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Cuphead Review

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By now, you’ve heard the praise, the fervor, and the cries of sore losers everywhere. But the hype for this one really is deserved. Cuphead is a magnificent blend of gameplay taken from Contra, Gradius, and even some Mega Man for good measure. And while many games have done so, Cuphead is one of the ones that stands out from the crowd. If you haven’t already bought, and downloaded this game to your Xbox One or Computer you really ought to. But if you need more details before doing so, read on.

PROS: Amazing animation. Wonderful music. Spot on controls. Tough, but fair challenge.

CONS: Some bugs keep it just shy of perfection.

GENERATIONS: The animation on display will even amaze your Great Grandparents.

Cuphead is the result of a couple of high-risk takers. Studio MDHR started out with a vision: An action game that truly feels like playing a late 1930’s cartoon. Early on they discovered that making that vision a reality was going to be far more time-consuming, and expensive than originally thought. They ended up quitting their jobs, and re-mortgaging their homes just to be able to bring this title to market.

My hope is that this risk has paid off. Because the finished product is nothing short of amazing. Cuphead very likely has the best animation of any video game ever made thus far. Studio MDHR painstakingly made every background in the game by matte painting it. Every frame of animation was hand drawn on a cell before being scanned into a computer to be inked, and colored. As a result the game delivers on the core promise of looking, and feeling like a 1930’s animated short. The character designs are breathtaking. All of the hallmarks of vintage cartoons are here. The angled pupils, exaggerated movement, and pretty much everything you can recall from old Popeye, and Betty Boop serials are here.

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Studio MDHR even went as far as hiring an actual big band jazz ensemble to write, and perform the score for Cuphead. So not only does it look like an 80-year-old cartoon, it also sounds like an 80-year-old cartoon. Just seeing the game in action alone would be worth the price of admission. There is such a wealth of talent on display through the entire game that it’s honestly something that has to be experienced. In the realm of audio, and visual experiences Cuphead is nearly in a class all by itself.

But what about the game play? Well, it’s a fairly solid, and enjoyable experience. The game starts out with a very clever tutorial, and a classic story book introduction. Cuphead, and his brother Mugman go against their guardian’s wishes when they visit a casino. Unfortunately, the Casino is owned by the Devil, and he rigs the game at the Craps table to claim the souls of our heroes. But they plead for their lives so he tells them he’ll forgive their debt if they go get the soul contracts of the others in the town.

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So that’s the set up for just why Cuphead, and Mugman are off on their adventure. The game places you on an overhead view of a map, where you move the characters around, and choose a stage, or talk to an NPC. There are three maps, and you’ll need to complete every stage to move onto the next one. Each map also has a shop in it where you can use coins to upgrade your abilities. There are three main types of stage on display here. You’ll have Run n’ Gun stages. These play like you’d expect, taking homage from games like Contra, and Metal Slug. So you’ll have to fire where you’re going. You can’t shoot backwards while moving forward. The game play is not a twin stick style, rather a more traditional one. In these stages you’ll find the aforementioned coins. So you’ll certainly need to play these if you want any hope of buffing up your character.

Some of the items in the shops will give you a new style of weapon, or extra hits on your health meter. But any item you choose will have a side effect to balance things out. For instance, buying extra health comes at the cost of weakening your attacks slightly. But there are a wide variety of things to check out here. So you can swap out items for others after you’ve paid for them, and see what load out works best for you.

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There are shmup levels too, these generally play like the third type of stage I’ll get to in a moment. The difference being here, you’ll be piloting a plane, and fighting a multifaceted battle against a boss character. With the shmup mechanics here, the game feels a lot more like the memorable moments in old horizontal shooters like Thunder Force III, R-Type, Gradius, or Life Force rather than the more contemporary bullet hell shooter. Just because there aren’t zillions of things to avoid doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to avoid. These encounters throw plenty enough at you, and you’ll have to memorize attack patterns to survive. You can also shrink your plane so if you get into a situation you don’t think is avoidable, it may just be your ace in the hole.

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Finally, there are the Boss stages. In these you’ll use the Run n’ Gun mechanics in a multifaceted battle against a boss character. These fights feel closer to the classic NES Mega Man boss fights. than the ones in the old Run n’ Guns. One boss in particular will give you memories of storming Dr. Wily’s castle in Mega Man II. All of these bosses however will require you to learn patterns, and expert timing to get through them in one piece. Since most of the stages in the game are Boss stages you can expect to lose many, many times when you first attempt them.

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There are also a couple of side challenges where you’ll free ghosts by parrying other ghosts. You should honestly do these because the parry is a mechanic Cuphead uses to beef up your super meter. When you fill up the meter you can do a very devastating attack which is especially handy in boss battles. Anything colored pink in the game can be parried, and these challenges are the perfect way to master this mechanic.

Most of the stages in the game have an easy mode in addition to a regular tough as nails mode. You’ll need to beat the harder difficulty on bosses to get the contracts, needed to finish the story. But playing the stages on Easy will let you progress, and see what future stages have to offer. You can also go back to any stage you beat previously to replay it. Cuphead definitely has a high level of challenge. But the challenge is generally very fair. You’ll die hundreds of times over. But upon your expletive laden loss you’ll understand that your last death was your own fault. You jumped when you meant to shoot. Or you didn’t plan for a moving platform properly. Or you weren’t patient enough. Or you panicked, and walked into that projectile.

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Cuphead isn’t impossible though. Those who absolutely love old platformers, shmups, and classic action games from the days of Atari, Sega, Nintendo, and Commodore platforms will likely pick things up a bit faster. But that doesn’t mean someone newer to this type of experience cannot persevere. It’s the kind of game that requires patience, and practice to excel in. For some players it may take more time, and patience than others. But everything in the game is so captivating it’s worth checking out.

There are a couple of very minor issues I have with the game though. The most alarming are a few rare bugs. Admittedly these are rare, and in time they’ll probably be fixed. But they’re still a nuisance when they happen. One of them will glitch a low-level enemies’ health to a point it takes no damage. When this happens you can try to just skip past it. But that might mean you take damage in the process, and impede your ability to clear the level. Exiting the stage, and re-entering it usually fixes it in the interim, but that is also a nuisance. The other bug I’ve run into is an inexplicable performance hit, where the game will suddenly drop frames, and run ridiculously choppy for around 60 seconds before going back to normal. It’s especially annoying in boss fights. Closing the game, and re-starting the application again, fixes it in the interim. But it can be pretty annoying. I also wish there could have been a few more action stages over boss rush stages to add to the variety.

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Nevertheless, I can wholeheartedly recommend Cuphead to just about anybody who is even remotely interested in it. The animation, and soundtrack alone are worth the price of admission. Even for all of the complaints some may have with the level of challenge, the experience easily overshadows that. This is a game that is a wonder to behold. And while old-school arcade challenge may not be your Cuphead of tea, (I know, that’s a terrible joke.) Cuphead is still one of the most entertaining experiences you’ll likely have this year. If you relish a challenge, and love classic cartoons you should buy this for your computer or Xbox One if you haven’t already. You may want to look into this game even if you normally don’t care for this sort of fare. The amount of talent, and dedication on display is nothing short of captivating.

Here’s hoping Cuphead was a successful enough endeavor for a follow-up, or another game using the same wonderful artists, and animators. I know I’ve repeated myself a lot in this review, and I probably sound a bit redundant. But win or lose, Cuphead is one experience you just may want to roll the dice on. (I think I did better on that one.)

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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Rogue Legacy Review

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I’m really late to the party with this one, as it’s been in the backlog for quite some time. But after seeing fellow blogger Esperdreams (whose stuff you should also check out) live stream the PlayStation 4 version a while ago, I fired it up. I’m pretty glad I did. Rogue Legacy is another game that mixes Rogue elements with bits of other genres.

PROS: Great character designs. Humor.

CONS: Minor hit detection issues.

WOW: Some of the randomness is worth checking out alone.

In the case of Rogue Legacy, the Rogue elements are blended with Metroidvania game play. But beyond that, there is a very creative twist that sets the game apart from other Rogue like/lite style titles. In pretty much every game of this style, if your character dies, even once, for any reason the game is over. You’ll get to keep some of the items you ground for. But you’ll be starting the game over again.

