Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee Review

*Review based on the updated Steam release of Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee*

The Oddworld series has had a turbulent development history. Originally envisioned as a five-part “Quintology,” the series quickly expanded to include “bonus games,” after the success of the first entry in the series, Abe’s Oddysee, quickly lead to the development of an unplanned direct follow-up, Abe’s Exoddus. The second “proper” installment in the Quintology, Munch’s Oddysee, would then see a number of road bumps in its own development. Originally planned as a Playstation 2 exclusive, all the work developer Oddworld Inhabitants made for that version of Munch went out the window and had to be rebuilt from the ground up when the game transitioned to the Xbox. And with the pressure of releasing Munch’s Oddysee as a launch title for Microsoft’s then-new home console, many of the ideas and concepts series creator Lorne Lanning and company had for Munch had to be trimmed down, cut short, or removed entirely.

It should be no surprise that Munch’s Oddysee is widely accepted as the worst entry in the series by both fans and critics then. Even Lorne Lanning has publicly expressed his disappointment with the finished product on numerous occasions. Munch’s reception would shift Oddworld Inhabitants’ focus onto a bonus game once again, as the next Oddworld entry, Stranger’s Wrath, was created with the intention of separating itself from Munch’s Oddysee as much as possible.

That was the end of the line for Oddworld for a good while. The series would end up having more cancelled and unrealized games than it did actual releases. Squeek’s Oddysee, the planned third entry in the Quintology, was never released, nor were multiplayer title The Hand of Odd or the spiritual sequel to Stranger’s Wrath, The Brutal Ballad of Fangus Klot. It wasn’t until 2014 with the release of Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty – a remake of the original Abe’s Oddysee – that the series would return. At that point, Oddworld Inhabitants chose to reboot the series, using the remake as a launching pad to start things over. 2021 will see the release of SoulStorm, a “complete re-imagining” of Abe’s Exoddus which is now being reworked as the second installment of the Quintology, effectively making Munch’s Oddysee completely non-canon (Stranger has hopefully escaped this fate, given how little it had to do with the previous games anyway).

It probably didn’t help the game’s reputation when the four Oddworld titles were bundled together on Steam in 2010, with the port of Munch suffering from so many bugs and glitches that it continued to receive patches and updates all the way into 2016.

Playing Munch’s Oddysee today, twenty years after it debuted alongside the original XBox in 2001, its shortcomings have only been magnified. It’s a shame, because in terms of ideas, Munch’s Oddysee has no shortage of creativity. But it’s now more obvious than ever at how all these ideas were only partly realized. The sacrifices made in its development make Munch’s Oddysee feel like a series of missed opportunities and lost potential.

The titular Munch of the game is a Gabbit, an amphibious creature with a large head and a single leg. Actually, Munch is believed to be the very last Gabbit, as the species became popular hunting game for their eggs (considered a delicacy by the Glukkons, Oddworld’s dominant species of businessmen), and for their powerful lungs, which are compatible with most of Oddworld’s other species (with Glukkons being such heavy smokers, Gabbit lungs come in handy). Gabbits were also used for experimentations by Vykkers (who are under Glukkons but above most other creatures in the Oddworld pecking order, filling the roles of scientists and doctors).

Unfortunately for Munch, he ends up kidnapped by a couple of Vykkers, who perform a series of experiments on the poor Gabbit, installing a sonar device onto his head. Munch manages to escape the lab with the help of the Fuzzles – small, round creatures that look like fuzzy versions of those old chicken McNuggets characters – another popular subject of Vykker experimentation.

Meanwhile, original Oddworld hero Abe returns, being instructed by a being known as “The Almighty Raisin” to find the last Gabbit. With the help of Munch, Abe can rescue more of his enslaved Mudokon brothers. And with Abe’s help, Munch might just be able to track down the last known can of “Gabbiar” (Gabbit eggs), and save his species from extinction.

Munch’s Oddysee obviously continues the series’ environmental themes, but it’s pretty apparent early on that much of the story didn’t make it into the final game, with a number of plot elements feeling rushed or forgotten. The plot also gets a little silly later on, with Abe and Munch trying to make a particularly “lazy and incompetent Glukkon” wealthy, so that Abe can use his telepathy on said Glukkon to win the Gabbit eggs at an auction (why Abe and Munch can’t just sneak into the auction and possess whoever happened to win it is a detail that maybe needed some explanation).

