Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader Review

More than an exquisite technical translation of Star Wars’ most heart-pumping action segments, it is also a strong package that entertains, challenges, and thrills

rogue_squadronEver since the early days of the videogame industry, game producers have developed the exasperating habit of automatically turning every single successful movie out there into a gameplay experience of some sort. The unfortunate reality, though, reveals that most of those games failed massively, especially in the quality department, with the utmost example being E.T. for the Atari 2600, a game so utterly poor that it played a considerable role in the industry’s biggest crisis. Despite being rare, fruitful cases of this transition from movies to games are exquisitely thrilling, for they allow gamers to jump into the amazing worlds that were once exclusive to the big screen, and play an active – rather than a passive – role in the development of the story. Undoubtedly, the Star Wars series, and its extremely expansive universe, is one of the most fortunate example that can be found of a franchise that has achieved amazing feats both inside and outside movie theaters.

From controlling Jedi knights and Imperial troopers to hopping aboard Podracers, numerous facets of George Lucas’ distant galaxy have been tackled by various studios; and its starfighter combats, perhaps the movies’ most celebrated aspect of visual spectacle and special effect prowess, have – naturally – received a similar treatment over the years. Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, one of the Gamecube’s first exclusive releases, simultaneously stands – even after more than one decade – among the finest translations of Star Wars to a videogame system and the best titles centered around aerial combat.

As the leader of the Rebel Alliance’s legendary Rogue Squadron, the game tracks players’ progress through the major battles of the space opera’s original trilogy as well as some events that happened out of the screen, consequently enriching the lore of a highly beloved saga. Therefore, not only are iconic moments of cinema history, like the two strikes on the Death Star’s core and pivotal battles such as those that took place on Endor and Hoth, successfully transported in all their glory, laser blasts, and tension to gamers’ home television set, but a deeper look into the developments of that war is also granted to fans who decide to dive into the adventure. And by leading the titular squadron, players will be responsible for stealing away the victory from the hands of the evil Empire and handing it to the brave rebels who fight against its tyranny.

rogue_squadron3Rogue Squadron II has pretty straightforward controls, and their amazing tightness, joined by quick responses and nice array of camera options, deliver an experience in the command of intergalactic ships that is pretty much unparalleled. Through most of the missions players, will control the unmistakable X-Wing; however, for the sake of variety and to the delight of fans of the saga who can instantly recognize distinct ship designs, the game offers a delightful array of spaceships, which are deployed according to the sort of mission that must be accomplished. As such, bombing runs will have gamers manning the B-Wing or the Y-Wing; hit-and-runs will prominently feature the A-Wing; and battles anchored to the ground will be conducted aboard speeders.

Naturally, each vehicle presents a unique behavior, having different degrees of speed, handling, armor, and primary and secondary weapons. Although vastly different in their specifications, all ships are controlled in the very same way with the A-button serving as the standard laser weapon and the B-button activating special and more powerful weaponry. Breaking and boosting the ship can be done with the L and R buttons, and the targeting computer, a device that takes the game into a first-person view where enemy ships have special colors, is triggered by pressing Y. Unfortunately, in a bad decision by developers, that button has to be constantly pressed if players want to maintain a view from the cockpit, forcing those who enjoy playing with the targeting computer activated to always have their fingers in an awkwardly placed position.

One of the nicest gameplay features of Rogue Squadron II is in how players are never alone on their struggle against the Empire. As the Rogue Leader, they will be in charge of a small squadron at all times and by using the D-pad one can freely command their wingmates whenever necessary, telling them to flee from battle (a rather useful order if players are working on getting as many kills as possible), form by the leader’s side (which will give shots some extra power), or assign them to go after specific Imperial units (such as AT-STs and TIE Fighters) while the leader focuses on other targets. As a whole, the friendly AI is quite good. Not only will they never get in players’ way, but they will also be of great help most of the time, given Rogue Squadron II is not shy about throwing massive hordes of enemy ships at players. Due to that, different approaches in managing one’s allies can lead to different outcomes during the missions, making such a feature an integral, valuable, and exciting part of the experience.

rogue_squadron2Rogue Squadron II is consisted of eleven unique missions that follow a linear and surprisingly well-connected story arch, with each mission having a set of goals to be achieved. It is undeniable that eleven missions is not exactly a large number, especially when one considers games of the sort tend to present quests that are generally brief. However, Rogue Squadron II has its ways of turning its limited set of levels into an asset out of which a lot of value can be extracted. For starters, most of the quests are so hard to beat that the game will certainly last longer than most players initially expect it to. That high level of difficulty may be frustrating to some, as clearing missions on one try is nigh impossible and many of them require various retries. Still, given the act of blasting enemy ships is such a joy and since the quests are usually short (generally lasting for less than ten minutes and rarely going over the fifteen-minute mark), to most people losing all lives and having to restart will likely be an engaging challenge.

Yet, the game’s difficulty does lead to a couple of undeniable shortcomings. The level of challenge is awfully irregular, as it is common to come across an easy errand right after dealing with an extremely tough mission; instead of following a smooth rising curve, then, the game’s difficulty chart looks more like an electrocardiogram. Furthermore, in a baffling design flaw, the menus of Rogue Squadron II do not allow gamers to immediately restart the missions they have failed. What the game does is send players all the way back to the start screen, making them select the save file, browse through the mission menu once again, and re-select the mission of choice just so they can get another shot at clearing the level. It may sound like a silly little flaw, but it becomes frustrating after one has barely failed to stop the enemy from blowing up rebel transports for the tenth time in a row.

Rogue Leader’s unrelenting, yet fair, level of challenge is not the only characteristic that will keep one going back to the game’s quests. The title features an excellent medal system in which players are rewarded according to their performance on the mission. Medals are given according to shooting accuracy, enemies defeated, dead allies, lives lost, completion time, and the amount of time one spent using the targeting computer (with most missions’ gold medals requiring that such a feature not be used at all). Pleasantly, medals are not just for show: by getting a good number of them it is possible to unlock five extra missions that are directly connected to the game’s main story arch, including a few in which one plays as the other side of the war.

rogue_squadron4For Star Wars aficionados, and dedicated completionists, there is yet another reason to keep playing Rogue Leader after the Empire is brought down. During one’s first run through a mission, only a standard ship will be available. However, after successfully clearing it, another group of vessels (specific to each mission) is unlocked. Therefore, players can try to beat the game’s challenges with different spacecrafts, a task that is particularly interesting due to the uncanny level of detail Factor 5 put into the physics of the many different ships, as the feel of controlling each one of them is quite different.

Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader is, consequently, not just an exquisite technical translation of Star Wars’ most heart-pumping action segments; it is also a strong package that entertains, challenges, and thrills. Surely, the technological advances that have taken place since its release have allowed for more visually faithful recreations of the Star Wars universe in recent years, but not only does the game extract every bit of power out of the Gamecube’s hardware to produce the very best graphics the system could muster during its lifetime and sounds that are worthy of John Williams’ classical score and the saga’s mind-blowing achievements in sound design, but its gameplay is also impressive enough to stand the test of time and still hold up as one of Star Wars’ best videogame representations. Due to that, Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader is a must to those who love the franchise or to anyone that feels like taking part in the galaxy’s most dramatic an breathtaking dogfights.

Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader

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Gone But Not Forgotten

coco1The bright and colorful celebrations that happen throughout Mexico in Día de los Muertos speak volumes about the power of perspective, showing how one’s outlook on life and its unexpected ups and downs can alter even the dreariest scenarios. After all, through their traditions, the Mexican people shift the meaning of what is often seen as a purely tragic event, turning it into a far more significant happening. What could be a day filled with lonesome sadness and mourning, becomes an occasion of remembrance, when family bonds are strengthened by gathering loved ones around gorgeously decorated altars where pictures of the deceased – as well as their favorite food and beverages – are beautifully arranged, honoring the legacy they have left behind, and gladly welcoming the souls that come visit this earthly realm once a year.

It is not surprising, therefore, that such a rich cultural setting would inspire artists and filmmakers to come up with works based on the holiday; furthermore, given the visual splendor of the festivity and its position right between the mundanity of day-to-day life and the imagination-stirring strength of spirituality, it is not shocking the animation medium, where the two sides of that coin can merge seamlessly, would be perfect for that endeavor. The combination is, in fact, so promising that Pixar’s Coco is not the first movie to take advantage of it, being preceded by Fox’s The Book of Life – which also tackled Día de los Muertos via the art of animation – by a whopping three years.

For Pixar fans, the good news is that Coco succeeds in simultaneously hitting two marks that have, in recent years, become unfortunately uncommon for the company. Not only is Coco not a sequel to any of their established properties, but it is also able to hit the high level of excellency that originally propelled Pixar above the Walt Disney Animation Studios in the race for the genre’s throne. It is a considerable achievement in visual art, writing, emotional poignancy, and – in a rather rare turn for Pixar – music, proving that while fully original ideas may be scarce nowadays in Emeryville, when one of them does show up the talented minds within the studio are still able to polish it into a remarkable piece of cinema.

coco2Coco follows the story of Miguel, a 12-year-old boy who desperately wants to become a musician. Sadly, for him, he happens to have been born in the only family of the entire village in which music is seen as an unforgivable sin. As it turns out, Miguel’s great-great-grandfather was a musician himself; however, in the pursuit of his dreams, he chose to abandon his wife and daughter in order to hit the road, only to never return. Broken, Miguel’s great-great-grandmother built a career in shoemaking, forbade singing and the use of musical instruments in the household, and became the matriarch of a big caring family.

