Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 release of Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty*

Like the Phoenix rising from the ashes, or Stone Cold Steve Austin emerging from “The Ringmaster,” Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath took the Oddworld series in a bold new direction after the disappointment of Munch’s Oddysee. From there, it seemed like the sky was the limit for what Oddworld could be.

Aaand then Oddworld Inhabitants put a halt on all game development shortly after Stranger’s release.

Disillusioned by turbulent relationships with publishers, Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning and company decided to try a new venture and create an animated film titled Citizen Siege, though the economic downturn of the late 2000s put an end to that dream as well. Things turned around for the better for Oddworld Inhabitants when, in 2010, Indie Developer Just Add Water jumped in to help bring the Oddworld series back into the spotlight. Though the partnership between Oddworld Inhabitants and Just Add Water has since dissolved, their tenure together was successful in relaunching Oddworld, first with HD re-releases of Munch’s Oddysee and Stranger’s Wrath, and then notably with a full-on remake of Abe’s Oddysee, titled New ‘N’ Tasty, which was released in 2014.

Though New ‘N’ Tasty suffered from some bugs at launch (many of which have been worked out in the years since), and some fans were displeased with some of the cosmetic updates it made to Abe’s Oddysee, New ‘N’ Tasty proved successful enough that Oddworld Inhabitants decided to use it as a launching pad to reboot the series, with its upcoming 2021 follow-up, SoulStorm – a quasi-remake of Abe’s Exoddus – replacing Munch as the second proper installment in the originally planed five-part “Quintology” of Oddworld titles.

While it may be a tad disheartening that the only “new” Oddworld game released since Stranger’s Wrath is technically not a new entry at all, Abe’s Oddysee, though a classic of its time, was definitely in need of some updating. And well, that’s exactly what New ‘N’ Tasty provides: a faithful recreation of Abe’s original adventure that still finds time to make some much-appreciated modernizations to the game. Though it also has to be said that there are still some notable bugs present in New ‘N’ Tasty , and that its faithfulness to the original game may come at the cost of some missed opportunities to be something more.

The story here is identical to that of the original release, told with a much stronger graphical sheen, of course: Abe is a Mudokon slave at Rupture Farms, the “biggest meat processing plant on Oddworld.” With the Paramites and Scrabs – Rupture Farms’s favorite meat sources – starting to turn up thin, CEO Mullock the Glukkon decides to turn their Mudokon slaves into their newest food product, which Abe happens to overhear after eavesdropping on a board meeting (for reasons I don’t understand, the remake uses the image of a popsicle shaped like a Mudokon head found in the censored international version of the original game for Rupture Farms’ “new and tasty” product, as opposed to the Mudokon head on a stick found in the US version of Abe’s Oddysee. I can understand if the original image was considered too graphic, but why replace it with a popsicle? It kind of takes away from the severity of the moment).

Realizing that he and his fellow Mudokons will soon be the next item on the lunch menu, Abe decides to escape from Rupture Farms and free his fellow Mudokon slaves.

The cutscenes are recreated word for word, but with modern graphics and a few extra cinematics implemented on occasion. I can’t complain, Oddworld always did a great job at telling a meaningful story, but doing it in a way that’s still expressed with the simplicity of video game storytelling of its time. If anything, the excessively movie-esque games of today could do well for themselves by taking a page from Oddworld’s book on how to tell a video game story.

The gameplay is also largely the same as it was in the original, albeit with some modern tweaks to make Abe control more fluidly (for the most part). Players still run, jump, sneak, hide in shadows, and talk to their fellow Mudokons. Abe can also chant to open portals to free any Mudokons following him, and to possess Sligs (the guards that patrol Rupture Farms) in order to infiltrate enemy lines.

A few notable changes have been made to the proceedings, however. First and foremost, there’s now a difficulty setting, with the easier difficulties giving Abe some added health, while the hardest difficulty brings back the original game’s challenge of everything killing Abe in one hit. Purists of the original will probably swear by the hardest difficulty, but honestly, I think the additional options are a welcome way to ease more audiences into Oddworld.

Another change is that, while the original release of Abe’s Oddysee separated the action into different screens (with Abe moving like he’s on spaces on a grid), the world of New ‘N’ Tasty is a lot more seamless, only needing to load when entering a bonus stage or new level. This makes Abe’s movements a lot smoother, with the awkward exception of his jumping, which still works as if Abe still plays like he used to. It’s unfortunate, because otherwise Abe controls so much smoother than he once did, so to have his jumping still feel so stiff is pretty jarring.

The most appreciated change, however, is carried over from the original game’s sequel, Abe’s Exoddus: the quicksave!

In its original release, Abe’s Oddysee would only save your progress at annoyingly spread out checkpoints. This could make things grow tedious as you’d have to replay decently large stretches of game just because of one brief instance of trial-and-error. Though Exoddus was just as difficult, it had the wherewithal to give the player the ability to save wherever they pleased. Stuck on a particularly tough puzzle? No problem, just save after every step so you don’t have to redo the whole thing after every mistake. New ‘N’ Tasty still includes checkpoints (which are more mercifully frequent this time around), but the ability to save your progress anywhere and everywhere is a real godsend.

Another attribute New ‘N’ Tasty adopts from Exoddus is the ability to speak to multiple Mudokons at once. Again, this is a greatly appreciated change to the proceedings, as the original Abe’s Oddysee could really try your patience in moments with multiple Mudokons, which required the player to communicate with one at a time, and sometimes even have to go through a puzzle/bonus stage as many times as there were Mudokons to save. So again, having New ‘N’ Tasty carry over this element from Exoddus makes the experience a lot more enjoyable.

This does, however, bring up one of New ‘N’ Tasty’s missed opportunities. Abe’s Oddysee featured a total of ninety-nine Mudokons to rescue, while New ‘N’ Tasty brings the number up to two-hundred and ninety-nine (one shy of Exoddus’s three-hundred). You might think, going into New ‘N’ Tasty, that the levels may be bigger or they may have added more secret areas to accommodate the additional Mudokons. Sadly, you’d be wrong. Despite adding two-hundred Mudokons into the mix, the layout of every level and bonus stage is exactly the same, right down to the locations of the secret areas. There’s just a lot more Mudokons in many of the same places. So…what’s the point of the extra Mudokons?

