Shovel Knight Review

The Limits of Cuteness

Platform: Switch

About a year ago, when I was first dipping my toe into the videogame industry, I read a book called Blood, Sweat and Pixels. There’s an entire chapter about Yacht Club, the creators of Shovel Knight. That story (and pretty much every story in the book) was an inspiring little vignette that resonated with a passion I had felt my entire life, and probably pushed me to enter the video game industry.  

Specifically, in Yacht Club, I recognized the rag-tag story of a small dedicated team wearing many hats and over-working for several years to crawl out of obscurity. It’s the quintessential tech-entrepreneurs journey. And I often wonder now how their story will continue to progress as they grow from 4, to 10, to 25, team-members (and so on). I would love to a read an update. A ‘where-are-they-now’ type story.  

Shovel Knight came out right at the beginning of the retro zeitgeist. And as a result, it seems willing to borrow from several sources (Mega Man, Castlevania, and Link (NES)), rather than the more common present phenomenon of ‘Spiritual Successor to Contra’ (or Metroid, or Doom, or whatever).

There is so much care shown in the game. The underlying ‘pogo’ mechanic feels tight. There are small unnecessary animations that provide joy when noticed. The cast of baddies are colorful, and the stages challenging but not unfair. Overall, it feels well tested, which means the team themselves played it over and over.

The bosses are the most interesting characters, which explains why several were given their own featured DLC

What’s strange is that for a game that tries to be charming, it often finds itself stuck between levity and seriousness. Most bosses are humorous, while the overall story is oddly grime. The boss encounters themselves, despite being charming, have almost no real challenge. And the game has this annoying habit of knowing that it’s cute, and at times, forcing the player to revel in said ‘cuteness’ (whether you want to or not).  

It’s easy to recognize a well-made game, and that’s what Shovel Knight is: a very well-made game. But that’s different than anticipation. Even a deeply flawed movie, book or game can create anticipation in its consumption. Something you look forward to at the end of the day. But that was absent with Shovel Knight. I was often curious, but never really excited to keep playing.

Review: ★★★

Memory: The cute-then-annoying Troupple King dance

Smug or Cute?

Hades Review

Better Than the Greek Originals

Platform: Switch

Greek mythology seems to be in vogue. Ubisoft has their Immortals Fenyx Rising. I’ve been watching a shockingly average Greek Mythology anime on Netflix AND reading Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes at night to cure my insomnia. None of this was intentional. It just existed in front of me. Hades started out the same.

A supportive father

Videogames have cultural zeitgeists just like any other form of media. The Rogue-like/light is one of those movements (not quite as ubiquitous as “Souls-like”, but close). I would have considered rogue-like a selling point in 2013. Seven years later, and it’s grown worthy.

So as a backdrop we have a game with an over-exposed theme, being released into a highly saturated genre: normally a recipe for mediocrity. Which makes the success of Hades all the more impressive.

I could gush for paragraphs about the aesthetics, dialogue, voice acting, progression system, story, and balance. But you get the idea. It’s such a deeply refined experience that it even feels absent of bloat (hold the kitchen sink, please!). My nightly run through the underworld is a highlight of my day. Even after escaping Hades, I find myself returning to see how the world continues to evolve (post-game content that doesn’t feel like a to-do list).

The Pantheon have their own history, of which, you’re a passing interest

It’s rare when a game comes out that reaffirms a player’s faith in the industry. Demon’s Souls did that for me, by introducing a radically challenging experience. Ten years later, the dual alters of content and difficulty, have been prayed to so much that what we often get is bloat and frustration. In that gap, Hades creates something that has been in very short supply – Joy. It took an experience like Hades for me to realize how much I miss that in a game.

Hades is by far my favorite game of 2020.

Review: ★★★★★

Memory: Each Greek Deity’s endearing (and often temperamental) personality.

Dionysus and Aphrodite – Two of my all time favorites

Severed Review

Vita Finale

Platform: PS Vita

Severed so demolished my expectations of what a touch based Vita game can be that I’ve struggled to write about it. The art style is mesmerizing, and fits perfectly in its resonate setting and understated story. Its uniqueness has made me reconsider the medium of “touch” as something more than a wasteland of F2P and convenient mouse conversions.

While it lasted, my days were better because I knew I would get to play Severed later.

The culmination of a gradual descent

Severed makes only one mistake. But it is a cardinal mistake: Death has no consequence. That single choice spiderwebs out into a myriad of gameplay effects, neutralizing entire parts of the game like health items, upgrade accumulation and even inverting the difficulty curve.

Even with that, Severed is a good game. It’s so good I might regret not giving it 5 stars someday. 

Review: ★★★★

Memory: Finding the first member of your family

Forager Review

Little Bits of Dopamine Hits

Platform: Switch

Forager is a very earnest game.