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In Rogue Legacy this is still the case. However, upon your next play through, you’ll get to play as one of that characters next of kin. So that means, a son or daughter of the previous combatant. It gets better though, because there are pros, and cons each child inherits. Some children will have vision problems. Some children will be easily confused. Or see everything in a mirrored perspective. There are a lot of these traits, and each one of them effects how the game is played.

Another common trait among this style of game is procedural generated stages. This idea is used in Rogue Legacy as well. Like Rogue Stormers, this game rearranges pre-designed rooms in new patterns to create new maps. One pretty cool thing the game does with this is self-referential humor. Often times you’ll find journal entries where the fighters will get information about the current castle layout from their ancestors. There is also a room with a jukebox you’ll randomly find where you can change the background music. Kind of like the record room you see in VVVVVV.

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There are other cool in-jokes like the clown target test. The obituaries when you lose. There are many, moments that will make you laugh. In spite of the fact that this game shares many of the same tropes seen in the trilogy of NES Castlevania games. Or the original three Metroid games. As you go throughout the map each time, you’ll find new areas upon every play through. Dark, demonic cavern areas. Giant haunted forest sections. Haunted towers. You name it.

Of course, once you die, the castle will look completely different. But you can use the gold you’ve earned during the last play through on upgrades for your progeny. You can upgrade your life bar, the amount of mana for using special weapons (a la Castlevania), as well as getting other things. You can unlock a bunch of possible classes for your future generations. Ninjas, Miners, and more. You can also upgrade the damage level you dish out, the amount of gold you can collect, and even get shops that come up before you go to the castle.

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These shops will let you bulk up your armor,  and add new abilities like dash attacks to your characters. Eventually you’ll find a third shop where you can exchange your gold collecting percentage for the option to lock the castle map in place so it repeats the exact same layout. Every time you explore the castle not only can you collect gold, but you can find chests with blueprints that can be used in shops for more armor, and weapon types. Some chests will only open if you complete a small mission like clearing the room of enemies, or getting to the chest without getting hurt. And while these aren’t long affairs, many of them can be quite the challenge. Others can’t be done until you have the right item or power ups.

Of course once you start getting the hang of the game, you’ll find boss rooms. These fights can be insanely hard. Not so much because of the bosses themselves. Though they are a challenge. But getting to them with a full bar of health, and a full bar of mana is a challenge in of itself.  Over time you’ll figure out that combat is mastered through timing. Timing not only when it’s safe to swing, but when to jump to avoid something. When to back away. The time in between any given enemy’s attack.

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But even when you learn this it isn’t a cinch to win. Because any given random layout can place you in a room with 50 different bad guys. Plus death-traps, spike pits, and other nefarious things in the environment. This is the kind of game that relishes high difficulty, and requires the patience to learn how everything works. Some have compared it to Dark Souls in that regard. And that’s fair. Mind you they’re two completely different games, with different rules. But both do require some patience to learn those rules.

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Over time, of keeping with it, you’ll begin to improve, and find yourself enjoying  yourself more. Even when you lose, there is enough humor, and charm to keep you coming back. Plus you’ll spend your gold, bulk up some stats, and items making enemies easier to slay. There is a point though, where the game decides just how easy might be too easy. So after a while you’ll notice beefier versions of enemies, or even find harder enemies showing up in the castle sooner. So most players will not be blowing through this one in a few minutes. It can be a grind. But the game obsfucates it pretty well most of the time. It also doesn’t feel like a carbon copy of the base formula. There is a wide variety of enemies, and the jokes can be really funny at times.

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The only big issue I have is that in some spots the collision detection is off just enough to make those sections feel cheap. You’ll take spike pit damage, but your character might not look like they actually touched the spikes. Some times you’ll swear you did a downward stab on a switch in time, but it doesn’t count as so. So these few moments can be a bit frustrating. The rest of the challenge comes from having the right tools for the right job, and the right amount of hand, eye coordination. Which is fine, this is a game that is about a challenge after all. When you do accomplish something in it, it just feels wonderful. You’ll scream “I FINALLY DID IT!” only to then realize you’ve got a long way to go yet. But it’s still satisfying.

Also satisfying are the chip tunes throughout the game. Each area has its own background song. Like I mentioned before, if you’re lucky you can find the jukebox room to change the current song, but each sector does have its own theme. Which gives it some of that Metroid vibe. It isn’t quite the same, since almost every time you play, the layout is different. But it does at least help make each background feel different from the last.

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Rogue Legacy also has a very crisp look reminiscent of old flash animation. Sprites have some bright colors, and nice details. There are cool visual touches on everything as well. The game even has an element of Paper Mario, as you watch your character flip over like a card whenever you turn them around.

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Overall, this is a really inventive take on a popular idea. If you enjoy challenging adventure games, or you can’t get enough of games with rogue elements Rogue Legacy should be on your list. Just make sure you pay close attention around switches, and spikes.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Steam Link Review

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Several months ago I reviewed Valve’s Steam controller. In that time, firmware revisions, and features in Steam have made it even better. But there was another cool piece of tech that launched alongside the controller, and I’m finally getting around to talking about it. Steam Link is something you really might want to look into if you’ve ever wanted to use the TV as a monitor without having to lift your 20 pound behemoth into the entertainment center.

PROS: Lag is barely noticeable. Can be used for more than gaming!

CONS: Low end video cards can’t really utilize it properly.

APP: If you have a Samsung Television, you may not need to buy a Steam Link box!

Steam Link is a pretty cool device. It’s been available now for almost two years, but the core purpose hasn’t changed. It’s an in-home streaming device that works on your home network. Just like your phone, computer, tablet, or game console, it can connect to your router. Once connected to your router, it can see all of the other computers you have connected to the router. If one of the computers is running Steam it will allow you to connect to it.

So what does this mean for you? What it means is you can have that computer running in the bedroom, but use it in the living room on your HDTV. This is perfect for nights where you have family or friends over, and you want to play party games with them without having to drag your computer into the living room with a HDMI cable. It’s also great if you’ve spent an entire day at the desk typing, and want to web surf on the couch when you get home. You can even do work on your computer in the living room if you want to.

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The device itself, is just a tiny little box that looks like a USB hub. It has both a wired, and wireless network chipset in it. So you can run a cable from Steam Link to your router, or just connect with a wireless signal. It also has a HDMI output on it so you can connect it to the TV. Beyond that are a port for the AC Adapter cable for power, and two USB ports. You can connect combinations of controllers, mice, keyboards to these ports. You can also connect USB hubs if you want multiple controllers.

Once you have everything connected to the TV, the box will go through a brief setup. It will first see the networks in the area. You’ll find yours in the list, and connect. If you have yours password protected (and why wouldn’t you?) You type it in, and go from there. From here it will see the network, and whatever computers are running Steam. You choose the one you want (Just make sure it’s running big picture mode.), and connect. The first time you do this you’ll get a verification code you’ll have to punch into Steam. Once you do this it will pretty much let you connect easily assuming the firmware is up to date, which it won’t be out of the box. So you’ll have to sit through a few update downloads, and installations upon the first use.

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But once the initial setup is over, you’re pretty much ready to go. It will connect to your computer, and you can navigate Steam with a controller or keyboard, and mouse you have connected to Steam Link. You can even minimize Big Picture mode at this point, which lets you pretty much navigate to anything on your computer. Obviously, a keyboard, and mouse connection is better for general purpose computing or work. As you can go into the fields you need to, and type away. Or to move the mouse around as needed.

But for gaming, you can navigate Big Picture mode with a game pad pretty easily. Go up, and down the menus, your list of games, and presto. You’re up, and playing in the living room, while the computer is running the game in the bedroom. Steam Link also has a few performance options you can go through before connecting to any given computer. You can force a lower image quality to reduce lag, and tweak other bandwidth settings.

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If you use a Steam Controller with Steam Link you get a U.I. better experience than with other game pads, joysticks, and controllers. Just like on your desktop, you can use the trackpad for some mouse-like navigation, and the onscreen keyboard in Big Picture lets you easily go to the fields very easily. The range on the Steam Controller’s USB dongle is pretty far too, so you can probably leave it in your computer, and still use the controller in the other room. Unless your home just has a ton of interference.