Another issue that arises from these changes is that very few of the puzzles and bonus areas have been tweaked to accommodate them. Some puzzles that may have taken several steps to ensure the safety of multiple Mudokons can now be finished much sooner as you can talk to every on-screen Mudokon at once. Granted, I’ll take the easier challenge here over the difficulty created through tedium of the original, but it would have been nice had the game found a way to tweak more puzzles and bonus areas to keep the difficulty intact even with the changes.

Because the game no longer works in individual screens, some of the puzzles that are changed have only been altered for the wrong reasons. Namely, the drones that would prevent Abe’s chanting used to affect an entire screen (if you shared a screen with a drone, you can’t chant, leaving the player to find a creative way to destroy the drone or lure a Slig away from it). Because the game no longer plays out by screen, the drones now all have a (not entirely clear) area of effect, so you can sometimes simply solve a problem by standing at a safe enough distance away from the drone. It’s not a big deal, but again, if you change certain key features of the game, you have to adapt the obstacles to them in order to retain the obstacle in question.

One thing’s for sure, the game is absolutely gorgeous to look at. I’ve heard a lot of fans claim that the remake doesn’t capture the same atmosphere of the original, so I was a bit hesitant going into New ‘N’ Tasty. Though I can agree that Rupture Farms itself may not be as dark and gruesome to behold as it once was, I don’t think the atmosphere is completely lost. There’s a lot of prominent lighting effects in the game, which might explain why Rupture Farms doesn’t look quite as grizzly as it once did, but I think the complaints are more than a little exaggerated.

There are also still a few persistent bugs to be found in the game, mostly graphical ones, but the game did crash on me a couple of times. And to my fright, the game went back to the startup menu right as I was about to claim the platinum trophy, with my game file seemingly having been erased. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and after restarting the game everything was just as it was.

It certainly is odd that the complaints I’ve heard thrown towards New ‘N’ Tasty are either that it plays too close to the original to feel like a worthwhile update, or that it streamlines things to the point that it isn’t faithful enough to the original. Of course, with two such extreme opposite viewpoints, I think it’s safe to say the real answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Oddworld: New ‘N’ Tasty serves as a great introductory point to the series (both because it’s literally a remake of the first game in the series and because it lacks the frustration of the original). The changes it makes are for the best in terms of playability, though it seems like an oversight for the puzzles to largely remain as is despite the changes. As does the fact that they tripled the number of Mudokons to rescue without expanding or adding to any area in the game.

Still, even the original Abe’s Oddysee, while aged in a number of respects, remains a fun and unique experience in gaming. To be able to play it with some modernizations to bring it up to date a bit probably do make New ‘N’ Tasty the ideal way to experience Oddworld’s original Oddysee today.

7

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

Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time Review

Crash Bandicoot’s recent resurgence has to be the best reboot in video game history (one could argue that title belongs to Sonic Mania, but that wonderful game was followed-up by the dreadful Sonic Forces mere months later, somewhat negating the goodwill Mania created). There have been a few great video game franchise revivals over the years – such as when Retro Studios picked up the Donkey Kong Country mantle – but they were revived continuations. As far as hitting a complete reset button goes, Crash Bandicoot went from a washed-up mascot to once again becoming a viable franchise as if we were back in its heyday.

The original “unofficial” mascot of the Playstation brand has had a slow burn of a build-up to his first brand-new game in over a decade. Back in his absent years, Playstation 4 commercials featured background cameos and references to the face of Sony’s early days in the gaming market. In 2016, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End featured a segment where series’ hero Nathan Drake played a stage from the very first Crash Bandicoot on his Sony Playstation in a fun meta moment (the Uncharted series being created by Naughty Dog, the original creators of Crash Bandicoot…back when they actually made video games). This lead into 2017’s release of Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy, a compilation of Naughty Dog’s original trio of Crash Bandicoot titles recreated from the ground-up for the PS4. Though the games showed some aging in certain areas (namely some tricky perspectives, these were released in 3D gaming’s infancy after all), the N. Sane Trilogy proved that fun itself never ages, and showed that there was still an audience for the franchise. Then in 2019, Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled (a remake of Naughty Dog’s final Crash game, one of the few kart racers that is held in a similar regard to Mario’s) was released, and pushed the boundaries for what to expect in a video game remake.

Now seemed like the appropriate time to finally pull the trigger on a brand-new Crash Bandicoot game. And that’s exactly what happened when Toys For Bob announced they were making Crash Bandicoot 4, fittingly subtitled It’s About Time, which released at the beginning of October 2020.

That “4” in the title is important, as it’s the game’s way of telling players outright that this is a continuation of the original trilogy, ignoring the games that were released post-PSOne/pre-N. Sane Trilogy.

I remember way back when I played Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex (the “first fourth” Crash Bandicoot title) it was obvious that the magic just wasn’t there. It certainly wasn’t the worst platformer you could find at the time, but it was uneventful enough that from that point on, I had kind of forgotten how much I enjoyed Crash Bandicoot back in its heyday. Unlike something like Super Mario, which has proven timeless, it seemed Crash had his time in the sun, and it was over. The series was destined to be a fond memory of the past.

The N. Sane Trilogy was more than just a nostalgia-fueled remake (though it was that too), but a launching pad to start the series over, which continued with the Crash Team Racing remake. Now, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time successfully follows-up this relaunch in such a way that it makes you forget everything that happened to the series after the PSOne era. And in the end, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time arguably proves to be the best game in the series.

Ignoring the gimmicks of later entries, Crash Bandicoot 4 utilizes the same kind of platforming mechanics and stage design of the original trilogy (though the game was built from the ground-up, and doesn’t utilize any assets from the N. Sane Trilogy). It’s a 3D platformer, but it plays more like a 2D one. Crash Bandicoot (or his sister Coco, who is playable in any of Crash’s stages from the get-go) can run, jump and spin across linear levels, with the camera usually following behind them (though there are also sections with a straight-up 2D perspective, as well as the series’ “chase” levels, which sees the player character running towards the screen). Along the way, they break crates (think Donkey Kong’s barrels) and collect Wumpa Fruits (akin to Mario’s coins or DK’s bananas).

