Neon White Review

The Best Tech Demo

Yep, it’s gorgeous

A refrain I would hear growing up was how the world was full of talented people with wasted potential – “so work hard and don’t get complacent!'” was the obvious subtext of that unsolicited story. And while true, it was probably an unnecessary warning to a kid that was already suffering from anxiety, OCD and perfectionist tendencies. Given how most of us (not all, but most) are more hard on ourselves than is useful, who was that even designed for? 

Neon White. That’s who that was designed for.  This is the kind of game that shows up to basketball try-outs 30 minutes late and makes starting point guard in a pair of Vans.  It has probably the most arresting art style of the year, iconic gravely voice actors (as if to cement the Spike Spiegel comparison), and a fresh Battle Royale backstory in an otherwise played out genre. It’s the kind of game that makes all the jealous wannabes of high fantasy, zombie apocalypses, and space operas mope around and listen to Eliot Smith.

And so what does our Division-1 scholarship bound prodigy do? Not much. He drops out to smoke weed and listen to The Doors. Which is still undoubtedly cool, but also kind of, ‘a shame’ or whatever. Awesome character designs turn out to not mean much if you can’t decide if you’re a hardened criminal or bumbling self-conscious 17 year-old. It’s like Neon White watched Cowboy Bebop and Deadpool and thought, ‘I can do both’. The result: Cowboy Bebop on Netflix.

Sometimes the cringe is also a laugh

With beautiful aesthetics mixed with droning dialogue and boring story arches, it really falls on the puzzle solving to carry the weight (yes, this is a puzzle game. I was shocked too). And in that department it’s… good enough. Controls are smooth, progression measured, but it also never really takes any risks. A concept sticks around for a few levels, then it’s pretty much gone, never really cumulating into something bigger. Just one slick tech demo after another.

At least this has a chance for a dope sequel.

Review: ★★★

Memory: Opening anime cinematic (I would watch an anime of this)

When a talking secondary is your best character

Rogue Legacy 2 Review

Eating a Bag of Candy

I was about as excited to play Rogue Legacy 2 as I’ve been for any game in a long time. To the point I made it my chillaxing go-to game on some planned time off.

There’s a lot of charm in this hellscape

All this pressure despite doing the exact same thing with the first Rogue Legacy years earlier: a long Winter break that I enjoyed immensely at first, and then by the time the credits rolled on the game, I was feeling a little queasy and questioning my choices. Like being on a swing in your 30s.

So what happens? The. Exact. Same. Thing. Of course it did. Because while Rogue Legacy 2 is a lot bigger than Rogue Legacy, it’s just ‘more’, not ‘different’. It’s not weird enough to be truly interesting.

It’s not Hades level charm, but the bosses have some depth in their motivations

My enjoyment with these games is a reverse parabola, it shoots up at the beginning, before plummeting back down at the midpoint. By the time I walk away, I’m gutting out the last bosses and ignoring a creeping guilt about not spending more time with my family. 

So why does RL2 feel different from other rogue-lites (Hades, the obvious standard bearer)? I don’t know, it just feels a little off. If I had to try and attribute it to something, it’s that progress feels more akin to an RPG grind than a skill-gating curve. All rogue-lites are just the illusion of skill-gating, and with RL2 that illusion is as subtle as a brick.

Pirate Class – Easy Mode

There’s a lot of positive qualities to the game (feels great, looks good, nice humor). It’s objectively a good game. It’s just this particular live-die-upgrade-repeat cycle that’s not sitting quite right with me. 

Review: ★★★

Memory: The Pirate Class

Triangle Strategy Review

Tactics Ogre Jr.

Riveting dialogue…

Triangle Strategy is what happens when the working title becomes the final game. TRPGs aren’t even especially hard to name: slap a noun with another noun or adjective. Job done (Front Mission, Tactics Ogre, Vandal Hearts…)

Square must have figured if you’re going to play the name straight, might as well play the whole thing straight. Let the good guys be good, the bad guys be bad, and everyone be annoying. Complex motivations? Character depth? Look at the title! We don’t have time for that.

And more dialogue…

The story of any TRPG is a vehicle to shuffle troops from one pre-arranged set piece to another. And so if the story here is flat as a board, then the battles should at least be entertaining. In that regard it mostly succeeds. On the “Hard” difficulty, it’s a flow of patient offensive and defensive swarm and survive tactics. The normal TRPG super-human abilities that can wreck havoc on a battlefield (cough cough Final Fantasy Tactics) aren’t here, and even sending out your strongest character unsupported is usually a suicide mission.

The Octopath Traveler 2.5D VFX are nice

I will give any game company credit that tries to establish new game franchises rather than churn out sequels. It’s a risky business and any  guarantee to be in the black is tough to turn down. But in the end, Triangle Strategy just leaves me wondering why there hasn’t been a true Final Fantasy Tactics or Tactics Ogre sequel (remasters and portable side stories aside)?

Like eating a bag of candy, it tasted decent at the time, but now leaves me a little sick and hungry for something of substance.

