Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective Review

Among the many original concepts that found their home on the Nintendo DS, Ghost Trick is one of the most refreshing

ghost_trick4In its waning months, most systems suffer from a nearly total lack of good releases, a drought caused by a safe attitude from game developers who witness as their target audience becomes so deeply interested in the system that is to come that they completely forget about the devices they have in hand. Naturally, it was to be expected that Nintendo DS – with its glorious third-party support and a hardware that inspires creativity  –would be one of the few systems to defy that logic and keep a relatively steady flow of good releases pouring into the market.

Out of all those games that came surfing on the last wave of releases for the dual-screen handheld, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is absolutely the best. And unsatisfied with making this adventure be the most stellar of the system’s closing games, Capcom went ahead and made it an easy contender to rank among the best ten games to ever grace Nintendo’s most successful portable machine. The Nintendo DS bowed to leave center stage, and it did so in an extremely remarkable fashion.

Ghost Trick explores the world of the dead. As its body has been the recent victim of a murder, a confused spirit wakes up to notice that it has lost its memory. Unaware of what is happening and of its identity, it witnesses yet another assassination: a young detective by the name of Lynne is shot dead at a junkyard on a dark side of the city by a sinister looking man. And so, the wheels of the tale of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective start spinning.

ghost_trick6The detective falls, and shocked by what it has just seen the spirit expresses its urge to try to help the young woman. It is then approached by another spirit, named Ray – who is appropriately possessing a lamp. Ray seems to now all about the ghost world where the confused soul is now in, and so he goes on to tell the spirit the number of unique abilities it has acquired by being killed. Desperate to discover its identity, its background, and why it was murdered, the spirit decides to save the young detective from her seemingly inevitable death, upon hearing from Ray that she is the only lead into finding out more about its story.

The main disembodied character learns that when a body loses its life, the spirit that resided within can be contacted in the ghost world. Not only that, but if the person or animal has just been recently killed, spirits have the ability to travel back to four minutes before that event in order to watch the whole scene unfold only to, then, have the opportunity to save the victim from death by rewinding time back to the beginning of the occurrence.

By saving someone, the deceased hero will gain the ability to communicate with that living being from within the ghost world, meaning that it will be able to ask that being questions and communicate effectively. Averting deaths is done by somehow finding ways to interfere in the world of the living. Bodies, though, cannot be possessed by spirits; therefore, in order to stop lives from being lost the only option is to take control of objects placed around the environment and use them in ways that will allow the fate of the victim to be altered.

ghost_trick2And that initially complicated explanation basically sums up the overall premise of Ghost Trick. Throughout the game players will witness the killing of a lot of beings, some of which will die more than once during the adventure, and they will always have to be there in order to go back to four minutes before the death and change destiny. Once the action is on, the clock will start ticking away and the starring spirit will be able to switch between the ghost world and the realm of the living.

On the latter gamers will be able to trigger actions on the objects they have possessed, and with a right timing things will work out just great; while on the former, they will be moving from one object to another, while the action is completely frozen, therefore having the opportunity to think about what decision needs to be taken in order to stop a hidden gunman from firing a deadly shot or help a clueless character not to fall victim to a mortal trap that is about to go off.

Every puzzle only has one solution, a fact that always gets a little bit in the way of the value of games of the genre. They are, however, so varied and unique, sometimes requiring thinking outside the box and often revealing awe-inspiring solutions, and the ways in which deaths happen are so distinct that the game never gets repetitive. Ghost Trick is an astounding blend of thrilling action with cold reasoning. It employs usual elements present in puzzle games in a never-seen-before scenario, and the setting is so brilliantly developed and exposes such a high level of inventiveness that the title falls nothing short of utterly spectacular.

ghost_trick7Although the thrill of watching the four  minutes available to act is intense, as death will be approaching mercilessly, there is no reason to worry about failing to save someone, though, as spirits can cheat death as many times as they feel like. So, if players do not succeed in their goal the first time around, it is possible to simply go back in time once more and try again. And in that resides the only flaw of the game: players may end up watching the same cutscene that tells the story of a character’s death way too many times. The first time the spirit rewinds to the past, gamers will see everything play out so they can understand what has happened, only to then start trying to use their powers while the scene rolls for a second time.

Naturally, the first two instances when one watches the death occur are not tiresome, since they are somehow distinct experiences; however, it is from the third time onwards that the repetition gets a little bit frustrating. If players fail or miss a unique chance to alter the occurrence, the game will immediately let them know the death can no longer be avoided (which is a rather nice touch that avoids futile attempts to change what can no longer be altered). After that, they will have to rewind the scene once more and watch it again only to then have another shot at success. It is true that developers tried to diminish that issue by making things go slightly faster on repeated plays through the death scenario, but the fact remains that it can get a little annoying.

Toying with time, watching the story of someone’s death, saving those lives, and then being able to interact with those that were rescued, as a consequence creating very strong friendship bonds with some of the living, is a pretty intriguing concept in itself. Still, in spite of the gushing creativity that stems from that source, the great gameplay may not be the best part of the game: that award goes to its story. As a tale that stars a confused spirit with a serious memory problem, Ghost Trick is obviously a mystery, and it is a very well-written one.

ghost_trick5At first, players will meet and interact with a huge group of characters (some more intensively that others) that seem to have no connection whatsoever with one another, but the looming feeling that a bigger plot wraps around all of the cast will keep gamers going for hours and hours. And as the confused spirit is told at the beginning of the game that it will cease to exist by dawn, the quest to uncover the truth behind its identity, life , and death is an extremely urgent one.

The story is developed at a really good pace. With every chapter that players conclude and with each life they save, the spirit becomes somehow closer to discovering what exactly is going on during this unusually eventful night; some of the chapters, in particular, lead to more questions and doubts, something that will certainly keep players absolutely hungry to discover what is to come next and see when those riddles will be cleared. And they will not be disappointed, for Ghost Trick makes that curiosity pay off by delivering a wonderful and satisfactory ending.

The will to play more and more is also helped by the game’s perfect difficulty curve. Puzzles start as simple as they can be, and saving the first few lives feels like a simple tutorial. Yet, as the adventure progresses, extreme measures such as travelling to another place through the phone line (another power ghosts have) may become necessary to keep someone from dying. The web of actions required to save lives grows increasingly complex and becomes more clever as the game goes on.

ghost_trick3Visually, Ghost Trick is a very charming game. The very well-drawn 2-D scenarios are mixed with stylish character models that have a good amount of detail. The production values of the game help all dramatic murder scenes to resound even more due to the precise timing of the animations and the moody songs that are triggered right on cue to add some spice to the events. There are no voiced-over dialogues, but there are plenty of sound cues and effects to turn Ghost Trick into a really immersive experience.

Ghost Trick is one of the best games on the Nintendo DS, and that is saying a lot for system that had a life cycle of six years during which it built one of the strongest lineups the gaming world has ever seen. The game presents an extremely original concept that is as engaging as it is fresh, and the solid writing behind that element makes the concept materialize in a remarkable way. There is not much to the game when it comes to replay value, but the regular adventure lasts for some good twelve hours and it is hard to forget all the remarkable moments the game provides players with. Among many of the original concepts that found their home on the Nintendo DS, Ghost Trick is one of the greatest and most refreshing.

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

Posted in DS, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Splatoon 2 Review

While it does not have quite enough to define its own traits, and even though it inherits all of the negative quirks of its predecessor, Splatoon 2 is irresistable

splatoon2Regardless of the internal expectations Nintendo held in relation to Splatoon, one thing is almost certain: not even its most optimistic employees could have accurately predicted how big the new property would turn out to be. Splatoon was, by all means, a rarity: in a world of sequels and established sagas, it was able to – with a single release – blast its way to the upper echelons of videogame franchises, cementing its position as one of the strongest assets attached to Nintendo’s seemingly interminable belt of characters and series. Its positive critical reception as well as its strong sales across the globe, despite the fact it found its home inside a platform that was struggling commercially, meant that a sequel was not only assured but also inevitable. Realizing the incredible hardware-moving properties of the universally beloved title, Nintendo was quick enough to make that second chapter be one of the earliest releases for a newly born console.

