes where you can or can’t use them. Once you eventually open everything in the Krypt there is a building early on, with a round lever on it. If you have enough coins you can press it to close all of the chests in the Krypt, and fill them with different things. The other interesting thing about the Krypt is that every player will have a different experience. Because while everyone will have the same key items, the chests they are in, are in different locations. So you can’t simply try to look at a walkthrough on YouTube. The skin they found in a particular chest, may be in that chest. But in your playthrough that chest will be in a different place.

MK11Gear2

The Augmentation system also ties many of the modes together by requiring you to play everything the game has on offer. If you want a certain hat for Raiden for example, you’ll have to unlock it by going to a certain mode, or completing a certain challenge. Some of these items will be in the Krypt of course, but many will not. So you’ll have to go down the list, read the description, and then try to unlock it by playing that mode. You can also create custom move lists here too. You may want to use a version of Liu Kang where you use a different attack in lieu of the bicycle kick for instance. You can have different profiles of each character with different move sets, different gear to buff said move sets, and an overall customized look. It’s honestly pretty cool. But again, when talking about the competitive side of fighting games, you’ll want to play without these things, as these things can affect the balance of the game.

MK11Gear1

The game also gives you a Kombat Kard which gives you your stats, as well as a custom banner when playing online. It’s pretty much in line with other modern fighters like Street Fighter V, Blazblue Cross Tag Battle, and others. It’s nice that you can personalize your online avatar somewhat, and it makes it easy to look at your Win/Loss record, most used characters, and other information.

So the fighting is fast, and responsive on the TV against a friend, but what about online? Honestly, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the game’s net code on the Switch. You can choose to display the ping while playing which is going to give you a good indication of how well it’s going to hold up in a match. If you see an opponent in the 100ms – 150ms range, as I’ve had most of the time, it’s pretty solid. I haven’t felt like too many button presses haven’t registered or that there’s been a notable amount of lag. Somebody who is a contender at EVO or other tournaments may have a different opinion, but I think for most people it is pretty good. Obviously, if you connect to an opponent with a 300ms time you’ll want to decline the fight to avoid warping, moves not working as intended, and the other signs of a lag ridden match.

MK11Graphics6

That is one feature I really appreciate. It’s not one you see outside of multiplayer PC games very often, and it can give players a much better idea of how the experience is going to be than the usual red, yellow, or green bars found in many other online fighters. There are also a few ways you can play online too. You can do casual matches with other people. Here you can choose to play with or without the augmentations on. They’ll force the competitive move sets, and options the developers intended to be set on. You can play matches, enter a king of the hill mini tournament, or have A.I. characters battle it out.

If you choose to play the competitive mode the augments never come into play. Also the competition is fierce. As good as you may be, this is the place where people who love fighting games will be found most of the time. But it’s also the best way to learn the game. Really. If you’re new or lapsed the prospect of losing a lot may sound scary, but it’s where you’re going to learn the nuances much better. Yes there is a training mode in the game, and it will get you set up with the basics, as well as let you practice the game’s combos. But going up against other people is where you’re going to really learn things like zoning, looking for openings, and how to get around something you might initially find insurmountable. Even if you’re not looking to be the best in the world, it is a great way to pick up some new things to take with you against your local friends, and family. Rounding out the online mode, are areas where you can do private matches, and lobbies. So if you just want to play with friends online, or a place where your groups can meet up, it’s convenient.

MK11Kronika2

All in all I really like Mortal Kombat 11, and the Switch version is a very viable version. If you’re somebody who only has a Switch it is very easy to recommend in general. I can also say if you’re someone who has multiple consoles, and already bought it for your PS4, you might at some point want it on the Switch for the portability factor. The graphics downgrade is less noticeable on the smaller screen, and the fact you’re getting something that plays just as well is something to marvel at. Shiver should really be commended on what they’ve accomplished. One small thing to note however is that also like every other version this one does have some infrequent crashes. You’ll be going along, playing a ladder or going through the story, or exploring the Krypt, and see an error message that will be burned into your brain. It hasn’t been a frequent occurrence for me. But it is something I hope they’ll be able to figure out soon. Also the game does play better with a Pro Controller, or equivalent or Arcade stick on Switch. The C buttons just don’t feel as familiar as a true D-pad does.

Still, with the refined fighting system, wealth of content, solid net code, and a meaty story mode, the good outweighs the bad.  If you have a Switch, Mortal Kombat 11 is definitely worth looking into. It’s an experience that will raise eyebrows at the local Starbucks, as well as play exceptionally well on the big screen. The downgrade in visuals isn’t enough to make the game any less fun, and they still bring the buckets of blood, and guts you would expect from the series. I didn’t even talk about just how over-the-top, yet somehow unsettling some of this iteration’s finishing moves can really be. Whether you’re a long time fan or newcomer, MK11 will impress you on any of the platforms it has landed on.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Advertisements

Elgato HD60 PRO PCI Express Capture Card Review

ElgatoTitle

Maybe you’ve decided you want to migrate old home video footage to your computer through a daisy chain of adapters. Or maybe you’ve decided you want to dip your toes in the waters of video production. Or perhaps, (more likely) you’ve decided you want to capture video game footage for your fledgling YouTube channel. Or maybe you’ve decided you want to try your hand at streaming video games on Twitch. Whatever the reason, you’re going to need to find a way to get that content to the intended audience through the use of your computer.

PROS: Excellent build quality. Small enough to fit any case type. Intuitive software.

CONS: Drivers are tied to software utilities.

LTTP: Retro Speed Run streamers will need to find a good scaler to use with it.

Enter the Elgato HD60 PRO. You can find this in either a PCI Express card for your desktop computer, or you can find an external version that connects to your machine with a USB 3.0 cable. We’ll be taking a look at the internal card version here, as that’s the version I bought after getting a better than expected tax return this year.

The Elgato HD60 PRO comes in an attractive package. There’s a sleek slip cover over a gate fold box. Upon opening that box, you’ll be greeted with the card itself, a booklet, a HDMI cable, and a handy low profile bracket for those with a flex case. You’ll know if you have a flex case, they tend to be used on computer models that go for the small, sleek, and rectangular look. Often times these cases do not have the height needed for expansion cards. Yet, they’re often built using motherboards that do allow for some expansion. Unfortunately, this usually means hunting for specialty “Half-Height” or “Low Profile” cards. So it is nice that this card comes with that low profile bracket. If you have such a computer, and want to stream your PlayStation 4 games through it, this card makes that possible.

ElgatoBoxFront

Once you have the card installed, you may or may not be surprised to find no CD or Flash Drive in the box. Elgato doesn’t include drivers in the box. Instead, you have to go directly to their site to get them. And they don’t simply give you the drivers, they include them in their software utilities. This is the first of the two grievances I have with the product. In the grand scheme of things both are fairly small. But they do make things needlessly complicated. The software itself is actually quite intuitive. But it is broken up across a few different utilities depending on what you want to do with it. There is an audio utility for those who only want to capture sound. The Game Capture HD utility which records video, as well as streams video. The Control Center for managing accessories. Finally, there’s the Stream Deck which is for the optional Stream Deck device. You don’t have to download the latter two, but you may just want to get them, and install them anyway in case the need should arise.

ElgatoBoxRear

The main one you’ll really need is the Game Capture HD utility. As I mentioned before, this is a great piece of software. But even if you’ve decided to use something else, you’ll need to install it because it contains the drivers for Windows 10. Without those, your computer won’t know what you’ve installed into the motherboard. If you do decide to use the Game Capture HD though, you’ll be surprised at how simple it is to navigate.

There’s a clearly marked button for the capture settings you want to use. You can go with standard resolutions like 480, 720p, or 1080p, and you can set the frame rate to record at 30 or 60 Frames per second (FPS). If your computer is newer, you shouldn’t have any problem running things on higher settings with newer consoles. If your system is older though, you can tinker with the settings until your happier with the performance. Do make sure your system is above the minimum requirements before you buy this or any expansion for your computer though. If you don’t have compatible hardware, you’re not going to have a great experience. Still, my machine is getting long in the tooth, (i7 4770k, 16GB RAM, a 250GB SSD, 1TB SSD, and an Nvidia GTX760) yet had zero issues using this card.

ElgatoBox2

The software also has an easy to spot recording button, and streaming button. Once you tie the software to your appropriate account (Twitch, YouTube, etc.) it easily syncs up with your settings there, and just seems to work. At least it did for me. There are also a host of preset overlays you can choose to use, all of which can also be customized. You can import your own art, websites, banners, and more. You can put in a webcam PIP. You can run a green screen. The software is an amazing little utility. Especially if you’re not familiar with video production, or you’re new to streaming. When you are streaming you can easily move back and forth between full screen gameplay or windowed with your various settings around it.

Other easy to tweak settings are sounds like your microphone, and game audio levels. You can have the software lower game audio while you’re talking for example. You can also tinker with your bit rate settings so you can try to find a balance between performance, and clarity for your stream as well. It doesn’t however have a lot of options for specific plug-ins. You can work around this by adding website links to things that will behave like a plug-in. Like a chat box for example. But there aren’t a slew of dedicated Elgato software plug-ins.