When Día de los Muertos comes, and as his great-grandmother and all her descendants are making the proper preparations for the holiday, Miguel sees an opportunity to chase his aspirations upon learning of a talent show that will take place in the village’s square. After being forced, due to his family’s resistance, to steal the guitar places by the grave of a massively popular Mexican singer who lived in town, Miguel is transported to The Land of the Dead, where the only way out is to either accept the blessing of his music-hating great-great-grandmother or looking for his lost great-great-grandfather.

During a good portion of its first half, Coco safely plays by the rules that have been established in various spectacular movies of the Pixar canon. From the setting up of its initial conflict – the in-family feud – to Miguel’s first venture into The Land of the Dead, it is likely viewers will experience a feeling of familiarity, as if Coco were treading onto new thematic ground while tightly following the bullet points of a travel guide it carries under its arm. Nonetheless, even in those instances that come off as slightly formulaic, there is still plenty to be praised.

coco4Firstly, even though the resistance of Miguel’s family towards music seems to be a bit too extreme to be believable, there is quite a heavy undertone in the showing of how relatives and parents that are so lovely and filled with good intentions can also be unnecessarily harsh and prejudice-ridden when they are pushed towards the edge of their beliefs and comfort zones. Secondly, despite the fact the visual and thematic wonder that is The Land of the Dead reveals itself through the traditional Pixar gags and the incorporation of the nature of this fantastic world into everyday bureaucracy such as office work, transportation, and airport customs, it is undeniable that Pixar’s folks know how to do it better than anybody else.

On a lighter spectrum, there are plenty of jokes and genuinely clever slapstick moments regarding the bony composition of many of the characters or the fact they are dead; likewise, the theme of death, the journey between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the Mexican culture upon which the movie is based are all treated with great tenderness, respect, and sensibility. Pixar, however, is not afraid to dive into the darkest shades of its concepts, and as a film about death Coco holds some pretty somber corners; consequently, as they are often bound to do, the studio dares to jump into the abyss and comes away with spectacular results.

In Coco, the ultimate source of anguish is not death itself; after all, besides being completely inevitable, the traditions and beliefs of Día de los Muertos as well as the artistic touches of Pixar make it seem like a beautiful, and amusing, journey. What drives Coco is the fear of being forgotten: humans have been programmed to try to achieve a certain degree of immortality, be it through their offspring, through their deeds, or through their legacy. Leaving a lasting mark is an action that is completely under the species’ control, a fact that makes not being remembered by a single living person a towering nightmare. And with that knowledge in mind Coco sets out to deliver the usual, but always painful, Pixar punches, which are likely to leave children gasping and adults crying.

coco3The only problem that plagues Coco is that it takes a while to get there. The moments that define it and make it stand out among the delightful myriad of masterful Pixar animations are all tucked away in its second half, making what comes before it feel like a long – yet very much enjoyable – buildup. When Coco takes off, it transforms into a Russian nesting doll of plot twists which instead of getting smaller and less significant as they appear, just seem to become bigger and heavier as they pop out. It is a tough journey, but one that – by revealing quite a lot about Miguel’s family’s past – brings them closer together rather than setting them further apart, which is just about the perfect ending for a movie inspired by a celebration where family union and legacies of love are in the spotlight.

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Celeste Review

With Celeste, players will unearth two sorts of joys: the temporary happiness of performing miraculous platforming tricks, and the everlasting knowledge that they have just experienced a journey for the ages

celeste4Life is full of sudden and brief moments when one is overcome by the unexplainable desire to just go ahead and do something. If questioned as to why they have that urge, the majority of people will most likely fail to come up with a reasonable explanation, as it occurs in cases where will is instinctive rather than rational. Whether or not the motive can be articulated, though, the determined, the stubborn, and the ones that feel their lives will be better if they pursue a thrill – be it big or small – follow through on their quest to fulfill that craving, and it is safe to say that, more often than not, endeavors like those do lead to positive outcomes, either in the form of tiny mercurial pleasures, life-changing experiences, or results that lie in the infinite spectrum in-between those extremes.

Such a point needs to be made because Madeline, the protagonist of Celeste, must have felt one of those urges, because one day – without being able to say why or identify the real objective behind the task – she decides to climb the peak that lends its name to the game. With a coat, a backpack, and the determination of someone that feels there must be something other than snow lying on that peak, she ventures towards the mountain stepping on warnings regarding the difficulty of the route to the top and ignoring the words of caution uttered by an old lady who lives in a cabin by the foot of Celeste Mountain. Madeline is too stubborn – or strong-willed – to be held back by omens of danger and death, and – thankfully – both her and gamers who decide to join her are better off because of that decision.

For Madeline, climbing the mountain pays off because Celeste is a game wrapped by one sweet storyline. Where most platformers see plot as just a means to get an adventure rolling, Celeste is pretty committed to its tale. It is not that the storyline overtakes the gameplay. Its development is actually kept to punctual and short instants along the trail to the summit when Madeline meets and interacts with a small and likable cast of characters that either support her or get in her way (with both of those not being mutually exclusive). The weight and omnipresence of the script shows up in how the entire journey, even when one is avoiding deadly spikes and executing jumps that once seemed impossible, is underlined by a sense of self-discovery.

celeste2The further up Madeline travels, the more she understands who she is; why she is climbing a block of dirt, rock, and ice; and what are the ghosts she needs to overcome. It may sound like a whole lot of personal content to be covered by a retro-looking platformer that – true to its visual style – tells its tale through speech bubbles, a limited set of facial animations, and character voices that amount to delightful gibberish. Nevertheless, most of the beauty of Celeste stems from accomplishments that are unlikely (such as an inexperienced climber tackling a peak of the sort or the execution of moves that require absurd precision), and its storyline is not different; the game conveys a lot by showing a little, and it builds a touching plot by using the simplest of tools.

For gamers, meanwhile, the trip up Celeste Mountain is rewarding for numerous reasons: firstly, there is the opportunity to witness satisfying character growth, which is achieved via joy and despair alike; secondly, there is the chance to go through a seamless junction – rarely achieved – of platforming gameplay and meaningful story development; and, finally, there is the fact Celeste is made up of hundreds of small levels that are immaculately designed, brutally difficult without ever being overwhelmingly frustrating, and utterly filled with heart-pumping thrills and segments that require players to tackle platforming conundrums as if they were reasoning-requiring puzzles.

In the world of indie gaming, Celeste has one clear influence, and that is Super Meat Boy. Like Team Meat’s love letter to a time when games were simpler and much harder, Celeste is not afraid to turn up the dial of its difficulty level to staggering heights. At the same time, and also following on the footsteps of its greatest inspiration, it chooses to counter the possible anger that players could feel in trying to land absurdly precise jumps for the hundredth time with one simple trick: by making its levels be ridiculously short, with their full content being usually packed within one or two screens. Additionally, whenever Madeline gets herself killed, she will be returned – with eye-blinking speed – to the beginning of the stage she is trying to clear, allowing players to immediately try again without being forced to watch time-consuming animations.

celeste3Where Celeste drastically sets itself apart from Super Meat Boy is in how those levels are set up. The game is broken into seven distinct chapters, and each chapter houses a series of stages, which is pretty much the basic configuration of the genre ever since Mario first stepped on a Goomba and went on to visit various castles looking for his elusive princess. However, instead of being standalone stages, they are actually all gathered inside one overarching fully-connected map. In fact, the whole concept of levels barely exists here. Clearing a platforming segment causes Madeline to move on to yet another piece of scenery where a new challenge awaits, making – as a consequence – these maps feel like regions ripped out of a Metroid game; only, in lieu of being inhabited by enemies and environmental puzzles, each room was left to be decorated by an architect of platforming madness with a slightly sadistic demeanor.

Naturally, each chapter concerns itself with a part of the mountain. Madeline starts her journey by visiting what seems to be an abandoned industrial city on the lower level of Celeste; afterwards, she goes on to explore a haunted hotel, a sinister temple, a lush valley, and other locations. What is truly noteworthy about the game’s chapters is that the changes that happen between them are not merely aesthetic. They also occur in gameplay, with new elements, traps, and gimmicks appearing as Madeline advances through Celeste and serving as the centerpiece for each chapter; and, most surprisingly, in design as well.

For instance, while in the Forsaken City, players will be treated to a generally linear progression through the map, with one platforming section leading to the next one. Meanwhile, both the temple and the hotel force Madeline to go back and forth between rooms looking for keys to open up the way, adding a tinge of backtracking to the formula. Finally, one of the final stretches of the mountain does away with reserving a screen to each stage and packs them all up inside a wide open environment, still – fortunately – giving players room to breathe by saving their progress every time a challenge is overcome. These shifts, albeit small, further increase the differences between the pieces that make up the whole of Celeste’s adventure, therefore completely eliminating any chance that the game may get stale in the long run.

celeste7Keeping with the theme of doing a lot with a little, Madeline has a pretty strict set of abilities, and the game succeeds in creating an astounding amount of clever challenges around those skills. Other than running, jumping, and wall-jumping, the main character can hold onto walls and climb for a short while (until her stamina runs out), and perform one dash (in any of the possible eight directions) while in midair. As such, most of the constant creativity that levels present relies on the elements that they posses, and developer Matt Thorson and his team absolutely excel in that particular area.

