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The Messenger Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10

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Raging Justice Review

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Double Dragon. Streets Of Rage. Final Fight. Crime Fighters. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Battletoads. Ninja Combat. Sengoku. PIT-FIGHTER. The list goes, on, and on. The 1980’s, and 1990’s were filled with many entertaining games in which you took control of characters out to rid the world of criminals one by one. Armed with your fists, and the occasional melee weapon. Beat ’em ups were a big deal, and while some of them ran together, most of them were a lot of fun. They were about as close to an action movie a game could be at the time. While they haven’t had the resurgence other genres have had, they still sprout up from time to time. And when they’re done as well as this game is, you really ought to pay attention.

PROS: Unique art style. B+ Movie action. Good Cop/Bad Cop mechanics.

CONS: Tacky title screen. Some choppy animations. Minor bugs.

WWE: There’s a moment that seems like it was placed by wrestling show bookers.

Raging Justice is a title that elicits thoughts of a 1990’s Direct-To-Video B Action movie starring Dolph Lundgren. Which is actually pretty fitting because this game is a complete homage to many of the aforementioned games of old. The storyline is about as easy to follow as one of those old movies. The Mayor of your city has been abducted by violent street gangs, and our heroes have to rescue him. When you fire up the game you’ll have a handful of options on hand. There’s the primary campaign, a survival mode, an options menu, and the credits.  The credits are pretty self-explanatory, and the options menu is rather anemic. You can change volume levels, and you can turn friendly fire on or off.

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So you’re more than likely going to begin by playing through the campaign. When you begin you’ll be able to select one of three characters to choose from. This follows the character archetypes set up in Final Fight, and Streets Of Rage. Rick Justice is the loose cannon of the force who doesn’t play by the rules. He’s basically the power class of the three. He moves slower, but his attacks do a lot of damage. Then there’s Nikki Rage who is the opposite of Rick. She prefers to properly get arrests, and warrants. She is the more well-rounded class. She moves faster than Rick does, and can attack faster while doing a little bit less damage to opponents. Finally there’s Ashley King. A teenage explorer with the fastest, and flashiest style. Ashley is by far the fastest all around character, but does the least damage so you really need to master getting combos to use them.

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Once you’ve selected your character it’s onto the cut scenes that set up the plot of the game, before thrusting you into the action. Immediately Raging Justice begins showing you how it sets itself apart from the games that inspired it. You’re greeted with a screen overlay with some important information. Each stage features certain enemies who have a warrant out for their arrest. If you manage to arrest them you’ll get a health bonus, and if you manage to arrest all of them you can get 1-Ups too. There are also secondary objectives you can shoot for. If you’re successful you’ll score big points, and garner achievements.

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As you play you’ll notice certain enemies will have a red outline around them. These are the criminals with a warrant out for their arrest. This is also where the game begins to implement a virtue system not typically seen in games like this. If you do the right thing consistently (arresting perps rather than killing them), you’ll get the aforementioned perks. If you go the bad cop route, and knock their teeth in you don’t. However, if you’re enough of a loose cannon DTV character you can get help in other ways. Arresting people sounds easy enough. You fill up their dizzy meter by slamming them to the ground or using particular attacks. Then when it’s full, they will be dazed in one spot allowing you to grab them, and cuff them. But this is also much easier said, than done. Because they’ll never be alone. Raging Justice sends hordes of criminal waves at you. So it’s going to be tough isolating them long enough to pull this off. Even when you do, another bad guy can interrupt the process by knocking you down, or even knocking them down. Thus resulting in a resist of arrest. Sometimes you’ll be able to arrest someone. Other times you may find it safer to simply take them out.

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It’s a pleasant surprise to see a mechanic like this in Raging Justice, as it makes the game feel a little bit more unique. Few arcade genre entries have done this, the most notable one being classic Run n’ Gun NARC. For the most part it is implemented fairly well, though there are a few times when a warrant will be dazed next to a weapon or other item, and the game makes you grab the item rather than cuff the criminal at hand. Still, it’s pretty neat, and you can actually arrest most characters. Not just the ones with a warrant out for their arrest.

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The one thing in the game that may be a little bit divisive is the style of the artwork. The backgrounds are honestly quite good by any measure. They have a wonderful mix between pre-rendered models, and airbrushed matte paintings. At least that’s how they appear. The texture quality on all of it is very nice. There are also a host of homages you can spot throughout the game’s backgrounds to other games. Particularly to the original Final Fight’s latter stages. But there are others like Sega’s Streets Of Rage series, and Atari’s PIT-FIGHTER. One especially can’t help of think of that game near the end of the second stage where you’re met by a crowd of enemies in very much the same way that game set up bouts. The comparison continues with the character sprites, and this is why I think some will love the look, while others may not get behind it as much.