While I have to admit there are times when the perspective can still be a bit tricky, leading to some unfair deaths, for the most part, Crash Bandicoot 4 is an utter delight to play. Yes, those occasional trickier perspectives prove that Crash’s formula isn’t as timeless as that of Mario, but Crash Bandicoot 4 is proof that fun gameplay and strong level design make up for any shortcomings.

That isn’t to say that this is merely the same old Crash Bandicoot with new levels, as Crash Bandicoot 4 makes quite a few meaningful additions and adjustments to the proceedings. The most immediate during gameplay being that Crash/Coco’s shadow is made more prominent, with a targeting reticle around it, which may sound like a small detail, but it greatly benefits Crash Bandicoot’s unique perspectives of 3D platforming.

Another change occurs before you even start the game, with players able to choose between “Retro” and “Modern” play styles. Retro plays things true to Crash’s history, utilizing extra lives and game overs (which will send the player back to the beginning of the current level, no matter their progress), and also means collecting one-hundred Wumpa Fruits results in an additional life. Modern mode does away with lives, meaning you’ll always be revived at the most recent checkpoint no matter how many times you die. Wumpa Fruits still have a purpose however, as collecting 40, 60 and 80 percent of a stage’s Wumpa will reward the player with gems (more on that in a minute). If you select one play style but find yourself wishing you’d picked the other, you can switch between Retro and Modern mode at any time in between stages, so thankfully your file isn’t locked onto a set play style.

Between the two, I recommend starting out with the Modern mode, because Crash Bandicoot 4 certainly lives up to the series’ infamous difficulty. In fact, I dare say it’s the most difficult Crash Bandicoot title since the original (though thankfully, it’s much better designed than the first game). But if you just need that classic Crash challenge, the Retro mode is always there. It’s actually a very nice addition to have an option like this.

Another new element comes in the form of N. Verted mode, which is essentially mirror mode – with the stages flipped in reverse – with the fun added bonus of each world’s N. Verted levels boasting a different art style: One world is in black and white, with Crash and Coco’s spins adding color to the world, while another takes on the aesthetics of a comic book, to the point that sound effects appear as on-screen words like “Pow!” and “Bam!” in the tradition of 1960’s Batman. Sadly, because each art style is confined to their respective world, the N. Verted mode doesn’t quite match up to the similar “Tonic” features from 2019’s Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, but it’s still a fun twist that makes the traditional mirror mode more worthwhile.

 

A more gameplay-focused addition comes in the form of the Quantum Masks, four spiritual voodoo masks who represent time and space, who serve as new power-ups during certain points in the game: One mask allows the player to phase certain objects in and out of existence (you could say these objects can be placed in categories A and B, with the B objects being ethereal when A is active, and vice versa). This alone feels like a wonderful addition to a platformer, and makes for some of the game’s most creative challenges. A second mask utilizes dark matter to give Crash and Coco a superpowered perpetual spin attack. This is admittedly a bit hard to learn, as it makes the controls feel oddly floaty and restrained at the same time, but it also adds some extra variety to the game. The third mask allows the player to slow down time for a few seconds, with Crash/Coco being the only thing that still moves at normal speed. This power leads to some especially interesting obstacles (and even allows Crash to touch the series’ dreaded Nitro crates without instantly exploding). Finally, the last mask changes gravity, allowing Crash and Coco to flip upside-down and walk on ceilings, for a little Super Mario Galaxy-esque level design.

“Slowing down time to jump across falling platforms of ice is the best kind of stressful.”

Each mask feels like a welcome addition (even if the second mask’s spinning ability feels like the developers ran out of time/space-themed ideas), and they really change up the gameplay in some truly inventive ways. Some might be disappointed at how situational the masks are (as soon as their section is done, the masks are removed automatically), but honestly, with the way the level structure works in Crash Bandicoot, I don’t really think they could have been implemented any other way.

My favorite new addition, however, are the stages that center around different characters. While Crash and Coco are the default playable characters in the main stages, three additional characters become playable in the forms of Crash’s archenemy Dr. Neo Cortex; Dingodile, the half-dingo half-crocodile mutant who served as a boss in Crash Bandicoot Warped, and an alternate universe version of Tawna, Crash’s girlfriend from he first game.

“I admit I’m not a fan of Tawna’s new hairstyle. The whole “bright colored hair spiked to one side” has been done to death in video games.”

Tawna plays closest to Crash and Coco, albeit with an additional “hook shot” weapon that allows her to grab and latch onto things at a distance. Cortex is fittingly the most different, coming equipped with a blaster that can transform enemies into platforms (one blast for a solid platform, two blasts for a bouncy, gelatinous platform, with a third blast reverting the enemy to its standard self, if things need readjusting). Though Cortex lacks the double jump of the bandicoots, he instead has rocket boots that allow him to dash forward in a short burst which, when combined with the enemies-to-platforms mechanic, really gives Cortex’s stages a strong puzzle element. My favorite has to be Dingodile, however. Already the series’ most outrageous character just by being what he is, Dingodile not only attacks with his tail, but also has a vacuum gun that sucks up crates by the dozens, can throw TNT crates at enemies and objects, and gives him a little hover/double jump combo (akin to Dixie Kong in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze).

There is an unfortunate caveat to these characters’ stages though. While their introductory stages are entirely their own, all of their subsequent levels are only theirs up until a certain point, at which case it switches over to Crash/Coco, turning into one of their prior stages with small tweaks.

You see, during the main stages, you’ll occasionally come across an event that leaves Crash or Coco scratching their head (like an explosion taking out a group of enemies before you can even approach them). The Tawna, Cortex and Dingodile stages present the story from their point of view, and how their actions lead into the aforementioned “head-scratching” moments, which then segue into that previous stage from that moment, with a few changes to crate and enemy placement to mix things up.

While this is a fun twist at first, after a while you begin to really want the other characters to just have levels of their own. It’s a bit disappointing when a Dingodile level really starts to get going, only to abruptly end and switch over to something you already played as Crash. Maybe the game will get some DLC that can expand on the other characters, or perhaps we’ll eventually get a Crash Bandicoot 5 to do just that. But as of now, playing as the side characters in Crash Bandicoot 4 feels like a great new addition that’s only partly realized.

If, by now, you’re curious how all of this comes together – what with the bandicoots, alternate universe characters, evil scientists and dingo-crocodile hybrids – there actually is a story here. In fact, though it may not be a particularly story-heavy game, Crash Bandicoot 4 probably has the most elaborate plot in the series.