It seems Munch’s Oddysee fully embraces the more comical and cartoonish aspects of Oddworld, which isn’t a bad thing in an of itself, but it’s a bit sad to see the series’ darker and more gruesome elements disappear, as it’s that combination of grimness and cartoonish antics that help make Oddworld feel so unique. Even the environments look brighter and more colorful than in Abe’s solo outings.

Whereas the “Abe” titles were 2D puzzle-platformers, Munch’s Oddysee took things into the 3D platformer route. Perhaps the shift to 3D was another hurdle for Oddworld Inhabitants (aside from Nintendo with Super Mario 64, can you name a developer who got 3D right in their first go?), though credit where it’s due, Munch’s Oddysee had some innovative ideas for the genre that still feel unique all these years later.

Notably, both Abe and Munch are distinct characters not just in appearance, but in gameplay as well. Abe can move faster and jump higher on land, but is unable to swim. Meanwhile, Munch may be slower by default, but he can find wheelchairs to move faster, and is a capable swimmer to boot. Abe can once again possess enemies, while Munch – using the sonar device in his head – can hack into machines to control them. Abe still communicates with his fellow Mudokons, with the native Mudokons becoming soldiers that can go into battle in place of the defenseless Abe, and can even be upgraded to have melee and ranged weapons (giving the game a light RTS twist). Munch, meanwhile, can free Fuzzles from their cages, and can similarly command the vicious creatures against enemies.

I love all of the gameplay ideas in concept. Sadly, none of them feel like they reach their full potential. What’s even worse is that, despite being Munch’s game, he definitely feels like he gets the short end of the stick between the playable duo.

Due to the shift in 3D, Abe’s chanting now works differently here, requiring the use of “Spooce Shrubs” to produce a telepathic light, which the player then controls until it finds an enemy or runs out of time (you can use up to 10 Spooce to make the light last longer). Not only is the Spooce found everywhere, but Abe can instantly regrow a shrub after picking it up, which Munch can’t do. And even though there are still moments that prevent Abe from chanting, there are far more opportunities for him to possess enemies than there are for Munch to hack into machines, which only happens on a few occasions. There are even more than a few moments where you can cheese your way through a stage by using Abe’s possession abilities to clear an area of its foes, instead of working through the level the way I think it was intended given the layout (I can’t help but feel Oddworld Inhabitants intended to include the drones that prevent Abe’s chanting in these segments, but just forgot to include them).

There are also more levels that include Mudokon soldiers than Fuzzles, and as stated, you can upgrade the Mudokons (once again using Spooce), but the Fuzzles lack variety or advancements. The Fuzzles also have trouble keeping up with Munch when he’s on his wheelchair, nor can they follow him into the water, effectively making his soldiers much less useful than Abe’s, on top of already being less interesting.

It’s things like this that make Munch feel underdeveloped from a gameplay standpoint. He’s a cute little fella (well, as cute as anything in Oddworld could possibly be, anyway), but I feel like Oddworld Inhabitants could have done the character better had they settled on one idea for him, like his preference for water. If Munch had some kind of aquatic soldiers and had water-based puzzles to solve, his gameplay would probably feel a lot more fleshed out. The developers should have leaned into the idea of Munch’s amphibian nature, instead of throwing in the sonar device and hacking and Fuzzles. Munch is a Jack of all trades, but a master of none, whereas Abe’s gameplay is more concrete (albeit his jumping feels pretty awkward this time around). As a result, Munch feels like the sidekick of his own game.

Of course, the concept of “too many ideas and not knowing what to do with them” kind of sums up Munch’s Oddysee as a whole. Abe’s Exoddus also had a rushed development, but because Oddworld Inhabitants knew what it was (a bigger, better sequel to Abe’s Oddysee), the end result was fantastic. Munch’s Oddysee feels like Lorne Lanning and company had a lot of ideas for the game, but didn’t settle on any one of them by the time development was pressured into meeting the XBox’s launch.

