Scribblenauts Review

A unique concept that occasionally suffers due to its ambitious scope

scribblenautsChances are the ultimate dream of every single gamer out there is to witness the creation and release of a game that allows them to solve problems and kill enemies by using any method one could possibly come up with. While open-world games come somewhat close to that premise by giving players freedom of movement, and letting them go wherever they feel like and do whatever they want, they fail in providing a nearly endless array of problem solving methods, limiting players to the use of a handful tools or methods that have been thoroughly thought through and tested.

Scribblenauts is perhaps the game that comes the closest to achieving that utopia. While it may not possess the freedom open-world games feature, choosing instead to focus on straightforward scenarios that have, at most, four or five screens worth of length; when it is time to come out of tough situations, the game’s one and only boundary is indeed the players’ imagination. By itself, that proposition alone is enough to catch the eye of any gamer; however, even if Scribblenauts has a great share of utterly flooring successes, its sheer freedom also partially undermines it.

Scribblenauts is extremely simplistic in its presentation; like a good old-school game. There is no such thing as a plot. There is a boy named Maxwell and his unbelievable ability to materialize pretty much anything he writes on his notepad. And that is basically all one needs to know before jumping right into the many hours of head-scratching puzzles the game throws at its players. A wise design decision, after all, games from that straightforward bloodline demand no explanation or opening cutscenes in order to be enjoyed.

scribblenauts2The game is divided into ten different worlds, with the first one serving as a quick effective tutorial, and within each one of them players will find a set of eleven puzzle levels and eleven action stages, amounting to over two hundred challenges. Each puzzle level presents a problem that players need to solve, such as “Cook a meal” or “Steal the treasure without harming anyone”. Meanwhile, action stages play like standard platformers; in other words, Maxwell’s goal is to go from point A to point B, clearing any obstacles that may appear on the way with a good share of inventiveness.

In order to beat the stages and acquire the Starlites, Scribblenauts’ answer to the poles of Super Mario World and the stars of Super Mario 64, players must use the virtual keyboard in the lower screen and write any word they can possibly think of, with some obvious exceptions such as trademarks, obscene nouns, celebrities, and others.

It sounds outrageous and borderline impossible, but it works like a devious technological magic trick. The game’s vocabulary features over 22,000 words and the AI programmed into the characters that can be summoned is nearly perfect. Place a police officer close to a thief and a fight will certainly begin, put meat close a lion and he will eat it, tie a chain to a helicopter and Maxwell will be able to rescue characters from doom. Mathematically, the possibilities are not endless, but they are so ridiculously numerous they might as well be.

Maxwell is controlled using the touch screen: by touching into a certain direction, he will move; by doing an upwards motion with the stylus, he will jump; and in order to interact with objects all that it takes is a simple tap on their sprites. The camera, on the other hand, is controlled with the D-pad, allowing players to scan through the entire stage without moving the character; and objects can be placed in the screen by dragging and putting them in an area where they actually fit.

Despite being overly simple, the controls will fail more often than not. It is very easy to tap an object just to have the game wrongly recognize the controls, making Maxwell inadvertently move instead – sometimes towards a pit of doom. The same goes for when players try to place an object or character in the stage and the game interprets the command as something completely different. The touch screen command recognition, so well-implemented in a myriad of DS games, is very off and it definitely gets annoying as the game goes by and the stages start to require more precision and good timing.

scribblenauts3Another issue that is easily noticed since the game’s very start is the odd physics of each object. Some objects’ weight and density are far from behaving the way players will expect: ram a car into a larger heavier object and chances are the game’s collision physics will fail badly as you watch the bigger object be dragged across the screen in really weird fashion.

The physics problems become exceptionally troubling when players try to come up with clever solutions for the puzzles and the objects summoned fail to react the way they expect, leading to possible brilliant solutions being washed away by inaccurate in-game calculations that fail to replicate what would have happened in the real world. As a whole, while the behavior of objects and characters that are brought to life is spot-on, their physical properties are very poorly mapped.

While all these problems can make the game transform into a torturous experience, it is really hard not to be completely blown away by what Scribblenauts achieves. A concept that would be called an unreachable dream by many turned into reality through the hands of an ambitious team of talented programmers. The puzzle stages, particularly, are the blissful materialization of that joy, for they are invariably very satisfying and present an endless number of solutions to all conundrums that are posed.

Contrarily, the action stages can become repetitive down the line, as they are so open-ended that many of them can be solved by using a very small number of items. The truth is, though, that very inventive players will manage to look far outside the box and come up with delightfully farfetched solutions to the obstacles that set of levels presents.

As it happens with its gameplay, Scribblenauts’ technical areas somewhat suffer due to its ambition. The quantity of sprites and words that were squeezed into a Nintendo DS cartridge, including the different AIs for every single object that the game allows players to bring into the screen, is undeniably impressive. At the same time, it is easy to note that, visually, the game suffers due to that. The animations of the many different sprites are just average, and the game doesn’t look very impressive despite its great art direction. However, it all comes off as a worthy shortcoming that allowed the title’s complexity, which exists in its vast dictionary and collection of characters, to come to life.

scribblenauts1The game’s songs, meanwhile, are extremely simple and limited in their numbers. Regardless of the world they are visiting, players will hear the same loop over and over again for as long as they are in the stages, which makes the already uninspired tunes even more underwhelming. Musically, Scribblenauts is a surprisingly generic title, a disappointing fact due to the game’s amazing personality and uniqueness in pretty much every other aspect.

On top of its mountain of content, Scribblenauts allows gamers to use a level editor to create their own challenges, but the concept ends up failing to realize its full potential; due to very limited options, players will find that most of their ideas for fantastic levels will not come into fruition. The lacking level editor, though, is compensated by a fantastic title screen, which basically works as a big sandbox where players can summon anything from the game’s dictionary and watch how it will behave.

