Donut County Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7

Advertisements

Inside Review

Playdead became one of the premiere indie gaming studios upon the release of their first game, Limbo in 2010. A monochromatic platformer, Limbo was a stylistic little adventure that spanned about an hour of playtime. Though the atmosphere garnered Limbo immense praise, I was in the minority of people who found Limbo’s gameplay far too shallow to make it worth the praise. Six years later, Playdead released their second title, Inside, a spiritual successor to Limbo which garnered even more critical praise than its predecessor. While Inside does suffer many of the same faults that plagued Limbo, even I have to admit it’s a step in the right direction for Playdead.

Like Limbo before it, Inside is a side-scrolling platformer with puzzle elements. Though it is visually distinct from its predecessor, abandoning the 2D silhouettes of Limbo in favor of 3D character models that have more color, but are often masked in shadows. It’s a more varied aesthetic than Limbo, and it, combined with its minimalistic music and ambient sounds, gives Inside a greater sense of atmosphere than its predecessor.

The player controls an unnamed boy, who has recently escaped from a mysterious government/scientific facility. The agents/researchers of this facility are on the prowl for the escapee, so the boy must elude them at all costs. All while solving puzzles and obstacles in order to completely escape from the facility’s reach.

The boy only has basic actions, such as running, jumping, pushing and pulling objects, swimming and climbing. Immediately, the game sounds like a retread of its Limbo, but Inside rises head and shoulders above its predecessor with two simple improvements: better level design, and better puzzle design.

While one of my biggest complaints with Limbo was how the puzzles were too simple (push this, pull that, and go right), Inside has learned from its predecessor to make puzzles that require a bit more thinking and exploration. Yes, it still uses the same game mechanics, but they feel far more creatively utilized this time around. While Limbo’s puzzles often felt spelled out for the player, Inside’s will actually give you a sense of “eureka” every now and again.

Among the game’s best puzzles are those that see the boy take control of the many, zombie-like victims of the facility. At various points in the game, the boy can attach psychic helmets to his head, which allows him to animate the seemingly lifeless bodies lying about the facility. These ‘bodies’ can help the boy reach new heights, rip open doors and gates, push and pull heavy objects, and operate machinery. In some of Inside’s best moments, the boy can lead a body to an additional helmet, thus the boy controls a body controlling more bodies. This element alone gives the game a much deeper gameplay element than its predecessor, and comes across like a dark and dreary version of Pikmin.

There are other key elements that make Inside a vast improvement over Limbo. Namely, that the puzzles and obstacles of the game keep building upon themselves, and each “chapter” of the game continues to introduce new types of puzzles to solve, and obstacles to overcome. There are underwater sections where the boy pilots a submarine, and in a section that feels inspired by similar stages from Retro Studios’ Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze, the boy has to continuously hide behind objects to survive being blasted away by deadly shockwaves. The shockwaves have a timed pattern, so the player has to make sure to time everything just right to make sure they have enough time to make it behind the next object. And, without giving too much away, Inside’s finale becomes something of a grotesque version of Katamari Damacy.

In essence, Inside is pretty much a superior version of Limbo in pretty much every regard. Though it does still stumble in a few of the same areas as Playdead’s original title. Like Limbo before it, Inside is a very short game, though it has added an additional hour or two to the proceedings. That isn’t a bad thing in of itself (short games are a refreshing change of pace in this day and age), but there isn’t a whole lot of replay value to the game to make up for the brief campaign. There are hidden orbs to be found that – once all of them have been deactivated – will result in an alternate ending. But that’s about it. Perhaps more alternate secrets and endings could have extended the lifespan of Inside. Those who are engrossed in the game’s atmosphere and vague narrative may seek out the alternate ending, but everyone else may find the roughly three hour journey to be enough as it is.

Unfortunately, some of its predecessor’s control issues have sneaked their way over as well. Though it feels a little more polished, the boy of Inside often suffers from the similarly finicky physics and controls. The jumping still has that LittleBigPlanet-esque sense of imprecision, which makes some platforming feel more annoying than it should.

Similar to Limbo, it seems a few sections of Inside require a trial-and-error approach, forcing you to die in order to solve problems bits at a time with each respawn before figuring them out. This isn’t too big of a deal, since you  regenerate at the start of the current puzzle/problem, but it still makes some obstacles feel cheaper than others.

