Donut County Review

Donut County is an indie game by Ben Esposito. Released in 2018, Donut County was one of the pleasant surprises of the year, and can be described as something along the lines of an inverse Katamari Damacy. While Katamari saw players bundle up as many objects (and people) imaginable to create one giant mass, Donut County sees players take control of a hole in the ground to engulf everything (and everyone) in sight.

“Sometimes the gameplay takes a break and sees the characters texting each other. You can select the duck button to send a quack to the person on the other end. Just because.”

Taking place in the titular county, the primary characters of the game are employees at the local donut shop; Mira, a human, and her boss, BK the raccoon. Whether or not this shop sells actual donuts is up for debate, as most of their business (unbeknownst to Mira at first) is that BK uses a cell phone app to deliver “donuts” to customers…except that these donuts are actually holes in the ground the slowly increase in size as they swallow more objects, and have ultimately been trapping people underground along with their homes and all of their stuff.

The majority of the game is told in flashbacks, as Mira and BK have been sucked down a hole themselves. The other residents of Donut County recount the events of how they got sucked underground, and their stories are then played out as the game’s stages. All the while, the residents of Donut County try to help BK come to the realization that what he did was wrong (he simply wanted to build up points with the app to purchase a drone). It’s a delightfully bonkers game that really does feel like a little love letter to Katamari Damacy.

As stated, the player doesn’t control any characters, but the hole in the ground. The hole always starts out small, and increases in size with the more objects it swallows. You’ll begin stages sending pebbles and flowers down the hole, and gradually work your way to larger objects, before the hole becomes so large it can overtake houses. It all sounds simple – and truth be told it is – but it’s a whole lot of fun and will keep a smile on your face.

Donut County does find ways to keep the concept fresh, with puzzle elements introduced early on, which continue to grow as the game progresses. For example, an early stage sees the player guide the hole to swallow a campfire, which results in smoke emanating from the hole, with the player then guiding the hole under a hot air balloon so the smoke can help it lift off. And later on in the game, BK purchases a “catapult attachment” to the hole, which can launch specific items out of the hole. You can catapult these objects to knock down out of reach items, which may be necessary to increase the size of the hole. Donut County takes its simplistic concept, and finds fun and inventive new ways to utilize it throughout.

The entire campaign of Donut County should take roughly two hours. So it’s a very short game, which isn’t a bad thing (give me a compact but complete game over an overly long one filled with padding any day). The downside, however, is that there’s not too much incentive for replay value other than to complete the ‘Trashopedia” (the collection of objects you’ve sent down holes, with each item having its own humorous description), but chances are you’ll already have the Trashopedia nearly complete after your first playthrough anyway.

There may not be a whole lot of content to make up for the short campaign, but everything that is present in Donut County – simple though it may be – is undeniably charming and fun. Similar to Portal or (you guessed it) Katamari Damacy, Donut County introduces an innovative gameplay concept, and presents it in so many playful ways it will continuously pique players’ interest to see what’s around the next corner.

There are few things in gaming as satisfying as the combination of fun, original gameplay and a unique, quirky charm. Donut County is a terrific example of just that.

 

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The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game Review

 

“A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”

-Willy Wonka

 

The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game is an indie title by Grace Bruxner released at the tail-end of 2018. The first entry in a planned series, this point-and-click adventure is something of a parody of the genre in which the hero is a frog detective simply named…Detective.

Detective is assigned a case on a small island owned by a sloth named Martin, who claims the island is haunted by a ghost. Strange noises have been heard on the island for about two weeks, and Martin hired a group of ‘ghosts scientists’ to try to find the apparition, with no luck. So Detective is here to find the source of the mysterious noises by investigating the island.

The game more or less revolves around a single puzzle. The mysterious noises are emanating from a cave, but the entrance was caved in. So in order to find a means to investigate, the frog detective has to blow open the entrance to the cave, which one of the ghost scientists conveniently can do for you, but he requires the proper ingredients to make the dynamite to do so (toothpaste, wool, pasta and gold, naturally). So Detective has to talk to the other scientists on the island, as well as Martin, to figure out ways to get those ingredients.

That’s really all there is to The Haunted Island. You simply have to talk to the island’s inhabitants and figure out who can help you solve one of the other inhabitants problems and reward you with the ingredients. And usually, the characters make the answers to their problems completely obvious. It’s a single puzzle game in which the puzzle requires almost no thinking. It’s as bare bones of a point-and-click game as you can get, and is more of an interactive short story, than anything else.

