Friday, July 31, 2020

Paper Mario: The Origami King (NSW) Review

It's time for the final review of the month. It's a game that is represented on SuperPhillip Central's July banner. (We'll be taking a look at the other game, Ghost of Tsushima at a later date.) Paper Mario: The Origami King is the latest in the long running Mario spin-off series, one that dates back to the Nintendo 64. How is this most recent entry? Let's find out with the SPC review.

It's time to pay the paper. Mario's latest adventure unfolds with impressive results.

It's without much need to state that the direction that the Paper Mario series has gone has left plenty of fans of the classic style of the series in sour spirits. With each installment since The Thousand-Year Door going further and further away from the series' roots of turn-based, partner-focused combat with earned experience points from battles, there's a lot to dislike for this sect of the fanbase. However, while Sticker Star and Color Splash--released on the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U respectively--were far from what fans wanted from the Paper Mario series, the games overall were enjoyable to a point.

Now, Nintendo and Intelligent Systems looked to fine tune the formula from its last two games, and the end result is Paper Mario: The Origami King. Right away I'll say that if you go in with wanting this to be another Thousand-Year Door, you're going to be disappointed. Go into the game with an open mind and a lust for adventure, and you'll get one of the better entries in the Paper Mario series to date.

Paper Mario: The Origami King begins with Mario and Luigi arriving at Peach's Castle. Upon entering the castle, Mario is greeted by Princess Peach, though drastically different in appearance. She's actually made in origami form. When refusing to enter into the origami cult like origami Princess Peach desires, she banishes Mario to the dungeon. This is where Mario not only meets a chipper helper named Olivia, but also reveals that the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom and Bowser's minions alike are being forced into being folded into mindless origami slaves. This is the mad work of King Olly, Olivia's sister, who uses his incredible power to thrust Peach's Castle atop a mountain and blockade with a series of five colored streamers. With Mario and Olivia able to narrowly escape, they gain their primary objective: follow each streamer to its source and destroy each.

The start of Mario and Olivia's grand adventure. Who knows where it will take them?
(Well, besides players like myself who have already beaten the game, of course!)
While the main plot follows Mario and Olivia's adventure to five unique parts of the interconnected world to undo and destroy the streamers, there aren't an immense number of events that shake up the narrative. Instead, The Origami King delights from moment to moment with oftentimes hilarious interactions between characters of the Mushroom Kingdom. Yes, while there aren't a large amount of characters that deviate design-wise from the traditional Toads, Goombas, Koopa Troopas, and other Mario roster seen ad nauseum in modern Paper Mario games, their personalities deliver fantastic results thanks in part to the excellent localization by Nintendo Treehouse. This is a funny game that seldom takes itself too seriously, but when it does, the game has some very somber, sometimes emotional moments that I can't imagine won't choke up some players. Yes, you read that right. Regardless, I found myself playing more and more not only because I wanted to see what wacky scenario would happen next, but also because I enjoyed the gameplay so much.

What a nice segue to talk about The Origami King's gameplay, then! One of the most entertaining parts of this Paper Mario is the adventuring aspect of the game. It's a blast to explore the expansive areas in deep depth to discover hidden goodies such as folded up Toads that can be revealed with a bop of Mario's hammer or treasure chests containing collectibles of characters and objects Mario comes across in his journey. A lot of this stuff is hidden quite well, too. Not only are there collectibles to discover, but there's also numerous spots of the world that have been ripped apart, leaving nothing but a near-bottomless pit behind. These require Mario to unleash a wave of confetti to toss out and magically refill these holes to make them safe to cross and walk on. Thankfully, confetti is everywhere in the world, plentiful and infinite, so there's no point in the game where you're ever at risk of being locked out of anything.

Holey moley! This place has seen better days!
The five streamers Mario and Olivia head out to follow see them reaching myriad interesting destinations, such as a lush autumn forest, a shogun-style theme park, a sprawling desert complete with towers to scale and puzzles to solve, and even a Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker-esque ocean to travel across--actually using sea charts to discover secret treasure buried in the deep. The variety in the environments isn't just for show--it also serves a gameplay purpose of consistently bringing new concepts and ideas to keep this 30-hour long adventure feeling fresh from start to finish.