However, I can’t stress enough how much of an improvement Inside is over Limbo. Even these complaints, while still present, aren’t nearly as bad as they were in Inside’s predecessor. Limbo often felt hampered by its issues, as though Playdead’s confidence in their game’s atmosphere and visuals lead to some complacency when it came to their puzzle and stage design. With Inside, the game feels creative and well constructed enough that whatever issues it does have feel more like inconveniences in an otherwise exceptional effort.

It’s much easy to see how Inside garnered its praise than it is to see what all the hubbub was with Limbo. Pretty much everything about Playdead’s debut effort has been substantially bettered with their second go. Those who loved Limbo lavished Inside with even more profuse praise. And even someone like me, who considers Limbo to be an empty game, can consider Inside to be something of the “good version” of Playdead’s work thus far. Doesn’t that just say it all?

 

7

Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4) Review

Control is something we too often take for granted in video games. Even exceptional games usually require the player to get into the meat of things before they get truly engaging. But every so often, a game comes along where it’s thrilling as soon as you pick up the controller. It’s rare that you find a video game where the simple act of moving the character is a joy unto itself. Super Mario has continuously won us over by setting the standard for platforming controls in both his 2D and 3D iterations. Sonic the Hedgehog dared us to see just how fast he could go, bouncing around stages like a pinball. Alucard traversed the haunted halls of Dracula’s castle with a sense of grace worthy of Ayami Kojima’s beautiful illustrations. And Link paved the way for 3D combat with the likes of Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker.

Thanks to Insomniac Games, Marvel’s Spider-Man now enters these hallowed halls. Although there’s plenty to enjoy about Insomniac’s take on the iconic web-slinger, its single greatest joy is found simply in moving Spider-Man around New York City. From swinging on skyscrapers to running up walls, Marvel’s Spider-Man succeeds in making players feel like they’re the one behind Spider-Man’s mask. It’s that rare kind of game that just feels right. This is how Spider-Man should play.

“Dr. Otto Octavius once again proves to be the most complicated character, just as his Spider-Man 2 incarnation remains the most complex character in any Spidey film.”

Insomniac puts their own spin on the Spider-Man mythology. Mercifully ignoring the origin story we all know, this version of Peter Parker has donned the Spider-Man name for eight years, frequently butting heads with the forces of William Fisk (AKA “The Kingpin”), and putting away super villains like the Vulture, Rhino, Shocker, Electro, and Scorpion some time ago. When he’s not fighting crime, Peter works as the assistant to an down-on-his-luck Dr. Otto Octavius (who has yet to become the villainous Doctor Octopus), giving up his job as photographer at the Dailey Bugle (though his lady-friend Mary Jane Watson is now a reporter for that very newspaper). Meanwhile, Norman Osborne has not become the evil Green Goblin, instead having been voted as the (corrupt) mayor of New York City some time ago.

This unique take on the Spider-Man universe gives the game a fresh slate to build on. With Spider-Man being a veteran at his spider-duties, and his two most iconic villains yet to take up their mantles, the story and setting of the game definitely stand out in the franchise.

The game begins with Spider-Man taking the fight to Fisk himself. But after the Kingpin gets put behind bars, a new, more vicious mob begins to overrun New York City, the Demons. That’s a brief summation of the setup, though without spoiling anything, it does get a lot heftier than the simplicity of its setup would suggest. The story is split into three acts, with the final act almost feeling like a full-on sequel to the rest of the game. Overall, it’s probably my favorite Spider-Man story since Spider-Man 2.

“This is probably my favorite suit. It just looks so cool!”

Though the story is progressed one mission at a time, various side quests can be found around New York City, which not only give players plenty to do at their own leisure, but also provide numerous means to build up Spider-Man’s abilities. By completing side quests and meeting certain objectives, the player can unlock new gadgets – which give Spidey different web-based moves – and even new spider suits (many of which pay homage to Spidey’s past), with each suit providing its own bonuses and abilities. Spider-Man can also gain experience points and level up (it seems like every game requires RPG elements these days), which allows you to unlock new moves and upgrade the gadgets and abilities you already possess. Thankfully, not only does Spider-Man gain experience by traditional means (combat, completing missions), but doing things as simple as performing stunts during your web-slinging travels will inch you ever closer to the next level.

It’s actually surprising, how deep Spider-Man’s abilities go. With so many different play styles between Spidey’s moves, suits, gadgets and abilities, there’s no shortage of options for those who want to tackle the game their own way. I personally preferred trip mines that lassoed enemies together in webs, and throwing baddies to stick them to walls. But others may prefer explosive webs and the suits’ special weaponry. Or they may just love throwing environmental objects at enemies. There’s all kinds of ways to enjoy the combat of Marvel’s Spider-Man.