Though this is a direct sequel to Crash Bandicoot Warped, Crash Bandicoot 4 is appropriately set twenty-two years after its predecessor (if you’re wondering why none of the characters are older, it’s because it’s Crash Bandicoot – a series largely inspired by Looney Tunes – I don’t think they’re aiming for realism here). Dr. Cortex, along with the evil voodoo spirit Uka-Uka and the time traveling villain Dr. Nefarious Tropy (N. Tropy), have been trapped in a pocket dimension between time and space for all these years. After countless attempts to escape (on Uka-Uka and N. Tropy’s part, they remark that Cortex has done nothing but whine for the entirety of their banishment), Uka-Uka finally manages to tear a hole in space and time. Though the effort costs Uka-Uka all his energy, sending him into a deep slumber (and writing him out of the picture rather unceremoniously, I have to admit). This allows Dr. Cortex and Dr. N. Tropy to escape, with the latter building a space station that can replicate the tear in space and time created by Uka-Uka to reach other dimensions in a plot to conquer the multiverse. Dr. Cortex, being relegated to N. Tropy’s assistant, in turn recruits his own former assistants Dr. N. Brio and Dr. N. Gin to build an army to help out with their plot.

N. Tropy’s tampering with time and space results in the Quantum Masks reappearing, an event which catches the attention of Aku-Aku (Uka-Uka’s benevolent older brother, and something like Crash’s Obi-Wan Kenobi). So Aku-Aku sets Crash out on an adventure to awaken and unite the Quantum Masks in order to put an end to N. Tropy’s plot and bring balance back to the multiverse.

It’s a simple plot, but one that I appreciate for changing up the series’ formula in a few ways, most notably by promoting N. Tropy to the role of primary antagonist. He was always my favorite Crash Bandicoot villain, and I always found it weird how he was introduced in Warped as one third of the main villain trifecta (along with Uka-Uka and the returning Cortex), but then was taken out midway through the game. And then when The Wrath of Cortex reduced his role to a stage obstacle, suffice to say it seemed like the character had missed potential. So it’s pretty cool to see the series continue after all these years and not simply bring back the Crash vs. Cortex formula (though that’s still here too), but effectively redeem N. Tropy and make him a better villain than ever.

Sure, the plot is nothing too fancy, and there’s a couple of elements that could use more fleshing out (particularly when it comes to N. Brio who, given the rebooted nature of the game, was last seen turning over a new leaf in Crash Bandicoot 2. He even addresses Crash and Coco as his friends in this game, but is still working for Cortex, so I don’t know what that’s about). But it’s a fun little story that manages to find a way to hit a reset button on everything post-Warped while also paying tribute to the series’ entire history, even the less savory years.

On the downside, despite the inter dimensional nature of the plot, the actual levels seem more focused on the time travel aspect (a concept which Warped already tackled). There is a Mad Max-style world early on, and then a later world which I won’t spoil also plays off the different dimension theme, but most seem built around different places in different time periods. There’s a pirate world, ancient Japan world, and a dinosaur world. All cool themes, sure, but they don’t really come across as different dimensions. Hell, even the snow world (one of my favorites in the game) is referred to as “The 11th Dimension.” Again, snow and ice are always a great theme, but what’s “11th Dimension” about it?

There is another aspect to the game that sees things continue even after the main plot is resolved which I have mixed feelings about. This “epilogue” section can feel like an alternate idea Toys for Bob had pitched for the story of the game, and ended up tacking it on in addition to the main story anyway just because they still wanted to use it in some capacity. On the other hand, it’s not like this is a serious game where such a story addition would come across as pointless bloat. When your franchise is as innately silly as Crash Bandicoot, you can kind of get away with these things.

I suppose these are all quibbles. I can’t imagine the story and themes are the main reasons someone would play a Crash Bandicoot game. The game succeeds where it really counts, gameplay. Crash Bandicoot 4 really does feel like the true continuation to Crash Bandicoot Warped I had nearly forgotten I’d waited twenty-two years for. It’s the classic Crash Bandicoot gameplay made fresh and new.

If you’re a completionist, Crash Bandicoot 4 also happened to be one of the deepest games I’ve played in that regard in quite some time. If you just want to complete the story, you can do that, but if you really want to get everything out of the game, you’ll stick with it long, long after the story is done.

The time trials from Warped reappear. After completing a stage, you can replay it and grab a clock at the start to begin that stage’s time trial. Breaking certain crates will award you precious seconds of time, and you can earn different relics (sapphire, gold and platinum) depending on how fast you complete a level.

In addition, every stage houses six gems. Three of which, as mentioned earlier, are earned by the amount of Wumpa Fruit you collect. A fourth gem is earned in the series’ traditional way of breaking every single crate in the level, while another is simply found hidden somewhere within the stage. The final gem is the hardest, and requires the player to only die three or less times on a stage to claim it (don’t worry, you can always start a stage over if need be). And yes, the N. Verted versions of the stages have six gems of their own (including the hidden gem in the level being in a different spot than its standard version).

The gems are used to unlock new character skins for Crash and Coco, which are a fun cosmetic change, but admittedly they may not be the strongest incentive for those who aren’t already completionists to replay the stages. And like the N. Verted visual styles, each character skin is locked onto a specific stage (get X amount of that level’s gem to unlock that skin) which can make collecting some of the skins a bit tedious. Unlocking the costumes by using the gems as currency may have been a more desirable way to go.

If this weren’t enough already, some stages even house an item called a Flashback Tape, a floating VHS that you can only collect if you haven’t died up to that point. Each Flashback Tape unlocks its own bonus stage (accessible on the world map), which takes the player back to the days when Cortex was experimenting on Crash. The Flashback levels are particularly tough gauntlets that task the player with breaking every crate, which becomes much trickier than it sounds.

We’re still not done, believe it or not. Because if you’re a really hardcore Crash Bandicoot fan, there’s one last challenge the game has in store: N. Sanely Perfect Relics. As you may have guessed from their name, these are awarded for performing a perfect run on a level, meaning destroying every crate in a stage without dying. In a game that’s already pretty darned difficult, this is quite the steep challenge.