Toads and treasure hide anywhere and everywhere in Paper Mario: The Origami King's world.
Apart from venturing through the world of the Mushroom Kingdom, numerous puzzles fill the land. Some are honest to goodness quite puzzling and tricky to solve, requiring both clever intuition and a careful eye. While the first streamer might give you a false sense of security of how Olivia consistently helps you, as the player, out, by the second streamer and on, the kid gloves are most certainly off. It's important to note, though, that you can press the X button to get a hint from the always helpful Olivia to get nudged in the proper direction if a particular puzzle is giving you problems or need to know what to do next.

Fling some confetti to fill those nasty not-so-bottomless pits.
This puzzle aspect of the world lends itself to battles themselves, which are a terrific step-up from what was seen in Origami King's predecessor, Paper Mario: Color Splash. Battles (literally) revolve around lining up enemies in set patterns by turning and sliding one of four rings around Mario to properly put enemies in position. If done correctly, Mario will get an attack bonus. Starting off, enemies are easily put in position and the solutions are simple enough.

Line up foes just right to get a bonus attack boost.
Easier said than done the more you get into the game, though!
However, as the game goes on, starting enemy placements require more movements to solve these battle puzzles correctly. Given that you are only allowed a certain number of movements and seconds to perform the adequate positioning to attack foes, things can become challenging quite quickly. Thankfully, you can spend coins in battle to give yourself more time to think a particularly troublesome problem out more, or if you are in a hurry, you can just use coins to call on the Toad audience to make moves for you.

Once you've moved the enemies into groups, whether a line of foes or a series of enemies in a 2 x 2 formation, you can start attacking (though you can fail to line up all foes in time, thus resulting in it being difficult to attack everyone in a single turn). Depending on how many enemy groups are in a battle, you can attack once, twice, or up to three times. This is where your battle commands come in. Unlike modern Paper Mario games, Mario's starting boots and hammer never break upon multiple uses. Other boot and hammer types, along with other items, certainly do, however.

In true Mario RPG fashion, time your button inputs just right to deal the most damage to enemies.
This is where I'm sure the question then becomes, "what is the point of battles?" Past Paper Mario games of the modern variety made it so you wasted so many battle cards in encounters that it made battles themselves seem pointless. However, in Paper Mario: The Origami King, while it's true that you can buy new items and weapons with coins, and these weapons and items will break after several uses, you'll find that coins have other uses in the game as well.

Apart from boots and hammers, Mario can use one-time use items
like this Fire Flower to make foes feel the burn.
I already talked about using them for hints from the Toad audience in battle as well as increasing your time limit to think out puzzles, also in battle. Coins are also used to purchase super helpful accessories, which are like the badges from past Paper Mario games. These give you more health in battle, more time to spend solving how to arrange enemies in battle, and also assist in finding hidden Toads, item boxes, and collectibles in the overworld. Coins disappear quite quickly with all of the spending you'll be doing, so it's a good idea to engage in battles. By no means do you have to dive into every battle like a bloodthirsty plumber out for death and destruction, but I personally enjoyed almost every encounter within the game. It's because unlike Sticker Star and Color Splash, Origami King's battles aren't just worthwhile to do--they're simply a lot of fun to do as well.

Then, there are the boss battles, sometimes against creatures that bestow Olivia with new powers to interact with the environment, while other times they're against one of King Olly's right hand men... or in this case, right hand stationery that guard each streamer. These battles are even more engaging. They have you making a path for Mario to reach the boss by spinning and sliding rings around. Instead of enemies being on the rings, different icons are on the rings, such as arrows that guide Mario from point to point, attack boosts, treasure chests, ON buttons that turn on special spaces that allow Mario to unleash his 1,000 Fold Arms technique (which is also used to interact with the environment in the overworld), and of course, attack buttons. Each encounter is different, requiring a unique approach that is fun to figure out how to deal with a boss's bevy of attacks, avoid damage, and ultimately make it out of the fight alive. Some battles I struggled with, as the solution wasn't immediately apparent, so some frustrating experimentation was necessary to solve them (and the occasional "game over" as well). Still, I stuck with them as both they and the game itself were entertaining enough that I wanted to keep going.

