Tag Archives: Playstation 4

Shadow of the Colossus (Playstation 4) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

9.0

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A Hat in Time Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7.5

Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash Review

Senran Kagura is exactly the kind of series I can appreciate in this day and age, when political correctness has seemingly become an all-encompassing evil that seeks to dictate what creators can and cannot create, and in which people seem to actively want to be offended by anything and everything. Senran Kagura is unashamed, irreverent fan-service cranked up to eleven. Yes, Senran Kagura is juvenile, and about little more than its bosomy ninja cast tearing each others’ clothes off in friendly battles, but it’s so tongue-on-cheek and ridiculous, that you’d really have to have no actual concerns in life to seriously be offended by it. Frankly, if it weren’t for some of the language, I don’t see why this series should warrant the same maturity rating as a game that features gratuitous violence or sex.

But again, in such uptight times, I can appreciate something like Senran Kagura all the more. And quite frankly, the entries I have played – though flawed – are pretty fun. Most games in the series are combinations of beat-em-up titles and 3D fighters, but Peach Beach Splash changes things up by turning it into a team-based, water-gun and bikini-themed shooter. Think of it as Splatoon with a dash of Super Mario Sunshine… with lots of boobies.

To be honest, the gameplay and setup of Peach Beach Splash feels more appropriate for the nature of the series than its usual antics. At the very least, I know I’d like to see a water gun battle between these girls than a swordfight. But I digress.

Peach Beach Splash has a heavier focus on multiplayer than past titles, though single player campaigns are still present. The four usual ninja groups (Hanzo Academy, Homura Crimson Squad, Hebijo Clandestine Girls Academy and Gessen Girls’ Academy) each get their own campaign, along with a special fifth campaign that unlocks once the others are completed.

“Katsuragi is my waifu.”

Each of the four standard campaigns sees you take control of that respective ninja group, and you can select whichever member of that group you want for any of the campaigns’ ten missions. Each individual campaign is shorter than the one found in Estival Versus, and are mostly used as a means to unlock different weapons and characters for multiplayer use, as well as costumes and other customizable features for the girls.

The campaigns bring some fun to the table, combining the series’ usual display of defeating hordes of enemies before taking on a team of opponents comprised of members of one of the other groups. Usually to win, you’ll have to defeat every member, which is done by squirting them with enough water that they fall to the ground. Once in a grounded state, a teammate may revive their fallen comrade, so that’s why you have to take them out of the battle by shooting off either their bikini top or bottom (don’t worry, convenient lighting knows just how to censor things).

Simply holding the square button is all it takes to revive a fallen teammate, and pressing square against an enemy is all it takes to enter the “finisher” screen, in which you manually aim a rubber duck to shoot off the girl’s bikini with enough water.

It’s as fun as it is juvenile and silly, with this gameplay carrying over to the multiplayer modes. Unfortunately, the single player campaigns still suffer from some of the shortcomings of past entries in the series. Namely, there are just way too many cinematics. Now, don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t mind staring at these girls, but I can just as easily stare at them during gameplay. And while much of the characters and dialogue can be funny, you literally get a cinematic both before and after a mission. Sure, you can speed things up and skip dialogue, but these cutscenes are often longer than the missions themselves, and when you have to sit through one cutscene just to go to another one before the next mission, it gets a bit tedious.

It should be said that most of these cutscenes are also, once again, just the character models displaying a limited range of animations in front of static backgrounds. Sure, there are some hand-drawn anime and more animated CG cutscenes here and there, but for the most part, you sit through a large amount of cinematics that look virtually the same.

“Exquisite dialogue.”

That’s not the only limitation either. Just as in Estival Versus, the hand-drawn cinematics expose limitations in the variety of character models. While the official character artwork displays the characters’ having a wide range of body types, the in-game models look almost identical, with just the heads swapped with a copied-and-pasted body. For example, Haruka and Katsuragi (AKA best girl) are a bit more… “amply gifted” than even the other girls in the series, their in-game models look no different than anyone else. You may say that’s a shallow complaint, but in a game that places such a heavy emphasis on the character designs, the characters’ in-game similarities do feel a bit lazy.

