Saturday, February 27, 2021

Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time (PS4, XB1) Review

I've gotten a handful of requests as to when SPC would cover this next game. One might say its subtitle fits this review as well as the actual game being covered! Finally, I can publish this, SPC's review of Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time. Enjoy.

Time is mostly on this Bandicoot's side.

Well, this is awkward. Here I am reviewing Crash Bandicoot's latest console release on my birthday, and it's pretty much old news by now (the game--not my birthday). After all, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series, PC, and Nintendo Switch versions of the game are releasing next month, and here's my review of the original PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions instead! There's a good reason for this, however, and it sort of leads me directly into my review.

Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time's subtitle has a clever double meaning. Not only do we finally have an all-new Crash game in the vein of Naughty Dog's trilogy, but the story revolves around time travel. Doctors N. Tropy and Neo Cortex have cooked up a plan to erase not only their mutual enemy Crash Bandicoot but also existence itself. Of course, our goofy but loveable hero Crash Bandicoot alongside Coco Bandicoot are more than ready to put a stop to the villains' plot. Along the way our heroes meet up with various masks that assist them in their adventure, as well as some allies from the unlikeliest of sources. The game has somewhat of a Saturday morning cartoon feel, save for some out of place swearing such as the use of "hell", "damn", and "bastards" which are present for some odd reason. Regardless, the humor hits way more than it misses, bringing with it a jolly fun atmosphere which unfortunately clashes with the actual nature of Crash 4's gameplay.

Immediately in Crash 4's starting level, the game drops all pretense that it will hide crates in fair locations.
You see, Crash Bandicoot 4 is a devilishly difficult game. It will have you cursing, calling things unfair, and just throwing your hands up in the air, questioning your life choices. But, you'll pretty much be having fun doing so as you push through the pain of multiple deaths, ruined runs, and frustrating moment after moment. 

For some players, Crash 4's difficulty might be too much.
For others, they might enjoy getting their butt kicked and then demand for some more!
Well, that is unless you're a completionist, which in the case of Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time, the developers seem to have taken the wrong cues from Naughty Dog's trilogy. For one, one of the more enjoyable aspects of playing a Crash Bandicoot game to completion is busting up all of the crates in a level. Unfortunately, this is more of a pain than it is enjoyable in Crash 4's case. So many crates are hidden in some really cruel locations that are way too easy to miss on a first play-through--and heck, even on subsequent play-throughs. Additionally, this is compounded by the fact that levels are just too darn long in general. This is great for normal play, but when you're aiming to crash through every crate in one play-through of a level and end up with several crates missing by the level's end (or worse, just one crate missing), it is a total motivation and mood killer.

This dino "mite" make Crash want to pick up the pace here!
If there's one word the developers of Crash Bandicoot 4 don't have in their vocabulary, it's "restraint". Between the copious amounts of crates hidden and scattered all over the way-too-long levels, and the requirements for obtaining the game's best ending, Toys for Bob did not pick up the best lessons from Naughty Dog's trilogy. Crash 4 seems more of a game for the most seasoned, most dedicated, most patient Crash player out there, which unfortunately isn't a wide net to cast. Some of the things the game asks you to do are just ridiculous, whether it's completing levels with three or less deaths, breaking all of the crates, finding the hidden gem (usually placed in an incredibly clever location), or worse, having to do all of this in one run, it's absolutely nuts. 

Early on in my time with Crash 4, I just said "forget it" and actively avoided searching for secrets in levels, which doesn't seem like the developer's intent here. And if it was, it seems misguided, as one would think you'd want players to enjoy as much of the content of your game as possible. Instead, I ignored it since it was so obnoxious. Even the act of playing levels normally is full of so many "gotcha" moments, such as nitro crates being just out of sight that cause you to die just from touching them, platforms that fall moments after standing on them, and other middle fingers from the level designers that either require prior knowledge that they're coming up or insanely fast reflexes. It's more about trial and error than being able to reasonably complete a level on your first try, which many of you may disagree, but I don't find that to be a good design. When you have to play a level multiple times just to have an idea of what tricks and traps await you, it's just tedious and annoying. 

Crash likes to live dangerously as he enjoys the daily grind.
That all notwithstanding, I did find plenty to enjoy with Crash Bandicoot 4 despite my issues with the trial and error level design, lengthy as heck levels, and "N. Sane" completion requirements. Levels themselves have plenty of clever ideas in them. I really adore the theming on display, from the starting temple levels, to the pirate world, to the dinosaur realm, to a futuristic city. It's all well done, and the obstacles are various and plenty to keep levels feeling fresh. One of my favorite levels in the game featured a New Orleans-style city as Crash ran and leaped through alleyways and on top of rooftops and musical instruments. It was a festive atmosphere that I really dug, and it was enjoyable to play. There were still some "ha, ha, ha, we got you, player" moments from the level designers, but that was expected unfortunately.