Speaking of combat, you will be doing much of it throughout the game. Mechanically, it works a lot like the combat system of the Batman Arkham series, though it flows more fluidly and feels more polished. And as stated, you have a lot more options to work with here, so no matter how many times you get in a scuffle, you can always try out different abilities and combinations to see what you like best. Unfortunately, there is one drawback to a number of combat sections that lives on from the Arkham games, and that’s that many combat sections just drag on and on. Again, the combat is never bad, but there will be numerous occasions when you’ll feel like the waves and waves of enemies feel unnecessary and redundant. It’s not a major issue, but while the sheer joy of swinging across New York City may never lose its luster, you may feel that many of the combat sections overstay their welcome.

“This version of MJ is infinitely better than whatever Spider-Man: Homecoming was going for.”

The game’s other downside is that many of the side quests will become repetitious after a while. Almost every optional objective is part of a series of similar objectives (conducting research for Harry Osborne while he’s away in Europe, performing quick challenges for the Taskmaster, etc.). In small doses these side endeavors can be entertaining detours in their own right, but for those aiming for either one-hundred percent completion or maximizing Spider-Man’s stats, you may grow weary of doing the same objectives over and over again.

“One of the game’s best segments has players taking control of MJ, with the player telling Spider-Man when to jump in and take out an enemy.”

These elements ultimately prove to be minor complaints, however, as the main story is filled with fun twists and turns both in terms of its narrative and in its gameplay. There are even sections where you can play as Mary Jane Watson or Miles Morales which emphasize stealth (given their lack of super powers). Admittedly, the Miles Morales sections lack variety, but the MJ segments find ways to keep building upon themselves in fun ways.

Of course, the biggest appeal of the game is Spider-Man himself. The Arkham titles were previously considered the benchmark for super hero games for the way they made players feel like Batman. But I don’t think even the best entry in that series quite captured the essence of its titular hero the way Marvel’s Spider-Man puts players in the role of Spidey. The combat is fun and always evolving, but it’s the simple act of motion – the speed, the momentum, the physics – that provides the game’s greatest triumph. The game even features one of the most robust photo modes you will find in a game, a totally unnecessary but greatly appreciated feature that really hits the point home of all the crazy scenarios and actions Spidey can find himself in.

“My all-time favorite Marvel character, J. Jonah Jameson, makes a triumphant appearance via his podcast, which you will frequently hear among your travels. Per the norm, he negatively comments on Spider-Man’s recent activities depending on the player’s actions.”

The side quests and other character sections aren’t always winners, and sometimes the game may not know when enough waves of mobsters are enough, but they’re small prices to pay for how well Marvel’s Spider-Man realizes its story and characters, and for how exhilarating it is just to travel around New York City as everyone’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

 

8

Red Dead Redemption 2 Impressions

Probably the most hyped video game of the year, Red Dead Redemption 2, was released last week. And after growing old waiting for my PS4 to install the game, I’ve managed to put a good number of hours into it. So here are my thoughts so far.

The good news is, it’s easy to see why people were so excited for the game, given its sheer scope not just in size, but content. It really does feel like you can interact with pretty much everything in one way or another. You can completely ignore the story and just spend time playing poker or robbing passersby on the road. You can make small talk with citizens, take baths, go hunting, and play Dominos (though even in a video game, I still don’t get it). It’s simply fun just goofing off and doing your own thing.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is a very meticulous game, with all of the above activities (and so many others) having their own rules and mechanics. It feels like everything about the game’s world is given an extreme attention to detail. This level of intricacy is felt in the game’s sense of realism. Arthur Morgan – the player character – really feels like he has human limitations that other video game characters don’t have.

Similar to Breath of the Wild, Morgan needs to eat, dress appropriately for the weather, and craft materials in order to survive. Unlike Breath of the Wild, Morgan can’t climb every surface, and struggles against the environment as much as he does fellow outlaws. Your horses also need to be taken care of, and yes, you can even let Morgan grow a beard, and then decide how to shave his facial hair.

“If there’s one thing RDR2 does better than Breath of the Wild, it’s that you can actually pet the dogs!”

On the downside of things, I think this emphasis on realism can sometimes be frustrating. Having to stop and set up camp in the middle of a quest, and then needing to use item after item to keep all your stats in order can grow a little tedious after a while. Breath of the Wild’s similar survival elements were much quicker paced and always enhanced the experience. By comparison, Red Dead Redemption 2’s survival aspects can be involving, but just as often can feel cumbersome, and drag what is already a very long game out even longer.