The position of Splatoon 2 as one of the first games to come out for the Nintendo Switch is, therefore, understandable. The rather fresh take on third-person multiplayer shooting, which replaces a focus on stacking up kills with an intense fight for territory, is far-reaching in its appeal, like a true Nintendo product; moreover, it has a surprisingly consolidated popularity in spite of its young age. Its vibrant colors, quirky humor, and lovely characters are enough to lure both children and those who like their games to lean to the cartoonish side into its grasp; meanwhile, its gameplay carries the right degrees of accessibility, originality, and potential for chaos to make even the most skeptical gamers at least curious to check out what the general commotion is all about.

Even if it is easy to see why Splatoon 2 hit stores when it did, as it has the right ingredients to give the Switch the initial push new systems certainly need, the two-year gap separating it from its prequel puts the game in a rather tight position. While most Nintendo franchises, including those that are built for multiplayer action, have at least four years between installments (a comfortable enough span that allows for plenty of new ideas to be born, mature, and fall from the tree ripe to be eaten) Splatoon 2 had to make do with a much shorter interval. And therein lies the game’s biggest obstacle.

splatoon24First and foremost, though, regardless of roadblocks and issues, Splatoon 2 is uncannily fun. There is some sort of subconscious joy intimately related with joining three people and battling another four-member team to see who – in three minutes – is able to ink the biggest portion of the scenario’s floor. Much of it is actually related to how it is easy to feel one is contributing to the team’s progress. As eliminating rivals is not the focus of the match, as all it does is making the defeated player inactive for a few seconds and sending them back to their team’s spawning point, even inexperienced gamers can succeed in achieving the main objective of Turf Wars, the most family friendly mode of Splatoon, which is painting the stage with the team’s color.

Under that straightforward goal, Splatoon 2 holds a remarkable strategic layer. As it happened on its predecessor, it is a quality that emerges thanks to four main pillars. Firstly, there is how the Inklings can transform into squids at will, which allows them to swim undercover on ground and walls that have been painted with their color, thereby giving players plenty of opportunities to sneak around and surprise foes in a number of ways. Walking hand-in-hand with such a twist, the design of the stages, which are filled with ledges, shortcuts, climbable structures, tight corners, hiding spots, and more wide-open grounds for explosive shootings, supports from the most aggressive approaches to the most defensive and calculated ones.

Additionally, the game gives players a lot of room for character customization via its weapon selection and ability-embedded gear. The former is incredibly varied and clever, featuring everything from standard guns, to buckets, paint rollers, brushes, sniper riffles, and more, each having a sub-weapon (different sorts of bombs) and a special attack (including a team-wide shield and a jet-pack) which can be activated whenever a gauge is filled up. The latter, meanwhile, lets Inklings hold up to twelve distinct special skills on their stylish outfit, like extra resistance to enemy ink, reduction of the ink consumption of main and secondary weapons, coming back from the dead more quickly, among others.

splatoon25In addition to Turf Wars, Splatoon 2 retains the three ranked modes of the original game: Splat Zones, in which players must take control of a predetermined area of the map and keep it until a timer runs out; Rainmaker, where teams strive to carry the powerful titular weapon (which considerably slows its holder down) into the base of the opponents; and Tower Control, which has Inklings struggling to stay on top of a tight tower in order to make it move towards their rivals’ headquarters. Arguably, these three gameplay variations present a far greater requirement for cooperation than Turf Wars, as it is impossible to succeed without smooth coordination; likewise, they bring about a stronger need for killing, two facts that make this trio of modes more suited for experienced gamers. Nevertheless, they are equal to Turf Wars in the sense that they are chaotic, fun, addictive, accessible, and also rely on inking as much of the stage as possible.

From an objective point, though, thereby looking past the fact the gameplay described is astonishingly engaging and lasting, one needs to admit that all of those tricks had already been pulled off by Splatoon. What defines a sequel is what it does different from its predecessor, and in the case of Splatoon 2 the answer is “not much”. Surely, the natural additions are here: there are new weapons, sub-weapons, and gear; the special attacks have been completely revamped as there are no returning moves; original stages have been built; and a different single-player campaign is presented. Sadly, almost none of those increments are significant enough to make Splatoon 2 a clearly superior experience, which is what one would expect from a title of its stature; instead, most of these features come off as pleasant fresh ingredients rather than game-defining traits.

In fact, some of them represent such tiny shifts that reasonable complaints could be made. The sets of gear and weapons hold so few new items that sometimes it is hard to spot them, with the most remarkable addition in that regard being the dual guns that allow Inklings do dodge in the midst of firefights; meanwhile, in its raw state and without the numerous updates that will surely come, Splatoon 2 only has eight stages, a meager quantity that gets even less impressive when one considers two of them are slightly upgraded versions of levels from the previous game.

splatoon23The sole completely commendable natural evolution comes in the single-player mode, which presents a group of levels of superb design, solid difficulty (which gets notably high as the end approaches), and true creativity. The Super Mario Galaxy style of stage construction, which features disjointed parts that defy the laws of physics and common sense coming together to form far-fetched obstacle courses with incredible variety, works wonders in a third-person-shooting setup. And the six-to-ten hours players will spend in the quest will certainly be of a much higher gameplay quality than one would hope to find in a multiplayer-focused game.

Unfortunately, aside from not totally succeeding in introducing new assets, Splatoon 2 also misses the opportunity to fix many of the issues that somewhat held its predecessor back and that were the source of fair complaints from fans. The stages that are available at any moment are still limited to two per mode; and even though the rotation time has been reduced from four to two hours, the method for level selection is still inferior to that of games like Mario Kart, where players vote on the stage they want to play and the game randomly chooses from among the ones that were voted for. Such restriction causes a certain harm to the value of Splatoon, as long gameplay sections get inevitably hurt by the fact players are just battling on the same two stages over and over again.

Similarly, leveling up gear – which means adding another ability to it – still causes the new skill to be chosen from a random spinning wheel, which works against the freedom of customization of the characters. Truthfully, Nintendo does try to resolve that issue by letting players add abilities to gear by collecting ability chunks, but the number of chunks required to do that is so high and the process of getting them is so expensive and luck-based that most players will never be able to do it. Other problems that have been carried over from Splatoon 2 are the lack of scenario variety, as all stages are located in an urban setting; the irregularity in the formation of teams during Turf Wars, as the game seems to make little to no effort to assemble groups with players whose levels are balanced; the fact disconnected players are not replaced by AI, which leaves teams that suffer from that problem at an impossible-to-overcome disadvantage; and the shortage of communication options, as voice chat can only be done through a cumbersome method that involves a cellphone app, and in-game predetermined texts are lackluster, as they are limited to two buttons and do not give players the ability to customize what they want to say.

splatoon26The one trait that might make Splatoon 2 be a better game than its predecessor is Salmon Run, which is by an immeasurable distance its most brilliant addition. Salmon Run explores a cooperative vein that was completely overlooked in the original, and it does so with the brand of creativity and chaos that Nintendo is known for. A team of four players must gather their forces to fight, in the middle of a polluted ocean that holds a pair of different stages, armies of angry (and possibly psychologically disturbed) salmon in order to collect their eggs for a very shady (and likely hungry) bear. If the Inklings survive the three waves of enemies and succeed in collecting the established quota of eggs, they level up and stack up points to acquire rewards.

