Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze Review

Tropical Freeze

Its name might bring to mind a mango-flavored iced tea, but make no mistake about it, Tropical Freeze is an inspired and challenging game that lives up to the Donkey Kong Country legacy.

Tropical Freeze begins on Donkey Kong’s birthday. As he’s about to blow out the candle on his (banana) cake, the Snomads – a gang of viking walruses, penguins and arctic owls – invade Donkey Kong’s island. The Snomads go Elsa on the place and freeze DK Island before banishing Donkey Kong and friends. But DK is not one to simply ‘let it go’ and he, along with Diddy Kong, Dixie Kong and Cranky Kong, set out to fight their way back to DK Island and kick the invaders out. It’s another simple story that’s present only when it needs to be, but at least it’s not another case of DK’s bananas getting stolen.

But story has never been DK’s strong suit. The artistry of Donkey Kong Country has always been in the game design. DKC is all about fun platforming gameplay, creative level design, high difficulty, great music and eye-popping visuals. In these regards, Tropical Freeze graduates with honors.

Retro Studio’s previous DK outing, Donkey Kong Country Returns, oozed a sense of creativity in its level design that not many platformers can match. But Tropical Freeze takes things to a whole new level. It’s often Mario who gets all the credit for Nintendo’s ability to toy with one new idea after another, but games like Tropical Freeze prove that Nintendo’s other franchises can be equally as rich in the departments of creativity.

Tropical FreezeOne minute Tropical Freeze will be throwing you into a savanna that looks like its decked out for the Broadway production of The Lion King, the next you’ll be making your way through a canyon filled with explosives, then you’ll be bouncing off cubes of jelly. Even the mine cart stages (a staple of the series) see so many new ideas added to the mix that each one of them feels fresh. The levels can get lengthy, but they’re swimming in so many imaginative ideas and details that you’ll enjoy every minute of them.

The gameplay isn’t anything radically different from its predecessors, but you probably weren’t expecting it to be. Donkey Kong still jumps, pounds and rolls his way through levels, feeling weightier than Mario but with a similar precision. Though a few additions have been made to the formula. DK can now pluck certain objects out of the ground, and even pick up some enemies and throw them at each other, Super Mario Bros. 2 style. Tropical Freeze also reintroduces swimming-based stages to the mix, after their questionable absence in Returns.

Tropical FreezeDiddy Kong can still be used as a kind of power-up to DK, using his jetpack to give DK a little more distance in the air. Joining Diddy this time around are Dixie and Cranky Kong. Dixie can twirl her ponytail like a helicopter and give DK a boost to his jumps, while Cranky bounces on his cane a la Scrooge McDuck, which allows you to not only jump higher, but also enables you to jump on otherwise dangerous surfaces (like spikes). The kongs all bring some fun to the table, but Dixie is undoubtedly the most useful.

The usual collectibles return, with every stage housing five, seven or nine puzzle pieces that unlock bonus content, and K-O-N-G letters that unlock secret stages. The collectibles will ensure dedicated players will keep coming back to revisit stages long after the game is over.

Tropical FreezeRambi the rhino reappears in a handful of stages, allowing players to break their way through environments and charge through enemies. Unfortunately, no other animal buddies have returned, nor are any new ones introduced. The kongs’ bountiful new abilities may make Animal Buddies seem a tad superfluous, but with water stages returning you can’t help but wish that Enguarde the swordfish could have made a comeback at the very least.

Additional items can be purchased at Funky Kong’s shop, which includes bonuses from additional health to temporary invisibility to Squawks the parrot, who helps locate the hidden puzzle pieces. You can even buy viewable character models just for the fun of it. They may sound like small benefits, but Funky’s items will come in handy though, because Tropical Freeze is a hard game. A very hard game.