Situate each circular ring well so you can guide Mario to attack
this Legion of Stationery boss right where it hurts him!
Outside of turn-based, ring-focused battles, Mario will sometimes encounter paper mache enemies that have their fights occur in real time on the overworld. These require some swift dodging and evasive maneuvers, and the occasional hammer attack from Mario to deal these baddies damage. Like I always say starting with this review, any problem can be solved with a hammer. Seriously, though, these battles with paper mache enemies serve as welcome distractions and occurrences to keep the game fresh.

More paper, more problems! More paper mache, more Paper Mario madness!
And if there's one thing that Paper Mario: The Origami King excels at, it is that it seriously keeps things fresh from the opening moments to the very end. There's obviously the various battle types, but the myriad mini-games like shuriken-throwing, a boat ride down a rocky rapid river, and defending an airship against a paper airplane assault are just some of the things that keep the game enchanting. Of course, like any title, Origami King does have it sore spots, such as aggravating instant kill traps and one especially annoying late-game "game show" that this reviewer's scrawny mind just had an insane amount of trouble with. Overall, though, the adventure is a superbly paced and satisfying one. One that I eagerly searched high and low for collectibles, Toads, and item boxes, and one that kept me satisfied from beginning to end.

The Paper Mario series has never looked better with The Origami King. Environments are teeming with life and personality, and the wealth of color on display is truly breathtaking. There are some immensely stunning areas in the game, and more often than not that is a credit to the wonderful art design. The characters in both paper and origami forms are amazing to look at, well animated, and just look insanely detailed and crisp. Meanwhile, the music is full of bops and bangers, and is one of my favorite soundtracks this year easily.

This brightly lit desert oasis city is but one of the myriad memorable
destinations Mario and Olivia will arrive at on their adventure.
It really feels like with Paper Mario: The Origami King that Nintendo and Intelligent Systems have finally reached a satisfying compromise between the RPG aspects of the original Paper Mario games and the more adventure-intensive aspects of the more modern games in the series. The fact that those blasted Things from Sticker Star and Color Splash are nowhere to be found is a blessing, though maybe the fact that the actual "Things" in The Origami King are bosses to beat the crap out of is a nod to those of us who hated that part of those games. The battle system is worthwhile and actually enjoyable to interact with instead of pointless and cumbersome, the humor is once again on point and sensationally well done, and the world is just incredibly fun to explore. Paper Mario: The Origami King isn't just a great game, it's a terrific installment of the Paper Mario series and may just be one of my favorites in the franchise yet. Big praise for a series that has had a string of recent arguable disappointments.

[SPC Says: A-]

Battletoads (XB1, PC) Official Release Date Trailer

The Battletoads are back, and this time they're in a beat-em-up... and a 2D platformer... and a shmup... and so many other genres in this mishmash of styles. Being a release date trailer and all, you might be wondering when the Battletoads will finally arrive on Xbox and Steam. The wait won't be long, as Battletoads launches on August 20th.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 (NSW, PS4, XB1, PC) Review

What a horrible night to have a curse. Really, it is, at least from my point of [re]view. Here's my verdict on Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2, a game that I so wanted to love after adoring the original classic Castlevania-inspired game.

It's always darkest before the dawn

The original Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon delighted in ways I didn't expect. I adored it so much that I gave it the #9 spot on my Games of 2018 list. It possessed just the right amount of difficulty that made for a satisfying experience. It's obvious that others loved the game a lot, too, as what started out as a game created out of Kickstarter goal for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, now sees a sequel. However, while the original Curse of the Moon consisted of a fair level of challenge, unfortunately, Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 is hard for all the wrong reasons.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 sees the return of Zangetsu, the whip-carrying hero of the original game, and he's on a mission to vanquish the horrors of the night once more. His destination is the top of a terrifying tower, and along the way, he encounters three other heroes who joins his cause. There's Dominique, able to jump higher than any other character in the game, and can use her staff to launch off the heads of enemies a la Scrooge McDuck in DuckTales to reach higher areas. 