I can’t help but feel the way to go for Munch’s Oddysee was to build on the “3D platformer meets RTS” aspect (with Abe on land and Munch in water). The game just isn’t nearly as interesting in the levels that are absent of the Mudokon and Fuzzle soldiers. It tries to implement puzzles like in Abe’s titles, but these puzzles quickly become repetitious. One notably lackluster stage is literally just Abe doing some platforming to reach switches to open doors so Munch can pass through repeatedly. Another requires Abe to possess a “Big Bro Slig” to take out the other Slig soldiers in the stage, without informing the player that the Sligs in this particular stage respawn numerous times, and you have to exhaust their respawns in order to make things safe for Abe and Munch. That’s just tedious and cryptic.

There are other examples of shortcuts and cut corners taken: Paramites and Scrabs reappear for one level apiece, but they feel like token appearances this time around, instead of part of Oddworld’s unique setting (they even act identical in this game, further devaluing their appearance). Even the stages and their progression feel unfinished, with levels ending simply by having Abe and Munch stand on pads with their faces on them, which takes players directly into a loading screen and then immediately throwing them into the next stage (I have nothing against linear structures in games, but surely a world map at the very least would make the game feel far less fragmented).

Despite the years of fixes and patches the PC version of Munch’s Oddysee went through, I still experienced some notable bugs during my playthrough for this review. Three in particular stood out: the camera in the game is already more than a little messy, but when it was meant to focus on a particular object for a key moment in a stage (like unlocking a door after solving a puzzle), it would seemingly lose all control before only kind of focusing on the intended object. The second involved possessing enemies, as the ball of light that Abe conjures when he chants would sometimes (not all the time, but sometimes) only move when jumping. Finally, the most confusing bug involved the run button. Normally Abe and Munch just walk when using the control stick, and you need to hold a button to make them run. But in some stages, it was the opposite, and the characters ran by default, and walked when I held the run button.

Whether or not bugs such as those were present in the original Xbox release, I can’t remember. Either Munch’s Oddysee was always a much more technically flawed game than I remembered, or the PC port is still a mess after years of fixes. Either way, it doesn’t help the game’s reputation as the low point in the Oddworld series.

I love Oddworld. It’s one of gaming’s most unique settings, as interesting as its creatures are ugly. And it delved into deeper lore and worldbuilding long before that became commonplace in popular culture. But it’s also a series whose creative ambitions have often been out of reach for what its developers could realistically achieve (and what its publishers were willing to do). That’s evidenced by the unfinished nature of the original Quintology, and the numerous cancelled games besides. But it’s perhaps epitomized through Munch’s Oddysee, a game chock-full of brilliant concepts that end up haphazardly realized.

4

Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus Review

*Review based on the Steam release of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus*

I don’t know if I’ve ever been more grateful for the save feature in a video game than I am for that of Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus. The original Oddworld title, 1997’s Abe’s Oddysee, is a unique puzzle-platforming experience whose gameplay and imagination stand the test of time. But it’s also hard as all Hell, and only saves your progress at widely spread out checkpoints, making its trial-and-error moments needlessly time consuming as you inch closer and closer to victory with every attempt, but have to start a sequence all over again whenever Abe gets shot, chopped up, flattened or blown to smithereens.

Thank Odd then, that Abe’s Exoddus, the unplanned 1998 sequel, implemented a quick save feature. You can now pause the game, and either save your progress on any screen (resuming your progress from that point when you restart the game), or you can quick save at literally any time to respawn in that exact spot when you die. And should you be a jackass and quicksave right before an impending death (something my younger self enjoyed doing a little too much), you can select the “restart path” option to go back to a checkpoint. To cap off this streamlining of saving, when you load your game, your most recent save file will always be on the top of the pile, in contrast to the first game listing them in alphabetical order by area (with the areas being listed as abbreviations, which could make things tricky).

This alone makes Abe’s Exoddus a vast improvement over Oddysee. But the improvements don’t stop there. Exoddus is a much bigger game than its predecessor, with just about every element of Oddysee being expanded upon in fun and meaningful ways.

It’s something of a shock then, when you gain the knowledge the game was entirely developed – from planning stages to release – in a relatively short nine months. After Abe’s Oddysee – the first installment in the planned five-part Oddworld Quintology -became a surprise hit, developer Oddworld Inhabitants was pressured into making a sequel to meet the next holiday season. With a short timeframe to make a new game, Oddworld Inhabitants held back on the second Quintology entry (Munch’s Oddysee), and decided to make a direct sequel to Abe’s Oddysey which could use the same assets and thus shortening development time to meet their deadline.