ElgatoBox3

That said, other utilities like OBS, and XSplit give you a lot more freedom if you’re willing to take the time to learn how to use their features properly, and experiment. If you want to really do more unique things with your channel, and you’re looking to be a more professional looking personality on a streaming or video site you’ll want to either master using one of those, or buy a more feature-rich suite that the card is compatible with.

I’ve really liked using this card thus far. It has an excellent build quality, and it outputs as well as inputs. That means you can take the feed from your Nintendo Switch dock for example, and bring it into the card to be processed. But you can also run a second HDMI cable out to a TV or Monitor. This makes it especially nice if you’re looking to multitask on a computer screen, while you’re playing a game on the second one. Those who want to have Twitch opened in one window, their utility of choice (Elgato, OBS, XSplit, etc) in another don’t have to worry about having to play the game windowed, or continually have to Alt+Tab between things constantly.

Of course, it isn’t going to be perfect for everyone. The other minor issue for me is this card doesn’t have legacy inputs on it like Composite, or S-Video. So if you want to use it to stream things like NES games you’ll need to get an adapter or scaler to convert the signal. For merely capturing footage this is fine, but for streaming speed runs, keep in mind this will induce a little bit of input lag. A really high-end scaler like the hallowed Framemeister will be a safe bet for reducing it to a minimum, but if you don’t have that kind of money there are a wide variety of options. But you’ll have to do a fair amount of research to see what device in your budget will give you the best results.

ElgatoProfiles

The other thing to consider are the number of other cards that do include legacy support. If you’re planning on mostly recording from legacy consoles, or want to digitize old analog VHS or Beta tapes from elder family members, you may not need to get a separate scaler with one of those other cards. However, not all of those other products are built as nicely, and few have a utility as seamless, and easy to figure out as Elgato’s downloadable one. Really you’ll have to decide on your own which route is the way to go.

That being said, I’m actually quite pleased with this card. The performance has been excellent, it has a great build quality, as well as fit, and finish. The software utility while, broken up across two programs, and two optional ones, is intuitive. It’s very easy to use, especially for someone like myself who isn’t as familiar with customizing things in OBS as many streamers, and YouTube personalities are. If you’re just starting out, and want something you can get into using right away, this is an excellent card. It might cost more, but the convenience, and quality are worth it. Just remember if you’re looking to broadcast speed runs of games on consoles of old with it you’ll want to find a scaler that can mitigate some of the inevitable input lag to go along with it. For anything current though, the Elgato HD60 PRO is a winner.

(Minimum Requirements: OS: Windows 10 64-Bit. CPU: Intel Core i5 series 4 or newer. Graphics: Intel HD, Nvidia GeForce GTX 600 series or better. Expansion slot: A free PCIe x1/x4/x6/x16 slot on your motherboard.)

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon Review

BSCOTMTitle

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

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

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

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

CASTLEVANIA VETERANS: Will wish you could start with Miriam.

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

BSCOTMStart

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

BSCOTMNotSnakes

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

BSCOTMCards

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

BSCOTMMap

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

BSCOTMKnights

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

BSCOTMCharacters

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

BSCOTMTrain

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

BSCOTMAlfred

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

BSCOTMFlair

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Battle Princess Madelyn Review

BTMadelynTitle

Ghosts N’ Goblins is one of the classics that is often imitated these days. It isn’t hard to see why, as it’s pretty much a winning formula. A hero that can only take two points of damage before dying, must go on an action platforming adventure of quarter-munching proportions. Some of these games simply take that essence, and try to provide a carbon copy. Others take the idea, and try to build upon it.

PROS: The brutal, unforgiving, and yet somehow addictive fun you love.

CONS: Bugs, minor collision detection issues. Inconsistencies.

GHOST PUPPIES: May haunt your dreams, but they can also help you.

Battle Princess Madelyn is one such game. It uses the combat of Capcom’s classic series as a foundation, and puts a large skyscraper of ideas upon it. For the most part it works because it does something substantial. It has not one, but two campaigns to play through. The first of which combines the tried, and true combat with adventure game, and JRPG conventions.

BTMadelynFritzy1

The primary campaign is a Story mode. It opens with a little girl named Madelyn lying in bed playing a Minecraft clone on her tablet. Her Grandfather comes in, and in true The Princess Bride fashion proceeds to read her a bedtime story. He tells her the tale of a warrior, coincidentally also named Madelyn in a European kingdom in what is presumably during the Medieval period. This Madelyn has a tiny lap dog named Fritzy. With the castle overrun by monsters, the little canine sacrifices his life to save the Royal Guard.

After some dialogue with her Grandfather, it turns out that Fritzy’s soul isn’t content to go to the afterlife just yet. As a spirit, he decides to follow Madelyn into glorious battle. Over the course of the game Fritzy goes from being a merely cute avatar that follows you around, to being a very useful back up character that will help you immensely. While the initial area looks like it will be another Ghosts N’ Goblins clone, (Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts to be specific), That is quickly proven not to be the case, as a fellow warrior sends you into town.

BTMadelynFritzy2

Once in the town you begin to do things that are more akin to an Adventure or JRPG. You have to talk to townspeople, whom give you vague clues, or demand you go on fetch quests. You eventually find your way to the castle where key members will send you on the adventure. The castle is also home to two major spots. A toy room, and another room that becomes important much later.

Over the course of the game you’ll find dolls of low-level enemies, major characters, and bosses. Collecting every one of these gets you the best possible outcome, so its something you just might want to invest in. The other room becomes important later in the storyline, and involves warping you around to various areas.

BTMadelynQuest

The game’s many stages are interconnected though not as intricately as something like Metroid. Be that as it may, you’ll still want to map it out, because you’re going to spend a large part of the campaign going sector to sector on foot. Why? Well remember the villagers I mentioned before? Many of the fetch quests they send you upon involve finding, and rescuing their friends from zombies. Aside from that there are also ghosts that can lead you to other secrets. And there are many hidden paths, shortcuts, and items that you’ll have to destroy parts of environments to even find. Basically, if you want to get the best possible finish you’ll need to do a lot of rescuing, and a lot of discovering. The rewards for many (but not nearly all) of these feats are the aforementioned dolls. Each of these dolls gets you one step closer to unlocking the door in the toy room, and the resulting end game.

BTMadelynShop

Not only that, but the only way to open up the game’s shop to buy power ups is tied to one of these fetch quests. Many of the villagers throughout the game want you to find one of the items they’ve foolishly lost. Each of the game’s areas has a village of their own, and many of their citizens lost these items in other areas. So you’ll be warping around a lot too.

Throughout it all though, the game has that classic Capcom arcade game play down to a science. Well mostly. The majority of the time you’ll feel like you’re playing the unofficial sequel to Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. Zombies rise from the Earth in much the same way. There are all sorts of monsters, and demons that show up out of nowhere, and you’ll have to master your jumping, and shooting pretty quickly. Where things falter a bit is in the hit detection.

BTMadelynWeapons

Unfortunately, there will be a few times where you’ll have your foot stand near, but not on a hazard. But the game will say “Nope. You touched it.” which leads to a cheap death. Other times you’ll suffer cheap deaths when enemies spawn on you, or shoot a projectile that gets stuck in a part of the environment. Thus making hitting it unavoidable. These aren’t heavily widespread moments, but it can be enough to get frustrating. In the case of the story mode, this is mitigated by having pretty decent checkpoints, you’ll automatically start in when you run out of lives. When you die, you’ll start right where you died too, so at least you won’t have to start an entire section over.

BTMadelynBoss

Eventually you’ll find your way to boss rooms. Throughout the game you’ll need to find keys to the boss rooms, so again, keep exploring. Boss fights are quite frankly the highlight of the game. All of them can hang with the best fights in some of the best Super NES, and Sega Genesis games of yesteryear. They’re very inventive. Even when one of them might seem generic, like the Spider bosses, or the Skeleton, they do things that throw that impression out the window. Either through the environments they take place in, or through their attack patterns, or even character mannerisms.

BTMadelynBossArcade

When you defeat a boss, and move to the next area you’ll almost always find yourself near a town, and in that town you’ll find a fast travel artifact. Late in the game you’ll need to collect items to be reassembled in that second room I mentioned earlier. Here you’ll feel like you’ve reached the end. But you’re still far from it. It opens up all new areas that can only be accessed in the room, and you’ll also find your dog’s soul will now become even more useful. Over the course of the game you’ll acquire the expected knives, spears, lances, and such. All of which you can cycle through using the left shoulder button. But you’ll also start finding puppy soul powers you can use. These can help immensely, especially on bosses. Do keep in mind however, that these have limited supplies shared with your lives. So you’ll want to save these for key moments.

BTMadelynFritzy3

Upon beating the story mode, you’ll find you won’t be done. You can go back, and find all of the dolls you missed. But beyond that you can play the Arcade mode. This mode is very much a Ghosts N’ Goblins experience with stages feeling more linear, and with the brutal challenge fans of that series would expect. You’ll have to start a stage over when you’re out of lives. Lives are really tied to Fritzy’s meter more so here, as when it becomes depleted completely you know you’re going to start the level over. Thankfully, you’ll still start where you last died. At least until the meter is depleted. You also get to use Fritzy’s powers in this mode as you find them by holding the attack button until it’s charged. Keep in mind as in the Story mode this will deplete the meter, so it reduces the number of lives you can use. Over time you can refill the meter the better you do. Getting to the end is a lot more streamlined as a result. Stages don’t feel exactly the same, as large chunks are completely different. Though you’ll still go up against the same bosses. Be that as it may, it’s still quite a tough game that will take all but the most devoted players a while to get through. Mostly due to the overall challenge of it. But some of the problems from the Story mode do rear their head here. So while the stages are shorter, and in a specific order, they add their own challenges, and sometimes the technical issues can make them even tougher. You can basically keep continuing, but each time means you’ll start the current stage over again, through all of its phases.