Robert is great for long range, but not so much for up close and personal encounters.
There's also Robert, who is the sharpshooter of the bunch, able to pick up enemies from afar with his rifle. While he has a lot of mobility with being able to wall jump as well as lay on the ground and crawl Solid Snake-style, his health is by far the lowest of any other character in the game, making him not the greatest to depend on. Finally, there's the tank character of the game, a corgi piloting a mech suit named Hachi. Hachi is terrific for brute forcing one's way through levels with his invincibility special power, but this drains special energy quite quickly. His hover ability allows him to cross chasms otherwise inaccessible to the other characters, and his ground pound grants him devastating attack power from above, as well as the ability to destroy blocks below him.

Who's a heckin' good pup? Why, Hachi is!
Each character has their own health bar, subweapons, and can switched between effortless with the shoulder buttons. With regard to subweapons, some are better to hold onto for particular segments of levels over others. Dominque's is especially nice, as she can plant a seed that grows into a health-restoring item for any character that needs it, including herself. Different paths in levels house unique items that can increase the party's health, subweapon energy, attack, or defense, so it's often a good idea to go off the beaten path when possible. 

However, most paths in Curse of the Moon 2's seven levels will be off limits to most players in their first run. As new characters are earned, new paths become available on subsequent runs. In fact, to fully "complete" Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2, you need to run through the game no less than three times. That said, each time shakes the experience up considerably. The second run takes away one of your three heroes with the goal of rescuing them from their demonic possession. Then, the third run brings back some goodness from the original Curse of the Moon and ends on a truly crazy note--yes, more insane than having a corgi piloting a mech!

When a character loses all of their health, they are removed from your arsenal of heroes as you are put back at the last checkpoint you reached. The lone positive of this is that if you were facing a boss, the boss will have the same health remaining in their meter from the point you died at the boss. The overwhelming list of negatives is that when one or more characters are eliminated, you might as well take the "L" and lose a life to summon them all back. Checkpoints are often scattered in seriously ill-conceived manners, where many are placed far apart from one another, or worse, several screens away from a level's boss.

Oh, take an antacid already.
Curse of the Moon 2 features two styles of play. One is a classic Castlevania-like experience where damage results in your character getting knocked back, thus ripe for falling into bottomless pits from carelessly received hits in tried and true "NES hard" fashion. This mode has a lives system that takes away a life each time you revive all four heroes at once. The other mode is more to be my taste, but still a considerable step up in challenge when compared to the original game. There's no "knock-back" damage to speak of, but the game is still quite difficult. 

The first run is enjoyable enough, though there is a steep increase in difficulty from stages 4 to 5. By the second run, bosses take off an insane amount of damage, and these encounters are already obnoxious due to each boss's final gambit move. This is generally a last ditch effort attack by the boss that is next to impossible to avoid one's first time encountering it. It perfectly encapsulates Inti Creates' design philosophy with Curse of the Moon 2, unfortunately, and that's to present several "gotcha" moments to the player under the guise of difficulty. Sometimes, this game can just feel unfair, and it's a balance that Inti Creates nailed with Curse of the Moon that the developer failed to do and achieve with this sequel. 

Apart from taking on the hellish nightmares both intended and unintended in Curse of the Moon 2 by your lonesome, you can take on the challenge with a friend via co-op. Though you really need to have two well skilled players to have any semblance of fun here. Newly added via an update is a boss rush mode, but considering my thoughts on bosses in general--and how many require pixel perfect platforming for evading their attacks which Curse of the Moon 2 seldom provides with its stiff movement--it isn't my type of mode to unwind with. 

Co-op is present in Curse of the Moon 2, but it's more of a novelty than anything else.
I won't say that Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2 is a poor sequel to the original game; it's just a disappointing sequel for me. While I'm most certain many will enjoy the daunting challenge presented by Curse of the Moon 2's lack of proper checkpoint-ing, myriad cheap deaths, aggravating final attacks from bosses, and maddening "gotcha" moments, it's simply not for me anymore. I felt like the game was more of a test of my patience than a test of my skill at times. Your whip mileage most certainly will vary.

[SPC Says: C-]