Series creator (and voice actor for basically every character) Lorne Lanning made no secret of what a nightmare he thought this rushed development process was, and how it burned out the development team. Though that’s an understandable reaction from the game’s creators given the circumstances, they should at least take solace in knowing that their efforts paid off. Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus was not only an improvement over Oddysee is pretty much every way, but was also one of the best games to be released on the original Playstation console. And due to the adjustments and additions it made to the formula, it has stood the test of time a lot stronger than its predecessor.

The game begins immediately after the events of the first game. Abe, the Mudokon savior who rescued his fellow slaves from becoming minced meat from Rupture Farms, has a vision from long-dead Mudokon spirits (humorously named “the Three Weirdos” in the game). The Weirdos inform Abe that sacred Mudokon burial grounds are being disturbed, and the bones of their ancestors are being dug up by unknowing Mudokon slaves (their eyes have been sown shut, so they don’t know what they’re digging) under the SoulStorm Brewery corporation (Mudokon bones being the secret ingredient for the brew).

So Abe sets out with a few friends to liberate more Mudokon slaves and save the sanctity of their dead. That’s easier said than done, however, as the destruction of Rupture Farms has made Abe public enemy number one to the Glukkons, whose many corporations are now under heavier security.

Although Abe’s Exoddus uses the same engine and assets as the first game, pretty much everything has been given more depth and variety. While the first game had ninety-nine Mudokon slaves to rescue, Exoddus expands that number to three-hundred. The player can still use the “gamespeak” feature to communicate with these Mudokons, but now Abe has more things to say, and certain Mudokons will require different interactions.

Along with the “hello,” “follow me” and “wait” commands from the first game, Abe can also say “sorry,” “stop it,” “work” and even slap a Mudokon in the face. Sorry is used to apologize to depressed and angry Mudokons, while stop it is used if they are bickering amongst each other. Work is used to have them help out when a problem requires multiple sets of hands (like multiple switches needing to be pulled in unison to open a door), and to have them resume their duties when a Slig guard passes by, to avoid suspicion. Finally, the slap is used on Mudokons who have been exposed to laughing gas, and are recklessly running around in need of a good slapping. There are also the aforementioned blind Mudokons, who rely solely on Abe’s voice and can’t follow the character himself, making for some notably tricky moments.

Best of all, however, is the “All of ya” command. In Abe’s Oddysee, many moments could grow tedious if they included multiple Mudokons, as you would have to talk to each one individually, and often have to repeat a process as many times as there were Mudokons in the area. But with the All of Ya command, you simply get the attention of every Mudokon on screen. Like the new save features, it’s the best kind of streamlining.

Of course, Abe still has his chanting, which is not only used to open portals to free slaves, but also allows Abe to telepathically control enemies. In Oddysee, Abe could only control Sligs, using them to infiltrate enemy lines and utilize their fire power, since Abe himself can’t attack. in Exoddus, there are also flying Sligs that can be controlled, which come in handy as the traditional Sligs can’t jump. Wild Paramites and Scrabs can also be controlled by Abe this time around, and it’s clever how the game utilizes their established behaviors from the first game for the sake of gameplay (Paramites attack in packs, so you can communicate with others when they’re under your control, whereas Scrabs are extremely territorial, and will fight each other on site). Later in the game, Abe can even possess Glukkons! Though the Glukkons aren’t built for fighting (under their suits they walk with their long arms, like Sebulba from The Phantom Menace), Sligs will do whatever they say without hesitation or suspicion. And of course, Glukkons can access important areas that no one else can, due to their high standing in Oddworld.

Perhaps strangest of all, however, is that Abe has the ability to possess his own farts. Yes, Abe could fart in the first game, but more as a pointless joke (and the occasional game of “Simon Says” which utilized the voice commands). But here, Abe’s flatulence have more utilitarian use in gameplay. If Abe comes across a SoulStorm Brew vending machine, he can have a drink which will fuel his next fart. If Abe farts after drinking a brew, said fart will explode where it stands within a few short seconds. But if Abe chants within that time, he can possess the fart, and use it to find enemies, bombs or drones (which prevent chanting and possession) and blow them up with it. Admittedly, it’s a little weird within the context of the story that Abe would drink the brew (though I suppose it’s a “using their own weapon against them for the greater good” kind of thing), but the fart control does give Abe a fitting means to attack without taking away the puzzle-solving strategy.