In the end, Scribblenauts is a very ambitious project that suffers due to its massive scope. Although all of its shortcomings are extremely hard to ignore, the game is still very enjoyable and players with great creative minds will certainly have much more fun than those who are a little short on the inventive side. The game has nearly endless value, as levels can be replayed over and over again thanks to their immense array of solutions: it even awards players with extra points according to certain criteria that maps how inventive and efficient they were. Overall, it is a package that is recommended to pretty much everyone. It is a game that is easy to get into and its concept draws the interest of both gamers and non-gamers.

Scribblenauts

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Kirby Mass Attack Review

Ten times the Kirbies, ten times the cuteness, ten times the fun

kmaFor quite a while – more specifically, ever since Kirby’s Adventure – Nintendo’s charming pink marshmallow ball had built his legacy on games that centered around his enemy-swallowing power-absorbing skills. Unsurprisingly, though, those quirks would eventually lose their luster; and what was once more than enough to fill his adventures with notable moments started being the recipe for products that were merely adequate. During the days of the DS and Wii, however, Kirby suddenly transformed from the star of bland platformers and broken racing games into some sort of wacky laboratory where Nintendo experimented outlandish concepts that could only have been created, and made extremely fun, by the company’s delightful and straightforward approach to game design.

Sadly, to Kirby fans that lean towards the preservation of traditions, the achievement of such greatness went through the constant stripping off the character’s signature powers. In the DS’ Kirby Canvas Curse, where it all began, Kirby became a helpless ball that was guided by the drawing of lines via touch controls; meanwhile, in Kirby’s Epic Yarn, the character – turned into the titular fabric – was forced to use a whip to interact with the world around him.

Kirby Mass Attack keeps the ball rolling in that same uncharacteristic direction, as it builds an adventure where Kirby could have been easily replaced by any other character given the fact he neither swallows his foes nor steals their abilities. However, such a replacement would have come with the cost of losing not only the charm that is inherent to the character and his world, but also the hilariously amusing sight of watching ten Kirbies run around the screen.

kma2Historically, Kirby has had one weird knack for attracting evil sorcerers who want to destroy his life in one way or another, something that is hard to believe since when somebody spots the little pink guy chances are they will actually want to hug him instead of bestowing an evil spell upon him. But as these evil wizards seem to accidentally trigger great gameplay mechanics with their curses, nobody is complaining.

And that is what happens when one day, strolling around, Kirby is hit with a wizardry that breaks him apart into ten smaller versions of himself, nine of which are promptly killed by the wizard Necrodeus. Knowing that he cannot do much by himself, the lone tiny puffball sets out to venture through Popstar and recover his fallen versions, which will hopefully give him enough power to beat down Necrodeus as a squadron of ten. That is when the simple platforming of Kirby games meets a Pikmin-style army gameplay.

As it was the case in Canvas Curse, everything in Mass Attack is done via touch controls. By touching a spot on the screen, the army of Kirbies will readily move in that direction; by tapping an enemy, they will mount an attack; and by touching one of the pink soldiers and doing a quick sliding motion, they will be flung into a higher ledge or into a wall that needs to be broken. That is pretty much all there is to it, and it couldn’t have possibly been simpler, more intuitive and – consequently – more exciting to play.

kma5At the beginning of each world, players’ Kirby army will only have one member. In order to make it grow to up to ten characters, they will have to eat as many pieces of fruit as possible, because for each 100 points acquired one new Kirby will spring to life. At first, all Kirbies will be pink-colored, but when hit by an enemy or harmed by one of the stages’ traps, they will turn blue; with one more hit, they will die and become angels that slowly fly to heaven, giving players time to bring them back to life before they soar out of the screen. The color-coded damage level is a clever design choice, for it makes it easy to notice which Kirbies are hurt, therefore enabling effective army management that can be performed on the fly.

Handling an army solely with touch controls can seem a little bit on the tough side when one thinks about the concept, but Kirby Mass Attack takes things slowly enough for less-skilled players to get the hang of it naturally. The game is very easy throughout its first world; so easy, in fact, that a lot of screen-mashing can get one through it without any big problems. However, by the time the second world is reached things start picking up really fast, as enemies create defenses that will require a lot of attention from players as to when to execute their attacks; and the stages get a lot harder, occasionally featuring situations that if players are not fast enough to react to, they will lose their entire squad and have to start again from the beginning of the level. What is most surprising about Kirby Mass Attack is that it is one of the most difficult Kirby games; it doesn’t get close to being frustrating or hard, but there is some genuine challenge tucked in there.

Featuring nearly 45 stages total, Kirby Mass Attack takes some big liberties and explores many different platforming scenarios, some of which are traditional such as quicksand-ridden levels, platforms that move up or down on pits full of enemies, swimming sections, and some stages with automatic scrolling. At the same time, it features puzzles and situations that were only made possible by the amount of characters that appear simultaneously on the screen.

kma4Even when the game takes a more traditional platforming path, it manages to be unconventional due to its very unique gameplay, and during the ten or so playing hours that it has to offer, gamers will experience a little bit of everything and occasionally be surprised with the puzzles and clever situations the developers were able to come up with. It is an interesting bland of traditions and breaking new ground, and one that makes the game what it is.

After going through five worlds, deserts, forests, icy plains, volcanoes, beaches, cemeteries, creative bosses, and mini-bosses, players who fall in love with Kirby Mass Attack – a number that will certainly be huge – will be happy to find out that the fun does not stop there. As it happens with other Kirby games, this one has a lot of extra content. All stages have a set number of hidden medals to locate, some of which are easy to spot and others whose difficult locations will have gamers replaying the stages many times; besides, there is a good number of tough achievements, high scores, and addictive mini-games where some will spend more than a few hours trying to beat their best record or simply having fun.

