Video Game Awards 2020: Biggest Surprise

Oftentimes, the games we end up loving are ones that catch our eye early on. Games may not always live up to our expectations, but it seems more often than not, we have an idea about which games we’re going to enjoy.

Other times, a game comes out of seemingly nowhere, with no hype or build-up, that ends up being an utter delight. A pleasant surprise, if you will.

 

Winner: Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair

I liked the original Yooka-Laylee, but no doubt it wasn’t the game it could have been. Others were less warm to it than I was, which surely wasn’t the response Playtonic Games was hoping for with their Banjo-Kazooie spiritual successor. After that, I figured Playtonic would change course and try again with different characters down the road.

Instead, Playtonic admirably stood by the characters they made, and put them in a new scenario that was probably a bit more appropriate for an early title from a studio of Playtonic’s size.

Placing Yooka and Laylee in a don’t-call-it-a-spiritual-successor to Donkey Kong Country, Playtonic proved their belief in their inaugural IP to be justified. While Playtonic may have backed themselves into a corner with the first Yooka-Laylee – with Kickstarter stretch goals forcing their hand in certain directions – Impossible Lair allowed Playtonic more creative freedom with the 2D platformer genre.

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair proved to be one of the best 2D platformers in years, and re-established Yooka-Laylee as a viable video game franchise. Considering the lukewarm reception to the original, and the fact that Impossible Lair was rather unceremoniously announced as part of a montage in a Nintendo Direct and released a short time thereafter, I’d say that makes for quite the pleasant surprise.

 

Runner-up: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

 

Past Winners

2017: Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle

2018: Deltarune: Chapter 1

Video Game Awards 2020: Best Music

Music. Glorious music! Music is important in any medium, but it seems to have a particular influence in video games. Just think of how different gaming would be without all those infectious tunes of yesteryear. I shudder to thought.

Though modern gaming doesn’t have quite the consistency of excellent soundtracks that the medium once had (namely, AAA western releases have a tendency to sound like Hollywood Minus), but it still provides some truly unforgettable soundtracks from time to time (mainly from Japanese titles or Indie games).

2019 was something of an exception in this regard, as my favorite game soundtrack came from westward, although I don’t presume it could be called a “AAA” title…

Winner: Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair’s excellent soundtrack can be attributed to two words: David. Wise.

Okay, so that’s actually one name, as opposed to two words, but just work with me for a second.

Yes, the great Grant Kirkhope once again contributed to Yooka-Laylee’s score, as did newcomers to the series Matt Griffin and Dan Murdoch, but it’s the unmistakeable sounds of David Wise that seal the deal.

Although Impossible Lair avoided referring to itself as a spiritual successor to Donkey Kong Country (seeing how the original Yooka-Laylee’s status as a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie fell a bit flat on most), there is no doubt that it draws heavy inspiration from Playtonic’s past work with Rare on the DKC series. And by promoting David Wise – the man behind DKC’s immortal soundtracks – to primary composer for Yooka and Laylee’s second go-around, Impossible Lair echoes a similar sense of atmosphere and emotion as DKC. In fact, it almost sounds like David Wise conducted Impossible Lair’s score as a kind of follow-up to his work on Retro Studio’s Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.

Impossible Lair may not quite reach the nirvana of video game music that Tropical Freeze did. But much like Impossible Lair is the first 2D platformer that could be compared to Tropical Freeze since its initial 2014 release, the same goes for its soundtrack.

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair’s soundtrack is fun, catchy, atmospheric, and full of variety and feeling. In short, it’s David Wise.

 

Runner-up: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

 

Previous Winners

2014: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze

2015: Undertale

2016: Dark Souls III

2017: Super Mario Odyssey

2018: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate

Video Game Awards 2020: Best Sound

Now let us begin my 2020 video game awards proper (celebrating the video games of 2019). Why don’t we go with tradition and start with the Best Sound category?

Sound effects are among the unsung heroes of any medium, particularly video games. Just imagine Mario grabbing a coin with no shimmering *clink* to accompany it. It just wouldn’t feel right.

When it comes to the category of Best Sound, I find myself usually going with either games that use sounds to help create their personality (such as the aforementioned Mario or other such platformers) or games that use sounds to create and enrich their atmosphere, which seems to be where I’ve been leaning the past few years. And 2019 continued this trend, because…

 

Winner: Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

No one in the video game world does sound better than FromSoftware, and that was once again true in 2019 with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which continued the studio’s tradition of pulling players into its world with every last sound effect.

I admit I’m not the biggest fan of Sekiro (though I do hope to get back to it soon), but no doubt it continues the traditions of Dark Souls and Bloodborne of giving a sense of weight to its every creature and object through the sound work.

The clank of armor, the growls of monsters, the sickening sounds of cutting them down with your blade. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice once again showcases FromSoftware’s mastery of sound design in video games.

 

Runner-up: Super Mario Maker 2

 

Past Winners

2014: Dark Souls II

2015: Bloodborne

2016: Dark Souls III

2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

2018: Red Dead Redemption 2

Demon’s Souls Review

The Dark Souls series – and its sister title Bloodborne – have become so influential and acclaimed in the video game world that it often seems like people forget that the Souls series didn’t start with 2011’s Dark Souls, but with Demon’s Souls, released two years prior. Before Dark Souls became the all-encompassing influence on video game design in the 2010s, Demon’s Souls helped cap off the 2000s, opening the door for its spiritual successor to take charge in the new decade.