Another problem I have is shuffling through items. Now, RDR2 is wise enough to have a Secret of Mana-esque item wheel for most of the essentials by holding the L1 button (though going to a menu is still required for many other items). But I kind of wish you had to hit a button to select an item, instead of simply letting go of L1 on a highlighted item, because this often causes me numerous problems when I’m in a firefight.

Although I’m less than twenty percent through the story, I’ve already encountered some notable technical issues. One especially egregious moment saw two bounty hunters randomly spawn in front of me as I was going through a tutorial on crafting while camping, the bounty hunters bumped into me with their horse, which canceled my crafting (and the dialogue that went with it). The bounty hunters then instantly despawned (and later respawned), and I couldn’t get back to my tutorial, so I had to kill myself to get back to the previous checkpoint. I’ve also witnessed a few instances of NPCs’ character models suddenly changing (a man working a hotel lobby inexplicably transformed into a bandaged version of himself and back again in the span of time it took to rent a bath). Granted, with just how massive and detailed the game is, you could say that such technical issues are almost expected. But does that really change the fact that they’re issues?

With all that said, I have had a mostly stellar time with Red Dead Redemption so far despite the flaws. It is a very easy game to get lost in and just have fun acting out the old west. I still have a long way to go before I reach the end of the story, so I guess I’ll have to wait and see how long the game remains engrossing. As it stands, Read Dead Redemption 2 has so far been an addicting, if flawed time.

Mega Man 11 Review

*Review based on the Nintendo Switch version of Mega Man 11*

Mega Man is in a unique place among gaming’s classic franchises. Unlike Mario or Zelda, Mega Man doesn’t strive to innovate with each new iteration. In fact, the Blue Bomber more or less settled on its formula back in the NES days, which saw no less than six entries make their way on the console. Perhaps ‘settled’ is too negative a way to put it, as the series found ways to tweak and twist its classic formula, and each entry still remained fun to play.

After a decade of classic Mega Man titles (which saw two additional entries on SNES and Playstation/Saturn), developer Capcom simply stopped making further iterations in the classic series in favor of its various spinoffs like Mega Man X or Mega Man Battle Network. Then, after a decade of dormancy, the original Mega Man series returned with Mega Man 9 in 2008, which paid homage to the NES games. It seemed like Mega Man was here to stay once again, with Mega Man 10 following suit in 2010. But after 10, the series once again left the spotlight. This time, however, there weren’t even any spinoff titles to speak of. Mega Man simply disappeared (outside of recent compilation releases of past games). Series producer Keiji Inafune left Capcom, and many thought the developer was withholding the series out of spite.

Well, after an eight-year hiatus, the main Mega Man series is finally back with the aptly-named Mega Man 11. And while it still may not be an evolutionary step in gaming that we expect from Mario or Zelda, Mega Man shows no signs of rust after his extended absence. The wheel may not be reinvented, but Mega Man 11 still finds enough new tricks to feel like a proper sequel, and not just a nostalgic retread.

“Did that enemy come from Adventure Time?!”

The first difference you’re bound to notice between Mega Man 11 and its immediate predecessors are the visuals. While and 10 paid homage to the 8-bit origins of the series, Mega Man 11 looks like a proper follow-up to Mega Man 8’s more cartoony aesthetics. It’s a welcome change of pace to be honest. As nice as it was to see 8-bit Mega Man return on (then)modern hardware for the past two games, simply repeating the throwback visuals for a third time in a row may not have had the same appeal. By continuing the style of Mega Man’s 7 and 8, 11 feels like a more unique sequel paying respects to Mega Man’s most tragically overlooked gems. Not to mention the variety of bright colors and ‘softer’ character models transition really well into the current gaming age. As is expected of the Mega Man series, 11 also features a great soundtrack that – although not among the series’ best – provides some of the catchiest video game music of 2018.

“The eight Robot Masters here may not include any all-time greats, but they’re all unique to the series.”

As for the structure of the game, well, it’s exactly what you would expect: Eight Robot Masters are waiting at the end of eight different stages, which can be played in any order the player sees fit. Each defeated Robot Master gives Mega Man a new power, with each power being particularly effective against a different Robot Master. Once these eight stages are completed, Mega Man moves on to Dr. Wily’s Castle for a small series of especially difficult stages leading up to a confrontation with the mad doctor himself.