Saying that a Kirby game is cute is like raving about how wet water is: it goes without saying, but that is truly the best adjective to describe the game’s presentation. It goes beyond the colorful cheerful graphics, which take a surprisingly darker turn in some stages; or the cheery songs that accompany the little pink army through its adventure. If one Kirby facing enemies, being hit, getting into complicated situations, and making faces and expressions is already rather entertaining, it is easy to imagine how hilarious and heart-lifting it is to watch 10 Kirbies being shaken off by an enemy only to fall dizzy to the ground, or witness as a water vortex sucks desperate pink creatures into doom. The game finds a point between cute and funny and explores it during the whole adventure, making Kirby more adorable than he has ever been.

kma6It is impossible not to recommend Kirby Mass Attack for everybody who likes simple platforming. It has a great difficulty curve, a whole lot of creativity, cuteness, extras, challenge, humor and much more all packed into one tiny cartridge. It is a game that will leave players wanting more, even after the 15 to 20 hours it is possible to spend with it when one is looking for all its secrets. As far as Kirby is concerned, more does seem to be merrier.

Kirby Mass Attack

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Changing Heart

pikminWith the recent announcement of Pikmin’s first venture into the handheld world, one that will take the property away from its wide-open strategic brand of exploration and transport it into the more restricted sidescrolling environment, Nintendo – to the fury and horror of many – seems to have opted to relentlessly keep on going with its divisive strategy of placing some of its signature characters in unusual gameplay scenarios, a design philosophy whose origin can be traced back to last year’s E3 presentation.

Back then, the Big N went into gaming’s biggest media stage with one theme in mind. As Reggie Fils-Aime put it himself, their goal was to take many of their established franchises out of their respective comfort zones. More than one year later, the results of the show, a anger-inducing experience for much of the fanbase, have materialized in terms of sales figures and review scores, allowing the analysis of the ripples caused by that move on far more solid grounds than those of video dissection and wild assumptions. Unsurprisingly to many, those detours have done poorly in both regards.

Given the average-to-negative outcomes of such experiment, it is not surprising that the new Pikmin game is born with numerous question marks attached to it. After all, Nintendo’s recent attempts to heavily toy with the core concepts of its franchises have mostly backfired. Metroid Prime Federation Force has tanked commercially and has received mixed critical assessments that are certainly far below what one expects from such an important brand; while Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer and Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival have revealed themselves to be the overly simplistic vehicles for the selling of add-ons that many expected them to be.

triforceheroesEven the experiments that did carry some degree of quality ended up not quite living up to the high standards set by the flagship efforts of its family tree. Hyrule Warriors Legends, itself a port of the Wii U original, was a fun addictive mindless grind that had in its shallowness its weakest point. Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes, a hilariously entertaining challenge when played alongside others – even if the natural issues of online cooperative play are considered, was partially brought down by a bare bones single-player mode that should have either been abolished or polished.

The Nintendo 3DS’ take on the Pikmin universe, however, greatly differs from almost all of these titles in the fact that, like Tri Force Heroes, although it presents a change of heart in terms of how the game is setup, its soul remains intact; it is the very same one that powers its mother series. Federation Force ripped out what made the Metroid franchise remarkable and replaced it with a core that is utterly generic and overly explored, that of an outer-space shooter; Happy Home Designer decided to focus on just one of the hundreds of elements that make Animal Crossing great; Amiibo Festival chose not to even care about such matters, ignoring its source material and transforming Animal Crossing into yet another party board game, when Nintendo itself already has plenty of those under its belt; and Hyrule Warriors was a reskin of a niche idiosyncratic property with the Zelda look.

The new Pikmin is different. Captain Olimar and his army of red, blue, and yellow creatures are still present; moreover, they are still performing the activities that made their adventure so unique. They continue to use pieces to build massive structures that let them progress through natural environments where, given the characters’ diminutive size, everything is giant; they keep on fighting enormous creatures as an organized and disciplined group; and they are still using their specific abilities to handle the dangers the world throws at them and to surpass the smartly placed obstacles.

federationforceAs far as gameplay goes, it is the same structure thrown into a setting, that of a sidescrolling quest, which is different; something that, in itself, can be an intriguing source of inspiration for new level design tricks, puzzle configurations, and a more action-oriented progression. As far as perception goes, while the Animal Crossing and Metroid reconstructions – or deconstructions – suffered due to the fact new traditional installments in those sagas, especially the latter, were long overdue, the Pikmin franchise has the benefit of a recent release that qualifies as the series’ best outing and the announced on-going development of its sequel, making it come off as a pleasant detour to keep fans busy while the big hitter does not come rather than a bitter reminder of an experience gamers have been claiming for and being denied of.

Theoretically, spin-offs of – or new takes on – Nintendo’s major franchises should be happily welcomed, as the company’s characters are incredibly beloved and the settings of their quests are remarkable. However, as of late, the company has been badly failing in the handling of these efforts. The new Pikmin, after a series of recent disappointments, is the opportunity for a great brand new start in that regard, showing to the company that such projects should not only understand the hearts of the sagas they are tackling, but also be accompanied by a satisfying stream of releases from their main lines of games.

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Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story Review

In one of the smartest uses of a handheld’s two screens, Bowser’s Inside Story finds a way to reach the heights of the remarkable Superstar Saga

bis1Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga introduced the concept of allowing players to control both of the Mario brothers simultaneously. What at first seemed like an idea that was too complicated to execute became, guided by simple gameplay mechanics and a battle system filled with action, one of the finest games to ever feature Nintendo’s iconic plumber and one of the best role-playing experiences in modern gaming. Partners In Time, its sequel, improved in many areas, but failed to impress because neither its world nor its mechanics had the charm and originality of its remarkable predecessor.

As a consequence, Bowser’s Inside Story, the third installment of the beloved saga, came to life as a game that had a steep hill to climb. In order to succeed, not only did it have to be great, it had to find a way to match Superstar Saga’s astounding quality and, by using the same core concept of partnership between Mario and Luigi, muster enough creativity to come up with enough new twists to achieve the refreshing nature of the Gameboy Advance classic. Whether or not it would be able to raise that bar high enough would pretty much define its status. As it turns out, the game did just fine in that regard.