The video game world is no stranger to spiritual sequels to beloved titles, but its rare that a spiritual sequel completely eclipses its predecessor. Unfortunately for Demon’s Souls, that seems to be the case. Though Demon’s Souls remains a uniquely engaging experience, some of its more aged elements make it apparent why, whenever a game is dubbed “Souls-like,” people are comparing things to its spiritual successor, more so than Demon’s Souls itself.

Now, that’s not to say that Demon’s Souls didn’t have an impact. When it was released in 2009, it received widespread acclaim, and even won its share of Game of the Year awards. Some fans still hail it as the best (or second best) entry in the franchise (although I think that’s a stretch). But comparing Demon’s Souls to its successors is like comparing Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario World. The former may have laid the foundation, proved influential and still holds up in its own right, but it would be incredibly difficult to argue its merits over those of its sequel.

Granted, some might say my current perception of the game is slightly tainted by the fact that Demon’s Souls’ servers shut down in 2018, so there’s no interaction with other players. But during my most recent playthrough of the Switch version of Dark Souls Remastered, I barely summoned anyone to help me (and when I did, it was more out of the sheer surprise of actually seeing a summon sign – which seemed sadly rare in the Switch version – as opposed to requiring the help), and I enjoyed it every bit as much as I ever did. So I don’t think the lack of online features has clouded my judgement too much.

The difficulty of the series is something I’ve come to expect and embrace. But it has to be said that Demon’s Souls – perhaps as a result of being the first entry in the series and thus lacking the hindsight of its successors – lacks polish in a number of areas. While Dark Souls and Bloodborne could get excruciatingly difficult at times, I never felt cheated by them. But there are a couple of instances in Demon’s Souls where it feels like director Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware simply stacked challenge after challenge on top of each other, without researching whether or not it was fair to the player. No matter how difficult they got, I never felt like the Dark Souls games or Bloodborne were unfair. But I have to admit there were a few instances in Demon’s Souls where I felt my failures were the result of questionable game design, as opposed to my own error.

For a good example of what I mean, the game’s fourth stage – The Shrine of Storms – features flying manta ray enemies that shoot their stingers at you, which hone in on your character, no less. That’s not so bad in and of itself, but many of these manta ray enemies are far enough in the distance that they won’t be in your focus and will be off-screen. When things start tracking players from off-screen is when I start to lose my patience. Still, I could live with it. When this scenario went from difficult to aggravating, however, is when I’m expected to fight skeleton phantoms who can kill me in one hit, all while on a narrow ledge, while dozens of these manta rays are shooting their homing stingers at me from off-screen!

There’s a difference between a steep challenge, and just stacking one obstacle after another over each other to the point that it becomes unreasonable to the player. Dark Souls and Bloodborne would learn this lesson, so I suppose Demon’s Souls was a necessary test run for its follow-ups to improve on those elements. But it doesn’t change the fact that, when replaying Demon’s Souls, moments like this can sometimes kill the fun of the experience.

If I’m starting to sound a bit negative, it’s not because Demon’s Souls is a bad game. It’s just that, relative to its spiritual successors, it does show its age a bit. Again, I compare it to Super Mario Bros. in relation to Super Mario World. That’s hardly the kind of company to be ashamed of being in.

While the core gameplay remains largely the same as it would in future Souls titles (equipable weapons in both hands, light and heavy attack variants, a stamina meter to prevent you from constantly spamming attacks, lots of rolling, etc.), there are some key differences.

The first, and most obvious, would be the lack of an Estus Flask. In Dark Souls, the Estus Flask would serve as your permanent means of healing (starting with only five uses, but you can refill it by resting at a bonfire, and increase the total number of uses by boosting said bonfires). But here in Demon’s Souls, you have more traditional, consumable healing items (grass). This alone feels outdated by comparison. The Estus Flask – one of gaming’s greatest items – tells you exactly how many slip-ups you’re allowed to make before you reach the next bonfire. Its presence makes you able to strategize every section of the game accordingly. It’s the perfect item for the gameplay provided by the series. By comparison, the grass in Demon’s Souls can be a bit of a pain to build up. Sure, enemies will drop it pretty often, but until you make it to New Game+ or have improved your stats enough, they won’t drop it nearly enough to keep up with what most players will need. Yes, there are vendors in the game that can sell you these (and other) items – charging the player’s acquired souls in return (souls work as both experience points and currency, per the norm) – but again, until New Game + hits, these items often cost more souls than you can keep up with. So you’re often caught farming enemies for souls to buy items, only to be killed (often in one hit) while farming, thus losing the souls you’ve gathered thus far. Yes, as would become a staple of the series, you can reclaim your lost souls if you make it back to the spot you died, but if you get killed again on the way, they’re gone for good.

Again, this is a feature in Dark Souls and Bloodborne as well. But here in its initial incarnation, the concept isn’t nearly as well executed. Part of that is because the Estus Flask was the perfect companion piece to the way the series is set up. By relying on more traditional consumables, you often get caught in a cycle of farming to try to claim souls for more items, only to get killed before you can get enough souls because you don’t have any items to heal you. It’s true that Bloodborne also featured more traditional healing items, but Bloodborne also learned from Dark Souls’ bonfires (with lanterns being its equivalent), which means there were checkpoints to stop and heal.

That brings us to Demon’s Souls other big gameplay difference: there are no bonfires in Demon’s Souls as there would be in later games. Now, there is something of a predecessor in the form of swords in stones, called “Archestones,” but there are some key differences here that make these stones considerably less useful than Dark Souls’ bonfires or Bloodborne’s lanterns.

