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ASTRAL CHAIN Review

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

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

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

CONS: Menus lag. Inconsistency reading chain jumps.

COPS: Fighting crime in a future time.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

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GATO ROBOTO Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Things that most intrigued me from E3 this year.

Well, another year, another E3. Per usual there has been a slew of major announcements, directs, and panels. There’s a lot of talk about the Nintendo, and Square Enix presentations being the highlights of the year. While there’s no question there were a lot of major revelations and surprises that came from these two juggernauts, there was a lot of stuff overall. And while it’s true that some of the major panels turned out to be duds, there were some big titles that came out of the least hyped pressers.

E3 may not be as exciting as it used to be, but it still remains one of the biggest game-themed conventions around thanks to its long-standing relationship with being an industry, and press themed show. In recent years they’ve allowed fans to attend, but it is still geared far more toward showing off products than it is toward fandom.

In any case, every year I find myself more interested in some of the more obscure games than many of the popular ones. This year seemed to follow that trend for me, though there were still a couple of huge hits that squeaked their way in. In any event, read on. Maybe some of these will pique your interest too.

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10.) AMD Ryzen 9 3900X

A lot of folks were probably way more hyped about Final Fantasy than a computer component. But for those who tuned into the AMD conference this year, this was a major revelation. At $499 it’s price competitive with as well as comparable to the Intel i9 9920k.  They also showed off the benefit of extra cores when showing off the 8 core Intel i9 9900k, and 12 core AMD 3900X chips running Division 2, with OBS, on maxed settings. While the game itself ran comparably, the stream quality was night and day. If you’re a streamer who is going to be in the market for a new build in July, this may very well be worth your consideration. Especially when considering the current 12 core Intel solution is $1200 as of this writing.

 

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09.) No More Heroes III

While Travis Strikes Again wasn’t fantastic, it wasn’t bad enough to sour me on the franchise. No More Heroes 1, had a great story, fun characters, and dark humor. Bogged down by a barren overworld. No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle was streamlined and a terrific hack n’ slash game as a result. All we really got was a trailer with a glimpse of familiar gesture moves. But it was well put together. It veered toward the stuff we loved about the first two entries on the Wii. So I’m cautiously optimistic that Suda51 will deliver.

 

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08.) ASTRAL CHAIN

We previously only had a glimpse of this one, but the expanded footage made this game look even cooler. Giant robot monsters. Robot Police Officers. Fast-paced combat that Platinum Games is known for. The aesthetics are bombastic. The visual presentation is something that gets a resounding “Yes.”. Hopefully, this game continues Platinum Games’ tradition of quality action games.

 

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07.) Daemon X Machina

Last year Nintendo showed off a quick trailer of this one which looked amazing. Then they put out a short playable demo that gave us the basic concept. We know there will be a customizable character you can play as and that the system for doing so is deep. We know that you’ll be piloting giant mechs and that during missions you can even get out of them to fight on foot. The controls needed some fine tuning but other than that it felt like it would be a solid action game. This year’s trailer showed off a lot more. It looks even more expansive and the action looks even more hectic than before. Here’s hoping the extra time made everything that much better across the board.

 

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06.) Enter The Gungeon: House Of The GunDead

Devolver Digital always seems to have a great conference every year as they’re able to find a way to tell people what they’re releasing candidly while lampooning current trends the entire time. They showed off a few cool looking indie games but then they dropped a bombshell. The company is bringing out an actual arcade cabinet based on Enter The Gungeon. This game is a rail shooter in the vein of Operation Wolf, but with full-on light guns. It looks awesome. While I don’t have space to house it or the budget to buy one, I am interested to see one in action. Hopefully, a convention like RetroWorldExpo or Portland Retro Gaming Expo may have one on display someday.

 

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05.) The Messenger: Picnic Panic

The Messenger was one of the coolest takes on the Metroidvania in a while. It had fantastic action, a great story and terrific time-travel themed feature that was used very well. If you still haven’t played it, you should. It’s awesome. For those who have played through the game and were left wanting more Devolver also revealed that the expansion pack to the game will be coming soon. Plus it will be free! The trailer shows off a new beach themed area, new enemies and even a cool octopus boss fight. Any excuse to fire up more of The Messenger is a good one. Let’s see what Sabotage has in store.

 

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04.) Cyberpunk 2077

While RPGs aren’t my go-to genre, I can appreciate a good one and CD Projekt Red‘s next outing looks like it could be as big as their Witcher franchise. The expanded footage they showed off during Microsoft’s conference gave some nice details on the storyline where we’ll be playing the role of a mercenary in a dystopian future. The facial animations were quite impressive and the action looked great. This one may veer toward the Action RPG than the Witcher games did but even if that turns out to be true it will hopefully have enough to sate fans of the slower methodical pace of traditional RPGs too.

 

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03.) Outriders

While it’s hard to say how this is going to turn out as Square’s segment on it showed very little outside of a prerendered trailer, I am intrigued. For a couple of reasons. First, People Can Fly is a studio that has always made fast-paced First-Person Shooters of a very high caliber. Painkiller was an amazing FPS with a Smash T.V. feel. It was like a darker version of Croteam’s Serious Sam. Years later they would find themselves working with Epic and EA where they made Bulletstorm. This was another high-quality game that felt like Half-Life 2’s linear style of action game in one sense. You played through different set pieces as the story demanded. But on the other hand, the action felt a lot like Platinum Games’ MadWorld. You had to find creative ways in the environment to dispatch your enemies for big rewards. Oddly enough, Steven Blum voiced the protagonists of both Bulletstorm and MadWorld. Outriders will be a completely different kind of experience. It already seems like there will be some sort of hero or class system. But the character design looks really cool. Especially the monsters you’ll fight which remind me of the old Inhumanoids toys. Couple those toys with People Can Fly’s track record and we may see something special.

 

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02.) The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Part II

Yeah, I know everyone is pretty much excited for this one. But seeing how great the first one turned out coupled with the imagery from the teaser, you can bet I’ll keep an eye on this one. There was a lot of Zelda shown off this year between the reboot of Link’s Awakening (which looks adorable by the way. I love the claymation art style going on), and Caydence Of Hyrule. But this one already looks pretty amazing. It’s probably a good two years out, but it looks great.

 

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01.) Chivalry II.

I’m going to preface this by saying that no, the original game wasn’t perfect. It had its share of bugs. When you made it to the highest level of play there were ways to exploit the movement system to do things the developers didn’t think possible. And while the expansion pack was fun, the lack of a true Team Objective mode meant many fans merely dabbled in it whereas in the base game they poured scores of hours into it. But in the grand scheme of things Chivalry was, and still is one of the most enjoyable competitive First-Person action games of recent memory. It did something few other games thought of at the time: Take the objective focus of a Modern Military Shooter like Battlefield and change the setting to the Medieval period. And while the game really veers into the Hollywood action side of things by portraying everything similarly to old time castle siege movies, there is some realism. The weapons in it existed. The missions take liberties with some of the dark war practices of that part of history.

So the original game was a blast in spite of all of its faults. This game looks to build upon the original’s solid foundation by adding new features. You’ll get to ride horses bringing essentially vehicular combat to the game. You’ll have newer objectives apparently. And they claim that the slashing action is being completely overhauled so some of the cheap looking stuff that could be done in the first game won’t be replicated here. I loved the original game so much that I put hundreds of hours into it. But as much as I love Chivalry I am tempering expectations a bit. The 1-year exclusivity with the Epic Games storefront is going to be a turn off for some. And while Mirage: Arcane Warfare was a fantastic take on the Hero shooter, it was a commercial failure. One can only hope that didn’t leave too bad a taste in the mouths of some buyers. All of those caveats aside, I really do hope Chivalry II lives up to Torn Banner Studios‘ advertised features. The trailer looked fantastic and something fans of the original 2012 release have wanted for a long time. It’s due out next year so hopefully, it shows up ready for primetime.