Salmon Run is utterly frantic: the enemy waves are generally made up of straightforward minions of varying sizes and more than a handful of tricky bosses, which are the ones that must ultimately be taken down in order for the eggs to appear. The design of the bosses, in particular, is the highlight of the mode, as their ways of attack and weak points are varied and creative. A shark-like foe, for instance, will suddenly emerge from the ground to brutally swallow whoever is slow enough not to get out of its attack circle on time; a salmon that hides under an umbrella will summon clouds that drop toxic ink; another fish equipped with jet-packs will wreak havoc with missiles; a mad creature driving a snake-like machine will destroy everything on its path; and more.

As attack waves go by, and as players level up, battles get increasingly frantic: the frequency with which bosses appear goes up so significantly that failing to kill one efficiently will mean the number of bosses roaming around the stage will quickly get out of control, causing the whole team to be caught up in an impossible-to-survive scenario. Salmon Run might as well be the highlight of the whole package due to how fresh, funny, and brutal it is. However, it also has a couple of tiny shortcomings; namely, the fact it is only available on alternate days and how the weapons that are to be used by the team are predetermined, something that can be interesting in how it forces gamers to survive with that they are given and learn how to master the different kinds of weapons, but that can also be annoying in the sense that if the weapons available are not pleasing to one they will probably not get much enjoyment out of the Salmon Run session that is in place.

splatoon22Splatoon put such an incredibly solid and fun gameplay structure in place that its sequel could not possibly have been anything short of incredible, and that is exactly what Splatoon 2 is. If it had been given more time to mature, instead of the brief two years that have passed since the original’s release for the Wii U, Splatoon 2 could have been a far better game; as it stands, though, it fails to gain enough traction to propel itself to a level that is superior to the one reached by its prequel. Being just as good as Splatoon, however, is not a sin, because that means it is a game that has the potential to entertain for as many hours as one has available to sit down with it. While it does not have quite enough to define its own traits, and even though it inherits all of the negative quirks of its predecessor, Splatoon 2 is irresistible.

Splatoon 2

Posted in Reviews, Switch | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Forgiving the Unforgivable

brokenheartRelationships are an awfully complicated matter. By managing to affect our emotions in ways we sometimes did not even know were possible, they make us feel like heaven even when the slightest details click together, but – at the same time – a tiny mishap may cause a hurricane of emotions that, when not properly handled, can create a big deal of hurting. It is roller-coaster ride full of ups and downs beyond compare, and while some of those adventures last for a lifetime, others end before one is able to notice. One of the main differences between everlasting rides and short ones comes down to people’s ability to – when reaching the bottom of the steepest slopes – gather up all broken pieces and start climbing up together towards another peak. Doing so takes time and, most importantly, forgiveness, which can be brought by the sweet remembrance that those great moments that built the relationship in the first place can still happen many times if the disappointment or bitterness is forgotten.

Even though that mostly applies to human relationships, anyone who has ever been passionate about a sports team or devoted to a rock band can relate to those feelings quite well. As it turns out, videogames are no exception. It is hard not to find a gamer who did not once claim that they had the greatest day just because another great-looking installment of their favorite series was announced; or that was sulking in disappointment when a highly anticipated title got a harsh reaction from a media outlet. Whenever there is passion, time, money, or dedication involved, there will most likely be intense emotions, and to most gamers watching a company that is a personal favorite do well is similar to watching one’s team win a championship, a beloved rock group walk into the Hall of Fame, or even patching things up with someone they care for.

With over thirty years of gaming on their backs, Nintendo and their fanbase have been through as many crises as a couple who has been married for the same amount of time. How could fans possibly forget the day Nintendo decided to dump Sony and their CD add-on to the Super Nintendo? Firstly, it led to the creation of the Playstation brand, which would go on to take away most of the third-party support that made the Super Nintendo so ridiculously great, a heist to which Nintendo itself lent yet another helping hand when it opted to embrace cartridges (which were more expensive and limited than the CDs used by the Playstation) during the Nintendo 64 era.

wand_of_gameleonSecondly, Nintendo’s break-up with Sony would also cause the Big N to strike a deal with Philips for the creation of another CD add-on. If things were not already bad enough, Nintendo would also dump Philips and, through some sort of bizarre loophole in the contract, the company would gain rights to produce three The Legend of Zelda games. Nintendo’s failure to see that CDs were the future made the company lose its software support, and – to top it all off – put a big stain on the Zelda franchise, whose fans will forever be haunted by The Faces of Evil, The Wand of Gamelon, and Zelda’s Adventure.

Ever since landing on the gaming market, that has not been Nintendo’s only corporate decision to hurt their fans. In fact, due to how immediately its effects were felt, the Rareware debacle possibly caused much more heartbreak than the Super Nintendo and its CD add-on. Alongside Nintendo, Rareware carried the Nintendo 64 on their backs, taking it to good gaming standards. In less than a decade, Rare made shooters relevant on consoles with Goldeneye 007 and Perfect Dark, beat Mario on his own platforming domain with Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, crafted the only racing game that was able to compete against Mario Kart with Diddy Kong Racing, made the biggest game of the system with Donkey Kong 64, dared to manufacture a space opera when systems could barely dream of supporting something so large with Jet Force Gemini, and built a theatrical comedy dressed up as a platformer that went against all political correctness one expects from games published by Nintendo with Conker’s Bad Fur Day.

That stellar track record on the Nintendo 64, paired up with the company’s past successes on the Super Nintendo – which included, among others, the inauguration of the Donkey Kong franchise as a platforming series in Donkey Kong Country – were not enough to stop Nintendo from, instead of treating the company as one of their most valuable assets, dealing it to Microsoft as if it were a cheap commodity. Fans could do nothing but sit and watch as some of their favorite franchises sailed into the sun.

super_metroidFor a company known for its consistently amazing franchises, it is surprising to see that Nintendo’s poor decisions extend past the business realm and occasionally reach their own characters. In 1994, Nintendo released Super Metroid, a game that is often considered to be the best title on the Super Nintendo – a system packed to the hull with amazing software – and the best sidescroller of all time. Undoubtedly, the character of Samus was at the peak of her popularity and the ground was more than set for the start of an incredible series of releases. However, instead of following Super Metroid with a sequel, Nintendo proceeded to keep Samus away from the spotlight for almost a decade. It is the gaming equivalent of an actor following an Oscar-winning performance by going nuts, deciding to live inside a cave, and making everybody wonder if we would ever see him again.

On the list of characters – and fans – who suffered the pains of Nintendo’s baffling decisions, Link and Samus are, unfortunately, not alone. After a successful string of glorious platforming gems – including the flawless Donkey Kong Country 2 – Nintendo seemed unable to know what to do with the simian. And since the answer “more platformers” apparently lacks controversial and heartbreaking potential, Nintendo decided to hand him and pair of Bongos and make the Kong family’s most notable member star on Nintendo’s unappealing response to Guitar Hero. A similar fate fell on Fox’s head, when instead of producing more space shoot ’em up masterpieces to follow Star Fox 64, the character was taken out of his Airwing to star in Star Fox Adventures, which felt like a The Legend of Zelda imitation; Star Fox Assault, whose on-foot missions were closer to dull than to thrilling; and Star Fox Command, whose focus on strategy and all-range-mode combats stripped the franchise off its traditional frantic missions.

Even the company’s biggest superstar is not safe from being a source of frustration and conflict in the relationship between Nintendo and their fans. Anyone who is able to recognize the names Mario is Missing, Mario Clash, Mario’s Time Machine and Hotel Mario knows that while the plumber does have the ability to turn unpopular genres into quality best-sellers – Mario Tennis and Mario Golf – his presence alone does not make a broken game good. With the exception of Mario Clash, which was featured in a system whose concept was simply too far ahead of current technology, those titles are the fruits of an era where Nintendo was licensing Mario to other companies as if the character did not have a legacy to protect, and the results were embarrassing at best.

wii_uSpeaking of hardware mishaps, such as is the case of the Virtual Boy, most recently Nintendo made yet another mistake with one of its platforms: the Nintendo Wii U. Trying to surf on the Wii’s success, the company opted use the name of the platform’s predecessor in an attempt to boost sales; however, the choice of using a letter to designate the evolution between the systems rather than a number left a whole lot of casual fans confused as to whether the machine was a new platform or an overhauled version of the Nintendo Wii.