For one, the Archestones only appear after boss fights, making them far less frequent than their successors. Second, they don’t automatically heal you when touched, instead merely asking if you want to go back to the game’s hub world (dubbed “The Nexus”). Third, touching the stones does not respawn enemies like the later bonfires would. That may sound like it makes things easier, but it just makes it all more tedious. If you’re trying to get specific items from enemies, or just trying to farm souls, you have to touch an Archestone to go back to the Nexus, wait for the loading screen, then re-select the stage and Archestone of your choice, and sit through the loading screen again, in order to respawn enemies. So if you’re trying to gather specific items to craft a better weapon, you’re going to be at it for a while. Compare that to Dark Souls: You touch a bonfire, and bam, the enemies are back. It sounds like simple stuff, but it’s changes like this that make all the difference in the world.

It’s true, there are items that return you to the Nexus that you can use at any time. But the item you constantly have on you that does this takes you back at the expense of losing all your acquired souls, while the items that send you back without penalty are in short supply. It’s demanding, to say the least.

“Another problem is that, in order to make room in your inventory, you have to manually take your excess items to an NPC in the Nexus. Otherwise, if you find an item you can’t carry, you risk losing that item for good if you die or leave the stage. Compare that to Bloodborne, where your excess items automatically transfer to a storage when you’re overburdened. That’s a godsend!”

There are other, smaller differences between Demon’s Souls and its successors that showcase the former’s rough edges. Example: As would become tradition for the series, Demon’s Souls includes a poisonous swamp stage, where trudging through its waters is necessary, but will inevitably poison the player. However, in the later games in the series, a status bar will pop up on screen to show the poison building up until it takes effect. In Demon’s Souls, there is no visual cue. You won’t know when the poison will take effect until you’re poisoned. Similarly, Dark Souls informs the player when their weapon is close to breaking and needing repairs. But again, in Demon’s Souls, you won’t know until it happens. These are small issues, sure, but it does show how small visual and audio cues in games can really go a long way.

The biggest difference between Demon’s Souls and its successors, however, is in the structure of the game world itself. While Dark Souls onward would feature one connected world a la Metroidvania, Demon’s Souls instead has the Nexus serve as a hub, where the player can then access the game’s five proper stages, with each stage being separated into different segments, and each segment being capped off with a boss fight. Stages 2 through 5 have two proper segments, with a third that is mainly just the world boss, while stage 1 has four segments. Thankfully, you don’t have to completely finish a stage before moving onto the next (once the first boss is defeated, the other four stages become available), so there’s still some leeway for player’s to tackle the game at their own pace.

While I love the Metroidvania style adopted by Dark Souls and its kin, I also find myself enjoying Demon’s Souls more Mario 64-esque approach of having a hub world and stages. I honestly would not mind if FromSoftware adopted Demon’s Souls structure for another game, albeit with some of adjustments learned from the later games in the series (again, gotta love those bonfires).

One thing that’s surprising about Demon’s Souls is that, despite being the predecessor of Dark Souls featuring many of the same gameplay elements and a similar dark fantasy world, said fantasy world of Demon’s Souls still manages to feel so distinct from what came later.

The mythology here is that the kingdom of Boletaria has – under the king’s instruction – reawakened an ancient entity known simply as the ‘Old One’ in order to resurrect the “Soul Arts” the creature’s existence provides. The Soul Arts are a great power once known to Boletaria, but they came at a great price. Though the Old One’s presence grants mankind this power, it also unleashes a deep fog that encompasses the world, with soul-hungry demons existing within that fog. As the fog spreads, so too do the demons, who in turn transform humans into mindless monsters upon taking their souls. As you may have guessed, the king’s lust for the Soul Arts and awakening of the Old One has brought the fog back into the world, plunging it into chaos. Thus it’s up to the hero character to slay demons, and acquire ‘Demon Souls’ powerful enough to lull the Old One back into its slumber.

As always, further details of the game’s mythology are sprinkled throughout the level design and descriptions of characters and items. In some ways I may even like this mythology more than that of Dark Souls, but it’s a testament to Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s world-building abilities that Dark Souls became its own entity simply due to publishing issues preventing a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls, and yet both games feature such deep, unique worlds of their own.

It’s in its world where Demon’s Souls truly shines. Not just in that world building, but also in level and enemy design. While, as stated, the levels do feature some sections that don’t know the difference between a tough-but-fair challenge and mindlessly stacking obstacles on top of each other, the level and enemy designs on their own right remain as strong as any in the Souls games.

Despite my previously stated grievances, the fourth stage, Shrine of Storms, is probably my favorite. A dilapidated temple that looks like it was pulled out of a Team Ico title, filled with ghosts and surrounded by storms, capped off with those intriguing (if infuriating) flying manta rays. It’s an absolute beauty to look at. The other levels are similarly interesting. Stage 1 takes place entirely in Boletaria’s castle, stage 2 is a fiery mine filled with exploding beetles, and stage 3 is a dreary asylum run by Lovecraftian monsters (a concept that would be revisited and bettered in Dark Souls 3). Admittedly, the fifth stage is a little more of a mixed bag. I love the look of the first segment, which reminds me of Davy Jones’s ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but once that part is done and we move into the poisonous swamp, its a lot less appealing both in look and gameplay.

There is, unfortunately, one other weakness to Demon’s Souls that was removed from its successors: World Tendency.

Back in its day, Demon’s Souls featured both an online and offline mode to the World Tendency feature. Seeing as the online servers are no more, there’s not much point to address them here, but the offline equivalent – at any rate – is a convoluted mess. I just don’t understand it.

World Tendency describes the status of each stage. The different phases are pure white, white, black and pure black. From what I can gather (the game largely leaves the details unexplained), if the world tendency of a stage is in the white, your character is more durable to enemy attacks, making things slightly easier on you. But when a stage goes into the black, more enemies show up – including painfully difficult “black phantom” versions of enemies – but with the benefit of more frequent item drops and more souls granted from each foe.

