Category Archives: Playstation

Undertale (PS4) Review

It’s hard to think of a better game with more humble origins than Undertale. The brainchild of Toby Fox was a passion project in the medium if ever there were one, with Toby Fox almost singlehandedly creating the entire game; from its premise to graphics to gameplay, to its sublime soundtrack, with only some of the artwork being provided by others. Taking inspiration from Nintendo RPGs EarthBound, Mario & Luigi, and Super Mario RPG, Undertale not only did a fantastic job at living up to its inspirations, but also in creating an identity very much its own. By providing an engaging battle system, a unique sense of humor and charm, and a narrative that could only work in the video game medium, Undertale subverted many RPG traditions and became a video game masterpiece.

In Undertale, players take control of a human child, who has fallen into the dreaded Mt. Ebot, whose underground has served as the world of monsters ever since they were banished there by humans long ago. A magic barrier prevents the monsters from leaving the underground, and only the power of human souls can break it. Because of this, many monsters want the human dead, as their king is but one soul short of destroying the barrier. But these monsters are far from mindless killing machines, in fact, most would rather tell you a joke or show off their hat than do you harm.

In their quest to leave the underground, players will confront many monsters. During such encounters, the player can go the usual RPG route and slay the monsters, gaining experience points and leveling up along the way, or they can find non-violent ways to end the encounter. By selecting the “Act” command during battles, the player can interact with monsters in a myriad of ways, with each individual monster having their own distinct personality that the player must figure out in order to find the best solution to the encounter. If you can figure out the right action (whether it be dancing, flirting, or even giving a monster personal space), you can then simply spare the monster, which won’t net you any experience points, but will still provide gold.

Interactivity is added to these turn-based battles when the player is on the defensive. Every enemy has their own unique attacks, with the defensive segments modeled after bullet hell games. During a monster’s attack, the player takes control of their soul (represented by a heart), which the player must then navigate to avoid oncoming projectiles. White enemy attacks are the standard, and are simply to be avoided. Blue attacks won’t harm you so long as you hold still, while orange attacks will require you to move through them to avoid damage. Meanwhile, the occasional green attack will actually heal the player’s health, leaving you to attempt to grab them amid the bombardment of other bullets.

The battle system is an utter delight. The ability to fight or act is already a terrific innovation, but by combining it with the only interactive turn-based battle system that rivals Mario’s finest RPGs, Undertale’s battle system becomes an all-time great for the genre.

That isn’t where Undertale’s innovation ends, however. Arguably its most notable element is how detailed its narrative is, and how it brings out the best in the video game medium.

There are many games that give players different moral options with tackling different scenarios, but none that really showcase the consequences of their actions in any meaningful way. Usually, choosing good or evil in a video game simply dictates whether your character is surrounded by a heavenly aura, or if they have burning red eyes while wearing edgy, black clothing. But every choice the player makes in Undertale leaves a lasting impact one way or another.

The benefits of gaining experience points and leveling up are obvious, as you’ll gain more health and strength the more you advance. But when you kill a monster in Undertale, you may come across another who grieves for their fallen friend, or wonders why they don’t hear from their old buddy anymore. This of course means that going the route of a pacifist may be more challenging – as your stats remain as they are at the start of the game, outside of armor – but doing the right thing becomes its own reward.

I will refrain from going into greater detail, as Undertale’s narrative is one that’s full of surprises. But the way in which it tells its story – with every moral action having its consequence – is entirely original, and may now serve as the benchmark for how to tell a deep, meaningful story in a way only a video game can.

Even with the emotional weight, Undertale is also an incredibly funny game. As stated, each monster has their own unique personality, with the boss monsters easily becoming one of the most charming cast of characters in a video game. Much of the dialogue is laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the sheer absurdity of many of the characters is sure to leave a goofy grin beaming across your face.

Visually speaking, the game may not exactly look ‘pretty’ – being reminiscent of a later NES title – but it does look timeless. The fact that Toby Fox could capture as much personality in the game visually as he did with his writing is an impressive feat unto itself. Undertale’s greatest aesthetic pleasure, however, has to be its soundtrack.

