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)

Ridiculous Fishing Review

Title:  Ridiculous Fishing – A Tale of Redemption
Maker:  Vlambeer
System: iOS
Cost: $2.99

Duck, Weave, and Reverse

The "Ridiculous" part of the title
The “Ridiculous” part of the title

I’ve written a little about the clever reversal of objectives that Ridiculous Fishing employs.  This alone makes it a solid title.  Throw in some charming graphics, a progression system that works (i.e. doesn’t require you to grind – the blight of iOS), and what’s left is a genuine classic. For Vlambeer, it’s a bit like striking gold.  It succeeds despite everything against it, and has propelled the company to the mainstream success it deserves (see the term “Vlambeered” to learn a bit more about their difficulties).

It’s a thin game that’s only going to buy you a few hours.  But all of it is enjoyable, and non of it is padding, so what else could you want from your phone?

Review: 4 stars (out of 5)

Memory:  The ending (there is one)

The Last of Us Review

Title:  The Last of Us
Maker:  Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony
System: PS3
Cost: $59

Better than Cormac McCarthy

Last of Us Hotel Last of Us infected

It’s tough to begin talking about The Last of Us because you have to compare it to something, and the wasteland of humanity has been covered so many times in games.  So I’m not going to compare it against other games (that’s a post for another time), because The Last of Us draws it’s inspiration from other media, specifically, The Road for ambiance, and Children of Men for plot.  Both excellent in their own right, The Last of Us exceeds them.  It’s the best story I’ve ever read, watched, or experienced about the end of civilization.

So let’s jump into it.  The graphics are phenomenal and the combat tight.  In the ravaged world you run into two distinct enemies, the infected, and other survivors.  Both are challenging, and they require completely separate strategies, which helps to vary the combat.  But all of these positives pail in comparison to the writing.  It’s by miles the best dialogue I’ve ever encountered in a game.  You keep expecting some cliche movie (or worse, game) dialogue to slip out, but it never does.  It’s so far ahead of anything else, I can’t even think of what would be second.  On top of this the voice acting is superb, especially protagonists Joel and Ellie.

About the protagonists, have you ever played a game where you didn’t hate the character that you needed to protect?  Of course not, they’re a pain in the ass.  Except in this Ellie is phenomenal, and her personal growth drives you forward.  Joel is complicated yet simple (in his drive), and both come off as humans, neither good nor bad, in a way that games can almost never provide.  My biggest fear is that they churn out a sequel and destroy everything they’ve created here.

Minor things like a few annoying puzzles, and your companions near invisibility to enemies are not enough to break or ruin the experience.  This is a game that will be dissected and compared for years, a template for story-driven creations.

Review: 5 stars (out of 5)

Memory:  Too many to list

Punch Quest Review

Title:  Punch Quest
Maker: RocketCat Games
System: iOS
Cost: Free (and $3 for a must have upgrade if you like it)

The best five minutes of your lunch break

It’s been popular to rip on jet pack joyride for awhile now.  But pound for pound, it’s 99 cents provided my more fun than any other iPad game I’ve played.  It was arcade action, for someone who doesn’t typically like arcade games. But this isn’t about Jetpack, this is about Punch Quest.

I mention Jetpack, because a first instinct is that it plays very similar (if not unabashedly ripping it off).  And it’s true, on a base level of fast twitch reactions, there is a lot in common.  Yet for better or worse, Punch Quest is a deeper game with room left over for multiple play-styles.

Because it is free to play, the in-game currency holds much greater sway, as the in-game purchases actually have a tremendous effect on how the game plays.  This adds depth while sacrificing accessibility. And while it generally follows that the more expensive moves (there’s no going back once you get thunder punch) outmatch the earlier ones, this isn’t always the case.  In addition there are two distinct play styles that can be used:  one of run and gun (punch), and another of tactically moving forward with the use of block.

As great as the game is, it’s not without it’s problems.  Because of the way block is setup, it’s basically impossible to have a play style that combines fast gameplay with strategic blocking.  Either you choose a control scheme that makes it difficult to use (but preventing it’s accidental use), or one that is easy but will frustrate you by activating when you don’t want it.  Additionally, the art style is great, but it leaves you wanting more: more enemy types, more bonus levels, more variety of path types.