It’s also the kind of game you only need a fraction of your brain to play. One third parasympathetic nervous functions, one third Forager, one third listening to Queer Eye change somebody’s life in the background (Jonathan Van Ness is a gay superhero).

I wouldn’t call Forager a grind. But it’s also never really challenging (besides the occasional puzzle). It’s just more zen: Make that. Pick up this. Build here. Explore there. A loop expanding gradually outwards with each circumference. The hook is a desire to see what quirky thing is going to pop up next.

It’s full of small, thoughtful gestures like comics and ‘making of’ stories

If a game can be ‘hand-crafted’, that’s what this is. Case in point, the creator’s face greets you every time you boot-up. His care and personality are what elevate the game beyond the simple mechanics and broken combat into something distinct.

It’s the kind of thing I would feel lucky to play with my daughter someday.

Review: ★★★

Memory: ‘Foraging’ so much at once the game slows to a crawl

Limbo Review

Dark Little Dream

Platform: PS Vita

Someone pitched me a game recently. They said they wanted to make a “triple-i” game. They said they wanted 5 million dollars to make it.

That was the moment I realized that the term “indie” was basically dead and meaningless. If it ever really meant much to begin with.

That’s what I like about Limbo. It’s beautiful, creative, and short. It feels like an indie game (the actual 2-and-a-half year, eight-human, development cycle might belie this feeling). And from what I can understand the team kept their original vision intact.

In that short space of a game is a compulsive attention to detail and theme. Everything fits and everything flows. It’s experimental while remaining limited in scope.

 I wish there were more indie games like it- scratch that. Just more games like it.

Review: ★★★

Memory: Death scene physics

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review

Better and Worse than Dark Souls

Platform: PS4 Pro

After beating Sekiro you still have one more action to take. It consists of walking up and pushing the action button to que a cutscene.

I sat in the stage for a week. It’s not like I kept playing and mopping things up. I just didn’t touch the game. After all that intensity and adrenaline, to end it all seemed more overwhelming. Because it was a weird, unbalanced, and enjoyable ride.  

The show stealer is the combat and boss battles. For me, it’s the most innovative combat engine this console generation. It’s a momentum-based system effortlessly balanced between risk and reward. There’s few things as satisfying in video games as a Mikiri Counter into a deathblow on a boss. Especially after you’ve died twenty times on the jerk beforehand.

And that’s the flow. Cursing and swearing and chipping away at a boss a little more every time. Because the game makes you earn it. Some bosses are so overwhelming that at first that you think you’ll never have a shot. And it’s mostly in the offensive and pressuring in on the bosses that you make progress. Even at the end when you want to lob the last couple hits over the net, it doesn’t let you. You need to earn it.

And that’s what I see as the evolution on the Souls/Bloodborne universe. Because if combat is the evolution, narrative is the anchor.

In the Souls/Bloodborne games you’re a silent anonymous actor that’s been cast into a bizarre world and inexplicably propelled towards a destination that even you (especially you) don’t fully understand. It’s not even really clear why you’re fighting or if you should be fighting. And what little the world does reveal is only a reminder of the depth that exists beyond your perception.  

Sekiro on the other hand doesn’t cast you as one of those nameless and faceless agents (but it might as well for how much personality you have). Instead, you’re the hero (or anti-hero). Which is fine, but that demands a more coherent narrative. And I’m sure it’s there. You can kind of read the tea leaves: Oh, these are the bad guys. Oh wait, these guys are. No wait… Confusion, and muddled motivation, doesn’t work as well when you’re trying to make people care about plot and people. It’s all very specific, and yet weirdly esoteric.

And then there’s this small feeling like they planned more. You just feel a sense of last minute cutting sometimes: areas that don’t seem very meaningful, concepts that seem innovative but never really matter (Dragonrot…), and a couple boss battles that break the challenge curve (I’m looking at you Headless Ape, you asshole!). In fairness, those boss battles are few and far between. But when you hit one, man does it take the wind out of your sails. Not because of the challenge, but because it’s so arbitrary. Even when you beat it, you’re not really sure why.

What a flawed masterpiece. Thank you Sekiro for all the Covid love.

Review: ★★★★

Memory: The last three bosses…

Dead Cells Review

Platform: PS4

Symphony Souls: Return of Samus

Dead Cells feels like a really good game made by what you assume is a small team that is actually a much bigger team (the credits went on forever). We’re at that inevitable point of nostalgia saturation where even large companies won’t ignore the potential for retro style games to move large amounts of units. And so that’s why the first description anyone gives about Dead Cells is that it’s a Metroidvania. For a game that’s as good as Dead Cells is, it sucks that the best descriptor is a combination of two games that haven’t had a 2D system release for twenty years (handhelds, remakes and multiplayer aside).

And so I enjoyed Dead Cells. A lot. My bell-weather for a good game is not if I’m willing to play it for 5 hours straight (because I’ll hate everything by that point, including myself). It’s if I choose the game over Netflix, Hulu, HBO NOW, and all the other 8 pm to 10 pm time wasters at my disposable. And in that sense Dead Cells is an objective success. I loved every hour I spent scaling that citadel.