Undertale’s score – composed, of course, by Toby Fox – is one of the all-time great video game soundtracks. It marries the infectiousness of retro video game music with an impeccable sense of personality. The overworld tunes are often hauntingly beautiful, while the battle themes are catchy, and each boss is given a track that’s nothing short of unforgettable. Undertale’s soundtrack is perhaps rivaled solely by Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze for the best of this decade. And as far as I’m concerned, it joins the likes of Donkey Kong Country 2 and Super Mario RPG as one of my favorite gaming soundtracks of all time.

Some may nitpick at the fact that Undertale is a pretty short game, especially for an RPG. But that seems like a moot point when one considers that Undertale is one of the few games that feels like a fully-realized artistic vision by its creator. Everything that is present in Undertale is nothing short of delightful. It’s unique, charming, funny, touching, and a whole lot of fun.

When Toby Fox created Undertale, he molded his game after some all-time greats in the RPG genre. Little did he know that his “little” game would end up sitting right alongside them.

 

10

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Dragon Ball FighterZ Review

licensed video games are usually a bit of a gamble. After all, they’re more often than not little more than advertisement for whatever property they’re representing, than they are games in their own right. There are exceptions, however, with some licensed games – such as Duck Tales on NES and Goldeneye 007 on Nintendo 64 – being fondly remembered. Going a step further, there are some franchises that seem to segue into the video game medium with a sense of consistency. Star Wars would probably take top honors in that department (its combining of fantasy storytelling with science-fiction settings, as well samurai and western influences would make it a strong candidate for video game transitions even without its insane popularity to consider), but other franchises have proven to have a decent amount of reliability in the video game department as well. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has proven surprisingly versatile, with successful RTS titles, movie tie-ins, and original games to its name. But perhaps no other franchise in pop culture that didn’t originate as a video game is better suited for the medium than Dragon Ball.

Dragon Ball – and more specifically, Dragon Ball Z and subsequent installments – are more or less just about a bunch of super powered beings duking it out, firing lasers from their hands, blowing up planets, and making the occasional bad joke. The original series had a lighthearted plot, but once things got into ‘Z’ territory, it really did amount to little more than which musclebound hero/villain could cause the biggest explosions by powering up. And it was (and is) awesome!

Combine its colorful and charming nonsense with the fact that the franchise seems to find countless ways to resurrect deceased characters, and Dragon Ball really does start seeming more and more like the video games that were around at the time the manga was at the height of its powers. It’s no wonder that the series has produced a number of beloved fighting games (as well as dipping its toes in the waters of other genres, to much less consistent success). Sure, not every Dragon Ball game has captured the brilliantly stupid mentality of the manga/anime, but there’s probably never been another franchise in pop culture that openly lends itself to the fighter to the extent of Dragon Ball. And Dragon Ball FighterZ, the most recent entry in Dragon Ball fighting games, might be the best realization of the series’ transitions to gaming yet.

Dragon Ball FighterZ comes from Arc System Works, famous for their fighting franchises Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, and replicates much of those series mechanics whilst melding them into the Dragon Ball universe.

It’s a match made in heaven, really. Arc System Works’ fighting mechanics blend effortlessly with Dragon Ball’s action, and the adoption of Arc System Works’ established cel-shading makes Dragon Ball FighterZ a visual treat, giving the game the look and feel of actually playing an episode of Dragon Ball Z.

“My main man, Majin Buu!”

The game also takes inspiration from the Marvel vs. Capcom series, with players selecting a team of three different characters to partake in battle. The roster is comprised of a (mostly) all-star lineup of characters from Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Super: you have the obvious Saiyan characters like Goku, Vageta, Gohan and Trunks; classic villains such as Freiza, Cell and Majin Buu; fan favorites such as Piccolo and Krillin, and newer characters like Beerus.

The three-person setup is well utilized, with switching between characters (or calling one of them for some backup) working smoothly. Better still is that the mechanics as a whole have an “easy to learn, difficult to master” feel to them. Everything is smooth and fast-paced, and in a breath of fresh air for a competitive fighter like this, the combos are pretty easy to pull off and chain together, without being so easy as to make matches feel completely one-sided to whoever can land the first combo.