Tropical FreezeDonkey Kong Country Returns was already a tough-as-nails platformer, but Tropical Freeze ups the ante. Tropical Freeze almost feels tailor-made for the people who claim Nintendo games have become too easy. It pulls pages from the NES playbook, with even a single miscalculation resulting in bitter defeat. It’s punishing, but not unfair. Tropical Freeze asks that its players study every inch of what’s going on on-screen,  keep on their toes and always be ready to change their strategies on the fly. It’s basically Dark Souls with a Nintendo makeover.

Visually speaking, Tropical Freeze is a beautiful game. To say it outdoes Returns is an understatement. Tropical Freeze pops thanks to the upgrade to HD from Wii U, with DK’s fur bringing to mind Sully from Monsters, Inc. Most levels are a barrage of colors and textures, though some of the most beautiful stages take on a silhouette motif. It’s not just how things look that make the visuals stand out, but the presentation as well. Oftentimes there’s as much going on in the background as there is with what’s in DK’s path. The aesthetics might not have changed since Returns, but the difference in the attention to detail is staggering.Tropical Freeze

More beautiful than the visuals is the game’s soundtrack, composed by David Wise, the man behind the soundtracks to the original DKC trilogy on the SNES. The Donkey Kong Country series is beloved for its versatile and atmospheric music, and Tropical Freeze does the series proud. It’s less reliant on remixes than Returns was, but the remixes that are here stand out more, and this time we even get some remixed tracks from the masterful soundtrack of Donkey Kong Country 2. But Tropical Freeze has an identity of its own due to its original tracks, which capture a similar sense of emotion and style as the tunes of the SNES games, but appropriately brought up to date. While most of the better game soundtracks today tend to sound more like replicated film scores, Tropical Freeze succeeds in sounding like a great, modernized video game soundtrack. It’s one of the best gaming soundtracks in years.

If there are any real notable flaws with Tropical Freeze, it’s in its inability to make any meaningful usage of the Wii U hardware itself. You can play the game on the GamePad, which is a plus, but if you’re playing the game on your television set, the screen on the Gamepad is literally pitch black, and has no usage whatsoever. Besides that, the only real things to complain about are some long load times and the lack of variety in the bonus stages (all of which are simple variants of “collect the bananas” as opposed to the wider variety of mini-games found in the DKCs of old).

All things considered, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze not only trumps its predecessor as the best sidescrolling platformer in years, it’s also one of the best games on the Wii U. It can get tough, but for those willing to embrace its challenges, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a modern showcase of classic game design at its best.

 

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The Last of Us Review

The Last of Us

While video games and zombie apocalypses are certainly no strangers to each other, The Last of Us attempts to rise above the oversaturated genre by telling a more compelling, mature story and a deep gameplay experience. And though it doesn’t always hit the mark in gameplay, and its story may fall short of its ambitions, The Last of Us nonetheless provides another solid entry in Naughty Dog’s catalogue.

The story of The Last of Us sees the world overrun by an incurable outbreak that turns people into zombie-like creatures, sending the world into chaos. In the early years of the outbreak, a man named Joel lost his daughter – not to the infected, but to a soldier – as they tried to find safety. As the years pass, the loss of his daughter has turned Joel into a bitter and hopeless man. Eventually, Joel finds himself in the company of a girl named Ellie. Ellie could be humanity’s salvation, as she is immune to the deadly infection. It becomes Joel’s mission to escort Ellie to a research facility, so that she might be studied and a cure can be found.

The Last of UsOf course, the plot unravels into something a bit more complex – both narratively and emotionally – and includes twists and turns, deranged villains, and the experience of one loss after another. But what makes the story of The Last of Us escalate into something more is the core relationship between Joel and Ellie. Ellie becomes something of a surrogate daughter to Joel, and their interactions and banters can come off as something smart and heartfelt. The game is wise enough to provide some quieter moments of character development between the two of them, and not just focus on the dread of the apocalypse.