Oh, big whoop. You clowns can juggle, but have you beaten Crash 4 with 106% completion?
I didn't think so! (Well, me neither, since that's no easy task!)
Crash and alternatively Coco has all of their abilities from Crash 2 and on. There's a jump and subsequent double jump, a slide, the ability to slide into a jump to increase distance, and of course, the patented Bandicoot spin and ground pound smash attacks. 

Leaping in any kind of 3D space can be quite challenging, so Toys for Bob smartly added a yellow shadow underneath the player to help gauge depth for all the platforming involved in the game. This yellow shadow is completely optional and can be turned off. Further to make the game more manageable, players can choose between a classic or modern mode, which turns on or off the player's lives counter. In modern mode, you can "happily" die as many times as you want. You even gain extra hits and more checkpoints depending on how many times you die in between checkpoint crates. Meanwhile, classic mode features the same rules of Naughty Dog's Crash Bandicoot trilogy, where collecting Wumpa Fruit is basically mandatory to rack up enough lives to survive the entirety of the game. 

Crash and Coco (as well as the player themselves) are shortly introduced to the concept of masks in Crash Bandicoot 4, and this is a nice shakeup to the gameplay. Each mask found serves essentially as a power-up. One mask temporarily slows time to allow our heroes the chance to cross otherwise speedy platforms. Another mask causes gravity to switch, flipping our heroes upside down and right-side up at the press of a button. Then, there's the earliest mask which phases in and out specific platforms, obstacles, and crates. This requires switching between phases to make certain objects solid and others transparent. Masks aren't available to use at your leisure; they appear at specific points in levels and Crash/Coco lose their abilities at specific points as well in levels. By the end of the game, you'll be switching between masks quickly in one of the most difficult levels (if not THE most difficult level) in Crash series history.

Even old Bandicoots can learn new tricks with this wall-running ability.
Apart from Crash and Coco, Crash Bandicoot 4 features three other playable characters that show up every once and a while in the adventure. There's Tawna, who shows up from the future with a delightful new look, and has the ability to grapple enemies and pull herself across chasms. She can also jump along specially marked walls. Then, there's Dingodile, who uses a vacuum-like weapon to suck up and spit out crates of all varieties, save for those dreaded Nitro crates that will make this particular playable character "after while, crocodile" instead. Finally, there's Neo Cortex himself, who begrudgingly joins Crash's cause. His blaster can turn enemies into both solid platforms and platforms to bounce off of. He can also utilize a dash to propel himself across gaps with relative ease. Of the three other playable characters, I would say that Cortex feels the least polished in execution. Without a proper double jump for Cortex, you really lack the precision required for the game. 

And even familiar faces can get fresh new looks as seen here with Tawna!
Crash Bandicoot 4, even on the base PlayStation 4, which is the system I played the game on, runs remarkably well. It's a really beautiful game, too, showcasing a gorgeous cartoony visual style. Environments are jaw-dropping with the amount of details plastered all over, and the characters look greater than they have ever looked in the entirety of the series' history. Music-wise, things aren't the best, but if you ask me--which you didn't, but I'm giving you my opinion anyway--I don't believe the Crash series ever had a strong soundtrack in it. I would draw a complete blank if you asked me to hum any tune I heard in Crash 4, and I played the game for quite a good while.

Vibrant and full of color, thy name is Crash Bandicoot 4.
Despite an intense difficulty and level of challenge, constant trial and error gameplay with the game's lengthy levels, obnoxious crate placements, and questionable completion requirements, I ultimately enjoyed my time with Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time. But, to be honest, the reason it took me so long to even review this game was that I definitely needed some breaks from it. Crash's latest--with its difficulty, with its myriad "gotcha" moments, and such--just wore on me way too much. Levels are just way lengthier than they should be, and no matter how great they look, how well designed some aspects of them are, and how interesting the obstacles present themselves, it just got exhausting to play through them for any prolonged stretch of time. While Crash Bandicoot 4: It's About Time was, for me, an enjoyable game with some great design here and there, its overall difficulty makes me question who this game is actually for other than diehard Crash fans and those with a severe masochistic side. Still, it's hard to ignore the quality on display here. 

[SPC Says: B-]

Bravely Default II (NSW) Launch Trailer

At long last Bravely Default II is here, available on the Nintendo Switch. As is customary, Nintendo has provided a trailer for this stellar-looking RPG's launch. Will you be picking up Bravely Default II?

New Pokémon Snap (NSW) "The Latest from the Lental Region" Trailer

Also featured yesterday in the Pokémon Direct in time for the Pokémon series' 25th anniversary (which is today) was a new trailer for New Pokémon Snap. Check out a whole slew of features included in this trailer, such as how photos are scored, Illumina Orbs, and the customization abilities photographers can add to their photos! New Pokémon Snap arrives on Nintendo Switch on April 30th.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury (NSW) Review

This month of platforming goodness continues with even more run and jump action. Today we're ending the work week right with the master of the genre, Mario, and his latest release: Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury. Let's check it out with the SPC review!