BTMadelynPixel

The most striking thing about the game is just how good it looks, and sounds. This game is a wonderful send up of Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. It has an amazing portfolio of sprite graphics, and animation that look like it could have appeared on Nintendo’s 16-bit juggernaut or even Commodore’s Amiga line of computers. The game even has a soundtrack that will evoke memories of the Commodore Amiga, early MS-DOS Adlib sound, and even a dash of the Sega Genesis for good measure. But even beyond that, you can have a more modern, CD quality orchestrated soundtrack if you choose. The game also has an optional scan line filter if you prefer a slightly blurred look to everything rather than have everything looking crisp.

BTMadelynGhostMeter

Still, on the whole it’s hard not to recommend this one. There may be some inconsistency in the FMV sequences, and the rest of the graphics. There may be some hit detection issues, and you’ll suffer a few cheap deaths here or there. But when the game is at its best it works so well it just has to be experienced. With two primary modes to play, it’s almost like having two games in one. Of course the main attraction is the Story mode. The variety of missions, and side quests while similar, will appeal to a lot of people who might normally skip it out of fears of the high difficulty, as it is a bit more forgiving. Be that as it may, the Arcade mode is something any fan of Capcom’s classic arcade game might want to play. The combat, while not perfect, is noticeably better than many of its peers. If not for the handful of technical issues you’ll likely run into, this would be a must own. But just because it falls a few notches away from perfection doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be played. It is true that it can feel, cheap, relentless, and unfair at times. But it’s also a lot of fun the other 90% of the time, with its solid action, loveable characters, and the fact it makes you want to spite it by beating it. It isn’t going to be for everyone. But for fans of adventure games with an old school twist, or Ghosts N’ Goblins fans yearning for the day when Capcom will finally take their money, it’s worth recommending. If this sounds like you Battle Princess Madelyn is still worth firing up on your computer, Xbox One, Switch, or PlayStation 4.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Insurgency Sandstorm Review

BTISTitle

Wow, two reviews this week? I really had to crunch to get this one done. It’s worth it though because like DUSK, this is a new FPS release that really ought to be on your radar. Insurgency Sandstorm, like its predecessor is here to give you a blend of arcade run speed, with late 90’s tactical subgenre features. But does it reach the lofty goals set forth by the original?

PROS: It’s an Insurgency sequel on a much newer engine!

CONS: Not every promised feature is here (yet.) Minor issues.

GIBS: A common 90’s FPS feature returns.

The original Insurgency set that bar rather high. What had started out as a mod became a full-fledged game that pushed Valve’s Source engine to its limit. It bridged the gap between Tactical FPS games like Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, and large-scale objective Military Team FPS games like Battlefield. In doing so, it offered a great alternative to some of the titles in the AAA space. While it didn’t run on the latest tech, it did give players a unique experience. Insurgency did well for itself, cutting out a nice niche for itself, and becoming one of the most beloved competitive games on Steam for some time.

BTISCorners

So what does this newer version bring to the table? Does it improve on the foundation set by the original? Should you play this over something else in the subgenre? All of these are questions you might have going into this one, and they’re all valid ones to ask. When the game was announced it was touting a robust single-player campaign in addition to the multiplayer goodness fans of the first game came for. It showed off some vehicle play, and all in a vast uptick in visual fidelity.

Well let’s get the one major point of contention some will have out-of-the-way. There is no one-player campaign. At least not yet. Now to be fair, those who followed the news around this game during its development, or played it while it was in Early Access were told it wasn’t going to make it in by launch. So a big chunk of the potential audience who were excited upon seeing it during E3 2017 already know this. But if you were one of those interested who saw the early trailers, put it on your “Look forward to seeing it when it comes out” list, and are just now looking at it? You’re going to be disappointed.

BTISLOCAL

But this is also not an “All is lost” moment, the studio has said it should be coming later, and that it should be included along with the other DLC. And that’s where the barometer may swing from disappointed to optimistic. Because the folks at New World Interactive will not be charging for DLC, nor implementing micro transactions or loot boxes. So everything that comes out for this game in the future will cost you nothing extra. New maps will be included. New weapons they decide to add will be included. Any new modes they cook up will also be included. So the lack of the campaign might sting, but they haven’t outright cancelled it either. If you only come to your army shooters for a campaign, and touch nothing else, you may want to wait. Or not, because there are things here you might still enjoy.

BTISBurner

Of course Insurgency, became a cult hit for a number of reasons. Its various modes. Its unique blend of styles. And that it pushed an aging technology pretty far in the process of delivering its fun. It didn’t look as good as the games EA, and Activision were putting out, but it stood in the same league when it came to game play. And that trend does indeed continue in Insurgency Sandstorm.

Think of Insurgency Sandstorm as an experiment in combining the best elements of various military themed shooters you’ve played over the years. All while implementing its own ideas into the monster before releasing it upon the world. What does it borrow? Well it gives you the vast conquest maps Battlefield fans would love. It also uses point capture as the primary goal of its competitive modes. Insurgency Sandstorm has three of them. (Though like the campaign, more may follow.)

BTISPTFO

PUSH: This is the mode most like the Rush mode in the Battlefield games. It places one army as defenders, and one army as attackers. Attackers have a miniscule number of lives spread across its combatants. While Defenders have a much larger pool. However, if the attackers manage to take the first point on the map, they will gain more lives. They will also force the defensive team to fall back to their next point. This continues until either the defenders are made to fight their last stand, with no remaining lives to defend a cache. If the attackers blow it up, the defenders are defeated. The defenders will also be defeated if all of their lives are lost.

What makes this mode compelling is that there are a number of ways each side can approach their situation. When playing defense, you can do what I like to do. You can literally lie down on the objective (represented by a room with a giant flashing letter.), and attempt to kill any intruders. If enough of your team follows suit, it becomes nearly impossible to take the point. However, I said “nearly”. That’s because there are any number of ways a skilled attacking team can crack this. They can employ explosives to spook people to leave the point or die. They can send in their best stealth players to get inside. They can try to flank spawning defenders rushing to get back to the point. These are just some of the strategies you’ll see employed.

BTISPickup

FIREFIGHT: Is the next mode, and here all of the points on the map are preset with both armies having to take an attack position. One point is predetermined to be for one side. The second for the other side, and the third being unclaimed. The first team to capture all three of these wins. However, it isn’t easy because each player has only one life. The only way you get to come back into the battle is if your team captures a point while you’re dead. What people love about this mode is that there’s a tug of war going on with it. If you’ve got two points, but not the third, you’ll have to send people to take the third. But that means the opposing team will find less resistance, at one of your two points. If they take one, you’re at a disadvantage, and have to figure out which of their now two points is easier to take.

SKIRMISH: Takes the game play of Firefight, and adds the caches from the Push mode which gives each team multiple lives. So you’ll be going along in your back, and forth. But the twist comes when one of the caches is destroyed. Without a cache, your team will fall back to the stock Firefight rules, which makes it easier to become overrun. So you have to decide as a team whether you want to go all out, and take points. Or do you designate a few of your combatants to defend the cache while others go for points? Insurgency Sandstorm involves its own strategies into proven concepts.

BTISPickup2

This is where the implementation of other ideas, along with NWI’s modern twists, and original features really begins to take shape. Insurgency Sandstorm may use some ideas you’ve seen elsewhere, but it isn’t a knock off. It isn’t just reskinning a popular game, and shouting “Ta-da!”. It’s transformative. It retools these ideas to work in ways that weren’t expected before. It again, also has original ideas too. That’s what made the first game so great, and that continues here in the combat system.

 

Like the original, it takes a page from the original Rainbow Six games, and goes for far more realistic damage. If you play Rainbow Six Siege, as fun as it is, you can still survive firefights if you get shot. Even if you go down a friend can revive you. But if you go way back, and play Rainbow Six 1,2, or 3, that is rarely the case. In those games a single hit was usually lethal. If you were hit in a limb, maybe you could take a second bullet to go down. Insurgency Sandstorm is tough like that. If you get shot, you’re probably dead. If you’re hit in the arm, perhaps you’ll find some cover to survive a little bit longer. But another hit, and you’re toast. Because while your vision comes back, your health does not.

BTISSmoke

But Insurgency Sandstorm goes further. Because it eschews plenty of other ideas its competitors love. For instance, there is no mini map. There are no little lights on a square in the corner telling you where to go. You’ll see a flashing letter in the distance. But that’s it. Insurgency Sandstorm has no kill cam. You may be able to have the run speed of a soldier (provided you have no body armor) of a Call Of Duty entry. But when you get sniped running onto the point, and die you will not be watching the person who killed you as you wait to spawn. You can see your teammates, and communicate with them if you see a threat near them. But that is it.