On the downside of things, when the apocalypse is brought into the picture, The Last of Us falls into incredibly cliched territory. It becomes yet another showcase of “the zombies aren’t the real threat, the survivors are!” which has to rank among the most tired of genre tropes. Wouldn’t it be neat if, for once, the zombies were the ultimate evil in a zombie story, thus leaving the narrative free to explore new themes and not simply tread the same road of nihilism and pessimism that’s been treaded a thousand times before? Even the death of Joel’s daughter is used more as a means to justify Joel’s violence towards the bad guys than it is contemplative on the actual nature of loss. For a game that presents itself (and has been acclaimed as) a forward-thinking , giant leap in the medium’s narrative abilities, The Last of Us frequently stumbles when it comes to expressing any themes and all too often falls prey to the genre’s most familiar territory.

The Last of UsThankfully, the gameplay fairs a bit better. The Last of Us is a third-person action shooter, like so many games of today. But it sets itself apart from the crowd for rewarding patience and strategic pacing over simply shooting everything in sight. Some of Naughty Dog’s quirky controls are still present, with Joel seemingly magnetizing to any object in which he can take cover, but at least it’s not simply a case of just shooting everything.

Ellie, as well as a few other occasional allies, aid Joel with items and backup support in combat. Ellie’s presence ensures that the story is weaved into the game at all times, but she and the other friendlies also give the game more urgency, as their safety is as important as Joel’s. Joel’s allies help him out, and players must make sure he in turn helps them.

Unfortunately, with these allies comes one of The Last of Us’ big drawbacks: The friendly AI isn’t always reliable, and you’ll often find that you’re walking a mile ahead of your partners, as they’ve wandered behind or got stuck after a hectic encounter. The friendly AI never feels broken, but it can get distracting when you’re trying to hear one of Joel and Ellie’s conversations, only to resort to reading Ellie’s subtitles, as she’s so far away her voice is only audible in a distant mumble.

The Last of UsThe single player campaign is a lengthy affair, with solid stage design and a few good moments of character growth from Ellie. But Naughty Dog saw fit to add multiplayer into the equation. Although these multiplayer additions were (strangely) given little fanfare before the game’s release, they rival, and in many ways surpass, the single player campaign.

Multiplayer comes in three varieties: ‘Supply Raid’ and ‘Survivors’ both serve as team death matches, and see two factions of players facing off against each other, using the same guns, melee weapons and makeshift explosives found in the story mode to try to outwit and terminate the opposing team, with Survivors being notable for its lack of respawning. The third mode is ‘Interrogation’ in which players “interrogate” their rivals after their defeat to learn the location of the opposing team’s lockbox. The team that captures their opponent’s lockbox wins. All three multiplayer modes are engaging, and give the game even more longevity and depth than it would already have.The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a hefty gaming experience, complimented by a memorable musical score and detailed visuals. There are more than a few downsides however: The inconsistent AI of ally characters, the story falls prey to the same old tired themes of zombie stories, with the introduction of a primary antagonist late into the game feeling downright excessive. A number of instances where Joel is required to push Ellie on a makeshift raft are fun at first, but as they increase in frequency they begin to affect the pace of the game.

There’s a lot holding The Last of Us back from being among the ‘greatest games of all time’ like it has often been touted (and how it often seems to tout itself). But there’s enough quality in the gameplay and multiplayer to justify Naughty Dog’s efforts.

 

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Bioshock Infinite Review

Bioshock Infinite

It seems as the idea of video games as an art form continues to grow in prominence, many developers are determined to prove the legitimacy of the claim. Oftentimes they are successful in showing the artistic capabilities of the medium. In other instances, developers seem like they’re trying too hard to prove the maturity of game designs, to the point that the end results simultaneously feel both desperate to prove themselves and overly confident in their own abilities. Bioshock Infinite falls into the latter category.

Bioshock Infinite abandons the undersea world of Rapture from the previous installments in favor of a city in the clouds called Columbia. The hero is Booker, a man sent to Columbia to rescue a woman named Elizabeth to ‘repay a debt.’ But rescuing Elizabeth won’t be so easy, as she’s being held captive by one Zachary Hale Comstock – a religious zealot who serves as Columbia’s ‘Founding Father’ – and Comstock’s mechanical pet Songbird, who keeps personal watch over Elizabeth.