It all begins when the Mushroom Kingdom is hit by a strange disease called “The Blorbs”. To stop the calamity, Princess Peach summons a council to determine how to act; during the meeting, it is discovered that the illness’ origin seems to be connected to mushrooms sold by a mysterious salesman in the nearby woods. Meanwhile, Bowser roams a forest and is humorously deceived by a man into eating a supposedly “Lucky Mushroom”. Later, when striking Peach’s castle one more time, the mushroom’s effect kicks in and Bowser swallows the entire council, including Mario, Luigi and Peach, which end up trapped inside his body. With the sudden turn of events, the evil Fawful, who had been pulling the strings all along, takes over the kingdom and it is up to Bowser and our trapped heroes to save it from its new ruler’s hilarious insanity.

bis4As the over-the-top nature of its starting events indicates, as it is traditional for every game of the Mario and Luigi series, Bowser’s Inside Story is developed via hilariously silly dialogue. There is humor in nearly every single line spoken by the characters and some of the best ones are certain to make players genuinely burst out laughing. More importantly, the game sheds a light on the backstage acts of the Mushroom Kingdom, giving long-time Mario fans a deep look at the lives of Peach, Toadsworth, Mario, Luigi, the various species of beings that inhabit the franchise’s universe, and Bowser, the latter of which happens to be the star of the game; hence allowing players to glance through a very funny window with quite a view into the odd realm that is the Mushroom Kingdom.

Through most of the game players will control Bowser on the top screen while Mario and Luigi roam Bowser’s guts on the bottom screen. All of the characters are controlled with the D-pad, but Bowser performs his moves with both the X and Y buttons while the brothers act via the A and B buttons. Only one screen is active at a time, but switching between one and another is as easy and fast as it could possibly be, turning what would be an annoying task in some less polished games or in hardware that is just not as suitable for this kind of experiment into the simple press of a button.

While Bowser explores a big open overworld filled with different scenarios, Mario and Luigi tackle, via a side-scrolling view, the inside of Bowser’s body. Although the brothers are mostly stuck in a more limited perspective, the game equally throws smart environmental puzzles that require some backtracking and a lot of exploration towards all of the characters, making Bowser’s Inside Story feel like two different titles that are excellently designed and that are connected by the same plot.

Overall, the game has outstanding level design. Bowser’s Inside Story is at its best when Mario, Luigi, and Bowser must work together in order to accomplish the same goal. At one point in the game, for example, Bowser will come across a fountain of water which will fill his insides with the liquid, and Mario and Luigi must enjoy the changing water level to reach new areas and further explore the big guy’s body. At other times, Mario and Luigi must travel to specific body parts and engage in very compelling mini-games in order to unlock Bowser’s hidden powers, giving him supernatural strength for a while and allowing him to perform certain tasks and advance in his quest.

BIS5It is in the merging of these two worlds, and the incredibly creative scenarios that AlphaDream creates in order to force the trio of heroes to cooperate, that the sheer genius of the game emerges. The title is a constant stream of clever conundrums and absurd situations that must be solved in inventive ways with the cooperation between Bowser and the brothers, all powered by the fantastic writing that permeates the Mario and Luigi franchise and the unexpected light-hearted conflicts that only the Mushroom Kingdom’s diversity of characters and places could offer and make plausible.

Bowser’s Inside Story follows in the footsteps of its predecessors by keeping the very same battle system mostly intact. Attacks must be performed with timed button presses in order to be fully effective. Besides, each and every move performed by the vast number of enemies, whose variety of attacks keeps battles fresh and challenging for a sufficient amount of time, can be avoided with a lot of practice and great timing. Not only does the constant button-pressing add action to the turn-based battles, it also demands a lot of skill and reflex from players, creating an RPG experience with the right balance between thrill and strategy.

Moreover, the characters have special moves that require an even bigger sequence of timely actions in order to be landed successfully, which makes them as fun to perform as they are powerful. Mario and Luigi, as usual, will join forces in insane combined attacks, and it is up to players to know when to press the A or B buttons correctly; as for Bowser, his specials are particularly delightful.

The King of Evil will have different minion squads in his command. Each of these groups (Koopas, Goombas, Bob-Ombs, Kameks, and etc.), when called, will trigger a fun mini-game on the bottom screen requiring players to use their stylus to perform different actions that will fully maximize the attack’s power. Instead of feeling like tacked on mini-games, those are finely integrated into the title’s fabric, coming off as very natural and amusing activities.

bis2The battles are also smart enough to take advantage of the game’s core concept: the synergy between what happens inside Bowser and on the outside world. There are some specific enemies that appear on the top screen that can be swallowed by Bowser only to be finished by the brothers inside his body. This concept, although relatively common in minor conflicts, will be used more intensively and creatively on the game’s cleverly designed boss battles, which although not as challenging as those found on its two predecessors are still a blast to play through.

The traditional Mario and Luigi turn-based battles are – surprisingly – not the game’s action pinnacle. Since Mario and Luigi is a naturally over-the-top series, developers decided to go all out in that department with the implementation of clashes that star a giant Bowser facing equally enormous enemies. These occur whenever Bowser is dealing with a life-threatening situation, as in those perilous moments the brothers will be able to trigger his giant form from the inside.

When Bowser grows big, the DS will have to be turned sideways as he faces massive structures in battle, such as a train, a castle, and others. By exclusively using touch screen controls and the microphone, players will be able to punch, breath fire, throw fireballs, and do much more in order totally obliterate massively sized enemies in epic affairs that while thrilling may, unfortunately, occasionally come off as being too scripted despite their undeniable visual goodness and adrenaline-pumping nature.