Matches can also be refreshingly lengthy for a game of this genre. If you have two players of similar skill level going at it, you can have a good, long match that looks and feels straight out of the anime. The mechanics of these matches are also surprisingly deep, despite their accessibility. Players may find certain moves can prove vital at any given moment, and its easy to imagine different people basing their strategies off different aspects of the game’s mechanics (some players may prefer to use their built up energy meters to teleport around enemies and chain combos out of it, as opposed to using said energy on more traditional character specials).

One questionably included element to battles shows up – somewhat ironically – in the forms of the Dragon Balls themselves. If players can land a combo of seven hits, they’ll “unlock” a Dragon Ball. If they can do this seven times during a match and obtain all seven Dragon Balls, then proceed to hit one more seven-hit combo, they’ll summon the dragon Shenlong who will grant them a wish (revive a partner, receive full health, etc.). The problem here is that – not only is the method of summoning Shenlong kind of awkward – but if you actually manage to pull off all these combos, your opponent will likely almost be defeated anyway, making the bonuses obtained by Shenlong feeling like they give you an unfair advantage when your opponent is more or less already bested. It’s fun that they tried to actually implement the Dragon Balls into the game, but you can’t help but feel that, with how they’re utilized, they may as well have been left out.

Though Dragon Ball FighterZ boasts several different modes, most of them fun, one of the game’s other notable shortcomings is its story mode. This story mode sees the introduction of a new villain character, Android 21. 21 is more or less a combination of other DBZ villains (sharing many abilities with the similarly named Androids and Cell, as well as the ability to turn her enemies into sweets, which she then consumes to gain their power a la Majin Buu). Android 21 is gaining in power, and soon threatens the entire planet. Meanwhile, the usual Dragon Ball heroes are losing their power, with their only way of regaining their full strength being to link with a wandering soul (the player) who keeps traveling from character to character.

Now, I’m not going to fault the story mode for its plot. This is Dragon Ball, after all, and any DBZ fan can tell you that roughly 87% of all the show’s dialogue was about someone increasing their “power level,” and the remaining 13% was focused on how hungry one of the character’s was at any given time. I don’t exactly expect Shakespeare, here.

The problems with the story mode lie in its bloated nature, repetitious battles and cutscenes, and insultingly easy difficulty. The story mode is spread out between three different stories (one through Goku and company’s perspective, one through the classic villains’ points of view, and one that shows Android 21’s side of the story). While that’s all fine in concept, these stories end up overstaying their welcome by quite a bit. Perhaps the length wouldn’t be so noticeable, if it weren’t for how it becomes really redundant really quickly.

“If you play as Goku, do everyone a favor, and switch it to the English version. Goku’s Japanese voice is insufferable.”

Needlessly long cutscenes repeat the same plot points ad nauseam. The story introduces “cloned” versions of characters to give it all some length, which is understandable. But you’ll quickly find that these fights have no variety, and never really seem to pick up on difficulty (throughout the entirety of one story mode, I never even lost a single character, let alone a match). There are some fun ideas at play, like the ability to level up the different characters and gaining equipable bonus as rewards (extra XP, boosts in health and special attacks, etc.), but it’s hard to care too much when your opponents barely ever fight back.

The story mode features three primary match types: tutorials, which reward extra points for using specific moves; fights, which are exactly what they sound like; and boss battles, which will advance you further into the story when completed. Don’t let these match types fool you, however, as none of them end up feeling different or more difficult than the others (even the moves the tutorials require quickly begin recycling themselves). Because of these many shortcomings, the story mode ultimately feels like the most boring way to play Dragon Ball FighterZ, and by a good margin.

On the bright side of things, this is a competitive 2D fighter, and multiplayer was always going to be where Dragon Ball FighterZ shined. And for the most part, shine it does. Once again, the fighting mechanics are both accessible and deep, and more importantly, they make for a whole lot of fun. Tie them together with the beautiful and fluid character animations, and I really can’t stress enough how the game feels like you’re playing an episode of the anime.

I did use the words “for the most part,” however, and the caveat here being the unreliable and sometimes confusing connection issues when playing online. I have yet to experience any particular issues in a match itself, but more often than not, the game will find and drop several matches before I find one that I actually end up playing. Additionally, after a few matches you might find yourself having to suddenly select a different server to connect to, and in perhaps the most egregious example of connection issues, it took me several tries and a 20+ minute wait just to spectate a match.

“Just…look at this!”