What starts as a simple rescue mission quickly unfolds into something bigger. There are twists and turns aplenty, and social commentaries that are so overt and insistent that they diminish whatever intrigue they might otherwise have had.

Bioshock InfiniteColumbia serves as a commentary to some of the shadier aspects of American history. Set in an alternate 1912, Columbia’s fancy carnivals and idealistic nature serve as a thin guise for a haven of prejudice and racism. The people of Columbia demonize Abraham Lincoln for ‘leading America astray,’ while Comstock uses religion as a means to keep his people under his thumb.

It’s all a great deal ham-fisted. Never once does Bioshock Infinite attempt subtlety, its commentaries come off more like cartoonish vilifications than contemplative observations. In a more satirical game this sheer overtness might work, but for a game that takes itself so seriously it all comes off as overly simplistic and conveniently one-dimensional (and in some instances, hypocritical). Bioshock Infinite thinks itself artistically rich, but the narrative feels more like a loud agenda than something truly thought-provoking.

The gameplay is similarly uninspired, following in its predecessors’ footsteps without feeling the need to better them. When it boils down to it, Bioshock Infinite is an incredibly straightforward first-person shooter. You still get your run-of-the-mill weaponry, which are thankfully complimented by some magic spells (referred to as ‘Vigors.’ Though they don’t exactly reinvent what the original Bioshock crafted either). Booker’s movements and sense of control work just fine, but considering this same setup has been done by countless other games, why wouldn’t they?

The problem isn’t that Bioshock Infinite’s gameplay is broken by any means. It’s just that, for a game that exudes such monumental pride for itself, its gameplay has very little creativity that it can boast as its own.

Elizabeth’s inclusion has been lauded for her contribution to gameplay as well as story. But Elizabeth’s actions are as redundant as Booker’s. She carries objects, picks locks, and performs other such standard actions that the player character can normally do themselves in other titles of the genre. Her AI is at least reliable most of the time, but she’s hardly a game-changer.

Bioshock InfiniteCredit must be given where it’s due, however, and if Bioshock Infinite can rightfully be proud of any of its attributes, it’s in its world design. Columbia is a striking place, not for the preachy thematics, but for its structure and atmosphere. Columbia is a world of strewn about islands in the sky, yet it feels like a complete place. It’s sinister and terrifying, with mechanical monstrosities that evoke some genuine dread. Columbia effectively recreates a time period while simultaneously creating a time.

It’s all the more disappointing then, that the game and the story involved in Bioshock Infinite don’t share in the genius of Columbia’s design. The world can create moods, but the plot feels the need to scream its intentions at the player, and the gameplay merely settles for the status quo.

The attempted artistry of Bioshock Infinite comes off as forced. It’s as though Bioshock Infinite is constantly telling the players that every next moment will be the new greatest moment they’ve seen in a video game. It’s so sure of itself and yet so bland in execution that the entire experience ends up an overall forgettable affair. There isn’t a moment that doesn’t insist on itself, yet there’s rarely a moment that feels truly inspired, whether as a video game or as a narrative.

There are certainly worse games than Bioshock Infinite out there. There are a great deal of better ones as well. But you’d be hard pressed to find any game in any genre that loved itself even half as much as this.

 

4

Pikmin 3 Review

Pikmin 3

 

Although there was a nine-year gap in between Pikmin 2 and this sequel, Pikmin veterans will feel right at home with Pikmin 3, and newcomers will be delighted to find that it serves as a great introduction to the series. Pikmin 3 overcomes the large gap in between releases by being accessible to gamers of all ranges of experience with the series, in the process delivering the deepest Pikmin title yet.

Longtime Pikmin fans will notice the absence of series protagonist Captain Olimar. In his place are three new characters: Alph, Brittany and Charlie, who travel to the Pikmin planet to bring fruit and seeds to their starving home planet of Koppai. Olimar still finds his way into the plot, with his notes on the planet’s wildlife (primarily the Pikmin) being conveniently strewn about the environments, giving players mini-tutorials in the process.