Review: ★★

Memory: The first Wolford Stronghold battle

Returnal Review

Selene and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

So many questions…

Returnal is a weird beast.

Its gameplay is a grease stain lit on fire. A blender of 2D side-scrolling bullet hell, in a dash-happy 3D world. It can be so mesmerizing, it’s hard not to stop and watch Housemarque’s TM helix bullet-patterns or bright-blue lasers arch the sky, before slamming into the earth on top of you.

It all feels great. And it looks great. A spectacle of sound and motor skills and neon.

There is a lot of beauty in this fractured world

And then there’s the story. It’s not so much a video game storyline (not that we need any more of those) as a graduate student’s art-house film project about regret, trauma and mental illness (that also breaks the 4th wall, because… why not??). A film project that would win some major screen time at a mid-upper film festival (less Sundance, more Denver Film Festival).

And it leaves me utterly confused. Which is OK. I’m sure it all fits together if I were willing to dig for it.

You’ll be here a lot

Returnal is a game of extremes. Extreme kinetic energy and extreme obfuscation. This is no hero fantasy. There are no shooting galleries. Only a deep flow state and residual impact.

Returnal is the chance to go ‘all in’ for a little bit. And I miss that.

Review: ★★★★★

Memory: Nemesis Boss Fight

Death’s Door Review

Crow’s Journey

Given the vast difference in power between my PS5 and Switch, the two consoles have divided into clearly divided utility. PS5 is a bunch of jaw-dropping gorgeous AAA games, and my Switch a mobile vehicle for indie goodness. And despite all those technical differences, my Switch probably still clocks the most hours.

Yep. That’s it. That’s what this whole mess is about.

Death’s Door is the quintessential indie game that keeps my Switch humming. In that it is exactly what it sets out to be: a gorgeous short indie knock-off of Zelda. And even though I expected something at least a little gruesome (given the name and Devolver as the publisher), it remained incredibly wholesome throughout. Besides the humor, borderline sterile.

There is no fat on this game. It’s so lean that I often wonder if things were left on the cutting room floor. When was the last time I played a game where I wanted it to be longer? It’s human to want what we don’t have. And so Death’s Door gave me exactly what I want in this age of complexity- simplicity. And maybe that’s the trick to a good indie title- exit stage right early, and leave them wanting more.

The humor is spot on. And often has a tinge of appropriate grief.

So thank you little crow for the memories. I’ll go on adventures with you anytime. And I’ll use this extra time gave me back to whittle away at my ever growing back catalogue.

Review: ★★★★

Shin Megami Tensei 5 Review

Finally, a Worthy Successor

The 2000’s were a self-described “gritty” decade for games, which meant a lot of chest thumping, and running people over with cars, and forced swearing. Its energy a reflection of the larger social nihilism being built upon Potemkin Villages and military conflicts involving small percentages of the population. Much like the term Gen Y, and the entire decade itself, most of the games from that time have been maligned and forgotten (which means they will inevitably be rediscovered in another 10 years).

The protagonist, right?

There is an exception to this: Atlus, and specifically the macabre family of Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) games, were on a role. They combined synth wave aesthetics (before that was cool again) with stoic protagonists (before Breath of the Wild) and impactful choices in incomprehensible worlds (before Demon’s Souls did it better). Those games probably got more play time on my PS2 than anything else: Nocturne (aka SMT 3), both Digital Devil Sagas, the pair of Raidou Kuzunoha Devil Summoner titles, and Persona 3 (and with less satisfaction Persona 4).

Yeah... about that
Nope. This is you and your hair.

Nocturne had such an impact on me that it propelled this deeper dive into the SMT world. And while I enjoyed my time with all of the lose-lose storylines, and rock-paper-scissors mechanics, as the 2000’s shuffled into the 2010’s, I felt the luster peeling off. Things like Strange Journey, Persona 4, and the relentlessly boring Devil Summoner 2, felt like lateral movements at best. Even an aesthetically beautiful game like SMT 4 had relatively limited emotional impact.

And so I can’t exactly say what drew me back to SMT 5. At a base level, the game itself is not all that different than its predecessors. Even the three pronged D&D morality (Law, Neutral, Chaos) remains intact. And yet somehow it feels different. It is immensely enjoyable where as the more recent entries were boring.

Much of this change is due to the rebalancing of the difficulty with a “Hard” mode. The new mode transforms a somewhat challenging game into a slowly evolving puzzle. Every mini-boss requires thought and strategy. You often have to pull out all of your tricks. A single mistake is a hard reset. And it becomes a slow but wholly earned push forward.

Hard Reset
Early bosses are especially unforgiving on Hard

I’ve heard Shin Megami Tensei (SMT) series compared against its more popular spin-off Persona succinctly as: SMT is plot driven, where as Persona is character driven. And I like that comparison. The ride is a challenging, sometimes perverse, and often beautiful experience that is for people looking for a change. A slow burn in an age of instant gratification. And for me, the best SMT game since Nocturne and Persona 3.

Review: ★★★★★

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