 

So there you go. Ten of the things that I was really invested in seeing. By no means is this complete, but these are the ones that stayed the freshest in my mind. But how about you folks out there? Feel free to comment below! Perhaps there’s something I missed or overlooked!

GUNLORD X Review

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

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

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

CONS: Some enemies blend into backgrounds. Small bugs.

X: Features some modern tweaks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

PowerA Enhanced Wireless Controller for Nintendo Switch Review

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The Third-Party Controller. It’s been a mainstay since the days of the Atari 2600. For over a generation, one of gaming’s running jokes has been this familiar scene. You’ve invited someone over for a night of video games. You want them to play with you, but you don’t have the cash for a second controller. They’re expensive. You need an alternative that isn’t as costly. So you pick up a compatible controller for a third of the price and force the guest to use it. Why is this a joke? Because for over 40 years, there have been countless controllers made by companies other than the platform holders. Controllers that have often been shoddy, made from cheap, brittle plastics. Controllers that often wear out fast, or simply aren’t as responsive as the stock controller that came with the console.

In short: Third-Party controllers have often been largely inferior to their First-Party counterparts. But, over the years there have been exceptions. The long-defunct Suncom often made controllers on par with the likes of Atari, and Coleco. ASCII made a couple of terrific pads for the NES, Sega Genesis, and Super Nintendo. But, by and large, these were never the rule.

PROS: Feature rich. Build quality. Affordable.

CONS: No NFC chipset for Amiibo figures. No Lithium-Ion battery.

NOW: You’re playing with PowerA.

In recent years a newer name has come into view. PowerA. This company has controllers you’ll see sprinkled along with First-Party controllers on pegs in Walmart, Target, and Gamestop stores all across the USA. They started out making some inexpensive wired controllers, and have slowly introduced some wireless alternatives. This is especially true in the Nintendo Switch sections. Near the end of 2018, their wireless offering began showing up, and initially, it might seem easy to write it off like another bad knockoff. But quite honestly, you might just want to consider this one.

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With Nintendo’s own Pro Switch Controllers costing nearly $80, you may not be prepared to get one on a whim. A set of Joy Cons and another grip is also not an inexpensive endeavor. PowerA’s offering is almost less than half the price of Nintendo’s and is as responsive in its reaction time. I’m serious. You can approach any game you own on the console with it, and it performs wonderfully. The thumbsticks have a very nice grip along their circular rims and feel great. It also has a sturdy, yet light feel. Enough heft without weighing down your wrists during long play sessions.

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There’s also a nice bonus in that there are two programmable buttons they’ve added to the underside. If there’s a game that has a sequence you want to assign to either of them, you can press the center button on the other side, and then program the sequence to either side button. This can be handy in some games where you don’t want to deal with a combination of simultaneous movement. Maybe you have a game that requires you to press Y, and X at the same time for certain tasks. And for whatever reason, you can’t get a handle on it. Now you can make that a single button press. Or maybe there’s a game that makes pressing a weird, unintuitive combination mandatory. Now, you can skip that.

PowerA also made a controller that pairs with the Switch fairly easily. All you have to do is go under the grip order menu and press the sync button along the top. It may take a moment longer on an initial synchronization but after that, it’s pretty quick. The controller also features some really well-made face buttons. the A, B, X, Y buttons have a nice feel, and the D-pad feels terrific. The shoulder buttons and triggers also have a great feel to them. The +, -, Camera, and Home buttons feel a little bit brittle and cheap. But they’re also not the most essential ones either. Unless you just have to take 30-second clips of everything, it probably won’t matter much to you.

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The controller also includes a gyroscopic movement! Until recently, most Third-Party offerings omitted this to get to a lower price. The thing is, there are a handful of games that really do play better with motion controls enabled. Super Mario Sunshine’s Cappy trick jumping, and Splatoon 2’s smooth, quick aiming go much, much better with motion controls. In the case of the latter, the difference between using the right thumbstick, and tilting the controller is night and day. So having that feature in a controller is a must for some players. Some who enjoy Mario Kart 8 Deluxe might enjoy motion steering.

But, there are a few concessions here to be aware of. First, the battery. The PowerA solution does not have a rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery like the Pro Controller does. Instead, the company went with traditional AA batteries. There is a plus, and a minus to this. On the minus side, you’ll have the expense of buying AA batteries in bulk or rechargeable AA batteries, and a AA battery wall charger. You won’t have the same battery life Nintendo’s solution gives you either. But on the plus side, if you’re still playing games on the Switch in 15 years, you’ll still be able to find batteries. And you won’t have to take the controller apart to replace them.

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Sadly, this controller also eschews the NFC chipset the Pro Controller has. So you can’t use Amiibo figures or cards with this. You’ll still need to use your Joy-Con controller to scan in the collectibles if you want to use their features. It isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it is inconvenient if you want to play Smash Bros with this controller while also training Figure Players.

Considering the cost of the controller (at the time of this writing) though, these omissions may or may not bother you too much. It manages to come through on all of the most important fronts. It also performs as well as the Nintendo options in your games save for the cut feature or two. If you’re in the market for a second controller for your Nintendo Switch, this is definitely one worth considering. Just keep in mind you’ll need a stash of batteries, and Amiibo Figures aren’t compatible with it. You can also find it in a variety of different colors or screen prints. Sadly none of these feature the Squid Sisters or Inklings. Despite there being a non-motion controlled wired Splatoon themed controller by PowerA. Hopefully, future revisions will include other Nintendo themed screen prints.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

 

Mortal Kombat 11 (Switch) Review

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Splatoon 2 tips from a merely average player.

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It’s no secret that I’ve really enjoyed the Splatoon series a lot. I’ve reviewed the original game, the current game, and its downloadable expansion pack already. But I’ve been playing the game regularly since getting my Nintendo Switch. And the fun I’ve had with it over that time has led me to wanting to write a little something more about it. True, there are full-fledged guides you can find out there from the Prima guide that launched alongside the game to Nintendo’s *Splat*-egy guide. A guide they include if you’re fortunate enough to find either the Starter Edition or the Starter Pack version of the retail release. (The former also includes stickers.).

With this in mind, one might wonder why I’d even bother attempting to write my own article when these in-depth books are out there. Especially considering that I am not a professional level player who has been on a competitive team winning tournaments, and getting paid to do so. While this is also true, I have been in a competitively minded group in the past. I was in the Maximum Carnage clan in the heyday of Unreal Tournament 2004. While Splatoon, and Unreal Tournament are quite different competitive shooters, there are some parallels. Both are fast paced, and frantic. Both offer multiple modes, and both require a mastery of their respective weapon line up. And with Nintendo’s recent free demo push, some newcomers may just stumble upon this.

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For the purpose of brevity I’ll be keeping the focus of this article on the competitive multiplayer. So there won’t be a walk through of the campaign, the expansion pack campaign or the Salmon Run cooperative horde mode. I will say however that completing the campaigns are even beneficial to those whom prefer the multiplayer. Clearing the campaigns unlocks aesthetically alternate gear you might want to flash around. If you’ved purchased, and cleared the DLC even via the simplest means you can choose to play online as a Octoling. The mainline campaign also has tickets hidden throughout itself. Find these, and you can use them for temporary buffs at Crusty Sean’s (The food truck in the plaza.). Clearing the campaign also means The Squid Sisters can prattle off multiplayer stats to you.