Pikmin 3In order for the three heroes to gather the fruit they need, they of course require the help of the Pikmin found on the planet. The original three Pikmin types return with their abilities intact (Red Pikmin are slightly stronger and immune to fire. Blue Pikmin can swim. Yellow Pikmin are immune to electricity and can be thrown higher than the others). They are now joined by two brand new Pikmin types: Rock Pikmin and Winged Pikmin.

The Rock Pikmin can be used to break away tough obstacles and daze enemies with a sucker punch-like first strike, while Winged Pikmin, as their name suggests, can fly. The two new Pikmin types add an interesting dynamic to the gameplay, and their additions mean that plenty of the game’s puzzles take full advantage of their abilities (as well as those of the returning Pikmin). Pikmin 2 fans might be disappointed that the powerful Purple Pikmin and poisonous White Pikmin aren’t to be found in the game’s story mode, but rest assured they do make appearances in Pikmin 3′s mission mode and multiplayer Bingo Battle.

Pikmin 3Pikmin 3 retains similar gameplay to its predecessors. You still pluck Pikmin from the ground, gather  pellets to gain more troops, solve puzzles, and fight large (and some not-so-large) enemies. So Pikmin 3 doesn’t exactly reinvent the series, but it does refine it. Calling your Pikmin from their Onion (the Pikmin spaceship) at the beginning of each in-game day has been streamlined. Instead of each Pikmin type having their own Onion you have one big Onion, which gains access to each new Pikmin type as you discover them.

Scheduling the aforementioned in-game days is easier than ever. The days and nights still go by, and you still have to make sure your Pikmin are either in their Onion or in the presence of one of the three characters before the sun sets (lest they get eaten by beasties), but Pikmin 3 lacks the 30 day time limit of the original game, and it leaves behind the dungeons concept of Pikmin 2, which makes it a bit easier to plan out each individual day in the game. Go gather a few pieces of fruit one day, maybe go after a boss the next, or just spend a day building your Pikmin army. In terms of its core gameplay Pikmin 3 has pretty much fine-tuned the best aspects of the series, and trimmed the fat of its predecessors.

Pikmin 3Combat is still as fun as ever, even if it may not be as much of a focus as it was in Pikmin 2. The beasts that inhabit the Pikmin planet are a bizarre range of creatures that showcase Nintendo character design at its most creative. Each monster you come across presents its own little puzzle. Some will be more obvious (if its a slug made out of fire, use the Red Pikmin), while others will be more strategic (such as a giant enemy crab that requires hefty Rock Pikmin to break its claw, and Blue Pikmin to attack it from the back when in submerges itself). The character design alone is a thing of beauty, the fact that Nintendo was creative enough to bring out all aspects of Pikmin 3′s gameplay through its bestiary just makes it all the more fun.

It should be noted that Pikmin 3 was the first Nintendo game to really take advantage of the Wii U’s HD capabilities. Yes, New Super Mario Bros. U and Nintendo Land were pretty enough to look at, but the former stuck too close to the established aesthetics, while the latter purposefully used a more simplistic approach to its visuals. But Pikmin 3 is the first in-house Nintendo game to really take advantage of HD, and it looks gorgeous.Pikmin 3

Lush environments, eye-popping colors, lovingly crafted details, every inch of Pikmin 3 is simply pleasing to the eyes. It’s hard to think of very many HD games that are half as colorful as this.

Pikmin 3 is equally pleasing to the ears. While its soundtrack may not be as instantly infectious as Mario or as emotional as Zelda, Pikmin 3′s score is elegant, atmospheric, and very fitting to the nature of the game. The music is calm and chirpy in the game’s sun-drenched locales, but becomes bombastic and epic during one of the (often difficult) boss fights.