Aside from these limited aspects though, Peach Beach Splash is a mostly fun experience. The variety of characters (who each get their own melee attacks) and weapons mean there’s always a different way to play, and special assist cards – which grant different bonuses and abilities –  add all the more variety.

The multiplayer modes are what will likely keep you coming back though. Whether it’s the team battles, queen of the hill, a co-op horde mode or capture the bra (yeah…), Peach Beach Splash gives you plenty of multiplayer options. And there always seems to be something new to unlock, whether it be costumes, weapons, or collectible in-game cards; so if you’re into one-hundred percent completion, Peach Beach Splash will keep you busy for a while. And if you simply want to look at the characters, there’s a dressing room mode where you can spend time with them… or so I’ve heard.

Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash certainly isn’t going to change the minds of people who, for some reason, find the concept of animated bosoms to be the most reprehensible thing on Earth, but if you’re a fan of the series, it provides a fun deviation from the usual gameplay. Even if you weren’t a fan of the individual entries in the past, Peach Beach Splash may be the change of pace you’re looking for in the series.

I hope Peach Beach Splash can get some kind of direct sequel down the road. With a bit more polish (and a whole lot less dialogue boxes), this Senran Kagura offshoot may just give Splatoon a run for its money.

 

7.5

Nioh Review

The way of the Samurai is glorious…

The trials and tribulation of the Souls’ series is a rather novel experience for myself, as I originally dipped my toes into this amalgamation of impeccable construct and design with 2015’s Bloodborne. Its exquisite Gothic, Victorian setting was unquestionably appealing and its faster, visceral combat improved on Dark Souls’ meticulous combat design. Dark Souls III continued to expand on this concept by notably increasing the speed of the series’ combat design, while maintaining the inert core of the beloved franchise. However, Team Ninja’s conspicuous take on the established Souls formula is arguably the best iteration yet. Nioh’s dynamic combat is practically flawless, with its innovative stance and Ki (stamina) recovery system acting as the glorious cherry on top. Its level of difficulty is relatively on par with From Software’s repertoire, but enemies rely on the same defined rules and mechanics as the player, incorporating an additional layer of fairness. In regards to level design, Nioh follows the immaculate steps laid out by Dark Souls developer, From Software; Nioh is beautifully atmospheric and chock full of impeccably designed shortcuts, secrets, and other hidden goodies, imploring that key sense of exploration and back-tracking. Its fictitious take on the late Sengoku Period is exquisitely beguiling; from the charismatic encounters with historian legends such as Oda Nobunaga or Tokugawa Ieyasu, to the exhilarating key moments in history such as the Battle of Sekigahara, Nioh is an intriguing period piece that is surprisingly informative as it is entertaining. As an action RPG, Nioh is an absolute triumph in game design and player accessibility, as its level of flexibility and gratification is beyond dynamic, catering to an abundance of different preferences. Nioh takes the basic foundation of the Souls formula and expands it exponentially, incorporating dynamic systems to create a novel gameplay experience that surpasses anything that came before it. Continue reading

