Replaying: Super Mario 3D World

The Super Mario Maker 2 trailer that launched back in February not only got me hyped for the upcoming Switch title, but its addition of the Super Mario 3D World play style had me feeling nostalgic for the 2013 Wii U platformer. And seeing as I previously stated I wanted to start replaying games more and writing more gaming articles besides reviews, now seemed as good a time as any to revisit Super Mario 3D World. Besides, after trudging through the overly-long and tedious Kingdom Hearts 3, and its mishandling of franchises I like, I needed to play something more fun, rewarding, charming, and that did justice to a franchise I like. Thus, replaying Super Mario 3D World was a no-brainer (it sure would be great if they could make a Disney game this good).

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: No, Super Mario 3D World is not as good as the Super Mario Galaxy titles that preceded it, nor is it as good as Super Mario Odyssey that followed. But considering the Galaxy duo and Odyssey are among the greatest games ever created, not being as good as them pretty much refers to most games that aren’t them. On its own merits, however, Super Mario 3D World is still one of the most consistently fun and creative games of the 2010s.

Yeah, it seems like a praise Mario games a lot. But while not every Mario game is good (New Super Mario Bros. 2 and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, both released a year prior to 3D World, were creatively empty and flat-out boring, respectively), I will say that Super Mario is the only series in which a game as great as 3D World could be considered one of its smaller achievements. It may not have the revolutionary factor of Super Mario Bros. or Super Mario 64, nor is it as great as the trio mentioned in the above paragraph or games like Super Mario World. And yet, it’s hard to find much fault in Super Mario 3D World other than “it’s not as good as some other Mario games.” The Legend of Zelda is probably the only other series that can boast equal quality, though maybe not quite at the same level of consistency (and maybe Dark Souls/Bloodborne, but that has far fewer entries).

“One level combines a shadow aesthetic with the gameplay quirk of carrying around a hungry Piranha Plant.”

What makes Super Mario 3D World so good? It all boils down to the two qualities that best define a good game: great gameplay, and a terrific sense of creativity. 3D World may not be the most innovative Mario game, but the gameplay and design is as polished as any of the heroic plumber’s entries, and each stage is a showcase of one playful idea after another. It’s the kind of game where the simple act of controlling your character is a joy (which is actually pretty rare, though seemingly less so with this series).

Many fans were at first disappointed with Super Mario 3D World’s initial E3 reveal, as it followed in the footsteps of the 2011 3DS title, Super Mario 3D Land. This raised fans’ eyebrows for two reasons: The first was that 3D Land was a solid game, but not a particularly standout one which, again, given the pedigree of the Mario series, is tantamount to a massive disappointment. The other reason is that, like 3D Land, 3D World seemed to be aiming more for the feel of a 2D Mario entry than a 3D one with its linear level design, with most fans protesting that the 3D Mario titles were losing their distinct identity due to the ludicrous sales of the New Super Mario Bros. side scrolling series.

While I admit I too at the time had some doubts about seeing a “proper” follow-up to 64, Sunshine, and the Galaxy duo (we would eventually get just that with Odyssey), I was hardly disappointed with what 3D World promised. After all, we were ‘only’ three years removed from Galaxy 2 at the time (most “proper” 3D Marios had much longer gaps in between releases), so it didn’t really feel like the necessary time for another Mario title of that scale. Secondly, while the New Super Mario Bros. games were competently fun, they never really felt like the worthy continuations of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World that they wanted to be. 3D Land introduced the style and feeling of 2D Marios into the world of 3D Marios (linear stages with clear end goals, time limits, etc.) and felt like a step in the right direction. But again, didn’t quite hit the mark.

Super Mario 3D World, however, quickly reveals itself as the worthy successor to games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and World that we had been waiting for, despite being a 3D title. It took the foundations of 3D Land, and combined it with the sense of invention and polish that we expect from Mario’s best titles (which, again, was lacking from New Super Mario Bros. and 3D Land). The Galaxy games had refined what 64 started, so it was cool to get something that felt like a fitting continuation to the Mario games that predated 64 (now if only the Mario RPGs could get a worthy follow-up).

There are so many things that make Super Mario 3D World work so well: the level design is a constant delight, with each stage presenting something new, and always fun. The power-ups – from perennial favorites the Fire Flower and Tanooki Leaf, 3D Land’s Boomerang Suit, and 3D World’s own Double Cherry (which duplicates your character) and the surprisingly powerful and versatile Cat Suit – are all a joy, and add so much to the gameplay (the Cat Suit, in particular, has to join the ranks of Mario’s best power-ups). And you get to play as not only Mario, but Luigi, Princess Peach and Toad as well, each coming with their abilities from Super Mario Bros. 2 (Luigi jumps highest, Peach floats, and Toad is fastest, with Mario being well-rounded). And of course you can unlock Rosalina, who comes equipped with the spin attack from Super Mario Galaxy. It’s a Mario platformer where you get to play as Rosalina! That alone makes it a winner (Rosalina is best girl).

Oh yeah, I almost forgot that Super Mario 3D World is also the only four-player entry in the 3D Mario canon. And unlike many games that add co-op multiplayer to a traditionally single-player formula, the level design of Super Mario 3D World compliments playing alone or with friends.

“The Koopa/Blob/Clown/Monster.”

If there’s any downside to Super Mario 3D World, it’s that the boss fights are an utter cakewalk. Yeah yeah, people claim Mario bosses tend to be easy, but the series often finds ways to make the boss battles feel creative, which makes it easy to look past a lack of difficulty. But aside from the final fight against Bowser and two other recurring bosses (a monarch snake and a Koopa/Blob/Clown/Monster), the boss fights of 3D World feel tacked on and rushed (Boom Boom should never serve as a world boss). But aside from the underwhelming boss battles, just about everything else about Super Mario 3D World is a constant barrage of fun and inspiration.