Celeste’s levels have surfaces that cannot be touched more than once, platforms that move quickly when the character comes into contact with them or that are activated when a dash is performed, feathers that let Madeline temporarily soar through the air as an energy ball, powerful wind currents, bumpers, gems that restore her ability to dash without the need to land from the jump, walls that can be traveled through, and far more. And all these assets are used to assemble incredibly tight challenges that will have Madeline sneaking through narrow passages filled with spikes, chaining eye-popping series of dashes without touching the ground, and just generally avoiding death at all costs.

Players will most likely be incurably hooked. Celeste takes such a joy in killing Madeline over and over again that a death count is proudly displayed as a badge of honor whenever chapters are cleared, and gamers will probably witness their hero fall to her death more than one thousand times before the summit is reached. None of those stumbles, though, will keep players from trying. Firstly because there is something completely addictive about how one slowly learns to perform maneuvers that, at first glance, seemed impossible; and secondly because there is a visual splendor and satisfaction (similar to those produced by fireworks) that come with watching Madeline execute the right mad moves at lightning-fast speed.

celeste5Save for a few instances when segments bump into trial and error given new obstacles come way too quickly into the screen for reaction and thinking, Celeste never feels unfair. There are no absurd difficulty spikes, as the game slowly builds its challenge from decent to very hard. The segments are, with a dozen or so exceptions among hundreds of stages, brief enough not to make gamers feel like they have lost a huge amount of progress when dying. Finally, to those who want to make their way to the top but feel that overly challenging platformers are not their cup of tea, the game features a spectacular fine-grained assist mode where players can adjust the game’s speed, give Madeline infinite stamina or extra midair dashes, or simply make her invincible. Configurable difficulty in platformers has always been an impossibility due to how their challenge stems from the stages themselves and not from enemies, but by giving players so many options to toy with, Celeste essentially lets customers choose how hard the trek will be.

On the other end of the scale, those unsatisfied with simply reaching the summit without any kind of assist (which should take about eight hours) will have plenty to do after Madeline achieves her goal. For starters, all chapters contain a specific amount of strawberries, which are often in plain sight, that require extra platforming prowess to be acquired. Additionally, they also have a deviously hidden B-side tape that unlocks a much harder (to a hair-pulling degree) version of the original level. Furthermore, both regular chapters and their B-sides house one extremely concealed Crystal Heart each, and when four of them are acquired an extra final chapter is unlocked as a ultimate prize. At last, the bold level design of Celeste will delight daredevils of the platforming genre, who will certainly have a blast speed-running through the chapters that make up the climb.

Madeline’s choice to answer her inexplicable urge to climb Celeste Mountain, then, amounts to a massive and unexpected classic of the platformer genre. Her journey is one that matches simple yet effectively charming pixel art visuals with a spectacular soundtrack, and that pulses life into them by creating challenging levels with the precision of a craftsman and writing a storyline arch with the certainty that the message contained within will be valuable to a significant amount of people. Like all sensible lunatics that follow their wishes regardless of whether or not they can explain the reason behind those cravings, Madeline ends up unearthing joys that are both temporary and long-lasting. In the former category, there are the numerous instances when players will sit in awe at the unlikely platforming tricks they succeeded in performing; and, in the latter, there will be the everlasting knowledge, which will probably come right after the summit is touched, that they have just experienced a game for the ages.

Celeste

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Albums of the Month: January 2018

horsesAlbum: Horses

Artist: Patti Smith

Released: December 13th, 1975

Highlights: Gloria, Redondo Beach, Free Money, Land

As the 70s reached their midway point, the music scene that had been incubating inside New York City’s legendary club CBGB started to claw its way out of the confines of the East Village. Out of a class that included numerous acts that would write their names in music history, such as Television, Blondie, the Talking Heads, and the Ramones, Patti Smith was the first one to have a record published. Due to its pioneering nature, and given it was the primary work coming out of a house that would shape both punk rock and its highly varied child, post-punk, “Horses” – Smith’s debut – is sometimes singled out as the recorded birth of the former genre. However, trying to attach the punk label to the album is the same as attempting to adjust facts to fit them inside a preconceived narrative. Where punk was a reaction to the indulgent turns popular music had taken during the preceding decade, “Horses” has two tunes that last for more than nine minutes, not to mention an opening six-minute multi-phased track; where punk was about simple instrumentation, “Horses” leans as much towards guitars as it relies on pianos and keyboards; and where punk had objective lyrics, “Horses” flirts with poetry.

That is not to say Smith lived inside a bubble that protected her from the musical revolution that was boiling around her. She was (and still is), by all means, a punk, whether due to the emotional rawness of her performance or because of how she challenged the social and musical establishment; her free poetic spirit, though, led her to grounds only she could reach. “Horses” carries a rather unique combination of rawness and artistic impulse: Smith sings her lyrics as if she were an actor on a stage or a poet who, in an explosive recital, declaims their work like a fiery preacher reads a bible; her band, meanwhile, sounds reckless; and producer John Cale, of The Velvet Underground fame, makes them strike a perfect balance between a hard rock and roll edge and fine art, an equilibrium he knew quite well as the viola player of a group that merged the rock universe with avant-garde aspirations.

“Horses” opens up with a track that perfectly captures that mixture. “Gloria”, the cover of an anthemic Them song, has the energy of its three-chord construction preserved; Smith, however, preludes it with an original piano segment that slowly builds up to the moment her band kicks in. What follows is a sequence of seven songs that, sometimes within the same track, wildly navigate between a highly artistic spectrum and a realm where confrontational punk rock towers over everything else. In “Birdland”, “Break It Up”, “Land”, and “Elegie, Smith makes one question the limits that separate lyrics and poetry; she evokes powerful clashing images and launches them upwards with great power, creating dream-like explosions where thousands of shards of feelings and meanings float in the air waiting to be captured by attentive listeners. She does it solely by using a piano and the sound of her moving voice (as in the brief “Elegy”; or in the lengthy “Birdland”, that starts out quietly and eventually makes its way to a cathartic gripping climax); by going for sheer rock in “Break It Up”, which features the skilled guitar playing of Television’s Tom Verlaine; or by merging both strands of her sound in the three-part epic that is “Land”.

At the same time, Smith also emerges victorious when a more straightforward pop rock vein takes over. In “Redondo Beach”, she uses a reggae backdrop to tell the story of woman desperately looking for her lover, whose body has appeared on the titular location following suicide by drowning; in the dramatic “Free Money”, she talks about the relentless poverty her family was stuck in during her youth; and in “Kimberly”, written for her baby sister, verses that are guided by bass and drums anticipate the post-punk sound a couple of years before it became mainstream. In just eight tracks, then, “Horses” holds more value, variety, and artistic courage than many bands and songwriters are able to achieve in their entire careers. In slightly more than forty minutes, Patti Smith exposes punk rock to the world, shuns the limitations of the movement, experiments (and succeeds) in an astounding variety of styles, proves that writing lyrics can work as an exercise in poetry given the right amount of talent, and shows her worth both as a rock and roll singer and as a declaimer that makes her voice be heard amidst the urban chaos. It is no wonder “Horses” is often proclaimed to be one of the greatest albums of all time.


armed_forcesAlbum: Armed Forces

Artist: Elvis Costello

Released: January 5th, 1979

Highlights: Accidents Will Happen, Oliver’s Army, Busy Bodies, Two Little Hitlers

How much sneer and acid rhetoric can the length of a pop record contain? As the trilogy that opens Elvis Costello’s career reveals, that amount is off the charts. In a time when punks decorated lyrics against the system and social norms with garage rock ethos, Costello channeled that same level of anger towards lovers and relationships, adorning his corrosive cannon with new wave elements and rock and roll straightforwardness. The confrontational attitude was the same, but it was expressed in a quite different manner. “Armed Forces” was the third and final leg of that trio of records, and it was also the one in which the pop leanings of new wave were more pronounced. Keyboards and sleek production had already begun to leak into Costello’s sound in the spectacular “This Year’s Model”, but in “Armed Forces” the levee breaks and the tracks are assaulted by smooth organs and synths, making it far removed from the sloppy roughness of the artist’s debut, “My Aim Is True”.

One of the reasons behind that evolution is quite obvious: the further integration of The Attractions, Costello’s backing band, into his music. First appearing in “This Year’s Model”, by the time of “Armed Forces” the group composed of Steve Nieve, Bruce Thomas, and Pete Thomas had earned the right to often take over the songs. And, like good punks, they do so. Differently from most ensembles of the era, though, Elvis and The Attractions do not succumb to the keyboards, they are propelled by them, as the instrument is turned into a searing tool that augments their indignation. Ironically, however, even though “Armed Forces” is by far the most pop-sounding record of that initial career arch, it is also the one with the smallest quantity of immediate hooks. It is not that it is lacking in that department, as Elvis – in his paranoia and fast enunciation – is still producing plenty of remarkable moments; it is just that the material here, as a whole, pales in comparison to what came right before it.