Nier: Automata Review

Patience is a virtue…

Very few games manage to transcend its predictable structure into a peculiarly constructed being that constantly shape-shifts both narratively and gameplay-wise. Those that attempt to embody this bizarrely delicious concept tend to fail, with the story layering multiple convoluted pieces that simply don’t make sense or bleed pretention, and/or its genre hopping implementation is rendered to a “jack of all trades, master of none”. Nier: Automata is the beloved exception to the rule. It is a robust experience that executes an impeccable variance of the new game plus system, a well paced and mechanically sound example of the seamless transition between different game genres, and incorporates a gripping narrative that is equally provocative as it is convoluted. While a plethora of technical issues and its underdeveloped open-world hold Nier: Automata back from being the underrated masterpiece that everyone claims it to be, it is still an exuberant experience that has the foundation for a masterpiece, simply lacking the required polish and design to reach such meteoric heights. Nier: Automata is a peculiar experience to critique as it’s constantly changing and evolving, with each new playthrough providing a sliver of reflection; my impressions of trepidation upon viewing the ending of Route A were completely different compared to my unanimous praise of Route C and its subsequent endings. It’s a fluctuating experience to say the least, but one that constantly propels the importance of the ride as opposed to the destination. It’s an arduous journey, not in terms of mechanical difficulty, but in perseverance and tenacity; the hunt for truth is a riveting force of propulsion, one that emitted a rewarding sense of satisfaction, despite my personal qualms with Automata’s certain limitations and design choices.

Continue reading

Senran Kagura: Estival Versus Review

*Review based on the PS4 version of the game*

I know, I’m supposed to go on and on about what a terrible, vile, evil thing Senran Kagura is. Because is this day and age, where political correctness is taken to practically fascist levels, the concept of animated characters with big boobs is considered more taboo than violence or sex. Yes, the Senran Kagura series is juvenile, but it knows it. This is a franchise all about bosomy ninjas all having friendly competitions with one another, with their clothes conveniently flying off during battle (with equally-convenient flashes of light knowing just where to censor). But it knows it’s all a giant piece of fan-service, and runs with the joke. Simply put, when we have actual issues going on in reality, I can’t find a game whose biggest crime is making one immature boob joke after another to be all that offensive. So sue me.

It also helps that Senran Kagura: Estival Versus actually shows some promise for the series as a worthwhile video game franchise, albeit it does have some glaring issues that hold it back.

Believe it or not, there actually is a story here: Four groups of female ninjas are in a constant rivalry against each other to become Kagura (which, as far as I’ve deduced, is like a ‘super ninja’ in the game’s mythology). These four groups are the Hanzo Academy, Homura Crimson Squad, Hebijo Clandestine Girls’ Academy, and the Gessen Girls’ Academy.

One by one, these groups of series mainstays are teleported to another world which, conveniently for players, is primarily a tropical beach. The girls are brought here by an elderly woman named Sayuri, the grandmother of Asuka, the main girl from Hanzo Academy. The reason for Sayuri bringing the girls to this world is for them to take part in some Millennium Festival, which will make them more powerful for an eventual encounter with some kind of demon…or something.

It turns out this strange beach world also works as a medium between one life and the next, and the girls soon start finding some of their lost loved ones inhabiting this world, as they still have a lingering regret or two which is preventing them from passing on to a proper afterlife.

I have to admit, I actually found myself a little interested when it came to the stories between some of the characters. Whether they’re learning the importance of friendship with one another (oh, anime), or having an emotional crisis from facing their lost loved ones again, there actually is – much to my surprise – a little bit of character development amidst all the jiggle physics and blatant fan-service.

On the downside of things, however (and this may sound like a strange complaint here), there’s almost too much story. Look, the stuff between the girls can be funny, but the main plot, which already doesn’t have much to it, just drags on and on. In between each gameplay mission, you have to sit through one cinematic after another, with many of these cinematics quickly growing repetitious (if I had a nickel for every story segment where the girls discuss the “real” reason they were brought to the beach, I’d have a decent sum of money saved up).

“Arguably the best dialogue ever written.”

These aren’t extravagant cutscenes either, but ones where character models stand in front of static backgrounds, and recycle a few select animations, while text boxes explain the finer details. In worst case scenarios, you only see the backgrounds, and merely see text on the screen to represent characters. The latter example happens in every situation involving the girls meeting one of their deceased relatives (sans for one of the playable characters, who is the ghostly sister of two other characters). This comes off as a cheap cop-out, as it prevents the artists from actually designing and animating these additional characters.

The worst part of it all is that these cutscenes go on and on and on and on. Even though I got a kick out of many of the characters, I eventually found myself skipping through many of the dialogue boxes. This is a beat-em-up game about bosomy ninja waifus, do we really need so much exposition?