“Six years later, and the game still looks great!”

Along with gameplay and creativity, Super Mario 3D World also boasts what I consider to be the third key ingredient to a great game: a fantastic musical score. Again, the music may not quite be on Galaxy or Odyssey’s level, but 3D World still provides one of the most memorable scores in the Mario canon. Even the sound effects of the game seem to reinforce the game’s “fun at all costs” mentality.

Under my original “.5” scoring system, I awarded Super Mario 3D World a 9.0 out of 10. But now, under my current whole number system, I’ve flip-flopped between an 8 and a 9 (flip-flopping more than perhaps any other game). Unlike other games where I’ve been indecisive with its score, it’s my ‘heart’ that rates the game lower and my ‘mind’ that rates it higher. In terms of ‘heart,’ I can say I don’t feel quite as strongly for 3D World as some other games I would rate highly. After all, I gave both Red Dead Redemption 2 and 2018’s God of War a score of 8/10, as I’m trying to make that the exceptional score that most games would strive for. In that sense, 3D World makes sense with that score. But in terms of ‘mind,’ I would say that Super Mario 3D World doesn’t really have many notable faults. Aside from the boss fights and “not being as good as other Mario games,” there’s really not much to gripe about with Super Mario 3D World. As great as Red Dead 2 and God of War are – and yes, they are undeniably ‘bigger’ games than 3D World – they also have more notable flaws than Mario’s Wii U outing. Super Mario 3D World doesn’t feature an obnoxiously sidetracked trip to Guarma, for example. So I’m still undecided on which score to settle on.

As of this writing, I’ve beaten the “main game” of my current playthrough of Super Mario 3D World, and am currently playing through the post-game secret worlds. And after recently playing through lengthy games (including the aforementioned tediousness of Kingdom Hearts 3), revisiting Super Mario 3D World is exactly what I needed. Its constant sense of fun and invention, combined with its polished execution makes Super Mario 3D World an easy game to pick up and play, and a delight to revisit again and again.

Super Mario 3D World may not be the most groundbreaking Mario game, but it’s an undeniable blast from start to finish. And while my favorite Wii U game will always be Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Super Mario 3D World is just about the only Wii U game left that hasn’t either been ported to the Nintendo Switch, or have an improved sequel for Nintendo’s hybrid console (even Super Mario Maker, once believed to be the justification of the Wii U’s gamepad, is getting a Switch sequel). So along with the Virtual Console, Super Mario 3D World is basically the reason to keep your Wii U at the ready… at least until it gets ported to the Switch.

Is Super Mario 3D World worth a replay? Oh, hell yeah!

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Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version*

Despite being one of the more fondly remembered games on the Sega Genesis, Toejam & Earl has had a rough time in the sequel department. Beloved for its originality and off-beat humor, Toejam & Earl saw its titular dup of funky aliens take part in an exploration-based adventure. In search of ten missing pieces of their crashed rocket ship, Toejam (the red one with the eyestalks) and Earl (the one who looks like a proto-Patrick Star) traversed a series of randomly generated levels, avoiding annoying humans, throwing tomatoes, and opening presents to get power-ups along the way. While just about everything else on the Genesis was trying to replicate Sonic’s sense of ‘cool,’ Toejam & Earl’s wacky originality stood out.

That’s why it stung a little when its sequel, Toejam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (also on Genesis), was a simple 2D platformer in a time when such games were commonplace. Though it was decently remembered in its own right, Panic on Funkotron’s lack of originality made it fall by the wayside. It would be another decade before the duo would return in Toejam & Earl: Mission to Earth on the original Xbox. And while the series’ sole 3D entry attempted to recreate the gameplay of the original game, its mixed reception – combined with the very different tastes of gamers in the early 2000s – meant that Toejam and Earl once again faded into obscurity.

There they remained for another seventeen years. But after a successful Kickstarter campaign from series creator Greg Johnson, and some back-and-forth between publishers over the past couple of years, Toejam and Earl made their long awaited comeback in March of 2019 in the form of Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove, bringing the gameplay from the original 1991 game along for the ride.

For fans of the series, there may be a wee bit of a double-edged sword in this regard. Back in the Groove is both a wonderful return for the series, and a refreshingly silly joy in today’s overly serious gaming landscape. But if you’re a fan of the original Toejam & Earl, Back in the Groove can feel more like a remake than a full-on sequel.

That’s not a terrible thing, of course. Not when Toejam & Earl still feels unique twenty-eight years on. But it does put Back in the Groove in a strange state of being unique among other games, but derivative of itself.

“A chunk of snowy land floating in outer space. Y’know… Earth!”

Just as in the original game, Toejam and Earl have crash landed on Earth, and must recover its ten missing pieces in order to head back home to planet Funkotron. As a bit of a joke, this time around the aliens borrowed their friend’s ship (because they didn’t want to risk crashing their own ship again, naturally). Otherwise, it’s basically the same plot.

Another difference is that, this time around, there are nine different playable characters, six of which are playable from the start: Toejam and Earl (obviously), in addition to the same duo with their classic designs (aptly named Classic Toejam and Classic Earl), as well as Toejam’s ladyfriend Lewanda, and Mission to Earth’s Latisha. Though it should be noted that the differences between characters are purely cosmetic.

“Gotta love the elevator cutscenes and their “Rocko’s Modern Life” backgrounds.”