The plaza is also going to be very important as it has all of the shops you’ll need to visit to unlock weapons, and gear. It also has the Street Urchin named Murch whom you’ll need to visit from time to time. When you first start playing online you won’t have access to these right away. You’ll be armed with a Splattershot Jr., a Splat Bomb, and you’ll have your Ink Armor special.

The weapons in Splatoon 2 are broken up into a few categories. Each of which come as a *kit*. You’ll have the primary weapon which is the general gun you’ve selected. Then a sub weapon which is usually an explosive, though sometimes it will be a utility like a water sprinkler or a radar dish. Each kit also gives you a special weapon. These are powerful weapons, moves, or perks you can employ after filling a meter by painting floors, and killing opponents. Some of these are moves like the Splashdown, where you can jump up like WWE Superstar Roman Reigns, and punch the ground. Which will cause a massive blast of ink to appear, killing enemies in its wake. Or the Ink Strike, a weapon that can target enemies, and fire a wave of ink based missiles after them.

Weapon categories consist of a few main groups. First are Blasters. Blasters are the game’s equivalent to rifles, and machine guns. These can give decent coverage while inking, and a respectable dose of damage. There are a couple of them that are exceptions, but by, and large they’re going to be for those comfortable with faster firing weapons.

Sloshers are the first of two categories that kind of feel like shotgun equivalents. They’re basically buckets, or variants of the bucket. A few of them like the Explosher, and Sloshing Machine are based off of the look of a washing machine. Most of these weapons perform insanely well at close range, with a few being ideal at medium range. The Explosher can actually be used long-range, and can almost be compared with a grenade launcher as it can lob a blob of ink a great distance. No matter the case, these also give you a fairly wide coverage when inking floors, and so they can serve a great purpose in either painting or combat.

Rollers are a popular choice as they can be very instrumental in quickly claiming territory. They’re also a high damage line of weapons. You can run right into enemies, and take them out. Fans of stealth kills will want to go with one. Alternatively there are also brushes which can be used the same way. Brushes are also fairly great melee range options as they can dole out high damage when standing toe to toe with an opponent. The brushes don’t have the same fast coverage as the rollers generally. But they do allow for some fast path creation.

Chargers are a great option for those who enjoy the Sniper class in other shooters. These are long range weapons that lie down a fairly long line of coverage on the way to a target. They have a slow rate of fire though, and many of them have laser scopes. So you have to be able to lead targets properly. You’ll also want to master some movement techniques in the event you’re the last one in the group, and you’re spotted. You can repeatedly fire them for some short-range action too, but they lose a bit of power. Still, these can be a beneficial choice in a tight-knit squad. Especially during ranked modes.

Splattlings are basically the chain guns of the game. They have rotating barrels, and fire copious amounts of ink in a wide-spread in a short amount of time. They also tend to run low on ink quickly, so there is a bit of a trade-off. That said, they’re an excellent way for players to give cover while teammates go for the goal. They’re also a great choice for defensive players who like to cover choke points, or their own bases. They do a high rate of damage too, making them formidable in the hands of a skilled opponent.

Splatoon 2 also introduced the Dualies class of weapons. These work like automatic pistols like Uzis in military themed shooters. They have a high rate of fire, and allow the player to do a roll dodge while using them. This combination makes anybody who uses them much harder to hit. They might not be as potent as the Blasters, but they are as dangerous as the stick, and move approach allows them to hit, and run effectively.

Finally, there are the Umbrellas which are the other Shotgun weapons. At point-blank range they are very powerful, and they have the added benefit of shielding you from enemy fire by opening them. These aren’t permanent shields mind you. After taking so many hits they’ll be temporarily disabled. That said, they can be a great front line choice, as you can withstand a couple of shots, and give cover to a teammate who may follow behind. And they’re very useful in close range combat situations.

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Each of these weapon classes has an entry that can be placed in one of three play style categories. Attacking, Support, or Defense. I can’t go over every single weapon in the game in this article as it would take far too long. But the gist of it is that some weapons are geared more toward attacking opponents, and taking them out. Other weapons are suited more toward backing up the rest of the team so that other members can get to the objective. Then there are the ones geared toward hanging back, and providing cover while also defending their position. Depending on the map, and mode being played you may be the type to change your load out, and style.

Your Sub Weapon is also important. There are a few categories. The first are the bombs. These are more or less the water grenades of the game.  Bombs cover fairly large areas in ink, and they also dole out massive damage. Some of them like the Suction Bomb can be stuck to walls. Others like the Auto Bomb follow people around for a while before exploding. Others like the Ink Mine are obfuscated until a moment before they go off.

There are also gadgets. The Sprinkler can lay down ink continuously until it is destroyed, or you throw one down in a new spot, or until you die. One cool thing about that is you can try to hide one in a hard to reach place so that you can be laying down ink while taking care of an opponent, or trying to claim an objective.  Others like the Squid Beacon will give your teammates a place to jump to. Really handy when you need to get them closer to the goal at hand quickly. Point Sensors are a great utility to tag enemies, and have their locations temporarily shown on the map.

Again, each of these kits tries to give you a versatile combination of items that complement each other. How do you get these kits? The same way you get your gear, and that’s through the shops. There are four of them. A shirt shop, a footwear shop, a headwear shop, and the weapon store.

The shops are opened up to you once you reach level 4. You raise your level by playing in the game’s online modes. There are really only two major level moments you need to hit, and that’s so you can experience everything. The first of course is level 4. Getting to level 4 allows you to go into the shops where you can spend the points you earn winning, and losing battles online. The second is level 10. If you want to play the ranked modes you’ll need to play online regularly until you reach that number. After that? Your level really won’t mean anything other than you’ve played a lot. Getting to level 30 will get you a Sea Snail every level upgrade from that point on. But beyond that it’s meaningless. So when you start out, don’t feel intimidated by seeing 35’s or 50’s in your matchups. It isn’t an indication of skill. In fact, it isn’t uncommon to see highly skilled players in the teens.

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Of the shops, the one you’ll probably want to go to first is Ammo Knights. Here the fast talking Sheldon, will prattle on about the guns you can buy. It’s also the place where you can test your weapons out on dummies, and rafters. It’s nice because you can come here to see results of buffs or nerfs to weapons when Nintendo releases a new patch. You can also get a feel for a weapon before you decide to go ahead, and unlock it with hard-earned points. When I started playing I just went for every weapon I could afford after playing matches for hours at a time. And when any update brought along new weapons I was sure to buy those once I hit the appropriate level to use it. My reasoning was that I would have the option to use anything available, and I could worry about the other stuff later.

However, that might not necessarily be the best way to go about the shops because the clothing options do more than look cool. Each of the clothing options come with perks called Abilities. There are a wide variety of these, and can greatly help you in online matches. Not only do they have a perk on the clothing item, but there are an additional one, two, or three slots on the apparel for more.

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As you play online, the clothing will level up at the end of each round. The amount will change depending on whether your team won or lost, as well as your performance during the round. When you fill the meter up you’ll randomly get another perk. There are two main types of Abilities: Unique, and Regular. Unique ones are only on specific types of clothing. These can not go into the additional perk slots which limits them to one slot on only a handful of possible clothing options. This is likely for balance.

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Regular chunks however can be used in the sub perk slots, as well as appear in the main perk slot. Moreover, some of the fictional clothing brands have a better chance of randomly generating certain types of Regular chunks. It is possible to have pieces of apparel with the same ability in every slot on it as a result. And it isn’t uncommon to see players online with them. Be that as it may, it can take a long time to get perks on each slot, and some clothing items may only have one slot on them. You may ask yourself how it is that someone managed to get three slots, with the same ability in all three of them.