And finally the game currency is distorted.  Not fubar, but it does detract.  It’s a free game and need to make money, but even after buying the paid upgrade “punchos doubler” (a must if you like the game), it still takes a massive amount of time to buy even one “ultra” item, or unlock the Spartan Mode.

Punch Quest is the best iOS game I’ve played in the last six months.  It will undoubtedly (and unfairly) always remain in the shadow of Jet Pack Joyride, even though it’s a genuinely great game in it’s own right.

Review: 4 stars (our of 5)

Memory:  The first time you get to the laser raptor level.

Crimson Shroud Review

Title:  Crimson Shroud
Maker: Nexus
Publisher: Level-5
System: 3DS
Format: Nintendo eShop
Cost: $8

The best thing I ever read in middle school

Positives:  The writing.  Which means:  the story, the characters, and the scope.  It creates an entire world, but never has the need to leave the one area you explore in.  It doesn’t try to do too much, but as a result everything it does, it does well.  The battle and upgrade systems are simple but lend themselves well to tinkering.  The character art design is solid, if not as strong as other Yasumi Matsuno games. And as a personal plus, the main character eschews the normal jrpg bullshit of being a whiny teenager, and is instead set in his late 20s.

There’s not a lot of drawings, but they sink in

Negatives:  I rarely say this for the time sink-hole that is the rpg genre, but Crimson Shroud could be longer.  The table-top piece setup doesn’t harm the game at all, but it only gets away with the complete lack of animation because the writing is so strong.  In the end, you just want it to have a bit more of everything.

The engine that powers the game

Verdict:  There’s beauty in the simplicity, and it allowed Nexus and Level-5 to make a very good game. But it’s probably unrealistic to think it could be stretched into anything with enough substance to be great.  Still, it’s so easy to like while it lasts.

Review:  4 stars (out of 5)

Memory:  The use of the word “slurry”.  It’s poured down someone’s throat at the beginning.

 

Singularity Review

Title:  Singularity
Maker: Raven Soft
Publisher: Activision
System: PS3
Cost: $9 Used – Gamestop

Like a moped…

Rapid Aging – best power

Positives:  The game for the most part feels good.  There aren’t a lot of guns, but what they do have feels a hell of a lot better than anything in a game like Killzone.  And on top of that you get some superhero powers that aren’t really necessary, but add to the overall appeal.  It also does small thing right, like automatically putting you into a crouch when you walk into a vent.  Crouching in general is handled well in the game (I actually never realized how much I hate most crouching mechanisms until playing Singularity).

Negatives:  This is the small stuff, but it’s on the big stuff that Singularity gets absurd.  First, it can’t make up it’s mind if it’s scary or camp.  The first area has some legitimate ambiance and unease to it, but this is completely unsettled by the character models and the gung-ho gameplay that eventually replaces it.  In this change, the resource management that exists at the beginning is also thrown out (naturally, as run and gun gameplay doesn’t lend itself well to ammo conservation).

There are multiple endings to Singularity, and together they sum up all the problems of the game.  They run the gambit from darkly logical and intriguing to stupid and hole-ridden (oh, the main one is so bad).  It’s a two that I want to be a three, but it’s still a two.

Review: 2 stars (out of 5)

Memory: The Soviets speak to each other in English (with obligatory horrible Russian accents).

Adding Reviews

I haven’t posted anything for awhile (if you don’t count the post from five minutes ago, which I actually wrote months ago). But I have new motivation in the blog, and that’s to add a review section.

The goal:  To provide short reviews, that are (hopefully) not biased by any previously published scores or impressions.

The score system will be borrowed from what I consider the best video game magazine that was ever published, Next Generation.  It is a simple 5 star system, but because of the simplicity the entire scale will be used.  This is in contrast to a 1-10 scale, where most games place between 7-9, with anything below not being worth playing, and anything above being considered great (really what is the difference between 8.5 and 9, or even 8 and 9 for that matter?).  At that level, the real question is it a 4 star (God of War 3), or a 5 star game (Demon Souls)?