Like in the later Souls games, once your character dies, you come back in ‘soul form,’ only here, that comes with reduced hit points. Once again, Dark Souls made the process of reclaiming your physical form a much more tolerable ordeal by means of the “humanity” item, which you give to bonfires to reclaim your body. In Demon’s Souls, you reclaim your ‘living’ state either by defeating a boss, or by using an item called “stones of ephemeral eyes.” The problem is there are only so many bosses per each level, and once defeated they won’t show up again in the same playthrough, and the stones of ephemeral eyes are – yet again – quite infrequent to find, with the sole enemy that drops them being found in the last section of stage 5. So unless you want to brave stage 5 early on and farm the heck out of its final section, you likely won’t have too many ephemeral eyes at any given time. Naturally, with how difficult the game is, this means you’ll likely be in your weakened soul state for most of your playthrough.

Why do I bring this up now? Because apparently dying in your physical state on a given level is how that level falls into the black in World Tendency. I guess dying in your soul form doesn’t affect a stage, but the more times you die in your physical form, the darker the level gets, and you can only reclaim it by progressing through the level and defeating its bosses. But think about that for a second, there are only so many bosses, so if you’ve completed a stage but want to revisit it to farm some enemies, but you end up dying numerous times, the level will fall into the black and there’s nothing you can do about it for the remainder of the playthrough.

So basically, we have an incredibly difficult game, that gets more difficult upon defeat, and only gives you a few chances to set it back to normal. Demon’s Souls is essentially punishing the player for its own difficulty in this regard. It’s this convoluted World Tendency mechanic that sums up how far the series has come since Demon’s Souls. Hell, just going from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls 1 feels like a night and day difference.

I know, I’m sounding incredibly negative, but I stress again that Demon’s Souls is a good game in its own right. And back in 2009, when there was nothing else like it, it’s easy to understand why it may have seemed so incredible. But now that we live in 2020 and have an entire trilogy of Dark Souls and the exceptional Bloodborne, it’s impossible to not see the rough edges of FromSoftware’s initial Souls outing.

Yes, the gameplay is still intricate and deep, the world and level design are still engrossing, and even when it pulls some cheap tricks, there’s some weird sensation to keep at it and push yourself ever further in Demon’s Souls. But just because Demon’s Souls laid down the blueprint doesn’t mean its successors didn’t perfect it. And boy, did they ever do just that.

While Demon’s Souls may have launched one of the greatest video game franchises out there, it has to be said that it now feels like the rough draft of the winning formula that was to come.

 

6

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair Review

In 2015, a small development studio called Playtonic Games – comprised of several former members of Rare – revealed Yooka-Laylee through Kickstarter. Yooka-Laylee was a 3D platformer that served as a ‘spiritual successor’ to the Banjo-Kazooie games, which are still seen as some of Rare’s finest achievements, and more than likely the only only 3D platformers not called Mario that genuinely compare to the Italian plumber’s fabled adventures. With the creators of such a beloved series crafting its spiritual follow-up, suffice to say Yooka-Laylee’s crowdfunding campaign was a roaring success.

Fast-forward to 2017 to the release of Yooka-Laylee, and the game’s final reception was unfortunately a lot more mixed than the game’s initial success would have suggested. Though it was a solid effort, a number of technical issues and a few outdated elements prevented Yooka-Laylee from reaching its full potential. Though far from a bad game, it wasn’t the second coming of Banjo-Kazooie we all had hoped it would be.

Thankfully, Playtonic didn’t let the disappointing reception hinder them, and in the Summer of 2019 they announced a surprise sequel, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, which was released a few months thereafter. Unlike its predecessor, Impossible Lair is a 2D side scrolling platformer akin to Rare’s Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the SNES. Though Playtonic has insisted to not refer to Impossible Lair as a ‘spiritual successor’ to DKC as they did with its predecessor and Banjo-Kazooie as to avoid setting this sequel up for disappointment, it actually is a strong improvement over its predecessor, and a worthy follow-up to the Donkey Kong Country series.

It’s apparent that Playtonic has learned from Yooka-Laylee’s missteps. While we can hope that means their next 3D platformer will be a real winner (especially considering that genre could do with another classic outside of Mario after all these years), Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is such a strong 2D platformer that it should do away with any skepticisms people may have had towards Playtonic after their maiden voyage, and re-establishes Yooka-Laylee as a viable video game franchise.

While Rare were the developers of the original Donkey Kong Country trilogy on the SNES, that series was eventually passed on to Retro Studios during the 2010s. Retro Studios resurrected the series with Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii, and made the series their own with the masterful Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze on Wii U (and later Switch). While Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair pays homage to Rare’s SNES Donkey Kong Country titles that many of Playtonic’s team members helped create, it also seems to be a loving tribute to Retro Studios’ efforts with the series. In particular, Impossible Lair seems to be doing its best at a game of one-upmanship with Tropical Freeze. Although Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair can’t quite match up to Tropical Freeze, it is undoubtedly the best 2D platformer to be released since.

Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair sees the return of Yooka the chameleon and Laylee the bat, as well as their enemy Capital B, who is trying to takeover the “Royal Stingdom” of bees with the use of his new bee mind-controlling scepter. To ensure Yooka and Laylee can’t stop him for a second time, Capital B. has constructed the titular Impossible Lair, an insanely difficult platforming stage that will push Yooka and Laylee (and thus, the player) to their limit.