Otherwise, the gameplay largely echoes the original game: You travel across different landscapes, looking for the elevator that leads to the next stage. Levels that feature a rocket piece are marked upon entry, meaning to beat the game, you have to track the piece down before heading for the elevator. Be careful, as you can fall off a stage and back to the previous one, leading to a tedious trip back up.

Toejam and Earl (and the rest) are normally defenseless against persistent earthlings. But our heroes can gain weapons and power-ups (such as the aforementioned tomatoes) by finding and opening presents. What’s inside of each present is at first a mystery to the player, until you pay a wiseman (an old man in a carrot costume, naturally) to identify them for you, with each type of present remaining identified for the rest of the current playthrough. Additionally, by opening presents and uncovering more areas of the map on each stage will give you experience points. Once enough experience points have been gathered, you can ask the wiseman to level you up.

“My name’s Poochie D and I rock the telly! I’m half-Joe Camel and a third Fonzarelli!”

While the leveling up feature was present in the original game, it was mostly just to see the joke of the next level’s title, here in Back in the Groove, each level will grant you a bonus such as improved speed or the capacity to carry more presents. It’s a nice touch of RPG character progression that makes the leveling system actually worthwhile this time around (don’t worry, the joke names for each rank are still present). The only issue with it is that the bonuses are received via roulette wheel, meaning the randomness prevents you from building your character how you want.

That random element is of course present in other areas as well. Though the items in each different present will be consistent during the same playthrough, the items and presents will swap with every new playthrough. That’s fine. But less tolerable is when a level spawns a second, fake elevator, which will take you back to the previous stage (though you do have a small window of time to exit the elevator before its door closes, saving you the tedium). Certain random elements such as that probably won’t sit well with some players.

The one random element the series does best, of course, are the randomly generated stages. When the original Toejam & Earl hit the Genesis in 1991, it was rare among games at the time for being different with every playthrough. While the goal of collecting ten ship pieces may have always been the same, each stage provided a new challenge, and oftentimes you never knew when another ship piece would show up.

That’s still true here, but with an unfortunate caveat: you have to unlock the randomly generated playthrough option. Before you can play Back in the Groove the way it was meant to be played, you have to give a pre-set adventure a go. Granted, this was probably done to ease newcomers in, but it would be nice if Toejam & Earl veterans had the option to play with the randomly generated stages from the get-go.

“Also the game is executive produced by Macaulay Culkin.”

Ultimately, these aren’t major complaints. As stated, Toejam & Earl remains a pretty unique game, so Back in the Groove’s overt reminiscence of it isn’t a deal-breaker. Nor is the act of unlocking the random stage layout (albeit it is a little bummer). The gameplay is still fun, with the game being at its best with its multiplayer co-op mode (another feature from the surprisingly forward-thinking original, but now with the modern benefits of playing with up to four players online). The graphics are vibrant and cartoonish, with a kind of “90s Nicktoon” appeal. And true to the nature of the funky rapping aliens, the music is as cool and funky as ever.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove, however, is its utter charm. In the modern gaming world where AAA and Indie titles alike feel like they’re made more to earn awards from critics than to entertain, Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove is refreshingly silly and innocent. Spend a few hours as Toejam or Earl (or one of the other characters) as you run from teens pre-occupied on their cellphones, throw tomatoes at evil dentists, seek refuge with Ghandi, roll a D20 with a group of nerds, and jam out with some alien buddies, and you’re bound to have a smile on your face.

 

7

Tetris 99 Review

Tetris really is the eternal video game. No matter how gaming evolves and advances, no matter how quickly it makes progress, Tetris remains one of the medium’s few constants. While many critically-acclaimed titles prove to lose their luster in the long term, Tetris will always be one of gaming’s quintessential titles.

Tetris 99 – the completely free Nintendo Switch exclusive – is just another example of Tetris’s uncanny ability to adapt to any gaming landscape. As the battle royal genre has quickly come to prominence thanks to PlayerUnkown’s BattleGround and Fortnite Battle Royal, Tetris 99 throws the classic puzzler’s hat into this ring. Somewhat poetically, the simplicity of Tetris translates so easily into the battle royal genre that it’s currently the best product of the genre on the market.

To put it simply, Tetris 99 is exactly what it says it is: Tetris with ninety-nine players. Simply start up a game, and soon enough you’ll be paired with ninety-eight other players from across the globe, experiencing the classic Tetris gameplay as you aim to be the last player standing.

The core gameplay remains as it always has: the flawless combination of different shaped ‘Tetrominos” fall from the top of the screen, with the player needing to fit them into rows, thus eliminating them, earning points, and preventing them from reaching the top of the screen. Like in most competitive Tetris titles, clearing rows will also send “garbage blocks” to your opposition. Garbage blocks rise from the bottom of the screen, and bring the player closer to defeat.

Of course, with ninety-nine players, things can get chaotic really quickly. Players control the Tetrominos on their board with the D-pad, while they target other players using the joysticks to aim at any of the other players on screen. The chaos begins once players start getting eliminated, and their are fewer and fewer targets on the board. As you may have guessed, this means that multiple players will soon start to target the same opponent. And if you happen to be that opponent, you can kiss your hopes of victory goodbye.

Admittedly – perhaps due to the battle royal genre still being in its infancy – the translation of Tetris to the genre isn’t quite perfect. Given that there are ninety-eight miniature boards representing the other players on the screen, it’s hard to make out the details of what they’re doing, which means you’re mostly targeting other players at our random or, at its worst, forgetting to change targets at all and just let the cursor move on its own as players are eliminated. Of course, compared to the bugs, glitches, and technical issues that still plague PUBG and Fortnite, the sometimes rough translation of Tetris 99 isn’t so bad.