Enter Murch

Murch is the short Urchin I mentioned earlier, and he is key if you don’t want to leave what perks you end up with to chance. He can do a number of things for you, for a price. For starters, if you have any Sea Snails you can give one to him to re-roll your Abilities. You can also have him use a Sea Snail to add a perk slot to a clothing item that might have only one or two by default. The easiest way to gain Sea Snails are to take part in Splatfest events when they occur. These are 24 hour events where players pick a side (ie: Ketchup Vs. Mustard), and compete in Turf War matches. These matches take place in Normal or Pro varieties. Normal being a bit better for those whom want to play with friends (assuming you’ve chosen the same side) as it has the option to do so. Pro being the better way to go if you want to gain a higher individual score, and get a chance to be entered in random 10x or 100x matches with more potential rewards. At the end of the Splatfest you’re given a number of Sea Snails based on whether your side won or lost, and what Splatfest rank you hit (from Fanboy or Fangirl to King or Queen).

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Another thing Murch can do is scrub the Abilities from an article of clothing for 20,000 points. When you do this, the chunks that were on the item go into a sub menu where they can be used later if you have enough of them. During Splatfests you’re given a T-Shirt. Often times the game will announce the Splatfest a week before it takes place. If you choose a side immediately you can begin filling, and scrubbing slots all week-long, farming chunks. Murch will scrub Splatfest T-Shirts for only 2,000 points. So you can get a head start on saving up those chunks.

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Here’s where it gets really interesting though because once you have 10 of any given ability chunk you can assign it to a perk slot on a clothing item. So you can then begin to choose what perks you want, and base them around your kit of choice. If you want the same ability across three slots, it can also be done however, stacking an ability costs more. You’ll have to have 10 for the first slot, 20 for the second, and 30 for the third. If the main ability on the clothing item is a regular one, that is up to four of the same perk across the item. This is where taking part in Splatfests can help you immensely.  Of course it should be noted each one you stack is a bit less potent than the last, so on some level there are diminishing returns. Still, having a hat with four run speeds, a shirt with four run speeds, and a pair of shoes with four run speeds will net a noticeable run speed difference.

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You can also pay Murch to order a competitor’s gear by choosing to when looking at their layout in the plaza. It costs more than finding it in one of the shops, and takes 24 hours per order though you can order up to three at once. But if it’s one of the rarer items that never seems to show up when you go into a shop it might help. Do note, that the perks on the clothes aren’t guaranteed to come along with it though. And while I’m not covering it here, do know that playing the cooperative Salmon Run mode (When it cycles on) can gain you some costume options, and perks as well.

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The main mode of the game of course is Turf War. As you likely know by now the goal is to paint a map your team’s color while the other team attempts to do the same. You’ll run into skirmishes almost instantly, killing each other so that you can gain ground while opponents are spawning. While it’s generally considered the game’s casual mode, it can still be rather cutthroat. This is a mode you’ll actually want to play a lot of to practice the mechanics, as well as see which of the game’s massive selection of weapons best suits your play style. You can also join up with friends, though if they’re in a full game you’ll be waiting for it to end until it lets you do so.

The game cycles its maps, and ranked modes every couple of hours. While it can be annoying to be on the same two maps for a while, it does negate the voting fights that break out in other games that, ironically, often end up going between one or two fan favorites. So this solution forces everyone to play every map eventually.

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Anyway, Turf War is a great means for both casual, and competitive players. If you’re not particularly great at fragging opponents like an Unreal Tournament fiend, you can focus on painting. Pressing the X button pulls up the map at any time, and is a great tool in every mode. Pressing it again, will make it disappear. While it is up, you can see where your three teammates are at any time, and then jump to them if it looks like they’ll need backup. It also lets you see any Beacons a team member may have placed, as well as any enemies that may have been spotted. The obvious sight will be what ink is splattered where. You can see areas that haven’t been painted yet. You can see lone splashes of enemy ink surrounded by yours. This might give an indication that an enemy is planning an ambush.

Along the top you can also see what weapons enemies have. As you play more over time you’ll get used to seeing how these function. Knowing an enemy is wielding a Splatbrella means you’ll be better suited trying to find a place to flank from the side. This way they can’t just shield themselves. Likewise you can see what your teammates are using, and try to modify your tactics around their strengths to help win. Maybe you notice you’ve chosen a sniper class weapon, but the random teammates all have Dualies. Try finding a point where you can cover them from the left, right, and behind as they rush to the center of the map to paint.

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A lot of skills, and techniques from other games can help you in Splatoon 2 as well. Map control is a universal skill. If you know a map like the back of your hand you can better anticipate where enemies will show up, because you’ll know the most common routes. You’ll know what spot gives the best advantages, and know to help your team hold it. Also, it’s easy to forget you have a sub weapon, and a special move or weapon. Remember as you get frags, and ink turf, you’ll fill your meter. Many of the specials have a variety of uses. You can use the bubble blower to shield your teammates, or you can just blow up your bubbles to take lives or turf.  The same can be said of the sub weapons. Going back to controlling a map, as I said earlier you may want to hide a sprinkler on a ceiling  or sneak a Beacon deep in enemy territory.

While Turf War may only count painted floors toward your score, don’t discount inking a wall to get to higher ground. You can swim up walls, and you can even use that fact for some stealthy maneuvers. Keep in mind too, that if you swim quickly you’ll leave ripples that an astute enemy may spot. But if you move very slowly, barely pushing that control stick you won’t. You’ll also barely make a sound. If you’re wearing clothes with the Ninja Squid ability on them, you won’t make a sound making surprise attacks, and escaping some assaults a little more manageable. Don’t discount the saying “Run away, and live to fight another day.”. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in 3 on 1 firefights, you simply will not win. Pulling up the map, and jumping back to spawn can allow you to regroup with your team mates as they spawn so you can try to regain composure.

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When you reach Rank 10 you’ll be able to play the Ranked modes. These focus far less on inking the map, but keep in mind it’s still beneficial. You can move faster in your own ink, so always keep that in mind. There are four Ranked modes. Splat Zones, Tower Control, Rainmaker, and Clam Blitz.

Splat Zones is a microcosm of Turf War. Instead of trying to make the entire map your color, your team must control one or two tiny areas of the map until your counter hits zero. If the other team takes that control, a cool down timer gets placed on your team that has to count down before the main timer continues when you take it back. It’s a lot more important to work together here because these spots will be a non-stop hot spot the entire game. At least two of you should be on or next to the area at all times. But this is easier said than done. If you’re wiped out, the four of you are going to be at a massive disadvantage when trying to take it back. There are a variety of strategies a team can take. Do you all hold the line? This may work best if the enemy team rushes you, but they can also try to flank you. Do you have one person distract the enemy by running toward their end of the map so the others can take it? They may not take the bait.  Paying attention to what people have chosen can really help you plan accordingly.

Tower Control is a push cart mode where both sides run to the center to take control of the tower. Once upon the tower it will move into enemy territory, and if unopposed will eventually land near the enemy spawn for a win. Someone on the team has to be on the tower for it to move. Over the months I’ve seen several impressive strategies from random teammates, as well as enemy teams. Often they’ve involved creative exploitations of sub weapons. Putting shower curtains on the tower as a shield. Booby trapping the tower with an ink mine. Putting Beacons on or near the tower for team mates to take it. Some teams have had their entire squad on or next to the tower, attempting to bum rush the opposing side. Others have sent one lone combatant out on the tower while lying in wait to ambush the enemy if they killed them, and claimed it for themselves. Again, knowing the map will help you plan strategies immensely.