Moreover, outside of the branding scope, the Nintendo Wii U was born fueled by the concept of asymmetrical gameplay, which was allowed by the Gamepad’s screen and the fact it could show a different view than the one that appeared on the TV. What seemed like an alluring idea, though, was left completely unexplored not only by third parties, but also – shockingly – by Nintendo itself. The Gamepad’s screen, alluded to as the system’s key feature, was so poorly utilized that it failed to add new twists to Nintendo’s franchises – differently from what had happened with the Wii’s motion controls and pointer; and by the end of the console’s life cycle it was either being used to show the exact same view that appeared on the television or was left turned off altogether during gameplay.

Through so many years of so many letdowns, it is clear that some fans turned their backs on Nintendo either due to one of those doubtful moves or because of the sum of all parts. However, the number of people who decided to forgive, wait and develop – once more – trust in the company’s abilities were fairly rewarded. For every appealing Eastern game that was not localized to the West there was an incredible RPG; for every year that Samus stayed in the limbo there were five hours of gameplay in the fantastic trilogy that followed the lull; for every horrible Mario game there was an adventure featuring the plumber that blasted into historical greatness; for every ridiculous song in Donkey Konga there was a stage exploding in creativity in Donkey Kong Country Returns and its sequel; for every CD-i Zelda game there were many unforgettable Hylian adventures; for every inadequate Star Fox game there was a new IP or a fun adventure starring a reborn Kirby; for every botched up relationship with third-parties there were unexpected partnerships that resulted in incredible titles; and for every disastrous system there were more than plenty of successful ones.

galaxyThe energy that it takes to forgive is directly proportional to the emotional distress that brought harm. Thankfully, by realizing that some relationships are worth rescuing, humans are totally capable of finding, in the potential of a partnership and in the good memories of the past, the will to let bygones be bygones. The reward is powerful: though past adventures are sweet, the best might still lie ahead and it might remain forever undiscovered if the ability to forgive is not achieved. If everything still goes wrong, there will always be old pictures to look at every once in a while, or that old dusty Super Nintendo with cartridges full of bits of gaming greatness.

Posted in Articles | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Albums of the Month: July 2017

big_starAlbum: #1 Record

Artist: Big Star

Released: June 1st, 1972

Highlights: Feel, The Ballad Of El Goodo, In The Street, Thirteen

The history of rock music has been partially paved with the tales of a number of bands that while critically acclaimed and tremendously influential, never got their dues on a commercial level. Surely, it would have been too much to expect that all remarkable groups be widely remembered and revered on a scale similar to that of giants like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Still, it would certainly be nice to see the unsung heroes of the genre be more than a bleep on the radar that is only uncovered by those who dig far into its rich musical well. While some groups, such as The Velvet Underground and the Pixies got the respect they deserved down the line, for the banners of their glories were hoisted by acts that made it big – David Bowie and Nirvana, respectively; others never got there, for their greatness was praised by those who were, themselves, outcasts who embraced the existence on a rung below the mainstream.

Big Star falls into that second group. The brilliancy of Alex Chilton, Chris Bell, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens was alluded to by both R.E.M. and The Replacements, bands that were too true to a non-conformist essence to break their musical principles and hang onto the radio waves by bending the knee to the industry’s wishes. And so, the three classic records that form the cornerstone of their legend have become secluded and unexplored stops along the rock music highway. “#1 Record” captures the group exploring the purest essence of their sound: Big Star may have been an American band formed almost a decade after the British Invasion, but anyone listening to “#1 Record” without any external knowledge would easily put the album’s release somewhere around 1967, as it stands somewhere between The Beatles’ sonic experiments and chamber pop explorations, and The Kinks’ hard rock days and pastoral period.

The first half of the album sees Bell handling vocal duties on vicious rockers whose simple yet powerful riffs share their DNA with The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, a link that becomes even clearer due to how Bell’s shrill voice is close to that of Dave Davies; while Chilton brings delightful innocence to the gorgeous acoustic tracks of “The Ballad Of El Goodo” and “Thirteen”, which carry the peaceful sonority of The Kinks during their “The Village Green Preservation Society” era, moving low-key melodies which can be traced to McCartney’s “Yesterday”, and the angelic harmonies The Beatles had perfectly mastered. “The India Song”, a piece of psychedelic pop rock, and “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, which would have been right at home on one of The Beatles’ first four albums alongside other straightforward and sweetened rock and roll reinterpretations, serve as a pleasant interlude before “#1 Record” unleashes a moving onslaught of five peaceful pastoral ballads that take the album, floating on clouds of harmonies and melody, all the way to its conclusion.

Truly, it is not a fully original mixture; however, it is remarkable for when it happened, as by 1972 the British Invasion had already left its mark on the general cultural spectrum and sailed straight onto the pages of rock history books. Big Star came out to show that someone in the Southern United States had paid great attention and developed a profound love for what The Kinks and The Beatles had done in their primes; and such infatuation ran so true and deep inside the hearts of songwriters Alex Chilton and Chris Bell they wanted to create their own take on those classic sounds. The outpour of that confluence of admiration and talent found its way onto “#1 Record”, an album clouded by the fog of time and obscurity, but that is nevertheless a treasured and highlighted spot on the maps of all musical sailors who ventured into the little-visited waters surrounding it.


licensed_illAlbum: Licensed To Ill

Artist: Beastie Boys

Released: November 15th, 1986

Highlights: Rhymin & Stealin, Fight For Your Right, No Sleep Till Brooklyn, Brass Monkey

To put it quite simply, the Beastie Boys – as portrayed in “Licensed To Ill” – could be the classroom jerks of any average high school out there. It is easy to picture the 1986 versions of Adam Horvitz (Ad-Rock), Michael Diamond (Mike D), and Adam Yauch (MCA) sitting in the back of a classroom and cracking the world’s most obnoxious jokes while thinking highly enough of themselves to look at their classmates with a boatload of swagger and superiority. Surely, those kinds of folks do have their moments of victory, such as when they make the entire room burst out laughing or succeed in poking fun at someone who is universally despised by the whole class. Ultimately, however, unbeknown to them, but not to teachers and students, the classroom jerks are more pitied than beloved, because deep down it is universally known the jokes and annoying behavior are a shield or a life-vest that allows them to either protect themselves or stay afloat in the general misery of their losing lives.

How is it possible, then, to explain the brilliancy of “Licensed To Ill” as well as the musical genre-transcending legend that the Beastie Boys have become if the album and their career were built with the very same tools used by classroom jerks around the world? The clueless superiority is there: the Beastie Boys are the sort of guys who think getting thrown out of the local fast-food joint is the ultimate sign of badassery, and they will broadcast such a feat by rapping it onto the vinyl. The unjustified swagger is absolutely present: Ad-Rock, Mike D, and Adam Yauch think they are better than you and the rest of the world, and they will let you know about it (most likely while running away with your and everybody else’s girlfriends). And the ridiculous jokes are constant: this hip-hop ensemble does not use punchlines, because such a comedic tool requires a build-up, and the Beastie Boys are not developed enough for such subtlety; their attempts to deliver burns and climaxes are relentless.