These battles, however, highlight the fact that, visually, Mario and Luigi is a delight, especially on its ridiculously beautiful character models. Mario, Luigi, Bowser, and the others are wonderful examples of pixel art animation, and the polish put into the game’s graphics as a whole, including exuberant colors and design, is certainly a high-point for the system. The scenarios have definitely been improved compared to the series’ previous installments, but the leap in this particular field is not nearly as eye-popping as the one achieved by the models; still, they are very impressive sights to look at.

bis3Aside from a level of difficulty which will barely affect experienced players and giant battles that could seem too predetermined, Bowser’s Inside Story is nearly flawless. Developers have gone out of their way in order to make every single second of the adventure a wonderful gaming moment whether because of its nice story, amazing battles, overwhelming creativity, or fun mini-games. It is a title whose dialogues, soundtrack (including the funny gibberish Italian spoken by the brothers), characters, and settings are oozing with utter charm.

Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is the defining moment of the Nintendo DS. As the handheld approached the end of its cycle, Nintendo and AlphaDream crafted the ultimate double-screen masterpiece, which utilizes every single feature the system has to offer in a very natural and fun way while squeezing every bit out of the machine’s hardware. Match that with great level design, a brilliant core gameplay concept, amazing art, the unique charm of the Mario RPG titles, over twenty hours of gameplay and you have one of the best titles Nintendo has ever put out in the market and one that safely lives up to the wonders of Superstar Saga.

Mario and Luigi Bowsers Inside Story

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Kirby: Planet Robobot Review

A game that is full of good intentions and charm, but whose heart is just not quite in it

robobot1Kirby: Triple Deluxe did what numerous games created for the Nintendo 3DS could not achieve: it used the system’s tridimensional effects, once hailed as a grand innovation and its flagship feature, as something more than just visual fireworks. Although playing the game did not require that the 3-D slider be turned all the way up, or even be activated for that matter, Triple Deluxe thrived in toying with the depth of its scenarios, building most of its finest moments around traps, enemies, and obstacles that used the extra dimension as its trampoline.

Arriving around two years after that game, Kirby: Planet Robobot is smart enough to realize what a great source of inventive ideas the sandbox explored by its predecessor was. It borrows Triple Deluxe’s engine and most of its art style, and sets out to place Kirby in the midst of yet another quest to save Planet Popstar from a new looming threat. Unfortunately, where Triple Deluxe was surprising in an astoundingly constant way, throwing new impressive tricks at the screen with every stage that popped up; Planet Robobot feels like a game produced on autopilot, as if developers did not bother to fill it up with enough remarkable novelties to justify its existence.

Truth be told, Planet Robobot does try to shift things around with enough intensity to give its adventure a unique vibe, the problem is that its commendable shot at building a strong Kirby game never quite takes off. It all begins when a sudden and unexpected menace from outer space hits Dreamland: a mechanized ark filled with sentient robots attacks the place, disarms both King Dedede and Meta Knight, and – like a giant metal spider – plants five enormous legs on different regions of the planet in order to exploit its resources and terrorize its inhabitants. From that point, Kirby’s goal is clear: head to the five affected regions and clear a bunch of stages on his way to defeating the area’s boss and doing away with the threat.

robobot3The invasion by modern-looking machines gives Planet Robobot the distinction of merging the traditionally organic environments of the Kirby franchise with mechanical motifs. Therefore, its six worlds, which include the hero’s incursion into the cybernetic ark, are thematically clever. Patched Plains is packed with grasslands that have been corrupted by pipes and machinery; Resolution Road is a bustling downtown with loads of traffic lights; Overload Ocean feels like a contemporary port; Gigabyte Grounds blends an arid landscape with factories; and Rhythm Route is a futuristic city. Moreover, the game has loads of machines that serve as traps, tools, visual assets, and enemies, like buzz-saws, batteries, drills, lasers, and others.

In Triple Deluxe, besides being able to – as usual – steal the powers of his enemies and use them to wreak havoc around the levels, Kirby had one super ability that unlocked new gameplay possibilities and made him borderline invincible: the mighty Hypernova. As it tightly follows on the footsteps of that game, Planet Robobot does the same; the usual abilities stolen from regular enemies (including the brand new ones Doctor, Poison, and ESP) are complemented by an ultimate power: a gigantic robot that Kirby can hop into during specific portions of the stages.

Like the Hypernova, the titular Robobot Armor opens up new level design possibilities, as it can carry gigantic blocks around, interact with platform-moving levers, unscrew steel doors, and more. Unlike the Hypernova, the Robobot Armor is rather flexible; it can absorb specific foes’ powers, thereby allowing players to turn it into an enormous sword-wielding killing machine, a bomb launching weapon of destruction, an impressive flamethrower, and even a flying ship and a speedy car, with the last two, respectively, supporting fun flying shoot ’em up and racing segments.

robobot2Despite that added flexibility, though, the Robobot Armor’s use never reaches the creative and exaggerated levels achieved by Triple Deluxe’s amusing Hypernova challenges. There is some degree of fun to be found in being utterly powerful and punching through everything in sight; however, in the end, truly awe-inspiring moments are scarce. The same applies to the levels, bosses, and tridimensional tricks as a whole: creativity does appear every once in a while, but Planet Robobot clearly does not have enough ideas to power its adventure all the way to the end. Its smartest tricks are either reused too often for their own good (like the cars and buses that travel towards the screen when the street lights are green), or never reach their full potential (like the battery-powered buzz-saws); and some stages and boss battles come and go without leaving a mark.

With that being said, the low but decent difficulty of Kirby: Planet Robobot is a reminder of who the target audience of the franchise is: children. And as far as they are concerned, the game should hit its mark just fine in spite of its generally unmemorable nature, as it is colorful, controls perfectly, features a bunch of charming characters, packs a load of cartoonish charm – including some amazing cutscenes, and holds a nice amount of exciting tunes. To top it all off, as a treat to those looking either for more challenge or for extra gameplay time, Planet Robobot has two sets of collectibles: CodeCubes that open hidden stages when fully collected in a world, with three of them being found in each level; and stickers, with a rare golden one hidden in every level plus a bunch of random blue ones that sadly need to be grinded for if players feel like completing their collection.