 Feline fine with this fur-tastic duo of Mario adventures

Nintendo has shown no signs of stopping on its quest to place every possible Wii U game stuck on that failed system to the Nintendo Switch. Judging by the Wii U's abysmal hardware sales compared to the Nintendo Switch, this strategy of porting Wii U games is a smart one, as most Switch owners have never played many of these games, much less have heard of them. Continuing the tradition that started with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Nintendo has almost exhausted its supply of port-able Wii U games now that it has Super Mario 3D World on its hybrid system. But, like Pikmin 3 Deluxe and so many Wii U ports, and like the name of the game suggests, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury is hardly a quick and dirty port effort. Containing excellent upgrades to the highly regarded Wii U original 3D World, and possessing an entirely new adventure with Bowser's Fury, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury is a marvelous marriage of linear and open-world 3D Mario styles.

Let's begin with the wholly new experience as part of the Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury package, the Bowser's Fury addition. It sees Mario entering an entirely fresh world of platforming challenges known as Lake Lapcat. Immediately upon entering inside, Mario is "greeted" with the rage of Fury Bowser. After a quick tutorial that sees Mario scampering up a path to avoid Fury Bowser's attacks and advances, such as Bowser's fiery breath that can blast away blocks of all kinds (something that players will need to remember), Mario collects a shiny medal known as a Cat Shine. This Cat Shine is the main collectable in Bowser's Fury, and upon collecting one, it radiates a nearby lighthouse, causing Fury Bowser to retreat in the process. 

Lake Lapcat is Mario's playground, so play and platform on!

It's a pretty clever tutorial to start things off in Bowser's Fury, because not only do you get some quick playtime as Mario to get settled in a little bit, you get to see what Fury Bowser is capable of, how he can destroy Fury Blocks (something that is needed to collect certain Cat Shines), and the game shows players that collecting a Cat Shine will force Fury Bowser to retreat immediately. 

Defeating a threat like Fury Bowser doesn't seem like the easiest task Mario has ever set out to do, but he isn't alone on his adventure. Not only does Bowser Jr. begrudgingly plead for Mario's help and joins his cause, but Plessie from the 3D World part of the game joins in as a fast way to traverse the open waters. Bowser Jr. can be played by a second player in a Super Mario Odyssey-like co-op fashion, but otherwise, he is controlled by the AI. Prior to playing with Bowser Jr. and any time thereafter, you can select how active the AI is when controlling Bowser's son. Setting it to "A Lot" results in Bowser Jr. actively attacking and engaging with enemies, while setting it to "A Little" means that Bowser's offspring is much more passive. You can set it so Bowser Jr. is as big or as little of a help to you as you want. 

The battle of the boomerangs happens here on Pounce Bounce Isle.

Aside from attacking foes, Bowser Jr. can help the player by hoarding items. When Mario collects an item from an item box, from gathering 100 coins, or otherwise receives a new power-up, his currently equipped one gets stored. Mario can store up to five of each item power-up, and these all are the power-ups seen in 3D World's main adventure: from the simple Mushroom, to 3D World's new item, the Cat Bell, to the Tanooki Leaf, to the Fire and Boomerang Flowers. You can also either use the gyro controls for docked play or touch controls for handheld play to have Bowser Jr. attack specifically selected enemies, or reveal items with his graffiti at specially marked locations hidden throughout Lake Lapcat.

Lake Lapcat itself is essentially an open-world platforming playground for Mario to explore. However, not all of it is able to be explored right away. Just three islands filled with themed platforming challenges await Mario at the beginning of Bowser's Fury. That said, by the end of the game, the entirety of Lake Lapcat is open for adventure, and it's a refreshing take on the Mario formula. 

But, first, let's talk about the gameplay loop for Bowser's Fury. Each island of Lake Lapcat places five challenges for Mario to complete. The first always sees Mario needing to venture along the course and reach the lighthouse. Then, there are ones revolving around collecting five red cat-shaped coins scattered around a given island's boundaries, as well as using Fury Bowser to blow away the Fury Blocks standing in Mario's way in order to get the Cat Shine inside. Other tasks are more varied, including battling bosses, completing a timed obstacle course, or collecting all of the blue coins within a time limit. Of course, players don't have to complete all of a given island's Cat Shine challenges at once or even at all since out of the 100 Cat Shines in Bowser's Fury, only 50 need to be collected to beat the game. Of course, completionists and those simply wanting to further enjoy the adventure will want to aim for all 100 Shines. And why wouldn't you when Bowser's Fury is so enjoyable?

Coming to a theatre near you: a plumber and his aquatic companion in "Free Plessie".

Every so often, the calm, relaxing Lake Lapcat will get rocked by the arrival of Fury Bowser. This occurs every few minutes, and like in the tutorial (except in one late-game case) collecting a Cat Shine will result in Fury Bowser retreating. In the meantime, big, bad Fury Bowser unleashes all heck on Lake Lapcat and aims to destroy his archrival. From launching flames into the sky to letting loose his spectacular fire breath, Mario needs to be on his guard when Fury Bowser arrives to cause havoc. Either after collecting a Cat Shine or waiting him out, Fury Bowser will once again retreat. 