The sometimes confusing interface prevents Tetris 99 from reaching its full potential, but it’s still the most easily accessible and fun battle royal title yet. It takes one of gaming’s greatest classics and uses it to help polish up a contemporary genre. And as a free download, there’s absolutely no reason why every Switch owner shouldn’t have it in their library.

Plus, come on, it’s Tetris.

 

7

Captain Marvel Review

As we approach Avengers: Endgame, we’re not only coming to the conclusion of Phase three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the climax of the ten-plus year journey of the MCU so far. As such, we’re beginning to see the next generation of key players come into the MCU, from Dr. Strange to Spider-Man to Black Panther. The newest player in the MCU (and the last one introduced before Endgame) is none other than Captain Marvel, whose Marvel Studios proclaims to be the most powerful character in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of course, no matter how powerful a super hero is, it doesn’t amount to much if the story they’re telling is weak. And with Marvel’s recent string of hits, Captain Marvel has a pretty steep hill to climb.

Unfortunately, despite being the MCU’s most powerful super being, Captain Marvel can’t seem to carry her own movie. It’s not that it’s a bad movie per se, just that it’s so by-the-books and average that it doesn’t stand out in any way. It’s so average that by the day after I saw it, I saw a commercial for it and thought “oh yeah, I saw that movie.” Unless you somehow haven’t seen an MCU movie for the past several years, there’s nothing about Captain Marvel that will prove particularly memorable.

Taking place in 1995, Captain Marvel is a prequel to the all but one other MCU film (Captain America: The First Avenger). Our titular heroine is called ‘Very’ (Brie Larson), an Earth-born human pilot who gained incredible power after she was involved in a mysterious plane crash that also left her with amnesia. She was then taken in by the Kree, a race of “alien warrior heroes” who have been battling an endless war against the Skrulls, mysterious shape-shifting beings.

Under the tutelage of Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers has become an unstoppable fighting machine in the war against the Skrulls. Though she longs to remember her true past, especially after she meets up with ‘The Supreme Intelligence’ – the Kree’s AI leader who appears to different individuals as “the person they most admire” – whom appears to Vers as a woman she’s seen only in flashbacks (Annette Bening).

Vers inadvertently gets her wish to rediscover her past, when an encounter with a Skrull named Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) ends up sending her down to Earth, where she meets a younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), and embarks on a journey that takes her to many places from her past.

Again, it all sounds promising. And I once again stress that the movie isn’t bad. It’s just that, when all is said and done, it really doesn’t feel like anything new. It’s the most ‘vanilla’ MCU film to come along in a good while.

The one bit of originality Captain Marvel attempts is telling the origin story of its titular hero in a non-linear, out-of-sequence fashion, with the film jumping between the present day of the film and Vers’s plane crash and the events leading up to it. The film also does a pretty good job at delivering a more novice Nick Fury learning his craft (as well as explaining how he lost one of his eyes).

Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn and Annette Bening all give memorable performances (with Ben Mendelsohn’s character getting a pleasantly surprising amount of comedy, and Bening playing a duel role that showcases very different personalities). The CG used to de-age Samuel L. Jackson is also impressive (we’ve come a long way since the creepy young Tony Stark from Captain America: Civil War), though I suppose it helps that Sam Jackson has aged very well.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the cast is as impressive. Brie Larson feels void of charisma in her role, which is especially affecting to the film seeing as she’s the main character. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that the character is written so blandly, with the film continuously emphasizing how powerful she is, without giving us much reason to care for her as a character. Captain Marvel is already at risk of being a deus ex machine for the MCU, if she is indeed the one to defeat Thanos after just being introduced to the mega-franchise in the eleventh hour. The fact that the character is written without any real character flaw makes this even more concerning.

Although not as big of a detriment, Jude Law’s role also seems surprisingly empty. The movie builds him up to be an important figure in the story, but through long stretches of the film, you may forget he’s even a part of it.

Again, I don’t want to sound too hard on the film, because it isn’t necessarily bad, just resoundingly uneventful. It has great special effects (again I emphasize the de-aging on Jackson), the action scenes are fun, and the overall entertainment value is there to a degree. But the same could be said about most MCU films, and aside from the aforementioned back and forth with the origin story, Captain Marvel doesn’t really try its hand at anything new for the franchise. And when the film starts veering into a series of plot twists that feel like they’ve already been done in the MCU, this is only emphasized. Combine that with the film’s disappointingly wooden heroine, and Captain Marvel fails to live up to its potential.

I’m sure plenty of people will have fun with Captain Marvel. But it too often comes across as too little, too late for the MCU. There’s just not enough here that feels special or unique, and if anything, Captain Marvel feels more like its regressed back to the Phase One days of the MCU with its simple and straightforward origin story. Captain Marvel may be “the most powerful character in the MCU,” but her movie feels like one of the least powerful of the lot in a good while.

 

6

Kingdom Hearts 3 Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 version*

Is it possible to love half a game? Or to half-love a game? Because I think that might describe my feelings for Kingdom Hearts 3. I honestly can’t remember the last time a game had me grinning from ear to ear and feeling like a kid on Christmas one minute, and then leave me aggravated and annoyed like an adult at the DMV the next. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that made me feel so emotionally polarized.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is the long-awaited “third” installment in the main Kingdom Hearts series, arriving thirteen years after Kingdom Hearts 2. Of course, considering how every handheld “spinoff” entry in the series that was supposedly intended to whet the appetite of fans in the interim between Kingdom Hearts 2 and 3 are all part of the main story, Kingdom Hearts 3 isn’t really Kingdom Hearts 3 at all. It’s more like Kingdom Hearts 9. And that kind of takes away a little something from the long-awaited experience.