Finally, as it is the rule in Kirby games, Planet Robobot features a handful of extra modes that work like great diversions. Besides the usual Time Attack that happens on harder versions of the regular stages with players controlling Meta Knight (Meta Knightmare Returns) and Boss Rush (The Arena and The Real Arena, which is the harder version), two new mini-games are available. Kirby 3D Rumble places the pink puffball in Bomberman-like 3-D arenas so that he can defeat all enemies and collect loot; and Team Kirby Clash, a role-playing adventure where a team of four Kirbys – belonging to classes selected by the players – traverse short levels and defeat bosses, gaining experience and improving their stats on the way. The only complaint that could possibly be made about those two final modes is that they eventually end. Both are actually so entertaining and engaging that one can easily see how they could be turned into little Kirby downloadable titles if more deeply explored.

robobot4Like pretty much all games of the franchise, Kirby: Planet Robobot is rock-solid. Differently from most of the series’ latest releases, though, it simply fails to be truly remarkable. The mechanical theme that permeates the worlds, enemies, traps, bosses, and levels is intriguing, and the reutilization of the tridimensional visual tricks of Triple Deluxe is commendable given how creative that game was. However, the recipe never truly clicks, giving birth to an adventure that is usually plain and rarely flooring. HAL Laboratory ends up turning in a game that is full of good intentions and charm, but whose heart is just not quite in it.

Kirby Planet Robobot

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Albums of the Month: August 2016

day_ageAlbum: Day & Age

Artist: The Killers

Released: November 18th, 2008

Highlights: Losing Touch, Spaceman, This Is Your Life, The World We Live In

As a man who craves for attention but that is ultimately too insecure to deal with it comfortably, Brandon Flowers – and The Killers – have always thrived in bombast. Introspection and swimming down towards the bottom-end of the human soul were never in their roadmap, and maybe never will. “Hot Fuss”, their popular debut, made that characteristic pretty blatant, as it dealt with a shiny sort of decadency wrapped in repelling brutal honesty and walls of synthesizers that turned their rock anthems into tunes that were more than ready to conquer the dance floor, features that tried to take the audience’s focus off the people on stage and their nature. “Sam’s Town”, its sequel, delved into the same explosive waters, albeit in a far more experimental and varied way, but it failed to find a center or a constant inspirational flow.

That is why, in retrospect, the quality of “Day & Age” makes “Sam’s Town” come off as the charming, but undoubtedly flawed, transition record so many bands tackle early in their career. “Day & Age” does not abandon the bombast, as it is packed with fabulous extravagance and pompous flash; and it does not scale down on the experimentation that undermined “Sam’s Town”. However, it takes those two elements – one that is inherent to the group and the other that is a pleasant attempt to get away from the monochromatic aura of “Hot Fuss” – and makes a better use of them, as The Killers seem to have grasped how to firmly integrate more flexible rhythms into their sound. Not only that, but “Day & Age” also seems controlled, at least as far as The Killers can sound restrained, because in its relatively brief ten songs the album does not pull any punches; it delivers sweeping and quirky pop hooks with incredible consistency.

To those that love The Killers’ more straightforward sound, “Day & Age” does offer a few cuts that qualify as such: there is “Spaceman”, which explodes into a stunning chorus where guitars and synthesizers form a uniform wave of sound that is bound to leave anyone starry eyed as they watch it go off like a firework; and “The World We Live In”, which could be the soundtrack to a party as long as nobody is paying too much attention to the somewhat dark lyrics. Everywhere else, The Killers are toying with various styles, and succeeding, without abandoning their defining characteristics. “Human” has guitars that could have been played by U2’s The Edge, which – alongside the overwhelming synths – make it sound like a great tune from the band’s “Achtung Baby” era; “Joy Ride” stands between disco and funk; the crescent “A Dustland Fairytale” could be a glam rock masterpiece if approached differently; “This Is Your Life” has echoes of the Talking Heads’ “Road To Nowhere”; “I Can’t Say” is borderline Caribbean; and “Goodnight, Travel Well” could be a track on The Cure’s “Faith” due to its ominous seven-minute exercise in darkness.

“Day & Age” may not be revered as the band’s greatest record, since “Hot Fuss” usually captures all of the attention due to its remarkable hit singles and its arrival as the wave of of alternative rock was hitting its early-century peak. However, “Day & Age” is far more constant in its delivery of great songs and is considerably more colorful, managing to do so unpretentiously and yielding a result that is thoroughly engaging even if it takes some time to get a handle on its stylistically erratic nature.

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lovelessAlbum: Loveless

Artist: My Bloody Valentine

Released: November 4th, 1991

Highlights: To Here Knows When, When You Sleep, Sometimes, What You Want

Taming noise rock is no easy task. There is a point in which music, after being severely modified to accommodate the experimental noise, simply degenerates into a tuneless and endless drudgery. The Velvet Underground, usually considered the fathers of every piece of rock music that is bold and unexpected enough to be qualified as avant-garde, mastered the right dosage of that mixture in their first two records, the latter of which – the weird “White Light/White Heat” – arguably dared to get as close to the limit between total noise and distorted music as sonically possible. Twenty-three years later, though, Kevin Shields and My Bloody Valentine decided to dare to take that experiment one step further, performing a musical double-check to verify if what Lou Reed and company had done was indeed the limit or if the barrier lied somewhere beyond that point. “Loveless” is what they found a couple of light-years past that apparent final frontier.

“Loveless” is one of those albums, like The Rolling Stones’ “Exile On Main St.”, whose reputation walks hand-in-hand with the legend surrounding its production. According to records, it took the band a whopping two years, filled with many sessions that were done in as many as nineteen studios, to give the album its final shape, an adventure whose costs nearly bankrupted the band’s label. Regardless of the level of exaggeration that those tales may carry, though, one thing is for sure: “Loveless” is so unique and challenging, which in itself is a rare feat for songs that are bound by the restrictions of guitar-based music, that listening to it is wondering how the mind of a musician could possibly envision such a soundscape. The guitars are so heavily drenched in weird tunings, distortion, and feedback that an unaware listener would think all of the sounds the band pulls off were made by electronic instruments; and the vocals are mixed so deeply into the rest of the music that most of the lyrics are completely indiscernible, making all of the album come off as an instrumental work where the voice is just another piece of the cacophonous symphony.