In terms of elucidating his rage, though, Costello has not lost a step. His lyrics aim for his usual targets, and he hits them with the accuracy of a man who knows how to use words as weapons. When it comes to relationships, Elvis dissects the banality of infidelity (“Accidents Will Happen”), the harms done by the media via their scrutinizing and misinterpretation of celebrity encounters (“Party Girl”), the struggle for the upper hand (“Two Little Hitlers”), the inevitable failings that happen despite all good intentions involved (“Big Boys”), and pulls off a grand metaphor between chemical phenomena and attraction (“Chemistry Class”). Meanwhile, for politicians and society, he rises against military interventions (“Oliver’s Army”), mocks the emptiness of a career in the army (“Goon Squad” and “Sunday’s Best”), reveals the sociopaths created by the wish to climb the corporate ladder (“Senior Service”), points the finger at brainwashing mechanisms (“Moods for Moderns” and “Green Shirt”), and laughs at the rat race (“Busy Bodies”).

Whether it is in ideas, excellent one-liners, tasteful playing, and catchy songwriting, “Armed Forces” packs content whose size and weight is equivalent to the parade of elephants that seems about to explode out of its cover. With the 80s fast approaching, and the need to look for new inspiration for his compositions, it may be a record that ends up – at least sonically – removing a bit of the edge off Costello’s music. However, as an artist that – from the get go – presented himself as a man who could seamlessly introduce pop stylings into the rebellious aura of punk and rock and roll, the step taken in “Armed Forces” was nothing but natural. While, here, he may occasionally falter in a couple of tracks, he is still able to uncover a stunning number of shining gems.


hunky_doryAlbum: Hunky Dory

Artist: David Bowie

Released: December 17th, 1971

Highlights: Changes, Oh You Pretty Things, Life on Mars?, Queen Bitch

As a music star that became known, among many reasons, for often metamorphosing into new characters or abruptly embracing unexpected styles, it is not surprising to say that, with “Hunky Dory”, David Bowie turned a corner. Doing so was his trade, and before his fourth record the artist had already undergone a couple of drastic changes, as the whimsical baroque pop weirdo of “David Bowie” had become the folk singer of “Space Oddity”, who – in turn – eventually emerged as an extravagant hard rocker of Black Sabbath inspirations in “The Man Who Sold the World”. The shift presented by “Hunky Dory”, however, feels bigger and more significant than the mutations that preceded it, for while the works that were crafted before it came off as the products of a songwriter tapping into multiple genres as some sort of musical soul-searching, “Hunky Dory” is the eureka moment; the epiphany of a man who suddenly found what he had been looking for whilst fumbling in the darkness.

Therefore, “Hunky Dory” is pivotal. It is not that Bowie had yet to birth any classic tunes; after all, songs like “Space Oddity”, “The Width of a Circle”, and “The Man Who Sold the World” had already been launched into existence. It is just that “Hunky Dory” is more refreshing, original, and consistent than anything else he had done by 1971. The unabashed quirks and soothing orchestration of his debut, the acoustic flavors of his sophomore outing, and the flamboyant guitars of his third effort are still vividly present, sometimes combined in the same track but more frequently serving as the backbones of distinct tunes. The difference is those pieces sound stronger here, not only because they give birth to tunes that are mostly excellent, but also due to how Bowie has found a realm to call his own: an explosion of warm and welcoming pop sensibilities that is unafraid to drag its listeners towards weird turns of psychedelia and experimentation.

That journey starts with four immaculate and immediately classic piano-led tunes: “Changes”, with its introspective mediation accompanied by horns and strings; “Oh You Pretty Things”, which quickly goes from quiet ballad to glam rock swagger when it reaches its chorus; “Eight Line Poem”, where a tasteful slide guitar enhances the beauty of a testament to musical simplicity; and “Life On Mars?”, an orchestrated epic that seamlessly integrates a simple trip to the cinema and deep existential questions. Following that sequence, and having soothed his listeners into the experience, Bowie dares to open the doors to an absolute madhouse of styles and experiments: he adds British traits to a Neil Young inspired folk country sing-along (“Kooks”); goes operatic in a beautiful multi-phased ballad that rises from an acoustic strum to an orchestrated piece filled with harmonies and layers of sound (“Quicksand”); and pays homage to some of his idols either by covering their songs (“Fill Your Heart”, originally performed by Biff Rose), name-dropping them (“Andy Warhol” and “Song for Bob Dylan”), or tackling the same themes in which they thrived (“Queen Bitch”, a hard-rocking tune that nods to The Velvet Underground by being centered around a transvestite).

Bowie wraps the trip up with “The Bewlay Brothers”, a psychedelic ballad whose unpredictability and stream-of-consciousness lyrics mirror the schizophrenia that affected his brother. Although the more experimental side of “Hunky Dory” does not pack the undeniable greatness of its opening tracks, as it alternates great moments with a few songs that are slightly lacking, it reveals Bowie as an artist that would – through the length of his career – challenge his listeners in surprising ways, throwing odd curveballs at them amidst all the remarkable hits. Therefore, even though Bowie’s artistic character was nearly unidentifiable due to its mercurial nature, “Hunky Dory” established the general framework he would follow: that of a man who knew how to explore music in both its most accessible and daring facets.


boys_dont_cryAlbum: Boys Don’t Cry

Artist: The Cure

Released: February 5th, 1980

Highlights: Boys Don’t Cry, Jumping Someone Else’s Train, Fire in Cairo, Three Imaginary Boys

Through the long and excellent arch of their career, The Cure became kings of all existing musical tones of sadness, melancholy, and depression. They did it through the dark jangle of “Seventeen Seconds”, the lethargic hopelessness of “Faith”, the violent sorrow of “Pornography”, the accessible pop rock of “The Head on the Door”, the kaleidoscopic variety of “Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me”, and layered beauty of “Disintegration”. However, before throwing themselves into the dark pit they have inhabited until nowadays, only occasionally coming out of it to deliver joyful sugar-coated hits, The Cure was a lot like The Beatles. No, it is not that Robert Smith and his crew were employing immaculate harmonies to sing about girls, dates, and teenage love; The Cure has never had the vocal assets to pull that off, and Smith’s emotional crises tend to swing to far more disturbing themes. What the band was doing, instead, was delivering a barrage of short songs with immediate choruses, catchy hooks, and straightforward structures.

The Cure stood within that musical spectrum for long enough to produce an album’s worth of material and a handful of great singles, and these tunes were compiled under the title “Boys Don’t Cry” – which was the name of the best of their 7-inch releases – for what would be their American full-length debut. “Boys Don’t Cry” is far stronger than its British counterpart, called “Three Imaginary Boys”, because it drops some of its least interesting tracks and replaces them with a trio of strong singles: “Boys Don’t Cry”, “Killing an Arab”, and “Jumping Someone Else’s Train”, therefore capturing the very best of what Robert Smith, Michael Dempsey, and Lol Tolhurst wrote and performed during those early years.

Despite the comparisons to The Beatles that “Boys Don’t Cry” tends to evoke due to its delightful simplicity, the album is firmly grounded in the ethos of the genre that dominated its context: post-punk. Consequently, “Boys Don’t Cry” does have a rough do-it-yourself aura, some tinges of restrained anger, and a careless demeanor (which is constantly at odds with a relatively foggy production). Contrarily to what most of their post-punk counterparts were doing, though, The Cure does not abandon the rejected musical and sociological idealism of punk to explore the shades that exist outside of rock music; what they do, instead, is ride loud drums and a melodic bass that stand in the forefront of most tracks, as well as a distinctive guitar tone and strum that fill the empty corners of the tunes, towards fantastic melodies that are delivered by Smith’s usual and lovable awkwardness.

Save for the odd experimentation of “Subway Song”, “Boys Don’t Cry” is an album where all tracks are as sticky (in a good way) as bubblegum; remembering the core hook or the chorus of every song long after one has listened to the album is not hard. Some of its moodier and more monotonic tunes – namely, the very good duo of “Another Day” and “Three Imaginary Boys” – strongly point in the direction of the dark alleys and forests into which the band would soon walk; still, for the most part “Boys Don’t Cry” is made up of brief energetic explosions that are as quick to capture listeners as they are to reach the end of their run, as just a couple of tracks here last for over three minutes. “Boys Don’t Cry” is, as such, The Cure’s most accessible work, even if – in hindsight – it is not representative of the band, making it work as an interesting curiosity for fans that have stuck with Robert Smith for the long run, and as an approachable and well-done look into the rock of the early 80s for everyone else.

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Axiom Verge Review

Even if some of its aspects could have benefited from additional specialized help, in level design the one-man effort of Axiom Verge stands side-by-side with the best installments of the classic saga that inspired it

axiom_verge2As a testament to the simple ingenuity of the Metroidvania gameplay style, and as a clear indication that Nintendo has failed to keep fans of the genre well-nourished with a constant stream of sidescrolling Metroid outings, indie developers have not been shy to build their own takes on the labyrinthine worlds that power titles of the sort. Therefore, while gamers have longed – through more than a decade – for the next Samus Aran 2-D adventure, the kids who grew up on a steady diet of Super Metroid and that now hold programming skills and a development kit have taken it upon themselves to provide a famished audience with numerous variations on a theme they have learned to love. In return for their work, these independent developers have watched as their products have gained attention, praise, and applause.