In another nod to Mega Man 8, the Blue Bomber can collect bolts throughout stages, which can then be used to purchase items in between stages. Some of these are the usual extra lives, E and W Tanks (for refilling health and weapon power, respectively), but you can also purchase special items like a shield that reduces damage by half and Beat the robotic bird, who will rescue Mega Man should he fall into a bottomless pit. You can also purchase items that will permanently boost Mega Man’s abilities during your playthrough.

“Even old favorite platforming obstacles return. Fear the disappearing/reappearing blocks!”

If the structure is the same, what exactly is new about Mega Man 11 that differentiates it from its predecessors? Well, the benefit of platformers is that, even if a series re-uses the same blueprints, the level design alone can distinguish one game from the rest. And for the most part, the level design in Mega Man 11 is stellar. The stages are lengthy, have distinctive themes that find their way into the gameplay, and provide a good challenge. On the downside, the game seems to overuse some swarming, constantly spawning enemies, which feels like an unnecessary means to make already difficult platforming sections even more difficult. Sure, past Mega Man games had some sections with constantly spawning enemies, but Mega Man 11 pulls that card a little too often.

“The Power Gear Allows the Mega Buster to go right through enemy shields.”

The big new mechanic of Mega Man 11 is the Double Gear System. As the name implies, the Double Gear System features two new abilities, both of which are activated with shoulder buttons, and can only be used for a short duration before the Double Gear System overheats and needs to recharge. The Power Gear boosts the strength of not only Mega Man’s Mega Buster, but also the Robot Master abilities, leading to a variety of super powerful moves. Meanwhile, the Speed Gear makes Mega Man move so fast that everything around him seems to be in slow motion.

“The game’s best mini-bosses will see the Double Gear System put to good use.”

The Double Gear System is a great addition to the classic Mega Man gameplay, though it can feel a tad underutilized. The Power Gear, in conjunction with the Robot Master abilities, adds an extra element to the series’ rock-paper-scissors setup, and the Speed Gear sees some innovative uses in auto-scrolling and sub-boss sections. But by the time you finish the adventure, you can’t help but feel that the game could have provided more opportunities where you felt the gears were needed. Mega Man 11 does feature some additional challenge modes – like time trials, collecting blue balloons for points while avoiding red balloons, and things of that sort – but they aren’t exactly game-changers. So while these modes may serve as fun distractions, they still leave you wanting a little more for the main adventure.

Mega Man 11 is a tried-and-true sequel. A worthy follow-up to an iconic series that feels all the more welcome due to the series’ lengthy hiatus. The Double Gear System is a nice little twist, but you may hope that, come Mega Man 12, the series might see a more radical change. Imagine a Mega Man title with 12 Robot Masters! Or 16! Or a sequel that lets you combine Robot Master abilities! The series already has a timeless formula to fallback on, so it could use a littler more experimentation. If Mega Man 12 tries its hand at something radically different for the series and falls short, they can always backtrack with Mega Man 13. This is a hard series to cause any permanent damage to itself.

“The screens that accompany the acquisitions of new weapons are always really cool.”

The classic Mega Man formula will admittedly always work to an extent, and Mega Man 11 is as fun as ever. But considering the Double Gear System feels a little underutilized – and other than that system this is a very straightforward Mega Man sequel – you can’t help but hope that the next entry will bring a little bit more to the table in regards to newness. Mega Man 11 delivers the Mega Man goodness the gaming world has been missing for far too long, but hopefully next time around, Mega Man can push himself to be even more.

 

7

Mega Man X8 Review

*Review based on Mega Man X8’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection 2*

Mega Man X8 is like a small miracle. In stark contrast to the original Mega Man series – which kept a consistent quality even in its weakest entries – the X sub-series provided diminishing quality with each subsequent installment. The first few entries were great, but by the time the series reached X7, it had completely lost its way. In 2004 – a decade after the release of the first Mega Man X – the series received its eighth and, as of this writing, final installment. Returning to the side-scrolling roots of the series while retaining 3D visuals, Mega Man X8 served as a fitting return to form for the series. It may hit a few snags, and some of its more aged elements prevent it from reaching true greatness, but X8 is probably the most inspired Mega Man X game since the first two.