Similar to the DKC games, both characters essentially serve as a hit point. Get hit once, and Laylee flies away (though there are a few seconds where she can be recovered, and should you lose her, you can bring her back by ringing a Laylee bell). Get hit twice, and Yooka dies. Fall down a bottomless pit, and it’s instant defeat.

To survive the Impossible Lair, Queen Phoebee – the matriarch of the Stingdom – can grant the duo of Yooka and Laylee the aid of her royal guard, who provide a shield for the heroic duo, with each royal guard serving as an additional hit point for the shield. But there’s a catch, the royal guard have all been imprisoned by Capital B.

This is where Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair draws some inspiration from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Should the player have the skill/patience, it actually is possible to head straight into the Impossible Lair and, yes, even beat it (though the challenge is so incredibly steep you may have to be crazy to try that). Or you can experience more of the game, rescue the royal guards, and use them to create the shield for Yooka and Laylee. There are forty-eight royal guards in to be found in total, but again, you can attempt the Impossible Lair at any time, no matter how many guards you’ve rescued.

It’s a seemingly simple twist to the genre, but one that ultimately makes for a great change of pace. The concept of the final level being readily available from the start of the game, with the completion of the other stages giving the player more strength to brave said final level, might be the most refreshing twist to the progression of 2D platformers since Super Mario World introduced multiple stage exists and branching paths in its world map. It’s easy to imagine player’s seeking the toughest challenge trying to conquer the Impossible Lair from the get-go, though I’m on the side of the fence that believes a game is best when you experience it to its fullest.

The other big twist Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair brings to 2D platformers is its overworld. Instead of a map screen to select stages, Yooka and Laylee are thrown into a connected world that takes on a top-down, overhead perspective, akin to the 2D Legend of Zelda titles. New stages are found throughout the overworld, and usually require the player to solve a puzzle in order to unlock them. Additionally, each of the game’s twenty stages (not counting the Impossible Lair) features an alternative version, which feels like a more fleshed-out realization of the ‘level expansion’ concept from the first Yooka-Laylee.

While these changes Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair makes to 2D platforming progression are very much appreciated, I must admit most of the game’s drawbacks come from its overworld. Though the idea of unlocking platforming levels in a Zelda-style overworld is a great concept, the puzzles found in said overworld can sometimes be a bit cryptic, and it can often be vague as to where you’re supposed to go next, which prevents the concept from reaching its full potential.

Thankfully, the stages themselves are far better realized. As stated, these are the best side scrolling platformer stages since Tropical Freeze, with levels constantly introducing new gameplay elements into the mix, and the alternate forms of each stage providing even more variety. One stage may get flooded in its alternate form, while another gets flipped on its side. One stage gets frozen over, while a conveyor belt-themed stage will move in reverse the second time around. The twenty proper stages – and their alternate forms – all feel distinct from one another, feel lengthy without ever overstaying their welcome, and are consistently creative.

Quills return as the equivalent of Mario’s coins or Banjo’s music notes (or I suppose most accurately in this case, Donkey Kong’s bananas). Also returning are the Tonics from the first Yooka-Laylee. Quills are found all throughout the stages and overworld, while Tonics are found exclusively in the overworld (sometimes very well hidden), and often require puzzle-solving and Yooka’Laylee’s acrobatics to find.

Once the player finds a Tonic, they use the quills they’ve found to purchase them. The player can equip up to three Tonics at a time. You can unlock the ability to equip four Tonics, but the downside to this is that the process of unlocking the fourth Tonic slot will take you towards the 100% completion mark, and you may wonder why you need that additional Tonic when the game is that close to being finished.

The Tonics provide new twists to the gameplay, or simply change the aesthetics of the game itself. The cosmetic Tonics might change Yooka and Laylee themselves (like giving Yooka a comically oversized head, or making both members of the duo silhouetted), or change the visuals of the stages themselves (such as comic book graphics or heavily pixelated filters). The gameplay Tonics can either help the heroic duo (like giving Yooka more time to reclaim Laylee after she flies away), or hinder them (such as giving enemies an additional hitpoint or reversing the player’s controls).

You may wonder why you would want to equip Tonics to hinder Yooka and Laylee, other than to provide an extra challenge for those looking for it. There’s actually a valid reason for it: the Tonics that make the game more difficult will add to the quills you gain during a stage, while the beneficial Tonics will subtract from them (the cosmetic Tonics thankfully don’t alter your quill count at the end of a level). Again, it’s a fun twist on the traditions of the genre.

Whether or not you like to play with visual-altering Tonics or not, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is quite the aesthetic treat. The graphics look as smooth as the first game, but likely due to the simpler 2D setting, it doesn’t suffer from the same technical blips. The levels look great and the backgrounds are lovingly detailed. It’s just a beautiful game to look at (though I must admit some of the cosmetic Tonics could be a little eye-straining for me).

Like its predecessor and the DKC titles its emulating, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair also features a top notch soundtrack. Banjo-Kazooie composer Grant Kirkhope provided the overworld theme, while fittingly enough, Donkey Kong Country composer David Wise created a number of tunes for the game’s stages. It’s a lovely, atmospheric soundtrack, with the David Wise pieces sounding like a direct follow-up to the composer’s work on Tropical Freeze.

The game as a whole feels like it’s aiming to be a follow-up to Tropical Freeze in a gaming landscape that’s desperately starved of one. Though it undoubtedly follows the rulebook that many of Playtonic’s staffers themselves created with the SNES Donkey Kong Country titles, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair feels every bit as much a love letter to Retro Studios’ second Donkey Kong offering. It’s only fitting then that Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair is the first 2D platformer to come around since Tropical Freeze that can rightfully be compared to it. That in itself is one hell of an achievement.

