Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Review Round-Up - October / November 2021

A duo of sensational first-party games, one from Nintendo and one from Microsoft,
Metroid Dread and Forza Horizon 5 definitely delivered excellent experiences all-around.

We don't usually combine two months of reviews together on SuperPhillip Central, but that's exactly what we're doing here with October and November for this special Review Round-Up!

Way back in October (though to be honest it doesn't feel all that long ago), we took to the court--the dodgeball court, that is--and enrolled in Dodgeball Academia. The game delivered copious amounts of charm and earned a B for its satisfying if not occasionally repetitive gameplay. From dodgeball, we moved on to a different kind of ball, a Super Monkey Ball with Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania, a remake of SMB 1, 2 and DX! It scored a great B+.

After rolling around in some hazard-filled stages in Banana Mania, we took to the miniature toy tracks of Hot Wheels Unleashed, which was a game that still has some assembly required to be a truly great game. As it is, it scored a satisfying B- grade. 

A duo of indie games soon followed starting the month of November in top form with the excellence of Flynn: Son of Crimson, hacking and slashing its way to a fantastic A- grade. Then, we needed to unpack from all that action--literally--with Unpacking. This totally Zen experience satisfied, so the game got a well deserved B grade.

Last but certainly not least were two games that stand as some of the best released this year. What a way to cap off the month with both Metroid Dread and Forza Horizon 5. Both excellent exclusives for their respective publishers and console manufacturers, and both earning a superb A grade apiece. 

To round out this Review Round-Up, take a look at an excerpt from and link to each review, as well as a reminder to gaze at the SPC Review Archive where all 1,021 reviews currently published and available on SuperPhillip Central are ready for you to peruse!

Dodgeball Academia is a colorful, crisp-looking game, exuding immense Saturday morning cartoon vibes through its super-fun story and eclectic cast of characters. The immense amount of dodgeball battles (how ever enjoyable at first) and backtracking may grow tedious and repetitive at times, but the game introduces enough variety to keep things from getting too stale. All in all, you'll want to enroll at Dodgeball Academia if you haven't already. You'll have a ball.
Super Monkey Ball: Banana Mania offers a complete Monkey Ball series package that is well deserving of the series' 20th anniversary. There is both quantity and quality oozing out of the game like a fiercely squeezed banana still wrapped up in its peel. The amount of stages is staggering, and each mode offers a unique series of them to enjoy. The Party Games, too, are mostly enjoyable at the end of the day with a few stinkers here and there. Finally, the sheer number of missions to complete and things to unlock, whether they be modes, costumes, cosmetics, characters, camera aesthetics, or what have you will enjoying some Banana Mania for months, if not years, to come. 
With more updates to the track editor, more single player content, better coin and Blind Box economy, more vehicles and track environments included, and improvements to the online racing experience, I can imagine a much better game. As of now, Hot Wheels Unleashed features enough quality under the hood to make for an entertaining racer, but not enough to make it a "must buy" at this point in time. Don't misunderstand--this is still one of the better, if not THE best Hot Wheels game available to date. It's simply spinning its wheels a little too much for this particular gamer.
For a first effort from Studio Thunderhorse, the team has managed to craft one of the better indie titles of the year. And perhaps that's a bit too limiting as a description. Nay, Flynn: Son of Crimson stands as one of the better titles of the year, indie or not. What it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in brilliant design--whether within its levels or its gameplay, its immaculate pixel art style, and terrific pacing. No matter if you pick it up off Game Pass on Xbox or PC or purchase the game, you're in for a real winner with Flynn: Son of Crimson.
Unpacking succeeds at what it sets out to do: create a calming and zen-like gaming experience for players. Whether you opt to adhere to the game's rules of positioning items or not (which can be turned on or off at any time), you can create and enjoy the game the way you want. As someone who has an admittedly short attention span, I didn't think I would take kindly to the ordinarily painstaking and tedious task of opening up boxes, removing their contents, and placing everything where I deemed they belonged. However, despite there being the periodical bouts of repetition in the overall design, I ended up enjoying my time with Unpacking.
Mario Party Superstars delivers a supersized party package that really feels like a proper successor to the Mario Party crown after all of this time. While for me, annual releases of the series did make for a dull series, requiring a change to the formula at the time, I'm very glad that ND Cube has returned the Mario Party series to its roots in utterly fantastic fashion. The number of boards is disappointing, and some mini-games chosen are a bit boring and worthy of a head scratch, but all in all, Mario Party Superstars is a bonafide bountiful bash worth celebrating with a few friends, family members, or thanks to online play, complete strangers as well.
At the end of the day and at the end of this particular chapter of the Metroid saga, Metroid Dread was a title well worth waiting for. It offers an ingeniously designed and organized world that is an utter delight to explore, it delivers Samus at her most mobile and fun to control, and it brings with it a stellar amount of awesome action. While the challenge and EMMI sections featured in the game might put off some players, for me, Metroid Dread offered just the right amount of difficulty to make for one memorable, masterful, and magnificent Metroid title--one that I can't wait to play through over and over again.
Forza Horizon 5 is a magnificently crafted open world racer with a world in Mexico that is varied in amazing geography that is just a blast to explore and drive about mindlessly in. Racing and driving feel tremendous and realistic in all the best ways (and some of the worst if you're not into realism and want a much more "arcade" feel than what's presented here). The absolutely massive amount of content currently in the game and constantly coming with seasons means you'll have plenty of reasons to keep returning to Mexico and enjoying the ride. I sure know I have so far, and I also sure know that I will continue to do so. 