Even with the online problems and lackluster story mode, Dragon Ball FighterZ still manages to outshine its shortcomings simply because of how much fun the core gameplay is, and how well it captures the essence of the show. Once you find a good opponent, you’ll likely find yourself transfixed by the action. Even if you’re watching a friend play, the visuals alone are something to behold. In terms of being a Dragon Ball game, Dragon Ball FighterZ is as good as it gets. If some of the kinks can be worked out either in updates or in an eventual sequel, its power level might be over nine-thousand!

 

8.0

Shadow of the Colossus (Playstation 4) Review

There aren’t many modern video games that have left quite the indelible mark as Shadow of the Colossus. While gaming today is arguably better than it’s ever been as a whole, it seems that for whatever reason – whether it be outlandish hype, the “bigger is better” mentality, or a tendency to pander – the number of more contemporary games that feel like they have their own timeless identity are few. Half-Life 2, the Portal duo, the Souls-Borne series, the 3D Mario titles, Breath of the Wild, and select indie titles (namely Undertale) stand out. Shadow of the Colossus similarly stands tall alongside them and, although probably a more flawed game than any of the aforementioned titles, has perhaps left the biggest impression in terms of style and tone. As influential as it’s become, there’s never really been anything else quite like it.

This Playstation 4 remake by BluePoint Games is the title’s third release, all but enforcing Shadow of the Colossus’ status as one of the most iconic Playstation games ever. Similar to Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy last year, this PS4 rendition of Shadow of the Colossus is a faithful recreation of the PS2 classic, which means that, although the assets have been rebuilt from the ground-up and boast some absolutely stunning visuals, some of the game’s flaws still remain intact. For purists, the authenticity is commendable, though you may also wish that BluePoint Games had tweaked the rougher mechanics ever-so slightly, to give Shadow of the Colossus a level of fluidity to match its uniqueness.

Shadow of the Colossus has become something of the poster-child for the whole “video games as art” concept, and although there are plenty of other games that showcase the unique artistic merits of the video game medium, Colossus’s status isn’t undeserved. While many of the games released in its wake have felt confused as to how to implement their artistry within game design – usually being either AAA games that think replicating movies is the way to go, or self-righteous indie titles that think a somber tone and visual style make up for shallow gameplay – Shadow of the Colossus actually feels like a fully realized creative vision.

The core game is as it’s always been. You play as Wander, a young warrior whose love has died. Willing to do anything for her, Wander takes the girl’s lifeless body to an ancient temple in a forgotten land, in hopes that an ancient being called Dormin can resurrect his lost love. But Dormin cannot undo death without a cost, and the demon needs Wander’s help just as much as Wander needs Dormin’s. Wander is to scourge this forgotten land of the sixteen Colossi, magnificent giants who remain some of gaming’s greatest creatures. If Wander can slay the sixteen Colossi, Dormin can resurrect his fallen love.

It sounds like a simple setup, but its execution transcends it into one of gaming’s greatest stories. What starts off as a selfless quest built on love transforms into a selfish tragedy. The Colossi – despite their intimidating size and appearances – are never presented as monsters. Instead of the usual fanfare one would receive for conquering a boss fight, the slaying of a Colossus is always accompanied by grief and sadness.

One of the things that made Shadow of the Colossus so special is that – unlike the many games that try to be art by throwing in as many cinematics as possible – Shadow of the Colossus weaves its narrative and lore into something that could only work as a video game. Shadow of the Colossus, at its heart, is a giant boss rush. Every Colossus is a beautiful combination of boss fight, puzzle and stage design. Climb the Colossi, expose their weak points, slay them, return to Dormin, repeat. Again, it all sounds simple, but the creativity involved within each Colossus makes every encounter something special.

You can unlock Time Attacks for each Colossus, which then rewards upgrades to your weapons and grant new items. You can also find fruit and hunt down silver-tailed lizards to boost Wander’s health and stamina (respectively). All the while your trusted horse Agro helps you traverse the land.

It’s actually quite beautiful how it all comes together. As stated, the game is an extravagant boss rush on paper, but Shadow of the Colossus is one of the rare “art games” that understands how to meld its world and thematics into its gameplay as one cohesive whole. Save points, for example, were presented as shrines scattered across the land (though the shrines now merely restore health in the PS4 version, as saving is now done automatically or manually through the pause menu in a delightful bit of modernization). Even the aforementioned Time Attacks take the form of visions/memories that take place within Dormin’s temple. The game’s unique world always finds ways to mold into its gameplay.