“You can pick up bomb items humorously referred to as “bombshells.”

Thankfully, the core gameplay is actually pretty fun. The game is more or less a combination of a beat-em-up and a 3D fighter, as you fight waves of enemies with outlandish combos, can transform into more powerful “Shinobi” forms, and ultimately face off with one to three of the other characters as a boss fight.

Square is your quicker, weaker attack. Triangle is your slower, stronger attack. The X button jumps, the Circle button dashes and allows you to run up walls.

By performing combos you can build up a meter that, when full, gives you a scroll. Press L1 to use a scroll to go into your Shinobi form. Once transformed, you can use special attacks with the use of additional scrolls (L1 + Square uses one scroll, L1 + Triangle uses two). Additionally, you’ll gain more experience points after a battle depending on your performance. And when you get enough to gain a level for a particular character, that character can hold more scrolls.

It’s simple enough stuff, but fighting through hundreds of ninjas before having grander showdowns with the other characters can be a lot of fun. And it’s made all the better by the differences between characters. Though the controls are the same around the board, each character has their own weapon (Asuka simply uses katanas, but her fellow Hanzo Academy student Katsuragi uses rocket shoes; and Yumi, the leader of Gessen Academy, uses fans for combat, while Haruka uses a pet robot in battle). Each character has their own distinct style of play, which really gives the game some good variety, considering the sheer number of characters there are.

Unfortunately, even the gameplay takes something of a dip for two main reasons.

The first of those reasons is repetition. Though the core gameplay is fun and the characters have variety, the game does very little to add anything new to the experience as it goes on. You simply hack a few hordes of enemies, fight the boss character(s), and then proceed to the next overly long cinematic. The main story mode is actually decently long, so for it to just recycle the same formula throughout its entirety is a bit of a bummer.

The other downside is that the enemy AI is largely inconsistent. Granted, in a game like this you expect the mindless hordes of enemies to be just that, mindless. But sometimes, this occurs during the bosses as well. While the bosses oftentimes put up a decent fight, there were more than a few instances where the boss characters just stood there for me to bombard them with one special attack after another. There was even one instance in which all three boss enemies just kept running into walls, never even changing into their Shinobi forms (which instantly refills all health, I should add). To say this battle was easy is an understatement.

Speaking of easy, the main story mode isn’t all that difficult. Though some opponents put up a good fight, I never actually died once during the entirety of the story mode. I was going to mark the game down further due to the lack of difficulty, but an additional mode, which sees each character play through their own short stories, adds more of a challenge to the experience.

“Pure Shakespeare.”

Despite the aforementioned limited animation in the cinematics, I did greatly enjoy the graphics of the game. The character models remind me of those of the Guilty Gear games, where they look like traditionally animated anime characters brought into 3D. And the game even features a few hand-drawn cinematics and images sprinkled throughout (though the few hand-drawn segments may expose more limitations in the main game. For example, Katsuragi and Haruka are a little more, should I say, “gifted” even compared to the other girls in the game. But the gameplay models for every character are pretty interchangeable in terms of body type, with only the, umm, “flatter” characters looking any different in-game). The  music also adds to the aesthetic pleasures, with a soundtrack that’s appropriately fun and bubbly.

Perhaps the biggest highlight of Senran Kagura: Estival Versus (along with the core gameplay) is the sheer abundance of unlockables in the game. It seems like no matter what you do, you’re always unlocking an additional mission or a customizable option for the girls (you can change their outfits for their different forms and cinematics, and even pose them for pictures). You may find yourself replaying parts of the story mode or the character missions just to see what you can unlock next.

Senran Kagura: Estival Versus is obviously not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, especially in this day and age in which people actively seek to be offended by things. But behind all the bikinis and bosoms is a pretty fun- albeit flawed – title. The game itself may not share the beauty of its cast – with excessive cinematics, a repetitious structure and often-stupid AI muddling things a bit – but it does show that there may be a little something more to this series than fan-service alone. With a bit more time dedicated to refining the game, Senran Kagura could turn out to be a winning video game series.