Of course, all these things are only there if you want to tackle them. They give Crash Bandicoot 4 a stronger sense of replay value than I’ve seen in some years. Though one could also argue that maybe Toys 4 Bob went too far down this road, especially seeing as collecting every gem in a stage more or less equates to doing the same thing as the N. Sanely Perfect Relic. The gems and maybe the time trials would have been enough as is.

“The game even includes a polar bear-riding stage a la Crash Bandicoot 2. This makes me so happy.”

This is all on top of an already great platformer filled with variety in gameplay, complemented by catchy music and the series’ oddly-satisfying sound effects. The occasional cheap death due to difficult perspectives, overabundance of side endeavors, and the unrealized potential of the additional playable characters are the game’s bigger drawbacks (because more Dingodile can only ever be a good thing), but they still don’t prevent Crash Bandicoot 4 from being one of the best platformers of recent years.

The N. Sane Trilogy may have brought Crash Bandicoot back. But Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time makes it feel like the series never left.

Crash’s comeback has certainly been the best in gaming I can remember. Now if only something similar could happen to Halo, Final Fantasy, Paper Mario and Sonic… again.

 

8

Giving Crash His Due

With the release of Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time now less than a month away, I’ve been thinking about the series a fair bit. Among my thinkings about of the series, I realized I could have done it some better justice in recent years.

You see, in my annual video game awards, one of my awards is for the “Best Remake or Remaster.” For 2017 I went with Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for said award, with Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy being the runner-up. And for 2019, I gave the award to Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remastered, and I failed to even mention Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled in the category!

But the more I think about it, the more I think I could have done better for Crash. I mean, I don’t regret picking the winners I did. But when you consider the sheer effort that went into Crash Bandicoot’s recent remakes, I definitely could have done them better.

Considering Crash Bandicoot: The N. Sane Trilogy rebuilt the series’ beloved first three entries from the ground up, and Nitro-Fueled not only did the same for Crash Team Racing, but also remade Crash Nitro Kart within it and added a slew of new content and characters to boot, they definitely deserved more credit than I gave them.

Again, I don’t regret selecting Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Ni no Kuni Remastered for my Best Remake/Remaster award, since those are incredible games. But maybe I should have split the category in two? One for Remasters, and another for full-on remakes. Because while Mario Kart 8 saw some improvements with its Switch release, it was a more polished version of an already great game that had come out only three years prior. And Ni no Kuni was a remaster of my Game of the Year for 2013, so definitely a re-release worth visiting, but it didn’t really add anything substantially new to the game.

The fact that the Crash Bandicoot games were rebuilt from the ground-up is actually very impressive the more I think about it. And while, sure, the Crash trilogy may not be flawless platformers a la Mario, the second and third entries are still great games made even better with their remake, While the first Crash may not have aged particularly well, the N. Sane Trilogy version brings it a little closer to its superior sequels. And the more I think about it, the more I think Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled may be the most robust video game remake ever made. Sure, it’s a Mario Kart clone, but it’s one of the few Mario Kart clones that’s actually comparable to its inspiration, and the remake may just be the best kart racer that isn’t Mario Kart 8 (and yeah, I still hope to review Nitro-Fueled soon). I repeat, it remade a whole additional game within the remade game, and added new features. That’s impressive.

Perhaps going forward I’ll make two separate awards, one of remasters and one for full-blown remakes. So while I think Mario Kart 8 may be a better game than any one entry of the Crash trilogy, and I like Ni no Kuni more than Crash Team Racing, I may retroactively place Mario Kart 8 and Ni no Kuni in the Best Remaster category, and give Best Remake to The N. Sane Trilogy and Nitro-Fueled. In all honesty, if Crash Bandicoot 4 lives up to the hype, then the recent resurgence of Crash Bandicoot is probably the best reboot in video game history. And that’s largely because the remakes of the franchise’s early years were so darn impressive (and because they’re ignoring what came after and going straight for a new game now, effectively rebuilding the series itself in a way most reboots could only dream of).

So congratulations, Crash Bandicoot! Enjoy my retroactive appraisals!

Replaying: Dark Souls III

In all the hustle and bustle of 2020, as I continue to procrastinate reviews for Animal Crossing and Paper Mario: The Disappointment King (what, isn’t that what it’s called?) – not to mention a few lingering reviews for 2019 games – I’ve decided to write about a different older game I’ve been replaying! That game, as I’m sure you’ve deduced from the title, is Dark souls III!

Come to think of it, I’ve had quite a Souls-heavy year in 2020. I replayed Dark Souls Remastered, beat Demon’s Souls for the first time, and completed Dark Souls II. Now that I’m replaying Dark Souls III, that’s all of the Souls games that actually have the word “Souls” in the title. Maybe I’ll bring it full circle and replay BloodbBorne before year’s end. BloodBorne is, for my money, the best Souls game.

That’s not a slight on any of the other Souls games, as Dark Souls is one of the best video games ever made, and honestly, I think Dark Souls III is just as good. Dark Souls II may be a fair bit behind its siblings, and unpopular opinion, but Demon’s Souls is considerably less enjoyable than all of its successors (hopefully the PS5 remake can make some adjustments to bring it up to speed with Dark Souls).

Anyway, Dark Souls III is the focus here. Like I said, I think it’s just as good as the first Dark Souls in many respects (in some ways better, in some not quite as good). I even named it my Game of the Year for 2016 here on this site! It’s easily one of my favorite games of the console generation, and of the 2010s decade (my best of the decade list won’t just be Dark Souls and Mario, but it will very much be Dark Souls and Mario).

What made Dark Souls III work so well – besides the series’ already winning formula and the return of director Hidetaka Miyazaki, who was absent for Dark Souls II – is that it feels like a smooth balance between Dark Souls and BloodBorne. The combat obviously mostly reflects the former, but it has a faster speed to it, closer to BloodBorne. It just feels right.

What mostly had me revisit Dark Souls III is that I never actually experienced its DLC, so I’m playing through the game again and seeing the DLC for the first time.

Last night I finished the first DLC, Ashes of Ariandel (which sounds like Arendelle, the kingdom of Disney’s Frozen, and is even a snowy landscape, which also features a girl with extremely long hair who loves to paint, similar to Rapunzel in Tangled. Now I want a Disney Souls-like). Per the usual, Dark Souls III continues the series’ consistently deep DLC content.