Axiom Verge is one of those efforts. Fully put together by the talented hands of Thomas Happ, who was responsible for all elements of the game (from its concept and level design to its art and music), it uses the bases established by Metroid as the supporting columns of its universe. However, while many indies choose to look at classics from the industry in search for the inspiration to build something different, like Shovel Knight does with Mega Man and SteamWorld Dig does with Metroid itself, Axiom Verge walks a much more straightforward path, as it unabashedly copies the general Metroid structure without making much of an effort to look for a trait it can call its own.

Such a decision has two immediate outcomes: firstly, Axiom Verge opens itself to criticism coming from those who will feel it is way too close to Metroid for comfort; secondly, and on a more positive note, those looking for a quest that mirrors those executed by Samus Aran will hardly find a game that fits the bill more perfectly. What is most surprising, however, is that – given its proximity to the classic Nintendo saga in terms of construction and progression – Axiom Verge invites comparisons to game design gems such as Super Metroid, Metroid: Zero Mission, and Metroid Fusion, and the result of that juxtaposition is not as unfavorable as one would expect.

axiom_verge3The intricacy of its world and the way in which upgrades and new skills open up the exploration of new areas of the map are quite well-done, meaning that Axiom Verge opts to stick close to Metroid and, instead of being broken into millions of pieces as a consequence of that choice, it is actually able to stand its ground. And when one considers the Metroid masterpieces have had a horde of brilliant minds behind their development whereas Axiom Verge has fully relied on the mind of a single man, that achievement becomes even more impressive. Sure, Thomas Happ may not have produced a title that is as thoroughly enjoyable, masterful, and polished as those put together by Nintendo, but the fact he got so close is enough to make one sit in sheer awe.

Like the sidescrolling Metroid games that inspired it, Axiom Verge begins with a brief series of pixel art stills. They tell the story of Trace, a human scientist that, while working inside an isolated laboratory with a research partner, gets caught in a big explosion. In lieu of waking up on a hospital bed or finding himself inside a coffin, Trace awakens inside an egg-like healing machine and steps out into Sudra, an ominous world once inhabited by an advanced civilization and that is now home to threatening biological life forms, and sentient machines that were left behind by the extinct Sudrans. Guided by a voice that urges him to come towards her and that asks him to defeat a man called Athetos, who is supposedly responsible for the current state of Sudra, Trace sets out to investigate.

To anyone who has played a Metroid installment, the gameplay that follows should be rather familiar. When Trace first walks into Sudra, he has nothing but a simple gun; in order to reach his final goal, though, he needs to explore the maze-like world – which is formed by a handful of differently themed regions – and slowly acquire new pieces of equipment that will allow him to reach areas that were previously unaccessible. As such, Axiom Verge is primarily made up of a whole lot of exploration, walking, and shooting that occurs as Trace travels back and forth between the rooms, shafts, and open spaces of Sudra in search for his next destination.

axiom_verge5There are numerous areas in which Axiom Verge thrives. The level design, and the way in which the world unfolds and reveals new areas as obstacle-clearing skills are obtained is wonderful; there is a certain degree of linearity in how one region is usually almost completely cleared before the next one can be reached, but there is – nevertheless – plenty of pleasant backtracking, whether it is within the confines of a single location or in the returning to previously visited places in the chase for optional items, such as health expansions, notes that enrich the game’s backstory, new types of weapons (of which the game carries a considerable and delightful variety, like a lightning gun and a flamethrower), and other upgrades that increase the size of projectiles or augment the punch packed by the guns. As a small nitpick, while many of these extras are found in justly hidden locations that entail backtracking and puzzle-solving, a good portion of those suffers from the Super Metroid syndrome of tucking secrets away in corners that are impossible to uncover without obsessive searching or a helpful guide, which may turn full completion into a frustrating chore to some players.

As another positive highlight, and walking hand-in-hand with the way the world is set up, the skills acquired by Trace are quite engaging and do wonders for the game in terms of the exploration-related conundrums that must be solved. Naturally, there are the typical Samus Aran inspired gadgets, like bombs, a grappling hook, and the ability to jump higher; the highlights, though, come in the assets that are unique to Axiom Verge. And, in that particular category, one can include the various weapon expansions, which add a good variety to the way in which enemies and bosses can be taken down as players will surely look for the projectile type that is better suited to defeat the game’s most powerful foes; and the original mandatory pieces of equipment, including a spider-like drone that can crawl into tight spaces, a lab jacket that allows Trace to teleport past thin walls (an ability that can be a bit clumsy to activate from time to time), and a drill that cuts through rock.

Finally, the game’s atmosphere, boss battles, and challenge level appear as remarkable highlights. The first nicely recreates the Metroid vibe of being stranded in an alien world where shapeless and dark menaces are constantly looming; and although the feeling of isolation is absent, as Trace will consistently communicate with those who have tasked him with stopping Athetos, the perception of carrying the full weight of responsibility on one’s shoulders exists. The second, meanwhile, are firmly rooted in the action-packed encounters of Super Metroid, where the horrifying creatures’ attack patterns are unforgivable, hence making desperate offense and occasional dodging be the best solutions. And the last, aided by nice save point placement, is pleasant from the get go, only rising to frustrating levels in a couple of sessions towards the endgame where enemies are so powerful that reaching the next safe haven entails a bit of combat trial-and-error.

axiom_verge4At the same time, there are some points in which Axiom Verge falters, and – perhaps – the most aggravating of its issues appears in its storyline. From the get go, when Trace receives an urgent message from an unknown voice right as he first steps into Sudra, the game indicates it will pair up its Metroidvania gameplay with punctual narrative developments, and that is precisely what happens. As Trace advances, he makes significant discoveries regarding himself, Sudra, its former inhabitants, Athetos, and the machines that are still active. The problem is the plot never really grows into an element that holds one’s attention; instead of serving as a guiding thread for the exploration, as it was certainly intended to be, the storyline merely exists. It gets lost in overly complicated scientific mumbo jumbo that tries to hide a lack of inventiveness, and the reveals that occur are neither surprising nor clever.

Similarly to the story, Axiom Verge’s graphics and music also indicate that Thomas Happ – as brilliant and multi-faceted as he may be – could have used some specialized help in a few of the game’s departments. With one or two exceptions, Sudra’s environments never succeed in being artistically significant enough to distinguish themselves and create regions with their own personalities. In many ways, the same applies to the music, which does a decent job in populating living rooms with mysterious otherworldly beeps and noises, but that rarely joins those sounds to form compositions that are noteworthy. As such, both the visuals and the audio do not succeed in crawling past a good serviceable threshold.

Axiom Verge, therefore, could have certainly benefited from additional, and more specialized, help in some of its supporting elements. Nonetheless, when judged in terms of gameplay, by far the most important component of the medium it belongs to, it amounts to a title that is downright stunning, especially when one considers it was entirely built by a pair of hands. The eight-hour adventure that takes place in its dark caves and shafts, which can last for far more in case players look to achieve full completion, easily stands side-by-side with the installments from the classic saga that inspired it. While Nintendo infinitely delays the release of the next sidescrolling Metroid, Axiom Verge rises as an excellent option to anyone craving for an adventure of the sort; and, truth be told, when that long-awaited game does arrive, Thomas Happ’s creation will probably not be too far behind in terms of level design intricacy.

Axiom Verge

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Yooka-Laylee Review

The act of rebellion executed by Yooka-Laylee is only partially successful; however, its numerous positive aspects validate the existence of collectathons in contemporary gaming, and that is its finest achievement

yooka_laylee2Yooka-Laylee smells like an act of rebellion. Prior to its release, the fifteen years that had passed ever since Microsoft took control of Rare, once a factory of game design masterpieces, were spent either sending the company towards projects far removed from the properties that had made them famous or forcing the British developer to channel their resources in the direction of motion-capture devices. In the meantime, remarkable franchises held by the studio were either left to agonize in limbo, in the case of Jet Force Gemini and Conker; not given the proper attention, a destiny reserved for Perfect Dark; or, in what may be the worst possible fate for a great videogame series, stripped off its most remarkable characteristics and propelled into the market in a shape whose only recognizable traits that served as a link to its past were the game’s title and its characters, a cruel ending to what was, in the past, the king of all 3-D platformers: Banjo-Kazooie.

To the folks that poured their hearts and souls into those games, and received the proper accolades and applause, there must have been quite a good deal of pain and anger in the watching of the slow disintegration of their work in the hands of a new corporate overlord that would rather impose its own view on its new acquisition than take the time to grasp what made its new toy worth buying in the first place. Naturally, many of those frustrated talents quit their once proud working place and chose to continue their careers elsewhere. The weird and crooked pathways of life, though, not to mention the gift and power of crowdfunding initiatives, eventually allowed these people to gather again under the same roof and proceed to create a title that, for many, seemed to be unthinkable and impossible within the contemporary gaming era: a true successor to Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie.

Therefore, Yooka-Laylee has the scent of an uprising because it is a takeback. This is the people who saw their work, in the hands of others, be transfigured beyond belief and ignored for nearly two decades regaining possession over a property that, from a creative standpoint, is theirs. And while the legal system stops them from using the same characters and universe upon which Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie were built, it does not hold them back from devising a game that is, in its features and core structural elements, a carbon copy of that saga.