Like its predecessor, there are still a number of moments in Abe’s Exoddus where it really feels like the developers packed on the trial-and-error with some of the puzzles, and there are some secret areas with hidden Mudokons that you can miss (in my review of Abe’s Oddysee, I complained that there are a couple of hidden areas hiding behind large, obstructive objects in the foreground, but there’s at least one such secret in Exoddus that’s hiding behind a barely obstructive object in the foreground, which is probably even more annoying). But these elements aren’t nearly as frustrating as they were in the first game due to the aforementioned save feature. You can literally save after each individual step of a puzzle if you want (the quicksave is instantaneous to boot), and if you miss a secret, you can more easily load a previous save file to find it (though if you’re going for 100% completion, I recommend having a guide or walkthrough handy, because you wouldn’t want to undo too much of your progress just to backtrack to one secret). So even though some of Oddysee’s drawbacks are still present, they are much more tolerable this time around thanks to the improved saving.

Video games are an art form, I don’t know why that’s ever in dispute. But video games are at their strongest artistically when they embrace their game-ness. The first two Oddworld titles may be the most overt example of this. Oddworld was one of the earlier example of a video game pushing the narrative merits of the medium (with its environmental and sociopolitical themes). While Abe’s Exoddus may have come about due to commercial demand as opposed to Oddysee’s more inspired creation, the sequel is by far the superior work because it’s a better game. I think there’s a lesson a lot of today’s developers could learn there.

8

Macbat 64: Journey of a Nice Chap Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch release*

 

Macbat 64: Journey of a Nice Chap is – as you may have guessed from the title – a nostalgic love letter to the Nintendo 64 era, primarily the games made by Rare for the console (because let’s face it, outside of Mario and Zelda, the N64 was the Rareware machine). Originally released via Steam in 2017 and ported to the Nintendo Switch (its most fitting platform) in 2020, indie developer Siactro does a great job at recreating the visual look of the N64, and a “pretty good” job at capturing the idea of Rare’s games for the console. The initial nostalgic glee is short-lived, however, as Macbat 64 is so bitesized that it feels more like a prototype used to pitch a more complete game to a publisher, as opposed to the final game itself.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with short games. I have often said I’ll take a great short game over a needlessly long one any day. But there’s a difference between a game that’s simply short but feels fulfilled (like Portal), and a game that feels short because its recourses could only take the developers’ vision so far. As you may have guessed, Macbat 64 falls into the latter category. It provides some fun and charm, but not any more than you might find in a tech demo.

The game is mostly inspired by Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, though it does try its hand at some variety and features a Diddy Kong Racing-esque stage, and even a 2D level that deviates from the Rare motif and seems inspired by Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards.

 

Siactro’s heart is definitely in the right place, and its nice to see them try to implement a variety of N64 inspirations. The problem is that all of Macbat’s ideas are only realized in their most marginal forms. Despite the Banjo-Kazooie inspiration, there’s no hub world or anything of the sort connecting the stages. You simply select the stages (in sequential order) on the title screen. And each of the game’s stages can be completed in less than five minutes. I maybe completed the whole game in about forty-five or fifty minutes.

Players naturally take control of Macbat, a monocle-wearing bat whose only actions are walking and jumping (he can jump several times in a row thanks to his wings, but tires out after reaching a certain height, possibly another nod to Kirby 64). Every stage – with the exception of the Diddy Kong Racing one – simply features Macbat accomplishing a series of tasks, which usually involve him collecting five coins to purchase a special item from an NPC, or four balloons to send a particular object floating away.

“Banjo-Kazooie composer Grant Kirkhope has a fun little cameo as the voice of a monkey.”

Macbat is recruited on an adventure by a pirate parrot (who probably would have made for a better choice as the player character, if we’re being honest), who set out to save their world’s water supply, as the “Water Factory” has stopped working. So you travel across different levels collecting different objects, and are ultimately rewarded with one of the Water Factory’s keys at the end of a stage. It’s silly nonsense, but the characters lack the personality of their inspirations to liven things up.