So what’s new about Shadow of the Colossus’ third release? Along with the aforementioned streamlined save feature, some tweaks have been made to the control scheme for the better. The X button now serves as Wander’s jump button and to mount Agro, while the triangle button calls your stead and boosts Agro’s speed when mounted.

The most obvious change is found in the aesthetics, however. Unlike the PS3 release, this isn’t just the PS2 original with an HD makeover, but a from the ground-up recreation of the PS2 classic. This means that, although Shadow of the Colossus may be a PS2 title from 2005, you may never know it if this is your introduction to the game. The attention to detail on a Colossus’ fur, the individual blades of grass blowing in the wind, the ripples in every pool of water; Shadow of the Colossus, and indeed few games, have ever looked so beautiful. In terms of sheer realism in the environments, I’d say this PS4 remake is second only to Uncharted 4 as the best looking game I’ve seen. For a 2005 game to look this stunning is telling of just how much care and attention BluePoint Games put into this remake. Even the game’s iconic musical score sounds crisper than ever, and the added sounds that emanate from the environment and Colossi only add to the game’s atmosphere and sense of awe. Additionally, a new collectible can be found in the form of glowing “Enlightenments,” though finding them all and unlocking their questionably useful reward may only be worth the time for the most diehard of fans.

Another fun little addition is a new “photo” option, which allows you to take screenshots within the game and share them on social media. It may not sound like much, but with how utterly gorgeous this remake is, you’ll likely bask in the opportunity to take the best photos of the game’s unique world and its tragic giants.

If there is a downside to this remake, it’s that the original’s blemishes in control and camera largely remain. Thankfully, you no longer have to worry about drops in the framerate, and as stated, some of the controls have been wisely mapped to different buttons. But some of Wander’s movements and actions still feel a little clunky, and when wrestling with a Colossus, the camera can still get utterly chaotic at times, which may still lead to some frustration and swearing (emotional reactions that seem like the last responses the game wanted to create). Sure, you can praise the authenticity of the recreation, but you may also begin to question if such authenticity is the best option when the years since the game’s original release have revealed how it could be bettered.

I’m not asking for unnecessary, George Lucas-style additions here (no Dewbacks, please), and in terms of video game preservation, I get it. But a key difference between video games and other mediums that see remakes is that games feature interactive mechanics that, over time, can be bettered. If BluePoint Games were willing to change the way Shadow of the Colossus controls in terms of player input, you kind of wish they’d have done the same for the way Wander and his camera control. At the very least, an additional option would be nice.

So Shadow of the Colossus was never a perfect game, and that’s still true here. That’s a bit of a shame, because the uniqueness and execution of much of Shadow of the Colossus’ vision make it a gaming experience like no other. With the additional technical polish, Shadow of the Colossus might sit with some esteemed company at the very top of the mountain of gaming’s all-time greats. As it is, it’s still making the climb up that mountain. But Wander shouldn’t have any trouble in that department.

 

9.0

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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AfterStory’s Top 10 Games of 2017

2017 was a meteoric year for gaming, arguably dishing out some of the best titles the medium has seen in decades. Release upon release of exceptionally crafted works of art, 2017 flipped preconceived notions of established franchises, while pushing boundaries of creativity with precariously novel IPs. While 2017 had its fair share of shade –  it further cemented the toxic implementation of loot boxes and microtransactions – 2017 managed to maintain a pristine shine of quality, despite the ever growing culture of filth that has surrounded this beloved medium. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is an unpolished, yet addictive multiplayer experience that rightfully took the world by storm with its heart pounding action and unpredictable encounters. Nier: Automata, while not the underrated masterpiece fans claim it to be, is an exuberant experience with the foundation of a masterpiece, as technical and design limitations hold it back from further greatness. What Remains of Edith Finch is arguably the most diverse and entertaining walking simulator to date, with a sense of gameplay variance that is unprecedented for the notorious genre. ARMS is a surprising gem of local multiplayer goodness, crafting one of the best motion-controlled experiences to date. Seeing the release of two games that effortlessly entered my “favourite games of all-time list” and the copious amount of diversity and quality released throughout this illustrious year, 2017 will forever be remembered as  the best year of the current generation, a personal favourite of mine that continuously exceeded my expectations. Without further ado, below are my favourite games of 2017.