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The characters seem to have a similar style. The difference being they aren’t motion captured actors. Instead they appear to be pre-rendered models that were condensed down to sprites. Similar to how the characters in Donkey Kong Country, and Killer Instinct were created. However, the animation quality, while fairly good sometimes results in things looking a little choppy due to some of the wild movements in the characters’ positions in some sprites. Granted this is speculation on my part as I was never in the studio where this was made. But the end result resembles something to that effect.

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Nevertheless, it runs fairly brisk, and I can’t say I’ve even seen much in the way of slowdown in my playtime with it. It’s generally responsive, and there’s little to really complain about here. That said, if you’re not into the art style they were going for, that may disappoint you a little bit. One thing that I think should have been improved is the title screen. Mainly because it is used to sell the game on every digital store it’s stocked on, and sadly it looks woefully generic. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but it gives the impression the title is something you’d find on the rack of shovelware at an office supply store. Not the incredibly fun, if silly homage to B movies, and brawlers that it is.

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And Raging Justice is incredibly fun. There are a wide variety of criminals to take down in the brawls. You have the archetypical street punks, gang members, street-walker, morbidly obese guys who stampede you, and knife throwers you’d expect. There are also 80’s movie drug dealers who throw dynamite from their trench coats, bikers, Rottweilers, and more. There are a lot of weapons, and background details that can be destroyed on display here as well. Barbed wire bats, knives, swords, clubs, hammers, crates, phone booths, and a slew of other things I’m likely forgetting. All of which can take down some of these enemies with ease. There’s even drivable vehicles at a few key points!

The bosses are also a lot of fun due to a combination of silliness, and nostalgia. There’s the typical brute characters, but then the game decides to have you fight a 10 foot super pimp. There’s a security guard who looks suspiciously close to Final Fight’s Edi. E. But not long after that fight you’ll be facing an abomination that may just remind you of PIT-FIGHTER’s Chainman Eddie. I won’t spoil every boss for you, but suffice it to say, you’ll come away from them both challenged, and entertained.

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Throughout all of it, the audio keeps up with everything. The clanging of knives, screaming of enemies, the bold announcements, all sync up. The ambient synth-pop goes along with the action well, again, bringing along memories of those obscure films you may have rented from the video store back in the day. Or perhaps one of the more recent ones you caught at 2am on HBO or saw in a Red box at the local grocery store. In any event, it’s pretty good. Musically, it might not be something you’d want to hear on the morning commute, but it does get the job done. The sound effects however, are superb.

There are a couple of things that hinder the fun. Namely a few small bugs. There were a couple of times the game hanged after I got a “Game Over”, and so I had to exit to my main menu on my Switch to close the game, and then reopen it. This wasn’t horrible, or something game-breaking. But it was annoying, as minimal as the occurrence was. Another weird bug I experienced, was upon losing my last life as I killed the third boss. Unfortunately, because of this it wouldn’t let me continue. The counter just kept going down regardless of my jamming on the “YES! I want to continue!” button. So I had to restart the stage.

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I will say one other novel thing about Raging Justice is its continue system. You get three lives, and a set number of continues. when you run out of continues, the game ends. Par for the course, right? Well, the cool thing the game does is allow you to select any stage played up to that point. The flip side of this is you’ll start in the condition you did when you initially played it. So if you make it to the final stage with one continue left, and lose when you select it later, you’ll begin with however many lives you had, and the one continue. You won’t start with a full set of continues. This really gives you incentive to go back, and do better at the earlier stages so that you’ll have enough continues to clear the game.

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Finally, there is the survival mode I mentioned earlier. There really isn’t too much to write about here. It’s what it sounds like. You start the game with the character, and difficulty setting of your choosing. Then you try to beat up as many waves of enemies as you can until you lose your sole life. It can be fun in short bursts but the main course is where you’ll get the most fun in my opinion.