Insurgency Sandstorm also adds a bit of realism in its movement. When you sprint you may not tire. However, you also can not shoot. You have to think about that when going about. If you think you can blast a nest of enemies while charging into a room, think again. At best you can kick doors down while running, and if it hits an enemy in the process you can kill them with the door. But you’ll also be wide open when the other campers see it. On the flip side, if you’re trying to snipe, and you’re too close to the banister, your arm will simply bend back toward you, as you struggle to find a spot where your gun isn’t going to go up against an object. It’s a small thing, but it adds a lot to the environment.

 

BTISWeapon

Insurgency Sandstorm borrows an element from Arena shooters of yesteryear too: Gibs. In this game, getting hit in key parts of the body will cause limbs to fly off, heads to explode, and bodies to disintegrate. Since this game is going for a little bit more realism it doesn’t come off like it would in The Expendables. It comes off a little bit more like Glory. Rather it tries to. It doesn’t quite make that emotional transition, but it doesn’t elicit that same joyous surprise as it did back in DOOM, Duke 3D, or QUAKE. At least not for me. The point is, there is an element of its use in a contemporary setting that might remind some players of how horrific wars can be. Whether or not this is intentional is solely up to the artists to decide. They may have been going for the action movie vibe more so than the dramatic movie vibe. In which case I think it fell somewhere in between. But they do come off as impressive. The first time you see it, you really won’t be expecting it, and it honestly might just shock you even knowing about it going in.

The move to Unreal Engine 4 also means a big uptick in visual fidelity, and a jump in system requirements. However, New World Interactive deserves some praise in just how much they’ve done to ensure those like me, with aging video cards can still play their game with great performance. If you do happen to have the hardware that can run this at or near maximum settings, you’ll be pretty pleased with the end result. There are some very impressive lighting effects, Anti-Aliasing effects, Bump mapping effects, among others that UE4 can support. However, if you have a machine that’s five years old, you’re probably not going to be playing any game maxed out. The scalability this game provides is great, as are its customization options.

BTISLowest

All of the shots you’re seeing in this review were taken at the lowest settings. These can hang with a lot of other games despite the reduced image quality. Granted, you can’t expect miracles either. If you’ve got a ten-year old computer with barely any RAM to speak of by today’s standards,  you probably cannot run it. But If you have at least a fourth generation Intel i5 or AMD FX 6330 (around 5 years old now), a NVIDIA GTX 760 or AMD Radeon 7970 in there (also around 5 years old as of this writing), and a good 16GB of RAM in your system you likely can. And at better performance than you might expect. At the lowest settings, I’ve been able to play between 70, and 90 frames per second resulting in a relatively smooth, and responsive experience.

And with the game slated to hit the Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 next year, it does give those who prefer a console experience something to look forward to. As for the artistic side of the visuals, they’ve really gone out of their way here as well. Textures on buildings, look sharp, the costumes of the characters all fit the motif the game tries to present. Even on the lowest details, the backgrounds all still look great with some nice lights, and shadow effects going on.

BTISCAW

As in the original game, one side of the roster is composed of security forces. So when playing  as a security force member you’ll have a military themed character. The other side is composed of insurgents where you’re basically playing as a terrorist group of villains. One thing this game introduces over its predecessor is a cosmetic customization option. As you play the game you’ll earn in game currency. Much like Nintendo’s Splatoon series, you cannot buy this currency. These are points you use exclusively for this feature. Unlike Splatoon, these clothing options do nothing else. It’s strictly just to personalize your characters when playing online. No perk slots, no RPG elements, that is it. That being said, a lot of the costume selections are quite good, and go for something grounded. You won’t be running around on the security side wearing only pants, and bandoliers or rocking a Cobra Commander costume on the insurgent forces.

As in the first game, there are no unlockable weapons. When you start the game every one of your classes is given a certain number of points. Which you can use on your load out. So you have to use tactics even when deciding what to go onto the front lines in. You may not have to grind your way to that powerful machine gun you want to use. But if it costs a lot of points that doesn’t leave you a lot left over for attachments, or defensive items or a secondary item. Similarly, you can choose to go for a lot of body armor, and items. But this will actually affect your run speed by making you slower. You might be able to take a third or fourth bullet before dying though. So you need to approach every class situation differently.

BTISMute

Also new to this game are new Commander, and Observer classes. These classes have to work together, and stay within a certain proximity to one another. Because these classes can work to call in air support. They can call in helicopters, or mortar storms to help them push when attacking, or to defend their position when being pressured. Every one of the classes is viable though, and if you couldn’t already tell, the best way to play is with friends who communicate. Insurgency Sandstorm is very much designed around teamwork. It has built-in chat, so you can easily talk to your team on the fly. For those who don’t have a headset, or a microphone, you can still type to your team members.

On the other hand, when playing with random strangers, there is always going to be a troll or two. It’s just the reality of online gaming. Fortunately this time around you can mute everybody wholesale if you have the misfortune of dropping to a match where everyone annoys you. Still, when playing with friends, the voice chat can be an accommodating feature. Especially for those with friends who don’t know how to set up their own chat alternatives like Discord.

BTISDeathCam

And if all of the heated PvP stuff sounds too tough for you, the cooperative mode included is something you may gravitate toward. Similar to the Terrorist Hunt mode of the Rainbow Six series, Insurgency Sandstorm’s cooperative experience pits you, and others up against a team of NPC bots. With frequently changing objectives. It basically blends some of its competitive elements into the mode. So at first you, and the other humans may be taking points. But then the game will decide you have to defend the one you just claimed against an onslaught, or destroy a cache. But all of it is done in, a fun, and entertaining way.  You’ll get a variety of enemy bot skill levels. Some will be pretty good at movement, others will be marksmen. But you’ll occasionally get that idiotic bot that just stands there after missing. Still, they employ some tactics one might not expect, making for some surprises. And of course for those who only want to go up against the best, Insurgency Sandstorm features a competitive option where you’ll be placed with other people on ranked servers, and modes to keep up your street cred.

BTISColors

For those who absolutely must have something here for playing alone, there are a couple of minor options though. There are a couple of short tutorials that get you used to the game’s mechanics, and modes. These aren’t really necessary for those who have played FPS titles for years, though it can catch you up on the nuances here. The aforementioned cooperative mode is here however again as a single player option. Sadly this just isn’t going to be as fun as the cooperative experience. That’s because you’re paired with bots who aren’t as adept as the bots you’ll go up against, and you’re only given one life per objective. So if you die trying to get the first objective, the round ends, and you’ll move onto the next. This makes the one player option a lot more challenging too because without some competent bots, you’re basically going up against an entire army alone. Still you get five attempts, and winning alone is doable.

But there are also a load of options for you to tinker with. Not just the aforementioned graphics settings, and performance settings. Not just the look of your hero or villain. You can even tweak some of the marker settings, like changing the colors of the letter markers,  and names to something clearer to you than the default. You can also put on displays to show you the current frame rate, and ping. Things that have been in Unreal Engine games for years, but are often closed off in newer releases. It’s nice to see it here so that you can see the math when turning something on or off.

BTISPopIn1

There are a few problems I do have to point out though. While I imagine most people will get pretty good performance out of this game, there are a number of small visual glitches I’ve stumbled upon. In one game I noticed somebody’s weapon just flickering in the sky before the round began. Another round I noticed player models that hadn’t completely loaded in. So they were shooting at me, but the weapon they were using couldn’t be seen. These are rare occurrences. But the common issue I run into is texture pop in. Again, it loads in fast enough. It doesn’t affect the game play. But the 2 seconds between seeing a blue wall, and seeing a blue wall, with dents in it, and other details can sometimes distract from the experience. I suspect it could be an issue with older cards, that will eventually be fixed with patches, and drivers. But it is a minor problem.

When playing the cooperative mode, alone or with other players, there are a few minor nitpicks. Mainly with the inconsistent A.I. as I mentioned earlier, the bots you face can have a fair amount of variety in skill which is nice. But when you have to rely on them in your team, and a few decide to be idiots, you almost wish they weren’t there. The enemy bot spawns could have been obfuscated a little bit better too, as there were a couple of times in the single player cooperative I could go out a door of a point I had to defend, and see the game drop them in.

BTISPopIn2

In the grand scheme of things these issues don’t really amount to much of anything. The A.I. is still better than in many of the bots in other titles. The game rarely looks anything less than great aside from the 2-4 seconds of pop in you may experience. Leaving the bot spawn issues, which really breaks the immersion more than anything else. Back on the pvp end of things, there is far less to pick apart. The net code is generally very good. Unless you’re connecting to a server half the world away, you don’t see a lot of rubber banding, or players warping around like Mr. Game & Watch.

All of the online modes are generally quite fun. The studio kept them to the best maintained modes of the first game to ensure that you can always find someone to play against, and this strategy has worked. Yes, you can get into situations where there are people trying to spawn camp, or situations where you’ll have people on your team who refuse to run to the giant flashing “A” along with everyone else. But these aren’t issues with the game, these are the same issues you’ll run into with certain individuals in any multiplayer game. Fortunately, the game does offer the ability for you to mute individual people, or even everyone wholesale.