In my personal situation, I’ve found that Steam Link is pretty wonderful. I rarely notice input lag, performance is great, and as long as I use Big Picture mode, I can have an easy time web browsing, and gaming. Outside of Big Picture I can still get to things, but this is one of the parts where it isn’t perfect. If you really want to web browse on something like Chrome, or Edge, you’ll really want to have the keyboard out, as the on-screen keyboard only works in Big Picture. The same is true if you want to continue work in the cool, air-conditioned front room because your computer is in the sweltering hot bedroom where the fan isn’t good enough in July.

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But beyond that, it works very well. So long as the computer you’re using is well beyond the system requirements listed on the box. If your hardware, especially the video card; is too slow, it can’t keep up. I ran Steam Link on two of the desktops here, and the newer one which is a few years old now works fine with it. The older one does work. In that, I can navigate the computer, and even try running a game with it. The trouble is, the ancient GT9500 couldn’t push the video signal to both a monitor, and a network device. So what games the card can run, don’t run well through the Steam Link. This was also true of running movies. That computer has a number of digital versions through Ultraviolet that came with Blu-Ray movies. While they’ll display fine on the computer itself, when trying to watch them through Steam Link they will stutter, band, as well as de-sync audio, and video. Doing this was not a problem for my newer rig.

It is great that you can push more than games from your computer to the living room TV, but if your computer has a very old video card, or onboard video you’ll need to upgrade that before you can use it effectively. The good news is it doesn’t have to be a water-cooled, overclocked, $600 monster card. But you can’t get away with a sub $100 budget card either. You’ll need something somewhere in the midrange bracket.

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Be that as it may, I do recommend the Steam Link. Especially for those nights you have company over for a night of couch co-op, pizza, and drinks. But it gets even better. Because it was recently announced that certain Smart TVs made by Samsung can download Steam Link as an app! The TV’s in question have similar hardware built-in, so a free app will get you the same experience as using Valve’s box. This is great news for those looking into a new television, and it gives certain Samsung models (Not all of them are compatible) a competitive edge over other sets. But for those of us with an eight year old Element HDTV, the Steam Link is a worthy purchase anyway. Now if Valve would only allow the on-screen keyboard to work outside of Big Picture, to make it a little bit more convenient for non-Steam uses. You won’t want to type a review with a controller mind you, but needing a keyboard for a non-Steam browser might annoy some. But for the intended purpose of playing your PC games on the big screen TV,  Steam Link is pretty awesome.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Insanity’s Blade Review

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A number of titles have been Frankenstein’s monsters. Taking ideas, or mechanics from a variety of games, and combining them to bring something new to the world. It happens in everything, as any great idea has the potential to be improved upon, or repurposed for something else. Sometimes this gives us something glorious. Other times something banal, and uninspired. Sometimes something completely terrible. But a lot of times we’ll see something great trying to break out of some shackles.

PROS: Soundtrack. Graphics. Character design. Borrowed elements are good ones.

CONS: Glitches. Performance issues. Annoying bugs.

CAVALCADE: There’s a line of large, and obscure references on display.

Insanity’s Blade is a pretty cool game. Right off the bat, its cinema screens, and characters will remind you of Golden Axe. Begin playing, and the movement will possibly bring out memories of playing Rastan. Some of the enemy designs, backgrounds, traps, and weapons will bring about memories of the first four Castlevania games. The loot you pick up, and the rising coffins then make you remember Ghosts N’ Goblins. If all of those references weren’t enough for you, the dagger throwing, and climbing may even remind Commodore fans of First Samurai (an obscure game that was also ported to the Super NES.).

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All of these elements do work well together too. Stages have elements of all of these games. But connected in ways that flow well. One may see this, and figure it would feel disjointed. And they very easily could have. But fortunately, everything was well researched by the level designers in this regard. Moreover, many of the stages have branching paths. So it gives the game a little bit of replay value, as you can opt to take different routes on a second play through.

Also great is the inclusion of two-player arcade co-operative play. You can also opt to play either a story mode, or an arcade mode. Both of these are basically the same game, but the arcade mode reduces the story bits, and the mandatory side quest stages that I’ll get to later. Quite honestly, there are a lot of things to like in Insanity’s Blade.

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As you may already know, Insanity’s Blade is an action platformer. So again, you’ll be going through stages in the vein of early Castlevania titles. Expect pixel-perfect jumping. Floating heads. Spiked walls. Pits. The most brutal retro Konami stuff. There’s even some Mode 7 like effects that take you right back to Super Castlevania IV. But as I said earlier, there are plenty of other games it takes inspiration from. You’ll have the same movement speed, and jumping arcs of Rastan. You’ll start out the game with a mere punch, the ability to grab enemies, and a jump button. But you’ll find over the course of the game, you’ll get to shoot knives.  Think Shinobi.  (For an interesting twist, these can be disabled in the options menu.). Blowing up enemies drops coins, and money bags seen in Ghosts N’ Goblins as I said before. Pick up all of the money you find because hidden in every level is a shop castle that rises from the ground. These shops have weapon, and health upgrades in them. You’ll want them because like Magician Lord, the better the firepower, the longer you’ll live. The thing to remember is once you go inside them, they won’t come up again until you lose the level, and have to start over. So don’t go in them until you’re sure you have enough gold to afford what you want.

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Beyond the shop weapons, are weapons you’ll get on your quest. There’s a couple of swords, a Castlevania whip, among others. These are usually dropped by bosses, and tie into the game’s storyline. Bosses are another point in the game where I was reminded of First Samurai. Because like that game’s bosses, these are large, weird, and take a ton of punishment. Of course they also continue the look of all of those mentioned 8-bit, and 16-bit era console, arcade, and home computer games.

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The storyline is a bit simplistic, but works for the game fine. You play a character named Thurstan whose family is killed in an attack on his village. So he goes on a revenge mission looking to kill off the hordes of monsters responsible. He’s joined by a dwarf named Finn who gets roped into the adventure. Things get a bit weirder when they happen upon a sorceress, but I won’t spoil the story for those who haven’t played yet. It does what it needs to do, and according to the developer, was adapted from a graphic novel. Between the cinema screens, and labels you’ll be greeted with a map where you can choose either the next stage, or a side mission. Side missions usually have boss fights you need to do as they give you items required to complete the game. Other times you’ll face a gauntlet of enemies, or rescue some NPCs. The game also throws in a classic shoot ’em up stage near the end of the 16 stage adventure. There are plenty of things on hand for those who loved all of its influences.

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Playing through Insanity’s Blade though, you’ll find there really is a great game trying to break free of some small problems. Which is a shame because what is great, truly is great. The problems are two-fold. On my system which isn’t the latest, and greatest but is still well above the system requirements I ran into slowdown. This is the biggest issue. The game will randomly become jittery, and sluggish before going back to normal. It doesn’t make things unplayable, as the slowdowns are but a hiccup in the grand scheme of things. But when they happen during a tricky jump, or a trap you’re trying to avoid it can be very annoying. The game also doesn’t have an option to turn Vsync on or off.

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The second problem I ran into were a number of graphical bugs, where a background tile appeared where a foreground tile should have been. Also, as great as the visuals are some characters blend in with the backgrounds, and you won’t see them until after you’ve taken damage. This especially sucks when it happens by a pit, or other trap, and the knock back pushes you into said pit or other trap. I also had a couple of random crashes to the desktop. Again, nothing common enough to make the game unplayable, but still enough to grate.

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Be that as it may, I still had a good time playing through Insanity’s Blade. It’s now been out a while so I don’t see the hitches being resolved. But hopefully their upcoming Battle Princess Madelyn avoids these problems as the new game seems to have the same vivid pixel art style, and action platforming in mind. I also forgot to mention Insanity Blade’s soundtrack which has both an 8, and 16-bit option for its chip tunes. It’s pretty solid, and while it doesn’t reach the lofty heights of the NES Castlevania Trilogy, it does go along with its action fairly well. There are also a number of secrets hidden throughout the game, so it does give you another reason to go back, and replay it from time to time.  It’s a fun game. It’s just got a couple of quirks that keep it from being as memorable as the titles that inspired it.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Kero Blaster Review

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I had a birthday a couple of weeks ago. It was an inconvenient time to hang out or grab a few beers with anyone. I was working, everyone I know was busy with their own work, and life stuff going on. Plus as you get older birthdays tend to become less, and less of a big deal anyway. But one of my friends from an old job was kind enough to send me a couple of games on Steam anyhow. One of these was Kero Blaster.