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Raging Justice may not be the best game you’ll play all year. But it just might be one of the more fun ones. It’s silly. It’s over the top. It doesn’t have a deep narrative. But it has a lot of personality. It also does what a beat ’em up game should: make you feel like a bad ass. Between the moves, weapons, and everything else, you’ll honestly feel like you’re playing a Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle. It’s just a fun game. And in the end isn’t that why most of us play games? Don’t let the tacky title card fool you. Raging Justice is a pretty awesome (if sometimes cheesy) brawler.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Slam Land Review

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

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

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

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

CONS: No online multiplayer. Small character roster.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: The announcer never shouts “BOOMSHAKALAKA!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle Review

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Last time we looked at an old, and underrated fighter. But this time out we’re looking at something newer. Arc System Works created something special when it brought the Guilty Gear series to the world. A highly stylized 2D fighter, it had some of the smoothest, and most impressive animation ever. The details in the characters were also a sight to behold. They followed up that success with BlazBlue. A different series, but with the same commitment to detail, and fluid animation. This drew the attention of other creators, and before long they were making games based on other properties. So now we have a BlazBlue crossover game. Does it hang with the likes of Namco’s Tekken Tag games, or Capcom’s many Vs. titles? Is it something you should pick up? Read on.

PROS: The brisk animation, and gameplay you’ve come to expect from ASW.

CONS: Some may deride the repurposing of some sprite work.

HOLY CRAP: The finishers in this game are pretty amazing to watch.

The short answer to both of those questions is “Yes.” But let’s take the long answer road, and talk about why. BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle is a fighter that caters to the core player. The depth of the fighting system, and its complex multi-tiered combos are things you can spend hours just trying to grasp. Yet, it isn’t a game that newcomers can’t enjoy. Yes, there will be a vast skill gap when you first begin, and you’ll get destroyed online. But the game gives you plenty of features to start out with, and the tools to learn how to play properly.

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The initial mode of the game is a story mode.  It isn’t terribly deep, but it does try to set up some kind of reason why all of these characters from different games are here. As the game features a lot of characters from properties, I’m not intimately familiar with I couldn’t begin to explain every detail. But the primary plot is that one of the characters from the BlazBlue universe has created some kind of super computer that has forced everyone together to fight in a tournament. Over the course of the tournament, the teams discover secret gems they can use to escape. Subsequent play through will fill in some more gaps, but generally this is a great way for you to get acquainted with the basics. You’ll be forced to play tag battle, after tag battle until you’re able to complete it.

When you turn the game on, and start playing you’ll find yourself in an open arena with concession stands. These work as an elongated version of an options menu. You can walk to the center to begin the storyline mode. You can go to another door to go into the online lobbies, go to another to spend your in-game currency on avatars, icons, and tiles. Then there’s another that acts as an info desk. Of course you can also bring up a traditional menu if you’d rather do that. This can be easier than roaming around to different booths. One of the things you’ll find in the options is the training mode.

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The training mode in BBCTB is one of the better ones I’ve played in a fighting game. It tries to tell players in layman’s terms what the advanced mechanics do, which makes it helpful when you’re starting out. This isn’t to say that you’re going to play through the tutorial, and instantly comprehend it all. Yes, you can go through, and clear all of the lessons, but you’re not likely going to retain everything the game has to offer in one run of the sessions. These make for a pretty good reference guide. Even after you clear a lesson, when you forget how to do something, you’ll be able to go back to re-learn it.

Of course like all fighting games, playing the game often is going to really help you not only retain the knowledge of how to do things, but learn when to use them. There is a lot of a risk/reward at play in the fighting system. For example, many of the game’s mechanics like dashes, and combos are centered around rush downs. Going on the offensive is a big, big, part of BBCTB. If you can get even a few small combos in, and put opponents on the defensive you limit their options. However, there is also a big risk when you do go for big damage. Because if you whiff an attack, or the opponent knows how to spot a high, or a low opening they can get a jump on you. The game also has a parry system too. So if your opponent has mastered timing, you could find them escaping your onslaught, and countering you.

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The game’s tag system is an integral part of this as well. While in the midst of a combo you can call in your second character in for a double team. You can also then take control of that character during the double team, or leave them there fighting as an NPC beside you. Knowing when to use each option is key. Obviously you can also swap characters when the one you’re presently controlling is beaten down, and needs a breather. But, again, if you’re being rushed down badly with low health you might not have a chance to do so unless you can manage to parry first. Tag teams can also use up your gauges at the bottom, so you’ll also want to be managing those.

Also, being an Arc System Works game, you can expect a lot of highly stylized finishers of varying degrees. There are Distortion finishers where the end of a match comes with flashy spectacles filled with bright colors. But if you can manage to max out your gauges, and time the motions properly, you can do Astral finishers. These are mesmerizing displays that are so visually appealing you’ll enjoy them. Even when you’re on the losing end, you’ll be wowed upon seeing them the first several times.