The explanations behind why everything clicks in place are simple. Firstly, there is the gift of self-awareness. Classroom jerks are unconscious of the fact they are losers; the Beastie Boys, meanwhile, embrace it. They know how goofy it is that three white dudes think they can walk the streets of New York with the sway and style of black rappers, and they jump so fearlessly towards the silly stereotype it is borderline satirical, yet not blatant enough to make listeners sure they are not being serious about it. Secondly, there is the sheer smartness of the lines: where classroom jerks are occasionally witty, the Beastie Boys pack more references and jokes into their lyrics than one is able to identify after many dozens of listens; and save for “Girls”, whose sexist remarks come off as offensive under the light of the 21st century, they all still hold up.

Finally, there is the sheer musical and vocal talent. “Licensed To Ill” unites tracks built around sampled classic rock riffs and songs with simple turntable beats and scratches, and all numbers gain power due to the vocal exchanges between the three remarkable and unusual voices of the trio. Whether they are pillaging and plundering while leading a mutiny on a ship (“Rhymin & Stealin”), first meeting while robbing a saloon (“Paul Revere”), recklessly ignoring the need for rest while going wild on tour (“No Sleep Till Brooklyn”), or just fighting the good fight for our unalienable rights to party (“Fight For Your Right”), the Beastie Boys deliver the goods in “Licensed to Ill”. It is hard to shake the feeling they are classroom jerks after all; but if they are, they are made of a damn fine and special material. One that is good enough to make anyone want to join them in whatever antics they are planning on pulling.


riotAlbum: Riot!

Artist: Paramore

Released: June 12th, 2007

Highlights: For a Pessimist I’m Pretty Optimistic, Misery Business, When It Rains, Crushcrushcrush

For most pop punk bands, either those that emerged from the ashes of the punk rock movement at the end of the 70s or those that took the genre to the mainstream radio waves at the turn of the century, achieving maturity was always a problem. Most of those acts became so deeply entrenched inside the niche they had initially built that they seemed to refuse to get out; tackling teenage angst over angry guitars ended up turning into a shackling comfort zone that, ironically, ended up trapping musicians that were – seemingly – nonconformists. Consequently, as they grew older, those bands had a tendency to transform into caricatures of themselves, for there is something inherently fake and forced when adults write about topics that afflict adolescents, especially in a tone of repressed frustration that is most common to those under the age of twenty.

As it turns out, Paramore is one of the groups that was smartly able to get out of that hole before it ate them alive. “Riot!”, however, is not the record in which they made that jump, which is perfectly understandable when one considers Hayley Williams and Josh Farro – the group’s two main songwriters – were, respectively, eighteen and nineteen when they put it together. “Riot!”, though, is when the signs Paramore would be able to break out of their cage began to show. In a way, those indications were always there: not only was the band ridiculously young when they assembled their debut (“All We Know Is Falling”), but Hayley – in her singing, lyrics, and behavior – always put forth an image that was sweet and honest rather than calculated and engineered by the marketing sector of a major label, which made the relationship issues described in her lyrics come off as genuine and the arrival of maturity to be looming on the horizon.

Through most of its running time, “Riot!” employs the same formula established in “All We Know Is Falling”, which means crunchy guitar riffs on the verses and sudden kicks into overdrive for sweeping anthemic choruses, a somewhat commonplace duality for the genre, but one that – in the case of Paramore – allows Williams to, respectively, show her power of interpretation and her stunning vocal talent. Singing, however, is not her sole prowess. By being centered around the same song structures, Paramore’s first works could have easily become meandering efforts that lack defining traits. Yet, that does not happen, because – melodically – Williams hits the nail on the head almost every single time, and it is not only because she has especially gifted lungs and vocal chords; it is also due to melodies that are truthfully good and effective.

What makes “Riot!” stand out as a more confident effort than its predecessor, though, is how – in four of the eleven tracks it contains – the band is shown stretching their wings past pop punk standards. “When It Rains” and “We Are Broken” are two gorgeously wonderful ballads, the former being highlighted by Josh Farro’s tasteful ringing guitar tone and the latter featuring a beautiful piano that gives William’s voice the spotlight it always deserves; additionally, “Crushcrushcrush” uses a steady synthesizer that lends the song some rather unique dynamics when compared to the group’s other heavy tunes, and “Fences” swings like a rockabilly track, which makes it a fun, loose, unpretentious, and unexpected presence in the album, giving it some much needed levity. In spite of still displaying many of the quirks of pop punk, then, “Riot!” – given the paths Paramore would follow in its future – is a first consistent and strong step out of the genre’s often inescapable cage. And the fact the band started that process when they had yet to reach twenty speaks volumes about their talent and the authenticity of their devotion to music.


the_age_of_the_understatementAlbum: The Age Of The Understatement

Artist: The Last Shadow Puppets

Released: April 15th, 2008

Highlights: The Age Of The Understatement, Calm Like You, My Mistakes Were Made for You, The Meeting Place

Understatement is not a word that is exactly suiting for the Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner. He is, after all, a man that – from an early age – built a songwriting career out of talking about emotions, ideas, thoughts, and desires as blatantly and directly as possible while exhaling the suave demeanor of someone who is not one tiny bit concerned about regretting it, as if he knows (or thinks) there is no way he can lose. It is not surprising, therefore, that about two minutes into the debut record of his side-project, The Last Shadow Puppets, when the opening song is reaching its apex, “The Age of the Understatement” gains a somewhat sarcastic meaning. Alongside Miles Kane, of The Rascals, Turner uses the term to refer to a woman who rents her affection to anyone who is willing to pay the price, and she does it so naturally and frequently he states that even saying something like that is a massive understatement in the description of her behavior; his apparently bold and exaggerated words are not quite enough.

And, quite frankly, that comes as a massive relief, because there is something unshakably uncomfortable about the mere thought of watching Alex Turner operate in a low-key manner. There is absolutely nothing restrained about the first record of the trio, which also includes James Ford; in fact, it is lush, lavishing, and extravagant to the point it is a miracle it does not hit as overly pompous music. It rescues baroque pop – the mixture of rock music and classical orchestration – from the grave it had been lying in by pairing it up with the fast-pace and frantic marching beats of the Arctic Monkeys, albeit with guitars that appear far more subdued than they are in Turner’s original group in order to allow the string arrangements to be displayed in equal footing with the standard rock instrumentation.

Consequently, where The Beatles and The Beach Boys forged baroque pop as a bed for angelic melodies, heavenly harmonies, and soothing lyrics to rest on, The Last Shadow Puppets create an unexpected, subversive, and punk version of the style. The melodies are mostly aggressive, as if Turner and company are always aiming a finger (or a weapon) at someone while exposing their target’s weaknesses and flaws; the harmonies are almost non-existent, for Turner and Kane’s shared vocals are better defined as singing together than harmonizing; and the lyrics talk of affection not by dressing it up in beautifully crafted words, but via the expression of that feeling in its rawest, sincerest, and – thereby – most brutal manner, an approach that undoubtedly allows Turner to unleash his machine-gun mouth, spitting out smart phrases at faster rates than one can follow.

Smartly, though, The Last Shadow Puppets do not explore baroque pop for the sole purpose of tackling, by using a rather distinct approach, tunes that could have appeared on an Arctic Monkeys album. They, in fact, unearth a couple of gems that are products of trying something new and drinking from different sources: “The Meeting Place” and “The Time Has Come”, which are so relaxingly laid-back they could have been bossa nova songs written by the masters of the genre at Ipanema Beach. As a result, although “The Age of the Understatement” may justifiably seem like an Arctic Monkeys work that has been hijacked by Phil Spector’s orchestrated walls of sound, it is an intriguing take on baroque pop that revives the style – if not definitely at least briefly – and holds an impressive number of strong tunes with a few interesting detours along the way.