In a lot of ways, X8 feels like a rectification of X7. Not only does it ditch the 3D segments, but also refines the promising ideas that its predecessor failed at in execution. Once again, players can take control of Mega Man X, Zero and Axl, with all three being available from the start this time. Zero once again uses a laser sword and possesses a double jump, but X and Axl have more differences from one another this time around. X retains the classic Mega Man playstyle, with stronger blasts and his charged shot intact, while Axl may not be as strong, but has rapid fire shots and can shoot in multiple directions (at the expense of being able to move when he shoots), and still has his hovering ability.

“Shine get! Star get! Weapon get!”

Each character has additional differences from one another as well. While X of course gains the powers of fallen bosses, and Zero once again gains additional moves, Axl now receives different guns from each boss. Perhaps most notably, since Axl lacks the punch of X and Zero, his special move allows him to turn an enemy into a capsule, which he can then use to transform into said enemy and gain its abilities (Mega Man X7 made it clear Axl could transform via cinematics, but this ability had no presence in gameplay before. That alone speaks volumes for the difference in effort between the two games).

Like X7, you can select two characters per stage, and can switch between them at any time. This time around, the feature actually feels worth it, as you’ll often require the special abilities of different characters to uncover a level’s secrets. As an additional bonus, both characters actually have to die in order for the player to lose a life this time (albeit falling into a pit or touching a spike still results in an instant loss). Weakened characters can even recover some health when swapped out, in what seems like a feature ripped out of one of Capcom’s own fighting games. You can now even perform a powerful team attack with both characters if you can build up its gauge by stringing together combos.

This time around, you can select one of three navigators to give you hints throughout the stages: the returning Alia, and newcomers Pallette and Layer (AKA best girl). Depending on who you select, your navigator will give you different information regarding stage hazards, hidden items, and boss weaknesses and strengths during different parts of a stage.

Mega Man X8 also boasts a myriad of secrets which, again, often require combinations of characters and their abilities to unlock, leading to a great sense of replay value. Gone are the Reploids that need saving and abilities that can be permanently missed. In their place are pieces of scrap metal strewn about the levels (think Mario’s coins), which are used as currency in between stages to purchase chips.

Here’s where things start going against the series’ formula. Recurring items  like life tanks now have to be purchased, and even extra lives are exclusively found in the game’s shop (by default, you have three lives, but can buy up to three more at any time). You can buy single-use items to prevent the aforementioned insta-kill from spikes (though the character will only retain one health). Besides the basics, you can also properly build up each individual character, granting them extra health, damage reduction, and other such bonuses. Additionally, secret ‘rare metals’ are hidden throughout levels that, when collected, add more items to the shop, including new weapons for Zero.

The only series’ collectible that remains in the levels themselves are X’s armor pieces, but even those have a fun new twist. X now gets the “Neutral Armor,” which can be (somewhat) customized with armor pieces from the Icarus and Hermes sets if you can unlock them (you can equip the Hermes helmet and boots while wearing the Icarus buster and chest armor, for example). So while Axl has the ability to transform, and Zero gains additional weapons, X being able to find and customize armor really makes each character distinct from one another.

Should you miss out on any of the items, you can restart your game in New Game Plus, where you can not only uncover the items you missed out on, but also gain access to even more unlockables, including the ability to play as the three navigator characters! Once again, it seems like everything that was good in concept about Mega Man X7 (secret characters, RPG-like progression for characters) was actually realized here in X8.

“How dare you call me an incredible scientist!”

Even the story is a refreshing change of pace for the series. Following the disasters that have befallen the world in the past few entries, humans have begun colonizing the moon, which they travel to via the Orbital Elevator. The director of the elevator is a new generation Reploid named Lumine, who soon becomes kidnapped by Vile (the series’ secondary villain returning for the first time since X3). Meanwhile, eight other new generation Reploids are seemingly becoming Mavericks, despite that their generation is supposedly immune to the Maverick Virus.

Naturally, X, Zero and Axl set out to rescue Lumine and fix the problems the eight Mavericks are causing, and suspect that Sigma is behind everything (why would they think otherwise at this point?). And while Sigma does serve as a major antagonist in the plot, the story does take a different direction as the game goes on. It may not be anything earth-shattering, but by this point, anything other than “surprise, it’s Sigma!” is very much appreciated.

With that said, not everything is great about X8. The music, while certainly not bad, isn’t particularly memorable. And while the visuals are nice enough, they lack the timeless quality of the 2D entries in the series.

“I prefer the sunflower from Conker’s Bad Fur Day.”