Pikmin 3 admittedly has a couple of small drawbacks that should be addressed. The first is the most obvious. The Wii U Gamepad – while effective in the control of the characters and in providing players with a map (complete with RTS-style fog of war) – provides some control issues in regards to aiming. You may find it difficult to accurately throw Pikmin on a flying foe, and it can feel a bit awkward trying to toss Pikmin in high to reach places. Pikmin 3 gives you the option to play with a Wii remote and nunchuck combo, which may actually be a better means of control all around. You can’t be too hard on Pikmin 3 for not being the best showcase of the Gamepad though, as the game had been in development for the Wii for years before being moved to the Wii U.

There’s also the issue with the Pikmin AI getting a little “confused” at times. You may find that a few Pikmin have gotten lost somewhere on the map more often than you’d like. Some may also cry foul at the rather short length of the story mode after having waited so long between sequels, but while the adventure may be compact, Pikmin 3 makes the most of everything it has to work with.

But these are small complaints when the whole package is this engaging. If you have any friends over you can enjoy a game of Bingo Battle, in which two player armies try to gather the objects from a bingo card in order to gain that ever-elusive bingo, all while hindering the other player – Mario Kart style – with a host of items and power-ups.

Pikmin 3Mission Mode provides additional replayability, with missions asking players to put their skills to the test and clear an area of collectible items, defeating all enemies on the map, or besting one of the game’s bosses in the fastest time.

When all is said and done, Pikmin 3 is not just a welcome and long-awaited return for the series, it’s the most refined and balanced – and all around best – entry in the Pikmin series to date. Although seeing the ghosts of fallen Pikmin may teeter on depressing, Pikmin 3 represents Nintendo’s knack at making games that exude charm, deep gameplay and, dare I say, magic.

We may have waited nine years, but it feels as though Pikmin never went anywhere.

 

8

Puppeteer Review

Puppeteer

Puppeteer deserves credit for having honest intentions. It’s nothing if not an attempt to bring some color and whimsy to the Playstation brand, which is more renowned for the likes of Nathan Drake and Kratos. It’s a torch that has, for a while, been held solely by LittleBigPlanet, but Puppeteer looks to give Sackboy some company in the family-friendly department. Unfortunately, honest intentions cannot make up for a disappointing execution.

The presentation and story are charmers. Using the aesthetics of a puppet show, Puppeteer tells of a Moon Goddess who was overthrown by her subject, Little Bear, who became the Moon Bear King after stealing a magic stone. The Moon Bear King then takes on the hobby of spiriting children away from Earth, turning them into puppets, and eating their heads. One such child is Kutaro, whom the player controls. With his head gone, Kutaro is joined by the Moon Goddess’ cat, who shows Kutaro the ability to use different heads found throughout the journey, as well as helping him steal a pair of magic scissors, which become Kutaro’s weapon against the Moon Bear King’s forces on his quest to find the pieces of the magic stone, save the Moon Goddess and return to Earth (head intact).Puppeteer

The story often invokes a sense of childlike glee, though some of its more cutesy elements come off a bit forced. The puppet show motif works as a great setup, however, as this is a 2D platformer whose stages work in segments (think every segment as a new scene in a puppet show), and the aesthetics are perfectly complimented by the PS3 hardware. Puppeteer is simply a gorgeous game.

The downside is that, in terms of gameplay, Puppeteer just isn’t very fun. It’s ideas are inspired, but an awkward, sluggish sense of control brings them down. Kutaro’s jumping abilities may feel even more weighted than that of the Sackboys who inspired him, which makes the platforming lack fluidity. Using the magic scissors to cut down the environment as well as enemies is a fun trick – which also helps the puppet aesthetics mesh into the gameplay – but its uses are too simple and restrained, preventing what could have been a compelling gameplay mechanic from meeting its potential.

PuppeteerAnother missed opportunity is Kutaro’s ability to perform different actions through the different heads he stumbles across. Kutaro can store up to three heads at a given time, but they end up feeling more like extra health than they do power-ups (lose all three heads and it’s back to the last check point). The abilities the heads grant Kutaro seem limited to specific environmental situations – again preventing them from feeling like full-fledged game-changers – and like the scissors, they never seem to reach their potential.