Posted in Albums of the Month, Miscellaneous | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas Review

Had it opted to carve out a feature it could call its own, Oceanhorn could have easily excelled; as it chooses, however, to be a pretty blatant clone, it merely entertains while it lasts

oceanhorn4Originally born back in 2013 as a game for mobile platforms, Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas was pretty clear in its intentions. Coming one decade after the release of the masterful Nintendo classic The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and an equally fair number of years following the launch of that title’s seafaring sequel, Phantom Hourglass, Oceanhorn wished to sail on the winds of nostalgia straight into the hearts of gamers who missed cruising mysterious seas, uncovering the secrets of various islands, and navigating through the fog in order to get to the core of some unspeakable evil that threatens to destroy the peaceful life inhabiting a delightfully colorful world.

Greatly aided by the fact there are plenty of people out there who are just dying to anchor themselves to an adventure that has the potential of triggering feelings of discovery and grandness similar to those touched upon by The Wind Waker, Oceanhorn did succeed in being rather appealing and somewhat close to Link’s quest out in The Great Sea. After all, it features a protagonist who – armed with a sword and shield – must use a boat to hop between islands, enter dungeons, find treasure, help people, and ultimately vanquish an enemy that has been tormenting the land for quite a while. And that is why it is quite suiting and pleasant to see it arrive on the Nintendo Switch, a platform naturally owned by a great number of Zelda fans, even if four years have passed since the Oceanhorn’s original release.

There is quite a lot of undeniable charm to be found in Oceanhorn. Its visuals have the bright colors and inherent cuteness Nintendo proudly infuses into its works; the isometric perspective in which it is played sensibly places the game somewhere between the classic vein of A Link to the Past and Zelda’s DS outings, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, the only two efforts in the franchise’s history to make use of that camera angle; its dungeons feature the enjoyable blend of puzzle solving and combat that has marked The Legend of Zelda series since its inception; and the whole quest is punctuated by light storytelling and dialogues that, while in no way even remotely close to the astonishing heights reached by The Wind Waker, put together a mythology and an atmosphere that keep the ball rolling through the eight-to-ten hours Oceanhorn’s core adventure should last.

oceanhorn3Beginning with an imposing narration that nicely hearkens to Bastion, even if sans the wit and omnipresence of that game’s voice-over, the father of our hero gravely tells of the day Oceanhorn – a living fortress of a creature that has been active for thousands of years and is the only remaining representative of three machines once created to defend humans against an evil threat – attacked their home and took his wife (the hero’s mother) away. Setting out to track down the monster and unearth the reason for its behavior, the boy’s father leaves behind a message to let his child know that one day he would also have to go after Oceanhorn.

The path towards the ancient creature goes through the recovery of three magical artifacts, each held by a different tribe living on distinct islands, and as anyone who has ever played a The Legend of Zelda game would expect, these items are located deep within heavily guarded dungeons and are watched over by mean bosses. Consequently, Oceanhorn is a constant process of figuring out which island to go to; getting there; finding and opening the dungeon; clearing its puzzles; killing the boss; and moving onto the next one. Taking advantage of the charm of its world and visuals, that fixed road is invariably not that simple, for reaching the island where the dungeon is located often entails traveling to other secondary pieces of land to acquire either intel about the place or a valuable piece of equipment that will allow players to get there.

As one would expect, and borrowing a good page from The Wind Waker, not all of Oceanhorn’s islands need to be cleared in order to reach the end of the game. And that means the title holds plenty of extra content to those who will feel compelled to further sink their teeth into the game’s meat, including a couple of full-fledged mazes, a long list of achievements, a lot of treasure chests, a dozen heart pieces, and numerous bloodstones that – when collected – will grant the hero an optional, yet quite powerful, spell.

oceanhorn2Oceanhorn’s overall feeling of exploration takes three considerable hits, though. Firstly, and similarly to a handful of The Legend of Zelda installments that have trouble giving players incentive to go the extra mile and explore some more, the game fills most of its treasure chests with money, which is not that valuable given the game does not feature many worthy items that can be purchased. Secondly, and most aggravating, is how – differently from what happens in The Wind Waker – Oceanhorn’s islands are not fully available from the start, but appear either as the game goes along or as the hero comes across information about them. And while there is a touch of mystery and joy about finding a bottle with an odd message concerning an island and watching it appear on the map, there is also the nagging feeling it would have been much better to have it there since the adventure began so that players could head to the place whenever they felt like it.

As far as freedom goes, though, the biggest problem is definitely the sailing. Distances in the game are short, much to the relief of those who found The Wind Waker’s water-based sections to be awfully dull. However, those trips are incredibly boring, because players cannot do anything but shoot at obstacles; even moving the boat around is not an option, because the route to be taken is defined by the island that is selected on the map as the destination. Not only is such an implementation annoyingly restrictive, as it goes against the refreshing freedom that made The Wind Waker the classic it is, it also makes the ocean devoid of any interesting detours and surprises.

And that issue right there may reveal what truly is Oceanhorn’s biggest problem: the fact it will be inevitably compared to one of the greatest games of all time even though it is a humble mobile title with a great heart and excellent intentions. It chooses to navigate so close to The Wind Waker, and it does so little to stand out on its own as a completely different product, that putting them side-by-side is as inevitable as it is unfair, and nowhere are such inevitability and unfairness more obvious than in the level-design.

oceanhorn4As a mobile game, even if it is one that has boldly decided to take a leap to the brand new Nintendo Switch (a home console) a whopping four years after it first came out, Oceanhorn is rock-solid: its dungeons are engaging, the exploration of its islands is a lot of fun, its bosses are decent, its combat is respectable and simple (as it is the case of all 2-D and handheld Zelda games released up to this point), its world is very likable, and the only serious complaint one could make against it is how the map system could have been better implemented, as it only shows the area close to the hero and does not allow gamers to have an overall view of the entire location. Equipped with a bow, a pair of boots for jumping, bombs, and spells that can freeze, burn, heal, and make rocks fall out of the sky, the hero will take on interesting challenges that will keep most gamers happily going all the way through the end while he slowly learns the truth about Oceanhorn, his family, and his world.

However, as a title that clearly intends to be a The Legend of Zelda clone, it suffers the same fate as Star Fox Adventures: namely, it fails to compare in all aspects, especially in the cleverness of design and in the storytelling, only living up to that grand standard in its spectacular soundtrack. When standing beside The Wind Waker, Phantom Hourglass, and A Link Between Worlds – to mention a few – Oceanhorn’s puzzles feel simplistic, as they involve way too much block-pushing, switch pressing, and target-shooting, offering almost no moments that will inspire true awe; likewise, its bosses come off as too straightforward, as the process of beating them features no smart tricks and twists, and its plot as not engaging enough.

It is clear, therefore, that Oceanhorn: Monster of Uncharted Seas exists in a rather tight balance. If on one hand it is indeed an enjoyable game that will hold the attention of kids and adults alike throughout its duration, even luring some of them into tackling all of its secrets; on the other hand it is clearly far from the best experience of its kind, as it chooses to neatly follow in the footsteps of a franchise that simply cannot be beaten at what it does. Had it taken a more subversive approach to some gameplay aspects or opted to carve out a feature it could call its own, Oceanhorn could have easily excelled. But as the path it takes is that of a pretty blatant clone, it merely entertains while it lasts. Nevertheless, the Finnish Cornfox & Bros. are able to pay a decent enough homage to The Legend of Zelda and give one friendly nod to one of its most remarkable outings, the unforgettable The Wind Waker.

Oceanhorn

 

Posted in Reviews, Switch | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

ARMS Review

It does not achieve universal appeal by a mindless dumbing down of the fighting genre, but via its reconstruction with small bricks, amounting to a structure that is far more than its individual parts let on

arms1Turning originally inscrutable gaming genres into items that are appealing for a general audience. It may sound like an overly minimalistic way of putting it, but that is precisely the recipe Nintendo has been using for many of their historical successes. The Paper Mario saga, and Super Mario RPG before it, did it for role-playing games; Super Mario Kart transformed racing from a landscape filled with scenarios and vehicles that tried to be realistic into a madhouse that took place in unbelievable settings amidst flying shells and tricky bananas; Advance Wars employed a simple interface, cartoonish visuals, and a good deal of didactics to make the depth of strategic gameplay navigable; Mario Golf and Mario Tennis took niche sports and made them into the stars of various gaming parties; and, most recently, Splatoon turned the world of multiplayer-centered shooters upside down by replacing bulky men and women with humanoid squids and bullets with ink.