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Rainmaker is also a push cart mode except that instead of a tower, one person on one team can take control of the fabled Rainmaker. Which is kind of like the BFG of Splatoon. It can deal massive damage, as the wielder can shoot powerful ranged attacks. Of course there’s also a big target on their back, as opening the map reveals their location. So its imperative the cohorts of whomever holds it, gives them ample cover. If they die, they’ll drop it, and both sides will fight over the gun again. It’s important to have an attacker who can scout ahead of whomever is going to hold the weapon, and have defenders who can protect them from incoming flanks or surprises from behind. Again, knowing the map layout is key, and constantly checking the map for signs of reprisal is going to be important.

Clam Blitz is a weird hybrid of a football game, and a base attack/defense game. Each side has a net protected by a shield. The goal is to fill the enemy net with clams. In order to see the net, you have to destroy the shield with a football. You get the football by collecting enough clams or by having one spawn eventually. You can’t throw the football very far, so you have to get really close to the shield with it, and the football shows up on the map so resistance will be fierce. If you do break the defenses, your teammates will also be able to throw clams they’ve found into the net. You have to be fast because eventually the net will become shielded again.

Some strategies I’ve had luck with have been throwing clams to a teammate who has a lot of clams to spawn a football. But you want to wait until you’ve managed to infiltrate enemy territory, and you’re close enough to the shield. Otherwise you’re easily seen coming.  Another is getting my own football while another player has one, causing confusion, and either going for the shield while they’re busy with them. Or by distracting them long enough for the teammate to break the shield with his.

Other times I’ve hung back, and tried to just defend our net with surprise flanks while my team tries to push into the enemy camp. You’d be amazed at how often both teams can have footballs going simultaneously. You can also try to throw the football from below or above the shield when the enemy team is standing guard in front of it. This isn’t always easy to pull off, especially on some maps like Camp Triggerfish where one can often see that strategy coming from a mile away. On the other hand you can often combine this strategy with others.

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While I am by no means a professional grade Splatoon 2 player, I hope if you’re a newcomer, or a lapsed player some of this stuff can help you get up to speed. It’s a great game, with a growing community. There are over 8 million players so there are a ton of opportunities to improve. You can even play all of the modes privately with friends which makes for a great way to practice. As well as bring in other newcomers without intimidating them with veteran strangers. You should also strongly consider mastering the game’s motion controls. For some of you it might seem cumbersome, especially if you’re accustomed to twin stick shooting. The game lets you shut them off, and use a traditional twin stick scheme. But hear me out. Motion controls can be far more effective. Aiming is far smoother, especially when going after higher or lower targets. Even with them enabled you can still do snaps to the left or right with the right control stick. I generally use the joycons in a grip when playing. Some swear by the Nintendo Pro Controller, or an equivalent like the ones by third-party Power-A. It’s not quite as seamless as a high dpi mouse being used on a PC FPS game. But it’s far more responsive over a thumb stick in my experience.

I also recommend watching some tournament level players on Twitch or YouTube if you want to pick up pointers. ThatSrb2Dude, and Wadsm are two such players whose content has been a wealth of help in my own quest to do better. Some of the things I’ve talked about here, I’ve learned by watching them. So be sure to check out some of their content, and live streams if you get the chance. And of course, simply playing regularly will help you improve. Whether you’re looking to become a competitor, or you’re like me, and just simply want to be a better all around player. Hopefully something I’ve listed in all of this rambling has been of some value to you. Have fun inking, and until next time….. STAY FRESH!

One Strike Review

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Every now, and again a game comes along with the idea of simplifying things. Many look to the Super Smash Bros. games, Nidhogg, and even Divekick as primary examples. All of which take different approaches to doing so. Smash simplifies inputs, and goes for ring outs. Nidhogg goes for a fencing theme, while Divekick reduces everything down to one button. One Strike doesn’t quite go that far, but it does try to be interesting in its mission.

PROS: An interesting take on simplifying the fighter.

CONS: It doesn’t take long to notice a formula.

CLASH: Of the art styles.

One Strike is a one on one fighter that tries to be different by living up to its namesake. You simply lose a round (or a match!) by suffering one hit. It takes a page from Soul Calibur by making each character a master of a specific weapon. There are sword masters. Dagger masters. Staff masters. They have you covered. And controlling your fighter is pretty straightforward. You can move left or right, block, strike, or dodge. That’s pretty much it.

The game has a really nice art style considering that it’s a bite-sized fighter. There are really great painted portraits of each of the fighters. But the characters themselves are done in a sprite art style somewhere between the look of an Atari 800 computer, and an NES. This isn’t bad by any means. There are all kinds of cool, little details in the backgrounds, as well as animations in them you wouldn’t likely see on these retro platforms. The drawback of course is that these art styles clash somewhat. Seeing the 8-bit inspired sprites represented by icons that could have made it into a late 90’s arcade cabinet can be a little bit jarring.

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Still, while that may be jarring, and the character select screen is a little anemic, One Strike has a really cool look to it. Unfortunately there’s one major thing that kills the whole game that I’ll get to shortly. One Strike gives you an arcade ladder for some single player content. You can choose to play it on a five lives per match setting, or you can play it as a gauntlet match that provides you but one life. And these modes aren’t too bad. They’ll take the average person a fair number of attempts to clear. The concept is simple. Stab the other person once to win the round or match. Kill everybody, and you win the entire tournament. There is also a Team Battle where you can pick three characters, each with one life, and go on either an arcade ladder by yourself, or you can play in a head to head versus battle. One nice feature the game also has is the ability to set up a tournament bracket. It’s something small, but it is nice for any venue looking to have another tournament for, as your brackets are already set up in it.

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But like all fighting games, the head to head fighting is what keeps you coming back. The challenge of trying to outwit, or outmaneuver them. Or to learn how to properly defend yourself. There are no combos here because it’s a one hit, and you’re dead affair. But you can still overpower your opponent in theory. Unfortunately, there is one tactic that most will discover in a couple of hours, and that is how to utilize hit stun. All fighting games have a tiny window of time when you can make an opponent unable to react. Usually a second or less. In this game you can do this with a successful block. Blocking at just the right time will employ hit stun on your opponent. They’ll have a split second where they can’t block in time or move backward. So if you’re the least bit quick enough you can bait them into swinging, you can get the block, and immediately stab them for the win. And the reverse is true.

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So matches often boil down to a Swing/Block/Stab/Match Over formula. Which can get really tiresome really quick. Now to alleviate this to some degree, block windows are very small. You can’t sit in a blocking position forever. After a moment your character will go back to their standard animation. Some characters also have the ability to cancel a move by creating stances. For instance, Oni requires you to press attack twice. Pressing it the first time gets you into a combat stance. Pressing it again swings his club. So you can dodge backward after the first button press if you don’t think it’s safe. With advanced strategies like this, the aforementioned formula isn’t always going to be the way a match goes down. Be that as it may, it does happen often enough that many people may grow bored with things quickly.