 

8

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game*

It can be strange how greatly things change in just a few short years. After the successful Kickstarter campaign for Mighty No. 9 in 2013, the year 2015 saw fan investment in such crowdfunded games reach new heights. Three such games even broke crowdfunding records in quick succession that very year: Yooka-Laylee, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, and Shenmue 3.

But the enthusiasm was not too last. Later in 2015, Keiji Inafune, the man behind Mighty No. 9, decided to launch another video game Kickstarter campaign (despite the fact that Mighty No. 9 was still being continuously delayed), Red Ash: The Indelible Legend. With Mighty No. 9 still having trouble getting off the ground, the Red Ash Kickstarter went about as successfully as the Hindenburg. Not only did Red Ash tarnish the reputation of Kickstarter games, but when Mighty No. 9 was finally released in 2016 to a negative reception, the once-promising prospect of crowdfunded games was further dragged into the mud. The final nail in the coffin seemed to be the 2017 release of Yooka-Laylee, which ended up being a much more mixed bag than fans had hoped for the Banjo-Kazooie successor (though in all fairness, Yooka-Laylee was a much better game than Mighty No. 9, even if it failed to live up to its potential).

Now here we are in 2019, and Kickstarter games are now something of a punchline. After the mixed receptions of Mighty No. 9 and Yooka-Laylee, as well as several delays of its own, the enthusiasm for Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night had died down considerably. Despite the flounders and flubs of previous Kickstarter games, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night lives up to the promises it made back in 2015, showing us that perhaps there is still something to the idea of crowdfunded video games.

“The enemy “Shovel Armor” is a blatant homage to Shovel Knight.”

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night was always promised to be a spiritual sequel to Symphony of the Night style Castlevania entries (AKA the better half of Castlevania). Helmed by Koji Igarishi, the man largely responsible for Symphony of the Night as well as its excellent GBA and DS follow-ups, Bloodstained accomplishes what it set out to do. It is a worthy successor to the legendary Symphony of the Night, as well as Aria of Sorrow, Dawn of Sorrow and Order of Ecclesia, and a sequel to Igarishi’s Castlevania titles in all but name.

Players take on the role of Miriam, one of the two last ‘Shardbinders’ – people infused with demonic crystals that were used in sacrifices – and must infiltrate the castle Hellhold. Fittingly with a name like ‘Hellhold,’ the castle was summoned through hellish magic by Gebel, the other last Shardbinder, who is using the castle to bring demons into the world, as a means to take revenge on those who sacrificed the Shardbinders

There are a few other details to the plot, but honestly, it gets a little confusing and lost in the shuffle. But that’s okay, considering this is a spiritual sequel to the game that gave us dialogue such as “What is a man?! A miserable little pile of secrets!” Is the story really the reason you’re going to play it?

“Hey! I know that guy!”

As you might expect, Hellhold serves as the location of the entire game (with the introductory segment taking place in the destroyed surrounding town and the ship Miriam arrives in). This is a Metroidvania through and through. And like the best games in the genre, you’ll gradually uncover more and more of Hellhold as Miriam learns new abilities, and be surprised and delighted every time you discover a previously unreachable area. The more of Hellhold you discover, the more you appreciate the genius of Bloodstained’s world design.

Miriam’s aforementioned status as a Shardbinder also finds its way into the gameplay. In what is essentially the “Tactical Soul System” from Aria of Sorrow, Miriam is able to absorb “shards” from enemies within the game. Nearly every enemy boasts its own shard, each of which will grant Miriam with new powers and abilities. Depending on the enemy type, you may have to farm them for a bit before you claim their shard, but the shards still shouldn’t be too hard to come by.

Shards come in different types, represented by colors: Conjure shards (Red) give Miriam a magic-consuming attack, Manipulative (Blue) give Miriam status/form-altering abilities, Directional (Purple) are able to be sent in different directions by the player, Passive (Yellow) – as their name implies – grant bonuses that are always active once equipped. Familiar shards (Green)  give Miriam a monster partner to aide her in battle, while Skill (clear) shards are claimed by defeating bosses or found hidden in the castle, and give Miriam new means to traverse said castle.

With the exception of the Skill Shards (which are always active, unless the player turns off their effects in the pause menu), the player can only equip one of each shard type at a time. The game’s most addictive side quest sees the player gathering materials so Miriam’s alchemist friend Johannes can level up the shards. Additionally, the more of a specific shard you have, the more powerful that shard’s ability will be. In addition, like in Symphony of the Night and its kin, Miriam can gain a wide range of different weapons – from swords and spears to firearms and shoes, to name a few – and can equip various armors with stats and effects of their own. Not only can Miriam level up and gain strength, but so too can the Familiars when aiding Miriam in battle.

“Yeah, you can customize Miriam quite a bit.”

Given the variety of weapons and shards, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a game of immense variety. You may find a particular setup or two of shards that you prefer to use over all others for your first playthrough. But Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is worth repeated playthroughs just to experience it with different ability and weapon preferences.

Admittedly, the game has its share of technical issues, with slowdowns and frame rate drops being a lot more frequent than you’d care for (though I learned only after purchasing the game that the Switch version’s technical blips are more prominent than other versions, which Igarishi and company have been addressing little by little in updates). Granted, Bloodstained is a crowdfunded game, and thus didn’t have the same level of resources as most games these days, so a few technical issues are more forgivable here, but they do become a little bothersome at times.