Meanwhile, if you felt like a party (or two), the Mushroom Kingdom crew AND the Monkey Ball
 cast were more than ready to do so in their respective games!

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Forza Horizon 5 (XBS, XB1, PC) Review

As hinted last night, SPC does have one last review to end the month of November here, and it's a doozy of a game. Last night we covered Metroid Dread, a serious contender for Game of the Year, and fresh off that game's heels is another destined for the same consideration. It's Forza Horizon 5, so let's hop into the driver's seat, clutch the steering wheel, and get ready to race with this review.

Nirvana in open-world racing form

My experience with racing games is quite limited, especially when we're talking cars from real life manufacturers and not something like go-karts with mustachioed plumbers inside of them. Therefore, it was with trepidation that I entered into the verdant greens, majestic mountainsides, and lush landscapes of Forza Horizon 5's Mexico, not really knowing what to expect out of this open-world racer. After all, this was my first time with the Forza series as a whole, understanding only that Forza Horizon was the more open of the two Forza line of games, with the other, Motorsport, being inspired by and modeled after PlayStation's Gran Turismo series. 

From the moment my modern supercar launched out of a transport carrier and had its wheels press and pound onto the pavement, I knew my vacation in the Forza Horizon Festival was going to be a seriously enjoyable one. A series of racing set pieces started my introduction to and adventure in Mexico: speeding through a sandstorm, getting rough and wild with some off-road racing, and finally ripping and tearing towards the Horizon Festival itself in a car that would cost more than a decade of an average person's salary. 

It was from there where I chose from one of the handful of starter cars to begin my feverish collection of vehicles that Mexico opened up considerably. It was my playground to enjoy and explore as I saw fit. There were various races of multiple types and disciplines to engage with, such as some circuit racing, some variety with cross country racing, some down and dirty off-road racing, and even some white-knuckle street racing. 

SuperPhillip's ride is ready to rule the road in this Horizon Festival.

But, racing events are hardly the only thing to delve into in Mexico during the Horizon Festival, but they do help earn great amounts of accolade points, allowing you to participate in more and more event types, such as the aforementioned street racing and even drag races. You can help build outposts from completing special set piece-like races where the challengers vary immensely, such as trying to beat a team of jet skis riding the swamp's waters as you tear through the nearby land in your vehicle. Or, better yet, how about contending with two gigantic monster trucks as they crash and bash through the landscape? These set piece races are less about the actual racing (well, until the very end of the race where crossing first is necessary) and more about enjoying the ride and thrills along the way. 