PROS: Great music, pixel art, and mechanics.

CONS: Minor technical hitches.

MASH UPS: It feels both very NES, and C64. That’s a winning combination.

I’d never heard of Kero Blaster. Despite the fact that it’s made by the creator of Cave Story. The little Steam tile didn’t look so hot when I opened my email. But I installed it, and after a title screen crash, the game started working properly. Fortunately, once I got my Steam Controller working I was pleasantly surprised. Kero Blaster does an ingenious thing by showing you controls right on the Title Screen. You have to clear the little blobs off of the screen, and you then answer a phone to start the game.

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From here you choose the save file you want to load, and the game starts. Upon playing for the first time, you’ll see a cut scene where a cat calls you into the office to bark at you. After the reprimand you go to an elevator where two scientist cats send you on missions. As you play through the game, you’ll get more cut scenes between stages that explain more of the storyline.

Honestly, the storyline is pretty good. It doesn’t make much sense at first, but over time the pieces are filled in, and you’ll find it’s quite funny. You play a frog who works at a company called the Cat, and Frog Company. Where the owner, a cat, progressively gets less, and less healthy looking. There is a bunch of workplace humor peppered in there over the game’s several missions. There aren’t too many games that make me legitimately laugh out loud. But this game has its moments. I think fans of comedic anime, and manga will laugh a few times playing this as well.

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Once the initial cut scene ends, you’re sent off on your action platform adventuring. The game seems to take influences from games that made the NES, and Commodore 64 platforms famous. Kero Blaster’s jumping mechanics remind me very much of Turrican. Jumping has a similar slow, yet precise feel to it. Also like Turrican, is the jet pack you’ll eventually get, allowing you to do double jumps to get to higher ledges. However the stages themselves are structured more like the ones in a lauded NES action game. Some stages have a Mega Man feel, others seem like something out of Castlevania. On paper, these are three series that have little in common. Yet the elements of each that were borrowed, and tweaked work really well together.

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Much like Mega Man, and Turrican, you’ll be doing a lot of shooting. Killing low-level enemies, medium enemies, and then fighting a giant boss monster at the end of every stage. Boss fights usually result in you finding a new weapon to use. Each of these is handy in specific situations, but they can all be used on the overwhelming majority of enemies. Unlike the Mega Man games, you play the game in a linear fashion, and there’s no real boss order as a result. But the boss fights do involve looking for patterns to mitigate damage taken. Again, it hearkens back to many C64, NES, and SMS games. Like a lot of other platformers out there, there are mid level shops in every level. Here you can spend coins dropped by defeated enemies. Doing so lets you level up your weapons, health meter, and buy help items. Kero Blaster has a pretty high level of challenge. But to make things a bit easier you get to keep your upgrades when you run out of lives. You also have unlimited continues, so if you persevere, you can eventually beat the campaign. When you do finish it, you’ll unlock a hard mode. So if you’re the type who loves old school difficulty, there’s something more for you to shoot for.

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The game has a wonderful aesthetic, that again, reminds me of Commodore 64 platformers. It’s displayed in a letterbox aspect ratio, with a limited color palette. Sprites are large, and backgrounds feature some nice detailing. I also really love the character designs in this game. There is a lot of variety in the enemy types here. Some are hilarious references to other games like crabs that behave like the Sidesteppers in Mario Bros. Then there are the aforementioned blob creatures which begin showing up in a number of ways. There are even Mega Man X style mid bosses here. While the graphics remind me of the C64, the audio very clearly hearkens back memories of NES soundtracks. The NES APU had a pretty distinct sound, and Kero Blaster does a pretty good job emulating it. Many indie games do so as well, but the compositions here are what set it apart from the pack. Many of the songs in this game are on par with those in titles like Shovel Knight. They are quite honestly that good. Very addictive, catchy songs that fit the action nicely. In addition to those though, there are some lilting, atmospheric chip tunes for accompanying environments too.

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That isn’t to say I didn’t have any issues with Kero Blaster. The .exe randomly crashes on my set up. Rarely when I’m playing the game, it usually happens when launching or exiting. Still, it has been often enough that it’s worth bringing up. Playing the PC version I have no idea if this is the case on IOS, or PlayStation 4. But at least on PC, expect to see a crash to the desktop once in a while.

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The default button layout is also not ideal. I was constantly pulling up the menu when I didn’t want to, or pressing shoot, when I meant to press jump. Fortunately the game does let you remap buttons on your controller, and keyboard. So you’ll certainly want to do that. Once you’ve done that, there isn’t much to complain about. Of course, some may be fine with the default controls. This may be different on the other releases too, as I have not played either of those versions.

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There are also a couple of areas I felt the collision detection could have been just a tiny bit better, as certain projectiles wouldn’t seem to hit the character, and would still net damage. It never felt the game was too hampered by this, but you may feel some of your deaths are cheap. These moments were rare in my play through, but still felt annoying when they did occur.

Finally, the game does not allow you to move your character’s stance while firing. If you’re walking right, mowing down waves of baddies, and suddenly get attacked from above you have to stop firing, then aim up, and begin firing. Again, not something that breaks the game, but if you don’t know this going in, you’re going to be upset.

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Ultimately though, I really do recommend this one. It isn’t drawn out with padding, nor is it something you’ll likely blow through in an hour. At least not on the first play through for most. The problems it does have aren’t so bad that they make things feel unplayable. It has likable characters, a fun story, and some genuinely good stage design. It’s a fun to play action platformer for your computer, IOS device, or PS4. And you get to torch monsters with a flamethrower as a frog. Slippy wishes he could be even one tenth of that level of bad ass.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Rivals Of Aether Review

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Super Smash Bros. It’s arguably one of the most popular Nintendo franchises. Some may even say the most popular Nintendo franchise. From the original Nintendo 64 game all the way up to the Wii U iteration, it’s an iconic game. But fans will constantly debate what version is best. A passionate group of Smash fans would tell you it is the Gamecube version. And whether you agree with that or not, you have to admire that level of dedication. Not only have they gotten it recognition in the fighting game community as a competitive game, they’ve gotten it featured in tournaments.

So of course it was only a matter of time before companies would try to make their own platformer fighting game hybrids. Some of them terrible, some of them just okay, and some of them pretty damn good.

PROS: Super Smash Bros. Melee pacing. Unique features. Great character designs.

CONS: Relatively small roster compared to other fighters. Not a lot of single-player stuff.

WHAT?: Is what you’ll ask confusedly upon seeing some opponents’ recoveries online.

It would be easy to dismiss Rivals Of Aether as another Smash pretender. It has a similar 4-player party fighter feel. It has the same general goal; knock everyone off of the stage, and be the last one standing. It has a cast of characters with nowhere near the recognition of Nintendo’s major IP. Some of you may even ask “Why bother playing this over any of the Super Smash Bros. games?” But before you sigh, click on a different site, and prepare to see if Mr. Game & Watch has finally made it to S-Tier thanks to a professional player’s new discovery hold on.

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Because Rivals Of Aether is actually quite good. The game may not have the high production values, marketable Nintendo mascots, and blockbuster score. But it’s probably the best of any attempt to compete with Nintendo’s formula yet. Yes. Better than Sony’s attempt. And better than Papaya’s Cartoon Network themed clone. Both of which were solid efforts.

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Right from the get go, this game makes no qualms about who it targets. If you’re one of the die-hard Super Smash Bros. Melee fans out there, Rivals Of Aether is hoping you’re going to pick it up. Assuming you haven’t already. But if you’re not, and you enjoy the Smash games, you may just enjoy this as well. This game embraces the competitive end of the Smash fandom. You’ll find no items, or power ups. Not even for simple fun. What you will find, are some really cool looking stages, and characters. All of the characters make a great first impression here. They’re fairly unique (Except for maybe Wrastor who is clearly a Falco Lombardi stand in.), and have designs that stand out.