The eleven songs that make up “Loveless” feel, therefore, with the exception of the brief instrumental “Touched”, like uniform overwhelming sound waves rather than cuts that were built by the joining of different instrumental tracks and a vocal line. As if they were born as a whole entity, they cannot possibly be split. Many of them – like “Loomer” (the weirdest song on the record), “To Here Knows When”, and “Blown a Wish” are peacefully ethereal and borderline abstract, as if they were captured by a powerful microphone that was pointed to outer space, capturing the soothing noisy sounds of the universe. Others, meanwhile, have firmer structures and come off as more defined numbers, as it is the case with “When You Sleep”, “Sometimes”, and “What You Want”.

Amidst all that extreme, and yet seemingly calculated, experimentation, the gift of “Loveless” is how it never loses sight of the importance of a good hook, which is probably the feature that stops it from being completely impenetrable. The melodies of the vocal lines, despite their unintelligible nature, are frequently beautiful; some of them are actually remarkable enough that if they hadn’t been so buried in odd production and instrumentation they could have served as the trampolines for hits. Meanwhile, the quirky guitars themselves also provide a great deal of immediate hooks that bring a degree of accessibility to a rather bold product. It is that balance between adventurous creation and pop sensibilities that made My Bloody Valentine succeed in coming up with a noise rock masterpiece. “Loveless”, though, is far more than a highlight within its niche genre; it is a landmark of guitar music and a statement on how one can produce challenging art without making it completely devoid of enjoyment.

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little_victoriesAlbum: The Strypes

Artist: Little Victories

Released: July 15th, 2015

Highlights: Eighty-Four, Queen of the Half Crown, Three Streets and a Village Green, Cruel Brunette

In their debut, the solid “Snapshot” from 2013, The Strypes – a band composed of four Irish boys that back then aged between sixteen and eighteen – drank shamelessly from the sources they deeply admired: famous bluesmen and some of their notorious British musical offspring from the 60s, such as The Yardbirds and The Animals. The Strypes’ channeling of those styles was quick to grab the attention of many – including Noel Gallagher, Jeff Beck, and Roger Daltrey – for not only was it incredibly well-done, with plenty of nonchalant attitude and heavy guitars, but it was also relatively original in a world where up-and-coming indie bands lean towards a myriad of other influences. As good as “Snapshot” was, though, it was undeniably derivative; the work of a band that knew very well what their starting point was going to be but that had yet to figure out where to go from there. A transition could be clearly seen looming over the horizon, and it did come with “Little Victories”.

The problem is that if “Snapshot” flew too close to the gravitational pull of The Animals and The Yardbirds – as it even borrowed the signature rave-ups from the latter, “Little Victories” also does the same, but this time around it replaces the British giants of yesteryears with contemporary big acts. More specifically, they come off sounding a whole lot like the Arctic Monkeys did on their first two records, with the biggest difference being that vocalist Ross Farrelly does not sing quite as fast as Alex Turner and the lyrics coined by guitarist Josh McClorey are not as wordy as those written by the Arctic Monkeys’ creative leader, even if they do tend to be centered on the same subject: clever comments on the dating and relationship dynamic. Sure, The Strypes’ grit, attitude, and rough garage sound are still present, but, stripped from the blues swing they originally embraced, the boys sound too bland.

With that being said, “Little Victories” is not exactly a bad or average album. For starters, the group creates their very first ballad, “(I Wanna Be Your) Everyday”, and it is an excellent one, extending to almost six minutes and featuring a beautiful solo. Additionally, their closest brush with the Arctic Monkeys, the riff and beat of “Eighty-Four”, which is very reminiscent of the band’s “Brianstorm” and “Balaclava”, yields the album’s best tune. Great melodies that front the layers of pounding guitars emerge from every corner, with the ones from “Queen of the Half Crown” and “Three Streets and a Village Green” being thrilling highlights, and the chorus from “Cruel Brunette” sounding like something The Beatles could have composed back in their days due to its light-hearted and fun nature. Moreover, the group’s love for blues is still present – albeit far more discreetly – as it can be noticed on the guitar licks of “Now She’s Gone” and on the rhythm and harmonica work of “Status Update”.

Given their young age and the fact that they are still clearly a band trying to grasp an identity of their own, it is not a surprise that The Strypes’ “Little Victories” could be qualified as another instance of the famous sophomore slump that seems to plague so many bands. Yet, “Little Victories” does have a good share of qualities even if none of them are truly remarkable. If all past examples of the sophomore slump had been able to stay afloat as well as The Strypes do with “Little Victories”, the history of rock music would have been spared of a good number of bad records.

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celebrity_skinAlbum: Celebrity Skin

Artist: Hole

Released: September 8th, 1998

Highlights: Celebrity Skin, Awful, Malibu, Petals

In Hole’s first two records, a battle between the group’s pop inclinations and punk attitude was constantly waged. In both cases, the second side came out on top. “Pretty on the Inside” saw the victory of Courtney Love’s subversive tendencies by a wide distance, as while the melodies and hooks were there, they were far too buried in screams, blisteringly loud guitars, and abrupt Pixies-like transitions from whispering to shouting to rise to the surface. In “Live Through This”, that margin began to thaw; Hole was still way too rough and vicious to make it big, but catchy choruses and flowing melodic lines started to appear in places where noise used to be present. Coming out as a natural progression of that process, “Celebrity Skin” marks the point in time when the tide turned; it completed the band’s transition from a quartet that deconstructed Californian rock into one that surfed on top of its waves without losing much of its embedded edge. Consequently, “Celebrity Skin” is an unquestionable landmark of the years that followed the explosion of the grunge movement.