BTISPopIn3

The gun play is fantastic. Every weapon has a nice heft to it, and there are options here for every type of player. If you prefer to cover your team, there are many sniping options. If you want to go stealth, there are a slew of close range rifles, shotguns, SMGs, and other options, and attachments. The sounds of gunfire, and explosions are phenomenal too, which adds to that feeling of weight. You also have to hold your breath to steady your aim. Not only with the long-range weapons, but every weapon. Hip firing will just go wherever the gun is aimed. So panic shooting is going to be a crap shoot. These are all seemingly tiny things. But they add so much depth to the combat.

The maps are also mostly really good. Save for an exception or two, just about every map is built around each mode, and objectives are set that put either an attacker or defender into a tough situation at any given time. There are choke points defenders can use to their advantage. There are multiple paths attackers can take at any given time. The inclusion of vehicles in the Push mode also adds a new dynamic. I would have liked to have seen more of them. But between the drivable trucks with mounted guns, and the air strikes the two new classes can call in, there are new strategies that have to be employed to deal with them. And some maps actually make using these things harder. On the refinery stage enemies can just go inside buildings to escape the wrath of a Blackhawk helicopter. Similarly someone can put out roadside bombs in key locations that might deter someone from racing to the point in a pickup.

BTISDoor

In spite of its faults, Insurgency Sandstorm is a phenomenal game. It offers a real alternative to those who have felt disenfranchised with Electronic Arts’, and Activision’s annualized offerings. While it might not have quite the same level of visual fidelity of Battlefield or Call Of Duty, it also doesn’t require the purchase of season passes or micro transactions to have access to everything included in it down the line. The game play in it is also unique thanks to reintroducing an audience to hardcore simulation elements while retaining the run speed of something more twitchy. Absolute simulation purists may still want to go to the excellent ARMA games. And while this game may not be as recognized by the wider audience, the potential is there for that to change.  Especially if the game’s smaller issues are cleared, and the promised campaign shows up before it sees a port to consoles next year.

Whether you loved the original Insurgency, and poured hundreds of hours into it, or you’re a military FPS veteran looking for something new, this is pretty much a game you’ll enjoy diving into. This is also an excellent option for those who want something competitive to play, but without the pressure to spend more money. It’s also a great game for the casual military FPS fan who doesn’t have thousands of hours to devote to unlocking things. Insurgency was also supported for many years after it came out, and there’s no indication New World Interactive won’t do the same for the sequel. People who were interested solely in a campaign story mode will want to wait for its arrival. But for anyone looking for a unique take on the modern military multiplayer shooter? Insurgency Sandstorm should be on their wish list.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

DUSK Review

BTDuskTitle

Man, I’m late again, I know. But I’m not late to the proverbial party. Because DUSK has officially launched, and I can tell you it’s really freaking cool. Where a lot of games have been tugging at our nostalgic platformer strings, DUSK tugs away at your nostalgic FPS strings. And while it isn’t the first to do so, it is one of the first to do it this well. It clearly takes inspiration from late 90’s shooters like Quake, Unreal, and SIN.

PROS: Classic visuals. Intricate maps. Fantastic characters. Gun play.

CONS: Minor bugs. One particular puzzle isn’t very intuitive.

DELIVERANCE: Some of these enemies will make you squeal like Ned Beatty.

But not only does it take that inspiration, it runs with it clearly into the end zone. This is noticeable before you even get to playing. Booting the game displays those familiar text parsers to anyone who played DOOM, ROTT, DUKE 3D, or QUAKE for MS-DOS back in the mid to late 90’s. Even after Windows 95 became an overnight sensation, it took a long time for video games to migrate to the environment as the de facto standard. Even in 1996, QUAKE was running on DOS. So this nod is going to make many old school PC game fans very nostalgic.

BTDuskTitlescreen

But that’s just the beginning, because DUSK gives you a smorgasbord of visual settings, and sound options to choose from. You can run the game in resolutions set for 4K, HD, SD monitors. You can make things look grainy with a pixel filter. You can play with borders. You can screw around with the color scheme. You can have the game looking bright, and colorful. You can have the game looking near grayscale. You can make everything look Sepia if you want. The wealth of customization is great.

As in the FPS games of yore, you can bind nearly every key to your liking, and you can even turn off the vertical axis on your mouse. This is really cool because during the game you can do somersaults, and backflips in the air! It’s just one of many innovations you’ll find this game has added atop the classic shooter. You can also map everything to a controller if you prefer to play with a game pad over a keyboard, and mouse. Ideally, you’ll get much better control with the latter. However with the game getting a release on the Nintendo Switch next year, the controller support is a welcome addition.

BTDuskEpisodes

Once you’ve gotten your bindings, and other settings configured to your liking you’ll be able to start the game. As in the Apogee, and iD games from back in the day, DUSK is broken up into three episodic campaigns. It follows a three act structure, and the story is told through a combination of audio voiceover, level design, and paragraphs of exposition upon clearing each of the first two episodes. So many players who remember spending countless hours trying to find every last bit of environmental lore in DOOM, and QUAKE will feel right at home here. Of course this game doesn’t spell everything out right away for you in terms of its story. You’ll start out the first episode in a dingy, and dark dungeon armed only with two sickles.  You’ll immediately be attacked by three guys right out of Deliverance, armed with chain saws while sporting burlap sacks for masks.

It is here where you’ll notice that the game has an aesthetic direction that brings back the look of old FPS stalwarts in addition to the classic game play. Everything looks like it was released in 1997. Even if you opt to put on the fancier visual options, to make it look more modern, it will still look decidedly old school. This is really cool because it isn’t something that has been really done much. The closest thing to it would be Strafe, and that game unfortunately doesn’t come close to this game in terms of level design or gameplay. That’s because this game eschews the trend of randomly generated stages. Instead it builds its experience around some excellent level design, and atmosphere.

BTDuskDualWield

DUSK may look old, and blocky on its surface. But it uses its employment of simplified graphics to its advantage. There are enemies in the roster that are truly unsettling. In fact, they may be more so because of the low detail, blocky designs. DUSK uses its retro chic very, very well. At the same time it takes the motif much further than you might find possible. It reminds me a little bit of American McGee’s Alice in this regard. That game was incredibly eerie for its time, and echoed feelings of a Tim Burton vehicle. But DUSK doesn’t feel like something out of The Nightmare On Christmas. It feels more like a perfect blend of psychological thriller, horror show, and action film. Because it takes elements from all of these things. Episode One will introduce you to a seemingly backwater group of occultists. Occultists with supernatural powers, brainwashed masses, and some horrific monsters to boot. Episode Two begins to show you just how deep their grasp on society in this world really goes. You’ll fight a combination of military, and industrial enemies. But as you go down the rabbit hole of stages, you’ll begin to see things get more, and more intricate. More, and more inventive too. You’ll start out in military installations. But by the end you’ll be dealing with laboratories of mad scientists, and machinations of twisted designs. There’s even a wonderfully crafted, and eerie level designed around M.C. Esher’s iconic Relativity drawing.

BTDuskWeirdMouthCorpse

By the third episode things begin to start coming together, and some of the more obvious questions are answered. There are a number of call backs, and the level designs become even more involved.  A lot of these may very well be some of the most memorable stages I’ve ever played through. All of the stages have a bevy of secrets to be found, and many of these even include old school secret exits that lead to secret stages. This is another splendid reference to those games of yesteryear. Many of those titles also employed secret exits to secret stages. But again, DUSK performs this trick in its own way. Really there isn’t a lot to complain about in terms of the game’s campaign. It gives you hours, upon hours of content. As I’ve said before, all of the stages have fantastic designs that will require not only reflexes, but your thinking cap. There are a plethora of puzzles you’ll need to solve in order to find all of the required colored keys to get through the corresponding colored doors, and to the exits. If I were to complain about anything it would be that one of the boss fights in particular isn’t very fair. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll likely know exactly which one I’m referring to when you get there. And it isn’t the final confrontation. That one is fantastic. There is also one gigantic horde mode of a moment near the end of the game where things turn into something out of a Serious Sam game. Which goes to show just how little that series really had to do with the old games many thought it did. It isn’t a bad moment per se. But if you’re not prepared for it you’ll find yourself very low on supplies, which will make getting through it a lot harder than it needs to be.

BTDuskStageOne

Fortunately quick saving mitigates this a lot, and you’ll probably find yourself save scumming a lot during your initial play through. After that you’ll have a pretty good idea of when major hurdles are coming up. So during subsequent play throughs, you’ll have to save far less often. I should probably mention another cool thing about DUSK is just how funny it can be at times. In spite of the fact that things are played so seriously, and that it combines a vintage look with such a dark, anxious tone it will throw in comic relief. But like the best horror movies, these moments don’t make the experience feel campy. Again, it will likely remind you of the goofy stuff hidden in classic iD, and Apogee releases. You’ll be startled by invisible death reindeer one moment, and laughing at a Schwarzenegger impression the next.

BTDuskCrazyStairs

Andrew Hulshult (who did the excellent soundtrack to the Rise Of The Triad reboot in 2013) brings his talents to this game. He brings his love of Metal along with him here, but there are also some phenomenal moments of symphonic industrial sound, and a lot of ambient tracks too. There are even a few tracks involving some eerie pipe organs. One of the hallmarks of a great soundtrack is how it works with the setting of the game it is used in. Everything here melds along perfectly. It rocks out when there’s an ambush or a larger than life boss fight. It feels desperate, and fearful when there are moments of isolation or the prospect of deadly enemies around a corner. The sound effects are also top-notch. They make the weapon feedback feel great. They make the creepier enemies ever so more likely to freak you out. They make the environment feel like the universe the game takes place in feel all the more real.