Upon getting into a match, you’ll find it plays very much like Smash. You’ll want to be the last one standing, as I mentioned earlier. It has similar play mechanics under the hood. Directional Influence is a major part of defensive play, affecting the angle of knock back when you’re sent flying. There are tilts, specials, and meteor attacks to boot. Enthusiasts will feel right at home here.

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But it isn’t a carbon copy of Super Smash Bros. either. Rivals Of Aether makes some enhancements that make it feel different enough to justify looking into it. It adds a second set of regular attacks it calls Strong Attacks. Where the Smash games have a button for regular moves, a button for special moves, and then different attacks based upon whether or not the stick was moved simultaneously with a button press this one adds a third button. It’s a small thing, but it also means another few moves per character.

The game also has a bigger emphasis on parrying. If you can time the block button perfectly, it grants you a brief moment of reprieve by putting an opponent in stun for a second. It also brings in advanced tech techniques by timing movement just before hitting surfaces. Rivals, also puts in a wall jump technique which can be really helpful when recovering from a strong knock back.

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One thing everyone will love is the sprite work on display. The pixel art is really, really nice stuff that hearkens back to the 16-bit console era. This game oozes Super NES, and Sega Genesis in terms of motif. The chip tunes aren’t half bad either.  Every stage has its own thumping songs that fit its visual flair. Interestingly, some stages will favor certain characters. To balance this out, at least in multiplayer, players can vote on what stages to disallow for a conflict. So if you see your opponent has chosen Orcane, you can put a giant red X on his stage so he can’t make easy saves by swimming.

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The game also has a pretty robust tutorial in it. Honestly it gives the level of care, and attention some of the better Street Fighter, and Tekken tutorials have had in recent outings. If you’re a newcomer it’s honestly worth checking out, and if you’re a Super Smash veteran you should at least look at it, as it can go over some of the differences nicely for you. It covers the absolute basics, but then covers combos, cancels, and the advanced wall jumping mechanics as well.

 

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Rivals has both offline, and online matches where you can play against random players, or friends. It’s, pretty fun. It doesn’t usually lag that badly unless the opposing player is on the other side of the country or world. And even then I’ve still had some matches that were playable. Not great by any stretch, but at least I could move without having to expect to wait 30 seconds to see Zetterburn take a step. Be that as it may, I still don’t recommend veering too far outside the realm of low ping opponents.There are also tag battle modes which can be fun to play, though I suspect most will play the Free For All mode the most. I was also impressed with the character creation tools. Like the ones found in King Of Fighters XIII, and Capcom Vs. SNK 2 you can change the color palette of the characters to use as a custom appearance for yourself. So if you want to make Wrastor green, you can do so.

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Where the game falters a bit is when it comes to one player modes. Aside from the excellent tutorial, the only real thing it has is the Story mode. Here, you take each of the characters, and play through their part of the game’s lore. Like most fighting games this is told by picking a character, playing through computer opponents in a 1v1 match, until you reach the final boss. After defeating the boss, you’ll get a bit more backstory, and credits. Once you beat the game with every character though, there isn’t much left for you to do. You can take the points you earn for playing, to unlock the secret characters. But beyond that there really isn’t much else. When considering the small roster, it doesn’t translate into much single-player time. Sure, one could point to the Abyss mode where you try to exceed goals the game sets with enemies, and items to beat. But for a game that wants to tear you away from Smash, that isn’t much.

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Don’t misunderstand me though, Dan Fornace, and his small team have done a terrific job in making a Smash-like fighter. If you don’t presently have a Nintendo console, and played a lot of Super Smash Bros. in the past, Rivals of Aether is a no brainer. If you do have a Gamecube, Wii, or Wii U, and love Super Smash Bros., you still may want to give this game a shot. Because it’s going to be more of what you love. As long as what you love is playing against other people in person, or online. This game has the competitive end set. But if your favorite parts of Smash have been breaking targets, Adventure modes, and Subspace Emissaries, Rivals may feel a little bit anemic. That said, if you’re a big fan of fighting games put this one on your radar.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Carmageddon: Max Damage Review

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Ah Carmageddon. It probably seems esoteric now, but twenty years ago (man time files, and boy am I old.) it was a pretty big deal. It was a racer that involved wrecking other cars, wanton destruction, and the wholesale vehicular manslaughter of pedestrians. It caught the ire of the same people upset about the absurd violence of games like DOOM, and Mortal Kombat. So when it was ported to consoles, in some regions it was heavily censored. The game led to two sequels. One was a pretty decent one. The other not so much. So here we are with the fourth game all of these years later. How does it fare?

PROS: Still has gory comedic violence. Fun tracks, and vehicles.

CONS: Not a big visual leap over the old games. No improvements to handling.

WHAT?: Power ups are crazy.

I enjoyed the original Carmageddon back in the day. The sequel was also pretty fun. It was juvenile. It was full of stupid humor. But there was a certain amount of charm in it all. Running over pedestrians for time bonuses, destroying opponents to steal their car, all on dangerous, and silly themed races. There were issues with the games like the inconsistent enemy A.I., and the bad handling causing you to spin out fairly easily. But the underlying game under it all was still goofy fun. Visually these games weren’t much to look at, the car models were blocky, and the pedestrians were even more lo-fi. But that made the mayhem more comedic so you didn’t mind so much.

And the audio, man, was it good. The voice samples, and dialogue went along with it fantastically. Plus it had a pretty cool soundtrack. It was pretty good. But the third game changed things up a bit too much for some, and not nearly enough for others. Plus it didn’t come out in the best state from what I remember. It kind of came, and quietly went. Carmageddon went dormant for a long time.

Over that time,  Interplay, the game’s publisher went into all kinds of financial woes, and the IP ended up at Square Enix. Stainless Games would finally get the IP back in their hands, and upon doing so, brought out the fourth game in the series. First as Carmageddon: Reincarnation, and now that it’s got a console port it’s been retitled Carmageddon: Max Damage. So after all of these years, and all of this time, how does this new game hold up?

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It’s a bit of a mixed bag. Visually, the game does look better than the first three games. But not by very much. This version has some advanced lighting effects, and some other visual cues. But the vehicles themselves are still fairly low on the details, and the pedestrians are still blocky people you’ve been smearing over the pavement since Carmageddon II.  The PC version does feature a robust set of options, so if it taxes your hardware, you can lower some settings. The sound is the same sort of scenario. The sound quality is a bit better than the old games. It doesn’t sound as compressed, and there’s still a hard rock soundtrack to jam along to while destroying other drivers.

Carmageddon: Max Damage also follows the same rules as the second game. You start out picking one of two vehicles, and racing sets of events to unlock new ones. Each set generally has three or more events you need to win in order to get a stamp of approval. Win enough of them, and you’ll unlock the next set of events. You don’t have to play every event to unlock the next set, though it is recommended because you’re more likely to unlock every set that way.

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During the events you can also find tokens that can be spent on upgrades for your vehicle. You definitely need to upgrade your vehicle because later races feature more aggressive opponents who will destroy you pretty quickly if you’re unprepared. To keep yourself from being destroyed, you must keep up scoring points. You get points (and time) for running over people, doing crazy stunts, and blowing up racers.

There are several event types in each set. Some of these are a traditional race, where you need to place first to advance. Others are challenges where you have to get to a certain number of checkpoints first, or kill a number of specific people first. Often times there will be a specific opponent for you to destroy, and in doing so you get to keep their vehicle for your garage. And then the best are the classic events where you can go for whichever goal you want. Killing racers, running over people, or winning the race.

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During the events as you’re earning points doing all of those over-the-top things you’ll start getting rear ended. Or jammed into a wall. Or knocked off of a cliff. All of which start to severely damage your vehicle. The damages will affect how your car handles too. So if you get T-boned you may end up only being able to take left turns. Or you could bang up the front end to the point the car barely runs. You can even get into situations where the car’s engine is shot, and you have no tires.