Even from the game’s opening moments, it doesn’t feel like the thirteen-years in the making trilogy capper it should be, but just another random episode in a series. In fact, if it weren’t for the game’s final stage (which somehow simultaneously rushes plot resolutions and drags things out at the same time), you’d probably never even think Kingdom Hearts 3 was serving as the end to the storyline that began with the series’ first entry.

Kingdom Hearts is, of course, Square-Enix’s crossover franchise which sees original characters created by Final Fantasy alumni Tetsuya Nomura travel across the different worlds of classic Disney films. The series also used to boast the occasional Final Fantasy character, but that aspect has been dropped  almost entirely for this ‘third’ entry (sans for the Moogle shop, and a few cameos via constellations in the stars. No, not even Sephiroth returns as a super boss).

It’s the Disney half of the game which is the half I love. As a particular fan of Disney’s recent animated films and those of the Pixar brand, Kingdom Hearts 3 is especially enticing in this regard, as Disney’s recent animated output and Pixar films are what Kingdom Hearts 3 really emphasizes this time around with its Disney-themed worlds.

There are seven primary Disney worlds featured in Kingdom Hearts 3 (plus the traditional, optional Winnie the Pooh world, which focuses on mini-games), five of which fall into the modern Disney and Pixar categories: Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Tangled, Frozen and Big Hero 6. The additional two Disney worlds are based on Hercules (which has been present in all three ‘main’ Kingdom Hearts titles) and Pirates of the Caribbean (specifically At World’s End, a movie I actually very much enjoy despite its general reception). Additionally, the game’s best side quest involves Sora and company seeking out ingredients and making new recipes for Remy from Ratatouille.

Even though it’s a smaller lineup of Disney worlds than some of the previous games, Square was clearly aiming for quality over quantity. And in that sense, they nailed it. This is the best lineup of Disney films the series has represented. And it’s within this Disney fan service that Kingdom Hearts 3 is at its very best.

There’s an inescapable delight every time you enter a new Disney world and Sora, Donald and Goofy interact with characters and events from the films. Many of these characters even have their original voice actors from their respective movies (the cast of Frozen, Mandy Moore as Rapunzel, James Woods as Hades, and the perennial John Ratzenberger as Hamm are particular highlights). Of course, this also means when a character doesn’t have their original actor, it does kind of stick out like a sore thumb (I’m looking your way, Pirates of the Caribbean world).

If you’re a Disney fan – particularly a fan of modern Disney, such as myself – it’s impossible not to have a smile beaming across your face during many of the game’s Disney-centric moments. Naturally, seeing Frozen’s Let It Go recreated for the game stands out as my favorite, but you also get the lantern scene from Tangled, get to ride on the endless door conveyor belt from Monsters, Inc., and fly around San Fransokyo atop of Baymax. It’s moments like this when Kingdom Hearts 3’s many flaws wash away and you can simply bask in the charm of the Disney worlds.

With that said, the game often bungles what should be easy fan service. In both the Tangled and Pirates of the Caribbean worlds, their unique party members (Rapunzel and Flynn Rider in Tangled, Jack Sparrow in Pirates) seem to repeatedly leave your party at every other turn, leaving them feeling underutilized (particularly in Tangled’s case, as Rapunzel no longer joins you if you revisit the stage after its story is done).

In perhaps the game’s most dumbfounding (or hilarious) creative hiccup, the Frozen world doesn’t see Elsa or Anna join Sora’s party, but Marshmallow the snowman (geez, they couldn’t even make it Olaf). Some might say they were trying to do something unexpected, but that seems like the wrong place to do it. Wouldn’t getting an unexpected party member in a returning world like Hercules or Pirates make more sense? They have access to the most popular animated film in history, and don’t fully utilize the main characters? Is it a joke? Especially seeing as Rapunzel – who barely seems to join your team at all – is the only female party member you get in the game, it makes Elsa and Anna’s omission even more baffling still.

Another disappointment with the utilization of the Disney brands is in the boss fights. In past Kingdom Hearts titles, you would at least battle against a fair amount of Disney villains. In Kingdom Hearts 3 there are only three boss fights against Disney characters: The Titans in the Hercules world, Marshmallow in Frozen (they’re certainly getting a lot of mileage out of Marshmallow, it seems), and Davy Jones in Pirates. You can’t help but wonder why they couldn’t have added a few more.

The non-Disney half of the equation is as clunky as ever. What’s even worse is how the game seems to reinforce the idea that the Disney stuff isn’t important, and only Tetsuya Nomura’s characters actually mean anything in the grand scheme of the Kingdom Hearts mythos. Nomura’s original creations simply don’t have any of the likability of the Disney characters with whom they often share the screen.

Even after all these years, Sora remains the atypical “anime boy doofus” character you’ve probably seen a thousand times over in other sources. The villainous Organization XIII consists of one-note, entirely interchangeable bad guys (with the game almost self-awarely reinforcing this when the Organization starts swapping out some members for other characters). Sora’s love interest, Kairi, still amounts to little more than a damsel in distress. Riku is the archetypal ‘rival’ who flirted with the dark side. There are other Keyblade wielders thrown into the mix without any real purpose to be in the story at this point. There are clones of characters. Clones of clones. Characters who aren’t clones but look exactly like other characters. There are even characters who share the same name as other characters!

Yes, it’s sad to admit that instead of learning from past mistakes, Nomura has instead doubled-down on them (whether through stubborn arrogance or blissful ignorance, I’m not sure). Instead of developing the core set of main characters, Nomura just kept adding more and more players throughout the series. This has left his original characters with about as much depth as a shallow puddle.