Yooka-Laylee_20170323125252

Even Yooka-Laylee’s plot itself, as farfetched as it may be, is a direct jab towards money-hungry corporate takeovers. Yooka, a male chameleon, and Laylee, a female bat, peacefully live in a shipwreck. Unbeknownst to them, the nearby Hivory Towers, under new direction, hatches a scheme in which a giant sucking machine will send all of the world’s books flying towards their headquarters. Led by Capital B (as expected, a big anthropomorphic bee) and Dr. Quack (a duck stuck inside a candy dispenser), which are both overseen by shadowy figures with dark intentions, the company plans to not only profit from literature but also use the One Book, a treasured possession of Yooka and Laylee, to rewrite the universe as they see fit. When they see their precious book flying away, as its pages are ripped apart, Yooka and Laylee decide to enter Hivory Towers to recover it.

Yooka-Laylee is, in fact, such a tight mirror image of Banjo-Kazooie that not even the fictitious Banjo-Threeie (the supposed and never-released sequel to Banjo-Tooie) would have likely carried as many similarities to the 1998 platforming classic. Banjo-Threeie would probably have been an ambitious giant that would have sought to move the franchise forward. Yooka-Laylee, meanwhile, opts to look back to the very beginning of the saga. And while its worlds lean towards the boundary-pushing size of the levels of Banjo-Tooie, none of the goals found within them are as complex as those of that game. There are no problems that force characters to travel between worlds; likewise, the pagies (golden sentient pages ripped from the One Book, and the game’s ultimate collecting goal) are usually attained through a simple activity rather than by a lengthy series of actions.

With that objective in mind, Yooka and Laylee traverse the halls and rooms of Hivory Towers looking for the tomes that serve as the entry point to the game’s five worlds, where most of the pagies can be found. As it occurred in Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, gaining entrance to the levels is dependent on players having collected specific numbers of pagies, which get higher as the game advances. Therefore, the progression in Yooka-Laylee is done by opening a tome, jumping into the world within, exploring the place, collecting as many pagies as possible, walking out, looking for the next tome, and repeating the process. Naturally, given not all pagies of a world must be collected before proceeding, there is certain degree of freedom given to players in relation to how they approach the game.

yooka_laylee5Due to that, delightfully, Yooka-Laylee’s levels work like free-roaming playgrounds where it is up to gamers to locate pagies and figure out a way to get them. And Playtonic takes advantage of that sandbox, and of the features inherited from the game’s spiritual predecessors, to put together a myriad of different challenges: there are timed platforming segments, tall structures to climb, characters in need of help, menacing bosses, tight races, a wide assortment of mini-games, simple puzzles, and more. And all of those morsels are uncovered by the natural and engaging exploration of the worlds, a process that is – almost always – enjoyable due to their good design and the fact that almost every corner of the levels hides a secret; there is almost no turn that is taken or route that is followed without the discovery of a riddle to be cleared, an activity to be pursued, or a valuable item to be picked up.

True to its old-school origins, and in an unusual decision for a modern game, Yooka-Laylee completely shuns any sort of map feature, a move that may frustrate those who did not go through the platformers that inspired it. Such an option, however, actually plays into the hands of the game itself, for figuring out the worlds and keeping in mind where its key locations are have always been part and parcel of the classic collectathons. And, here, there is great enjoyment to be found in – little by little – memorizing the nooks and crannies of the lands found within the tomes, and figuring one’s way towards the intended destination.

The borrowing from Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie is certainly not limited to the progression and general gameplay structure of Yooka-Laylee, it actually permeates the entire experience to the narrowest crevasses of its bones. For example, in Yooka-Laylee, the frantic collection is not limited to the whopping twenty-five pagies lying in wait in every world (a number that gives it more main collectibles than its spiritual predecessors); on top of those items, two hundred golden quills (a clear replacement for the musical notes the bear and bird had to gather) are scattered around each tome. These quills, other than serving as an attractive goal to those seeking full completion, can be exchanged for new moves that the chameleon and bat can perform.

yooka_laylee7Naturally, these techniques work as the backbone to acquiring many of the pagies, and they add an intriguing dynamic to the gameplay itself as well as to the starring duo of characters. In conjunction, the pair can learn how to roll, fly, and hover; Yooka, meanwhile, can use his camouflage abilities to make them invisible, and his tongue to hang onto ledges or to eat berries that will allow him to shoot many different kinds of projectiles; and Laylee can reveal hidden objects and use a sonar blast to break through fragile walls. These actions, and a few others, are an absolute joy to perform, and they further extend the variety of obstacles the characters must surpass on their way to putting an end to Capital B’s schemes; moreover, inspired by Banjo-Tooie, some pagies in early worlds can only be acquired when moves from later worlds are learned, meaning the completion of Yooka-Laylee entails the recognition that some items cannot be reached with the pair’s current arsenal and the eventual backtracking towards early portions of the adventure.

Furthermore, the looming and large influence of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie can be perceived in numerous other areas. Each world has a unique transformation (which, in most cases, is pretty neat) that gives the heroes new abilities that are key in getting to one or more pagies, and five hidden ghost writers (the game’s version of Jinjos) that need to be found in return for a pagie; the charming signature mumbles that worked as the voices of the characters, with different sound effects giving each member of the cast a unique tone of voice, are back in full force; and the music, composed by the brilliant minds of Grant Kirkhope and David Wise, the latter of which being responsible for the tunes that accompany the boss battles, is not only utterly masterful but also has compositional and arrangement styles that heavily nod to the songs that played a huge role in making the two grand quests of Banjo and Kazooie so remarkable.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Yooka-Laylee is drenched in genuinely funny acid humor, fourth-wall breaking, and adult jokes. Laylee, in particular, perfectly emulates Kazooie’s harsh sarcastic demeanor, as she fearfully mocks clueless sidecharacters, pulls off mean puns, and denigrates many of the happenings, turning Yooka-Laylee into a nearly endless source of humorous gold, immediately classic one-liners, and – ultimately – a game that does not take itself seriously.

yooka_laylee8As such, Yooka-Laylee seems to have all the makings of a classic; after all, it drinks from absolutely incredible sources, and – as a consequence – brings back from the dead a genre that has been dearly missed by a massive horde of gamers that grew up during the late portion of the 90s. In addition, with its excellent visuals, artistic prowess, and tested gameplay elements, it could be set to introduce a fresh gameplay style to many players who missed out on classic collectathons. It, however, does not quite fully achieve any of those goals. It does not truly resurrect collectathons for good, it merely shows games of the sort are still viable; and it does not guarantee a new audience will be lured into its claws, as it runs the serious risk of being lost adrift a sea of independent games.

The devil is in the details, and therein lies the reason Yooka-Laylee, when it is all said and done, falls a bit short of its intended target: the details trip it. It is a very good game, but it is not exactly easy to recommend, because it comes with several caveats. Yooka-Laylee is creative, varied, engaging, charming, funny, and it has been obviously handled by an extremely talented and passionate crew, but – throughout the adventure – there is an extra level of polish (one that separates goodness from greatness) that is lacking.

Sometimes, such an absence shines through lightly, whether it is via enemy design that is absolutely monotonic and that makes enemy-based pagies be thoroughly dull; through an automatic camera that is clunky (a problem that is thankfully mostly solved via the use of the free-roam cam configuration); in rare, but existing, moments of slowdown; in one or two platforming scenarios that are harder than they should have been due to camera-angle hardships; and in the odd controls of the flight mechanic. It is also somewhat baffling that the use of the roll movement is limited by an energy bar that runs out quite quickly, when in the Banjo-Kazooie series such constraints only applied to super powerful moves such as flight and invincibility; such a limitation forces players to sit around for a few seconds and wait for the bar to reload whenever they need to retry a platforming segment that relies on the move, a quite annoying circumstance.

yooka_laylee4Lastly, as far as smaller issues go, Yooka-Laylee takes the worthy step of shaking up the bases of the level-design of Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie by giving gamers the opportunity to expand the worlds. With that, whenever they first step into a tome, players will be greeted with a level that is incomplete, and expanding it will require an extra number of pagies. Experienced gamers that are able to acquire a good number of pagies before running towards the next world will most likely be capable of unlocking the full extent of the levels right away; those who do not have pagies to spare, meanwhile, will walk into levels that are blatantly incomplete, as they will encounter pathways that lead nowhere, locked doors, and other silly obstacles. Sure, there is a great deal of awe in watching an already big world grow even larger before one’s eyes, but that brief thrill will not make up for the artificial roadblocks a few gamers will encounter if they are forced to play through unexpanded worlds.

On other occasions, though, the issues are quite glaring, and it becomes rather obvious Yooka-Laylee would have greatly benefited from an extended period of development and more extensive testing. Each world houses a unique arcade game introduced by a lovely 64-bit dinosaur that serves as a verbal punch-bag for Laylee, and all of them range from extremely dull to painfully long and frustrating; additionally, these games are united by the uniform theme of awkward controls. These two characteristics, additionally, render as lackluster the multiplayer mode centered around those mini-games, which do not hold a candle to those featured in Banjo-Tooie. Likewise, the five tomes within Hivory Towers contain a minecart challenge in which players must collect a certain number of gems before the track ends. These could have been fun and a worthy homage to the minecart goodness of Donkey Kong 64 and, especially, Donkey Kong Country; they, however, end up being a nightmarish trial-and-error ordeal, because obstacles in the way – which cause the characters to lose a lot of gems – and valuable gems sometimes come into view without giving players enough time to react, forcing them to memorize most of the path.