Again, Macbat 64 is a game of honest and respectable ambitions, but those ambitions are too barebones and barely realized to amount to much. The initial smirk you may get from the visuals and music from each new level quickly melt away as the level is completed before you realize it. On the bright side, the game only costs two bucks on the Nintendo Eshop, so you can’t exactly say you were shortchanged.

 

If a college student made this same kind of game to showcase their abilities and ideas as to pitch them to a studio, I’d see a lot of promise here in Macbat 64. But as a final product, it feels more like an empty promise.

4

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 version*

In recent times, the battle royal genre has taken over the gaming scene. It started in 2017 with PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround (or “PUBG”), which briefly became the hottest thing in gaming, before that status was abruptly overtaken by fellow battle royal title Fortnite. It isn’t too difficult to see why the genre has caught on so quickly: Throwing masses of players into a single game, who then battle it out last man standing style, makes for a tense, competitive atmosphere, with a wave of victorious glory for whoever the lucky player is who stands tall in the end.

On the other hand, once you’ve played one “kill ’em all” type of game, you’ve pretty much got the gist of things. The genre is wildly popular, but no game within it has really done anything different with the premise. That is, until Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout showed up in August of 2020 to breath a colorful, lighthearted new life into the genre.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout takes inspiration from Japanese gameshows such as Takeshi’s Castle, and the western series influenced by those same Japanese gameshows, such as Wipeout. So while Fall Guys still follows the “last man standing” rule laid out by the genre, it provides a fresh, colorful, humorous spin on the gameplay.

The player characters are charming, bean-shaped creatures called Fall Guys, who bounce and stumble over themselves for both fun and frustration (think something akin to Octodad’s purposefully wonky controls, but not nearly as extreme). As odd as this may sound, I have to hand it to the developers, as they really nailed the physics of what I imagine wobbly bean-people would feel like.

Up to sixty players are thrown into an “episode” of Fall Guys, which comprises of a series of games, each one eliminating more and more players, until one final game will pit the last handful of players against each other to declare the winner of the episode.

Simplicity is key here, with the Fall Guys only having three basic actions (aside from moving): jumping, diving and grabbing. Like any great game, Fall Guys figures out how to bring the most out of such simplicity through its game design. It takes these very basic character controls and manages to produce a fleshed-out game from them.

Most of the games – true to their inspirations – are races across obstacle courses, with a set number of players allowed to cross the finish line. Once the player limit has reached the finish, those who didn’t make the cut are eliminated from the episode. Other games involve players timing their jumps to avoid being knocked off-stage by rotating beams, trying to claim and hold onto a raccoon tail until the timer runs out, dodging moving walls that will push you into slime, and maneuvering across spinning platforms while trying not to fall off.

Essentially, Fall Guys feels like Mario Party mini-games turned into a battle royal. A number of the games even feel like the bonus stages of the 3D Mario games. Suffice to say, most of them are a lot of fun.

Perhaps the exceptions are a some of the team-based games. It can be disheartening to blaze through three or four games on your own, only to have questionable teammates stop your progress dead in its tracks. And some of the tail-grabbing mini-games are a bit finicky (with opponents seemingly able to snatch my tail in a split second from several feet away, while I’ll be right on top of them, holding R2 for dear life, to no success. My friends insist it’s a latency issue, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating).

Still, even the less fun games included in Fall Guys still provide a good time. And when it does get frustrating, it’s the “good kind of frustrating,” like Mario Party. Though if Mario Party can be maddening with four players, imagine playing similar mini-games with fifty-nine other people! The games don’t always feel fair, but Fall Guys isn’t basing success and defeat on player skill alone, with luck, circumstance and other players all having a role in the outcome.

Whether you win or lose, however, you’ll still get something of a reward for your efforts (provided you don’t quit out before being eliminated, which is definitely a nice touch). Your performance will award you with in-game currency called “Kudos,” as well as Fame, which is essentially experience points. You can grow up to level 40 in any given ‘season’ within the game, with each level providing a different prize. You can additionally buy prizes with your Kudos, which include customizable colors and patterns, as well as costumes, taunts and victory poses for your Fall Guy. Additionally, every time you manage to win an entire episode (easier said than done, let me tell you), you are awarded a crown, with crowns being used to unlock the rarest customizable items.