It can be occasionally tedious to wait for or wait out Fury Bowser in Bowser's Fury,
but this is only a minor inconvenience and issue I have with this part of the package.

That said, if you've collected enough Cat Shines (the amount required increases with each successful clash against Fury Bowser), one of Lake Lapcat's three Giga Bells will ring, allowing Mario to rush to its location and transform into a powerful gigantic version of himself to go claw-to-claw with Fury Bowser in an epic confrontation. These boss battles are really exciting encounters that don't really revolve around the same "three hit" philosophy the Mario series regularly uses. Instead, Fury Bowser has a health bar that can be whittled down through various means. The amount of ways that Mario can do damage to Fury Bowser makes for a really entertaining and satisfying series of battles. Mario can claw Fury Bowser, he can take the pylons that Fury Bowser summons and chuck them right into him, he can claw bombs right back at the furious behemoth, and of course, ground pound the exposed underside of his shell for massive damage. Upon depleting all of Fury Bowser's health bar, a new section of islands on Lake Lapcat reveals itself out of the black ooze that once rested on its surface. 

Game on, Fury Bowser. Game on.

Lake Lapcat presents an open platforming playground for Mario, and all of it can be seen and played on without a loading screen in sight. This is an expansive area for players to immerse themselves in, and while it's not positively perfect in execution (for example, after collecting a Cat Shine for one island's challenge, Mario needs to get enough distance away from the island in order to return to it for the next Cat Shine challenge to present itself), it does much more right than wrong. I'm excited to see if Bowser Fury's Lake Lapcat is a prelude to a grander adventure, a well executed working prototype that shares with us fans the future of what the 3D Mario series can be. If so, we're due for some really exciting times for the Mario franchise!

There was a lot of hubbub regarding folks saying that Bowser's Fury fits more as DLC for Super Mario Odyssey than Super Mario 3D World, but I definitely disagree with that. For one, and most obviously, Bowser's Fury's Lake Lapcat is utterly drenched with cat theming. Every enemy type has cat ears, but so too, are the environments. Archways are modeled after cats, heck, even the birds and flowers, and the sun in the sky have cat-like appearances to them. More interestingly, though, is that each island of Lake Lapcat not only has the five Cat Shines to collect, but they're also themed well, too. All islands take one specific obstacle or hazard from the main Super Mario 3D World game and runs with it in remarkable fashion. Fort Flaptrap features Cakewalk Flip's platforms that flip whenever Mario jumps into the air, while Mount Magmeow's main showcase is Switchboard Falls' titular switchboards that move in the direction that Mario stands on. All of this makes it so Bowser's Fury feels more than at home as packaged with Super Mario 3D World.

Speaking of, let's get to Super Mario 3D World. Originally released on the Wii U in 2013, Super Mario 3D World expanded greatly on the design style seen in the Nintendo 3DS's Super Mario 3D Land. The game added multiplayer for up to four players and much more interestingly designed worlds. By itself, Super Mario 3D World on the Nintendo Switch is basically the same game design-wise, but this dog--or should it be "cat" in this case--has picked up some new tricks.

Mario is the most balanced of the five playable characters in Super Mario 3D World.

For one, characters have all had their speeds upgraded and specific abilities boosted. Mario is your all-around, balanced character, while Luigi can jump higher than any other character. Meanwhile, Peach has the ability to float for a second or two on her jumps, but is the slowest of all the other characters. Finally, Toad is the fastest, and with the speed increase, almost dangerously so in the wrong hands! This speed boost makes some levels much easier than they were in the Wii U original. Gaps that previously needed to be avoided can now be leaped across with ease, and certain flagpoles that required precision jumps to make it to the top are now easy as pie to reach. It makes some of the level design expendable, but at the same time, makes some levels more challenging due to how fast everyone is now. The levels in Super Mario 3D World's Nintendo Switch version were not altered at all to make up for the new speed change, and it can be very noticeable at times. Overall, though, the admittedly somewhat sluggish pace that many players criticized the Wii U original game for has been replaced with something much more enjoyable and fun.

Toad is mighty fast, which can be mighty bad if you're a careless player like I am!

Another sizable addition to the Nintendo Switch version of Super Mario 3D World is that of online play (including Captain Toad levels, where all players can take control of a Toad for some fun this time around). Now, while it's limited to friends only and only the host's save file progresses, it ultimately works well. I played with a friend, and despite some mild lag and some delays occasionally, the experience was one that we both loved. Connection, whether competent or not, depends on each player's connection, and I found that even my wireless connection more often than not did not adversely affect that quality of my online play. Perhaps if I played with more people than just one other, the experience would have been a lesser one. Up to one other local player can join the fun and hop online, making a two-person party a three-fer, making for even more multiplayer possibilities. As an experience as a whole, Super Mario 3D World's online is a definite upgrade over what Super Mario Maker 2 had at launch, and that's certainly something players can exert a sigh of relief over.