Yooka-Laylee’s peak of poor design, unfortunately, comes in the shape of one of its five worlds. Where Hivory Towers, the game’s mysterious and maze-like hub, and the other four existing levels could comfortably sit side-by-side with the lands present in Banjo-Kazooie and Banjo-Tooie, the fourth world sticks out like a sore thumb. It feels like a rushed project, one that is almost completely devoid of truly unique creative moments which inspire awe. And while the other tomes are bursting with discoveries to be made and intriguing places to visit, this particular world is a constant search for interesting activities to tackle, and the results of the quest are often either empty or not very interesting; a fact that reveals a whole portion of the game did not get the same stellar treatment as the remaining worlds did.

yooka_laylee6The just act of rebellion executed by Yooka-Laylee is, then, partially successful. When its cylinders are clicking in place, it shows the world of gaming that collectathons still have their place in a contemporary scenario and it loudly states the talent that made Rare’s historic run of excellence possible is now sitting outside its walls, far from the conniving environment of a company that has to bend to the will of its owner; and it does so by surfing on a wave of blatant influences coming straight from the Banjo-Kazooie saga. When it falls, though, it shows a smoother development cycle and the backing of a publisher or studio with deeper pockets and that could afford to delay the product in search for more polish would have done wonders to the game.

As a whole, then, it is a title that must be played by those craving for a true successor to Banjo-Kazooie, which will enjoy a huge portion of the thirty hours that are necessary to collect everything the game offers, and that should be approached with caution by anyone that is new to the genre. Hopefully, the support attained by the brave folks of Playtonic will be enough to give Yooka and Laylee another shot at pure greatness. The chameleon and the bat sure have the potential, and they – alongside their gameplay style – are, after all this time, in the right hands; the ones that created them, albeit covered by a different layer of paint.

Yooka-Laylee

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Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Review

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 may not be a shining gem of invariably sober tone and immaculate design, but its grandeur and ambitions are quite a wonder

xenoblade2_2In order to understand how Xenoblade Chronicles 2 differs from its two predecessors, one has to look into the series’ own history. The original Xenoblade Chronicles, one of the best games that found its home on the Nintendo Wii and a title that is generally highlighted as the best RPG of its generation, was a JRPG that dodged all of the subgenre’s usual traps by integrating a large open world and the abundant missions and freedom found in online role-playing games into the story-heavy fabric of that game design style. The Wii U’s Xenoblade Chronicles X, conversely, opted to shift that balance: where its predecessor was a JRPG with tinges of MMOs, in X the story and deep layers of strategy took a backseat to the exploration of the world and to the endless quests and tasks that could be found within the gigantic landscape; as such, it was an MMO whose body had been slightly altered by the addition of JRPG elements.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2, meanwhile, was born out of the frustration aired by the franchise’s large fanbase, which – to some degree – reacted warmly to X’s alteration of the formula. Mapped out, from the start, as a project that would dial down the emphasis on open-world quirks while turning the spotlight back towards a firmly structured plot that would always serve as the game’s guiding conduit, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is so bent on delivering what its followers were craving for that it blasts right past the fine equilibrium reached by Xenoblade Chronicles. In other words, it is a sequel in which the JRPG characteristics are more blatant than they have ever been, and where the inescapable allure of vast scenarios is restrained. As such, a gamer’s level of enjoyment when going through the grand quest the title offers is far more related to their love for (or tolerance to) the mannerisms of JRPGs and anime, than to their admiration for the original Xenoblade Chronicles.

Despite drastic differences in tone and flow, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 shares a whole lot of traits with its prequel, starting with an utterly magnificent setting. Where in Xenoblade Chronicles humans lived on the bodies of two giants frozen in time, here they inhabit living and breathing titans that roam around a seemingly endless sea of clouds which has, at its center, an unlikely tall tree, dubbed the World Tree. Alrest, the game’s world, seems to have been – consequently – born out of a gorgeous surrealistic painting: an industrial city springs up from the back of a rocky humanoid colossus; a lush green valley rests on the back of a giraffe-like creature; a whale hides a poisonous lake by its blowhole and a huge capital inside its stomach; an enormous turtle that spends most of its time submerged in the clouds houses a snowfield and an ancient isolated civilization; and smaller titans are made into organic ships by many of the countries and people of Alrest.

xenoblade2_7In this eye-popping universe, Rex works for a guild of salvagers, specialists in diving to the far depths of the sea to recover treasure. The wheels of fate start turning when he is enlisted by a shady organization for a mission whose goal is to make a long-forgotten ship emerge to the surface so that its loot can be acquired. Unbeknownst to him, what hides within is a legendary human-like blade called Pyra. And when Rex accidentally forms a bond with her, thus becoming her driver, he thwarts the plans of those who hired him, who wish to use her powers for the nefarious purpose of reaching the top of the tree (which supposedly hides a paradise from which all kinds of life emanated), and purging humanity.

The adventure of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, thereby, is a race to Elysium, the highly guarded location at the peak of the World Tree where the Architect – the creator of the universe – awaits. Rex and Pyra, like their rivals, seek answers regarding the nature of existence, and the relationship between humans and their blades, which are weaponized life forms. Unlike their foes, though, they look to meet the Architect with the hope of saving a world where titans are slowly dying, hence creating a lack of fertile lands that will most likely throw the countries of Alrest into a devastating war.

The amplification of the JRPG vein of Xenoblade Chronicles happens for many reasons. Firstly, while the game does have its share of large environments that stretch as far as they eye can see, they are not omnipresent: not only are they punctuated by plenty of linear caves, a handful of dungeons, and smaller stretched out scenarios, but they are also not considerably plentiful; in fact, the number of open fields that exist within Alrest can be counted on one hand. Additionally, given the very nature of the title’s universe, the intricately and seamlessly connected world design of its two siblings is nowhere to be found. The path towards Elysium entails the traveling through various titans, and consequently kingdoms, that float independently amidst a sea of clouds; consequently, while Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is certainly almost as big as its predecessors in terms of land mass, it often does not feel like it, because the pieces that make it up are far removed from one another.

xenoblade2_4That does not mean, though, that Monolith Soft has come short in what they seem to do best: world building. They have just achieved the same goal in a pleasantly different way. The titans and the world they carry either on their backs or inside their entrails are mesmerizing, and the integration of the beasts’ anatomy with the world is quite well done. From the green fields on the back of Gormott, for example, players can easily spy how the creature’s spine and tail are vital parts of the region’s geography; similarly, by glancing through the glass ceiling of the royal palace on the shoulders of Mor Ardain, the rocky cliff that is the ailing giant’s head can be seen in all its glory, moving and looking at the sea of clouds around it while it walks.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is filled with those moments of awe and, alongside its story, the wish to see what architectural and design feats Monolith Soft will pull off next is most likely the greatest motivation players will have to advance through a huge quest that easily extends past the 70-hour mark. Although the graphics are spotty and not incredibly smooth at certain places (a reality that becomes even more blatant when the Switch is undocked), the game overcomes these issues and delivers a visual marvel both via the sheer talent of its art department and the charm of its cartoonish character models, which are far more expressive, remarkable, and likable than the standard 3-D mannequins found in its predecessors.

The second trait that heavily anchors Xenoblade Chronicles 2 in JRPG territory is how strongly it tips in the direction of its plot. Throughout the entire adventure, a pink marker located at the top of the screen will show the way, and indicate the distance, to the next point of interest of the main quest. Invariably, when reaching those spots, players will be greeted by voiced-over cutscenes rendered with in-game graphics. Such a design choice has good and bad outcomes.

xenoblade2_6On one positive hand, the unceasing plot development rarely lets the game stall and constantly rewards players by – for every step of the way and challenge that is cleared – handing them new morsels of insight into the world of Alrest and its inner workings. On a negative hand, however, the frequency with which cutscenes occur, and their sometimes overly exaggerated length, can make the whole process feel rather overbearing, as if the game is taking away the controls from the players and guiding the adventure itself. Sure, the Xenoblade saga has always found a way to alleviate that JRPG trap by delivering gamers large free-roaming scenarios and, by exploration, giving them freedom to adjust the balance of gameplay and story development they want, and Xenoblade Chronicles 2 does achieve that to some degree. Yet, the fact that this installment in particular has a lot of smaller enclosed locations and downright linear segments occasionally leaves gamers with no choice but to proceed with the story.

The quality of the plot itself also contributes to that negative effect. It would be unfair to expect Xenoblade Chronicles 2 to match the heights touched on by the script of the original, and indeed it does not do that; nevertheless, the tale of Rex and Pyra is great and, through twists and mostly very good sidecharacters, it will keep players interested all the way through. The problem is that its development is a bit clumsy. A few portions of the game, especially a whole chapter midway through the quest, feel like filler. Moreover, some revelations are only shocking because some characters deliberately hold out information from their peers, sometimes for no good reason; even the game itself has that habit, as it stops flashbacks short or – in a couple of occasions – mutes what characters are whispering to one another or cuts to a secondary scene when something big is about to be stated.