The Ashes of Ariandel campaign took a few hours to beat (I played alongside my brother, which makes things a little more manageable), and included a great, atmospheric setting (it is Dark Souls, after all), some cool (if maybe not series’ best) enemies, and some incredible boss fights. Mainly, the final boss of Ashes of Ariandel is now one of my favorites in the entire series. Definitely the hardest in Dark Souls III, and one of the hardest in any Souls game (I might only place it under some of the optional chalice dungeon bosses from BloodBorne. Specifically the Defiled Chalice Amygdala. Damn that guy!).

The DLC was a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to delving into the second  DLC campaign, The Ringed City, soon. But revisiting Dark Souls III on the whole has been a joy. And I think, now that I’ve finally played through all of Dark Souls II and Demon’s Souls, I appreciate Dark Souls III all the more. While Dark Souls II is far from a bad game, it definitely had its share of questionable creative decisions, not to mention some forgettable locations. And Demon’s Souls, while again not bad per se, really lacks the polish of its successors, and shows its age. So Dark Souls III now feels like all the grander the achievement. A return to form for the Dark Souls trilogy that not only corrects course from the polarizing second installment, but also shows how far Hidetaka Miyazaki’s brainchild had come since Demon’s Souls. It, most appropriately, feels like a great crescendo of everything the series did up to that point.

Dark Souls, BloodBorne and (for some reason) Demon’s Souls seem to be the most beloved entries in the Souls series. The “proper trilogy” in most fans’ eyes. But if you ask me, Dark Souls III is far more deserving to sit alongside Dark Souls and BloodBorne as one of Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s finest achievements.

I can’t wait to play more.

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.

7

SuperMash Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version.*

SuperMash is a perfect example of a game that has a good concept, but squanders that concept in execution. The idea is simple: take two classic video game genres, and put them together with random results. A simple concept, but one that has promise. Combining a platformer with an RPG? Hot dog!

Sadly, the results SuperMash leaves the player with don’t even begin to realize the potential of any of the genres they represent. And the initial delight you might have with your first game or two rapidly dissipates as you realize how shallow and clunky these combinations become.

Now, to be fair, SuperMash does inform the player from the get-go that the “fun” of the game is seeing the randomized results of these combinations more than the actual gameplay of them, and emphasizes that the results are intended to feel like “something that was programmed by a computer, and not people.” That might fly if the games produced were ironic and funny, like Goat Simulator or Octodad. But they just end up feeling like half-assed attempts at representing classic game genres. They’re not enjoyable in either the genuine or ironic senses of the word.

“The Solid Snake parody character is named “Mongoose.” Gee, I wonder how long it took them to come up with that name?”

The setup is simple enough, the game provides six genres to work with (which seems like fewer than there should be): Platformer, Adventure, RPG, Shoot-em-up, Stealth and Metroidvania (called “Metrovania” here, for obvious legal reasons). How in the world falling-block puzzlers, racing and beat-em-ups didn’t make the cut, I don’t know.

The first genre you pick makes up the brunt of the game, while the second will add elements of that genre to the first. And yes, you can even combine the same genre with itself, which you would at least hope would provide more structurally cohesive games, but sadly they don’t.

“It’s baffling how adamantly SuperMash seems to think adding cuboid characters with cat ears equates to having platformer elements…”

What immediately becomes apparent is the lack of substance with the merging of the two genres. The first one I attempted was a “Platformer + Shoot-em-up,” which resulted in a very basic platformer in which the character could also shoot. While combining those two genres should bring something like Gunstar Heroes to mind, literally all it was was a bare bones platformer where the character just so happened to be able to shoot things. Some of the enemies were things like fighter jets, I suppose, but all that accomplished was making the game feel like something out of Action 52 with random-ass enemies and sprites. What’s worse, the platforming wasn’t even any good, and featured several areas that required blind leaps of faith.

“Oh boy, enemies spawning from the top of the screen, and I can only shoot downward. Makes a lot of sense.”

I gave it the benefit of a doubt, and thought maybe I just got a bad result. But then I tried the reverse combination (putting shoot-em-up in the primary slot and platformer in the secondary), and the result was even more nonsensical. Sure, it looked like a vertical scrolling shoot-em-up, and featured a cute, platformer-esque character (who was already very similar to the character from the first game, revealing SuperMash’s limited assets), and the character could potentially jump on enemies and higher areas (key word there being “potentially.” You try to jump on a bad guy that moves in an erratic pattern while the screen scrolls upward). But this game suffered an even worse fate because, despite the screen constantly moving upwards, and enemies spawning from the top of the screen, my character could only fire projectiles downward. As you can imagine, it wasn’t fun.

I tried several other combinations: Platformer and RPG (which resulted in another stale platformer that broke up the gameplay with random encounters. Because random encounters are certainly the aspect of old RPGs that needed to be revisited), Stealth and Adventure, Adventure and Shoot-em-up, “Metrovania” and Shoot-em-up, Metrovania and platformer (how do you mess that up?)… But no matter what I picked, the results were basically the same. Half-baked attempts at the primary selected genre that just so happened to feature an item or enemy that looks like it was vaguely inspired by something from the secondary genre.

There’s so much more to a Metro(id)vania or an RPG than the items that come with them. And simply adding a cute-looking character doesn’t give a game elements of a platformer. But that seems to be the extent at which SuperMash combines these genres together. These are as shallow of genre-crossovers as you can get.

What’s worse, the games you play will provide randomly-selected “glitches,” which come in the forms of random buffs and nerfs. For example, one of the “glitches” I experienced was random encounters becoming more frequent in a platformer if I took too long to collect any coins (and by “too long” I mean about ten seconds, if that. I’m not kidding). Another one saw certain enemies in my Stealth-Adventure become needlessly strong. I’d go through several enemies easily and then one enemy would show up – indistinguishable from the others – that took forever to kill. How are these “glitches” supposed to make the game more fun? They’re just cumbersome, and you can’t turn them off.

If you’re wondering what the goals of these randomly-generated games are, well, you’ll find out the full list of possible goals within minutes. Every game you produce is finished by either finding a particular NPC, defeating a certain number of a particular enemy, or collecting certain items within a time limit. That’s it. That’s all of them. Not exactly a deep pool of content.