This is why you need to earn points. You can use the points to fix your car on the fly, or recover your vehicle if it falls into a chasm. Now if you rack up an insane score, you can spend a large chunk of it to constantly keep your car in pristine condition. This makes the game considerably easier. But it still isn’t a cakewalk. Especially as you progress, and begin dealing with more, and more aggressive A.I. There are also Mario Kart styled power ups you can find by driving into oil drums. Some of these are useful, like the Sith Lord Force lightning that you can use to electrocute opponents. Others are just silly, and ultimately useless, like the one that makes you wobble.  Still there are others that are there to troll you, like the power up that blows your car in half, and could lead to a loss if an enemy hits you afterward.

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In between events you can spend the tokens you find on upgrades for your vehicles. These are drip fed to you through the game though because certain upgrades are only purchasable at certain levels. This gives the game some replay value as you can go back with a beefier car to play older events you’ve skipped. But at the same time it can be annoying when you’ve found 7 tokens, and can’t spend them on what you want even though you have enough currency.

The main problem with this one though, is the fact that it hasn’t improved the driving physics over the old games very much. Far too often you’ll find yourself spinning out after attempting to make a hard corner. Or you’ll find the rag doll physics when trying to roll your car over either don’t move enough, or move too much making getting yourself re-oriented an annoyance. It doesn’t make the game a bad one, but it is a big enough annoyance to take you out of the experience. It’s enough of a distraction, you may find yourself playing it in short bursts rather than several hours.

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This isn’t to say Carmageddon: Max Damage isn’t fun. As long as you enjoy dark humor, and cartoon violence it’s got a lot under the hood you’ll enjoy. One of the really cool things I’m glad to see has been retained is the replay feature. When you finish any event in the game you can go back, and re-watch it. As you’re watching it again, you can experiment with a ton of different camera settings. You can change the point of view, for different parts of the play back, you can fast forward, rewind or pause video. You can even take the HUD off if you want. This is also where you can get some laughs, as this is where you’re most likely to listen for the voice samples, and pay attention to the gore. Because when you’re trying to actually win a race you’re probably most focused on driving or other goals.

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The game also supports Mods you can get in the Steam Workshop on PC, and the game supports multiplayer. There isn’t much of an online play community here, but the ability to play the game with a friend does add some fun to the package. I like that this is a game that supports LAN though, so if you do have a few people coming over with laptops, you can do classic multiplayer through your home network.

Overall, Carmageddon Max Damage isn’t a bad game. But it isn’t something I’d tell you is a must-buy either. A big chunk of the package depends on your sense of humor. If you like dark, and violent comedy then you’ll get some laughs out of it, and it is competent in its modes. The thing is, it doesn’t excel at any one racing mode. If the mechanics had been vastly improved over the old games it would be worth a recommendation. But it really hasn’t. If you’re looking to add a technically sound arcade racer to your game collection, there are better options. But if you want something to make you laugh at a preposterous send-up of Death Race, you could easily do worse.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

100 Foot Robot Golf Review

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Not too long ago, I discovered a game called Mecarobot Golf. A Super NES game by TOHO where the primary golfer was replaced with a giant golfing robot. It’s a great simulation for its time. But I was left wondering how much more fun it could have been with multiplayer, and a roster of movie monsters, and robots. Well, it turns out late last year a company decided to answer that question.

PROS: Humor. Large Roster. (Mostly) Pick up & play mechanics.

CONS: Wonky animations. Audio clips repeat too often.

VOLTRON: The classic bot is piloted by a pack of Pembroke Welsh Corgis.

Games made as a joke don’t always have much in the way of staying power. For every Shower With Your Dad Simulator, we get 15 games like Who Wants To Beat Up A Millionaire? But considering the game’s premise, and its similarity to the Super NES Game Pak I mentioned earlier I gave it a chance. Frankly, I’m glad I did. Make no mistake, 100 Ft. Robot Golf isn’t going to make your top arcade sports game of all time lists. But it does manage to do just enough right to make for a compelling party game.

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The game has a nice amount of content. I was surprised to find that there is a full-fledged campaign included along the usual practice, and exhibition matchups. The campaign takes you through a story mode, that more or less lampoons 80’s anime. An obviously suspicious TV host decides to try to get a bunch of Robot Golf pilots to come out of retirement for a new show. But as the story unfolds, a few mysterious clues art thrown out about a cataclysmic event on the moon. Throughout the story of course, there are a ton of jokes. A lot of which is reference humor. Quite honestly you don’t need to know about or understand anime to get a lot of the humor. The game enlists the voice talents of the McEllroy Bros.  who are known for their comedic podcasts.

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Here, they usually are heard as the Sportscasters during match ups. Although they’re in a few of the cut scenes as well. The rest of the cast does a pretty good job of mocking some of the bad dubbing found in some early anime. All in all, it’s funny enough to hold your attention for a play through. Beyond that, you’ll more than likely want to mainly play multiplayer. However, there are a number of custom skins you can unlock for each of the robot golfers. The way you do this is by scoring medals in the campaign’s chapters. You can then go to medal shops during the campaign to spend them on the unlockable items. So there are incentives for going back, and replaying chapters. One of the shops also features a crossover! There is a Saints Row themed shop buried in the campaign, and even a secret guest character I won’t spoil here.

So how is the actual golfing? Well, it’s a mixed bag. While you can play the standard golf rules pretty much every other golf game follows, this is not a simulator grade game. If you’re the type who watches the sport on TV, and plays a lot of EA’s Tiger, and PGA games, you’re probably not going to come back to this much. It doesn’t have a wide variety of clubs, or weather scenarios for you. Each golfer gets a driver, a wedge, and a putter. That’s it. There are some things to be aware of though. You still take into account the wind, and there are obstacles to be aware of.

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That being said, the game is actually a lot of fun because of the lack of realism. The swinging mechanics differ for many of the robots. Some of them require timing a press on several gauges to be pixel perfect. Others have gas gauges you have to pay attention to. Others have a two pilot scenario where the gauges have to be synchronized. So in spite of the simplicity there are a few things to keep it from feeling too simple. Each robot also has a special ability they can use on the course.

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Now where the game becomes really interesting is during multiplayer. Not only can you play a traditional set of rules, you can also play custom rule games. You can play the game where the first person to get the ball in the cup wins, regardless of attempts. You don’t have to alternate turns. Players can go full on swinging whenever they want. Moreover, you can do things to screw over your friends. If they hit a nice long drive you can jump in the way of the ball, and cause it to bounce off of your robot, and into a ditch. If you’re trying to get the ball through a narrow gap between two buildings you can destroy the buildings, and then take your shot. Players can attack one another. There are all kinds of crazy, over the top, ways to play golf.

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But not everything about the game will make you smile. Visually, the game looks fairly dated, with low-detailed backgrounds, and models that could have been done on the PlayStation 2. There are some questionable physics when it comes to destroying buildings, and other scenery. The giant edifices sometimes won’t tip over, instead sliding across the map like a bar of wet soap. The low gravity moon stages, and aqua stages may anger hyper-competitive players as it becomes easy for opponents to interfere with a long drive. The most annoying thing is probably the fact that audio quips begin repeating way too soon. So while you will laugh your ass off the first time you hear them, you may just turn off the audio upon the four hundredth time.

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Be that as it may, I really enjoyed the underlying game. The campaign was an entertaining play through, and you don’t have to be any good at the game to complete it. Of course, getting better at the title will get you the medals I mentioned earlier for those unlockable items. But the real star of the show is the multiplayer. This game is a wonderful option for game night, as it supports split-screen gaming on your TV. It also supports matches over the internet, though even that is going to be something you’ll want to do with friends. There doesn’t seem to be a large pool of random competitors playing regularly.

 

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Still, if you’re looking for something different to play when friends or relatives come over you’ll all have a pretty fun time. It isn’t going to outdo more serious sims for golf enthusiasts. But if you grew up with Voltron, or Gundam, and regularly marathon shows produced by Seth MacFarlane, you’ll probably really enjoy 100 Foot Robot Golf.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Freedom Planet Review

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Sonic The Hedgehog. He’s seen a number of ups, and downs over the years. The consensus seems to be his earliest adventures on the Sega Genesis, Sega CD, Sega Master System, and Game Gear were his greatest glory days. Fast, frantic, platforming action that involved any number of paths to victory. But after the Dreamcast faded into obscurity Sonic went in all kinds of directions. Many of them terrible. A few of them average, and a few that were pretty good. But I’m not here to talk about Sonic this time.