Normally, I might hate a game for being so empty on the gameplay side of things (especially in the case of indie games, which seem to get a free pass for “not being games”). And yet, I’m going to be a hypocrite and give this game a pass for the simple reason that the dialogue won me over with its innocence and stupidity.

“This character is protective of their collection of tiny shells, which are so tiny you can’t see them. Once you give them a normal sized shell, they will reward you with a magnifying glass, since they no longer need it to stare at tiny shells.”

The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game is funny. It makes up for its lack of depth by being downright silly. The characters each have their own weird quirks, and they all talk about their own brand of nonsense. It has a silly sense of cartoon banter that reminds me of Adventure Time, and the dilemmas the characters find themselves in are so stupid it can’t help but put a smile on your face. The koala character is slow, and requests that you bring them a magnet so that they can latch onto a boat and move fast, for example. Meanwhile, Martin first became suspicious of a ghost after reading (some of) a book that stated you can’t see ghosts, and since he hasn’t seen a ghost, surely there must be a ghost.

As you might expect, the game is incredibly short, and it even advertises itself at being only about an hour long (in fact, after I watched the epilogue my Steam account claims that I spent exactly 60 minutes with the game). But it’s also incredibly cheap on Steam so you don’t exactly feel shortchanged.

“My favorite running gag in the game is that Frog Detective is constantly reminded by his boss that he’s only on the case because their best agent – Lobster Cop – is already on duty elsewhere. Rather than object, Frog Detective vehemently agrees that Lobster Cop is his better.”

Look, The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game is not what I’d traditionally call a ‘good’ game. But it is a good slice of some harmless stupidity that is worth an hour of your time if you just want some giggles. I guess maybe after being exposed to a number of indie games that feel like having a pretentious, artsy attitude makes up for a lack of gameplay (it doesn’t), I just find it a little refreshing to find one that uses that same lack of gameplay to be the basis of a joke.

 

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Fortnite Battle Royale Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version*

Poor PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround. PUBG quickly rose to prominence in 2017, created the current trend of ‘battle royal’ games, and became the smash hit of the year, outselling long-time heavy-hitters like Overwatch and League of Legends. But around the time PUBG was becoming a phenomenon, Epic Games released Fortnite, a survival shooter in which groups of players faced waves of zombie-like creatures while also gathering materials to construct safe houses to better combat the creatures. PUBG’s popularity caught the eye of Epic Games, who then used the assets of Fortnite to create their own battle royal title. Thus Fortnite Battle Royale was born (and the original Fortnite now earning the “Save the World” subtitle), and quickly beat PUBG at its own game. Sure, PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround can still claim to be one of the best-selling games in history, but for a game that essentially became a cultural phenomenon, it probably had the shortest time in that level of spotlight than any other. And it has Fortnite Battle Royale to thank for that.

But is Fortnite Battle Royale actually better than PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround? Truth be told, they may be too similar to actually make a definitive call on that. But there are some differences between Fortnite Battle Royale and PUBG that at least justifies their competition.

Like PUBG, Fortnite Battle Royale sees players skydive onto an island, where they then scavenge for weapons and items for their inevitable confrontations with other players. Meanwhile, the safe zone on the island continue to get smaller and smaller, with players stuck outside of it quickly taking damage, thus forcing players into a more confined space.

The key gameplay differences here are that Fortnite Battle Royale has a stronger emphasis on team-based match-ups, and that Save the World’s construction mechanic remains intact.

Players are equipped with pickaxes, which they use to gather wood, stone and metal from the environment. With these materials, players can build  constructs to better maneuver the island and protect themselves from enemy fire. It’s a nice little Minecraft/Terraria twist on the PUBG gameplay, but you can definitely tell that the element wasn’t designed with the battle royale mode in mind. Switching between combat mode and building mode, and then cycling through all the options within them is just too cumbersome when you’re in the middle of a firefight. When enemies start destroying your walls and safe houses faster than you can build them, it gets all the more tedious. It’s a nice mechanic in concept, but it’s obvious it was made for the player-versus-environment half of Fortnite.

The emphasis on teamwork also makes Fortnite Battle Royale a more easy-going game than PUBG, since you can still rack up extra points if one (or more) of your teammates are the last ones standing. And the more points you get the more cosmetic items you unlock, which may be where Fortnite Battle Royale actually beats PUBG, instead of simply matching it.