As stated, the Disney element has also suffered from this abundance of characters, with the different Disney casts being shoved to the side as the game constantly reminds us how unimportant they are. In one telling moment, an Organization XIII member discovers that the Dead Man’s Chest from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is not the macguffin he’s after, and immediately disregards it. Yep, that key item from the second and third Pirates movies is merely scoffed at by just another one of the original villains. It almost feels like Kingdom Hearts is now embarrassed of its crossover element at times.

The plot of the game and its characters would feel infinitely smoother if it made the Disney characters feel important to the narrative. Organization XIII alone would be a far more memorable villain group if some Disney and Final Fantasy villains were in its ranks (seeing as they’re established characters, you wouldn’t have to take time with introductions and getting to learn their personalities, thus leaving room to flesh out the original characters that are present). It seems like it should be obvious. You have a big crossover with Disney and Final Fantasy, why not make those aspects of this mythology feel like they mean something? But one is (admittedly delicious) dressing, and the other is barely existent anymore.

Suffice to say, the narrative of Kingdom Hearts 3 is a bit of a mess, with its only real charm stemming from the Disney characters and moments it borrows. But how is Kingdom Hearts 3 as a game?

For the most part, it’s pretty fun. The gameplay is primarily separated into two halves. The first half sees players control Sora, with Donald and Goofy serving as permanent teammates, and each Disney world coming with one or two teammates of their own (for a nice change, you no longer have to swap Donald or Goofy out of the party to make room for the new guys). The gameplay is predominantly a hack-N-slash RPG, with Sora and company hacking away at hordes of Heartless and Nobodies. The D-pad cycles through quick menus, allowing you to use items, cast spells and other such actions. In terms of control, Kingdom Hearts 3 feels a lot like its predecessors, which means it’s quick to get into if you’re familiar with the series, but also means some of the controls feel stuck in the PS2 era.

Sora’s jumps still feel a bit clunky, and cycling through those “quick menus” may not be as quick as one might hope once you start unlocking more abilities and options. If you found the combat of the past games to be a little repetitive, you may find that to be the case here as well. But there are a few new additions to the gameplay that may win you over.

Some may lament that Sora can no longer change into different forms like in Kingdom Hearts 2, but there’s been a fair trade in that the different Keyblades you acquire can change forms instead. By chaining together combos, your currently equipped Keyblade can temporarily transform into a new weapon, giving Sora new moves, altering spells, and boasting a powerful finisher.

Other abilities can be utilized by performing combos as well. Do enough moves when standing next to a teammate, and you can perform a special move with them. Chain together enough spells, and you can perform more powerful versions of said spells. And in one of Kingdom Hearts 3’s best new additions, defeating certain marked enemies during a combo will allow you to summon an “Attraction.” As the name implies, Attractions are vehicles based on Disneyland rides that work like transformations for all three main heroes.

The only issue I have with these different abilities is that they’re all used by pressing the same button (Triangle on PS4). You can cycle through the temporary abilities you currently have available (L2 on PS4), but in the heat of battle it can get confusing and you’ll often use a different ability than the one you wanted. But they do help keep combat fresh.

The other half of the gameplay are the Gummi Ship sections, and this is where Kingdom Hearts 3 has greatly improved on its predecessors.

Players travel between worlds aboard their Gummi Ships (and can do so freely, should they so choose). Whereas past entries placed the Gummi Ships in fixed rail stages that, frankly, weren’t very good, Kingdom Hearts 3 instead boasts three different sandbox worlds set in outer space.

Players are free to fly about the galaxy at their leisure, can fight enemies and bosses, and find hidden treasures. Most treasures consist of more Gummi Ship parts, as players can create their own vessels, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts style. The more you do in space, the stronger your Gummi Ship becomes, and the more options you have available when creating new ships.

For a nice change of pace for the series, the Gummi Ship sections actually feel like a worthy and complimentary alternative to the main game. I found myself willingly spending entire play sessions just in the Gummi Ship portion of things.

“The A113 gag is a nice touch.”

In addition, there are more than a few side quests in Kingdom Hearts 3 that will keep players occupied outside of the main story. Along with helping Remmy create fine cuisine, the Disney themed stages all host a myriad of Hidden Mickeys (referred to as “Lucky Emblems” in the game). By taking photographs of these Lucky Emblems, the player can unlock secret items and abilities (naturally, the camera can also just be used to goof off as well). And a number of worlds feature their own mini-games where the player can once again unlock bonuses and earn high scores.

Kingdom Hearts 3 is a beautiful game to look at. As usual, Square-Enix provides some of the cleanest looking cut scenes in gaming. But the real visual delight of the game is how accurately the developers have captured the look and feel of each different Disney world and the styles unique to them.

Perhaps Kingdom Hearts 3’s most consistently great element is its music. Once again composed by Yoko Shinomura, Kingdom Hearts 3 combines her unmistakeable style with renditions of classic Disney themes in addition to original compositions. Even when other aspects of the game seem to be pushing the Disney element to the sidelines, Shinomura’s terrific score brings it to the forefront, while also creating its own identity.

In the end, it’s hard to say that Kingdom Hearts 3 lived up to the thirteen year buildup. And if you weren’t a fan before, it may leave you wondering what all the fuss was about to begin with. The story aims for emotion but never resonates, due to the lack of substance in the characters (an obvious product of the fact that there’s just too damn many of them). The gameplay is fun, but lacks polish in a number of areas. And despite the franchise’s biggest selling point being its status as a Disney crossover, Kingdom Hearts 3 often comes across as dumbfounded as to how to make that crossover mean anything.

“Why can the loading screen give me what the game itself can’t?”