At its core it’s built as rogue-like, which means rinse, die and repeat. And this puts the exploration into direct conflict with the impermanence of the surroundings. Add in a few questionable design choices (unlocking certain things can harm future runs), and you have an amazing early game, that eventually turns into speed running and repetition. That doesn’t take away from the early hours, when the citadel seems alive and changing, and each playthrough is different. It just meant that when I was done, I was done.  

Review: 4 stars (out of 5)

Lords of the Fallen Review

Title: Lords of the Fallen
Platform: PS4

Today’s Bubsy

Dark Souls must be to the 2010’s, what anthropomorphic mascot platformers were to the 90’s. Every game has to pitch itself as some version of Dark Souls-like, Dark Souls-lite, Dark Souls-esque. Which is really just a way to say: difficult, abstract and with a roll-dodge. Hell, even new Dark Souls games, try to sell how Dark Souls they are. Which is all sort of sad for me, because there doesn’t seem to be any love left for Demon’s Souls, which was the game that caught me like a left hook 10-years ago and made reevaluate what a videogame could be.

I really wanted to like Lords of the Fallen. I don’t have the focus right now for a Souls game, so I figured a game shamelessly ripped (I’m sorry, inspired) by the source-material would be a nice compromise. But it’s not. There are some positives: the environments are beautiful, a couple boss battles are memorable (the graveyard one comes to mind), and it’s easy to play in short bursts. But each one of these is paired with crippling flaws: the enemy models are muddy and generic, the combat consists of spamming roll-dodge, and being able to pick up and play is a result of how linear the game is. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the wooden characters, glitches and a general feeling of wasted opportunity.

There are some good things here, but it’s hard to appreciate any of them when the product feels 80% done. Which is sort of a parable for life. Enjoyment doesn’t seem to be linear (80% done doesn’t equal 80% enjoyment), but exponential (80% done is equivalent to 23% enjoyment). Look at the second season of True Detective as proof of that (which is indefensible except to say that there are glimmers of brilliance in there).

Review: 1 star (out of 5)

Grand Kingdom Review

Title: Grand Kingdom
Platform: PS Vita

For People Who Eat at Denny’s

This is another example of how biased and shitty these reviews are. But that’s the point, on a purely technical level Grand Kingdom is a much better game than I’m giving it credit for. But it still sucked away 6 hours of my life with very little to show for it, and that’s unforgivable.

Part of why Grand Kingdom is hard to critique is because it’s pretty much everything I asked for when I was young. That was back when the idea of dropping sixty hours into a game was a good thing. But now, if I’m going to do that, it has to trick me into it like Nier: Automata. Doling our little bits of dopamine like bread crumbs in the woods. Instead, this is the videogame equivalent of quantity over quality.

And the characters have to be better. I respect that much of the game is voice acted. But it’s a moot point when the dialogue is written by people who watched Mad Men, but clearly walked away with the wrong message about Mad Men. If you’re going to make your characters misogynists, it better serve a purpose. But here, it makes the endless narrative mistake of confusing misogyny with being cool, which reeks of desperation.

To highlight the positive, the battles and the board are pretty fun. And there are some incredibly creative community aspects to the game that run very deep (like I said, it’s everything I asked for when I was young). Although this is only when you’re not staring at the ceiling because of load times. And so in the end it starts to become an optimization of speed, instead of tactics, because you want to save as much of your life as possible.

And that’s how I knew I needed to turn it off.

Review: 2 stars (out of 5)

Not A Hero Review

Title: Not A Hero
Platform: PS4

A Clockwork Orange Rubik’s Cube 

Bunnylord for Mayor

Not A Hero feels good, like Hotline Miami. And when the game works best, you’re in a grotesque dance of muscle memory, puzzle solving, and luck. When it’s at its worst, you fall into a tedium where one level blends into the next. Thankfully, that’s rare.

Bunnylord, your giant pink rabbit boss talks like a Hunter S Thompson mad lib. Inserting borderline psychotic adjectives, mangled together at random, to coach you along. All and all, it’s short, addictive, and causes your controller to merge into your hand. It also knows not to outstay its welcome (which is more often the problem than a game being too short).

When I play a bit of the old ultra violence, I often wonder what kind of effect it has on my karma. And then I wonder if I believe in karma. And then I correct myself and say psyche. The effect on my psyche. Where as in the past I would mow down wave after wave of bad guys like spring loaded flopping machines, it doesn’t quite roll off the controller like it used to. And by the time I’ve gunned down that mental rabbit hole, I’m usually able to side step my feelings with the absurdity of what I’m witnessing. Because the game knows it’s a joke, and wears its heart on its sleeve.

Review: 4 stars (out of 5)