By putting it into those terms, the work of the folks inside Nintendo may look simple: after all, just grab a genre one’s non-gaming relatives would never touch, do something quirky with it, add a few colorful characters (especially those who are already widely popular), and consumers will put down their hard-earned cash. It is an obvious recipe, but one that does not specify its most important secret: the fact that a whole lot of creativity must be burned for a truly remarkable concept (both on paper and in practice) to rise; and that an immeasurable quantity of effort must be consumed so that the game is fine tuned to the point where its basics are easy enough to learn literally anyone can pick them up while its gameplay retains depth that is sufficient for the title to last for endless hours.

ARMS, the first big Nintendo-made exclusive release for the Switch, is yet another proof that while other companies – lured by how easy the recipe seems to be – try and often fail to reproduce the alchemy of turning something niche into something universal, Nintendo nails it time and time again. One could easily say that, as far as genres go, ARMS is a bit redundant, because fighting games already have in Super Smash Bros. their family friendly representative. However, while that star-studded brawler makes a party out of fighting by throwing rules out the window, ARMS is more dedicated to respecting the genre’s tropes, a quality that makes it far more traditional and forces – on purpose – the game to operate under a tighter umbrella.

arms2In fact, within Nintendo’s canon, ARMS’ closest peer is not Super Smash Bros., but Splatoon. And given how big of an unexpected hit that title was, such inspiration is not only understandable, but also obvious and justifiable. Like Splatoon, ARMS does not lean on Nintendo’s established cast of heroes and villains to reach stardom, betting – instead – on a fully original set of characters that are varied and instantly likable; moreover, similarly to the Inklings’ wacky take on shooting, the game hinges on its multiplayer gameplay, with the caveat that – unlike Splatoon – it features a local multiplayer component that is as strong and full-fledged as its online counterpart.

What makes ARMS a true Nintendo product, though, is neither its colorful palette nor its charming characters, but the unusual concept around which it is built. In the world of ARMS, fighters are equipped with spring-powered weapons that extend for lengths big enough to cover more than half the size of almost all of its arenas. In practical terms, such devices mean that where most fighting games are close-range affairs with a lot of body contact, ARMS is focused on mid-to-long-range battles, which in turn demand good aim and excellent timing; moreover, the fact characters’ weapons reach so far away causes fighters to always be in danger of being hit, making tension and action constant, and turning firm attention into a valuable asset.

Additionally, ARMS also carries the signature of Nintendo in its simplicity. Like Super Smash Bros., the game shuns the complex commands and combos of most fighting games, choosing to rely – instead – on straightforward movements that together create a complex web of strategy and depth. Fighters can jump, dash sideways and forward both on the ground and while in the air, charge their arms for extra power, block incoming blows, punch (with the option to curve arms by tilting the control stick), grab, and throw a special move when their energy-meters (which are filled as punches land) are full.

arms3Without exception, all of those moves are delivered with either the press of one button, or two at the same time (in the case of grabs and the special move); or a intuitive movement (if players choose to use the game’s responsive motion controls). It is incredibly easy to learn, and within a dozen rounds most players will have all of those actions down. The complexity and learning curve of ARMS come in slowly mastering how and when to use each of those puzzle pieces, and in coming to grips with how to react to what the adversary is trying to do, all while dodging weapons that come in swooshing close to the fighters’ heads. Nintendo, then, uses simple building blocks to construct a game that is deeper than its surface indicates.

The elements that make ARMS a strong game do not stop there, though. Although it has a set of characters that is undeniably limited, featuring a total of ten fighters, Nintendo put a lot of thought into their design and quirks to make each one of them unique, giving them special traits that support distinct fighting strategies and approaches. Ribbon Girl can quadruple-jump and drop to the ground quickly; Twintelle has the power to slow down punches that are close to her; Spring Man gains a power boost when his energy is low; Master Mummy regains health when blocking; Mechanica uses the hover rockets of her robot suit to float in the air; Min Min can kick punches away; Helix can use his jelly-like flexibility to extend his body or duck below arms; Ninjara disappears and reappears quickly; Kid Cobra can charge his dash to move at impressive speeds; and Byte & Bark fight as a duo, with the latter being controlled by the CPU and occasionally serving as a jumping board for the former.

Besides experimenting with all of those different fighting styles, learning their intricacies, and eventually choosing the one – or the ones – to which they will adapt better so that they can beat down their friends online and offline, players will also have a lot of arms at their disposal. All characters start with three distinct weapons, but as the game goes on and players accumulate coins, that collection will increase to a whopping thirty non-exclusive arms per fighter. Given only three can be taken into battle and since each of the characters’ two arms can have a different weapon equipped to it, the strategic possibilities are basically endless.

arms6Therefore, even though thousands of gamers will choose the same character to master, it is unlikely they will play the same way, a statement that becomes even truer when it is considered how different some arms are from one another. There are standard gloves, boomerangs, birds, dragons, missiles, guns, umbrellas, shields, hammers, objects that cannot be qualified, and more, each having – according to their type – side effects when charged, which can include paralyzing electricity or freezing ice.

Sadly, though, the collection of arms is one of the game’s few glaring problems for the sole reason the whole process is too slow. In order to acquire them, players are required to play a target-hitting mini-game that has an entry fee. Albeit relatively simple, with arms wrapped as gifts dropping every time a certain point threshold is reached, the mini-game is not exactly productive, as the coins used to access it are not easy to come by (winning a battle will earn players either four or six of them).

According to the coins that are spent (thirty, one-hundred, or three-hundred), gamers will be given a predetermined amount of time to hit the targets and collect arms; however, not only are arms gained not that many (with the one-hundred-coin clock yielding an average of eight arms if players do very well), but the weapons acquired are absolutely random, meaning that if gamers want to try the combination of a specific character with a certain arm, they will have no option but to use the power of wishing. Even more aggravating is the fact that given how weapon variety is a key element in the game’s strategies and depth, Nintendo has essentially locked a whopping ninety percent of them behind a wall that comes down so slowly most players will never be able to bring down half of it.

arms4Luckily, ARMS is built on a foundation that is strong enough to overcome that shortcoming. The Grand Prix (a series of ten fights for the championship belt) that players can tackle either by themselves or alongside a friend (in which case they will be joined by a rubber-band and will be forced to work as a team against pairs of CPU-controlled fighters) packs quite a challenge and beating it at the highest of its seven difficulties is brutal enough to have the most skilled players pulling their hairs out. However, it is worth noting the AI sometimes comes off as cheap, executing reactions that are so fast and precise one has to wonder if it was not programmed to occasionally read the button that has been pressed by gamers.

To escape that frustration, players can hop online either for sheer fun, in which case they will be placed in a lobby with another twenty fighters and be randomly placed in battles against up to three of them, or in mini-games of basketball, target-hitting, or volleyball; or for rank, where one-on-one battles are a constant. Moreover, keeping true to their traditions of offering a strong local multiplayer, Nintendo delivers the goods by allowing players to set up LANs of various consoles with two players being able to share each Switch; or go old-school and gather up to four people around a single console for battles or mini-games, which are fun for a short while but in no way carry the depth and enjoyment found in regular fights.