Aside from numerous races that you can compete in either against the AI or other players (and these races come in lap or rally forms) and the special races against asymmetric opponents, there are story-related missions to complete at your leisure as well. These range from heading to destinations to take photographs of ancient architecture and statues, to reaching a specific place in the designated amount of time. 

Story-based missions such as these insert some not-so-much-needed
(but enjoyable all the same) variety into Forza Horizon 5.

There is plenty of side content aside from the main repertoire of modes and events within the Horizon Festival. For instance, sprinkled around Mexico is a massive amount of bonus boards, rewarding cheaper fast travel prices and experience points for finding and crashing into them with your car. Some of these are positioned in such a way that they can't be accessed through normal means, such as those on roofs of buildings. Sometimes you need to take a leap from a nearby hill to reach them, and discovering how to reach them and how much speed is necessary to do so becomes a bit of a puzzle, one extremely satisfying to solve. 

Other than bonus boards, there is a variety of Horizon Promo challenges to take on, such as photographing other cars via the game's amazing Photo Mode (which all screenshots included in this review were taken in). There are also speed traps which require you to pass through them at a set speed to clear them, drift zones where you earn points for drifting through a marked path, and also danger signs, where you launch your vehicle from a ramp to see how far you can go while landing successfully. All of these speed and racing-related mini-challenges reward you with up to three stars for accomplishing them well, and they will seriously test your driving mettle even further. 

Races make up the majority of event-based content within Forza Horizon 5.

Then, there are all the multiplayer options available. There's taking on players in the Battle Royale-like Eliminator mode, creating and playing other Drivatars' custom-made racing events and challenges, delving into Playground Games like capture-the-flag and infection, driving the vast game world of Mexico and engaging with other players by challenging them to races or simply teaming up with them in Horizon Arcade skill-based challenges, and simply cruising through Mexico with your best mates. The fact of the matter is that there is no shortage of stuff to do within the Horizon Festival this time around.

Whether a ride in the country or a drive through the city, Forza Horizon 5's Mexico is a pleasure to race around in.

No matter what you decide to do in Forza Horizon 5, you're always making progress in some way--whether that's gaining accolade points to unlock new event types, gaining skill points from driving in style to spend on perks for individual cars, or earning experience points to level up your driver rank. Doing the latter routinely nets you Wheelspins, which are roulettes where you earn a random prize, such as new cars, cash, cosmetics for your custom Drivatar, and unique car horns. Wheelspins and their big sister Super Wheelspins, which reward three prizes at once, can be earned through other ways than simply gaining experience points and leveling up, like completing seasonal objectives.

Don't mind me--just passin' through!

Seasons come and seasons go in the real world, and it's similar in Forza Horizon 5, save for the fact that these present unique opportunities to earn points each season in order to unlock exclusive, hard-to-find and legendary cars. A season in Forza Horizon 5 runs for about a month's time, and each week presents a new set of challenges and events to take on, and rewards to earn from them. Sometimes you'll be asked to compete in races against highly skilled Drivatars, while other times it's clearing a jump with a certain distance in a specific car. There are also daily challenges, offering Forzathon points for completion, used as another type of currency to purchase in-game goodies like rare cars, cosmetics, vehicle horns, and Wheelspins. 

The level of customization afforded to players in Forza Horizon 5 is simply insane in all the best ways. From customizing your car with custom-made liveries (yeah, I ride around like a bad ass with the adorable pink puffball Kirby painted on the side of my car--what of it?) to being able to tune your vehicle however you want, as well as making your own events, you can do a lot with Forza Horizon 5. Plus, each and every thing you create in the game--whether it's a custom livery, car tune, or racing event/challenge--can be shared with the Forza Horizon community. 

What do you think a driver feels when they look in their rearview mirror and see Kirby
racing up behind them? I think they feel absolute terror.