If there’s any other ‘issue’ to address with Bloodstained, it’s probably just in that it doesn’t really do much that Igarishi’s Castlevania titles didn’t already do. Granted, the entire pitch for Bloodstained was that it was essentially a brand new Castlevania in a time when there are no new Castlevanias. So it’s certainly no disappointment, but while Bloodstained may exude profuse quality, it does lack in freshness. Again, that’s no unforgivable sin, considering its emulating some all-time greats. But should we ever get a Bloodstained sequel (and please, let’s), hopefully it can deliver a similarly excellent experience, while maybe adding a few more features that give it more of its own identity outside of Castlevania (one of Bloodstained’s original mechanics, which sees Miriam interact with certain environmental objects by means of the player manually guiding her hand, goes sorely underutilized).

“What exactly is supposed to be reassuring about that sentence?”

Still, that seems like nitpicking, because what Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night does right, it does right in spades. This is very much the Symphony of the Night-worthy Castlevania follow-up that Igarishi promised to fans in his initial Kickstarter pitch. It’s an incredibly fun experience brimming with depth and variety, and a captivating successor to one of gaming’s richest lineages.

The idea of Kickstarter-funded video games may have lost a lot of its luster in the four years since the initial announcement of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. But with the final product living up to its lofty expectations, Koji Igarishi’s latest adventure should remind the video game world why we loved the prospect of crowdfunded games to begin with.

 

8

Toejam & Earl: Back in the Groove Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7

Kingdom Hearts 3 Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 version*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The A113 gag is a nice touch.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But seriously, next time have Elsa join my team.

 

5

God of War (PS4) Review

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

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

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

“Totally not the Mines of Moria.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, giant snek.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Welcome to Arendelle, Kratos.”

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

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

 

8

 

Kingdom Hearts 3’s Most Appealing Element is Also its Biggest Missed Opportunity

Maybe it’s because I haven’t played a Kingdom Hearts game since the second proper installment, and I was younger when I played the previous entries, so maybe they suffered from this as well. But as I delve further into Kingdom Hearts 3, I’ve noticed a glaring flaw with it that I (at least at the time) didn’t notice with its predecessors: The Disney crossover element feels tacked on, and ultimately, underutilized.

Again, maybe this was the case with past entries, but whether I’m just more aware of it now or the issue has magnified in Kingdom Hearts 3, the franchise’s biggest selling point – it’s very nature as a Disney crossover – feels largely unimportant. All of the classic Disney movies, characters and storylines feel completely drowned out by Tetsuya Nomura’s original characters (I use the word ‘original’ loosely here, given how Nomura seems to just copy-and-paste the same handful of anime archetypes repeatedly).

Whenever I bring this up to Kingdom Hearts fans, I always get the same responses: “It has to have its own mythology.” “The original characters bring everything together.” Things of that nature.

Such responses are shortsighted, however. Of course Kingdom Hearts should have a mythology of its own, and yes, it should have characters unique to that mythology. But the fact of the matter is, the series is a crossover with the different worlds of Disney movies. As such, the Disney worlds should actually feel like an integral part of the mythology to make the crossover mean something. Instead, the Disney element feels like window dressing, and only Nomura’s original characters have any importance to the overall story. It makes the series’ biggest selling point as a Disney crossover feel…kind of pointless.

Even Donald and Goofy, two of supposed three main characters, just feel kind of there. Mickey shows up as a deus ex machine from time to time. And Sora, Donald and Goofy travel to the worlds of different Disney movies, only for one of a seemingly endless supply of black robed zipper enthusiasts to show up and take the focus off the Disney storyline just so they can say the words “Hearts” and “Darkness” ad nauseam.

Some might say I’m just a salty Disney fan, and while I’m certainly more in favor of Disney movies than Nomura’s creations, my issue isn’t that Nomura’s characters take center stage, but that the Disney half of the equation ultimately comes across as irrelevant.

The sad thing is, the first Kingdom Hearts – from what I remember – did a decent job at weaving the crossover element into its story. The main original characters at that time were Sora, his friends Kairi and Rikku, and the villainous Ansem (who was actually Xehanort…or something). Donald and Goofy joined Sora as they searched for the missing King Mickey, and Ansem/Xehanort manipulated Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent (who in tern rallied other Disney villains) into his plot, with the Disney baddies then playing the role of big bad in their respective worlds. The Disney characters felt like they had a place in the mythology.

But then, when making the sequels, Nomura apparently forgot he made a world that featured Disney characters, as they increasingly began to feel tacked on as an afterthought. The villainous Organization XIII was introduced, with its members now taking the role of the antagonists in every Disney world. It totally undermines the Disney worlds you visit in the games when the Disney villains aren’t even allowed to be the villains of their own world. When it was one singular bad guy orchestrating everything, and the Disney villains had their place in their own world, it worked. But now in Kingdom Hearts 3, the bad guy’s henchman are ranked higher than the Disney villains. Way to undermine your own crossover.

It’s not just the Disney stuff that ends up suffering, either. Tetsuya Nomura apparently has no filter when making characters, and he’s added so many of them to the series over the years that they all feel interchangeable. They’re spread so thin that they aren’t allowed to have any depth, and only possess the most token distinctions imaginable (this bad guy has a guitar, but this bad guy rambles about his scientific research). Nomura’s original characters are defined almost entirely as “good guy” and “bad guy,” with no real sense of individuality among them. It gets so excessive that when the characters mention Kairi – one of the original main characters in the series – I’m almost left in shock. I had nearly forgotten that Kairi even existed. That’s not an exaggeration.

All this before we even get into all the other characters thrown into this messy narrative. There are even characters who are alternate versions of other characters!