In contrast to PUBG’s vanilla FPS visuals, Fortnite Battle Royale has a more cartoonish look, with cel-shaded visuals and outrageous character cosmetics (rainbow afros, mascot costumes, etc.). Even the environment is comprised of random oddities like Maui heads and beach balls. Even the aircraft that drops players onto the battlefield is a party bus attached to balloons. Some might say the cartoony aspects of the game clash with the survival aspect – and indeed it never matches the suspense of PUBG – but the added personality definitely sets it apart.

On the downside of things, Fortnite Battle Royale suffers from many of the same technical issues as PUBG. Environments and textures can take a long time to load, character movements can get sporadic and jittery, and so on. The technical issues may not be quite as bad as in PUBG, but it is a shame that such issues are still present in a title that had a larger developer behind it.

In the end, Fortnite Battle Royale is more complimentary to what PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds started than it is an improvement of it. It’s just as fun, the construction element – while maybe a little tacked on – helps differentiate things a bit. If PUBG gained a lot of momentum, it makes sense that Fortnite’s added does of personality would lead it to take the battle royal torch and run with it.

 

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Dark Souls Review

*Review based on Dark Souls release as Dark Souls Remastered*

Dark Souls is a difficult game. Many enemies and bosses can kill you with one stroke, deadly traps will lead to instant death, and invading players always have it out for you. The challenge of Dark Souls has become the stuff of gaming legend. And yet, that difficulty is hardly the summation of Dark Souls. Rather, the steep challenge is justified by being part of one of the most tightly constructed, immersive and overall satisfying experiences in all of video games. Yes, Dark Souls is difficult, but it’s so much more than that.

Director Hidetaka Miyazaki followed the blueprint of his earlier title Demon’s Souls when crafting this spiritual sequel. Dark Souls transcended its predecessor by delving into deeper gameplay territories. The most prominent of which being its merging with the Metroidvania sub-genre, with each land to be discovered in the game connecting with another, and shortcuts between them to be found once you meet the right requirements.

The world in question is Lordran, one of the great settings in video games. The people of Lordran suffer the curse of being undead. Unlike most fantasy stories, the undead of Dark Souls look like human beings, but they are unable to die, instead losing more and more of their humanity upon death, eventually becoming a ‘Hollow’ (essentially a mindless zombie, and more akin to what is usually labeled as ‘undead’). Players take on the role of the ‘Chosen Undead,’ who escapes from the Undead Asylum and arrives in Lordran, where they begin a pilgrimage that is destined to bring them face to face with Lord Gwyn, an old god responsible for the undead curse.

As is the standard for the series, most story and world elements are intentionally vague, with snippets of character dialogue and flavorful descriptions of items giving insight into the world of Lordran. It proves to be one of the more effective means of video game storytelling, with players able to delve into the narrative should they choose, or simply bask in pure gameplay.

From the get-go, Dark Souls’ gameplay presents a staggering amount of variety: Players can customize their character to be more focused on heavy physical damage, magic attacks, healing, quick strikes, and more. And even when you do decide which direction to take your character, there are still several different routes you can take with each build. Even the core gameplay provides different styles, whether it’s a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, two weapons, a weapon and a staff, there’s no shortage of options. You can even swap into holding a weapon with both hands at the press of a button.

The depth in gameplay just never lets up. There are new mechanics constantly being introduced, and some which are so subtle you may not realize they were there until late into the journey.

Two of the key mechanics players will need to know are souls and humanity. Souls are acquired from defeating enemies, and work as both experience points to level up your character and currency for buying items, weapons and armor. Humanity is a bit rarer, being an occasional drop from enemies and scattered about the world, as well as rewarded for helping other players fell bosses. When the player dies (and you will die), they become Hollow which – along with making their character look more deathly – prevents you from summoning other players for help. Adding to the game’s challenge, every time you die, you lose your souls and humanity (though you retain unused humanity in your inventory). You have a chance to reclaim your lost earnings if you can return to the spot you died, but if you die again before you make it, you lose everything.

The now-iconic Bonfires serve as checkpoints, but are also where you spend souls to level up, repair and upgrade equipment, and where you can spend a humanity to undo the effects of Hollowing. Resting at bonfires also refills your Estus Flask – your primary source of healing – and you can increase the usage of your Flask at any bonfire you’ve kindled, which also costs a humanity. Suffice to say, discovering a new bonfire after a series of rough patches is a godsend.

The sheer amount of detail that emits from every environment of Lordran is staggering. The level design is among the best of any Metroidvania title, with every destination being perfectly staged with enemy and item placements, not to mention secrets around every corner (a number of which rival Symphony of the Night’s inverted castle in how they change and expand upon the whole experience). Even in its most painfully difficult moments, it’s all too easy to get absorbed in Dark Souls’ structure and depth.