BTDuskDOLLPARTS

Not only does DUSK give you a compelling thirty stage (or more) campaign to battle through, it also includes multiplayer. DUSKWORLD is this game’s competitive death match offering. Now admittedly this isn’t going to be the reason you’re getting a ticket to this carnival. But it is a genuinely fun, and customizable experience. You can choose to play as many of the game’s enemy roster, and you can alter the color scheme of any character you choose. As with the main campaign, you can alter the key bindings, crosshairs, and various visual, and performance settings. The game also supports a multitude of multiplayer server options, and it has a respectable number of maps. The game will also have mod support, so if enough players enjoy it, there could potentially be a fair amount of content added to the game by the community. As for what is here, you’re getting a really good death match mode that can hang with SIN, and QUAKE II. You can rocket jump, strafe jump, and zip along at 100 mph. It’s a lot of fun, and fills a gap for those who miss the arena shooters in the vein of Q3A or UT.

BTDuskRUN

Again, like the main campaign, the shooting, and movement here is amazingly well done. Everything is not only fast, but responsive. Aiming feels smooth. Projectile weapons feel accurate, requiring a mastery of leading. Hit scan weapons work as they should, requiring you to get the cursor right on the enemy. The visual feedback goes along with everything well, as you’ll see red blood pixels with every hit, along with an audio feedback. You’ll hear a familiar tone when hitting opponents in the arenas. You can expect a full server to result in some spam techniques in smaller maps. But that’s merely a staple of the subgenre. All of the multiplayer maps feature multiple paths through to key power ups, and weapons. These are all either designed for the ground up for death match, or campaign maps that have been properly retooled for competitive play. Net code is pretty good. Finding a server in your area rarely results in rubber banding, or warping enemies. The action in multiplayer is a very fun experience. One can only hope enough people enjoy it to retain a decent player base. But even if it doesn’t carve out a niche for itself, it is possible to play privately with friends. Which is welcome as this is a rather well made death match effort.

BTDuskHordeMode

The game also offers a horde mode. It isn’t something most people will choose as their primary way to play the game. But it is here. There are three maps to choose from, and you’re given a limited number of supplies to survive each onslaught of enemies. You keep going until you lose. Basically it gives the game an arcade style Hi-Score flair. There are point multipliers for rapidly killing bad guys in a row too, so if you do enjoy this game mode, do take advantage of that.

Ultimately, DUSK is a must-buy. It retains what made the original two QUAKE games, and its contemporaries so good. At the same time it does so much the those games couldn’t do thanks to running on a modern Unity engine. If you’re an older player, you’ll love all of the pulls at your nostalgic heart-strings. If you’re a newcomer you may find that old can feel new to you. While there are some games that have tried to bring back that classic feel of the past, this game goes all in. Even as excellent as it was, iD’s own DOOM reboot didn’t fully bring back the level of exploration of its original game. But even the old FPS guard will find this game does plenty of new things with a proven concept. I might even recommend this one to some who might not typically be drawn to the FPS genre. It has so much personality, and creativity, those who are looking for something new to try out may find themselves pleasantly surprised. Plus for people who want even more lore there is a digital comic one can pick up with the soundtrack on Steam.

In short; DUSK is freaking cool.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Mega Man 11 Review

BTMM11Title

After Mega Man 10 came out nearly a decade ago, Capcom slowly went silent on the Blue Bomber. One of their most prolific franchises, Mega Man has always been known for its excellent action platforming, wonderful characters, and excellent soundtracks. Other than perhaps Street Fighter,  the series is synonymous with the company name. After Keiji Inafune (the most recognized name attached to the character) left Capcom, however We rarely ever saw a mention of Capcom’s most recognizable series, or any of its spinoffs. For years many wondered why. Leading up to the release of Mega Man 11 here, the game’s director Kazuhiro Tsuchiya was interviewed by Game Informer. He reasoned that after Inafune left Capcom, the company wasn’t certain they could do an entry on the same level of the previous ten games.

PROS: Great visuals. Level design. Gear System is an excellent new mechanic.

CONS: The soundtrack, while good, doesn’t reach the lofty heights of older games.

NICE: The little touches you’ll notice throughout the adventure.

Well thank God the people behind this iteration decided to step up, and take a risk. Because Mega Man 11 is pretty great. It gives long time fans the challenging action-platforming they’ve come to expect. But it also builds upon the foundation that was solidified way back in 1987. In a way, they could have come out screaming “THIS AIN’T YOUR DADDY’S MEGA MAN!”, and they would be accurate. But before some of you worry, that proverbial Father will still find a lot to love about Mega Man 11.

BTMM11Flashback

The storyline is tied to the game’s fancy new mechanic; The Double Gear System. Basically, Mega Man has two new powers he can use temporarily for a few seconds by pressing the corresponding shoulder button. Pressing the left shoulder button increases his attack power immensely. Pressing the right shoulder button temporarily allows Mega Man to go into a bullet time state like in the Max Payne games. Everything will go into slow motion, allowing you to quickly move around obstacles, and attacks.

BTMM11Castle

The emphasis however is on that word; temporary. You’ll only have a few seconds to use these powers. If you go beyond that, you’ll overcharge the move, and you won’t be able to use it again for several moments. So you really can’t rely solely on this feature to get through the entire game. But throughout the many stages you will reach sections where you may just find them helpful enough that you don’t lose a life.  In any event when you start the game you’ll find like most of the series, there’s an opening run of cinema screens that set up the arc. This time around Dr. Wily remembers back in his youth he created the Double Gear System. A device that accelerates the speed, and power of robots. But his research was barred when most of the other scientists in the community including Dr. Light feared (with good reason) the horrors that could arise from its abuse. Being the quintessential evil mad scientist, he decides all of these decades later to implement it. He kidnaps the latest run of Dr. Light’s robots, programs them for evil purposes, and installs the tech in them.

BTMM11Saucer

Par the course, Rock begs Dr. Light to install the technology in himself when it is brought to his attention that he likely wouldn’t be able to stop Dr. Wily without it. So Dr. Light reluctantly does so, thus setting up the campaign’s backdrop. As is the case with the rest of the series, you’re going to go up against each of the Robot Masters. Then move onto Dr. Wily’s latest castle stronghold. Unlike some of the older games like Mega Man 3,4,5, or 6 Capcom doesn’t try to fake you out here. There are no Wily stand in castles to go through before Dr. Wily’s inevitable castle run. However that doesn’t mean that Mega Man 11 is particularly short. Even though it is one of the cut, and dry entries (think Mega Man, Mega Man 2, or Mega Man 7) the stages here are quite long. Every stage in the game now has three checkpoint rooms, and have a fair amount of obstacles to get through. Many of the Robot Masters employ mini boss rooms along the way as well. Sometimes twice.

 

BTMM11Saves

For those who have not played a classic Mega Man game before, you’re able to choose to play the stages in whichever order you choose. The hook is the Rock/Paper/Scissors mechanic that pertains to the Robot Masters you face at the end of every stage. When you defeat the Robot Master, you acquire their signature attack. Each one of the Robot Masters is weak against one of the other Robot Masters’ attacks. Not only do you need to beat all of the stages, but figuring out which boss is weakest against which attacks makes them more manageable. It’s also useful in determining which order will get you through the game the fastest.

BTMM11Order

But even if you don’t figure that out on your initial run there are tools to help you. Returning is Auto’s shop. He’s the giant green robot who crafts items for you to buy with screws. As you collect them from fallen enemies, you can spend them on extra tanks to replenish your weapon ammo, and health meter. You can buy upgrades to your primary weapon, and even some items to negate some of the environmental hazards.  And even seasoned veterans may find themselves picking up lives, and E-Tanks because Mega Man 11 can get pretty difficult at times. Not only are there the expected Mega Man tropes, like robots jumping out of pits you’re trying to jump across, or crumbling structures you’re going across, but many new pitfalls too.

BTMM11Costume

Mega Man 11 is also very creative. Every Robot Master has a terrific design, and like all Mega Man games, their stages are built around their themes. Acid Man’s stage has many pools in which enemies will throw in chemicals. Each of which makes the pH level more lethal. Torch Man’s stage sends a column of fire after you, disintegrating everything in its path. Bounce Man’s has a deceptively deadly layout. It’s layered with cute looking enemies, bright pastels, and more. But upon further analysis you’ll find it one of the most challenging stages in the entire game. Block Man’s stage has a lot of falling boulders, and even some maze structures you need to get through as quickly as possible. Tundra Man’s stage is the quintessential ice level. But with plenty of wind gusts to make things difficult. Impact Man reminds me a lot of Optimus Prime. But with blades. But his stage feels like a continuation of the Guts Man stage in the original Mega Man. Of course with far more trick jumping, and a dash of Quick Man’s Mega Man II stage. Then there is Fuse Man’s stage. One of the highlights of the game, it involves a lot of puzzles centered around time. Rounding things out is Blast Man’s stage, which involves an evil theme park motif. You could almost place it in a Batman match against the Joker. The little henchmen robots throughout the level are cool because while they’re a nuisance, they’re also necessary. It’s a lot of fun.