Yet, despite all the complaints, I’m still happy I played it. The gameplay is solid enough in its own right, complimented by the vastly improved Gummi Ship segments. Best of all are the Disney worlds themselves. Though they could have (and should have) been better implemented, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a persistent glee in my heart simply by running through these worlds, meeting the characters, and seeing iconic scenes recreated. Some might say I’m just a Disney fan who fell for Nomura’s bait and switch. But hey, when the bait is this enticing, can you blame me?

But seriously, next time have Elsa join my team.

 

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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Review

During a flashback sequence in How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – the third and final entry in Dreamworks Animation’s critically-acclaimed trilogy – Stoic the Vast (Gerard Butler) tells his young son Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) that “Love comes with the great price of loss.” It’s a hefty message for a “kid’s movie,” one that treats its target audience with respect, and trusts that they’re mature enough for it. It’s also a fitting message, seeing as the How to Train Your Dragon series began at the dawn of the 2010s, the series now seems to be bookending the movie decade, with many of those who watched the original in theaters as children now adults themselves.

That’s why I wish I could say that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World lived up to that message. The Hidden World may earn brownie points for never talking down to its young demographic, but like both of its predecessors, it ultimately plays things safe in terms of narrative structure. And what could have been a deep, melancholic change of pace for the franchise is unfortunately a missed opportunity in a rather by-the-books animated adventure.

That’s not to say that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is bad by any means. But I’ve always felt that this franchise’s acclaim has been a little misplaced, with most of its praise stemming from the fact that it was a Dreamworks franchise not built on sarcasm (admittedly a novelty for the studio), as opposed to anything remotely resembling Pixar levels of storytelling and thematic invention. How to Train Your Dragon was always a good series, just not really special in the way its acclaim might have you believe. In that sense, The Hidden World lives up to its predecessors’ quality, but it’s a shame that this final entry couldn’t ascend into something more than the series’ “solid but safe” status.

Taking place one year after the defeat of Drago Bludvist and the death of Stoic the Vast in How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hidden World sees Hiccup as the new chieftain 0f the vikings of Berk. And Hiccup’s pet dragon (a ‘Night Fury’ to be precise), Toothless, is the alpha dragon of Berk. With vikings and dragons finally coexisting in peace, Berk seems like a paradise.

Hiccup and his friends – including his now-girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) – have been freeing dragons from less open-minded vikings, and bringing them to Berk as a kind of dragon utopia. But this eventually riles the ire of several viking warlords, who recruit the infamous dragon hunter Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) – the man responsible for sending Night Furies to the brink of extinction – to hunt Toothless and claim Berk’s army of dragons.

Grimmel proves to be a cunning foe, and eludes Berk’s attempts to thwart him. Out of desperation, Hiccups commands the citizens and dragons of Berk to find a new home, on their journey to find the fabled “Hidden World” which can serve as a sanctuary for dragons, outside of human reach. But Grimmel has an ace up his sleeve, a female “Light Fury,” which he plans on using to lure Toothless out of hiding.

It’s a straightforward plot, but one that feels epic in buildup, but ultimately misses its potential in execution. The Hidden World retains the series’ standard hour and a half runtime, but the story at hand feels like it needs more. As a result of cramming in an epic scope into a shorter runtime, many key moments in the film fly by pretty quickly. When what I assumed to be another action set piece ended up being the climax of the film, it really became apparent how rushed the film can feel. It leaves both the big action scenarios and the key emotional moments feeling a tad underwhelming.

Another persistent issue with the franchise which is still at play here is that there are too many side characters. We have Hiccup and Astrid’s friends; Snotlout (Jonah Hill), twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut (Kristin Wiig and Justin Rupple), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), as well as Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), Berk’s resident blacksmith Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and enemy-turned ally Eret (Kit Harington). This abundance of side characters may not have been an issue, if not for the fact that – aside from Valka and Eret – they are all played entirely for comic relief, which basically makes them interchangeable. Once again, if the film were given more time to develop these characters, they may have been a little more than their introductory punchlines. Yet here we are at the end of the series and that’s still where they are.

Of course, the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is still sweet and memorable. Additionally, the relationship between Toothless and the Light Fury is a cute, Lady and the Tramp-style romantic subplot. And I do have to admit, Grimmel is a step up from Bludvist in the bad guy department.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World still showcases the strengths of the series: The animation is often stunningly beautiful, the various creature designs for the dragons are cute and charming, and the music is as gorgeous and epic as ever. Like its predecessors, the things that How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World does well, it does very well. But the disappointing thing is that, in terms of story, the franchise has done very little to stand out on a narrative or thematic level. And more so than the past two entries, The Hidden World suffers from its relatively short running time (plenty of animated films aimed at children reach the two hour mark these days. And when trying to tell a story on this scale, the extra time really could have helped).

The How to Train Your Dragon trilogy can at hold its head high knowing that all three of its acts are genuine efforts that are sure to please fans. But it is a bit of a shame that its storytelling capabilities never really evolved beyond tried-and-true animated conventions. Still, a consistent trilogy is hard to come by, and fans of How to Train Your Dragon will be happy to know that their series is one of the few to have pulled it off.

 

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God of War (PS4) Review

2018’s God of War – the fourth ‘main’ entry in the series – is both an expectedly and surprisingly great game. Expected because the series had already built a solid reputation for itself in the action genre, and surprising because of how effectively it matures the series in both narrative and in game design. God of War still provides the action you would expect from the franchise, but it’s now complimented by stronger storytelling and character depth, as well as a greater emphasis on exploration and discovery. In a lot of ways, it feels like an ideal example of how to rewrite a video game series.

The obvious difference between this God of War and its predecessors is its setting and mythology. While the series was previously built around Greek myths, Kratos now finds himself embroiled in the worlds of Norse legends. This not only gives God of War aesthetic differences from its predecessors, but also gives its overall world-building a fresh canvas to work with.