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It’s a shame because this hinders strategies. I’m sure someone far better at One Strike may see this, and have a difference of opinion. But as far as my experience has been playing with both people who are adept at competitive games, and others who are not, matches often result in either predictable fast matches, or (once both players have become more adept at blocking) drawn out matches reliant on turtling, or being overly defensive. All in all, One Strike isn’t a terrible game though. It functions very well, it has likable characters, and a really cool concept. But in practice, there isn’t enough here to keep most fighting fans playing it days on end. Nor are there enough characters to draw more average players into playing it for long. You could easily play this over some of the other stuff out there it’s true. But then you could also go back, and play the classics. In spite of its shortcomings I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel though. There’s a decent foundation here. You’ll likely really enjoy it initially. But after some time with it, that excitement may wane. If it had a couple of other options in the combat to keep things interesting, a few more characters, and internet matches it would be a better game worth checking out. If you don’t mind a fighting game you’ll play for an hour at a party with friends every few months you’ll have some fun with it. But for others, unless you’re really starved for newer fighting game concepts you might just want to go back to something else. Your mileage may vary with this one.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate Review

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Well between the overtime, and festivities, Christmas, and New Year’s were quite busy. I had a great time with family, and I hope everyone out there had a wonderful, Merry Christmas out there as well. I didn’t get much in the way of entertainment gifts, though I did get a case of Pocky, and a really nice solid state drive. The sole game I received is the one I’ve been playing feverishly in my free time unlocking characters. That would be today’s game. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has come out to critical acclaim. Is it worthy of the praise? In a lot of ways it certainly is.

PROS: Every character, stage from the previous game, and then some!

CONS: Trophy hunting is gone. Online performance can be spotty.

PIRANHA PLANT: Is a free character for those who register by 1/31/19.

For the five people who don’t know what Super Smash Bros. is, it’s a long running series that combines fighting game conventions, and party game conventions into a unique fighting game with its own rules. Most fighting games are one on one affairs where the goal is to knock out your opponent by kicking his or her teeth in. Some of them have intricate combos (a series of moves that can’t be blocked) that require dexterity, and ring awareness to input properly. Most of them have flashy special moves, and they feature some equally flashy ways to finish off an opponent for bragging rights.

But over the years many games in the genre became so complex that it intimidated newcomers from trying them out. At the same time, in the days of the Nintendo 64, most fighting games were going to the PlayStation due to the cheaper storage space of a CD-ROM. Many of the high-caliber fighters didn’t make it over to Nintendo’s console. But Masahiro Sakurai had secretly set up a new project over at  HAL. It would evolve from four generic placeholder characters in an arena to Nintendo characters in a variety of arenas. Smash Bros. replaces the “Send them to the hospital or morgue to win.” rule set with a Sumo wrestling “Knock them out of the ring, and keep them out of the ring.” rule set. You pick a character, multiple opponents pick a character, and then you can duke it out based on either time (knock more people out than anyone else) or stock (be the last one standing with any lives) rules.

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But what makes the series compelling for every type of player, are the move sets. Every character uses the same basic inputs. There’s an attack button, a special moves button, a jump button, a block button, and a grab button. If you press up, down, or left or right, with either an attack or special button press you’ll do a different attack. There are also Smash attacks which are another three, more powerful moves you can do if you press attack with a direction at the exact same time. From the second game onward, you can use a right, thumb stick to do the Smash attacks instead. Every character has the exact same inputs, so you don’t have to spend hours learning how to press down, down-forward, forward, punch to do something amazing.

But while the simplicity appeals to newcomers, the series does have a fair amount of depth in its combat. There are still combos, two-in-ones, and other advanced techniques to learn. You can learn how to roll dodge, and parry. While the inputs are shared across the board, the characters’ moves are mostly unique. And from the third game onward, the series even implements super finishers for the characters.

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To make things more interesting the series lets players use randomly dropped items, which can be anything from bats, to laser guns, to assist trophies that summon run ins from characters who are not selectable fighters. They fight on behalf of the player who threw them. And to top it off, the games have all let players turn the items off entirely, select the few they want, or leave them on. The second game Super Smash Bros. Melee, is where the series really took off in popularity, and proved the series could be a viable competitive fighting game. Dedicated players have spent years mastering the game’s mechanics, and continue playing it today. Their efforts even got the series enough attention to end up in high-profile tournaments like EVO.

Over the years Nintendo’s brawler has added different tweaks, and features to the formula. Melee added an Adventure mode. Brawl expanded the roster further, and expanded the Adventure mode. Wii U/3DS improved the roster, cut the Adventure short, and improved the mechanics. All while giving each version unique stages to incentivize buying both versions.

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So what does Ultimate bring to the table? What new features, and refinements can you expect over previous editions? Well for starters, you’ll eventually get to use every character who has ever appeared in a Super Smash Bros. title. I say eventually, because as in previous games you have to unlock them by playing. However, this time around unlocking them is much easier. You can go through any of the game’s modes to add them to your roster. Playing standard matches by yourself or with friends has them showing up every few rounds or so. You can also go through the returning Classic mode, or the all new Spirits modes.

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Ultimate’s most drastic change is indeed the inclusion of Spirits. These replace the trophies from the last few games. While the trophies were a nice way to celebrate Nintendo’s history, and wealth of characters, ultimately it had little impact on how the games played. Spirits add an almost Role-Playing Game element to the action. They can be picked up primarily either by playing through the Spirit Adventure mode, or the Spirit Board. Although you’ll find in other modes you can gain them as well. Spirits can enhance your fighters by adding other properties into the mix. They can buff your attack power, defensive power, grab power (for holds or throws), or be neutral, helping stats equally. This is also where the RPG elements come into play, because over the course of the game you can level them up. You can add secondary Spirits to many of them, as they’ll have additional slots. Doing this effectively adds even more stats. Beyond that you can also feed them snacks you earn in every mode, which will boost stats further. When you get some Spirits to level 99, you can even find ways to prestige them (Think like the resets in Call Of Duty. Not exactly an RPG, but an element that could work in one) by starting them over at level 1, while retaining experience. Henceforth making them more potent.

You can even choose to allow the use of Spirits in standard matches with your friends, which admittedly throws off the balance, but can result in fun experimentation. Going into the Spirit Board will let you enter fights where you can potentially win a new Spirit to use should you win a given match. This works similarly to the matches you’ll enter in the Spirit Adventure mode, which more or less replaces the previous games’ takes on a Story mode.

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This time around instead of having sets of stages, or a huge Metroidvania styled map the game keeps things simplified with Spirit matches. However these are peppered throughout a massive map, and it does utilize the Spirit system in other ways. For instance, the map has a resemblance to a table top game board. It’s covered in fog, that clears partially when completing certain events. It also has JRPG like shops, and training centers on it that can be found, where you can spend prize money on new Spirits, or to buff existing ones. And of course, this is the mode that tells the storyline, so you can expect to see the majority of it here. When you start off, you’ll find the world of Smash Bros. under assault from an army of Master Hands. A mysterious force pretty much kills every one of our favorite combatants, with only Kirby surviving unscathed. The antagonist imprisons our combatants, and creates countless evil clones of them. From here you’ll go about the board, fighting battles, getting Spirits, and equipping them. Over the course of the adventure you’ll level them, swap them, in between battles. Each battle you’ll get an overview of your opponent, and what Spirit they are using, as well as any special rules that have been employed.

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Not only will you have to win battles against evil clones, you’ll also have to win battles with the original characters. If you do this, you’ll break the spell on them, and they’ll join your party. They’ll also become unlocked for you to use in multiplayer. Because of that, many players may want to play through this mode, as you’re essentially going to unlock everyone over the course of the campaign. However, there are 74 characters here. The first 8 of whom are already playable in multiplayer. But, for those who don’t, they can also be unlocked by playing other modes. If you’re really desperate there is even an exploit circulating around YouTube. But even then you’re going to be grinding a while.