All of this nifty and cool content and features in Forza Horizon 5 would mean jack squat if the racing wasn't up to par. Well, I'll simply say that a racing video game series doesn't get to its fifth installment by having its cars habitually handle like crap. Even still, you can always tune your car to make it run the way you want it to anyway, if there ever is a problem! Nevertheless, the cars in Forza Horizon 5 feel fantastic, using realistic driving physics, such as having four-wheel drive vehicles work well off the pavement and having supercars like a Lamborghini burnout and enter oversteer if they attempt the same. Racing is intense and just awesome, making you feel like you're in the driver's seat of whichever of the 500+ vehicles you enter. 

Further, Forza Horizon 5 makes for an accessible game for almost all ages or at least all skill levels. The AI can be tuned to whatever difficulty you are comfortable with, and if the game sees you beating the AI handily and routinely, it will ask you if you'd like to up the challenge for your next race for a cash percentage boost bonus. Then, there's the recommended racing line that can be turned on and off at any time. This shows the ideal line to take a given race, and it will even change colors from blue to red when it's necessary to brake on an upcoming turn because you're driving a bit too fast. 

However, by far the best accessibility feature and an utter godsend to Forza Horizon 5 is that of the rewind button, designated to the Y button. It's totally optional, and can be used in and out of races. There's nothing more frustrating than participating in a 10 minute race, running a flawless race until you make a costly error late-race, losing first place and wasting 10 minutes of your life in the process. Rewinding remedies this annoyance, allowing you to retry turns without having to restart the entire race. Moreover, it's helpful in the open world to rewind if you get caught in a troublesome spot, want to redo a jump quickly without having to go through the hassle of driving back there yourself, and is just generally a massive timesaver. 

Forza Horizon 5 runs remarkably on the Xbox Series S, the Xbox that I played my version of the game on. Load times are negligible, coming in at the absolutely highest of 5-10 seconds. That's generally when loading races. Otherwise, even during instances of fast travel where you can warp across the map, the loading times are mere seconds, if even that. 

And I'm free... free-fallin'!
Meanwhile, the environments are immaculate and detailed. The foliage is a marvel to look at, the geography and geometry on display within are incredible, and the lighting only further enhances the beauty of this immensely polished presentation. No doubt the cars are the stars of the festival show, and these possess and push an insane amount of polygons to look absolutely incredible. Cars show visible destruction, such as destroyed fenders, broken-off side view mirrors, scratched paint, mud, and damage from colliding into walls or other cars. This is one delightful and damn fine game to look at, and I found myself marveling at its beauty more times than possibly the amount of cars in the game (and once again, that's over 500).

Forza Horizon 5 is a magnificently crafted open world racer with a world in Mexico that is varied in amazing geography that is just a blast to explore and drive about mindlessly in. Racing and driving feel tremendous and realistic in all the best ways (and some of the worst if you're not into realism and want a much more "arcade" feel than what's presented here). The absolutely massive amount of content currently in the game and constantly coming with seasons means you'll have plenty of reasons to keep returning to Mexico and enjoying the ride. I sure know I have so far, and I also sure know that I will continue to do so. 

[SPC Says: A]

Monday, November 29, 2021

Metroid Dread (NSW) Review

Rounding out this penultimate month of 2021 is the penultimate review for the month as well. These last two reviews are exciting, as they're not just for excellent games: they're for games that could be GotY contenders this year. First, we have Metroid Dread from publisher Nintendo and developer MercurySteam. Let's delve into the depths of Planet ZDR with SuperPhillip Central's Metroid Dread review!

Samus delivers an EMMI-award-deserving performance.

Fans of the Metroid series haven't really been feasting lately. Between a lengthy hiatus caused by the sales failure of Metroid: Other M and a less than well received spin-off in Metroid Prime: Federation Force, it seemed like the best days were behind the franchise. However, with the recent excellent remake of Metroid 2 releasing on the Nintendo 3DS, things are indeed looking up. 

Meanwhile, it has been 19 years since the last wholly new 2D Metroid game, so you could say that there is a lot riding on the latest game in the franchise: Metroid Dread. Dread not, however, Metroid fans, as this final entry in the current Metroid saga ends things on a fantastic note, offering one of the best games in franchise history. 