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Portal Review

In 2007, Valve released The Orange Box, a unique compilation of five different games: re-releases of Half-Life 2 and the subsequent Half-Life 2: Episode 1, as well as the then-new Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2. It was the fifth game included in the bundle that perhaps stole the show. This title was called Portal, which was one of the most brilliantly realized pieces of creativity gaming saw in both that decade and console generation. Combining an innovative take on the puzzle and first-person shooter genres, Portal remains a highlight of its era due to its innovation, humor and all-around fun factor.

The premise of Portal is simple; Players take control of silent protagonist Chell, who awakens in one of the many chambers of Aperture Science, and soon realizes she is a test subject being held against her will by the diabolical-yet-hilarious AI named GLaDOS, who promises Chell a delicious cake if she can overcome the test chambers.

Chell is to test out Aperture Science’s greatest innovation: the Portal Gun! As its name implies, the Portal Gun fires portals (initially only a blue portal, which connects to orange portals found in the various test chambers. But soon enough the Portal Gun is upgraded to shoot orange portals of its own). It’s up to players to solve every test chamber’s puzzles by means of navigating through portals. Fire two portals. Go in one portal, come out the other.

It all sounds simple enough, but Portal’s execution really is something to behold. The game is constantly finding new ways to add twists to the puzzles, such as energy projectiles that need to be guided to their stations via portals, or walls that will erase your portals when you walk through them. The game even uses its portal setup to tamper with physics in some incredible ways (fall into a portal fast enough and you can fly through another if you’ve placed them properly).

Portal is played through a first-person perspective, like any of the countless shooters that ran rampant at the time (and still do so today), but here you’re not out to kill hordes of enemies by riddling them with bullets (Your only foes are a few bumbling, robotic turrets and a quasi-final boss against GLaDOS herself). Your goal is simply to survive by means of being creative. It’s as fresh of a twist on genres (and indeed, the video game medium itself) today as it was in 2007.

“It’s a pleasure to meet me!”

Visually speaking, Portal has held up pretty well. Its graphics may not wow players today like they did a decade ago, but the sheer splendor of seeing your environment (and Chell herself) in different perspectives through the portals remains one of gaming’s greatest visual delights. The music, though minimal, is similarly off-beat and charming.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Portal comes in the form of its writing. Though Chell never speaks, GLaDOS is one of gaming’s great sources of comedy. GLaDOS reveals her more psychotic behavior as the game goes on, but she frequently tries to cover it up with some lightheartedness and the aforementioned promises of cake, making for some delightfully dark humor.

If there’s any caveat to be had with Portal, it’s that the entire experience is done within a few short hours. While the content that is here is almost flawlessly realized, it all ends all too soon. This has only been magnified since its sequel was released in 2011, and turned the concept into a much heftier experience, while also improving on basically everything the original started and introducing some great tricks of its own. While Portal remains a stellar game in its own right, compared to Portal 2, it now feels like a demo for what was to come.

A short run time and being overshadowed by an exceptional sequel are hardly unforgivable sins, however, especially when considering just how creative and fun Portal still is. It’s objectives may be a simple case of getting from point A to point B, but such a simple premise has seldom been so innovative as it was – and is – here in Portal.

 

9.0

A Hat in Time Review

In recent years, the 3D platformer has been seeing something of a resurgence. This was especially true throughout 2017, which not only saw the release of possibly Mario’s greatest outing in Super Mario Odyssey, but many smaller releases looked to once again legitimize the 3D platformer’s place in the modern gaming world. Yooka-Laylee – a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie – was released by many of Banjo’s creators after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015. Though Yooka-Laylee’s reception was mixed, another Kickstarter success was to be released in 2017, A Hat in Time. Like Yooka-Laylee, A Hat in Time sought to be a spiritual successor to early 3D platformers like Super Mario 64, Sunshine and the aforementioned Banjo-Kazooie. Unlike Yooka-Laylee, however, A Hat in Time doesn’t come from industry veterans, but newcomers Gears for Breakfast. A Hat in Time is full of charm and boasts some impressive creativity, though like Yooka-Laylee before it, some technical limitations prevent it from reaching its full potential.