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You can also lose these battles to unlock characters, and if you do they’ll go back to the end of the line. So your next unlockable opponent will be different. The game does have a seemingly random rematch option though. Getting back to the Spirit Adventure, you can expect to spend days, or even weeks to see everything. Even after unlocking all of the characters in the game, I still have a long way to go in terms of completing this mode. There are many battles, shops, training centers, and chests for you to uncover. There are even centers where you can put one of your leveled Spirits back to their original stock settings! At face value one might ask why they would want to bother doing this. But again, like an RPG, sometimes you might find you’ve increased all of the wrong stats. Maybe it was a Spirit geared toward defense, but you found you hastily buffed up a bunch of attack properties because you weren’t sure what you were doing when you first started playing. It certainly beats starting the entire game over when you’ve spent the last 10 hours building up your Spirits, unlocking characters for multiplayer, and finding snacks to feed your Spirits.

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Not only can you buff up Spirits, but you can raise the stats of your actual fighters by using a skill tree. You can access it in the pause menu during the adventure, and you can use the Skill Spheres you pick up in battle to level up abilities. You can make yourself escape throws easier, or make your specials do more damage. There are a bunch of them, and doing this will help you a lot. Especially with some of the boss fights that have returned from previous games, as well as all new ones.

It’s a very lengthy campaign indeed. On top of freeing all of the characters, collecting Spirits, and levelling them up. Beyond the epic boss fights, and using Spirits to access previously closed areas on the map. In addition to all of the ways you can use Spirits in the campaign beyond merely powering them up, or fighting evil clones with them, there are three difficulty levels. There are also three endings! So yeah, you can expect to revisit this adventure many, many times.

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Beyond the campaign is the Classic mode. In this iteration the game does do things a little bit differently. Rather than simply give you the arcade style ladder you’re probably used to, it takes that ladder, and tweaks matches around the chosen character. All 74 characters get a personalized ladder, and even conditions. For instance Mega Man’s ladder follows the path of vintage Mega Man games. Even when you beat what you think is the end, it will surprise you. Or take Ryu’s ladder where all of the knock out rules have been changed to stamina rules. It makes going through this mode with every character fun, as you don’t know what to expect next.

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This time around, the intensity meter from the previous game makes its appearance in Classic mode instead. When you start out you can choose how difficult you want things to be based upon how many coins you can put toward it. There are also tickets you can spend to help push it up, but you only have so many. Though these can be earned seemingly randomly as well. The higher you go the more of the painting you’ll see, and the better your rewards for clearing the mode. Though the meter will go down if you lose, and continue. So if you want the credentials of being the best, you’ll have to win every match by a wide margin.

Obviously the meat, and potatoes of any fighter is the multiplayer. This iteration of Smash is no different. Beyond the baseline mechanics there have been a number of changes under the hood. The general speed has been refined, and the roster of 74 characters does feel surprisingly balanced for the most part. There are some characters who have clear advantages, but many of these come at the cost of a slow speed, or a high knock off percentage. There are still ways crafty players can get around these powerhouses. They also have the option to use Spirits in addition to the items. Which changes the dynamics greatly, as a lot of the Spirits share properties with the characters they’re based upon. This can make for a lot of interesting match ups for those who wish to experiment with them. Of course purists can ignore them altogether. Returning from the Wii U version of Smash, are the Omega versions of stages. These basically retain the look of the various arenas, but convert their layout to the bog standard layout of Final Destination. It makes every arena into a tournament arena, which gives some of the players who want to focus on the competitive end some variety.

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One feature I think any player will like is the ability to replace the Smash Ball item with a super meter. Instead of having to take your eyes off of opponents to break a ball, and maybe do your super without getting fragged, now you can do them traditionally. The meter will fill up when you’re damaging or taking damage, and when filled, you can press your Super finish. It’s great because if you’re a competitive player you can focus on the action, and if you’re a novice, you can still get the chance to see the spectacle of a flashy move more often. Ultimate also retains support for the Gamecube controller adapter, and controllers. So once again you can have up to 8 players for local, offline Smash Bros. matches, which are as fun as they are chaotic. Novices, and Pros alike will like that they now put up a wire frame grid during matches when you’re off-screen. This makes it a little bit easier to find your bearings. And the training mode can display the knock back, and Directional Influence stats if you wish.

Another returning feature is the photography feature, and I don’t mean simply pressing the screenshot button. Although you can do that. But the full-fledged photography feature set from previous entries is here. Pause the game during any match, and you’ll be able to fiddle with the camera settings. You can change the angle, and position. You can cycle between the characters to focus the camera on a specific one. You can zoom in, or out. You can even put on borders, or stamp the game’s logo on it. Then if you hit the screenshot button on your controller you can essentially  make a nice wallpaper to upload to your Facebook or Twitter feed. It may not sound like much, but it is a lot of fun to experiment with.

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Online fighting as you’ve probably heard, is a mixed bag. More often than not matches will perform well with one stipulation. That you play with people relatively close to you. Matches with local friends are usually fine. Matches with random strangers, could be fine, or they could be unplayable. Previous Smash games were often the same way. While I have had a better experience with this iteration so far, it still isn’t where it needs to be. Which is a shame because honestly the online play has some cool features in it. Setting up lobbies represents a wrestling arena, where you can clearly seat fighters, and spectators. You can jump into public lobbies too, and search by match types, and other stipulations. You can also go for quick play, where the game will toss you against random opponents. You can set preferred rules for this, so that if you only like to play stock, or love a certain item you can usually be paired with people of similar taste.  If you leave preferred rules off, you’ll be placed against any available players under any possible set of conditions. Again, if you’re pitted against players too far away, you can expect stuttering, warping, or general lag. You can mitigate this slightly by using a Cat5e cable, and a USB adapter with the Dock, as a wired connection is a bit faster than the WiFi connection. But this still doesn’t help much as you’re likely going to see issues more when paired against opponents who live far away.

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Still, if you can deal with a spotty match every few rounds or so, the online play is fun. I even like the feature they’ve added where you can play offline modes while you have the game look for opponents for you. Oddly enough though, other Nintendo franchises have given the option to choose between regional or global opponents. Mario Kart has consistently done this. And while a racing title is probably less taxing than a game like Super Smash Bros. due to the latter’s constant changing of inputs, it seems like it could be a helpful option. It’s also strange that Splatoon 2, very rarely performs poorly online. Still, when the game does perform the way it ought to, matches are an absolute blast. Of course like all fighting games, get used to being decimated. A lot of players are dedicated to mastering their favorite characters, and play continually to improve. But you can’t become anywhere near as good as they are without losing, learning where you made mistakes, and taking that with you into the next match. And there’s something to be said for not taking yourself too seriously too. There’s nothing riding on these matches. So don’t worry about getting bodied.

I should also mention that this game supports the Amiibo figurines from the last one, and that it will even allow you to import the data from the previous game on them into this one. Of course once you do, you can’t go back, and use it on the old game. If you want to use it with the old game, you’ll have to reformat the figurine, and start over on it. From there they work pretty much as they did in Smash 4. The difference is now you can give them Spirits which work similar to the stats in the previous game. You can train your figure to be an attacker, a defensive player, or somewhere in between. Not all of the strategies from the old game work quite the same in the contemporary one though. So expect some of your Wii U figurines to be inconsistent sometimes. Still, eventually they will get to a point where they’re almost impossible for you to beat. The real fun though is levelling up an Amiibo to be beast-like, and then pit it against a friend’s beast-like Amiibo for supremacy.