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Playing the game online will be the bread, and butter for most people, and so you’ll be spending a lot of time in the lobbies. There are many of them. Some categorized for absolute beginners, others for the general audience, and then you have the ranked lobbies. In all of the lobbies, rather than be given a static menu, you move an avatar about an arcade. You can move up to the left or right position of any machine, and wait for a challenger, or walk up to anyone presently waiting for a challenger. The game also lets you communicate a number of ways. You can use icons with common gestures like “GG” or Good Game. You can use body language with your avatar. For instance you can have them bow. Or jump in place excitedly. Probably the best option is pulling up an on-screen keyboard, and typing in a short sentence.

Once you’re ready to fight, the game transitions to your character order screen. You can choose your characters in the online option menu before challenging someone. Once you’ve selected the order, one player chooses the stage, and you’re in a match. In my experience on the Nintendo Switch, most of the matches have had a solid connection even over my wireless network. There were a handful of moments where lag crept in, but for the most part it’s pretty solid. Other versions may fare better, but as far as I can tell, it should be a pretty good experience when playing online. You can also invite friends to play online should any of your friends also own the game.

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Local versus play is a lot of fun though, the wide variety of characters is nice. You’ll be seeing not only characters from BlazBlue, but those from the Persona series, Rooster Teeth’s RWBY, as well as Under Night In-Birth franchises. Plus every character seems fairly viable, able to dish out a lot of damage. Undoubtedly as the best skilled players get into the deepest pros, and cons of each there will be the expected tier lists of which teams are best suited. For anyone new to fighting games, there are also a few auto combos on hand. Arc System Works also follows the trend of other fighting games, by offering extra characters via DLC. You can buy them individually if you wish, but there is also an option to get all of them, including the ones that haven’t been announced. And while this is going to disappoint some players expecting a full roster out of the gate, they have vastly undercut other fighting games in this area.

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One really cool bonus that the game does include however is an EP on mini CD. A few of the more noteworthy songs from the game’s OST are on it. Speaking of the sound, it’s all very good. It includes not only a fairly good soundtrack ranging from Rock to Orchestral but the sound effects are loud, crisp, and sync up with the onscreen action. Moreover you get a lot of great audio performances here by both the original Japanese actors, and the English actors. You can also mix, and match by character. Visually, the backgrounds are nice, with some great 3D models, while the 2D sprites of characters, and animation are top-notch. One thing some fans have complained about however, is the fact that some of the characters are composed of frames of animation from older games. I will say this is noticeable, especially on a large TV, and the result is that in some matchups, one character will look a little bit grainy versus another. Overall though this is a fairly minor nitpick. The underlying mechanics in this game are fairly different from the other BlazBlue games for one. Second, this is hardly the first fighter to do so. Capcom Vs. SNK 2 was especially remembered for doing this, and it was still one of the most beloved entries in Capcom’s Vs. series. This is also a non issue if you’re playing this on the Switch on the go, as you’ll barely notice it on the small screen.

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In the end I think this will be fondly remembered by fighting game enthusiasts. Not everything in it is going to be loved. If you like a more defense focused fighter, you may appreciate it a little bit less, and you’ll be buying characters as it’s par the course these days. Still, I’ve found myself really enjoying the mechanics a lot in spite of being completely outclassed by nearly everyone online. If you’re a die-hard fighting fan who hasn’t checked it out already, or you’re just someone who hasn’t played a new fighting game in a while you may find yourself enjoying it as much as I have.

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All of that being said, those who decide they want the Switch version would do well to pick up a traditional controller option or an arcade stick. While the game is playable on the go using the joycons, the lack of a D-pad makes performing some of the sequences a bit more difficult. Beyond that, the game performs well on the console, and if you’re looking for a fighter for the Switch, this is a nice one.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Most anticipated titles shown at E3

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

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

Daemon X Machina

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

Insurgency: Sandstorm

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

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

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

Serious Sam 4

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

RAGE 2

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

Tunic

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

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

Super Mario Party

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

Ninjala

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

Ghost of Tsushima

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

Octopath Traveler

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

Mega Man 11

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

Cyberpunk 2077

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

The Messenger

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

Metal Wolf Chaos XD

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

 

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

Wild Guns Reloaded Review

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Every now, and again a previously obscure game ends up in the spotlight. Often times because it turns out to be pretty uncommon or even rare. Said game then begins to skyrocket in price in the aftermarket. Wild Guns, is one such game. Originally released on the Super NES by Natsume, it was an action game with a unique setting, and mechanics. It blended Run N’ Gun gaming with Rail Shooter gaming. All in an attractive steam punk western setting. Of course to buy it now is an expensive endeavor. But Natsume, and Atari have brought it back in an updated package.