When the Galactic Federation receives footage that the X parasite (from Metroid Fusion) is alive and well on Planet ZDR, they send a group of seven robots known as EMMI to dispatch the threat. However, contact between the EMMI is broken, and thus, the Galactic Federation sends their best bounty hunter, Samus Aran, to investigate. Almost immediately upon landing on ZDR, a mysterious beaked being siphons Samus' powers and abilities, leaving her less than fully capable of the mission at hand. Therefore, in true Metroidvania fashion, it's up to Samus to reacquire her skills and gain some new ones along the way to solve the mystery of what happened to the EMMI and discover the truth of the X parasite.

A bounty hunter ready to rock and roll, Samus Aran is ready to complete her latest (and potentially greatest) mission.

Plot-wise, Metroid Dread ties up a fair amount of loose ends within the Metroid saga, while also bringing forth new ideas to make for a satisfying conclusion to the current story. A generous helping of cutscenes break up the tried and true Metroid action, making for some equally gorgeous eye candy and a means to tell the tale. Not only is the story told through spoken dialogue, whether in English or the Chozo language, but a lot is shown rather than directly told for players to piece together things for themselves. 

Foreboding beasts and unfriendly creatures of all types await Samus in any
other Metroid game, and Metroid Dread's Planet ZDR is no different.

Metroid Dread takes the foundation laid by Metroid: Samus Returns on the Nintendo 3DS, the aforementioned Metroid 2 remake, and runs with it. There's the return of the much needed counter maneuver, where players can press a button to perform a counter with the proper timing. This dazes foes, leaving them temporarily vulnerable to deliver some damage to them, if not completely obliterate them. Controlling where Samus's arm cannon aims also makes a comeback from Samus Returns, making controlling where Samus's shots end up all the more easier to ascertain. 

Samus's ability to aim in all directions (not just at 45 degree angles), a feature originating from Samus Returns,
comes back as a great aid to take down enemies of all shapes and sizes.

Samus sees herself obtaining plenty abilities that return from past Metroid games, such as the Morph Ball that comes handy in squeezing (and rolling) through tight spaces, the Super Missiles that of course deal stronger damage than the regular ballistic variety, as well as the Space Jump, allowing Samus to essentially double jump. However, Samus also has some new abilities, showing that you can teach an old bounty hunter new tricks. For one, Samus can slide into narrow spaces that she'd in past games require the Morph Ball for, which opens up the level design considerably. New abilities such as the Spider Magnet allows Samus to cling to specially marked walls and climb them, while the return of Aeion Abilities like the Dash and Cloak grants deft dodging and hiding from a certain enemy within the game respectively.

These certain enemies--and no worries, this reveal happens early in the game and is even presented on the box art--are the EMMI sentry robots. A new mechanic introduced in Metroid Dread has certain sections of the game where Samus must either elude or otherwise avoid detection from one of seven EMMI robots throughout ZDR. When alerted by nearby noise or simply Samus is caught in their direct sights, EMMIs rush towards Samus. It's indeed possible to retreat, but difficult. What's more so difficult is the act of escaping their clutches when Samus has been captured by one. The player has two absurdly small windows of opportunity to counter an EMMI when in their clutches, or else it's game over. Fortunately, the player is placed back at the start of the EMMI zone to try again, rather than some other more frustrating and utterly demotivating punishment. 

An EMMI? Drat. I was hoping for an Oscar instead.

Generally, the first time through a given EMMI zone, Samus needs to just pass through either undetected or without getting caught by an EMMI. The second time around, Samus will have the abilities required to reach the region's control unit, be able to destroy it, and that will give her the Omega Cannon, a devastating weapon that, with enough time to charge, allows Samus the firepower to pierce through an EMMI's defenses and ultimately destroy it. Thus, this allows the zone to be explored at the player's leisure with usually a new ability learned from the obliterated EMMI. 

