Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Review

*Review based on the remastered PS4 version as part of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection*

Uncharted 2

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is not only seen as the turning point for the Uncharted series, and a benchmark for developer Naughty Dog, but also as a modern classic. Released on the Playstation 3 in 2009, Uncharted 2 reaped critical acclaim and is often cited as one of the best video games of all time. Its reputation isn’t undeserved. Uncharted 2 took all of the good points of its predecessor, and cranked them to their limits.

Much like its predecessor, Uncharted 2 aims to capture the feeling of an Indiana Jones style adventure film into the world of video games, and it could be argued it accomplishes this feat better than any game that came before it. Maybe even after it.

Nathan Drake is on a quest to find the mythical city of Shambala and the legendary Cintimani Stone hidden there. He is joined by Chloe Frazer, a more rough-edged, coquettish contrast to “good girl” Elena Fisher from the first game. Though Elena ends up playing an active role in this adventure, Chloe knocks her down to the tritagonist role.

As you might expect, a psychotic villain is also in pursuit of Shambala and the Cintimani Stone, in the form of Lazarević, and his band of Serbian mercenaries. He’s a pretty cookie-cutter, brutish villain, but he does what he needs to for the game’s simple plot.

In terms of gameplay, Uncharted 2 remains similar to its predecessor, albeit with considerable more polish. The game still combines third-person shooting with platforming, but it handles both of its gameplay halves better than the original.

Whereas the first game often had Nathan Drake involved in gunfights that would go on for a bit too long, Uncharted 2 more gracefully spreads out the action. The gunfights are still present, of course, but they are trimmed down, and made even more exciting and varied due to the game’s greater set pieces and staging.

Meanwhile, the platforming has been made more polished. In the first game, the majority of platforming consisted mainly of jumping from one ledge to another while hanging off cliffs. Though such mechanics remain, they are given greater variety with better presented platforming challenges. And the ledge-hanging segments have been made more fluid, since Drake can now move across ledges using the control stick, and only needs to jump between them when necessary.

Nathan Drake can still use two guns at a time, a pistol and a larger weapon. But the stealth mechanics and melee combat, as well as puzzles, are better utilized this time around, making things consistently fresh.

Uncharted 2Better still are the aforementioned set pieces. Many adventure films involve action scenes that involve the characters jumping from one speeding car to another while battling villains in each vehicle, and that very scenario is beautifully recreated here. We even get an extended sequence aboard the roof of a train, a must for any self-respecting adventurer.

It’s in moments like these where Uncharted 2 shines brightest. The Uncharted series wants nothing more than to be ranked alongside the adventures of Dr. Jones, and the game is wise to use a greater variety of action set pieces than its predecessor, and only ever reusing one of them (for narrative purposes). There are few games that capture such feelings of exhilaration so consistently.

Uncharted 2Uncharted 2 even ups the ante in aesthetics. The game looks great, with a wider range of environments to explore, with the most beautiful being snowcapped mountains and icy caverns. The music is similarly epic, and would feel right at home in a Hollywood blockbuster (albeit Uncharted 2’s score is more atmospheric and less generic than most big Hollywood pieces these days).

The game does have some issues, however. Some may find that the plot is sticking a little too close to the adventure film rulebook, with most of its twists and turns being predictable from a mile away. And once again, the villain is a bit underwhelming. Perhaps the game’s biggest narrative misstep is the demotion of Victor Sullivan. The show-stealing buddy of Nathan Drake has a greatly reduced role this time around, aiding Drake in some early segments in the game before declaring himself to be “too old for this stuff.” It’s an oddly unceremonious way to write-off a fan favorite character.

It should also be pointed out that there are some chapters within the game that drag on for a bit. While most of the game is exciting and fun, a small handful of chapters overstay their welcome. This is especially true later in the game, when the chapters start becoming lengthier, with some of them simply feeling stretched out, instead of justifying their additional timeframes.