A deeper but more subtle difference is Kratos himself, who has grown into a fully fleshed out character. In the past Kratos’ sole motivation was vengeance, and he was willing to slaughter entire armies in order to see said vengeance come to fruition. Kratos now has a son, Artreus, with the protection of his child being at the forefront of the former god of war’s concern.

“Totally not the Mines of Moria.”

The motivation for the plot, however, is that Artreus’ mother is recently deceased, and her final wish is for Kratos and Artreus to scatter ashes from the peak of the highest mountain in all nine realms, which sets their epic journey in motion. Although naturally the story builds into something more than that once new characters and threats get involved, the fact that the setup of God of War is simply to fulfill the final wish of a lost loved one is refreshingly personal and simple.

Between the introduction of Artreus and the goal to meet his late wife’s last wish, Kratos has evolved into a three-dimensional character. Wanting to protect Artreus from living the same life of death and destruction as he did, Kratos has kept his true identity as a god from his son. As such, Kratos has learned to restrain his rage, only killing in defense of himself and his son, and doing his damndest to be a good father (despite his cold disposition).

This works on two narrative levels: the first, as stated, is that it has evolved Kratos into a proper character, having shown a genuine sense of growth from the simplistic “raging bald guy” video game archetype he once was. The second is that it almost seems to evoke a sense of meta-commentary on both its own series and, notably, gaming as a whole, and how the medium has matured since the first God of War hit shelves in 2005.

The God of War of 2005 is something that – while a good game – is kind of easy to laugh at in retrospect. Between it’s rage-fueled, vengeance-seeking hero, excessive brutality, and sex mini-games, it was almost a poster child for the gaming trends of the time. But gaming now is a bit less teenage boy-centric with its scenarios, and just as gaming has matured over the years, so too has Kratos.

Though the gameplay of God of Wars past may not share in that unintentional humorous aspect in hindsight, the 2018 PS4 exclusive still saw fit to improve on it. Kratos is now equipped with a frost-based axe that can be thrown and summoned back to his hand, much like Thor’s hammer. Not only is this axe used to slaughter monsters that would do Kratos and Artreus harm, but both its throwing and ice-based abilities are cleverly woven into puzzle-solving throughout the game.

Additionally, there’s a stronger emphasis on exploration than in previous entries, with secret items and side quests scattered everywhere in the game’s world. Though the main story is progressed in refreshingly linear fashion, Sony’s Santa Monica Studios has packed God of War’s world with so much to do that you’ll be exploring it long after the credits have rolled.

Of course, this wouldn’t be God of War if combat weren’t a key element. And even that is given some extra dimension. Both Kratos and Artreus can be leveled up and upgraded throughout the game, with the player primarily controlling Kratos, who can wield his axe or his bare fists – in addition to a later weapon – into combat. Players are also able to send commands for Artreus (who uses a magic bow) during battle with just a few buttons. Additionally, Kratos can build up his “rage meter” to build up energy that, when unleashed, sends Kratos into rage mode (noting that he now has control over his rage, and not the other way around), which temporarily grants extra strength and speed. Both characters learn new moves and abilities as the player advances, bringing a nice RPG sense of progression to the proceedings.

“Hello, giant snek.”

The combat remains as fun as ever, with the various moves and combos you learn along the way adding a good dose of variety to both characters. What’s interesting this time around, however, is that the combat never overshadows how well made God of War’s other aspects are. In past entries, the combat was the undisputed main course. But in PS4’s God of War, puzzles and exploration come into play almost as often.

“There are quite a few “move a big ass crystal somewhere else and shoot it with a magic arrow” puzzles.”

Sadly, there are a few downsides to the gameplay. A number of puzzles feel recycled throughout the game. And sometimes, the combat sections can drag on longer than they need to. God of War definitely gets an A+ in its balancing act of its different gameplay ingredients (combat, exploration and puzzles), but it can at times feel like its running out of ideas to keep each element fresh. The repetition is never too bad, but it can feel like a means to pad some sections out.

Another issue arrises in traveling throughout the game. You don’t have access to fast traveling until very late in the game, meaning that for most of the journey, you have to either walk or row a boat to your destinations. If you’re only aiming to do the main story, it’s not much of an issue, given the linear nature of the adventure. But even if you wish to do the side content before finishing the game, I think you’re better off waiting until after the main story, as traveling from one area to another can get pretty time consuming until the fast travel option unlocks.

None of these issues are deal-breakers, of course. God of War is too well crafted of a gaming experience for any shortcomings to hinder it too much. The gameplay is incredibly satisfying, especially its fluid combat. And the well-written story and fleshed-out characters add a level of narrative depth that the series lacked in the past.

“Welcome to Arendelle, Kratos.”

God of War is an engrossing gaming experience, made all the more absorbing by its stunning visuals and audio. God of War is one of the most visually captivating games I’ve ever played. The realism in the character models is rivaled solely by Uncharted 4 and Red Dead Redemption 2, the creature designs are creative and memorable, and every location is a wonder to behold (why don’t more games aim for snowy landscapes and less on post-apocalyptic wastelands and grungy cyberpunk worlds?). And the musical score, with one sweeping, epic piece after another, really makes Kratos’ journey feel like something special.

God of War is something special. It not only pushes the PS4 to its limits in terms of technical power (which is abundantly clear with every last stunning visual), but also reinvents its franchise in a meaningful way. Not every gaming franchise has the same ability to reinvent itself as Mario or Zelda. Franchises like Mass Effect and the once-untouchable Halo have fallen from grace. But PS4’s God of War does such a great job at reinventing its franchise that it ensures a bright future for Kratos and Artreus.

 

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