 

6.5

Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy Review

These days, first-person shooters and other, more “mature” genres are the most prominent games. But back in the 1990s, it was all about cartoony platformers. Mario was the long-standing gaming icon, and Sonic the Hedgehog had risen to prominence in the early years of the decade. Sonic’s popularity lead to countless imitators, with many an “animal with attitude” failing to replicate what made the hedgehog Mario’s one-time rival. There was, however, one such would-be mascot who actually succeeded in being the third-party in this platforming mascot equation: Crash Bandicoot.

Crash Bandicoot was created by Naughty Dog, the developer who is now most famous for creating the Uncharted series and The Last of Us. Crash’s first three outings on the Sony Playstation proved to be so popular, that the anthropomorphized marsupial became the face of Sony’s initial gaming platform.

Crash’s popularity can mostly be attributed to the quality of his games, though it probably helped things a bit that the orange bandicoot had a tone of his own. While Mario was whimsical and Sonic was “cool,” Crash Bandicoot was downright silly. Taking as much inspiration from Loony Tunes as from the likes of Sonic and Mario, Naughty Dog created a worthy addition to the platforming family with an identity of its own. But one who sadly fell out of prominence after Naughty Dog surrendered the character to other developers after the PSOne era. From the PS2 era (which saw Sony’s former mascot become a multi-platform franchise) and the subsequent console generation, the once-mighty Crash Bandicoot fell from grace, with developers never quite knowing how to recreate the series’ magic. After an off-putting quasi-reboot which saw a complete overhaul in art direction (something that never serves as a good sign for long-standing series), Crash laid dormant for nine years.

Thanks to developer Vicarious Visions, Crash Bandicoot is back with his first (and most famous) three adventures being rebuilt from the ground up for the Playstation 4. Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy faithfully re-creates the beloved original trilogy of platformers for a new generation. Though this faithfulness means there’s a little bit of a “warts and all” quality about the N. Sane Trilogy, it also proves to be something of a labor of love and a beautiful re-introduction to the series.

Though Crash Bandicoot was one of the early 3D platformers, it plays a lot more like a 2D one than something like Super Mario 64 (released in 1996, the same year as the first Crash Bandicoot title). The camera is usually fixed behind Crash, with the bandicoot traveling forward through stages that felt like those of a 2D platformer, but with a 3D perspective.

Crash Bandicoot can jump on enemies, but also comes with a spin attack. He collects Wumpa Fruits which, like Mario’s coins or Sonic’s rings, grant an extra life for every one-hundred gained. In the game’s own unique twist on the genre, the stages are also littered with boxes. Once every box in a level is destroyed, Crash is rewarded with a magical gem, which are needed if the player wishes to obtain one-hundred percent completion, with special colored gems found in certain stages which create new paths in certain levels.

Crash seemed to have learned a thing or two from Donkey Kong Country, as the boxes are reminiscent of DK’s barrels, and come in different varieties: Some contain a single fruit, others contain multiples, Crash can bounce on some, while others contain TNT, and will explode within a few seconds after jumped on (or instantly if Crash spins them). The sequels also added Nitro boxes, which will explode instantaneously upon contact, and can only properly be destroyed by hitting a switch at the level’s end. Finally, there are boxes adorned with a tiki mask named Aku Aku. Grabbing one and two masks will give Crash that many more hits, while obtaining a third mask will grant temporary invincibility.

The core gameplay of Crash Bandicoot is a lot of fun. Most of the levels are well designed, and trying to obtain every gem adds a level of complexity to the equation. On the downside of things, the perspective can often be misleading, with the fixed camera leading to some tricky platforming. This is especially true in the first game of the trilogy (simply titled Crash Bandicoot), which can, at times, feel a bit trollish with the tricks it plays with perspective. Still, the core mechanics are so fun that they mostly overshadow the sometimes cumbersome perspectives.