If things get too difficult, you can always call on other players to help you out by finding their summon signs across the land (with players usually leaving them around bonfires and boss doors). You can summon up to two other players to aide you in an area until you rid it of its boss, but you can’t summon players when hollowed. There is a caveat to staying human, however, as whenever you’re not hollow you are susceptible to invasion by enemy players. Of course, if you’re getting stuck on a particular segment, or simply want to help or hinder someone else, you can always leave a summon sign or invade another player for a change of pace.

On its own, the multiplayer of Dark Souls – both cooperative and combative – has rightfully proven influential over the years, as it remains a fun and refreshing change from multiplayer norms. But to add another layer to everything, players can join Covenants throughout their journey, which often have their own benefits and rewards for both friendly and fiendish multiplayer.

I suppose we do have to go back and talk about the notorious difficulty of Dark Souls. While the game can get brutally difficult – to the point of intimidating some players – it’s never unfair. Whether its equipping the proper armor to withstand poisoning or finding the right spot to best hide from a boss’ devastating attack, there are always methods to what seems like madness. More importantly, there is always a sense of strategy, with players able to survive any onslaught if they know when to dodge, block or attack. While a lesser designed game may simply leave you throwing your hands in the air and giving up under such difficulty, Dark Souls is so well designed that it will leave you wanting to push yourself to see things through. Dark Souls may have you feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, going about the same situation in different ways until you get it right. And when you do get it right, there’s seldom an experience in gaming that even approaches its sense of reward.

Though it was originally released in 2011, Dark Souls’ visuals have held up nicely, with the remastered version making it look all the more at home on current hardware. Better still is its art direction, which should rank among the best of the medium. There’s not a location or creature that doesn’t stick with you. Combine that with the game’s incredible musical score and unparalleled sound work, and Dark Souls is quite the spectacle, and presents perhaps the most absorbing fantasy world in gaming.

There are a few minor issues with Dark Souls, but nothing that truly undermines its overall excellence. Later in the game you gain the ability to warp between specific bonfires, though you may wish you gained the ability a little sooner when you find yourself going back and forth in the earlier half of the game. Then there’s the backstabbing mechanic, which is just far too easy for players to perform on one another. While being invaded by opposing players may be par for the course, it kind of sullies a lot of player-versus-player encounters when everyone is simply trying to pull off a backstab on each other in place of using their full moveset. But again, these are little more than quibbles.

Yes, Dark Souls is a very difficult game, but it’s so much more than that. While most of the video game world became preoccupied with trying to replicate the spectacle of Hollywood once the medium made the jump to 3D, Dark Souls instead feels more akin to what would have happened if the older style of games from the 80s and early 90s had evolved into the present day. Like the best games from those early years, Dark Souls requires its players to gain an intimate knowledge of its every last location and trinket in order to see things through. It combines those older traditions with one idea after another that are entire its own, and continues to build on them throughout its entirety.

Dark Souls is a difficult video game. But it also happens to be one of the very best.

Praise the sun!

 

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Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom Review

A kingdom reborn…

The original Ni No Kuni, Wrath of the White Witch, is not only one of my favourite games on what is arguably my favourite Sony console, but it is arguably the greatest modern JRPG in recent memory – ranking meteorically high amongst the small repertoire of contemporary greats. With its brilliantly realized world – complimented with gorgeously animated sequences produced by the masterful Studio Ghibli –, an exquisite musical score co-composed by the brilliant Joe Hisaishi, a Tales meets Pokémon battle system, and a surprisingly poignant narrative that resonates on multiple accords, Wrath of the White Witch is a rare treat of an RPG that never fails to impress. Its sequel, Revenant Kingdom, takes a number of steps forward -establishing some new ideas while polishing the original’s foundation – but questionably stumbles in other areas, arguably taking a few steps backwards. Studio Ghibli’s involvement is objectively non-existent, exposition is divulged in extensive text-based dialogue sequences, the intuitive hybrid active/turn-based system is entirely replaced by a simplistic, yet fun, action-based combat system, and its narrative is disappointingly shallow in comparison to the original’s emotional brilliance. Despite its disappointing nature, Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is an undeniably fun experience that is exceptionally beautiful and surprisingly engaging. Revenant Kingdom never reaches the resonating heights of its predecessor but manages to establish an aura of its own, thanks to its fantastic world-building and unexpected level of gameplay variance.