PROS: New content. 4-player Co-op. Tight controls. Visual flair.

CONS: Multiplayer has some design choices holding it back a bit.

SUPER PETS: There’s a dog operating a giant drone.

Wild Guns Reloaded is a beefed up version of the original Super NES game. As I don’t own the original version, I can’t speak to every minor difference but upon doing some research there are a few big ones. On the positive end, the game now supports 4 players. So you can enjoy this with more people. They’ve added two new playable characters, and you get some bonus stages in cooperative play that the original release didn’t have. The game now renders in a full 1080p resolution, so you don’t have to decide between pleasing your purist friends who want original aspect ratios, or pleasing your other friends who don’t mind stretch-o-vision over black bars. There are sliders for you to scale the image though, so lovers of the 4:3 standard can also rejoice.

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On the flip side, you do not have any continues in multiplayer. Which is absolutely absurd considering you have unlimited continues when playing the game alone. It’s the biggest blemish on the package. But as disappointing as it may be, this is a game you still may want to pick up. Because there really is a lot about this game to love.

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As I mentioned before, Wild Guns Reloaded is a blend of two action genres. On the one hand, you move your character about as if you were playing Sunset Riders. On the other hand, you fight enemies as if you were playing Operation Wolf. If that sounds like a strange combination, that’s because it is. But it’s one that works really well once you become accustomed to it. You move around freely, able to jump, and avoid the incoming projectiles. You can also use a melee attack on enemies that get in close. Some enemies can only be taken out this way. But when you start shooting, you’ll instead move a cursor about the screen. Aiming at all of the different threats around you. While firing, you can perform a quick dodge to get out-of-the-way, and you can even throw electric laser lassoes around bad guys. The lassoes temporarily hold them in place so you can deal with other impending threats.

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The end result is a fast action game, that also requires a lot of strategic thinking on your feet. You also have to have eyes in the back of your head, as you can’t really focus on just one threat. You have to be able to react to every last interruption on hand. Is it difficult? Absolutely. But at the same time it feels ever so rewarding when you’re able to complete a segment. The game starts you out in an initial stage that sets up the formula. You’ll play through one section until a timer hits zero. Then you’ll move onto the next section, and then if you complete that section, you’ll move onto a boss fight.

Once you win the initial stage, you’ll then move onto a Mega Man styled stage select screen. Here you’ll go on to play through each of the next few stages in any order you wish. Most of these follow the same sequence as the first stage. Though one stage is an automatic scrolling stage. But even this stage follows the trend of using three sections. After completing these you get thrown into the final stage where you’ll go through a huge gauntlet of enemies, and bosses.

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Wild Guns Reloaded offers four playable characters with their own traits. Clint, and Annie return from the original game. They perform similarly with faster firing weapons, and movement. They’re not exactly the same, Annie seems a little bit more mobile. Joining them are Doris, who throws grenades in lieu of using ballistics, and then there is Bullet. He’s a Dachshund.  A Dachshund with a killer drone. So he plays with a lock on, but like everyone else, one hit takes you out of the action. Clint, and Annie are probably the best all around characters to use. But Doris, and Bullet are great new additions for those who may want even more of a challenge.

That being said this game has three difficulty settings to choose from, but I wouldn’t call any of these particularly easy. The lower tiers make bosses a little bit easier to take down, and some of the midrange enemies take fewer hits. But you’re still going to die if you get hit by anything. So again, expect a challenge. But as the case with Contra or Operation Wolf, the challenge is more or less the point. Interestingly the Nintendo Switch version also includes a Beginner difficulty that just gives the player unlimited lives. Handy for a first time play through. But it also makes the campaign feel hollow as there is no way you’ll be forced to overcome any of the game’s obstacles.

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Playing with other people is a mostly fun endeavor. Having backup means you don’t have to manage every last obstacle, as the other players can do some of the work. But the lack of continues is a puzzling decision. Especially if you’re playing with a group where there’s a considerable skill gap. Because not only can none of you continue from the last stage you reach upon a fail state, your lives are all grouped together. If you have a friend or relative that can’t cut it, you’re getting held back. If you’re the one who can’t cut it, you’re holding your team back. It’s also strange because you have unlimited continues when playing alone. The Nintendo Switch version also doesn’t migrate that Beginner setting to the multiplayer. So you won’t get any mercy in that version either. Despite the odd decision to remove continues, playing with others is a fun time because of the reasons outlined above. It really is great when you are all able to rake in a high score, and defeat a giant boss together. As with the one player game, every little inch you scrape further feels like an accomplishment. But you’ll really need to grow a thick skin when playing with friends because once your lives are gone, that’s it.