In A Hat in Time, players take control of Hat Kid, a little girl who lives in a spaceship and keeps watch over Time Pieces; magic hourglasses that have the power to alter time. One day, while her ship travels over a somewhat Earth-like planet, a Mafia goon (who’s floating in space, mind you) demands that Hat Kid pay a toll for flying past their planet, and breaks part of the ship, thus 40 Time Pieces get sucked from the ship and fall down to the planet. Thus Hat Kid sets off on an adventure to recover the Time Pieces before anyone can misuse their power.

It’s a silly plot that, appropriately, harkens back to the genre’s heyday, and more or less serves as an excuse as to why a kid with a hat is scouring the world for hourglasses. But it’s a good excuse to provide what is ultimately a fun adventure.

A Hat in Time boasts four proper stages which, as is genre tradition, are progressively unlocked as you gain more Time Pieces. Where A Hat in Time provides something new to the genre is that all four of its stages change up the structure of how Hat Kid collects the Time Pieces.

The first stage, Mafia Town, is the most traditional stage. Playing like a direct homage to Super Mario Sunshine, Mafia Town throws Hat Kid into a seaside town that’s played in traditional 3D Mario-style missions, with each mission ending with the collection of a Time Piece. The second stage, Battle of the Birds, sees Hat Kid siding with one of two bird movie directors. As players choose the stage’s missions to aide one of the directors, they’ll win that director’s favor, thus determining the level’s finale and boss fight. The third stage, Subcon Forest, has players signing contracts with a spectral being called Snatcher to unlock its subsequent missions. Finally, Alpine Skyline works like a Banjo-Kazooie-style sandbox, where players can scour the level for its time pieces without the mission-based format.

The different level gimmicks certainly keep things fresh and interesting, even if some of them don’t quite hit the mark (Battle of the Birds, despite being the most unique stage, features some of the game’s less fleshed-out missions). But for the most part, the creativity at play is commendable. There are even Time Rifts that can be found within the stages and hub world, which place Hat Kid into platforming gauntlets akin to Sunshine’s bonus stages.

Two other fun twists to the genre come in the form of badges and hats. The badges can be purchased from a bizarre salesman by trading in Pons (green orbs that are essentially the equivalent of Mario’s coins). The badges then grant Hat Kid with newfound abilities (some give her new moves with the press of a button, others are passive). Meanwhile, Hat Kid can also find yarn hidden throughout the stages. Once enough yarn has been collected, Hat Kid can make new hats, with each hat having its own special ability (the witch-like Brewing Hat allows Hat Kid to throw an exploding potion, while the Ice Cap allows her to turn into an ice sculpture for a stomping attack which also strangely is used to fast-travel between certain platforms). Both the badges and the hats bring some extra depth to the gameplay and exploration, and bring a fun little Paper Mario element to the equation.

On the downside of things, there are some features in the game that could have used a little extra polish. Though Hat Kid controls well for the most part, a homing dive attack that can be performed in midair feels a bit awkward to pull off, which is especially noticeable when you need to use the attack for platforming segments. Additionally, I encountered more than a few technical issues throughout my playthrough, including Hat Kid getting stuck in some walls and some graphical flubs (like Hat Kid sitting down in midair next to the chair she was supposed to be sitting on). Not to mention that the camera controls can get a little awkward, much like those in the early 3D platformers that inspired A Hat in Time.

Still, when one considers A Hat in Time’s humble origins, such blemishes seem more par for the course, and though they hinder the experience somewhat, the game’s creativity and love for the genre should ultimately win players over. And with Wind Waker-esque visuals and a whimsical musical score, it can be all too easy to be sucked into A Hat in Time’s charms.

A Hat in Time, like Yooka-Laylee before it, is far from perfect. And like its predecessor, it may even feel like its limitations make its vision only partly realized (something that sequels for both games can hopefully fix, if their sales numbers allow it). But its heart is in the right place, and its charm can be infectious. It may be a distant second for the title of “Best Hat-Based 3D Platformer of 2017,” but A Hat in Time is anything but, well, old hat…

 

7.5