For the most part, however, the story and the cutscenes are solid. The voice acting is generally well-done, only seriously stumbling when the writing itself falters and lets lackluster lines slip by. One particular attribute of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is bound to turn some people off, though, which is its anime tropes. From silly cringe-worthy slapstick humor that borders on parody, sexual undertones that are handled as awkwardly and immaturely as humanly possible, to fetishes that are explored with no delicacy whatsoever, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has got it all, and Western audiences that are not keen on the tone those characteristics bring to the table will often find that an engaging moment in the plot or an instance of remarkable character development will be disturbed by the sudden appearance of those staples. Even the heart-to-hearts, special conversations that happen between the characters in certain areas and that work as an interesting source of character development, are punctually affected.

xenoblade2_5In relation to its combat system, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 maintains – and slightly tweaks – the real-time structure that made the original so interesting and unique. Out on the fields of Alrest, various monsters – either aggressive or pacific – roam, and when combat is triggered players will have a huge assortment of moves at their disposal. All members of the party, out of which three can be sent into battle, are able to carry up to three blades with them, each having their own element (water, fire, light, dark, wind, ice, earth, and lightning), role (attacker, healer, and tank), and one of fourteen weapon types; the combination of those three characteristics will determine the four arts (special attacks) the blade will possess, with players being forced to choose three of them to take into battle.

The number of possibilities is, therefore, endless, especially when one considers the nearly infinite amount of blades the game features. Blades are acquired by bonding a driver with core crystals, which are dropped by foes or found inside chests, and they can be either common (with randomized traits and a standard, bland, type of character model) or rare (in which case their stats and characteristics, as well as their usually excellent design and defined personality are set in stone). Given how appealing – in visual and gameplay terms – rare blades are and due to how their emergence from a core crystal is random, the chase for them is an activity that is both alluring and frustrating, as – undoubtedly – many players will spend a good amount of time hatching core crystals hoping a rare blade of their liking will be born.

With the blades properly equipped, combat in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is an intricate pyramid of moves. When engaged in battle and not moving around, characters will deliver an auto-attack in the form of a three-move combo, which can be interrupted by enemy shields and other defensive mechanisms, or attack effects such as topple. These auto-attacks will slowly fill the individual gauges of the three arts that belong to the blade that is currently in use. In turn, when these arts are used and their gauge goes back to zero, hence giving them a cooldown time, they feed another gauge, the one responsible for delivering a special elemental attack which can be powered up to level four before it is delivered.

xenoblade2_3Numerous are the quirks that make battles in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 so gripping, forcing players to always pay attention to the numerous indications and gauges that fill up the screen. Arts that are delivered timely – that is, when an auto-attack has just landed – fill up the special gauge more efficiently; many of the arts, moreover, have increased effects when activated from certain positions (such as from behind an enemy) or in certain situations (such as when an enemy is stunned); finally, special attacks feature a series of quick-time events that, if properly handled, increase their power and fill up the party gauge (which is used to revive teammates or activate a ultimate attack combo when completely filled) more efficiently.

The peak of the pyramid of increasingly strong moves comes in the form of a three-stage elemental combo. When a special attack of any level is activated, the upper right of the screen will show all possible combinations of elements that will produce a massive attack. Therefore, by delivering a level-two attack of a specific element and following it with a level-three attack of another showcased element, a special animation will be triggered and a lot of damage will be delivered. This sequence of moves, naturally, must be performed within a certain window of time that is clearly displayed on the screen and that creates a lot of thrill and tension as its expiration means the breaking of a combo. If the sequence succeeds, enemies will be afflicted with an elemental orb that will circle around them; these orbs can be broken during party attacks (where all members of the party take turns bashing a defenseless foe), extending the combo for another round, and dealing stunning amounts of damage to the target.

It is a lot to absorb, but Xenoblade Chronicles 2 takes its sweet time explaining to players all details of its combat system. And learning them is quite necessary, for the level of challenge found in the game often rises to high levels and defeating some bosses heavily depends on producing powerful combos. The game introduces all of its concepts one by one, and helps players practice them, slowly building upon previously acquired knowledge and only unlocking all its combat features by its midway point. The only downside related to the game’s tutorials (which are far more didactic than the confusing explanations found in Xenoblade Chronicles X) comes in how they cannot be re-watched. It is a glaring omission, and one that will cause many players who want to better understand certain moves and peculiarities to be completely clueless as new elements are added to the battles, and force them to resort to online means for further clarification.

xenoblade2_9One clear improvement that Xenoblade Chronicles 2 has in relation to its prequel is that the ally AI, upon which many of the quirks of combat depend, is incredibly reliable this time around. Healers do their job efficiently; characters go for potions that fall onto the battlefield when necessary; allies revive players relatively quickly; and, most importantly, if they have one, members of the party equip blades that possess an element that will keep a combo going, allowing players to activate their specials with the press of a shoulder button when the cue appears on the screen.

Battles, whether they are against regular enemies, bosses, or unique powerful foes that walk around the fields, are not the only mean through which players can level up their party. Fully aware of the allure of its world, and following on the footsteps of the other games of the saga, Xenoblade Chronicles 2 gives away experience points to those that explore Alrest and uncover locations, landmarks, and secret sites. Additionally, sidequests and mercenary missions are plentiful, with the latter being accessed through a menu in which groups of blades can be sent out into the world to solve problems across the titans.

It is particularly noteworthy how many of the sidequests diverge from the usual standards of killing a certain number of monsters or collecting a specific amount of goods. Surely, those goals do exist, but a good portion of the extra missions Rex and his comrades can tackle focus, instead, on storyline threads that greatly enrich the universe of the game and are cleared via a solid mix of exploration, interaction with other characters, investigation, and – of course – resource-gathering and battling. The experience gained from those activities can be redeemed by sleeping at inns, hence brilliantly allowing players that want to do everything the game has to offer but do not want to overlevel their party to administer their levels as they see fit.

xenoblade2_10For all the applause it deserves for giving players a chance to avoid minor enemy encounters and overcome the challenges of the adventure through other ways, punctual issues somewhat dampen the enjoyment that can be gotten from the gameplay of Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Firstly, the title’s map system is unnecessarily puzzling, as regions have their maps broken up into numerous smaller pieces that make the process of navigating an area, figuring out where to go, and simply accessing the maps via multi-leveled menus a chore. In addition, the markers that are used to guide players to their next goal – whether it is from the main adventure or from a sidequest – are not only inconsistent in how sometimes they appear and on other occasions they do not, but they can be rather confusing and unhelpful when many of them show up at the same time. Furthermore, even though they feature an arrow signaling if the goal is above or below the height in which players are, they never indicate how one actually gets there, occasionally serving more to disorient than to orient, especially when multiple floors are involved.

Individually, sidequests also suffer a little bit due to one of the new features of Xenoblade Chronicles 2, the field skills, which are special abilities, held by blades, that have an effect on the environment outside battles. Those, for example, can help Rex use wind currents to leap high into the air or excavate treasure. Some sidequests feature goals that require certain field skills to be leveled up to a threshold (which is done by fulfilling certain requirements). The problem is that players will not know those skills are necessary until they reach those roadblocks, causing a few quests to be pursued for long periods of time until gamers discover they do not have the field skill (which is sometimes exclusive to a few blades) to proceed or that they do have it but not at the necessary level. A disclaimer at the beginning of the sidequests listing their requirements would have sufficed to solve that problem.

Finally, and inherited straight from its two brothers, is the fact high-leveled creatures are often standing close to lower-leveled foes and that enemies are free to jump into battles at any time. As a consequence, players will – with a noticeable frequency – be targeted by enemies that are capable of taking them down with one blow. Besides, it is not uncommon to be engaged in a skirmish against a perfectly beatable adversary only to die a frustrating death when an overpowered giant decides it wants to join the fray or when the battlefield is suddenly swarmed by nearby creatures that would otherwise have been perfectly manageable on their own.

xenoblade2_8Xenoblade Chronicles 2 is, therefore, obviously flawed, to a far greater degree than its prequel. Nonetheless, it is impossible to deny the impressive marvel that are its scope, its details, and its depth. It is not powered just by an intriguing story with deep philosophical and existential undercurrents, or by a world where battles are presented in a thrilling way and where life, stories, activities, and nicely designed monsters are plentiful. It is also sustained by customization options that are almost endless, with affinity charts mapping out how the various skills of the dozens of blades and handful of drivers can be developed; auxiliary cores, which can be forged, handing blades extra abilities; pieces of equipment serving to power up the human heroes; and pouch items, with time-constrained effects, giving the party varying extra boosts during combat.

It is glorious, it is huge, it is sometimes overwhelming, and it is bound to make many players spend more than one hundred hours in Alrest uncovering all the world’s secrets. Whether one has played the original game or not, anyone willing to ignore a few flaws and to devote their brains and energy to figure out and slowly grasp the sheer magnificence of Xenoblade Chronicles 2 will be rewarded. They will be greeted with visuals that could be shown at a surrealistic exhibition; they will be accompanied by a masterful soundtrack that could enchant a packed and traditional concert hall if played by an orchestra; and they will be sucked into a universe whose angst and driving forces mirror our own in more ways than one would expect. Xenoblade Chronicles 2 may not be a shining gem of invariably sober tone and immaculate design, but its grandeur, ambitions, and a great part of its execution are quite a wonder.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2

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