The amount of variety in Super Mario 3D World's level design is something special to behold.
I remember enjoying the Wii U original so much that I would keep playing just to see what would show up next!

Apart from the large, obvious changes to someone who has played the Wii U version of Super Mario 3D World, the Nintendo Switch version also offers some less prominent changes. Mario and friends can dive and roll out of a jump. Green Stars and Stamps no longer need to be collected again in a level even if you die before reaching a checkpoint or the goal's flagpole. They're saved immediately, which may be a negative for some, as this removes some of the challenge from the overall game. Stamps themselves are now used in the all-new Photo Mode a la Super Mario Odyssey to "stamp" the scenery and walls when taking a picture (as Miiverse is sadly no more). 

One change in the Switch version of Super Mario 3D World is retaining Green Stars
even if you die shortly after collecting them. So, be as bold as you'd like!

Also, what of the Wii U GamePad-centric gameplay functions that required the use of Nintendo's admittedly cumbersome controller? Well, these have been replaced by pressing the R button on either the Switch Pro Controller or Joy-Con to summon a cursor that is controlled with gyro movement. This is used to activate rising platforms, interact with enemies and the environment, and so forth. Platforms that required blowing into the controller--something that made anyone, no matter how cool, look like a total dork--move automatically, no longer requiring player input.

Finally, the Nintendo Switch version of Super Mario 3D World provides a nice quality of life feature in that it no longer brings up a notification after every level saying that the game has been saved. It wasted a handful of seconds each time in the Wii U original, but it was a mild annoyance all the same and one that I'm glad has been streamlined for the Nintendo Switch release.

Other than those rather big additions and changes to Super Mario 3D World when compared to the Wii U game, the adventure is pretty much the same. You won't be too terribly challenged starting out, and even the first eight worlds of the game aren't too taxing for a seasoned player. As you aim for Green Stars and Stamps, you might see a little more difficulty. However, it's not until after the initial credits roll and the final three worlds unlock that you will eventually see your pulse pounding, your fingers twitch with nervousness, and your heart race as the game throws everything at you. That isn't to say that the first eight worlds--the main course of Super Mario 3D World--is boring. That couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, you'll see the incredible genius of Nintendo's level designers at work, doing what they do best--crafting unforgettable and engaging levels full of personality, great platforming, and marvelously hidden secrets. It's only that post-credits that 3D World totally ups the ante to truly astonishing and impressive levels. 

This Boomerang Bro thought he could win by bringing a boomerang to a fire fight. Mario showed him otherwise.

Even after all of these years, Super Mario 3D World still retains the amount of stunning sophistication in its design. Levels are well thought out and constantly deliver fresh ideas and new takes on familiar territory. The Cat Suit power-up is an absolute blast to play as, scurrying across levels, scaling walls, and clawing enemies into submission. Multiplayer continues to be a big sell at the SPC household, offering lots of laughs and the occasional "you just got me killed, you jerk. I hate you" moments. Super Mario 3D World is a highly replayable game, much like the all-new attached Bowser's Fury portion of the package. 

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury is definitely a must-own if you've never experienced the original 3D World on the Wii U, which happens to be a whole heck of a lot of Nintendo Switch owners. It becomes tougher to recommend if you're only interested in the Bowser's Fury portion of the package. If that's the case, it really depends on how fiercely and furiously you want to play a new 3D Mario adventure, especially since it's basically a $60 price of admission to Lake Lapcat. For me, as a lover of Super Mario 3D World and all of its new features (particularly the ability to play online and the increased playing speed), Bowser's Fury was just gravy on top of an already super satisfying game. On the whole, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury is an excellent package and really is the cat's meow.

[SPC Says: A]

Pokémon Legends Arceus (NSW) Announcement Trailer

Game Freak is all hands on deck with an entirely fresh take on the Pokémon series with Pokémon Legends Arceus. Explore the wilderness as you catch and battle Pokémon. Pokémon Legends Arceus debuts on the Nintendo Switch in early 2022.

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Pokémon Shining Pearl (NSW) Announcement Trailer

After a lengthy wait and plenty of gossip, Pokémon trainers old and young will finally be able to return to the Sinnoh region with Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Pokémon Shining Pearl. With a decidedly interesting art style that seems faithful to the originals, these Pokémon Diamond and Pearl remakes are due to launch on Nintendo Switch in late 2021.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade (PS5) Announcement Trailer

Announced during today's State of Play presentation, Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade is heading to the PlayStation 5. Featuring brand new upgrades and enhancements to the original game, including most prevalently the boost in visuals and an additional episode featuring Yuffie, Final Fantasy VII Remake fans will have even more lovely content to sink their collective teeth into when Intergrade launches on PlayStation 5 on June 10th, 2021.