Though the second and third titles of the series, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash Bandicoot: Warped still suffer from some of these troublesome camera issues, they remain two of the few 3D titles on the original Playstation that hold up pretty well in terms of gameplay. The original Crash Bandicoot, however, wasn’t quite so lucky. Despite the fun mechanics, some of the later levels feel almost unfairly difficult, which were made all the worse by a convoluted saving system (in the PSOne version, you could only save after acquiring a gem or completing a bonus stage).

Thankfully, part of that problem has been rectified here, as the N. Sane Trilogy features a streamlined saving feature throughout all three games. For the first Crash Bandicoot, this is something of a godsend with how difficult it could get at times. Those difficult levels still remain – sometimes with unfair traps that require trial-and-error – but at least now you don’t have to worry about replaying them if you missed out on a chance to save before getting a game over.

Cortex Strikes Back and Warped remain two of the best of the early 3D platformers, however, with even the original PSOne versions being enjoyable today.  Crash 2 introduced a sliding move, a crouch that (like Mario) could result in a high jump, as well as overall better level design; and Warped added a wider variety of gameplay styles (jet ski levels, airplane levels, motorcycle levels, etc.) as well as Time Trials, which would award players with saphire, gold or platinum relics if you could finish a stage fast enough.

However, all three games are better than ever as part of the N. Sane Trilogy. The original Crash – though still flawed – is a much better game with the additional features (such as the aforementioned saving), while the sequels are a case of two great games being made all the better.

The obvious changes are the visuals and music. Though the level design is the same, everything has been rebuilt from the ground up. This isn’t simply the old Crash Bandicoot games in HD, but games that don’t look like remakes at all. If you didn’t have the knowledge of Crash’s past, you might be forgiven for thinking these are original PS4 games. And the cartoony aesthetics – whether it be the Australian inspired setting of the first game, the arctic or sewer-themed stages of the second, or the various time periods Crash visits in his time-traveling third outing – stand out all the more on current hardware. Video games look better than ever these days, yet most developers feel the need to make games look more “gritty” or “realistic” because of the technological power at play. But Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy serves as a good example of why such colorful and vibrant games should be explored more often on HD hardware.

Though Crash Bandicoot’s musical scores may not be among the most iconic in video game history, the tunes are infectiously catchy and – taking another cue from DK – can be incredibly atmospheric. Every track has been faithfully recreated, and these already great soundtracks sound better than ever.

Not every change in the N. Sane Trilogy is cosmetic, however, as there have been a few tweaks made to the games themselves. Most notably, Warped’s Time Trials have been inserted into the two earlier games, giving them even more challenge and replay value. Additionally, Crash’s sister Coco Bandicoot, who was originally only playable in select levels of Warped (and even then only in levels that saw her riding a vehicle or tiger) can be played in any platforming level of all three games. She plays identically to Crash, and playing as her is optional, so she doesn’t exactly change the game, but she keeps things faithful for purists while also making up for her somewhat disappointing playability in Warped’s original release.

Crash Bandicoot has had a long, shaky history, but I feel like the N. Sane Trilogy serves as something of a refreshing reboot for the series. The perspectives can still get tricky at times, and the first game can still feel cheap, but the N. Sane Trilogy resurrects the series in a gorgeous recreation of the beloved Naughty Dog games. Hopefully this leads to publisher Activision green-lighting a brand new Crash Bandicoot 4 (ignoring the post-Naughty Dog games and using these remakes as a blueprint would be the best course for the series’ future).

When most people think of Naughty Dog, they probably think of Uncharted, The Last of Us, or even Jak and Daxter. But for me, Crash Bandicoot has always been the synonymous name with the developer, and Vicarious Visions has done a wonderful job at turning these nostalgic favorites into worthwhile contemporary titles.

The bandicoot is back, and I hope he’s here to stay.

 

9.0