This all could have been avoided if, again, Tetsuya Nomura understood how to make the Disney crossover mean something to his mythology. Instead, Kingdom Hearts 3 follows an annoying pattern of throwing Sora, Donald and Goofy into a different Disney world, and just as you start to get excited about reliving your favorite Disney movies in video game form, one of the Organization XIII goons shows up, delivers the same repetitious monologue, and it just becomes a total buzzkill. Kingdom Hearts is at its best when it’s indulging in fan service, making you feel like a goofy kid grinning from ear to ear as you meet one Disney character after another. But Testuya Nomura seems adamant to remind the player that his characters are the only ones that matter, and repeatedly kills the magic.

There are two kinds of Disney worlds in Kingdom Hearts 3: those that follow the stories of the movies they’re based on (more or less. Though at times Sora, Donald and Goofy come across as little more than interlopers in these classic Disney plots. And sometimes, their presence even creates plot holes in the original stories). And there are worlds that take place in the world of a certain movie, but tell a story of their own.

The latter category suffers a little bit less, since they aren’t trying to recreate the Disney movies themselves. But even they often fail to deliver it what should be easy fan service. The former category, however, feel like massive missed opportunities.

“One of my favorite scenes of the entire Pirates of the Caribbean series, where Jack and company flip the Black Pearl upside down, is barely touched on in a cinematic after being subjected to yet another Organization XIII monologue. Gee, I wish I could have played this.”

I haven’t beaten Kingdom Hearts 3 yet, but I think I’ve visited most of the Disney worlds (I’m currently at Pirates of the Caribbean). And before I sound too negative, I will say that there still is a wonderful sense of charm every time you visit a new Disney world and meet iconic characters, and overall I am enjoying Kingdom Hearts 3. But that’s exactly why the game’s shortcomings sting all the more.

“Enjoy teaming with Rapunzel while you can…because it’s only for like five minutes.”

Take, for example, the Tangled world. It looks great, you visit locales from the 2010 feature, and you get both Rapunzel and Flynn Rider as party members. But Rapunzel and Flynn seem to leave your party at any given opportunity (in one particularly hilarious instance, Sora tells the Tangled duo to move on ahead because they can’t fight a horde of enemies… after they’ve already helped Sora and company fight hordes of enemies). And once you revisit the Tangled world after beating its story, Rapunzel no longer joins your party. What a ripoff!

Then we have the Toy Story world. Again, at first, it’s magical. Sora, Donald and Goofy become toys, and you quickly befriend none other than Woody and Buzz Lightyear. But then most of the stage takes place in a mall that looks nothing like it came out of Toy Story, and despite the stage’s token Organization XIII bad guy having the ability to corrupt toys (I guess), the level doesn’t even have the decency to end with a boss fight against Evil Emperor Zurg. You just fight another Heartless monster who follows the same general character design, just in UFO form. What a ripoff!

Perhaps the biggest offender is none other than the Frozen world. Yeah, I often go on about how Frozen is my favorite Disney movie. But personal fandom aside, it’s also the most popular animated film in history, which makes it baffling how Kingdom Hearts 3 manages to bungle it up so much.

Now, to be fair again, being the Frozen fan that I am, it of course felt magical to visit the land of Arendelle in the game. The original voice cast from the movie reprise all their roles (hell yes!), and recreating ‘Let It Go’ is already a contender for best video game moment of the year. I don’t want to sound like its presence is a total waste, but it ends up feeling like the biggest missed opportunity in terms of its translation as a video game stage.

“Hi, Elsa! Will you join my team? Please? Please? PLEASE?!”

You don’t get to visit most of the iconic locations from the movie. Arendelle’s Castle Town? Nowhere to be seen. Elsa’s Ice Palace? It’s in cinematics, but the best the player gets to see is a generic snow dungeon that could have come out of any video game ever (what’s worse, this dungeon is created by an Organization XIII member, making it feel even more taunting). And while the Tangled and Toy Story worlds at least had the common sense to make the main characters of their respective films join your party, the Frozen world doesn’t even get that much.

“Riding atop Marshmallow’s back is pretty cool. But you know what would be cooler? Teaming up with Anna and Elsa and visiting locations from the movie!”

Elsa seems like the obvious choice for a teammate, given that she has ice powers. But since the stage (attempts to) follow the plot of the movie, I at least expected Anna and Kristoff to join your party. But despite being the main characters of the highest-grossing animated film in history, you don’t get any of them. The team member you get in the Frozen world is Marshmallow. Y’know, the monster snowman who’s in a couple of scenes in the movie. And you don’t even get him for that long in the stage. What. A. Ripoff.

You really have to wonder how they could have squandered these opportunities so badly. But it all goes back to the same issue: the Disney element of Kingdom Hearts needed to feel important to its overarching story and mythology.

Again, I have no issues with Tetsuya Nomura making his own characters to tie everything together. But there are just too many original characters, to the point when they feel bland and lifeless. At its worst, it almost seems like Nomura drew a sketch of an existing character with a different hairstyle, and decided to make it a separate character in the game because why not.

Both Kingdom Hearts’ status as a crossover, and its own original creations, would feel so much more fleshed-out and meaningful if it gave the Disney characters more integral roles in its mythos. It would be an easy way to rectify the series’ most glaring narrative flaw (too many characters), and make the crossover element feel worthwhile.

I am enjoying Kingdom Hearts 3 for the most part. But playing a video game where I get to visit the worlds of Frozen, Toy Story, Tangled and Monsters, Inc. should feel special in and of itself. But what should be an easily magical experience ends up feeling like a massive missed opportunity more frequently than it should. And that’s a damn shame.

I guess it’s safe to assume that when Kingdom Hearts 4 hits store shelves sometime in the next decade, I can look forward to playing the Frozen II world and teaming up with the Duke of Weselton.