A two player mode is present, with a second player having the ability to help Kutaro out by pointing out objects and finding items. It’s nothing extravagant, but should a less experienced player want to join in on the fun it provides them with the opportunity. On the downside, the second character is still present in single player, with Kutaro and his sidekick’s actions being controlled with separate analogue sticks on the same controller. It’s a setup that might work with the proper execution, but with Kutaro’s movements already feeling a bit on the clunky side, the two-characters-on-one-controller approach just makes the sense of control feel even more awkward.

I do not want to write off Puppeteer entirely. It is an appealing game that combines a great visual style with a charming, folktale-like narrative to make a game with an attitude that stands out among most of its Playstation brethren. But while Sackboy’s less-than-stellar platforming had a terrific level editor to fallback on, Kutaro is not so lucky. For everything Puppeteer does right with its presentation, it muddles just as much in the platforming department. It’s not broken, but it’s not desirable either.

Perhaps Kutaro deserves another round to take the ideas he’s been given, and fine-tune them into something great. For now, Puppeteer is a game of great style, ambition and whimsy. But one that lacks the polish it needs to send its ideas straight to the moon.

5

The Croods Review

The Croods

The Croods is a more appealing movie than its bland title might suggest. But it also won’t be ranked alongside Dreamworks’ best work. It’s ambitious in scale and filled with colorful character designs, but it’s also restrained when it comes to narrative. The Croods is a solid entry in the Dreamworks canon, but one that won’t exactly win over those who claim they prefer style over substance.

The film stars a family of cavemen, the titular Croods. At the head of the family is the patriarch, Grug (Nicholas Cage), who dedicates himself to his family’s survival in the hostile prehistoric environment. He’s well-meaning enough, but a bit paranoid of the world, which leads him to often butt heads with his rebellious daughter Eep (Emma Stone), who wants nothing more than to go out and see the world. The rest of the family gets considerably less screen time, but they include the mother Ugga, the brother Thunk, and baby sister Sandy, as well as Grug’s mother-in-law Gran. They’re a fun lot of characters when they need to be, though they do feel a bit archetypal.

The CroodsEvery day is the same in the Crood household (cavehold?), they wake up, scavenge for food, and avoid being eaten by sabertoothed cats and other such creatures, only to return to the cave to hide until the next morning. But their world is turned upside down when Eep meets a guy named Guy (Ryan Reynolds), who informs her that the end of the world is coming, and that he’s heading for the land of “Tomorrow” which is safe from the impending apocalypse. It isn’t long before the Croods’ home is destroyed in the ensuing chaos, and they seek help from Guy to find a safe home in tomorrow. Along the way, the Croods (specifically Grug) may learn a thing or two about opening up to the world and having unique ideas outside the status quo.

It’s a simple enough story, livened up by some smart writing and humorous running gags, as well as some solid voice work. There is a bit of a downside in that the movie has more characters than it knows what to do with (you may wonder why the story even needed Eep’s siblings), and the story is a bit on the predictable side, with the messages – simple truths that they may be – feeling a tad ham-fisted.

The CroodsBut it’s all made more enjoyable by the film’s real highlight: The animation. The Croods showcases some of Dreamworks’ best visuals, with just about every scene being a display of color and detail. Best of all are the character designs for all the prehistoric beasts the Croods run across. The creatures in The Croods feel more inspired by prehistoric animals than based off them, which allowed Dreamworks to get creative with the character designs. Among these creatures are quadrupedal whales and swarms of piranha-birds. The strange creatures littered throughout The Croods help give the film some imaginative spark.

The animation and designs are where The Croods’ creativity shines. It’s just unfortunate that the story, while technically sound, is so much less creative. The characters and their relationships all fit neatly into the exact roles you expect them to, and it’s only in the last fifteen or so minutes that it gets any real emotional oomph.

It may not reinvent the wheel, but The Croods has a fun time with the tools it has at its disposal. If Dreamworks isn’t your cup of tea, The Croods isn’t about to change that. But for the initiated, it’s a fun, and ever so colorful ride.