PROS: Really amazing pixel art, chip tunes, and the game play you remember.

CONS: The shortcomings you remember. Padding.

BIKES: If running fast isn’t enough you can speed around like Chris Pine in Star Trek.

When Sonic The Hedgehog was released it was only a matter of time before the imitators would come about. People dump on Bubsy, but that game was far from the worst clone. Awesome Possum, Aero The Acrobat, even The Road Runner had a Sonic inspired game. So with so many others that didn’t hit the mark, what makes this game stand out in the sea of Sonic contenders?

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For starters, Freedom Planet absolutely nails the feeling of Sonic The Hedgehog. The physics, the sense of speed, all of it. If you’re a big Sonic fan who longs for a return to the 16-bit glory days of yesteryear, buy it. I could end it there. I’m serious. This is bar none, one of the best Sonic clones you can get. But there are a lot of things that set it apart from its biggest inspiration.

Freedom Planet has a deeper, darker, storyline than the Sonic games. Most of the Sonic games feature Dr. Robotnik/Eggman imprisoning animals, stealing emeralds, and holding the world hostage. Freedom Planet instead involves a much more detailed plot. It opens up with a King being killed by a despot in cold blood in front of his son. Who is then taken hostage, and forced to fight for the despot. It wasn’t something I was expecting going into this. But it got my attention for sure.  From there you discover that there is an all-powerful stone that three kingdoms on the planet safeguard, and of course the despot wants it for himself.

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From here the game opens up, and you can choose to play either an adventure mode or a standard mode. Playing the adventure mode, will let you experience cut scenes, and the stages are played in different orders depending on which of the three characters you choose. Going with the standard mode eschews the cut scenes, and you play every stage in order. Like a traditional platformer from the era the game pays homage to.

The interesting thing with the adventure mode is that you’ll get a slightly different experience each time you play through it. That’s because the game is played through the eyes of each character. The three characters are: Carol, a green wild cat. Lilac, a purple dragon, and Milla (an unlockable character), a dog. Each of the characters has their own attacks, and abilities making each play through a little bit different. Carol has some speedy punches, and kicks. She can also ride a motorcycle if you find gas can power ups. Lilac has a useful double jump. Milla has a shield, and can throw cubes.

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Once you start playing though you will immediately be reminded of Sega’s most popular mascot platformer. The same sense of speed. The same loops, twirls, and crazy tracks fill the game’s 14 stages. With all of the collectibles, 1-Ups, power ups, and health items in each of them you can opt to try to find everything, or you can try to clear everything as fast as possible. I know I’ve waxed on about how many Sonic influences there are, but the game also has a surprising number of similarities to Capcom’s Mega Man X series too. This becomes apparent in the game’s combat, and enemy designs. Instead of jumping on bad guys to defeat them, you’ll punch, kick, or hit them several times to take them out. Freedom Planet is also a big fan of putting in multipart stages, and mini-bosses. Some of these are really imposing, and lead you to believe you’re at the end of a stage. Only to discover you still have a way to go.

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Boss fights themselves are grandiose in Freedom Planet. These moments feel more like playing an arcade beat ’em up than they do a platformer. Although you’ll discover they have attack patterns, again in the vein of a Mega Man X title. But some of these, especially toward the end of the game can be really impressive in both challenge, and visual flair.

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Freedom Planet also has the courtesy to grant players four different difficulty levels. If you’re absolutely horrible at this sort of platformer, or even platformers in general the Casual setting is for you. It is nearly impossible to lose a life if you’re even remotely good at these kinds of games. But from there you have Easy, Medium, and Hard difficulty settings. With the latter going very much into the “Get good!” end of things. Aesthetically, everything in the game is beautiful. Galaxy Trail’s pixel artists should be commended for just how well they’ve recreated the look of games of the early 90’s. As you play through this one, you’ll be constantly reminded of those days on the Genesis, and Super NES. It really is a beautiful game to look at. The soundtrack is just as good, going for the twinge lo-fi synth of the Sega Genesis, and early computer sound cards like the AdLib. The tunes themselves are filled with hooks, and melodies you’ll want to hum along to. If you want a game that will satisfy your nostalgia, while giving you something new, this fits the bill.

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There are also some other small galleries you can visit when not playing the main game. Throughout the main game are cards you can find, and these will unlock sound files, songs from the soundtrack, and concept art in these galleries. Not something that the average player might get into. But for players who become big fans of the story, characters, and lore, it gives an incentive to replay the game a few times.

Of course, I did have a few minor complaints with this one that may be bigger concerns for someone else. First off, because it adheres so closely to many of Sonic The Hedgehog’s rules it has some of the annoyances. There are times you’ll have to make blind jumps, only to land on an enemy or a hazard. This can lead to some moments of trial, and error. While not a major problem that ruins the game, Some might feel it detracts from an otherwise enjoyable experience.

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Another issue is near the end of the game there is a shoot ’em up stage, and it doesn’t feel up to the same standard as the rest of the game. The bigger issue is there is no checkpoint after completing it. It is considered a part of the following stage, which is a pretty long one. So if you run out of lives, shut off the game, and come back to it later you’ll have to play the entire shmup part again. So unfortunately, instead of feeling like some variety, it ends up feeling like padding. Again, not a problem that makes the game unplayable by any means. But it really could have used a checkpoint at the end.

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Overall though, Freedom Planet is a wonderful platformer. It feels like an homage to Sonic, and Mega Man X while also being unique enough to stand on its own. It has some of those mechanics, but it adds enough of its own original ideas, and tweaks thus avoiding becoming a forgettable wannabe. In fact, the game did well enough when it launched three years ago that a sequel is around the corner. So whether you play it on the Wii U, PC, or the recent release on the PS4 you won’t regret it.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Mirage: Arcane Warfare Review

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It’s no secret I’m a big fan of Torn Banner’s Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Oh it has some issues. Weird bugs that don’t affect game play. Advanced tactics the community is split on how fair or unfair they may be. But overall it is a good game that a lot of people loved. Seriously, it’s done fairly well over the last few years. While things are tapering off of it now, it was a great example of a big game from a small studio. If you never played Chivalry, give it a spin. It goes on sale on Steam a few times a year, for a really low price. It basically took the Battlefield style of game play, put it in a Medieval setting, and gave it a deep melee system. The unique controls are a cut above most any other sword attacks in other First person shooters. Letting you “steer” your attacks. Mirage takes these swinging mechanics, and implements them into a different setting.

PROS: Improved mechanics. New magical abilities. Character designs. Customization.

CONS: Server connectivity issues. Team Objective mode isn’t as deep as it is in Chivalry.

MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: The swords, and sorcery bring many reminders of the IP.

On the one hand, you can think of Mirage: Arcane Warfare as Chivalry with spells. But on the other hand, you really can’t. Mirage does carry over the mouse swinging sword fighting of Chivalry. You can swing overheads, swing horizontally, and stab. You can still steer the swings (The community calls this “dragging”) in any direction. This gives you a way to fake people out. Turning vertical , and horizontal swings into diagonal, or curved swings. Or speeding them up a bit. Or slowing them down a bit. The difference here is Torn Banner has altered the system mildly. In Chivalry it was possible to move the camera so wildly, skilled players could do helicopter swings, or arch so far back, their swords could hit people behind them. Of course equally skilled players could see this coming, and either block it properly, or even back pedal, and tire the tricksters out.