Seventeen seconds. That’s precisely how long it takes for the album to unleash its first magnificent chorus. However, the announcement of Hole as a fully matured group actually comes before that: at the three-second mark, when the signature riff of the title track, a guitar line that carries the right degree of punk aggression and pop seasoning, lands for the first time. What follows is a fantastic succession of great tunes, some of which are stunningly immediate and sail on the breeze of Californian pop rock (“Awful”, “Malibu”, “Boys On The Radio”, “Heaven Tonight”) and others that have direct ties to the music produced by Hole during its “Pretty on the Inside” and “Live Through This” period, such as “Reasons To Be Beautiful”, which is so violent it touches on Nirvana’s most aggressive moments; “Dying”, with its slow-paced agonizing lethargy; and “Use Once And Destroy”, which musically taps into the anger and confusion felt by those that fall victim to drug usage.

Although most of the greatness of “Celebrity Skin”, and the stylistic leap it represents, must be undoubtedly credited to Courtney Love’s growth as a songwriter and the energy her voice lends to the tunes, the album is a greatly collaborative effort. Firstly, there is the fact that many of its songs had considerable input from The Smashing Pumpkin’s Billy Corgan, who not only co-wrote numerous tracks but also helped Love polish her already visible talent as a composer. Secondly, there is the sleek, layered, and clear production of Michael Beinhorn and Eric Erlandson, the band’s guitarist. Finally, Melissa Auf der Maur’s introduction as Hole’s bassist does wonders for the group not only in terms of her fantastic playing, but also due to the gorgeous backing vocals she uses to complement Courtney’s usually rough voice and her contribution as a co-writer in some of the tracks.

“Celebrity Skin” winds up being one of those records that capture lightning in a bottle. It is the product of numerous remarkable talents working at their very peak and coming together to craft an album that is varied – with moods ranging from pop and folk to punk and grunge, packed with potential hits that achieve their catchy nature without compromising the band’s artistic values, and that drinks from its musical context without totally succumbing to its pressures. The result is one of the best rock records of a decade in which the genre was quite prolific in its production of impressive gems.

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Limbo Review

In an era where bigger is taken as better, Limbo is a delightful well-polished small diamond

limbo1The world around you is awfully dark. You wake up in the middle of nowhere. It would be hard to tell exactly where you are if it wasn’t for a few shy rays of sunlight breaking through the treetops right above you. It is a dark forest where the only sounds that can be heard come from the occasional whispering wind, the cracking of a branch, and the distant murmurs of nature. Due to the darkness, everything standing in front of you has no color, or face; you can clearly tell their shapes by their distinct shadows, but it is impossible to see if that platform made out of a piece of trunk is safe to walk on or if that human-shaped form is just another child like you or a bizarre human-like creature that is set to attack. Limbo is all shadows, mystery and atmosphere; it has the dense air one would expect from a more realistic thriller, but instead, here, the creepiness and the constant feeling that there is something lurking out there somewhere is wrapped with a platforming gameplay and is pleasantly contrasting with cute cartoonish lines.

Limbo is yet another platformer where one travels from left to right. Here, however, the concept of a stage is non-existent, turning the game into a constant journey from beginning to end. The world of Limbo is only one, it is a finite yet long string of obstacles that feature an amusing blend between puzzle and platforming. There are no loading times. The game is one cohesive stage and as one goes from forest to caves and from caves to an industrial site it is possible to watch as the environment slowly transforms, hence creating a very unique and immersive experience as the game draws players into its darkness with amazing efficiency. It all feels uncomfortably real and believable and due to that Limbo becomes an absolute blast to play.

limbo2The controls are as simple as the color palette the game uses: players can move, jump, and grab onto objects to interact with them: that’s it. The joy of playing Limbo comes from solving all of its puzzles and getting away from all of its traps one by one and moving on to see what is going to happen next. The puzzles go from straightaway block-pushing riddles to much more complex gravity-related obstacles that appear down the line. In total, going from Limbo’s starting point to its curious ending will take most players about four hours. However, the game has some nice achievements for those who are willing to do some extra exploration, something that is bound to extend the game’s duration for a short while.

Limbo is not exactly a challenging game, but it requires a lot of patience from players as most of its puzzles involve a trial-and-error process. It is nearly impossible to fully grasp the nature of most of the puzzles at first glance; a factor that will undoubtedly frustrate many. However, in a display of wonderful game design, Limbo features extremely well-placed checkpoints that steer the game away from frustration. Most of the time, players will be experimenting with different solutions only to end up being killed in absolutely horrific ways, which, despite being softened up by the fact that the game stars a faceless shadowy silhouette, still end up being surprisingly gory for a game of this nature. The gory deaths are no coincidence, they are here to add to the looming threat hanging in the game’s atmosphere and to tell players that even though Limbo has a cartoonish look to it, its world is a disturbing unforgiving place.

limbo3Given the compact nature of Limbo, developers had plenty of time to pay attention to detail, and they made sure to use it in a productive way. Every corner of Limbo adds to game’s atmospheric vibe, and the its visuals are no different. Obviously, the art direction the game presents is quite unique and mesmerizes at first sight, but it is the animation that makes everything click together. Limbo is a slow moving game, and the way in which the shadow animations slowly progress in their very calculated, smooth and defined moves adds another layer of fright to this work of creepiness. The same can be said about the sound, which replaces music for very well-produced noise. The wind, the flapping of wings, the steps slowly advancing through the grass: everything comes off as amazingly realistic and close to players.

Still, Limbo could have used a few punctual improvements. As atmospheric as it may be, the game loses a bit of its dark value once the character leaves the forest and steps into an industrial site. In a game that is so sensitive, it is hard to pinpoint exactly why that happens, but it may be due to the fact that the strange kids that appear in the forest and try to attack the protagonist through a big portion of the game’s opening act simply disappear once the title gets to an area that should be more populated. Besides, the ending might end up leaving a few questions out in the open that some players would have loved to see answered. All in all, though, Limbo is one stunning piece of software, and in an era where bigger is wrongly taken as a synonym of better, it is delightful to see a small, but ridiculously polished adventure, shine so bright.

Limbo

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