To make matters even worse, in between games, there are entirely unnecessary segments where you play as some dude in a video game store. There’s some kind of plot line here with attempted emotion, but who cares? All I know is not only are these sections completely pointless, but the character you play as while you aimlessly walk around this incredibly limited space is just annoying. The developers could have done something clever and meta like having a platforming mascot character, an RPG heroine and a space marine from a shooter game team up for the characters, to play off the motif of genres clashing together. Instead, you play as some dude who looks manufactured to appeal to Millennials (but in a most ineffective way). He looks like one of those irritating animated avatars that  YouTubers use to represent themselves in their video thumbnails (you know, the kind that are always standing with their arms crossed because it’s an easy pose to draw, and are always accompanying some annoying video explaining why some popular game or movie sucks because the YouTuber in question so desperately wants attention). He’s annoying in a way that reminds me of Lester the Unlikely, but this guy might be even worse, seeing as Lester was intentionally a dweeb, but I think SuperMash legitimately thinks its hero is cool.

Don’t believe me? Just check out his obnoxious walking animation.

Geez, I can’t remember the last time I just wanted to punch a video game character so badly.

“This Adventure/Shoot-em-up “hybrid” featured homing missiles as an item in a Zelda-esque setup. Wow, such a deep joining together of genres!”

Simply put, SuperMash is a game that has a neat concept, but one that could have, and should have been polished into something way better.  The genres available are not only limited, but they seem to just barely have any semblance of an understanding of what these genres are. The combinations (or “Mashes” as the game so dearly wants us to call them) have no substance, and never feel like a proper coming together on any meaningful level. The glitches are a needless concept that make already tedious games all the more tedious. Combine that (or “Mash” that) with the fact that the games provided simply aren’t good – and not even in an ironic sense – and the utterly pointless in-between segments, and SuperMash is little more than a neat concept being butchered in execution.

 

3

Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin Review

Dark Souls II is something of the black sheep of the Souls series. Given the standard laid forth by the original Dark Souls, it was always going to be a tough act to follow. In addition to not achieving the same impact as its predecessor, Dark Souls II is also noted for being the only entry in the series not directed by series creator Hidetaka Miyazaki, who merely took on a producing role this time around. Dark Souls II would be directed by Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura  (as such, it’s also the only entry in the series to not feature Miyazaki’s signature character, Patches, who even found his way into Bloodborne).

It probably didn’t help Dark Souls II that it didn’t get a whole lot of time to build its own legacy. Dark Souls II was the first in a line of three “Souls” entries released in as many years. While there was a three year gap between Dark Souls and this sequel, Bloodborne was released the year after Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls III capped off the series the year after that. Bloodborne is widely considered the best follow-up to Dark Souls, and has a setting distinct from the Tolkien-esque fantasy worlds of the rest of the series, while Dark Souls III felt like the proper culmination of all previous entries. Dark Souls II, by comparison, got a little lost in the shuffle, with less identity of its own to make it stand out.

When Dark Souls II was first released in 2014, it was the highly anticipated follow-up to one of the biggest hits of the decade. But because of the aforementioned reasons – as well as a couple of questionable design choices – Dark Souls II has gained that reputation as the black sheep of the franchise.

But being the black sheep is really a relative term in instances like this. Despite its drawbacks (and yes, it does fall short of its predecessor, successor, and Bloodborne), Dark Souls II is still an excellent game that retains the series’ quality.

The “Scholar of the First Sin” edition of Dark Souls II was released on the PS4 and Xbox One in 2015, and featured improved visuals and some minor tweaks, and also included all of the downloadable content from its original release.

If Dark Souls II has any immediate drawback, it’s that it’s a little tepid when it comes to branching out of its predecessor’s shadow and constructing its own identity. Now, given that the first Dark Souls is one of the best games ever made, that’s not a horrible thing. But suffice to say that Dark Souls II is the safest entry in the series, creatively speaking.

The gameplay retains the depth and intricacy the series is known for. You create a character whose play style becomes more and more customizable as the game goes on. You can equip weapons, armor and shields, as well as gain magic abilities (which come in the form of sorceries, miracles, pyromancies and hexes). You fight your way through incredibly difficult lands and dungeons – where many foes can fell you in a single hit – and search for those heavenly bonfires for those blessed moments of reprieve.

That’s not to say that Dark Souls II doesn’t feature any tricks of its own. One feature – unique to the series – is that each area has a finite number of enemy respawns. True to its predecessor, igniting a bonfire may serve as a checkpoint and a means to recover health, spells, and your ever-trusty Estus Flask, but doing so will also respawn every enemy in the area surrounding said bonfire. Unlike its predecessor, or either of its successors, however, is that if you slay particular enemies enough times and keep using the local bonfire, these enemies will eventually cease to spawn for the remainder of the playthrough.

It’s an interesting concept, admittedly. And if you’re having too much trouble with a particular area or enemy, it gives you something of a cheat in that you can keep chipping away at such troublesome moments until the source of said troubles just disappears entirely and is cleared out of your path.

However, this concept of finite enemy respawns comes with a few caveats. Notably, if a certain type of enemy holds particular items or materials you’re looking for, you only have so many chances to try to farm said items during any given playthrough. And should you choose to use the aforementioned method of exhausting certain enemy spawns  to make progression a bit smoother, be prepared for a large amount of tedium.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that the developers assumed many players would go the route of slowly extinguishing enemies, because there seems to be way more foes in any given area than in any other entry in the series. That’s not innately a bad thing, but it becomes an issue when some places within the game feel like they’re just tossing in hordes of enemies willy nilly.

“This place may look heavenly, but with the sheer excess of sorcerer enemies and monsters that pop out of the water, it’s probably closer to Hell.”

By that I mean one of the strengths of the first Dark Souls (and Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) is the sense of staging. The games not only feature excellent level and enemy designs that add to the gameplay, but the placement of those enemies in those areas really add to the gameplay. There’s a brilliant sense of staging that few games can match. But in Dark Souls II, there are more than a few areas where it feels like there’s no cohesive structure in the enemy placements, and that it simply bombards the player with as many enemies as humanly possible as it assumes said player will gradually exhaust the spawning of these enemies.