Kena: Bridge of Spirits (PS5, PS4, PC) State of Play Trailer

During today's State of Play presentation from PlayStation, Kena: Bridge of Spirits received a brand-new trailer showcasing a more-than-decent amount of gameplay footage. Further of interest is that developer Ember Labs' game now has a firm release date of August 24th, 2021. Watch the beautiful trailer from the State of Play presentation below.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Cathedral (NSW) Review

Following one rather excellent indie game that I reviewed last night comes another indie game to review this evening. While one was a roguelite with inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, tonight we're looking at an indie title that is a Metroidvania with inspiration from other retro classics. It's Cathedral for the Nintendo Switch, and here is the SPC review.

 Have yourself a very good knight

Indies and Metroidvanias go together quite well, quite often--almost as much as indies and roguelites. With so many choices for Metroidvanias, especially on the Nintendo Switch, it can be hard to distinguish one's game from the rest of the sub-genre heap. Developer Decemberborn Interactive originally published its take on the Metroidvania, Cathedral, back in 2019 on Steam. Now, a year and several months later, the game finds itself making the jump to the Nintendo Switch, feeling right at home on Nintendo's hybrid system.

Cathedral sees you playing as a silent knight protagonist, finding themselves in a cathedral to start things off. Upon wandering the halls, solving some simple puzzles, and battling a boss or two, they stumble upon a specter named Soul who leads them to a door. This door is locked by five orbs, with Soul carrying one of them himself. Thus, the aim of Cathedral is to explore the surrounding lands of the game to uncover the whereabouts and location of each orb in order to open the door and defeat the ancient evil awaiting inside... or so the prophecy foretells. 

Our knight will explore all sorts of places where they're decidedly unwelcome.

Let's get one thing out of the way immediately: Cathedral is a really challenging game. Enemies can take off massive amounts of damage even when your knight is outfitted with the best possible gear currently available, and bosses are even more difficult to beat. The first two bosses put me into a false sense of security, thinking that the rest of the game would be rather manageable--dare I say "simple enough to beat". By the time you enter the first major dungeon and face the guardian who holds the second orb, your butt will most likely be handed to you on a silver platter. Bosses hit hard, and even knowing that many have predictable patterns, their attacks can be mighty challenging to avoid. Many times I'd beat a boss with one heart of mine remaining and not a single consumable potion left in my inventory. However, this only made victory all the sweeter and rewarding.

Ah, yes. The boss that hammered home the realization that this game wasn't going to be any cakewalk.

Cathedral's world is large and expansive. It's a true blue Metroidvania where you learn new abilities and new areas open up for exploration. The game doesn't hold your hand, either. There are nudges and various objectives to follow, but for the most part, it's up to the player to explore the world and discover what to do next. Fortunately, despite the world being rather big, countless statues serve as checkpoints and places to return to for when (notice I didn't say if) players die. Death is punished by losing a percentage of your currently carried total of gold, which can be quite the consequence when you're trying to save up for one of the various shopkeeper's upgrades, whether they be better armor or rings that lower the percentage of gold lost upon death. Alternately, there are multiple warp gates to discover, allowing for fast travel between them, though not all of these are in the most convenient of locations.

In Cathedral's 15-20 hour adventure, players will explore the cathedral itself, a haunted forest, an area flowing with purple poison, enter into a ghoulish graveyard, explore both the land and sea of a tropical jungle, and traverse the mighty tundra on their quest to locate each of the four remaining orbs. The orbs themselves are inside Zelda-like dungeons, complete with rooms to traverse, puzzles to solve, and bosses to battle. 

Soul can be summoned temporarily to nab out-of-the-way items
and hit switches in narrow passages such as these.

Between these dungeons are myriad opportunities to journey the map, and that is a joy all to itself. Areas are ripe for exploring and finding secrets in breakable or fake walls such as ammo and armor upgrades, as well as heart containers to increase our hero's health (up to ten hearts max) and potion bottles that refill automatically upon death. It was a total pleasure to earn a new tool or ability, such as a skeleton wand that spawns bone platforms that I could ride across chasms, a magnet used to pull steel blocks for puzzle-solving purposes, a double jump, a dash, or a glide maneuver, because that meant that new parts of the map was accessible to me. If I couldn't reach a specific spot with my current equipment, I utilized the ultra-helpful marker feature to place a custom exclamation point on the map to make a note to come back later when I was better suited for the challenge. 

The map is an indispensable help to have in Cathedral. 

Outside of following along with the story objectives, there are ample amounts of side quests to partake in. The biggest quest revolves around finding 100 books and returning them to a bookworm in Cathedral's central town in exchange for gold and special rewards for specific milestones. Other side quests are more involved, offering completely optional areas to explore for great rewards and even greater thrills. There is plenty to do in Cathedral for those who want it. This player definitely yearned to do as much as he feasibly could with his time with the game.

Cathedral plays great, offering tight controls for the necessary precision-based platform that the game possesses in spades, as well as the combination of superb combat. Playing similarly to DuckTales or Shovel Knight in a way, our knight can pogo vault off enemies by thrusting their blade downward with proper timing. Our hero's shield can deflect certain projectiles, a required action for certain segments of the game and boss battles, and their repertoire of acquired tools and equipment make their mobility incredibly varied and enjoyable to use. It's difficult going back to the beginning of the game with the knight's basic jump and limited mobility, because by the end of the game, you can double jump, dash, and glide all at once. 