These are ultimately small complaints though, since Uncharted 2: Among Thieves remains a highlight in Naughty Dog’s library, and one of the most fondly remembered exclusives on any Playstation console.

If the original Uncharted was the Indiana Jones game we all dreamed of, then Uncharted 2 is perhaps the Indiana Jones game we never dreamed we’d actually see. Let’s be glad we did.

 

8

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune Review

*Review based on the remastered PS4 version as part of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection*

Uncharted

When it was released on the Playstation 3 back in 2007, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune brought a newfound success for Developer Naughty Dog, who became something of the Playstation brand’s premiere first-party from that point on. Though its sequels are more revered, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune remains a fun and exhilarating experience even nine years later.

Drake’s Fortune marked the debut of the Uncharted series and its now-iconic protagonist Nathan Drake. It tells the story of the treasure of El Dorado, and Drake’s quest to retrieve it, aided by his friend and partner Victor “Sully” Sullivan and journalist Elena Fisher. But they are pursued by rival treasure hunter Gabriel Roman, and his bands of pirates and mercenaries.

It’s a really simple plot, one that would feel right at home in an action-adventure film. It is also a very fitting plot, since Uncharted draws heavy inspiration from the likes of Indiana Jones, and even manages to replicate the kind of action scenarios found in Dr. Jones’ adventures for the video game medium.

The action is a combination of third-person shooters and platforming, with Nathan Drake able to carry two weapons at a time (a pistol and a larger gun) and use fisticuffs to take out enemies, as well as jumping, climbing and swinging across obstacles to make it through the environments. There are also puzzle elements thrown into the mix, which really add to the game’s Indiana Jones approach in crucial moments.

UnchartedNathan Drake mostly controls well, with the gameplay being pretty easy to learn. Some of the climbing can become a bit tedious, since the player has to keep jumping from various ledges and conveniently protruding rocks, which can feel a little awkward at times. And while the simplicity of the combat can be fun, many of the game’s later combat sections feel overly long and dragged out to the point of growing repetitious.

With that said, the core gameplay is really fun, and the aforementioned puzzles, as well as some exhilarating vehicle sections, help give the experience a good sense of variety. There are also some secret treasures that can be picked up, so completionists have a fun little detour to look forward to.

Uncharted also has a great presentation, with terrific visuals and an appropriately cinematic score that would feel right at home in a Summer blockbuster. Uncharted’s cinematic approach to presentation and narrative really make it feel like an Indiana Jones style adventure film found its way into a video game.

UnchartedIt also helps that the game’s three main characters are very likable. Nathan Drake may not have the mystique of Indiana Jones, but he has an everyman personality about him that makes him a refreshing character amid the countless waves of angry, vengeance-seeking anti-heroes in video games. Sully regularly steals the show with fun quips and a great sense of humor. And Elena feels like a more capable female sidekick than those that usually accompany action heroes (she still finds herself in need of saving from time to time, but she’s given some good moments to help out on the action, so she doesn’t come off as totally helpless).

All in all, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune remains an incredibly fun gaming experience. It has its flaws, and its sequels are obvious improvements, but the simple and fun characters, exciting gameplay, fantastic presentation and extravagant action set pieces made it a fitting start for one of Playstation’s most revered franchises.

Considering that there’s never been an Indiana Jones game that properly recreated the excitement of the movie series, one could say that Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was the Indiana Jones game we all dreamed of.

 

7

Rocket League Review

Rocket League

Sometimes, the best games are also the simplest. Such is the case with Rocket League, the 2015 indy title that can be summed up as simply as “soccer with cars…in the future.” But through its simplicity, it provides an incredibly fun and insanely addictive experience.

Rocket League really is a simple game on the surface. Two teams (orange and blue), try to hit a ball into the other team’s goal, much like soccer. But the players are futuristic cars that can jump and even drive up walls. Various spots of light appear on the ground, and driving over them fills up the cars’ boost meters, which allows them to temporarily increase speed when activated.