For those who would like to farm items and souls (the series’ combination of experience points and currency), you can start the enemy spawn cycle of a given area over again by using a rare item called a Bonfire Ascetic, but even that comes with the drawback of upping the difficulty of the area (for example, using an Ascetic during your first playthrough will up that area’s difficulty to that of New Game Plus, with each additional use upping it further to the difficulty of the next playthrough). And doing so can’t be reversed for that character. So it’s pretty much a double-edged sword.

The finite enemy respawns are a mixed bag, then. But at least I understand why FromSoftware experimented with the idea. Less understandable is that Dark Souls II saw fit to resurrect Demon’s Souls’s punishment for defeat by lowering your maximum health with each death!

Like the other games in the series, the player’s acquired souls are dropped upon death, but they have a chance to reclaim them, if they learned from past mistakes and make it back to the spot they died. But die again before reclaiming them and those souls are gone for good. This element is fine, as it has always been a key part of the series, and one that proved influential to video games as a whole. But lowering the player’s maximum health upon every defeat is a component of Demon’s Souls that never needed to be brought back. It just feels like the game is punishing the player for its own difficulty.

You can undo this effect with a particular item (the “Human Effigy” this time around), but this item is much rarer that the “Humanity” item of Dark Souls, and chances are you’ll run out of them faster than you can get more, until maybe your third playthrough. So you’ll be spending a good portion of the game with only a fragment of your full health. The game would already be more than difficult enough without this feature.

I’m probably sounding a bit negative by this point, but these are the major issues with Dark Souls II that prevent it from being on the same level as its immediate predecessor and its successors. With these negatives out of the way, however, it should be emphasized that, when Dark Souls II hits the right notes, it’s exceptional.

The core gameplay is as fun and deep as ever, and the world design remains exquisite. The boss fights are still epic encounters, though perhaps a bit less memorable than other entries in the series due to a relative lack of variety (a good portion of the bosses are giant suits of armor with swords). There are secrets and hidden areas around every corner, instilling a strong sense of exploration into the player. And while I may have noted the cumbersome nature of the areas packed with excessive enemies, there are still places in the game that are the opposite, and evoke the series’ usual design strengths.

There are a few other tweaks made to the Dark Souls formula. Like in Demon’s Souls, the player doesn’t level up at any given bonfire, but instead has to speak with a particular NPC (the “Emerald Herald” in this case, who resides in the game’s hub of Majula). Some might say having to go to a specific spot to level up isn’t as accessible as its predecessor’s method, but given that you have the ability to warp to any previously visited bonfire from the get-go this time around, it’s not a problem.

Some may also not be too keen on the way the Estus Flask upgrades in Dark Souls II. Rather than Dark Souls 1’s process of boosting the individual bonfires to give you more uses of the Estus Flask, you now have to find two different rare items that, when burned at a bonfire, increase the number of uses of the Estus Flask itself (to a maximum of 12) and increase how much health each usage heals. But I don’t find it to be any worse than its predecessor’s method, just different.

As usual, Dark Souls II looks and sounds great. Although the Scholar of the First Sin edition doesn’t look as pretty as its sequels that were made from the ground up for PS4 and Xbox One, its art direction and visual aesthetics have held up nicely. And, when coupled with its sweeping musical score and the series’ untouchable sound design, it all really gives the game a strong sense of atmosphere.

On the subject of atmosphere, Dark Souls II follows series’ tradition of having the majority of its story and world building told through the level design, item descriptions, and passing NPC dialogue. The story and world here are still interesting (and tell of how the kingdom of Drangleic fell to ruin), but it is a little odd that its story and setting seem far removed from that of the first game. This would be emphasized all the more later on when Dark Souls III felt like a closer follow-up to the first Dark Souls, while only giving the world, characters and elements of Dark Souls II a few passing references. So if Dark Souls II weren’t already seen as the black sheep of the series by fans, it seems its sequel would canonically magnify this labelling.

That’s a bit of a shame. While Dark Souls II undoubtedly falls short of the two Dark Souls entries it’s sandwiched between (and Bloodborne. Can’t forget Bloodborne), it’s still a great game that expands on the world of the series.

Dark Souls II’s faults may be few, but they are certainly more noticeable than those of its sister titles. Only in a series of this pedigree could a game as good as Dark Souls II be considered its “black sheep.” If taken by its own merits, Dark Souls II is close to triumphant. It’s only when one remembers what came before and what came after that its blemishes really start to show.

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Top 5 Video Games of 2019 (Game of the Year)

And now, here we are, the big one. Game of the Year!

2019 was a pretty strong year for video games. Not quite as strong as 2018 or 2017, admittedly, but it had its share of highlights.

Let’s skip the fanfare and get right to the meat of things. These are my top 5 video games of 2019!

 


Continue reading “Top 5 Video Games of 2019 (Game of the Year)”

Video Game Awards 2020: Best Multiplayer

Multiplayer has never been more important nor prominent in video games than it is today. With the internet connecting players from around the world, more and more developers are putting an emphasis on multiplayer.

Sometimes, we wish to play video games to take us on epic adventures, but other times, we only want to connect with friends (or random strangers) and have some fun.

2019 may not have been the strongest year for multiplayer titles, but it still provided some good ones. Strangely, my favorite of the lot wasn’t originally from 2019 at all…

 

Winner: Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled

Back in its day, Crash Team Racing was – along with Diddy Kong Racing – hailed as one of the only Mario Kart clones to actually be as good as Mario Kart (considering the most recent Mario Kart at the time was Mario Kart 64, there’s an argument to be made that, in that era, CTR was actually the better racer). Though Mario has since unquestionably wrested that crown – due in no small part to the exceptional Mario Kart 8 – the remake of Crash Team Racing still proves to be one of the best mascot racers not called Mario.

Though its single player modes can leave a lot to be desired (there is seriously no reason for the time trials in a game like this to be that precise!),  Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is all too easy to get sucked into when it comes to its multiplayer. With great track designs, a constantly expanding roster of characters, character skins, and karts, and a bevy of different modes of play, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is like a gift that keeps on giving.

Not bad for a remake of a game from the PS1 era.

 

Runner-up: Luigi’s Mansion 3

 

Past Winners

2014: Mario Kart 8 (Online) and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U (local)

2015: Splatoon

2016: Overwatch

2017: For Honor* (Online) and ARMS (Local)

2018: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

 

*Retroactively awarded