The stage design is mostly excellent and creative (including one level which plays with gravity, and another that’s almost entirely a descending obstacle course), but one stage sees the gameplay shift to a chase sequence in which the player hunts down the Maverick boss in flying vehicles through a city a la Attack of the Clones. This stage proves to be X8’s own little dose of ‘good in concept, not so much in execution,’ as it just isn’t particularly fun to play. Another level also changes the gameplay to motorcycling through snowy terrain (reminiscent of the polar bear stages from Crash Bandicoot 2), and though this level is actually a lot of fun, it does mean that two of the game’s stages remove the ability to use the benefits you work hard to unlock.

Thankfully, Capcom seemed to be aware of this, and made the opening stage of X8 repayable to uncover some additional items. Though one other frustrating level remains in the form of the game’s final stage, which ramps up the difficulty far beyond the rest of the game.

So Mega Man X8 isn’t a masterpiece, but when you consider how far the X sub-series had fallen by the time it got to X7, then X8 has to be one of the best turnarounds in video game history. On one hand, looking back at Mega Man X8, it feels like it was the right decision to end the series on a high note to redeem it after the decreasing quality of its predecessors. But on the other hand, with X8 getting so much right and feeling like a proper step forward, it would be nice to see the X series make a return and build on what X8 started.

It’s been over fourteen years since Mega Man X8’s release, and while the series has remained dormant in that time, the fact that X8 fixed so much about what went awry with the series has only made the heart grow fonder for the series in the years since. Who knows whether Mega Man X9 will ever happen or not, but the fact that the series actually managed to find its stride before it rode off into the sunset is an achievement in its own right.

 

7

Mega Man X7 Review

*Review based on Mega Man X7’s release as part of Mega Man X Legacy Collection 2*

You have to give credit where it’s due, Mega Man X7 tried to change up the Mega Man X franchise. The 2003 PS2 title turned the series into a 3D third-person shooter, only on occasion going back to the side-scrolling roots of its six predecessors. But the good intentions of breaking convention amount to very little with how poor Mega Man X7’s execution is.

While Mega Man X7 does try changing the gameplay, the structure of the series remains the same: after the opening stage, beat the eight main stages in whatever order the player sees fit, beat the bosses and get their powers, then move onto the final few stages. As stated, the gameplay has switched gears to a 3D perspective for the most part, but there are other additions and changes as well, perhaps the most baffling of which being that you have to unlock Mega Man X!

That’s right, you can’t play Mega Man X7 as Mega Man X until you’ve rescued 64 Reploids (out of 128) from the eight main stages. Instead, you start the game with two characters: the returning Zero, and newcomer Axl. Zero once again uses a close-ranged laser sword and can perform a double jump, while Axl uses an arm canon like X’s and can glide for a short time.

Problems arise almost immediately. You start the opening stage as Axl, and quickly find out that he (along with X when you unlock him) automatically targets enemies. So you basically just have to spam the fire button to get past anything. A simple ‘lock-on’ button would have gone a long way in making Axl and X’s gameplay feel less mindless. Zero, meanwhile, has to be so close to enemies in order to hit them that he’ll almost always get hit himself in the process.

X7 does try its hand at doing something else original in that you can select two characters at a time, who can be switched at the press of a button. But even this is poorly executed. For starters, both characters you choose have their own health bar, but if only one of them dies, you lose a life. Then there’s the fact that there are only three characters – one of which having to be unlocked – meaning that you’ll just have the party of Zero and Axl for much of the game, and will probably just swap one of them for X once you gain access to him. And since you once again build up the characters with items gained from rescued Reploids, you’re best off just building up one of the starting characters and holding off on the other in favor of X, or just building up the two starters and ignoring X. Wouldn’t this system have been better if all three characters were there from the start? Or at the least if there were additional unlockable characters who you recruited sooner?

“I don’t want my name associated with this!”

Speaking of rescuing Reploids, Mega Man X7 somehow didn’t learn from the mistakes of X6. Like its predecessor, it’s possible to miss your opportunity at rescuing a Reploid, which would be forgivable if not for the fact that if you miss a Reploid you don’t get another chance to rescue them in the same playthrough of the entire game! This is somehow made even worse than it was in X6. At least the last time around, you had a few seconds to act before a ‘Nightmare Virus’ took hold of a Reploid, but here, they get killed by the smallest of touches by an enemy. I am sadly not exaggerating when I say there were multiple instances in the 2D segments where a Reploid was already dying as I made it to their screen. So once again you can easily miss out on getting every item and collectible in the game, unless you feel like reloading your last save over and over again until you have every fragment of a stage memorized.