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Visually, the game now renders in a proper widescreen aspect ratio, and resolution. The sprites, and backgrounds sport an immense amount of detail. This shouldn’t surprise anybody who has played the original Super Nintendo Game Pak. It was visually impressive then, and it’s pretty impressive now. The little details in the backgrounds, the wonderful use of gradients, all work with its anime-styled designs. The steam punk influence is obvious as you’ll fight robots, vehicles, and cowboys armed with laser guns. The audio goes along with it nicely, as explosions, and screams sound great. There’s also a techno-western fusion going on in the soundtrack.

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Performance is pretty solid too, with the game maintaining a steady frame rate. Even during battles where the screen is completely congested with projectiles. Whether you’re playing the PC version, the PS4 version or the recent Nintendo Switch release. The Switch version looks great in docked mode on the TV or in tablet mode when taking it out on the road with you.  All versions offer a scan line filter if you want to simulate the look of an old CRT Television. There are also an online leaderboard you can try to shoot for.

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Overall, Wild Guns Reloaded is a really fun, and challenging update to a cult classic. It has a great look, really intriguing characters, and does a lot with its setting. The enemy design is great, and it’s an enjoyable arcade experience. It’s just unfortunate it is so inconsistent with its rules for single player, and multiplayer. It’s strange that one can continue at their leisure when playing by themselves, but not with friends. One would think the multiplayer would be given similar stakes. Be that as it may, playing with other people is still fun to do. But you’ll definitely want your guests to know what they’re in for before you start playing.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Halloween Forever Review

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In the world of indie games it isn’t uncommon to see games that try to emulate the titles that inspired them. But when taking into account how many of these games exist, being one of the games that emulates them well is a pretty big feat. Being one of the games that not only does the memory of classic games justice, but does so with unique personality, and original additions deserves commendation.

One such game is Halloween Forever, and I don’t just say that because I saw the game’s artist do a live stream creating pixel art on Twitch. I bought the game (yes, bought. It wasn’t given to me, and I wasn’t asked to review this.) after discovering the channel because his stream turned out to be quite informative. After downloading it, I fired it up to find that it really is a fun, and interesting game. Like the Arcade, computer, and NES games that it pays homages to, it’s a challenging action-platformer. The most notable, and noticeable inspiration here is Capcom’s Ghosts N’ Goblins.

PROS: Cute characters. Animation. Music. Humor. Play control.

CONS: Confusing menu navigation. Blind jumps.

SANTA: Putting demons on the naughty list.

Before you can start the game, you’ll have to go through an options menu. This is where nearly all of the faults in Halloween Forever lie. Unfortunately you’ll need to know how the controls are mapped in order to navigate them, which you won’t. This oversight is the sole glaring issue. Because you can’t simply use the arrow keys, or the W,A,S,D, keys in a way that you would expect.

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That’s because you can’t see the default layout – to get into the menu options – to change said layout. So you’ll spend a good ten minutes figuring out what keys do or don’t select. Or you’ll take a wild guess, and try clicking the options with a mouse to find it actually works. When you do get into the control settings you’ll find the default settings a bit weird. W jumps, A,S, and D move you left, right, and let you duck. The Left key shoots, the Up key lets you interact with doors, ladders, and other things. You can re-bind the keys to something you like better, so if you want to play with a more traditional two button lay out you can. Still, navigating with the mouse through the menu options is going to make life easier. Fortunately you can also use a compatible game pad like the Xbox 360, Xbox One, or Steam Controller.

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Rounding out the options are the choice between whether to play full screen or in a window, and some configuration menus. There’s an interesting option in here if you find the game too trying for you. You can enable a 99 lives setting. Keep in mind the game more or less considers this a cheat code. So if you turn this setting on, the Steam achievements will be disabled as long as the mode is enabled.

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When the game boots, you’ll see a short sequence of cinema screens that give you a concise understanding of what your goals are. An evil wizard who looks suspiciously like a robed Skeletor has cast a spell to curse the world, and make Halloween last forever. Thus throwing the world into chaos, as it is invaded by monsters, demons, floating Gorgon heads, and of course; Leatherface. This of course, doesn’t sit well with a certain pumpkin who rises from the patch, and decides that he will be playing the role of He-Man in this Halloween themed adventure.