ARMS, therefore, is a game that succeeds both in its single-player and in its multiplayer fronts. There is challenge, variety, complexity, and fun to be had whether one plays it on their own or alongside friends. Even though it operates inside a scope that is far more limited than that of the likes of Super Smash Bros. and Splatoon, it is able to come through in the delivery of a lasting experience that will welcome and draw newcomers that would never think of touching fighting games, and keep avid gamers entertained for long periods of time, whether it be by giving them vast combinations of fighters and weapons to try and master, hooking them with the competitive online scene, or offering an impressive single-player challenge.

arms5Ultimately, ARMS is Nintendo’s purest take on the fighting genre, mostly respecting the essence of one-on-one combats but doing so by adding a clever twist that makes it unmistakably a Nintendo product. And true to the tradition of the games that have walked out of the company’s Kyoto studios, it does not achieve universal appeal by a mindless dumbing down of a gaming style, but via its reconstruction with small bricks that amount to a structure that is far more than its individual parts let on.

ARMS

Posted in Reviews, Switch | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Snake Pass Review

It breaks away from the mold by forcing players – quite literally – to think and move like a snake, altering the way with which problems that are nearly as old as gaming itself need to be approached

snake_pass1Ever since a frustrated Mario traveled between castles in which his princess could not be found, the world of platforming games has featured a quite obvious bias: namely, the fact that – like a cool roller coaster ride that eludes the bravest children out there due to height restrictions – it sends away creatures who cannot stand on two legs. With the exception of Spyro, who certainly must have burned whoever told him he could not access his own adventure because he was walking on all fours, it is clear there is some kind of established segregative policy. Nothing else could explain how characters like Sonic (a hedgehog), Croc (a crocodile), Aero (a bat), Banjo (a bear), Conker (a squirrel), Gex (a gecko), and Crash (a bandicoot) are seen nonchalantly moving around like bipeds when their genes were clearly not programmed to perform such an action.

Given that fishy reality, Snake Pass is, in concept alone, quite exciting. Regardless of the methods used by Noodle (a snake that – shockingly – moves around exactly like one would) to get his game approved by the platforming police, one thing is for sure: by placing the unlikely hero in settings that have all staples of the genre – like gaps, moving pieces, water, tall structures that need to be climbed, fire pits, deadly spikes, and small platforms – the folks at Sumo Digital unearthed an incredibly original concept with such an inborn simplicity that it is sort of uncanny nobody had ever thought about it (or maybe someone had done so but ended up being stopped by mysterious dark forces).

To most characters of the genre, most of the obstacles put on Noodle’s path would be easily transposed: a smug Mario would likely eat a mushroom and laugh them off, while a sly Banjo would certainly make use of Kazooie to fly over them. With no arms and legs, though, Noodle’s life is a lot harder than that, for the simplest climbs and gaps need to be negotiated carefully; after all, it takes more than the press of a button that activates a jumping motion to get to the top of a totem as a snake. For that reason, Snake Pass is as much of a platformer as it is a puzzle game.

snake_pass4Sure, players will be exploring large natural scenarios that are as stunningly beautiful as they are colorful while being accompanied by a gorgeous soundtrack that – composed by the genius David Wise – matches and flawlessly captures that organic beauty. However, the usual action rhythm of platformers is replaced by a slow and meticulous pace, as Noodle will be constantly slithering across structures made up of wooden cylinders, forming jungle-gym-like set pieces that let him reach his goals.

Since Snake Pass is so blatantly unorthodox, it is to be expected that its controls be equally unusual, and that is undoubtedly the case. By pressing the R-button, players make Noodle go forward (and if they wish to be faster, all that it takes is performing constant sideways moves); meanwhile, the A-button is responsible for lifting the snake’s head, the control stick offers full 360-degree of that motion (which is what allows Noodle to curl around all sorts of cylindrical structures), and the L-button causes the character to tightly grip the object it is currently coiled around. The commands, therefore, are not numerous; moreover, they are able to take care of pretty much the entire motion one would expect from a snake. Still, in spite of the sensibility with which they grasp the idea of being a creature that is sheer crawling muscle, they are quite tough to learn.

The four worlds and fifteen levels that form the six-hour quest of Snake Pass, which can be greatly extended if players aim to collect all items scattered around the stages, are set up in a way that makes difficulty perfectly progressive. That means the game is able to remain challenging all the way through, starting with stages that are set up so that players can adapt to the controls and wrapping it all up with a trio of levels that are nothing short of brutal, a pleasant detail that makes Snake Pass a game whose challenge goes way beyond what its cuddly looks indicate. Yet, even though the levels are organized in a neat constantly rising difficulty curve, that hill is not perfectly aligned with the one formed by the learning curve of the controls.

snake_pass2What that causes is that at some point – which will appear earlier or later, depending on how experienced whoever is playing the game happens to be – Snake Pass will seem to ask more of players than what they are able to do, especially regarding the collecting of some optional items. Truth be told, if gamers keep at it, they will eventually be rewarded with getting their minds completely around the idea of how to make Noodle move through the twisted paths and climbs that Snake Pass will throw their way. Ascending that mountain, though, requires perseverance and patience, and – like all ordeals of the sort – mastering Noodle and acquiring the confidence that all of the game’s daring collectibles are within one’s reach is amazingly rewarding.

Speaking of collectibles, Snake Pass – borrowing a page from the collectathons on which its visuals and music were certainly inspired – has plenty of them. All stages require that Noodle amass three colorful keystones so that the gate to the next level is unlocked and he can proceed with restoring peace to Haven Tor, the realm in which he lives and whose tranquility has been destroyed by an unknown intruder. Additionally, each level holds twenty-five blue orbs and five golden coins. Sadly, differently from the keystones, those two collectibles have no specific purpose other than being necessary to achieve 100% completion.

Ultimately, what differentiates them, is that the golden coins tend to be either well-hidden or positioned in places that require a whole lot of skill to get to without causing Noodle to fall to his death; while the blue orbs, as more abundant items, tend to be easier to acquire (even if some of them are still quite hard to get to). Despite that lack of actual use, players who work hard to master the game will most certainly be drawn to the huge challenge that is getting them all, not only due to how Snake Pass is bursting with fantastic and never-seen-before level design, the latter of which being a quality that comes naturally for a game that is so original; but also because it is one of those titles that the more one plays it the better and more fun it gets.

snake_pass4As a game that holds lots of rewards for those who keep going for long enough, it is a shame Snake Pass does not make the learning process of players an experience that is devoid of frustration. In platformers, it is absolutely common to fall from the top of a tall structure that is hard to climb and have to start again; likewise, all of the greatest gems of the genre are filled with portions that need to be replayed if characters drop to their doom. Snake Pass is not different from those games; in fact, because of its unique concept and the novel controls that stem from that, it features more of those situations than the average platformer; however, much of the retreading could have been greatly minimized had the game offered more abundant and well-placed checkpoints.

The fact losing larger-than-ideal chunks of progress is common has ramifications that go beyond making the learning of the controls more frustrating, it affects the gathering of the collectibles itself, as the challenge of getting to coins and orbs that are harder to reach becomes more daunting than it already is. Snake Pass, thereby, could have gone a long way towards being far more accessible and pleasant if it had been more generous and thoughtful regarding that issue.

Given that matter, Snake Pass is a game that is easy to recommend, but as long as there is a large caveat attached to its back. By moving away from the bipedal characters that dominate the platforming landscape, the game is practically the discovery of a hidden subgenre, one that seamlessly mixes the challenges of getting across chasms, gathering items, and climbing to high places with the reasoning involved in puzzle games. It breaks away from the mold by forcing players – quite literally – to think and move like a snake, altering the way with which problems that are nearly as old as gaming itself need to be approached. Without its checkpoint-placement shortcomings, Snake Pass would be a game that could embrace all kinds of players, regardless of the paradigm-breaking it requires; with it, though, it becomes a title that asks for more patience and perseverance than it should. Those who endure, however, will be in for quite a treat.

Snake Pass

Posted in Reviews, Switch | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments