Monster Hunter Stories Review

By mixing and matching elements of Monster Hunter and Pokemon, Monster Hunter Stories offers a charming, albeit flawed, look into a universe that is often portrayed as rough and gritty

monster_hunter_stories1If the evolution of this planet’s species had taken a slightly more awesome and brutal path than it did and the activity of monster hunting actually existed, it is safe to assume Capcom’s Monster Hunter franchise would be a pretty accurate virtual representation of it. There is nothing easy or streamlined about the depicted journey of going from a defenseless hunter to a master at bringing down fearsome creatures that are aggressive enough to give easily impressed children terrible nightmares: combats last for nearly one hour, not being properly equipped leads to merciless death, the remote nature of the hunting grounds forces hunters to pack items to help them deal with the hardships of the environment and maintain their energy levels, weakened monsters have the tendency to become more violent and constantly move from place to place in a desperate attempt to save themselves, and forging more resistant armor and stronger weapons can only be done with plenty of blood, sweat, and guts from monsters and hunters alike.

It is a glorious experience, but it is also a series of games that is time-consuming, extremely challenging, and that requires a great deal of grinding. Following a modern industry trend that has made the gaming market open itself up to a wider audience, and realizing the potential for widespread appeal that rests on some aspects of the Monster Hunter brand, Capcom has delivered Monster Hunter Stories. Set in the same universe as the main saga, albeit with a presentation that is far more colorful and cartoonish, it replaces the skill and patience-testing action-based battles of traditional Monster Hunter games with simple turn-based affairs, and shifts the focus from muscular serious-looking hunters to friendly teen-aged riders.

That change in the age of the starring characters reflects on the game’s presentation and, consequently, on the audience it aims to please. Monster Hunter Stories oozes playful charm, and the bright vivid tones of its world, its great cutscenes, as well as the cell-shaded models of riders, hunters, and monsters are a great highlight, even if the 3DS has to resort to loading creatures, scenario details, and characters only when they are a short distance from players. Watching the usually gritty creatures of the Monster Hunter universe gain cartoonish versions that are part cute and part menacing will be a joy to longtime fans of the franchise, whereas newcomers will easily fall in love with their appealing design.

monster_hunter_stories3According to the lore of Monster Hunter Stories, hunters and riders have always inhabited the same realm; however, given hunting apparently grew into a far more common activity, riders were soon shunned by a society that believed monsters were not meant to be befriended, but combated with the due respect. Consequently, villages in which the monster-riding culture flourished isolated themselves from the rest of the world. Hakum Village is one of those places, and when children come of age, they hatch a monster egg and form a bond with the creature. The people of Hakum Village – more specifically a group of young riders – are, however, forced to break out of their isolation when a threat from the past, Dark Blight (a sinister form of energy that takes control of monsters and makes them attack), re-appears. Tasked with stopping it, they have to venture out into a world of cursed monsters, and hunters who question the riders’ way of life.

Humans who build strong relationships with monsters and take them out on a continent-spanning quest are not news in the gaming world; after all, the Pokemon franchise has built an enormous empire centered around that concept. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that many of the gameplay elements that power Monster Hunter Stories can be traced back to Game Freak’s juggernaut. In fact, what separates this turn-based spin-off from the various Pokemon versions is a different (and flawed) battle system and how it mixes and matches Pokemon staples with Monster Hunter quirks.

Out of Pokemon, Monster Hunter Stories borrows the idea of assembling a team of monsters and being able mess with their gene pool. When players set out from Hakum Village, they will do so with a predetermined starter creature by their side. Across the continent, though, numerous monster dens (which appear on the scenario as randomly placed small caves) can be found. For every journey into a den (which consists of a small series of caves with items and monsters), riders can acquire an egg, which can then be immediately hatched in the nearest town.

monster_hunter_stories4The whole process is addictive. Different regions of the map offer different monsters, and the pattern on the eggs’ shells identifies the creature contained within, with some being – naturally – more uncommon than others. Moreover, specially colored golden dens hold eggs that will produce monsters with better stats; however, entering such locations, just like staying on any nest for too long looking for the desired egg, entails the considerable risk of coming across strong monsters that are guarding the place, which turns the whole affair into an interesting game of risk and reward.

As players battle and the monsters that are in the party level up, they learn fixed abilities that are representative of their nature: for example, Rathalos, a dragon, can launch mighty fireballs and fly to increase its evasive power; Barroth, a lover of burrowing, is eventually able to perform mud attacks; and Zamtrios, a four-legged shark, can surround itself in a menacing-looking armor of spiked ice. The variety of moves is considerable, and alongside with the creatures’ nice design, they are bound to make gamers spend considerable amounts of time testing monsters in battle, looking for that one specific egg that will give birth to the creature they are looking for, and carefully assembling a varied six-piece team.

Monsters can be customized via a gene-crossing process called channeling, which – truth be told – is far more intuitive, interesting, and flexible than the EV, IV, and genetic systems of the Pokemon games. All monsters, when caught, come with some fixed irremovable genes and a certain number of empty slots, which can be filled with abilities (such as increased stats or attacks) imported from other creatures. The only rule regarding this importing is that genes have to be moved between the same slots; that is, an ability that is on the bottom-right slot of a monster can only be moved to the bottom-right slot of its counterpart. Other than that, no rules apply, an enticing lack of limitations that allows players to take an ice-based creature and transform it into a fire-breathing attacker. In conjunction with the endless nest-raiding that can be done to find the monster with the right stats and genes, the channeling process opens up the way for absurdly big opportunities for very dedicated players to build the perfect team of monsters, an obsession that (as proven by Pokemon) many will be happy to engage in.

monster_hunter_stories2These Pokemon-inspired gameplay pillars are accompanied by a progression that is positively Monster Hunter in its setup. Monster Hunter Stories unfolds via a series of missions. Almost invariably, they consist of leaving one of the world’s many villages, going out into the field, exploring a new area, doing battle against minor enemies, and eventually encountering the big bad boss that needs to be taken down. Therefore, Monster Hunter Stories is – at its core, and like the titles of its parent saga – a series of boss battles that get progressively harder.

In order to clear them, not only do the monsters of the party need to be properly leveled-up, but the rider – who, differently from a Pokemon trainer, does step into the battlefield – has to be appropriately equipped; and, as any Monster Hunter player knows, such a goal is only achieved by killing monsters and using the material they drop to forge armor and weapons. With accessibility seemingly in its mind, Monster Hunter Stories is far more generous than a regular Monster Hunter game when it comes to items dropped by monsters; in fact, in general, a single battle against a creature is sufficient for the parts required for an armor to be acquired. The biggest challenge to have access to better equipment lies, actually, in having the sufficient funds; however, Monster Hunter Stories (true to the franchise’s traditions) is packed with sidequests – gotten from murals in the towns or from characters themselves – that will give riders nice rewards for downing monsters or collecting certain resources.

As such, most pieces that form Monster Hunter Stories have been tested and approved somewhere else, and – in a way – they do come together to form a nice package. The Pokemon spirit of catching them all (or at least catching many of them) and giving players the tools to dive deep into team-construction is strong; and the same applies to the Monster Hunter focus on taking down big bad monsters and using their parts to become stronger. Still, the game is somewhat flawed.

monster_hunter_stories6And most of that complaint is tied to the element that seems to have been constructed with the focus of setting the game apart from its two blatant inspirations: the battle system, which is quite unique. Sure, the game has other problems. Its story is weak and features a villain that is frequently closer to comic relief than hateful, but even though RPGs tend to thrive in plot, having silly scripts never stopped the Pokemon games from being great. Additionally, there is no doubt a huge portion of the dialogues will come off as cringe-worthy to an older audience, and people who are not keen on anime humor will fail to see value in the game’s jokes, but Monster Hunter Stories is not really trying to please those folks. Finally, even though monsters that are ridden allow players to use their special skills out on the field (such as Rathalos’ ability to fly), the exploration component of the game is indeed a bit mundane, as its linearity makes it all feel like mere walking to the next point of interest (which is always marked on the map), but that is an inherent trait of most JRPGs. Differently from those, though, the problems regarding the battle system are too big to be acceptable.

In battles, both the rider and its monster will face one or more creatures. During the rider’s turn, players will choose an action for their character to perform, such as attack, execute special skills (which consume a kinship gauge), or use an item. Given riders trust their monsters, no orders are given to the critters: unless players choose to override their actions, a move that consumes the kinship gauge, monsters will do as they see fit.

Save for a few special moves and occasional quick-time events that require that players press buttons at a fast pace for their monster to overcome enemy creatures, all attacks (by both the rider and the monster) fall into three categories: power, technique, and speed. Together, they form a rock-paper-scissors relationship where power beats technique; technique beats speed; and speed beats power. If, in the same turn, the monster or the rider attacks and is attacked by the enemy, an animation in which the two parties go head-to-head is triggered, and the rock-paper-scissors structure comes into play, with the winning side being able to attack successfully. If players land the blow the kinship gauge is filled up considerably, and when it is full it can be used to make the rider climb onto the monster and unleash a powerful attack.

monster_hunter_stories7Due to that configuration, luck comes heavily into play, especially in the later portions of the game. All monsters obey a certain pattern of attack, and as the adventure advances such patterns grow in complexity; therefore, there is some degree of predictability as to which kind of move enemy monsters will use. Still, given decisions made by players’ monsters cannot be overridden unless kinship is consumed, landing attacks and filling up the gauge depends – almost 50% of the time – on something that is out of gamers’ hands. As fights grow tighter and harder, losing battles because one does not have total control over what monsters do is frustrating and, sadly, not that rare.

Additionally, the riders themselves – even with the most powerful sets of armor the game has to offer – are extremely fragile in comparison to the monsters. Their attack power is meager (regardless of the weapon type that is used, and even when combos are activated by using the right sequence of typed attacks); their health is low; and the damage they receive is high; due to that, their presence in the battlefield is a burden. They do little in the way of attacking and two or three hits are sufficient to take them down, which makes using potions to heal them a must every two or three turns. That problem is aggravated by how, from the game’s midway point on, many monsters may attack twice or three times in the same turn, meaning that if they decide to concentrate those hits on riders, the character will faint instantly, leaving it up to players to do nothing but hope or madly grind their way to an over-leveled hunter that will better withstand the fury of monsters.

Truthfully, combats in Monster Hunter Stories only end when the rider and their monster fall a combined three times, which alleviates the pain of those one-turn kills; still, as the game gets harder and battles grow longer, players may find themselves fighting for a while only to have their hopes of victory shattered when their monster uses a wrong move or when the opposing creature decides to unleash all its might on the poor defenseless rider a couple of times, making them instantly drop from a full health bar to lying motionless on the floor. Monster Hunter Stories is by no means as hard as the games of the franchise’s main line, but the room its battle system leaves open for fate to come in and dynamite minutes of carefully planned attacks and patient constant healing is undeniably maddening, and leaves quite a lot of room for improvement.

monster_hunter_stories5Monster Hunter Stories is a nice detour for a property that has spent its long life treading the same excellent ground with varying and usually high degrees of success. With its looks and monster-collecting ways, it is bound to attract a younger audience right into the grasp of its claws; some of the holes of its battle system, though, will leave plenty of room for frustration to sneak into the experience. If gamers are able to overcome that problem, however, what they will find is an enchanting world filled with content, featuring an adventure that can easily last for over thirty hours, hordes of sidequests, and the opportunity to take one’s scientifically assembled team of monsters online to face off against other riders. Monster Hunter Stories is not a total winner, but its quality could pave the way for improvements that may end up turning it into quite a gem, even if the core of its gameplay is derivative of both the line of games from which it originates and the unstoppable Pokemon franchise.

Monster Hunter Stories

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SteamWorld Dig 2 Review

SteamWorld Dig 2 comes off as a brighter, more confident, and fuller effort that tackles a gameplay style that is, pleasantly, exactly the same as that of its prequel

steamworld_dig2_4Among all niches that indie game developers enjoy exploring, the Metroidvania genre has certainly been among the most productive fields, and not without a good reason. The two flagship franchises that defined the gameplay style so deeply they lent their names to it have, in recent years, left a considerable void, and a desperately hungry fanbase, that ended up serving as the perfect opportunity for smaller gaming studios to fill up a vacuum and earn praise and money without having to compete directly with flashy super productions. While the Metroid space opera, following the conclusion of the incredibly successful Prime trilogy, inexplicably spent a decade with only one mildly received major release; the Castlevania saga has had major trouble adapting to the modern gaming market. With these two giants out of the way, small business filled with creative employees who grew up playing Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night wisely took it upon themselves to keep the Metroidvania genre moving forward while its leaders struggled.

Given the delightful amount of remarkable games with high artistic and design values that have come pouring out of those floodgates, picking major highlights among them is, thankfully, a hard task. SteamWorld Dig, however, stood out from the crowd for a simple reason: while most contemporary Metroidvania releases seek to merely emulate Metroid and Castlevania (a very worthy choice given the world needs games of that kind), SteamWorld Dig opted to take a passing look at those two cornerstones, check out what they did that made them so excellent, and proceed to build an adventure that was clearly inspired by an intergalactic bounty hunter and medieval vampires but that did not attempt to recreate what they did.

With such an incredible concept on their hands and the eyes of the gaming world turned towards them, there was only one path Image & Form could have taken in the building of a sequel to SteamWorld Dig: they had to go bigger, and they had to do better. And that is exactly what happens. While the humble simplicity of the original game broadcast its small indie nature, SteamWorld Dig 2 comes off as a brighter, more confident, and fuller effort that tackles a gameplay style that is exactly the same as that of its prequel; it is a natural evolution that has been undertaken by numerous brilliant gaming series, but SteamWorld Dig 2 pulls it off so impressively it easily ranks as one of the most-improved sequels ever.

steamworld_dig2_6In SteamWorld Dig, a robot named Rusty, living in a post-apocalyptic version of Earth where humans have become brainless zombies that live underground and steam-powered bots dominate the wild-west wilderness of the planet’s surface, had inherited his uncle’s mine. Upon exploring it and finding the secret that lay within it, Rusty was caught in a major explosion that had the inhabitants of the town where the mine was located thinking he was dead. After that event, Dorothy, a friend of Rusty’s who had not given up on finding him, put up posters with the missing robot’s face splattered on them. SteamWorld Dig 2 starts when the good-hearted bot receives word from someone, who lives in a distant town, that has seen Rusty enter the local mine shaft. Dorothy travels through the desert towards the town and finds out that ever since Rusty entered the depths of the mine the town has been plagued by destructive earthquakes. With a pickaxe in her hand and a whole lot of questions in her head, Dorothy sets out into the mine to figure out where Rusty is and what is going on.

Like its prequel, SteamWorld Dig 2 is structured in a way that matches the exploration of Metroid with puzzle and platforming elements. The first component is found inside the mine shafts; with her pickaxe, Dorothy must slowly break the stone floor and move towards her next destination, where she will invariably find a piece of equipment that will allow her to explore new parts of the mine. The second component, meanwhile, comes into play in the numerous caves that are found as Dorothy descends further into shaft; housing either extra items or mandatory upgrades, the caves are individual challenges that work like mini The Legend of Zelda dungeons and that test a specific skill.

That mixture is what makes SteamWorld Dig so remarkable. When it comes to mining and moving along the shaft, there is a pleasant degree of freedom; surely, the only way to go is usually down, but given there is a pleasant width to the mine, Dorothy has wiggle room to look for secrets, caves, and pieces of ore that are encrusted into the stone walls. Likewise, she has to do some smart navigation through the tunnels in order to avoid numerous traps (such as falling rocks, explosive barrels, and pools of acid) and deal with lurking enemies of various kinds. As a nice twist, SteamWorld Dig 2 amplifies the sense of discovery of its predecessor. While in that game a marker on the map always showed Rusty’s current goal, SteamWorld Dig 2 allows players to turn that off and go blindly into the mine.

steamworld_dig2_5Much of the magic of SteamWorld Dig lies in how it makes the task of breaking through a stone wall by hitting it with a pickaxe into an enthralling and addictive activity, and a lot of that prowess has to do with how the game is constantly rewarding players. When Dorothy first walks into the mine, her tools and stats will be extremely poor: her health will be limited to a trio of hearts, her bag will only have room for a few of gems, medium drops will cause her to die, stronger walls will require many hits from her pickaxe before they break, her lantern – which allows players to see her surroundings – will run out of fuel within a few minutes, and all new powers she acquires will be at their most basic level.

As she advances and collects the abundant ore, though, she can return to the surface, use the town’s services to sell treasure and, with the acquired cash, buy all sorts of upgrades: expanding the slots of her pouch, increasing the destructive power of her pickaxe, gaining new health units, making the fire of her lantern last longer and light up a wider area around her, and more. Therefore, SteamWorld Dig 2, like its prequel, is a constant process of entering the mine; digging further down towards more caves and goals; collecting ore along the way; heading back up either when the character’s pouch is full or when the lantern’s light gets to a point where it is impossible to see what lies ahead; upgrading Dorothy; and going back in.

It is an engaging constant cycle of work and reward, and just like Samus goes from a warrior with a meager laser beam to a machine of destruction during the course of a Metroid adventure, Dorothy will transform from a humble miner into a robotic unstoppable drill that will break through whatever is ahead of her. And it is all made incredibly pleasant because not only do players have total freedom as to what they will upgrade, but SteamWorld Dig 2 also greatly streamlines the exploration process by populating the shafts with numerous tubes that allow Dorothy to move between them (and to the surface as well) at will once they have been unblocked, a feature that existed in the original but in a far more restricted manner.

steamworld_dig2_3SteamWorld Dig 2 also executes some nice structural changes. Where the original consisted of one long shaft that could be accessed from a single town, SteamWorld Dig 2 presents a wider world at the surface that leads to different mines. The progression through the game is still pretty linear, for the pieces of equipment that are acquired in the caves will open up the way to either deeper portions of the current shaft or to another mine, therefore eliminating backtracking from the equation; however, retracing their steps and going back to earlier portions of the game is something players may do, because while SteamWorld Dig had no extra content whatsoever, SteamWorld Dig 2 is exploding with secrets. In fact, this optional content is a major part of the experience, because while the regular adventure clocks in somewhere between seven and ten hours, the task of finding everything the game packs can double that time.

And the extras are not just items on a checklist that need to be acquired so that players can get to 100%. The artifacts and cogs found inside the mines are useful; the former unlock special skills to the different pieces of equipment, which can then be activated by using the cogs. More importantly, however, these assets that lead to full completion are usually locked inside the dozens of caves located inside the mines, and they might as well be the most brilliant part of SteamWorld Dig 2. The variety and level design excellence of the challenges they contain are flooring: some demand sheer platforming proficiency, such as a cave whose walls are covered with bumpy mushrooms that send Dorothy towards deadly spikes if touched or another where a series of fireball-ridden corridors and shafts need to be traversed via timely jumps; others tackle more puzzle-focused scenarios, like a mine-cart pushing affair; and a number of them mix these two distinct aspects into beautiful gaming experiences.

As a nice helping hand to those looking for all of the game’s secrets, once the items inside a cave have been fully collected, a green check will appear over them on the map; moreover, SteamWorld Dig 2 (like Super Metroid) has the habit of hiding some of its secret items behind walls that have no indication whatsoever they can be broken, but equipment updates that are unlocked late into the game add visual cues that help players identify where secrets are. The caves, whether they are optional or mandatory, also serve to highlight the different ways in which Dorothy’s pieces of equipment can be used and explore the gameplay possibilities they provide. Surely, there are plenty of opportunities to use her hookshot, her rocket boots, or her bomb-shooting gun while inside the shafts themselves, but the more focused and less wide open level design of the caves puts a much larger emphasis on that gear, and the equipment and creativity of the folks at Image & Form shine on those occasions.

steamworld_dig2_2SteamWorld Dig 2 is everything fans could have wanted from a sequel. It looks fantastic, features a soundtrack that makes the mystery and danger of the mines resonate, and fixes the punctual issues of its predecessor while polishing the rough gameplay edges that existed. By combining the usual Metroidvania quest for new gear with tighter sections of puzzle-solving and platforming, it builds its own character and shows that indie ventures into that established genre can be more than simple homages to Metroid and Castlevania. There is still room for new discoveries out there, and if developers are able to find them and make them their own, it is possible to create adventures that, instead of being seen as minor diversions to pass the time while the big franchises do not deliver the goods, can comfortably stand side by side with those juggernauts.

SteamWorld Dig 2

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Metroid: Samus Returns Review

No game could have possibly made up for the thirteen years that went by without a new Metroid sidescroller, but Samus Returns is as close as Nintendo could have gotten to total redemption

samus_returns7Nintendo’s fondness for looking back on the company’s treasured past and reviving many of its classics by bringing them to the latest consoles has had both negative and positive outcomes. On one hand, there have been titles whose releases preceded their remakes by such a short period of time that little to no value was gained with the use of new technology, as it was the case with the remastered versions of the Zelda franchise’s The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. On the other hand, there have been efforts whose releases lied so far back in the history books of gaming that a revival of their gameplay worked towards not only putting it in the hands of new generations of gamers but also vastly improving the original experience, as it has occurred with many of the remakes of the Pokemon property.

Given it was put on store shelves back in 1991, and since it was constructed on a console (the Game Boy) that lacked colors as well as a solid amount of buttons, any attempt to reconstruct Metroid II: Return of Samus on recent hardware would naturally have great chances of being filed under the brightest spectrum of Nintendo remakes. Additionally, as the Metroid franchise, which has historically been responsible for many of Nintendo’s finest sidescrolling moments, had spent an unjustifiably long amount of time without a 2-D release, which had not happened since 2004’s Metroid: Zero Mission (a remake of the game that introduced the series to the world), the impact and reception caused by such an endeavor would naturally be greatly amplified by a fanbase that had gone through more than a decade lying in wait for a new opportunity to dive back into a 2-D version of the Metroid universe.

Due to those reasons, it is easy to see why Metroid: Samus Returns (the rebranded 3DS remake of Metroid II) is so excellent: firstly, it gives a masterpiece that was limited by its original platform’s hardware room to breathe and to grow, hence making it universally appealing to both younger and older gamers; secondly, it quenches the thirst of an audience that was dying for a new Metroid sidescroller. The greatness of Metroid: Samus Returns, however, is not solely a product of the context in which it is inserted; it stems from how Nintendo and MercurySteam are able to capture the uniqueness of Metroid II while adding the right amount of new flavors and improvements to make the remake justifiable from more than a technological standpoint.

samus_returns8In Metroid, Samus had traveled to the planet Zebes to fight the Space Pirates, which represented a major threat to the galaxy due to their experiments with the titular jellyfish-like creatures, whose resistance and ability to suck energy out of living beings made them a powerful bioweapon. With the evil group seemingly out of the question, and the Space Pirates’ headquarters on Zebes blown to pieces by an armored woman who packs a greater punch than a considerably sized army, the attention of the Galactic Federation turned towards SR388: the planet on which the Metroid originated and where the final specimens of the organisms are found. However, the first squadrons sent to investigate SR388’s surface go missing, and the task of scanning the planet while exterminating all remaining Metroid falls on the shoulders of Samus.

What follows is the traditional genre-defining Metroid gameplay. Armed with nothing but a weak laser beam, Samus arrives on SR388 and must – on her own, and with no external help – explore its numerous regions to accomplish her mission; as she does so, she will slowly encounter pieces of equipment that will give her suit new powers which will, in turn, allow her to reach previously inaccessible areas. The world is, therefore, a puzzle in itself, and it is up to players to figure out how to slowly gain access to all regions of SR388’s complex web of tunnels in order to find the Metroid.

Metroid: Samus Returns, however, has some quirks of its own, a fact that makes it somewhat unique when compared to the sidescrollers that represent the pure and classic Metroid gameplay: namely, the original game and Super Metroid. While some of its defining traits come from the source material on top of which it is built (Metroid II), others are new ideas implemented by Nintendo and MercurySteam. And those two sets of elements come together to form quite an experience.

samus_returns4Metroid II was a game that presented a very clear progression path. In Metroid and Super Metroid, Samus often transited back and forth between the various different areas of Zebes during the natural development of her quest: a region was not completely cleared before she moved onto the next one, and returning to previously visited areas was inevitable, as the whole map was solved in conjunction little by little. Metroid II, however, shifts that perspective: the surface level on which Samus first arrives leads to Area 1, which in turn has a path to Area 2, which has an elevator shaft that goes into Area 3, and so forth until the furthest depths of the planet.

All connections between the areas of Samus Returns are blocked by mysterious portals and pools of poison, which are only drained when all Metroid of the current area (whose total is displayed on the portal) are eliminated. Therefore, it is possible to say Samus Returns is a far more linear than its peers, as an area must be completely explored and freed from Metroid before the next one can be reached; yet, even though there is a great degree of linearity in the way the map is progressively unfolded, the exploration that occurs within each area is anything but straightforward.

Differently from most modern Metroid games, which have the tendency of telling players where to go next via markers on the map, Samus Returns – true to its old-school roots – does not do any of that. As Samus gets to a new area, she will quickly encounter the portal, which will then show how many Metroid exist in the region. Following that, there are no signs whatsoever indicating where the creatures are: a delightful turn that leaves it up to players to find ways to move around the place, slowly uncover the map, and analyze the explored areas looking for doors that have not been opened or shafts that could lead to new places where the Metroid may be.

samus_returns6It is not an easy task. First of all, because the map of Samus Returns is gigantic. Nintendo and MercurySteam preserve the general structure of SR388, but they do so while adding elements, puzzles, details, and making pretty much everything bigger and more complex, giving birth – in the process – to what is by a comfortable margin the largest world to ever appear on a 2-D Metroid. Secondly, because the Metroid, the other creatures of the planet, and the environmental hazards are simply out to kill Samus: not only are they very aggressive, but the damage they do is quite considerable, transforming death into a rather commonplace event; turning the optional quest for extra energy tanks, missiles, and bombs into a necessity; and easily making Samus Returns qualify as the hardest game of the saga alongside Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.

The size and difficulty of Samus Returns, however, never become frustrating. The former is alleviated by numerous teleport stations located throughout the regions; a true blessing and an absolutely perfect addition when one considers how the linear structure of the connections between areas would make traveling between Area 1 and Area 8 into a nightmarish chore. The latter, meanwhile, is treated via checkpoints; in Samus Returns, boss encounters are common, as each of the forty Metroid found on SR388 works as a boss battle. Differently from what happens in other Metroid games, though, where being defeated means returning to the last save station that was used, in Samus Returns the character is sent back to the entrance of the room where the Metroid is located, easing the misery of failure and allowing players to retry the combat right away.

The only pain point that is found in the thrilling Metroid encounters surfaces in how some have the tendency to, more than once, move to other rooms when heavily damaged. It is a habit that adds the chore of going back and forth between two or three places and tracking down the Metroid to the already difficult battles. Moreover, it may force players to go through that process many times if they do not succeed in killing the Metroid on their first attempt, consequently diminishing the sheer fun and exciting challenge of some of the battles.

samus_returns5With a total of forty Metroid encounters, one easy complaint to make about Samus Returns is that boss battles can lean towards the repetitive side. Truthfully, the Metroid are found in many different evolutionary states, and those mutations do add some variety to the quest. Still, in the midst of a series that is always so varied and iconic in terms of big bad guys, Samus Returns stands out in a negative way. With the knowledge that such a problem is inherent to the premise of Metroid II, Nintendo and MercurySteam pleasantly try to counter it by adding two excellent bosses to the game, one that aligns itself with the puzzle-like menaces of the Metroid Prime series, which require a lengthy process of different attacks and phases to be beaten; and one that resembles the classic bosses of the Metroid sidescrollers, featuring a focus on dodging an infernal arsenal of attacks and the timely use of missiles.

This new take on Metroid II gains an extra degree of novelty via other features as well. For the first time ever, Samus can perform a melee counterattack if players press the action’s button right when she is about to be hit. If the move lands, enemies will be left vulnerable for a short period of time, allowing her to blast them away quickly. That addition means that many of the game’s enemies (and bosses as well) will perform rush attacks that will send them towards Samus, which alters the usual Metroid gameplay flow to a certain level, as she is forced to stop on her tracks to react instead of simply firing away. The change, though, is not harmful; coming off as a nice little quirk.

Furthermore, as the adventure progresses, Samus will unlock a set of four Aeon Abilities, which – when activated – slowly consume a specific energy bar. With those, she can slow down time, transform her arm canon into a rapid-firing gun, protect herself with a shield, or use a pulse to scan the environment. The first three are nicely employed in many new puzzles or are necessary to face more powerful enemies; the pulse, meanwhile, is incredibly useful to reveal unexplored areas or hidden items, unveiling all portions of the map that are within a four-block range off Samus.

samus_returns3Like Metroid and Super Metroid, Metroid II enjoys hiding rooms and optional items behind breakable walls that do not visually indicate they are frail; as such, the scan is a great addition that lets players seek full completion of the game without either the aid of a guide or the need to bomb every inch of the game’s environment. The challenge of getting to the places that the scan reveals or of clearing the puzzles that lock items away still exists; the scan represents a helping hand that lets players know there are secrets to be found in the area and does not take away from the exploration that has always been such an integral part of the franchise, as its effect is limited to the area that is immediately around Samus.

The final changes brought by Samus Returns when compared to Metroid II come from the hardware improvements. Thanks to the 3DS’ analog stick, Samus can aim in all directions whenever the L-button is pressed. Visually, the interminable similar-looking caves of Metroid II have been dressed up in distinct themes, with rocks and more barren regions being alternated with labs, temples, and abundant nature; and have gained great depth with details stretching far onto the background. More importantly, however, the scenarios tell a story; one that is related to the extra lore regarding SR388 and the origin of the Metroid species that Samus Returns adds to the saga. It is a successful case of visual storytelling, which falls into place when the 100% completion bonuses are revealed, giving purpose to all areas that Samus goes through. When it comes to the soundtrack, Samus Returns falls a bit short of the usual high Metroid standards; it excels in the sound effects, but in relation to the songs it always touches its peak when classic tunes are reused, as the new compositions do not leave much of a mark.

Through updates, changes, and additions, Metroid: Samus Returns qualifies as an excellent remake of a classic adventure that had remained for way too long stuck in the black-and-white limitations of the Game Boy. In size and challenge, it sets new standards for the 2-D games of the saga; and all extra collectibles (which can extend the adventure to fifteen hours), additional difficulty modes, and speed-running and sequence-breaking opportunities make it an infinitely replayable adventure. No game could have possibly made up for the thirteen years that went by without a new Metroid sidescroller, but Samus Returns is as close as Nintendo could have gotten to total redemption. It is a remake the franchise as well as its fans needed, and the company has delivered.

Samus Returns

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Albums of the Month: September 2017

villainsAlbum: Villains

Artist: Queens of the Stone Age

Released: August 25th, 2017

Highlights: The Way You Used to Do, Fortress, Un-Reborn Again, The Evil Has Landed

Hips. “Villains” has hips, and they shake, swivel, bop, bounce, and hop. That swaying quality is not exactly news for Queens of the Stone Age. Ever since their self-titled debut, their songs lived in the beautiful dichotomy of pounding listeners into the floor with heavy riffs that landed mightily and mercilessly, but also giving fans the irresistible desire to move and dance to the rhythm of guitars and drums that would, if used by any other band, generate some serious head-banging. It is as if Josh Homme, in his writing and performing, channeled the sexually free spirits of the prehistorical female royalty his band is named after and combined them with the hip-shaking of Elvis Presley. As such, perhaps it is not all that surprising that “Villains” makes people sway as well as it makes walls rattle; it is, nevertheless, the Queens of the Stone Age album that – so far – wears that quality most blatantly on its sleeve.

In fact, there is a party-like vibe that runs through the record, somehow recalling the loose reckless aura of Josh Homme’s side-project: Eagles of Death Metal. However, links between “Villains” and the fun-loving garage rock duo stop there, because the celebration “Villains” throws is a dark one; and the songs that are its soundtrack seem to always be striving to be epic, either in length (as the nearly seven-minute-long “Un-Reborn Again” indicates); in reflective sorrow (as the closing ballad “Villains of Circumstance” does); or in careless abandon (as “Head Like a Haunted House”, the album’s fastest and wildest track, which is so hyperactive its shape is hard to identify amidst the blur of its passage, reveals). “Villains” is the sound of band that has written two decades of history and that has been, through a great portion of that period, one of the world’s most respected and critically acclaimed hard rock acts.

Here, Queens of the Stone Age come off as a group that is fully aware of their status within the musical landscape, and they pour that unshakable swagger into the tracks: most of the songs in “Villains” are excellent, and the band knows it. “Feet Don’t Fail Me” gets the show underway as Homme declares, full of confidence, that he and his gang – moving with urgency between agony and pleasure – have come to bust listeners loose. And that is precisely what they do: they boast, and they deliver, as the following track (“The Way You Used to Do”, written to his wife) is the poppiest and most danceable piece of music the band has ever produced, and they reach for accessibility without losing an inch of their violent, daring, and sexual edge. As a more mature musician, though, Homme is not afraid to show vulnerability (as he had already done in “Like Clockwork”), and in “Villains” that frail side appears in both “Fortress” (a gorgeous ballad dedicated to his young daughter, which explores the hardships she will have to face on her own and how he will always be there for her) and “Villains of Circumstance” (which concerns the weight of being distant from home and family).

However, at its heaviest moments, which comprise most of the album, “Villains” is a lot like the devil on its cover: it is mean and lean. It jumps around incessantly, with evil speed, and just when listeners think they have captured it, it makes such a sudden unexpected motion that it turns the table: it is the audience that ends up being caught. Resting easy on its slick sinister grooves is asking to be surprised and taken down by a quick guitar outburst, a sexual lick that comes out of nowhere, or a cunning change of tone and tempo (as the one that happens towards the end of the multi-phased “The Evil Has Landed”). With the aid of producer Mark Ronson, a daring choice by the band since he had previously worked with pop stars such as Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars, Queens of the Stone Age bring the danceable aspect of their sound to the forefront. Still, the production of Ronson, and his synthesizers (which are nicely integrated into the mix and add special flavor to both heavier tunes and lighter ones), never take over or act against the band’s evil punch. Instead, they reveal an incredible variation on the always remarkable theme of the sound of Queens of the Stone Age.

sleep_well_beastAlbum: Sleep Well Beast

Artist: The National

Released: September 8th, 2017

Highlights: Day I Die, The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness, Carin at the Liquor Store, Dark Side of the Gym

Matt Berninger, the singer and lyricist of The National, is – in theory – not a man one would expect to be affected by a mid-life crisis. As he gets closer to the end of his fifth decade on this planet, not only is he happily married, but he also leads a pretty solid career fronting one of the United States’ most important modern rock bands. Yet, by listening carefully to his lyrics, whether they are from “Sleep Well Beast” or from most of the group’s previous six records, it is easy to conclude he must be quite miserable. Rarely does The National dabble into happiness, and moments like the roaring and jubilant “Mr. November”, from the classic record “Alligator”, are rare. Maybe it is just that the music the Dressner brothers compose for the band has the type of moodiness that makes gloomy feelings come to mind, or perhaps Berninger simply finds his artistic groove when he takes himself to some dark contemplative places. Regardless of the reason behind the unshakable sadness, in “Sleep Well Beast”, The National continue to explore misery and decadence, and – as it has been the norm – they do so very well.

Where “High Violet” and “Trouble Will Find Me”, the two direct predecessors of “Sleep Well Beast”, sometimes failed or took to long to gain traction, this latest work comes off as more direct and immediate. The hooks are more apparent and omnipresent, and with the exception of the title song, which closes the album by revisiting the beat from “I’ll Still Destroy You” and placing a nearly spoken vocal over it, not a single track goes by without a remarkable melodic moment. Armed with his unmistakable baritone, Berninger sings about relationships that have either failed or are in the painful process of falling apart. “Sleep Well Beast” nods to couples who have grown distant (“Empire Line”), partners who cannot seem to bring themselves to break up with one another even though that is obviously the right course of action (“Nobody Else Will Be There”), and marriages in which one part feels inferior to the other (“Born to Beg”).

Those issues, however, are not the sole focus of Berninger in “Sleep Well Beast”. The National has never shied away from politics, and the group has been an active voice in all of the American presidential elections that have taken place ever since they rose to prominence. As a consequence, the album – in more than one track – reacts negatively, and with precise subtlety, to Donald Trump’s victory. In fact, the combination of relationship troubles with worldwide social and political turbulence (“The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”) leads characters to substance abuse and self-medication to alleviate the psychological pain (“Walk It Back” and “I’ll Still Destroy You”). The future envisioned by Matt Berninger, yet, is not entirely bleak; there is a glimmer of hope, and that light lies on the up-and-coming youth (the beast of the album’s title), which is hibernating, waiting for the moment to wake up and give life to their incubated dreams.

Musically, The National immerses itself on those themes anchored in electronic beats and a lush soundscape (perhaps a courtesy of Bryce Dessner’s orchestral work) that permeate the whole record. Sometimes, those elements guide the songs on their own, with the standard rock instruments serving as precise ornaments; in many of the album’s most beautiful tracks, though, a huge-sounding piano leads the way, smartly highlighting the stunning melodies Berninger comes up with. The exception to that rule is “Turtleneck”, a wild rough barn-burner that could have been written by Nick Cave during his “Henry’s Dream” and “Let Love In” era. Independently of the approach, though, “Sleep Well Beast” shows The National firing on all cylinders and producing their best work since the stellar duo of “Alligator” and “Boxer”.

spitting_imageAlbum: Spitting Image

Artist: The Strypes

Released: June 16th, 2017

Highlights: Behind Closed Doors, Grin And Bear It, Great Expectations, A Different Kind of Tension

Initially, The Strypes caught the eyes of the likes of Elton John, Dave Ghrol, and Noel Gallagher not only for being a group of four lads that paid homage to the pub and blues rock of Dr. Feelgood and The Yardbirds by bringing it to the 21st century, but also for being able to do so pretty well. Sure, there was nothing particularly original about neither their songs nor their first two records, but among a crowd of pop musicians that dominate the charts and indie rockers that rule over the rock subculture, they stood out for looking back onto an era that is often ignored by teenagers of the 2000s. With two complete albums and a strong set of songs that gravitate around blues behind them, the time had come to either move on or run the risk of being stuck in the same subgenre for a good portion of a decade, and “Spitting Image” makes it very clear right on its cover that the boys found new music to be infatuated with and proceeded to write tunes with new influences in mind.

Bands that approach blues rock have grit; and that is not an adjective that is suiting for the colors and clothes “Spitting Image” features on its art, and it takes about three seconds into “Behind Closed Doors” for listeners to realize the change is not merely aesthetic: it is musical. What connects “Spitting Image” to its predecessors is that it is not modern; it is absolutely old-school. The difference is that instead of looking up to Jimmy Page, they pray at the altar of Elvis Costello. “Spitting Image” comes straight from the late 1970s, with all the love for strong melodies, light guitar riffs, and clean production that existed during those days. And, surprisingly, what The Strypes uncover with the move from the pub to the concert hall (a path that British music itself followed during that decade) is their best record up-to-date.

“Spitting Image” is fun, unpretentious, and loose. Despite his young age, Ross Farrelly delivers his lines with the utter confidence of someone who has a handle on life and that just knows better than everyone else. And with that air, he smartly talks about characters whose lives have taken a turn for the worse: there is the father who lost his family due to alcoholic vices (“Behind Closed Doors”); the couple that loses a part of their youth because of an early and unexpected pregnancy (“Grin and Bear It”); and the aimless youngsters that alternate between enjoying life to the fullest and wondering if what they are doing is right (“Black Shades Over Red Eyes”). The fact the grim nature of those situations and others that pop up along the album gives birth to tunes that are jovial speaks volumes about the kind of energy with which The Strypes wrote and performed these tracks. It feels like they are either too smart to be caught up in those binds or too self-assured to fret over those problems.

The true reason behind such cool smoothness, though, probably lies in how the songs of “Spitting Image” are just overloaded with sugary hooks; The Strypes unabashedly abandon a ship that was mean and rough, and out of that confinement they find acoustic strums, jangly guitars, and replace technical flair for infectious simplicity. “Spitting Image” does have space for some of the aggressiveness of previous albums, which surfaces in the form of a few strong tracks where a punk aura shines through (“A Different Kind of Tension” and “Turnin’ My Back”), a fact that bodes very well for a rock record – where a certain edge is essential. But, as a whole, “Spitting Image” is a delightful pop rock work that shows the lads will find success away from the nest of pub rock into which they were born.

innerspeakerAlbum: Innerspeaker

Artist: Tame Impala

Released: May 21st, 2010

Highlights: It Is Not Meant To Be, Lucidity, Expectation, I Don’t Really Mind

Given the absolute peak of psychedelic rock came about in 1967, when the waves of the Summer of Love were powerful enough to sweep through the United States and have its outermost ripples reach far beyond the country, it is only natural that every single release inside the genre be compared to the legendary masterworks that were being produced in that era. And since the happy vibes of psychedelia were quick to succumb to the harshness of reality and to the heavy drug abuse of its musical leaders, works that attempt to recapture the magic of that era run the serious risk of either sounding like caricatures of the past or playful oddities that have arrived out of time. With those pitfalls in mind, it is a gorgeous miracle “Innerspeaker”, the first album by Tame Impala, does not end up being a bloody victim of the circumstances that surround it, especially when one considers how much it borrows from the inescapable pillars of acid rock.

Firstly, there is how Kevin Parker – the man responsible for writing, singing, and playing pretty much all of the material contained within the record – sounds a whole lot like George Harrison. However, instead of singing of mind-altering experiences over a plucked sitar, as Harrison did on some of the most experimental tracks by the Fab Four, Parker does so over a lush soundscape that has soothing waves of effect-laden guitars that wash over listeners in the same way as the ones from Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis: Bold as Love”, while not overlooking the whimsical hooks of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Magical Mystery Tour”, and the daring yet approachable experimentation of the whole of Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” or of the most welcoming moments of Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”.

With all of those influences in his mind, Parker strives to create psychedelic songs that he can call his own. And although there is nothing revelatory about the record, “Innerspeaker” is certainly good enough to be loudly praised and worthy of the foundations on which it is sitting. Its verses are often quiet and contemplative, as if listeners are invited to look into a natural setting – as the one depicted on its cover – to ponder upon decisions, relationships, and habits. Its choruses, meanwhile, are the moment of transcendence, when enlightenment is unlocked and Parker is sucked into a colorful vortex of wisdom. And “Innerspeaker” brings that concept together in both music and lyrics. In terms of the former, there is a frequent repetition of melodic patterns that seem to be stuck in search of a getaway, and the path out of that vicious circle comes in sweet explosions of effects. As for the latter, Parker employs conflicted and indecisive inner dialogues that find relief and direction when the pop choruses come around.

Even if it does not abandon that neat musical architecture for a second, save for in the instrumental “Jeremy’s Storm”, “Innerspeaker” never comes off as an album that is treading on the same ground aimlessly, because under every somewhat similar stone that he upturns, Parker finds a track that is noteworthy and distinguished. When his melodies are not utterly gripping, they are – like the mind of a classical romantic poet – wandering amidst nature in search of a great discovery, and they are invariably able to locate and expose the coveted treasure. “Innerspeaker”, therefore, uses its pieces to form one cohesive piece that is tightly constructed under a defined conceptual umbrella. The Summer of Love may be long gone, and psychedelic rock may be no longer a cultural phenomenon, but their children and grandchildren are still holding tightly to their message and spreading it through excellent music.

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Sonic Mania Review

Sonic Mania was born with the intention of being a celebration, a simple gift to the hedgehog and his fans on the 25th birthday of the release of the saga’s first game, but it ends up being much more than that

sonic_mania6Fans always know what they want. Sadly, from a creative standpoint, their wishes tend to fall inside a very limited spectrum; after all, as much as they hate to admit it, the object of their desire is never a new idea or an outrageous concept, but a retread onto ground that has already been plowed. Fans crave for the good old days to make a glorious comeback, for a product that recreates the magic of the gemstone that captured their hearts; that is why, regardless of the medium, the greatest moments in the history of entertainment came not when fans got what they wanted, but when they were surprised by an artistic turn towards a landscape whose existence they had never even conceived. That is why creators thrive in subversion; awards and accolades are not given to those who walk with a checklist of expectations that need to be fulfilled, but to the ones who overthrow hopes and amaze despite not giving the audience what it was anticipating.

In general, that rule works. In the case of Sonic and Sega, though, it most certainly does not. When the creator spends twenty full years fumbling attempts to satisfy its fans, and tries to find hundreds of ways to subvert expectations only to fail in almost every single one of them, there comes a point when playing it safe and giving fans precisely what they want may be a valid option. Sure, the final result may end up not being revelatory or earth-shattering, but not every excellent product of creative thinking needs to reach those marks. Moreover, sometimes recovering pride and honor can work as some sort of midway step on the path that leads from hell to heaven, and getting out of the fiery furnaces might be more vital than reaching the summit of Olympus. More importantly, after a certain point where everything is rather dire, an excellent but safe delivery may on its own succeed in being might blowing, because it will subvert expectations by simply being great.

All of that needs to be said because Sonic Mania is frighteningly good. Following two decades of unsuccessful attempts to recreate the magic of the original Sonic the Hedgehog trilogy, Sega decided to do the unthinkable: hand the series over to a group of fans. Truthfully, those fans in particular happened to be talented developers who had proven their worth by working on remakes of Sonic classics; nevertheless, in a way it felt Sega had finally broken the barrier that separates creators and consumers, allowing enthusiasts to take the reins of a project of their greatest star. Unsurprisingly, those Sonic addicts, alongside Sega, proceeded to build a game that is so perfectly close to what fans wanted that it looks, plays, sounds, and feels like a Sonic game of the first half of the 90s.

sonic_mania4The old-school production values are, by all means, planned and deliberate, for Sonic Mania was intended as a celebration of the character’s 25th birthday and of the trilogy that launched him into the world. What is neither devised nor predicted, however, after all such a thing cannot possibly be sketched, is how absolutely fantastic the game is. As the universe had, by now, grown used to expecting Sonic games to be lackluster, Sonic Mania subverts those hopes. Its mesmerizing value, though, does not exist just because it is a good game that shocks due to catching everyone off guard; it is flooring because it constructs a very solid argument that supports it deserves to be put on the same level as the Mega Drive games by which it is clearly inspired.

Sonic Mania begins when Dr. Eggman as well as Sonic and Tails track a major energy source coming from a dimensional breach. Eggman’s robotic henchmen make it to the place of the event first and unearth a gemstone called Phantom Ruby, which immediately gives them freewill. Having lost control of his subordinates, Eggman appears and steals the stone from them to harness its power. All of a sudden, then, Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles – who was just hanging nearby – see themselves against not only the traditional villain of the franchise but a bunch of rogue robots. And their journey starts in Green Hill Zone; not coincidentally, the first zone from the original Sonic the Hedgehog.

As a celebration of the franchise, and also perhaps secretly as an attempt to revalidate it and appeal to the audience’s nostalgic bones, Sonic Mania borrows quite a bit from classic games of the saga; namely, from the original trilogy as well as from Sonic & Knuckles and Sonic CD. Out of the twelve zones that make up the adventure, eight are extracted from those five titles, with the remaining four being completely original to Sonic Mania. A superficial glance might, therefore, cause some to accuse the game of being more of a rehash than an original work; such claims, however, would be inaccurate, for Sonic Mania does quite a bit to use the pieces it gets from its sources to put together a quest that feels fresh even to those who have been through the original material quite a few times.

sonic_mania7The first act of Green Hill Zone, for instance, is exactly the same as the one from Sonic the Hedgehog; its second act, though, is completely new, incorporating elements that would only appear in future Sonic games and using a few different quirks. Chemical Plant Zone, meanwhile, employs a somewhat similar strategy; the difference is that where the first act combines the two levels of that zone that appeared in Sonic the Hedgehog 2, the second one builds it all from scratch, deploying a distinct background, and amusing traps such as pools of bouncing water and walls covered in a substance that lets characters stick to them. This pattern that matches the recreation of what has been done with invention – the latter of which is achieved either via entirely new gimmicks or the combination of old fan favorites in different ways – is always present in the two acts that make up all eight re-used zones, and it makes the ride through them be quite a joy.

What is bound to impress the most, though, is how amazing the four new zones are. Studiopolis Zone has so many outrageous devices (such as satellites that transmit Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles to different places) that it is hard to choose a defining trait for the level; while Press Garden Zone presents two acts that are so different from one another (visually and gameplay wise) it is incredible to see how so much was packed into a single zone.

Truthfully, those compliments serve for any of the levels of Sonic Mania. There is a ridiculous abundance of clever ideas, surprising moments, and genuine awe to be found in the race to the end, and although the frustration of bumping into enemies that seem to have been devilish placed just to cause Sonic to lose rings still looms, the mixture of speed segments with tight platforming challenges is perfect. Sonic Mania manages to be thrilling like a roller coaster ride in one second and as tense as a bomb-defusing in another, and by doing so it recaptures the aura that made the franchise the 90s juggernaut that remains alive in the minds of all of those who went through the classic games.

sonic_mania3While not fully original in its levels, Sonic Mania brings in a brand new set of bosses. And given there is a total of twenty-five of them (with the two acts of all zones culminating in an epic duel plus a secret final boss that is only unlocked when a certain requirement is met), it is quite amazing the team behind the game was able to make them so consistently fun and creative. Even the big bad guys that are clearly inspired by classic bosses are significantly different from the source, and the fact the battles alternate between skirmishes against Dr. Eggman’s machines and the wacky robotic henchmen that are under the control of the Phantom Ruby makes them quite varied.

As it is already traditional for the series, Sonic Mania is not just about getting to the end of the journey: it holds plenty of awesome secrets. Firstly, there are the Chaos Emeralds, which transform the heroes into their mightily powerful super versions and unlock a secret ending; they are acquired by finding hidden giant rings in the acts and then engaging in a fun and exciting mini-game (adapted from Sonic CD) where characters chase a UFO on a Super Mario Kart-like racing track, collecting blue orbs to increase their speed and golden rings to feed the ever-decreasing timer. Meanwhile, bonus stages, taken from Sonic the Hedgehog 3, are accessed by reaching checkpoints with twenty-five rings or more; these have the heroes running around a spherical planet while collecting blue orbs and avoiding red ones, which cause players to immediately fail if touched. As usual, these mini-games are not enticing just because they lead to full completion of the game, but because playing them is genuinely fun, challenging, and addictive.

The high replay value of Sonic Mania is not solely attached to the seven chaos emeralds and the thirty-two bonus stages, though. The wish to replay the game also stems from the intricate level design, which makes each act have a handful of paths. In terms of how it balances straightforward get-to-the-end platforming goodness with complex and branched stage setup, the Sonic franchise stands on its own in the realm of sidescrolling platformers, and Sonic Mania – both in its new and remixed stages – validates the hedgehog and his peers deserve that throne. It is literally mind-boggling how Sega and the other teams were able to pack so much into such a restricted space and keep it all approachable.

sonic_mania2Therefore, even though a relatively experienced gamer can get to the end of Sonic Mania within four hours, playing through it once is barely scratching the surface of its content. Moreover, plentiful extra modes extend playing hours to a considerable degree. There are time trials with online leaderboards, one-on-one matches in which the victor is the one who reaches the end of the stage first, and the possibility to play through the adventure cooperatively. For hardcore gamers, a mode in which no saving is done is also included, which means that instead of being sent back to the beginning of the first act of the zone they are in upon losing all lives, players are instead forced to start it all from Green Hill Zone if they run out of continues.

Sonic Mania was born with the intention of being a celebration, a simple gift to the hedgehog and his fans on the 25th birthday of the release of the saga’s first game, but it ends up being much more than that. From its visuals, which pay homage to the 16-bit days by bringing slightly improved character models and glorious multi-layered backgrounds, and its music, which mixes old themes with new tracks that are by all means just as good as the classics, to its gameplay, it deserves to stand side-by-side – with no caveats whatsoever – with the games that made the franchise so popular. By handing talented Sonic aficionados control over the game, Sega gives the character’s fanbase exactly what they had been craving for since the late 90s: an utter classic, a title that makes – after quite a while – Sonic have one of the best games of the current generation.

Sonic Mania

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Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle Review

A product of Nintendo’s recent tendency to be less protective of its franchises, it is a sign that – when handled by other parties and with the proper oversight – those properties can be taken to remarkable places

mario_rabbids7For the most part, courageous ideas live on a dangerous tightrope. When they leave the imaginary realm and are pushed towards reality by one daring mind, the tightrope snaps and they fall: the place where they land inevitably determines the way they are perceived by pretty much everyone else. If the idea succeeds, it is considered to be brilliant; if the idea fails, it is condemned as plain crazy. There is no middle ground; there are only extremes, and it is this lack of a safe balanced landing zone that causes most thoughts to never materialize. They are afraid to be because being entails judgment, and sometimes that is simply too much to bear, and one cannot help but wonder about the different futures that never happened because someone somewhere was reluctant to take a leap and the door of opportunity proceeded to be slammed shut.

At one point of a not-so-distant past, one of those someones that are somewhere was a Ubisoft employee who dared to envision a game where Mario (him, of the understandably overprotective Nintendo) was paired up with the Rabbids (them, of the average mini-game collections and often criticized platformers) in a strategic turn-based adventure that took place in the Mushroom Kingdom: an idea so absurd that upon hearing rumors regarding its existence the gaming world almost universally chose to slam it to the ground even though absolutely nobody had ever seen the game in motion.

Thankfully, though, whether due to a complete disregard towards what others think or thanks to a sudden surge of courage (induced by external substances or natural chemical reactions of the body; it does not matter), that employee went ahead with their vision and dared to pitch it not only to their bosses but also to the masterminds at Nintendo. Fast forward in time, like the Rabbids do with their Time Washing Machine; and avoid the flames of creatures that are angry for no valid reason, like Mario does as he walks the halls of Bowser’s Castle, and that someone somewhere, through some process that was certainly somewhat tortuous and occasionally awkward, has managed to make their courageous idea come to life. And anyone who plays it is certainly to be thankful that Ubisoft developer did not succumb to fear of judgment or lack of attitude; the door was not slammed shut, it was blown open.

mario_rabbids3Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is excellent. Despite how his genre-spanning nature has led him to cover numerous areas of the gaming palette, Nintendo’s plumber had never tackled the turn-based strategy style, which makes it quite smart on Ubisoft’s part to take the partnership between Mario and the Rabbids in that direction. After all, it is easier to generate positive reactions when direct comparisons to the stellar Mario platformers and RPGs are avoided. However, Mario + Rabbids is not great because there is an absence of a bar against which it can be measured: those bars exist. Not only is it among the best Mario spin-offs, but it is also a pretty strong effort inside its genre. And although it is true that Mario could have explored gun-based tactical gameplay without the Rabbids, the wild creatures do a good job showing they are great additions rather than unnecessary extra elements.

They come into play when they pop up, aboard their Time Washing Machine, in the room of an inventor who is working on a device that has the capability to merge objects. Given the girl is taking a rest due to frustrating technical problems, the Rabbids recklessly grab a hold of the invention and start wreaking havoc around the place. As her room is filled with Mario-related objects, a couple of Rabbids are soon merged with Mario and Peach. And when the Time Washing Machine is accidentally hit by the Rabbid using the device, all of the creatures (alongside a Mushroom Kingdom poster; the girl’s electronic assistant, Beep-O; and numerous objects) are sucked into a vortex that spits them out in the middle of an inauguration ceremony for a statue of Peach.

With both corrupted and regular Rabbids spread around the kingdom, a giant vortex in the sky threatening to swallow the entire place whole, and the innocent Rabbid that has the dangerous merging device on the loose, the heroic quartet of Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Yoshi are joined by their Rabbid versions and Beep-O in a journey to stop the madness via a good deal of shooting, explosions, and light-hearted humor.

mario_rabbids4Speaking of the latter, one of the greatest characteristics of Kingdom Battle is how nicely the Rabbids were integrated into the Mushroom Kingdom fabric. The Rabbid versions of the main characters are not blank copies of the originals; they have personalities of their own. Rabbid Mario has, for some unknown reason, a mandolin; Rabbid Peach is selfie-obsessed and seems to strongly suspect Peach wants to take Mario away from her; Rabbid Luigi merges Luigi’s friendly and clumsy attitude with the Rabbid’s love for madness; and Rabbid Yoshi is, even by Rabbid standards, a mad lunatic. Those traits, obviously, are used through the course of the game to produce some humorous gags that walk hand-in-hand with the kinds of jokes often used in Mario RPGs.

Moreover, the Mushroom Kingdom itself has been altered by the Rabbids’ presence. As the worlds are explored, many regular Rabbids can be seen around the scenario engaging in utter nonsense: such as relaxing on a lava pit or acting out a pistol duel in the middle of the desert. Those scenes add a special flavor to the adventure as by pressing the A-button players can watch those actions unfold and read an amusing comment by Beep-O on the whole situation. In addition, given the Time Washing Machine has sucked into the vortex all assortments of objects that lay in the inventor’s room, the Rabbids were quite effective in using them to vandalize the Mushroom Kingdom with pieces of underwear waving like flags in the wind and much more, giving the traversed scenarios a psychedelic surrealistic touch that had yet to appear in a Mario game.

Although the adventure is condensed into four worlds, which may not seem like much but that do produce a regular quest that lasts for about twenty hours, the scenario variety is quite extensive, for each world presents very interesting and natural mutations in the environment. The first world, for example, starts out on green fields, goes through a thick jungle, and ends on top of a block tower; while the third one holds a vast deck of creepy-looking haunted settings, including a farm, a swamp, and a cemetery. All of those scenes, including the character models and animations, are remarkable both from a technical and artistic standpoint; and the accompanying soundtrack, composed by Grant Kirkhope, who is not quite as inspired as he was when he produced his musical masterpieces, does a good job at tying it all together.

mario_rabbids6As a game, Mario + Rabbids can be divided into two clear pieces: exploration and battling. All of the worlds are broken into nine chapters (marked by scrolls that appear on the scenario), which usually contain between one and three battles, exploration segments that separate them, and occasional cutscenes that move the plot forward. The exploration portion of the experience is solid, but never remarkable. Although there are plenty of puzzles that do grow nicely in terms of complexity as the game goes on, their block-pushing and switch-pressing ways never feel like more than little intermissions between the real meat of Kingdom Battle, which comes in its strategic skirmishes.

Still, Ubisoft does go out of its way to reward that exploration. The worlds are bursting with treasure chests containing music, art pieces, and – most importantly – weapons; moreover, each world has a secret chapter that can only be found after its boss has been defeated. Two little issues hold back the exploration, though. Firstly, the game features no maps, which would have been helpful given worlds two and three have a complex structure. Secondly, the clearing of each world, including the last one, rewards characters with a new context-sensitive ability (such as breaking blocks, or carrying statues), which can then be used in previous areas to open the way to chests; that optional backtracking feels, unfortunately, quite unnatural as it is pretty blatant some areas have been blocked off just to force players to come back to them later.

The stars of the show, by all means and ways, are the battles; and, on this front, Mario + Rabbids delivers the goods. It is a simple setup: in a restricted area, which is fully integrated into the world’s map, Mario and two companions must either defeat some of or all of the Rabbids in the place, escort a character, or survive for long enough to reach a specific zone. With each turn, all members of the team can use their main or secondary weapon, move, and trigger one of two special skills. The scenarios are packed with pipes that quickly allow characters to move between distant places, hazards, opportunities to obtain high ground, and covers (both of the destructible and indestructible kind) that give a certain level of protection according to how tall they are, diminishing the chance of an accurate shot by 50% or 100%.

mario_rabbids2Mario + Rabbids, therefore, requires thinking and planning. A tactical camera allows players to analyze the stats and range of movement of all enemies, and going headlong into a battle without taking those variables into consideration – especially late in the game or when facing a boss – is a recipe for disaster. The game has a surprisingly good level of challenge and, knowing it will draw in not only an experienced audience but also a lot of younger gamers attracted by the colors and charm of the Mario universe, it features the option to activate, before the start of all battles and with the simple press of a button, an easy mode.

Kingdom Battle succeeds in keeping battles engaging all the way through in a number of ways. The scenarios where the shooting takes place are incredibly varied, some support different kinds of strategies while others force gamers to play in a specific way, therefore presenting many gameplay facets. Alongside the battlefield changes, sets of enemies are always being renovated both in-between chapters and worlds, as well as being mixed and matched in different ways.

There are ghosts that teleport, support Rabbids that use grenades and that can heal their partners, maniacs that wear machine guns on their chests and that can jump with the help of their peers, smashers that move whenever they are shot, shielded monsters that need to be shot at from certain angles, enemies that are clever blends of Rabbids with Mushroom Kingdom staples like Piranha Plants and Boos, and more. Mario + Rabbids has no shortage of creativity for spitting out foes; it is worthy to mention, though, that it is a tad frustrating that bosses – as smartly designed as they may be – have the annoying tendency to rely too much on minions to produce challenge rather than doing so by virtue of their own skills.

mario_rabbids1When it comes to the gang of heroes, battles gain life due to the amount of actions they can perform. All of the eight playable characters have their own skill trees, which can be unlocked as orbs are obtained from battles or hidden chests, and although there is some overlapping between the trees, with some abilities or similar weapons being featured for two characters, all combatants turn out to be unique. Among other abilities, Mario, true to his origins, can be catapulted by his partners into the air to land on top of foes; Luigi is a long-ranged specialist; Peach throws grenades; Yoshi packs a rocket; Rabbid Mario has an explosive dash; Rabbid Luigi recovers energy when attacking enemies; Rabbid Peach has healing powers; and Rabbid Yoshi has a main weapon whose damage range is unpredictable.

Given such an incredible variety of strategies, it is very disappointing Kingdom Battle does not allow players to assemble the trio of fighters they are going to use during a battle in whichever way they see fit. Some of the characters are unlocked way too late into the game. Additionally, there are rules that determine how a team can be constructed; namely, Mario always needs to be on the team and at least one Rabbid has to be used, which means that only deploying the folks from the Mushroom Kingdom is completely out of the question.

Surely, those issues are slightly annoying to a certain degree; however, neither do they hold the game back from excellence nor will they stop players from feeling like sinking their teeth into the full extent of the title’s content, which is quite impressive. All worlds hold ten challenges, of varying types, that can be tackled once an area’s boss is defeated. All missions can be replayed at will from a simple menu so that players can try to perfect their score (calculated by number of turns that were used and total of surviving characters); although it is a bit disappointing those missions are tackled with the team’s current equipment, which makes getting perfect scores way too easy most of the time. And a cooperative mode with special missions is also available, which alleviates the lack of a two-player option for the battles of the main campaign.

mario_rabbids5Simply put, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a fun, unexpected, unlikely, and very welcome addition to the Nintendo Switch’s catalog. At this point, it is unknown how many years the console’s lifespan will last and how much support it will get from third-parties; regardless of the value of those variables, though, it is pretty clear Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle will stand as one of the console’s finest overall entries. A product of Nintendo’s pleasant recent tendency to be less protective of its franchises and to open up its business model, it is a sign that – when handled by other parties and with the proper oversight – those properties can be taken to interesting places. If Mario + Rabbids is the first of numerous unforeseen partnerships, Nintendo fans are in for a treat. All that it takes is for those someones who are somewhere to step up to the plate with their courageous ideas; may the doors of opportunity be forever blown open.

Mario Rabbids

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Sonic Colors Review

Although it does not reach the earth-shattering quality levels of the best platformers of its generation, it shows there is hope for 3-D Sonic games, which may be far more significant

sonic_colors1Watching Sonic struggle through the 3-D gaming era is a lot like watching an aging professional sports player go through the twilight of their career: the world watches the athlete’s performance start to fall apart to a point where everybody thinks there is no turning back, but a few believers still see some potential in there that could signal towards a sudden outburst of brilliancy in the near future. Differently from a sports player who has no protection against the unstoppable insatiable hunger of this overpowering force called time, though, Sonic can – whenever Sega feels like it – push a magical restart button and attempt to jump towards original platforming challenges with the same energy and impact of a brand new and youthful videogame character.

All that it takes for that to happen is the springing of a bright concept inside the head of a game producer and the spreading of a whole lot of common sense on how to build a good Sonic platformer among the developers responsible for the game. The coming together of those two factors is, unfortunately, easier in theory than it is in practice, which makes it somewhat unsurprising (even when considering the weight that the names Sega and Sonic hold) that until Sonic Colors’ release point that recipe had almost always failed to be recreated. Sonic 3-D games were, therefore, always lacking either in one specific aspect or in all of them at the same time (which was the most common occurrence). Sonic Colors does have its flaws, which makes it arguable its coming did not end the character’s run of substandard efforts and marked the point where Sega was able to join an interesting idea with a nearly spotless execution, but what exists here is a balanced and solid gaming experience far better than the average Sonic 3-D adventure.

If there is one thing that has not been improved with Sonic Colors is the unnecessary amount of attention put into the storyline. The game does start with a reasonably controlled quantity of storytelling; that is, it gives players a background into why in the world they are going after the villain, showing how Eggman has apparently turned into a nice guy and decided to build an intergalactic theme park made up of several different planets connected by a central hub. Sonic and Tails head to his shiny facility to investigate, as the duo does not believe in the doctor’s good intentions. Not shockingly, they learn from a strange alien creature – called a Wisp – that the planets linked to his theme park were actually their homes and that Eggman is kidnapping their entire race for unknown evil purposes.

sonic_colors4It would have been fine if the storytelling stopped there, as that is pretty much all players need to know on a classic platformer until they beat the final boss to watch a concluding video. Sadly, Sega decided to throw a few cutscenes in-between stages and worlds to further develop the plot, which would not have been so heavily aggravating if they were not plagued by extremely cheesy dialogues and predictable jokes, which contrast with the decent level of the voice acting. Fortunately, they are all easy to skip with the touch of a button, making the clumsy plot if not forgivable at least ignorable.

Mostly, Sonic Colors features an exhilarating combination of 3-D and 2.5-D sections. Sega discovered the perfect formula that balances exciting fast-speed maneuvers through loops, slides, corkscrews and other extremely well-designed level layouts with slower segments that require timely jumps, planned out attacks, and even some thinking outside the box. Sonic Colors and numerous of its many stages are the modern equivalent of the sidescrolling brilliancy that graced the early Sonic games, with courses that branch frequently and where all paths are filled with fun secrets and thrills.

Sadly, some issues in terms of consistency emerge. While most stages have been given major attention, others are completely lackluster in their construction, meaning that, as a whole, the game’s level design is irregular. The gap in quality between levels is so big that sometimes it is hard to believe they belong to the same game and were developed by the very same team. Another issue that harms some of the courses is that some traps are more frustrating than fun, and the fact that players may have to repeat them many times in order to finally be able to move on just magnifies the problem. Losing all lives and facing a game over screen just because of pure frustration stemming from an annoying segment is not an uncommon occurrence.

sonic_colors3What makes Sonic Colors stand out among other titles starring the hedgehog that have been released since the industry shifted its focus to the tridimensional realm and featured that same blend of 3-D and 2.5-D is the Wisps. The little colorful aliens that have escaped from the grasp of Eggman join Sonic to help him free their peers, and each one of them will give the hero a little bit of their power for a limited amount of time. Activated by the shaking of the Wiimote, the abilities coming from the Wisps add a lot of variety to the game, allowing developers to create a range of obstacles that open up the gameplay considerably.

With the aid of the Wisps, Sonic can turn into a laser that bounces off walls, gain the ability to float, drill through dirt, eat everything in his path, become a spiked ball that sticks to walls, blast through the air as a rocket, and turn blue rings into blocks and vice versa. Another interesting aspect about the Wisps is that some of them are only unlocked in the last worlds of the game, which means that by going back to the first stages of the game and replaying some of them players will be able to use their newly acquired powers to explore new routes, improve their time, and their rank. Those looking for full completion will have, then, many reasons to smile, since replaying the levels is mostly a fun exercise due to all new twists that are irremediably uncovered.

However, the biggest change that Sonic Colors brings when compared to all of the games that preceded it is that, from a gameplay standpoint, Sonic Colors is very good. There are no major camera hiccups, players see everything they need to see all the time in an incredibly natural fashion that does not even require any kind of manual adjustment. The game also controls in a remarkably accurate manner, including all the transformations that could have potentially caused some instances of poorly implemented controls. In Sonic Colors, everything is fluid, seamless, and beautiful, including the framerate that does not suffer at all even though the game displays dazzling extensive visuals that blast by the screen at incredibly high speeds.

sonic_colors2Sonic Colors is not an extremely long game. Its six worlds have seven levels, including a boss battle, which means that one playthrough – without looking for all items contained on each stage – will take players less than five hours to complete. However, the game has plenty of options for those looking to spend some extra time enjoying the title. Players can improve their rank in all the levels in an attempt to get the flawless S, collect all hidden red coins by exploring all possible paths within each stage in order to unlock cooperative challenges on the Sonic Simulator (a multiplayer mode comprised of twenty-one arcade-like stages), or simply improve their score.

Sonic Colors brings a lot of the magic of the old Sonic games to the 3D environment with some twists along the way that make this adventure rather original and remarkable. There are a few punctual issues, but nothing really tarnishes the fact this is a rare instance of a 3-D Sonic game turning out better than passable and actually being quite good. It has great visuals, fast exciting moments, slow segments that show a lot of care with the level design, a nice collection of songs to power up the fun, and solid gameplay. Sonic Colors will not change anybody’s concepts on great platformers, or set new bars for the genre, but showing that modern-day Sega can still find ways to get in touch with reality and realize what makes a great Sonic game (and make that untouchable quality materialize in a 3-D setting) is much more important than any earth-shattering productions.

Sonic Colors

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