Once you’ve started the game, and you’ve selected your options you’ll get to choose a character. I’ll come back to this in a bit. When you first start the game you’ll pretty much have the pumpkin man you’re introduced to in the opening cinematic. The other option is Santa Claus. Yes. Santa Claus. You’ll find out later on that there are a lot of folks who have a stake in this mission to take down this reaper.

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You’re then shown a map that lays out the order of the stages you’ll have to go through in order to win the game. Then you’re off to the races. Right away, you’re going to notice the way the game looks. Then you’re going to realize that the game looks much better in action than it does on its description page on the Steam store. The graphics are a little bit simplistic, for some. But the number of frames in the animation, and the little details in them are not. I have to commend Imaginary Monsters for this. Characters run around smoothly, and they have a lot of nuances you’ll appreciate if you pay attention.

Fabrics flow around. Projectiles have visual flair on them. Bad guys’ eyes animate while the fireballs they shoot from their sockets are also animating the aforementioned flair. The bosses you’ll run into continue these things. So while the game does have an aesthetic that falls somewhere between a Commodore 64 game,  and an early 90’s MS-DOS platformer it’s more complex. These are the little things that would have meant multiple disks or a longer download back then. Of course the gameplay itself comes right out of the early days of NES games.

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As I mentioned earlier, one of the biggest influences is Ghosts N’ Goblins. You’ll move about a lot like Arthur did in that game, with an attack, and a jump. You can also double jump in Halloween Forever. Your attack has an arc to it. So you have to plan ahead when you attack enemies as you need to land your shots just right. But that isn’t to say Halloween Forever is a cut, and paste clone of Capcom’s arcade game. They may share some movements, and settings. But that’s about where it ends. It does have a couple of other influences, like Castlevania, and Mega Man. Perhaps even a dash of Monster Bash. But even this is largely just in the occasional trap. Or in ensuring the bosses have a readable attack pattern. Which they do.

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But beyond that, you’ll find an entertaining, and charming action platformer. One that has a lot of endearing character designs. Not just in the heroes you control, but in the enemies you’re forced to confront. There’s a cuteness factor in the super deformed style these characters are portrayed in. This continues even into your projectiles, like your pumpkin man’s candy corn, or Santa’s barfed up Christmas presents. It’s really something that will make you smile. Everything controls smoothly, and responsively. Climbing ladders, switching platforms, taking out baddies all feel tight.

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What won’t make you smile (aside from the options menu) are some of the challenges in Halloween Forever. A couple of the later boss fights are downright brutal. Even after you’ve figured out their patterns. Of course getting to those fights requires getting through a gauntlet of platforming challenges. Each of the five stages might seem straightforward on the surface. But each has a few secret paths through them as well. If you find these secret paths you’ll be able to collect a hidden rune. You’ll also find other characters that have been taken, and held hostage. Which you’ll really need to do. Because once you rescue these characters you can play through the game with them. Each of these characters plays slightly differently from one another. Some have better attacks for certain situations than others. One may make one boss fight a lot easier, but might have a tougher time getting through another part of the game. Also rescuing these people means that reaching their holding cells in subsequent play through sessions will net you 1-Ups in their place.

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If you beat the game, and see its ending though, the game isn’t over. Each playable character has their own ending, and chances are you’ll want to see each of them at least once. All in all, this has at least as much content as the titles that inspired it had. The chip tunes are awesome, and while this game may be short, and sweet it is pretty sweet. An absolutely terrific first effort by Imaginary Monsters, and I’m surprised it hadn’t caught my attention when it was originally released a year, and a half ago. The only major issue on display here is the screwy options menu you’ll be better served using a mouse for. Beyond that, one might complain about a blind jump or two. But that’s really about it. If you want something cute, entertaining, and don’t mind it being a bit esoteric, Halloween Forever is for you. It’s tough, but not insurmountable. It also has a lot of charm. It’s a really fun game you ought to check out.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

The Next Penelope Review

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

PROS: Minimalist art style works well.

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

HOMER: Expect Iliad, and Odyssey references.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Final Score: 6.5 out of 10

Owlboy Review

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

PROS: Beautiful visuals. Tight controls. Engrossing story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Horipad Wired Controller Review

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The Nintendo Switch is a great console, that plays a lot of great games. The controllers it comes with, while innovative, aren’t always the best option in every scenario. On the go, they’re great. They’re small, compact, and you can divide them to make two controllers. But at home, those two joycons are likely going in the comfort grip. So when a friend comes over, or your significant other, spouse, siblings or roommate want to play with you, what to do?

PROS: Quality build. Versatile. Inexpensive.

CONS: Doesn’t have the gyroscopic functions.

WEIRD: The D-pad design.

There are a surprisingly high number of controller options emerging for Nintendo’s gaming tablet. Obviously Nintendo’s own solutions are pretty great. You can roll with another set of joycons, which will double as two controllers, and that gets you set for four player games. But you have that small size issue which in a home setting, and on certain games may feel cumbersome for larger hands. You can also go for Nintendo’s Pro Controller. It’s nice, does everything the joycons can, and it’s got a hefty, yet comfortable design. But it also costs more than a lot of games do the day they come out.

For a lot of us, buying a Pro Controller for ourselves, or to have on hand for a second player, may be cost prohibitive. There are a wealth of third-party solutions coming out now to address this. But many of them have lackluster build quality, using cheap plastics or sub par wiring. Enter the Horipad. Hori isn’t generally known for what most might call general purpose controllers. They’re known for expensive, professional grade arcade fighting sticks. Go to any local Street Fighter or Tekken tournament, and you’ll find a lot of arcade joysticks made by Hori.

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Anyway, the Horipad is a pretty good solution for anyone looking for a controller for a second player, or to leave connected so they don’t have to take the joycons off at home. It has a solid build quality. It doesn’t have the heft of Nintendo’s own controller, however it doesn’t feel brittle, and thin either. It feels about as solid as Microsoft’s own Xbox 360 controllers did.  The thumb sticks feel really comfortable, and all of the buttons, and triggers are very responsive.

Beyond that, the controller also has the +, and – buttons to pull up menus. It has the home button, and even included the screen capture button. Hori even put a turbo button into the controller, and it works wonderfully. Simply hold a button down, press turbo, and it will just rapid fire along when you hold it from that point on. Let go of everything, press the turbo button again, and everything goes back to normal.

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Frankly, this would be an utterly flawless solution if not for a couple of things. The worst is the lack of gyroscopic functions. This means that for a handful of games, you really won’t be able to use it properly. Super Mario Galaxy, for instance, requires gestures for some of the moves. Using the joycons, or pro controller won’t be a problem, as you can swing or shake them when needed. You can’t do them with the Horipad. The pad does work in Splatoon 2, but you won’t be able to use mouse-look like you can with the joycons or pro controller. There aren’t gobs, and gobs of games that require the gyroscopic tech. But if you buy one, do know you’ll have to use the joycons. I do applaud Hori for mentioning this on the back of the box though. It’s nice to know this going in.

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The other thing some won’t like is the D-pad. Rather than get rid of the C-buttons, and put a traditional D-pad in their place, they kept the C-buttons. The solution they came up with was to put a peg hole in between the buttons, and make a D-pad that plugs into it. It does work fairly well. In most games that benefit from a D-pad this works fine. Press “Up”, and get the desired result. However it ends up feeling like the D-pad on the original Xbox 360 controller.  So it isn’t quite as good as a dedicated D-pad but it’s still an improvement over the C-buttons on the  left joycon.

 

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But there is one really, cool thing about this controller, and that’s its versatility. You can also use this on any Windows 10 computer. Plug it in, and it is seen no problem. However the buttons are still mapped as if you were playing on the Switch. So in games where you’re used to using Microsoft’s layout, you’ll have to go into the menu, and re-bind keys. The overwhelming majority of PC games let you do this. But the bottom line is that, you can repurpose this as a game pad for your PC. Which means although you’re getting a second controller for your Switch, you don’t need to buy an Xbox or Steam controller for your computer. Assuming you haven’t already.

 

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All in all, this is a great all around controller for the overwhelming majority of games on the Switch. Especially if you want something a cut above most other third-party controllers in terms of quality while still coming in at a budget price. Those who require a traditional D-pad might want to look at other solutions. But again, this is still a cut above the build of a lot of third-party solutions. The fact that it can also be used as a PC game pad is also a really great feature. It’s also a really comfortable fit for about anybody’s hands. About the only major drawback is the exclusion of the gyroscopic features seen in Nintendo’s own Pro Controller. Be that as it may, you can get two of these pads for the cost of Nintendo’s wireless one. For someone who needs a solid controller at an affordable price, the Horipad is a contender.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.