BTMM11WeaponTest

But as hard as the game may be, Mega Man 11 is always fair. When you fail you’ll know the onus is on you. Maybe you panicked, and jumped into something. Maybe you were hit by a laser, and fell down a chasm. Maybe the Robot Master shattered your dreams when you got to them on your last life. In all of these cases you won’t be able to blame anybody else. And yet, there’s something compelling about that. The sort of thing that always makes you want to attempt it again, and chip away until you come out on top.

BTMM11Bats

But Capcom has also put in multiple difficulty settings this time. The original NES outings usually had but one setting. Mega Man 10 had an easy, and hard setting. Mega Man 11 has four of them. Newcomer sets things up for those of you who have never played a Mega Man title before. Up from that is the Casual setting, which is geared for those who may be lapsed Mega Man fans. Then there’s the Normal setting which is the one geared toward seasoned veterans. But the game also has a Super Hero setting. This setting goes beyond the Normal setting by removing most of the pickups in every level, and increasing the damage enemy attacks do to you. Honestly, the four settings are pretty close to reaching about each player type. If you honestly have never touched a Mega Man game, you may want to get your feet wet with the first one.  Veterans may want to just dive into the Normal setting. But whichever way you decide to go, you’ll have a pretty good time with it. Although there is a sense of pride if you can clear it on one of the higher settings.

BTMM11FROGGIES

With the well crafted level designs, and bright, colorful visuals that bring it all together one has to wonder if there’s anything wrong with this one. And to be honest, not that much. Again, the characters look like the evolution of Mega Man 8 (PS1/Saturn). The game looks beautiful. The backdrops are high quality, crisp blends of 2D art, and 3D models. Everything looks like it belongs in the Classic series though which is one that mostly appeared on the NES. Even 9, and 10 recreated that 8-bit aesthetic, and sound. But Mega Man 7 (Super NES), and Mega Man 8 took that same style, but updated it for their 16-bit, and 32-bit platforms. So this looks like an extension of those styles. If you ever wished more of the games looked like the artwork in the manuals, and other media you’ll be more than pleased here.

BTMM11GFX

And again, it isn’t just about how good it looks. It’s that the great visuals fit the narrative of each of the Robot Masters the way it has in all of the mainline games. This is also the first game in the classic series since Mega Man 8 to involve voice acting. It isn’t bad, but your mileage will vary. Some of it veers toward what was done in the PS1/Saturn classic. Bounce Man seems to really elicit memories of fighting Clown Man as the voice work goes for the high-pitched cuteness of an anime archetype. Some of the other actors went in other directions with their respective characters. And all of it works. But you’ll probably enjoy some more than others. As for Mega Man himself, again, he sounds perfectly fine. But if you’re coming into it after Mega Man 8, it’s a completely different take, and delivery. So how much you’ll like it may depend on whether or not you love the way he was portrayed in the eighth installment. As far as the soundtrack goes, it isn’t bad by any means. The electronica goes well with the action, and there are distinctive themes for each of the stages. However, it doesn’t stand out the way the rocking chip tunes of 1-6, 7, 9,and 10 do. The songs in Mega Man 8 also felt more memorable than these do. Be that as it may, I really wouldn’t call any of it bad. Just different, and depending on what you prefer, you may agree or disagree. Which is fine.

BTMM11Blocks

Once you do complete the game though there are a few things here to make you want to play it again. The first being the challenges. As in the last two games, you can try to run a battery of missions with the goal of reaching achievements. Some of these can be done in the main game, but the majority are found here. You can also go to a gallery where you can read bios of all of the major, and minor enemies in the game. They even have the voice samples here so you can listen to them all. There’s not too much else in the way of extras, though on the Switch there is a surprise if you play the demo before playing the full game.

BTMM11DEMO

Overall, I quite liked Mega Man 11. I played through it on Normal, and found that this time out the Robot Masters’ respective stages were as challenging as Dr. Wily’s Castle stages, which isn’t always the case in these games. Even still, I had a fun time. I yelled at myself for messing up at times. But I had fun rising to the challenge, and overcoming the obstacles it threw in my way. Which is the joy that all of these games deliver. All while delivering a new tool for you to use. Which you don’t have to. It is possible to get through the game without touching the Double Gear System. Though you’ll probably want to. At least on some of the tougher bosses. Still, this is a great entry in the long running series, and I can easily recommend it to not only fans, but to almost anyone who is remotely interested in it. It won’t be a cakewalk. But it does have that addictive “One more match.” feeling the series is known for. Don the mantle of the Blue Bomber, and save the world. If only the music could have been *that* much better it would have been perfect. As it stands, it’s still a highly recommended Mega Man game. Or Rock Man if you prefer.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

The Messenger Review

BTMessengerTitle

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.

BTMessengerCinemaJoke

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.

BTMessengerDemonKing

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.

BTMessengerCloudstep

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.

BTMessengerNinjaGaiden

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.

BTMessengerShop

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.

BTMessengerBookie

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.

BTMessengerGreenCoins

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.

BTMessengerGreenCoins2

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.

BTMessengerTimeTravel

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.

BTMessengerWindow

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.

BTMessengerSuperWrong

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.

BTMessengerPixelArt

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

Slam Land Review

BTSlamLandTitle

(Full Disclosure: I know one person that is attached to the creation of this game. Be that as it may, I paid for my own digital download of the retail release on Steam with my own money, and have not been endorsed by the studio, publisher or any creator. All thoughts are my own.)

Super Smash Bros. is one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises of all time. It started out humbly enough on the Nintendo 64. Then it became a massive success on the Nintendo Gamecube, being one of the console’s top drivers. Every sequel since, has done gangbusters. Even iterations that weren’t as well liked, have all sold well, and have been enjoyed by the general audience. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is one of the most hyped upcoming entries yet.

BTSlamLandTutorial

So it should be no surprise, that over the years many games large, and small have experimented with Nintendo’s formula. From Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion XL to PlayStation All Stars Battle Royale, other developers have tried making platformer fighting games. Some of them have been solid. Some have been pretty good. Some have been outright terrible. But Slam Land has to be one of the better takes on the formula I’ve purchased, and played.

PROS: Great visuals, audio, and a compelling twist on a proven formula.

CONS: No online multiplayer. Small character roster.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: The announcer never shouts “BOOMSHAKALAKA!”

Why is this? Well, because it has a really simple mechanic that really changes the dynamics of the game. Instead of the game focusing on knocking every player out of the arena, it adds a proverbial basket to each of the game’s arenas. The object is instead, centered around throwing or punching your opponents into the goal like a basketball. But it doesn’t end there. You can stack multiple opponents together for major point bonuses when you dunk them. You can “Steal” the ball so to speak, by knocking an opponent out of the hands of another opponent, and catching them for yourself. This one simple change also keeps people running to the goal. So you don’t find yourself falling off of the stage, at the last second, unable to see yourself in the mayhem. At least not as often as you might have in some of the Super Smash Bros. games.

BTSlamLandSSBM

Slam Land also makes a few adjustments to keep things from getting monotonous. Namely by adding a few different modes. There’s a Trash mode, where instead of throwing each other, you, and opponents collect garbage bags to throw into a goal. As is the case with the main mode, you can knock bags away from people or throw them off the stage to buy yourself some time. You can also, again, stack up multiple bags to dunk at the same time for big points. But the more you carry, the slower you move, allowing an enemy to knock you down, and take them away.

BTSlamLandHORSE

Another variation is the game of Horse, where you spell the word “Horse” by getting baskets as in the basketball game. However, it does this by dropping Knight pieces with the corresponding letters into the map. And once you get one letter into the basket, you can’t score with the same letter again. So the four of you will be trying to balance getting letters you need, and throwing the ones you don’t need out of the map. This way you can keep opponents from catching up to you.

The other mode you can play is Peanut. This mode drops a peanut into the stage. Again, you’ll all want the peanut so you can shoot a basket for points. However, the longer you hold the peanut before dunking it, the more points you will get for doing so. So if you can hold it for several seconds you can be scoring 8 points or 12 points instead of only one. Of course, as in the other modes, enemies can knock you down. Thus claiming the peanut for themselves for a massive point boost.

BTSlamLandPeanut

Every one of these variations is a lot of fun because they all feature a great sense of risk versus reward. Do you go for more bags for the big points, or do you just throw one to retain the speed to get away from everyone? Do you hold the peanut or go for a shot before someone can steal it? Do you throw your opponent now or wait until they’re distracted by someone else?

All of the modes go for three rounds too. So you might dominate one round, only to find you’ve been triple teamed faster than Braun Strowman in a fatal four-way. Even so, you’ll find all of them quite engaging. You can also play the primary mode with either time or stock rules. These work the way they do in Smash Bros. Where you’re either trying to get the highest score in a duration, or trying to be the last person with any lives left. The difference however is that stock mode in Slam Land, means you’re still going for points by eliminating opponents. Unlike Smash, you can be the last one standing, and still lose. So you can’t expect to turtle your way to victory.

BTSlamLandModes

There is also a pseudo-campaign mode here, but really it just puts you in five games involving a mix of the pre-existing modes. I recommend playing through it initially because you’ll get acquainted with the modes right away to see which you enjoy the most. After that though, you can really roll with whichever modes you, and your group of friends like most. Rounding that out is a quick mode that just starts up a single game.