Between the excellent control and the brilliantly designed levels and areas of the game, there's a lot to love about Cathedral. That's true of the presentation as well, offering an all-too-common 8-bit style that is way popular with the indie scene. Cathedral would look right at home on the NES. However, some technical liberties are taken, as the game does use an occasional effect that wouldn't be possible on Nintendo's first home gaming console. Additionally, yhe chiptune music is magnificently catchy, full of memorable melodies that had me happily humming along--well, that is when I wasn't cursing at myself (see: wrongly blaming the game) for making a platforming or combat-related error. 

The graveyard is no place for the unprepared.
Fortunately, our heroic knight has all they need to re-dead the undead!

Cathedral maintains its high level of difficulty shortly from the beginning of the game to the very end. It's not Ghost 'n Goblins-level hard, but it's difficult all the same. That said, if you can withstand the challenge, you'll be rewarded with a stellar Metroidvania that may not reinvent the wheel or contribute a lot of new ideas, but is an incredibly polished, well executed game. With plenty of content in the form of story and side quests, marvelous level design, and wonderful sprite and background work, Cathedral is thankfully a blessing of a game rather than a curse.

[SPC Says: B+]

A code was received by SPC from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos (NSW, PC) Review

Welcome to a new week of content here at SuperPhillip Central! To start the week off, here's a review for a game releasing tomorrow on both Nintendo Switch and PC. It's Heliocentric Studios' ode to The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past mixed in with some roguelite aspects for good measure. It's Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos, and this is the SPC review.

A Link to the Roguelite

One of my favorite Super Nintendo games ever made is The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Its combination of excellent gameplay, engrossing world, compelling story and characters, engaging dungeon exploration, and pristine presentation all made for a near-perfect adventure. No doubt Heliocentric Studios are big fans of A Link to the Past, too, as their newest game, Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos, borrows a lot from Nintendo's 16-bit classic. What Rogue Heroes ends up being is a game heavily reminiscent of A Link to the Past's gameplay with roguelite elements added, and fortunately for me, this mixture of concepts--rather than being an issue from someone who isn't all too keen on the genre--organically works well enough to make one memorable and most importantly fun game. 

Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos immediately shows its clear inspirations from A Link to the Past, with your character being able to strike their sword in one of eight different directions, pull out their shield to deflect attacks, slash bushes and signposts, grab and throw small rocks, break pots, and utilize a wide array of tools and equipment like the bow and arrow, a hookshot-like grappling hook, a boomerang, bombs, and even a shovel to dig up secrets in the interconnected overworld.

The primary premise of Rogue Heroes requires you to defeat four titans resting in four dungeons on the north, south, east, and west areas of Tasos. Each dungeon possesses a combination of puzzles and combat trials to take on in each of their three floors. These puzzles include everything from pushing blocks onto pressure plates to reveal treasure chests, lighting torches, hammering down buttons in a short amount of time, or simply clearing the room of all enemies. This is all the while claiming keys to open locked doors and collecting gems that you can spend in your makeshift town in the central region of Tasos. 

Up to four players can delve inside and outside of dungeons in Rogue Heroes.

Each of the four major dungeons in Rogue Heroes has its own theme, from a swamp-themed dungeon to the third dungeon's lava motif, and an assortment of rooms that are procedurally cycled between so no two runs in a dungeon are the same. They all put your various tools through the wringer, offering plenty of opportunities to use them and use them well. 

Each dungeon's climax features a boss to defeat. Some of these bosses take up half the screen, littering the battlefield with falling rocks and debris to avoid, or firing projectiles in a set pattern throughout the combat zone. Upon beating a boss, you earn a permanent addition to your tool roster as well as getting one step closer to having defeated all four titans and making your way to the final encounter that awaits.

Whoa! Maybe take some mints for that spicy breath of yours, pal.

When you're not inside one of the compellingly crafted procedurally designed dungeons of Rogue Heroes, you're given plenty of downtime between dungeons. This is rather enjoyable as well, as the overworld slowly opens itself up as you gain new equipment and tools. You're met with bridges that require the grappling hook to cross their broken segments, weak boulders that can be blasted with bombs to reveal a path, pegs that can be smashed down with the hammer to progress, and more. Shortcuts abound in Rogue Heroes' overworld as well, offering warp statues that can take your hero around Tasos quickly, as well as makeshift ramps that can be created to make getting around Tasos even easier. In true A Link to the Past and Zelda fashion, with Rogue Heroes, you're not just moving from dungeon to dungeon. You're given time to fully explore the rich and entertaining world of Tasos and its plains, plateaus, forests, swamps, caves, and tundra in its borders.

Not only is the broken bridge over some troubled water, but the bridge itself seems
troubled as well! Talk about some serious disrepair!

Then, there are the side quests that pop up that offer the opportunities for some optional content. Whether it be reuniting a ghost with their family by venturing into an elective mausoleum dungeon and defeating the horde of undead inside, or searching the southwestern beach for the lost and marooned husband of one of your townspeople, there's plenty of side content to be found and to partake in with Rogue Heroes.

Speaking of townspeople, with the gems you earn from dungeons scattered around Tasos, you can turn the squalid, barren land sitting in the center of the land and turn it into a bustling community. By talking with Griff, a helpful NPC, you can build a wide assortment of buildings and homes for islanders to move in and bestow upon you their individual and unique kinds of help. You can place buildings on any available plot of land you like, giving you a sense of your town being yours. Not only can gems be spent on constructing new buildings, but they can also be spent on various skill trees at the various vendors around town. From increasing your attack capabilities at the blacksmith or pumping up your amount of health and magic at the hospital, to learning new jobs with purchased thread or building up your stamina at the fitness center, these stores and shops provide A TON of different skill trees available to you to further along your character. Perhaps it would have been easier to streamline these to one specific menu, as what is here results in plenty of places to pump up your character's abilities, which can result in mild annoyance and confusion, as well as a fair amount of traversing from shop to shop to spend gems.

It's a good idea to return to town often in Rogue Heroes so you can spend your gems and upgrade your abilities.

At the start of Rogue Heroes, I was essentially made of glass, quickly dying in dungeons due to my lack of health and strength, but as I gained and spent more gems on new health and attack upgrades, my hero made of glass turned into an unstoppable, infallible killing machine. This is how I imagine most players will find their experience with the game. The first dungeon will most likely be the most difficult, resulting in the most deaths, due to being so weak and having such a paltry amount of health. However, death isn't too punishing in Rogue Heroes. You don't really lose anything--not gems, not coins--all you really lose is your progress in a given dungeon. Even then, you can spend gems at special statues on each floor to make a permanent shortcut for you on return trips so you can skip ahead to the second or third floors at your leisure. 

Rogue Heroes also features co-op play in both local and online varieties to try out, also at your leisure. Having multiple players at once allows for easier combat situations, but for dungeons, it makes puzzles more challenging. For instance, a puzzle involving carrying an orb to its final resting place to open a door is a simple task while playing solo. You just pick up the orb and meander around the room and drop it in its vessel. In co-op it is more complex, as specific sections of tile result in the orb being destroyed and send back to its initial spot. In order to complete the puzzle in co-op, you need to toss the orb between players over the tile-free zones of the room multiple times to finally get it in its resting place to satisfy the conditions of the puzzle and to solve it. 

Fortunately, if one of your party member dies (they can either get brought back by carrying their skull to a special altar to revive them or by completing or otherwise exiting the dungeon you're currently in), puzzles immediately alter themselves to fit how many current active players are there. So, in other words, if a player dies mid-puzzle and that puzzle required two players to stand on two different pressure plates to open a door, a block will spawn so the puzzle isn't unsolvable for the solo player. A very smart and a very good thing to not have a design oversight on!

Even a day at the beach isn't just a day at the beach in Tasos when you've got monsters roaming the sands!

If there are any problems I do have with Rogue Heroes, it's twofold. For one, while there are various classes to change into by finding magical threads scattered around Tasos and returning them to the tailor in town, these classes aren't so easily distinguishable between one another other than having slightly altered stats and a specific move tied to the B button. Whereas the Hero class can dash a la Link with his Pegasus Boots equipped and the Knight class can pounce forward, stunning enemies nearby, there really isn't too incredibly much of a discernible difference between classes. 

Secondly, I ran into several glitches in my 16-hour play-through of Rogue Heroes. Sometimes dungeons were generated in a way where there was literally no way to progress inside, as there simply weren't enough keys available. This happened very rarely, but it was obnoxious when it happened all the same. Other times I saw odd glitches where my character was either not on the same layer as objects and enemies, resulting in my sword passing right through them with no effect whatsoever. This glitch would end by simply leaving the current room of a dungeon or area of the overworld. But, the glitch that didn't end until I backed out of the game was an audio one, where the sound of rushing water followed--nay, haunted me wherever I went, even to the title screen. Quitting the game completely solved this, and while it only happened once, that sound of water will forever haunt my dreams. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating just a tad, but it was inconvenient all the same.

Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos succeeds in making a unique roguelite that blends the tried and true gameplay of games like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and mixes it in a way that makes this particular roguelite actually enjoyable. That's not to say that I don't care for roguelites in general, but after seeing an onslaught of the genre and their roguelike cousins in general from indies and larger devs alike, it's great to see one in Rogue Heroes that doesn't just adhere to the genre's template so stringently. There's plenty of time to breathe when exploring the overworld of Tasos, the dungeons are filled with brain-bending puzzles and engrossing battles, and the penalty for death won't overly diminish your joy or demotivate you too easily. Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos is a great marriage between A Link to the Past gameplay and roguelite design, tremendously fun and polished, making it a recommended title whether you enjoy it alone or with others in co-op play.

[SPC Says: B+]

A code was received by SPC from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.