 

6

Hyrule Warriors Review

Hyrule Warriors

There was a moment at the very end of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword which pitted Link against army after army of monsters in order to reach the big bad (and the captured Princess Zelda) at the end. It was a barrage of action and spectacle, akin to being the Nintendo equivalent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep. If that moment left you wondering what an entire Zelda game built around such moments would be like, then Hyrule Warriors gives you a bit of an idea, if maybe not entirely fulfilling on its promise.

While Mario and friends regular deviate from their core series for some karting and a few rounds of tennis, Zelda rarely takes the opportunity to shy away from the series’ primary timeline for the sake of a fun little deviation. But Hyrule Warriors basks in the opportunity to tell its own side story in the series, throwing in as many references to past entries as possible without worry about how it might effect the series’ canon.

Primary and supporting characters from the Zelda series make a return, with the likes of Link and Zelda being joined by Impa, Midna and Darunia, among other familiar faces from the series. Some original characters also make the playable roster, but they feel a tad misplaced and don’t mesh well with the established characters. The new editions end up feeling more like anime cliches than members of the Zelda cast.

Hyrule WarriorsIt’s not just the characters, but the world, story and scenarios of Hyrule Warriors are all swimming in Zelda fanservice. The story tells of an ancient witch who watches over the Triforce, until she gets possessed by the spirit of Ganon (who else?), corrupting her heart and mind. She then uses the Triforce’s power to open portals throughout time to search for the fragmented pieces of Ganon’s soul, which have been scattered throughout time.

Of course, this plot really is little more than an excuse to cram all the aforementioned characters together, and to recreate some of the series’ iconic moments. But it works for what it is, and who am I to argue about something that’s basically a love letter to one of gaming’s most revered legacies?

But alas, the fanservice is all this game has to connect it to that legacy. The game is titled Hyrule Warriors for a reason. While the game is a loving tribute to the Zelda series, as a game it is, first and foremost, a Dynasty Warriors title. And while this Dynasty Warriors gameplay can be fun, it’s best played in short bursts, as longer play sessions reveal Hyrule Warriors to be a repetitious affair, lacking the depth of design that Zelda is known for.

Hacking and slashing through hundreds of enemies at a time is thrilling, and gives you plenty of opportunities to try out the various combos you’ll learn as you level up, but every character -despite having aesthetic differences – all play the same, and they all get the same bonuses as they gain experience, and the enemies similarly lack variety. A little bit of life is added to the equation by some light strategic elements, such as overtaking enemy outposts and making sure your own bases don’t become overrun, but even these strategies end up being performed by the same hacking and slashing of enemies.

Hyrule WarriorsThere is a good deal of content to the package, however. There are numerous secrets and bonus objectives to be found on any given stage, and the plethora of playable characters means the game has a bit more replayability than it might otherwise have should you wish to level all of them up. Additionally, an aptly-named Adventure Mode provides a different experience, not to mention retro charm.

In Adventure Mode, players guide an 8-bit Link through a grid-like map, where each square is a mission where Link has the opportunity to win items and unlock new areas on the map. The Adventure Mode and the game’s various challenges add an addictive nature to the game, but none of them individually provide the depth to make Hyrule Warriors a truly compelling gaming experience.

As a love letter to The Legend of Zelda, Hyrule Warriors gets top marks: It reintroduces us to many beloved characters, recreates some epic scenarios from the past, and includes some top-notch remixes of classic tunes. The aesthetics inspired by Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword make this a kingly piece of Zelda fanservice (though being the Wind Waker fan that I am, I can’t help but feel left out of the loop).

But in terms of it own merits, the fun of Hyrule Warriors is hampered by repetitious gameplay and an overall shallow experience, not to mention some technical issues like long load times and an inconsistent frame rate (somewhat forgiveble, given the sheer number of characters on-screen at any given time).

Hyrule Warriors captures the spectacle of that climactic moment of Skyward Sword, but it’s entirety lacks the heart and emotion of that single moment. Is Hyrule Warriors fun? Yes. But it’s no legend.

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