The EMMI encounters are sometimes tense, sometimes tedious, but they never, ever overstay their welcome. There's always a strategy for dealing with each, such as using the Aeion Cloak when an EMMI is nearby to obscure Samus from their vision, for instance, giving Samus the prime opportunity to escape with her life intact. Plus, they're over so quickly and the punishment for failure isn't obnoxiously severe that even if you dislike these sections, they don't make up the majority of the Metroid Dread experience. 

Rather than starting at the surface as is typical of traditional Metroid games, in Metroid Dread, Samus finds herself at the bottom of the map, needing to reach the top where her Gunship rests. The world of ZDR itself is split up in between various interconnected zones, which are transferred between through different transporters and trams. Here lies where the most obvious and lengthiest loading times present themselves, as players move between areas, but it's nothing overly obnoxious.

How about a trio of beams in your eyes, bat-brain?

ZDR sports cavernous complexes, lava-laden lairs, foliage-filled forests and jungles, as well as arctic areas. Despite being a maze of corridors and rooms of all shapes and sizes, the map in Metroid Dread seldom made me feel lost. That's because the game does an excellent job of guiding the player to where they need to go next without flat out telling them. This is done through blocking passages that require abilities that Samus doesn't have access to yet, as well as providing what are essentially signposts for Samus and the player themselves. One such signpost is that of item power-ups that are placed in plain sight in an attempt to goad the player to acquire them, thus getting the player to follow the path the game desires of them. 

Getting lost isn't too terribly much of a problem in this latest Metroid game, at least in my experience. Dying a bunch, however, at least at first, certainly is. Metroid Dread is easily one of the most difficult games in the series, whether we're talking 2D or 3D, even with Samus's increased move set and mobility. Enemies deal a great amount of damage, and bosses are even more challenging, delivering heavy helpings of hurt to Samus and players who don't pick up on each boss's attack patters and tells. 

The earliest boss in Metroid Dread sets the tone of the rest of the encounters in the game:
tough, intense, but all in all incredibly enjoyable to endure.

That said, it's these boss encounters that Metroid Dread delivers some serious and oftentimes intense action. Though isn't to say that the downtime that is exploration and platforming isn't full of action itself! Bosses demand a high degree of learning their patterns and tells, and really, my first several attempts at some bosses were practically trial runs to educate myself on the bosses. I learned what to expect, what moves a boss used, when to attack, when to simply dodge, etc. Even then, the practice of actually performing well when it mattered was still rather tough of a task! However, there is nothing more exhilarating than banging your head against the wall that is a seemingly unbeatable boss and then finally triumphing!

Of course, there are avenues to make the game easier for players, such as finding and acquiring Missile Tanks and life-increasing Energy Tanks, all optional and all helping to make Samus an even bigger bad ass than she already is. However, even with discovering the locations of these items and acquiring them (yes, even those that require some fancy Shine-sparking, something that the game goofily doesn't even really teach you how to do in a tutorial), the bosses and the game itself are still rather challenging to beat. 

Metroid Dread may not put the Switch hardware through its paces, but it's still quite the looker!

Metroid Dread isn't the most technologically amazing game on the Switch--it won't blow you away with overly fancy visuals or wow you with an immense number of polygons per model--but it runs beautifully on the Switch. It's super smooth running on the Switch at 60 frames-per-second, and seldom if ever dipping below that, even when the action is at its most intense. Areas are gorgeous to look at, offering impressive geometry and plenty of superb sights to marvel at. Less amazing is the soundtrack. While it definitely works and lends an incredible amount of ambiance to areas, it really doesn't offer too many memorable tunes, especially ones I'd want to listen to outside of the game. Generally, that isn't the case with the Metroid series, at least for me. 

At the end of the day and at the end of this particular chapter of the Metroid saga, Metroid Dread was a title well worth waiting for. It offers an ingeniously designed and organized world that is an utter delight to explore, it delivers Samus at her most mobile and fun to control, and it brings with it a stellar amount of awesome action. While the challenge and EMMI sections featured in the game might put off some players, for me, Metroid Dread offered just the right amount of difficulty to make for one memorable, masterful, and magnificent Metroid title--one that I can't wait to play through over and over again.

[SPC Says: A]