Audio-visually the game is really quite nice! Everything has a really crisp 2D look that resembles a sticker book. The characters all have a cute look infused with some pulp. It screams early 90’s Nickelodeon cartoons, and even some contemporary Adult Swim cartoons. One of the playable characters reminded me a bit of  The Ren & Stimpy Show, while the ominous blue character who shows up in some of the game’s stage backgrounds reminded me a lot of stuff like Superjail. But that isn’t to say any of this stuff feels like a copy of anything. Everything is wholly original, but these are just some of the things I was reminded of by the game’s art style. The bottom line is that it looks great. The light audio soundtrack, and booming announcer voice accent all of it very nicely too.

BTSlamLandTrash

There are a few things that I would have liked the game to have implemented though. While I love the look of the characters I would have liked to have had a bigger roster. Functionally every character works the same way of course. You move them, and then you have a jump button, a pickup button (which you also use to throw), and a punch button that makes your character throw an uppercut. A simple control scheme, that anyone can understand. But having more characters would have been a nice touch. The five characters you do get are pretty cool though, each with neat little details. The human walks around in his BVDs. The Skeleton has some great inking for wear, and tear. The bug animates nicely. The carrot has a giant grin, and the other garish figure is so weird you’ll just fall in love with it. I would have liked more of that.

BTSlamLandNBAJAM

It’s also going to disappoint some of you that this game has no online multiplayer. So if you’re someone whose friends are mostly long distance, you’re stuck playing against bots. The bots have pretty good A.I. but there’s nothing quite like playing against other people. This is why the Switch version is also an attractive option. Because it’s exactly the short, and simple kind of game you can take to a family gathering, or play with strangers at a coffee shop or with your coworkers on a lunch break. The other versions are great if you do have people over regularly. But for those who don’t, but who do own a Switch, it’s something worth considering. If you pretty much only play by yourself though, it’s not as easy to recommend.

BTSlamLandBVDs

All of that said though, this is a phenomenal multiplayer experience. It’s also a cut above many other Smash clones because it plays so much differently. There may be four of you, and an arena. But the basketball mechanics really make Slam Land stand out. In fact, if you’re looking for a party game, and you’re not a fan of Super Smash Bros., you may just find you’ll enjoy this because of that different goal. Bread Machine Games should really commend themselves on making such a simple, yet addictive spin on the platform fighter. It might not be as deep as Nintendo’s own game, but it is a super fun game that can complement it nicely. If you’ve got a Steam account, a PS4, or a Switch, and want something a little bit different pick up Slam Land.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Owlboy Review

BTOWLBOYTITLE

The Super NES is known for many great things. Obviously Nintendo’s own wonderful games, and some of the most memorable efforts from names like Capcom, Konami, Square, and Natsume. These efforts often resulted in excellent adventure games, action RPGs, and action platformers. In recent  years a number of new games have shown up paying homage to these titles. But not all of them have done it as well as Owlboy.

PROS: Beautiful visuals. Tight controls. Engrossing story.

CONS: A few annoying bugs. Objectives aren’t always clear.

PIXEL ART: This game really does raise the bar for the art form.

Owlboy is easily one of the best modern platformers done in a style that resembles the 16-bit titles of yesteryear. Immediately you’ll be blown away by the insane amount of detail in the pixel art. The shading of the grass, the gradients in the clouds, and the plethora of tiles that make every background, and object stand out. Not only is there a great amount of detail, but so much of it is animated. Animated so well, in fact, that it matches the characters with their text balloons almost flawlessly.

BTOWLBOYANIMATION

Speaking of facial sprite animation, and text balloons, Owlboy has a story on par with many coming-of-age animated Disney films. When the game begins you take control of an owl named Otus. Otus isn’t well liked by most of the inhabitants of Ville. He’s mocked, teased, bullied by many of the other owls his age (often because of his muteness), and he’s ostracized by adults. He gets blamed for things he has little to nothing to do with. He has one friend named Geddy who works defense for the town. Things change drastically one day, when a mysterious troublemaker distracts the two, and allows an invasion of pirates to occur.  From here, our pariah has to go on a three arc adventure to become the hero.

BTOWLBOYCHARACTERS

Along the course of the story new characters get introduced, and this is where the game’s mechanics start to really take shape. Owlboy combines the Platformer with Adventure, and Action RPG elements to create something pretty special. You’ll explore different towns, and talk to NPCs the way you might in a game like Ys, or Faxanadu. You’ll explore areas the way you do in Metroidvanias. You’ll get into boss fights on par with those of the Classic Mega Man series. The developers at D-Pad even went the extra mile to make the shop one of the most entertaining moments in the game.

BTOWLBOYMENU

Otus can run, jump, fly, and do a couple of  roll attacks as you go through the game. But he can also pick up some of the NPC characters you’ll meet, some items, and even some enemies. All of which are needed to solve puzzles, and get to a lot of areas. Most of the puzzles are fairly challenging to solve, involving every possible thing you can lift. Throughout the campaign you’ll also find fruits, and vegetables that replenish health too. Around halfway through the game you’ll find a shop. It works a little bit differently than the typical shops in most RPGs, and Adventure games.

Rather than simply buy items with the money you have, the shop keep sends out employees to just give them to you once you have enough coins. They don’t take the coins from you though. So it’s almost like a level up progress bar accented with comedy. These moments are quite hilarious too. The game makes excellent use of its characters, and animation to deliver laughs. Rather than simply give you the normal mundane experience of grinding money until you can buy the best kit, it’s gives entertainment. And these funny moments fit right in with the rest of the story.

 

BTOWLBOYPIXELART

The story is great, the characters, are great, and everything else for the most part is as well. Not only do you get a bunch of interesting challenges to solve, but you’ll also do your fair share of platforming. Any good platformer requires excellent, and responsive controls. Owlboy has them. As you jump, fly, and switch characters around, things feel natural. So while things may look insurmountable at times, with enough practice you’ll get through them. The game utilizes the Adventure feel of checkpoints rather than the life system many retro-platformers do. These are fairly numerous, so there aren’t very many times you’ll find yourself re-doing long stretches of hurdles upon a mistake. That isn’t to say things will be easy. There were a few parts of the game that I found myself spending thirty to forty minutes on because I didn’t do just the right move. Or because I didn’t kill an enemy quite fast enough. But again, perseverance pays off. If you don’t give up, you’ll get through it.

The game is a lot of fun too. It scratches the itch of just about any old-school experience you can think of, and it’s engrossing. It makes you feel accomplished when you do something grand, and it doesn’t feel discouraging when you fall down. There are also plenty of moments that will just wow you. From riding rock dragons, to infiltrating bases, to the tremendous boss fights, there is a lot to love. Boss fights bring back the era of memorizing patterns. Much like the Mega Man, Castlevania, and Contra games of old, each fight makes you watch for openings. Eventually you’ll realize the boss is doing the same thing, and you’ll learn where to move, or which character to utilize, at what time. Most of them have several forms though, and with each form, a new pattern to learn. But through it all, you’ll have a great time. Whether you were in that era or not.

BTOWLBOYBOSS

As I’ve stated before, Owlboy looks astonishing. But the soundtrack goes along with it all so beautifully. The game has a wonderful orchestral score that flows from scene to scene, and area to area. It’s as if a Metroid game were filled with symphonic songs inspired by classical composers. None of it really comes off as cliché either. It’s almost expected in any fantasy setting to hear strings, and woodwind instruments. But here again, it feels like an animated Disney film. There are up tempo notes of optimism when things are looking up for our characters, and there are bombastic yet somber moments when it looks like all is lost. It probably isn’t the sort of thing you’ll listen to on a work commute, but it does accent the story, and gameplay very well.

It would be easy to write the game off as some niche experience for geezers like me who jammed on Ys III, Mega Man X, and ActRaiser on the Super NES back in the day. But it really isn’t, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you skip it because of that impression. Yes, indeed, there are plenty of things to like for those who were around for the 16-bit console wars of the 1990’s. But the new twists on gameplay, identifiable characters, and well told story, are things anybody who likes video games can experience. Owlboy joins the ranks of well-crafted, memorable indie releases like Axiom Verge, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, Undertale, and VVVVVV.

BTOWLBOYMOMENTS

It isn’t without its faults, as even the best games have some issues. In the case of Owlboy it seems to be bugs. Minor bugs, but annoying nevertheless. One of which seems to screw up your controls at random. Loading from the last checkpoint seems to fix it. This only happened to me once, near the end of the game. But it’s still worth mentioning. Another is how, at least on PC, the game still runs in memory even after exiting to the desktop. Pulling up the Task Manager in Windows allows you to shut it down, but it’s still 30 seconds of annoyance. There are also a couple of times in the campaign where it isn’t always clear where you’re supposed to go next. But this is really a minor nitpick since you’ll be spending a good portion of time just exploring anyway.

BTOWLBOYCINEMA

Overall though, Owlboy comes highly recommended. It’s fun, engrossing, and has something for just about anyone. It’s a game that will likely garner an emotional response from you, thanks in part to the excellent animation. It’s a game you’ll likely cherish in part because of the story, and characters on display. But it’s also a game you’ll likely enjoy going through due to the top-notch play control, and well crafted gameplay. Owlboy is a must play addition to any collection.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.