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Mega Man 11 is the Real Deal

I don’t get this “Mega Man 11” thing! It just looks like Capcom is trying to rip off Mighty No. 9!

All joking aside, I got to play Mega Man 11 at E3 today (after an excruciatingly long wait in line), and walked away very impressed with the game, which is now on my radar as one of my most anticipated titles of the year.

When Mega Man 11 was first revealed, a lot of fans were disappointed with the new visual look, and wanted another 8-bit throwback title. Personally, I think making another 8-bit entry would have felt a bit tired by this point. Besides, Mega Man 7 and 8 weren’t 8-bit, so it’s not as if Mega Man 11 is the first entry to go against the series’ NES roots.

“At least the long line included monitors with fun questions and factoids about Mega Man’s history. This was by far my favorite one.”

One concern I did have though, was that the new look may have meant a new direction for the series’ difficulty, and maybe ease things up a bit to grab a new audience. I’m not one of those people who demands that every game be extremely difficult, and that any game that’s on the easy side is automatically bad. But in Mega Man’s case, the difficulty is as much a part of the series as the Blue Bomber’s ability to steal the powers of defeated Robot Masters.

Although only one stage was available in the demo (Block Man’s), it proved to be pleasantly challenging. Perhaps more importantly, the challenge was brought about by some creative ideas in the level design, with the standout moment being Mega Man navigating through confined rooms which are on a conveyor belt heading for an insta-kill grinder. Mega Man has to shoot path-blocking stones, and navigate the rooms by jumping and sliding in order to escape them and, by extension, escape the grinder. But once one such mini-room is completed, there’s another one in line on the conveyor belt.

It’s concepts like that why platformers remain one of gaming’s greatest genres. Even with a template as old as Mega Man’s, getting creative with the level design is all the developers need to make things feel new again.

Additionally, Mega Man now possesses an ability to slow down time for a short while, with certain level elements and enemies taking advantage of the mechanic. One enemy hides within a spinning wheel, which has only a small opening for Mega Man’s blast can make it through. While Mega Man can time his blast to destroy the enemy under normal conditions, the enemy’s wheel spins fast enough to make it difficult to get the timing down. That’s when slowing down time comes in handy, as it turns the small opportunity to hit this particular enemy into a much bigger one.

The time-slowing mechanic is a fun little twist on the Mega Man formula, and hopefully a few similar mechanics are introduced to keep things fresh.

From what I can gather from my limited experience with the game, Mega Man 11 looks to not only revive the series after a notably lengthy absence, but also adding to the series’ norms in ways to make it feel like a proper continuation for the franchise, and not simply a throwback.

I was tentatively excited for Mega Man 11 when it was announced, but after playing a stage of the game, it’s really looking like the Mega Man title the gaming world needs…especially after Mighty No. 9.

“I’m a better Mega Man than Mega Man! I’m actually aiming my mega buster at the bad guy!”

Celeste Review

An inspirational climb to greater heights.

January has never been a heavy hitting month for video game releases – it functions as a relative calm before the storm. However contemporary showcases have proven to be a delightful exception to the rule, transcending January into a mainstay of quality. January 2013 saw the release of one of the best modern JRPGs in recent memory, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch and January 2017 introduced the franchise resurrecting Resident Evil 7: biohazard, a franchise reviver and one of the best games of 2017. This past January also had a masterpiece simmering under the radar, the independent platformer with tremendous heart, Celeste. While its sense of scale is rather diminutive compared to the previously mentioned January entries, its level of quality never faltered, making it an undeniable front-runner for game of the year. Plated with its impeccable level design, brilliantly simple mechanics, and slew of deviating paths and hidden goodies, Celeste transcends into a remarkably defined staple of the modern 2D platformer. Its pitch perfect gameplay and refined mechanics are enhanced by its impeccably crafted pace and gameplay implementation, introducing new twists and turns at every corner, significantly upping the ante with each new chapter. Aside from its mechanical prowess, Celeste boasts one of the most beautifully crafted narratives to ever grace the gaming sphere, a creative element typically undermined or absent in mainstays of the genre. Celeste’s inspiring coming of age story is a breath of fresh air to the expanding portfolio of 2D platformers. While these two fundamental structures of Celeste are inherently separate, both exude an unparalleled level of quality, becoming prime examples of their craft and are seamlessly harmonized as a result. Celeste is not only a remarkable start to the new year, it is arguably the best modern 2D platformer, standing tall amongst the meteoric heights of Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Ori and the Blind Forest.

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