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If all of that isn’t enough for you, the challenges come back from previous entries. There are thousands of Spirits to unlock, as well as songs, and other things in the game. Some of which can only be found by completing tasks. One task may be to clear Classic Mode with a specific character in under a certain time. Another might be to accomplish something in the Spirit Adventure mode. You can also get some of this stuff in the game’s shop feature. Suffice it to say, those of you who have to see every possible bit of content in the games you buy, will once again be unlocking things for months on end. Ultimate also brings back the horde modes from previous games. Fight a bunch of waves until you clear the required number. Or go for the endless mode, and see how long you can last. A number of unlockable items are also tied to these. They wanted to be sure you would try everything.

And the game looks, and sounds beautiful through it all. All of the player models, and animations are phenomenal. All of the assist trophies, and items look top-notch. The little details throughout each stage, over every map are simply gorgeous. Everybody involved in the graphics, and sound have done a terrific job here. Even Mr. Game & Watch, one of the simpler characters has been overhauled. Every move he makes references one of his LCD titles more than ever. That’s just one example out of 74 characters. The cinematic videos from the campaign, and introduction are also fantastic. Even if they don’t always make themselves clear in the story, they do grab your attention. The massive amount of top-notch audio is breathtaking. Songs from countless other games show up, alongside some original orchestral scores, electronic remixes, and more. It’s a fantastic soundtrack. While the idea of using the music player mode as a giant Walkman might sound silly, an auxiliary cable in the car makes for a great commute soundtrack.

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Overall, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a must own game for almost anybody with a Switch. Some might complain a mode from an older game may have been omitted. Like the Trophies, and their related modes for example. But their replacements are well thought out, and fit the game nicely. In some cases, better. The Spirits may seem convoluted to some, but they make the Adventure worth checking out, and getting invested in. The Smash Tour isn’t here, but there probably weren’t a lot of people clamoring for it. The stage builder is gone, which is one thing I would have liked to have seen return. Be that as it may, the large roster, 8-player matches, multitude of ways to customize matches, are worth getting the game for alone. It’s also wonderful that those of us who invested hundreds of dollars into Nintendo’s figurines, and Gamecube controllers for the Wii U iteration can repurpose those things for this new one.

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For those who love this series, you’ve probably picked this up already. For those who are lapsed, or haven’t played one of these games before though, you should really check it out. This is a series that has always celebrated the history of Nintendo, and video games. There’s something here for everyone. Fighting game enthusiasts will find some advanced techniques to master. People who want to play something different with guests will likely enjoy the chaotic fun of Luigi shooting laser guns. Or the look of surprise on a friend’s face when they see their first stage hazard. Fans of Retro will love the 40 years or more of classic nods, and references in it. Even people who tend to like slower paced cerebral genres over arcade twitch game play may find they really enjoy the RPG elements of Spirit Adventuring. Plus the easier inputs can make it feel less daunting to any newcomer to the series. Of course if you’ve never enjoyed one of these games to any degree, this one won’t change your mind. But for most with a Switch, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate joins Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, and Splatoon 2, as a sure first-party bet.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

No Thing Review

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Imagine the surprise I was given when Nintendo reminded fans on Twitter that they may have a few unredeemed coins on the eshop set to expire. I had a scant handful, and so I figured, “Why not give it a shot?” and looked to see if there was anything that cheap. Well I stumbled upon this little game. A game about travelling along a path, in a Orwellian future that would actually lead me down quite the rabbit hole.

PROS: Simple, yet compelling game play.

CONS: Fairly short for anyone adept at it.

SUDA51: Your first look at the game will almost certainly remind you of No More Heroes.

Apparently I’ve been living under a rock, because after playing it for a couple of hours, (Yes, hours.) I just had to do some research. No Thing started life on phones, and tablets during the craze of endless runners. Except that it set itself apart in, many, many ways. The most obvious is the art style. This game looks like something Suda51 would have made for a No More Heroes mini game. Blocky minimalist geometry? Check. Low color palette? Check. Regular images that somehow come off as surreal or even creepy? Check. It has a very similar art style.

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But that isn’t to say it’s a stereotypical endless runner dressed up in edgy shock value. Far from it. For starters, it isn’t endless. There are ten stages. That’s it. Many of the stages are pretty long though. Even in the early goings. The stages are also not made via procedural generation. Every time you play, they’ll be the same. So this game is much more conducive to speed runs. It also isn’t a 2D side-scroller. This one uses a First-Person perspective.

No Thing also has a story that seems simplistic at first, but uses its stage layouts, and bizarre imagery to tell it. In this regard it reminded me an awful lot of games like Portal, and Deadcore, despite the fact it plays nothing like them. And through it all, it just became something I had to keep playing to see more of. The setup is that it’s the dystopian future of 1994. You’re an office worker who has to send a message to the Queen Of Ice. That’s it. Walk to her, and give her the message. Except it isn’t that easy.

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No Thing’s stages are essentially long tracks, and walkways. You use two buttons. One turns you ninety degrees left. The other ninety degrees right. At first you’ll go along fairly easily. Left turns. Right turns. You’re probably thinking to yourself “So? That sounds pretty boring. What’s so special about that?” Well before long the game puts gaps up in the path. Going over them makes a minor jump. The better you do, the faster you begin to go. So it doesn’t take much to have you running. Eventually, the game throws in ramps, branching paths, and mazes. Keep in mind all the while if you go off the path, you fall to your death as this is Super Mario Cyborg in that all of these stages hover over a chasm.

Over the course of the game’s stages, a voice that sounds like it came from early speech synthesis technology narrates instructions, and vague words that also tie into the storyline. Of course you won’t have time to read it as things become faster, and faster. Take your eyes off of the task for even a second, and you’ll fall to your doom. Throughout all of it  you’ll die a bunch of times, but you’ll keep playing it. It’s strangely addicting.

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The stages themselves have a pretty wide variety. Which you might not assume considering the length of the game, and the simple control scheme. But some of these work like tracks you lap. Others are long trails. Others place a lot of ramps in places which speed you up, and have you catching air. There are other stages that throw you curveballs by waiting to give you a turn at the last moment. And that’s part of why you’ll keep giving this one a go. You’ll just want to see what comes next.

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This isn’t to say, it’s a perfect experiment of course. Sometimes you’ll catch air, won’t be able to see below you, and you’ll have to estimate your landing. Also, while many of the filters in the game go along well with it, they can get in the way. When you’re about to make a crucial decision, and the distortion filter comes on, it could lead to you missing a turn. That means starting the stage all over again. The storyline may also a little too vague for some. You’ll get some references through the visuals, and cryptic speech. But chances are you still won’t get exactly what’s going on. On the other hand that could be the point; everyone can take something different away from the experience.

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One thing that certainly stands out is the soundtrack. Coincidentally if you get this one on PC via Steam you can buy the OST as DLC. Many would throw it under the Synth Wave genre, which pays homage to the New Wave, and Synthpop genres, particularly of the early 1980’s. Most of the compositions here are pretty catchy, and make great use of simulated analog synthesized sounds, and percussion.

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No Thing may have come out alongside much of what fans would cast under the shovelware category. But it isn’t. The aesthetics aren’t for everybody. But the underlying gameplay is honestly pretty good. And in spite of some of the cheap deaths due to the eventual jumps, it’s still a pretty fun game. Persistence is the key in No Thing. Every time you screw up, you just have to play again until you beat the level at hand. I enjoy going back to it fairly regularly. It even has a handful of achievements you can receive for beating stages, and scoring exceptionally well. With it being on Steam, and the Switch, I can see it being something speed runners may look into. Again, an acquired taste to be sure, but it might just be a game you want to check out. Especially if you want a game that stands out on your phone, or just something different from the genres you might normally buy on your computer or console.

Final Score: 8 out of 10