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But here some of the really extreme stuff is toned down. You still have plenty of depth, but you won’t be doing some of the over the top stuff. However, Mirage adds spells into the mix. This alters the combat significantly, and while many had their doubts, it works. In fact it works so well, that it really does accent the sword fights nicely. Each of the game’s six classes, can choose three of six spells. Each unique to the specific class. To keep the game from being spam heavy these have RPG style cool down periods. So if you use a spell, it’s going to be awhile before you can use it again. The cool down periods vary depending on the spell. Spells can also complement another spell, and sometimes that means complementing a spell cast by one of the other classes on your team. This adds all kinds of depth to a pretty cool system. On top of that, blocking has been beefed up a bit over Chivalry too. Not only can you block the melee attacks that come your way, but the spells as well! Just like Torn Banner’s last game, blocking requires knowing the timings, and aiming at the tip of the attack. So becoming proficient will take a lot of practice.

Each of the classes suits a different play style. There are six, each of which has their own pros, and cons.  The Taurant is a big brooding tank character. He gets heavy swords, and axes. He dishes out a ton of punishment on enemies, and his spells continue that theme. The Vigilist takes a lot of inspiration from the Knight class in Chivalry. She gets a shield, and pole arm. Her spells are focused a lot on defending the team. Like the giant dome she can put down, that is temporarily impervious to enemy spells. Then you have the Entropist. This class acts as a combat medic, while also being a great backup. He has spells that are centered around healing teammates, as well as some nice ranged attacks. The coolest spell he has will summon a magic carpet he can fly on, and attack from.

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Rounding things out are the Vypress, who is a faster, attack-heavy class. She can dual wield weapons, and she has spells focused on movement, and misdirection. She’s one of the weaker classes, but a skilled player can avoid, and parry a lot of stuff coming their way. The Tinkerer is speedy, and has spells that are great for booby traps. The Alchemancer is Mirage’s ranged class. You can either play him as a purely ranged character, who casts fireballs from afar. Or as a melee attacker. The thing to remember though is he is even weaker than the Vypress, and doesn’t have the speed on his side. Still his spells are great for supporting teammates, and quietly sneaking around.

One departure the game makes from Chivalry is in the weaponry. Where that game had a ton of weapons for each class to unlock, and debate over placing in a load out, this game doesn’t. There are still a lot of cool weapons in the game, but each class can only choose from a primary or secondary weapon. You can’t be swinging a mace, and then decide to switch to a hatchet. This is due to the importance of the aforementioned spells. Still, the weapons you can choose from, are all pretty interesting, and have their own stats. Some have better range, while some weigh less, and can be swung faster. Some do more damage, but are slow. And the weapons can be paired with spell combinations to some great effect after you’ve experimented, and practiced enough.

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Mirage has a lot of modes to choose from as well. There is the traditional Team Death match mode, where teams compete for frags. As well as a Last Team Standing mode called Arena. Here, teams go head to head until only one of them has any survivors. There are also a variant of Capture The Flag, where one team has to grab their randomly placed Jinn, and get it to their designated spot to have it planted. While this is going on, there are control points called Demiglyphs that can be held for bonus points.

Then there’s an actual Control Point mode, where you capture Glyphs, and Demiglyphs. If you hold the point long enough, you’ll get 20 or 10 points depending on the size. Glyphs are the larger of the two, so conventional wisdom would say to go for those. But sometimes grabbing the smaller point can turn the tide too. Then there is also a push cart mode, like the ones you’ve played in other games.

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The Team Objective mode in Mirage isn’t quite the same thing as it is in Chivalry. It still works a bit like a Rush mode in that attacking, and defending teams are given objectives to perform. And they’re still a combination of game types. But it isn’t as well concealed here, as the objectives don’t have the same compelling trappings, and the variety isn’t quite as nice.

That doesn’t mean that Mirage doesn’t have anything to grip you in terms of setting or story. It just doesn’t have the historical intrigue Chivalry did, or some of the Battlefield, Medal Of Honor, Joint Ops, or even some of the Rainbow Six games did. This game goes much more into the realm of high fantasy. So think more along the lines of Hexen, Heretic, Ziggurat, or classic CRPGs in terms of setting. Though there is a lot of inspiration from ancient Arabian architecture, and design here.

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All of this does mesh together really nicely. The swords, and sorcery will likely remind you of stuff like Masters Of The Universe, Willow, or even KRULL. The story centers around two civilizations who use magic to better their societies. Upon discovering one another, they begin to have reservations about their counterparts’ ethical standards in using magic. Eventually, tensions rise, and the two go to war with one another. Again, the design on display is beautiful. Where Torn Banner’s last game went for a more realistic look, this game goes for a cel-shaded look that is neither cartoonish or complicated. It feels closer to something like Borderlands than it does something like Team Fortress 2 or Overwatch. I just wish the game showed off the story through the tutorial rather than being something you had to read about on the game’s website. The tutorial isn’t much to write home about. It does give you a quick series of battles that get you acclimated with the basic controls. But that’s about all it does. If you’re coming into this for a campaign, you’ll want to be moving along. But if you like competitive multiplayer read on.

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Another really cool feature in the game is the customization. It isn’t quite as intricate as something like a WWE wrestling game. But it does have a fair amount you can customize. You can choose different helmets, headdresses, hair styles, skin colors, tops, accessories, and more for each of your classes. On top of that you can do this for each class in both factions. So if you want your Taurant to look one way on team purple, but a different way on team orange, you can! This gives the game a lot of personalization as you can try to make characters look the way you want. Again, not quite as deep as something Yukes would do in a wrestling game. But far beyond what many modern competitive shooters would do these days.

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When actually playing the game, most of the time things are a blast. The fine tuned swinging mechanics are wonderful, and they do combine with the new magic abilities quite nicely. Getting into a game with a group of people who communicate, and strategize can lead to some really gripping, competitive match ups. It’s one of the most fun experiences you’ll have. Mirage also supports LAN play, which makes it a great game to play with friends privately.  The audio here is also really good. The voice acting fits the look, and motif of the characters well, and the soundtrack has a nice orchestrated arrangement. It feels like the sort of thing you’d hear in an old black & white serial.

There is one big problem with the game though, and that is the unreliable servers. Most of the time you’ll connect to a game, and have a great time. But after a couple of rounds, you’ll find your ping inexplicably spiking. Going from a ping of 60 to a ping of 300 leads to a sudden rash of rubber banding, unsynchronized animations, and generally bad performance. Eventually, you’ll notice things smooth out, as your ping sinks back down to an acceptable level. But this can really turn off a player. On a day when you experience it once in a while, it is merely annoying. But on a day where it happens every other game, it will make you put the game down, and play something else. One can only hope Torn Banner can work this problem out sooner than later. Now it doesn’t appear to be as bad as what was reported about Ubisoft’s For Honor when that game launched (as that game didn’t even use dedicated servers). But it is still a blemish on an otherwise splendid game.

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As far as performance goes, it uses Unreal Engine 4, and seems fairly well optimized as of launch. My aging 760 card, and i7 4770k was able to run the game maxed out, and still crack 60 frames per second except in really frantic spots. Setting things lower made things get above 90. The biggest drain on resources appears to be the number of blood pools left by dead bodies, and the length of time corpses stay on the map. Regardless of your other settings, you can lower both of these things in the options, and you’ll see a noticeable performance gain. Obviously if you have a fairly old setup, you’ll want to move other things like texture quality, and draw distance down. As well, as shutting off Vsync, and lighting effects among other things. If you have something mid tier or higher though, playing on or near the highest settings shouldn’t be too much of a problem in most cases. Obviously, there may be some setups where this isn’t the case. But at least in my experience, performance really hasn’t been an issue.

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Overall, Mirage: Arcane Warfare is a really good game. I can certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Chivalry’s melee combat, and is still open to playing other kinds of competitive first-person action games. Likewise, it’s a cool game for those who want to take a break from something like Overwatch, or a modern warfare themed shooter. It’s not character focused the way Overwatch is, and it plays completely differently. Likewise, coming from a more traditional experience is also a chance to be surprised. Mirage may share some similarities with these titles, but there are far more differences to be found. Good ones.

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Be that as it may, the server issues can be a bit of a turn off, and one can only hope Torn Banner is able to iron them out sooner than later. Otherwise, as fun as it is, it could be the realm of a niche player base rather than the fairly large following its pseudo-predecessor had. Still, even if the worst case scenario came to pass, the LAN play makes for an exciting game to play with friends.

Final Score: 8 out of 10