“If you stand right at this spot, these enemies can’t hit you. But you can hit them. Without aiming.”

The game simply isn’t fun to play. On top of the aforementioned ability of the gun characters basically just walking through a stage and blindly shooting, and Zero’s inability to hit anything without getting hurt himself, the characters all just move way too slow. It’s a bit of irony how Mega Man X began as the more fast-paced, action-packed iteration of the Blue Bomber, but by X7, he’s reduced to moving at a snail’s pace.

“The Mavericks are the most forgettable yet. But at least they have an anteater, which is one of my favorite animals. So I guess that’s a bonus.”

Even the level design is sloppy, though I suppose in fairness, X7 at least has the excuse of the developers entering new territory and fumbling. I guess that’s more forgivable than X6 being a failure at things the developers had achieved successfully time and time again. But that still doesn’t mean the stages are any good. On the plus side, some of them are at least built around a single motif (the Ride Armor level, the motorcycle level, etc.),which helps them stand out, but once again X7’s good intentions are sullied in the ‘finished’ product. The platforming stages are unmemorable, the motorcycle level is insanely slow (?!), and the Ride Armor Stage just falls flat. There’s also a stage in which players ascend a spiraling tower, which is an interesting change of pace, but of course it has to be ruined by constantly falling buzzsaws that you can seldom avoid, and flying enemies that are just above what’s visible on screen that hit you mid-jump and send you back to a previous point of the stage. It’s a mess.

While most Mega Man games are difficult, the only challenges you’ll find out of Mega Man X7 come from the clunky controls combined with the sloppy level design and horrendous camera. I’d be more in favor of a polished game that’s a cakewalk to a game that’s tough solely out of incompetence.

“Read this dialogue in Cookie Monster’s voice, and you get the idea.”

Even the story aspects fall short of the already diminishing narratives of the series. The story is that X has retired from combat, as he’s “tired of fighting” (which seems contradictory to a character who was determined to protect humans from evil robots. But whatever, I guess the game needed some reason why you need to unlock the main character). With X retired, a new force rises to help the Maverick Hunters defeat evil, Red Alert. But a mysterious evil – who may or may not be Sigma (not-so-spoiler alert: it is) – has slowly corrupted eight members of Red Alert, who have become violent as a consequence. Because of their new behavior, Axl leaves Red Alert and eventually joins Zero, while the “mysterious evil” blackmails Red Alert’s leader – aptly named Red – into doing his bidding or he’ll destroy the eight members who are under his control. It’s…not very good. And it’s made all the worse by some truly awful voice acting (Axl is particularly insufferable).

The fact that Mega Man X7 is a Mega Man title with terrible soundwork might be its biggest crime. The music isn’t exactly horrible, but it’s bland and forgettable in every regard. But the sound effects… The sound effects are either non-existent (such as when collecting items, which are completely silent), or annoying soundbites that are repeated ad nauseam. The aforementioned voice acting is terrible in cinematics, but it reaches new lows during boss fights, in which your foe screams the same one or two sound clips every time they do, well, anything.

“BURN! BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN! BURN! BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND!”

Anyone who has played Mega Man X7 knows the audial hell that is the boss fight against Flame Hyenard. This Maverick shrieks two lines: “Burn!” and “Burn to the ground!” every time he performs an action. And he makes two copies of himself which do the same. Suffice to say it’s an utter bombardment on the ears, with soundbites frequently overlapping each other. It’s so stressful that it may make Mega Man X7 the worst sounding game I’ve played since Dark Castle on the Sega Genesis.

Visually, the game of course looks dated, but considering X7 was released in the same year as such visually stunning games as The Wind Waker and Viewtiful Joe, it looked outdated even for its time. At the very least, the game boasts enough variety in colors that you can at least tell what everything is. I can’t imagine how the game would be playable if things blurred together on top of all its other issues.

Mega Man X7 is simply an appalling embarrassment on one of gaming’s most iconic franchises. Perhaps in its conception, its heart was in the right place, as it attempted to do something different for the series by doing something different. But it must have quickly fallen apart at the seams for it to end up this bad. Just about anything good you could say about it only applies in concept. Yes, Mega Man X7 tried something new, and that’s admirable. But it’s next to impossible to appreciate when the finished product feels, well, unfinished.

Or to put it another way…

BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN! BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN TO THE GROUND! BURN! BURN! BURN! BURN! “BURN TO THE GROUND!

 

2