If there’s any real downside to Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, it’s that it doesn’t have the widest variety of mini-games at play. And with most episodes lasting about four or five games (though, depending on how many people are eliminated in certain games, it can be as few as three or as many as six games), you’ll get the hang of every available game rather quickly. On the plus side, future seasons of Fall Guys promise additional mini-games, as well as rotating existing ones, to keep things fresh. So depending on how much future seasons add to the proceedings, Fall Guys could get better and better.

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is infectiously fun, and wildly addictive (it’s one of those “just one more game” type of games). Combined with its cute character designs and overall charming attitude, Fall Guys is some of the most pure fun I’ve had in a video game in years. It essentially combines the battle royal template with 3D platforming, making for the freshest product of the genre since PUBG kickstarted it.

Fall Guys may have a few wrinkles to iron out, but if things keep up for it the way they are, I think the world may have a new most popular game.

 

8

Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard Review

One of 2018’s surprise Indy hits was The Haunted Island: A Frog Detective Game by Grace Bruxner. A (very) simple point-and-click adventure that was more of an interactive joke than a game. Bruxner followed-up her sleeper hit in December 2019 with the release of a sequel, Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard. Much like its predecessor, Frog Detective 2 may be light on gameplay, but is swimming in so much harmless stupidity and innocent charm that it makes for a fun little game that’s worth an hour of your time if you just want a good laugh.

Like the first game, Frog Detective 2 is short and sweet point-and click game which essentially revolves around a simple trade quest: Talk to the characters in the game, find out what each one wants, figure out who can give you what, and enjoy all of their nonsense along the way.

Our hero – the simply-named ‘Detective’ – is on a very tough case: In the small town of Warlock Woods, a new resident has moved in. This new resident happens to be a wizard. A wizard who’s invisible! To commemorate the arrival of the titular Invisible Wizard to their town, the people of Warlock Woods planned a welcoming parade. The night before the parade, however, someone destroyed the floats and decorations. Thus our (Frog) Detective has been called in to investigate the scene and figure out who wrecked the parade. That’s right, The Case of the Invisible Wizard isn’t about the Invisible Wizard themself, but their ruined parade.

Yep, this certainly is a Frog Detective sequel.

I have to emphasize that, under different circumstances, I probably would not care for a video game that has so little in the ways of gameplay. I’ve played more than my share of Indy titles that try to mask their lack of substance and depth as “minimalism,” or that try to claim that “games don’t need to be fun” as a lame excuse for their lack of actual game. But what wins me over about the Frog Detective titles is that Grace Bruxner uses this same lack of ‘game’ as the basis of a joke. I’m not sure if she intends Frog Detective to be a commentary or parody on the often overly self-important attitude of the Indy scene, but it works as such nonetheless.

There’s an endearing quality to the innocence and stupidity of the Frog Detective games that make them easy to love. They may not be what I would traditionally consider to be “good games,” but their sense of humor and charm are undeniable.

“New gameplay features include: Putting stickers on a notebook… and that’s about it.”

Though Grace Bruxner promised this second Frog Detective game would have “more gameplay” than its predecessor, that in itself is also part of the joke, since the only additional gameplay elements this time around are decorating a notebook with stickers at the beginning of the game, and picking up pies as part of the game’s aforementioned trading quest. Otherwise, the game is – once again – all about the silly dialogue provided by the characters. The non-stop, innocuous humor is complimented by simple, cartoony graphics and an equally simple, jazzy soundtrack.

Bruxner’s writing is delightfully absurd, and is reminiscent of early 2010s cartoons like Adventure Time and Regular Show, or internet comics like Axe Cop. It’s void of that self-aggrandizing YouTube humor we see far too much of these days. Instead, Frog Detective just feels like a showcase of its creator’s personality.

Like the first Frog Detective Game, The Case of the Invisible Wizard can be completed in about an hour, and the end blatantly informs us that our (Frog) Detective will return in another sequel. We even get a hint that there might be an overarching villain at play (though I can’t imagine anyone could be too villainous in this game’s world). I do kind of hope that by the time the third title comes out, the Frog Detective games can add a little something extra to the proceedings. But even if they don’t, Grace Bruxner’s unlikely Indy hit series is a uniquely charming experience.

 

6

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.

 

7

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.

 

6

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.

 

6

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!

 

9

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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