Different game modes include one on one matches, two versus two, three on three, and four against four (aptly titled “chaos” in the game’s menu). Additionally, it’s possible to customize some of the settings in matches, such as the physics on the vehicles or the ball. Extra game modes and events are added during holiday seasons, but otherwise the basic game modes merely consist of how many players are on their teams.

Rocket LeagueIn terms of gameplay, Rocket League is a pure joy. The vehicles control fluidly, and the physics and gravity effects make the seemingly easy task of getting the ball to the goal an intense challenge with your opponents, as the slightest bump can send the ball off course.

What makes it all even better is how accessible it is. Learning the basics of the game won’t take you longer than two minutes, and then you’re ready to take on the world.

Rocket League even rewards players simply for sticking with a match through to the end (though you gain more points for winning and performance, of course). With every game, you unlock a new customizable piece for your car, whether it’s new tires, paint designs, hood ornaments, or even the exhaust. The changes are purely cosmetic, as to keep the game balanced, but there’s certainly no shortage of customizable options (you can even change the color of your car for both blue and orange teams).

The game also looks and sounds great, with graphics that rival those of AAA titles and a surprisingly high quality soundtrack. Rocket League even gives you a very sports-like presentation, complete with instant replays every time someone makes a goal.

Rocket LeagueThe only real downside to Rocket League is that you kind of wish there could have been more done with the concept. As fun as the gameplay is, you kind of wish there were more game modes that did something more substantial than simply alter the number of players in-game.

While there may not be a whole lot of content, there’s no denying that what is present in Rocket League is a whole lot of fun. It’s accessible and simplistic, but through those aspects, it creates a deep sense of competition and sport. Rocket League is one of those games that will have you repeatedly saying “just one more game” after every match.

8

Journey Review

*Review based on the PS4 version*

Journey

There aren’t many indy games that have developed the kind of acclaim that Journey did upon its 2012 release. Journey, developed by ThatGameCompany, is a game all about creating emotion through simplistic gameplay. Though playing through Journey may make some of its praise seem a tad excessive, it ultimately provides a unique experience that makes it stand out among many of its indy peers.

As you may have guessed, Journey is a game about a journey. Players take control of an unnamed, hooded figure who  wears a scarf, and lacks visible arms and discernible gender traits. This figure resides in a seemingly endless desert, with their goal being to reach the peak of a mysterious mountain in the distance.

The gameplay is remarkably simple, but provides some originality. Aside from moving, the figure’s only real actions are jumping and sending out an echo-like chime, which has a larger range depending on how long the button was held.

The hooded figure’s scarf also plays a symbolic role in the gameplay. At the beginning of the game, the scarf barely extends passed the figure’s neck, but by collecting various glowing “symbols” throughout the game, the scarf increases in size. Various clothe-like objects and creatures inhabit the game world, and using the chime near them allows the figure to jump multiple times and glide for a short while. The amount of jumps and the length of glides is represented by the runes inscribed in the scarf, which briefly disappear when the player takes advantage of the clothe abilities. As you may have guessed, the longer the scarf is, the longer you can traverse through the air.

Journey’s only enemies are flying, stone-like giants, who appear periodically in later parts of the game, and try to tear apart the player’s scarf if they are seen by the creatures’ spotlight gaze. They’re a small part of the game, as the real objective of Journey isn’t fighting enemies, but simply finding the symbols and finding a way to reach the next area.

JourneyAdmittedly, because of the game’s very simple structure, Journey doesn’t boast a whole lot of depth in terms of gameplay. The journey itself will only take around an hour and a half or two hours to complete, and outside of trophies, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to make repeated visits. But Journey succeeds where many other games of its kind fail for two key reasons.

The first of these reasons is that Journey is an aesthetically beautiful game. The visuals are absolutely gorgeous. Though the game only really takes place among two different settings (sand desert and snow desert), the game uses lighting, shading, and other techniques to give the world some great variety. One segment has the figure surfing down a sandy hill, with the sun reflecting on the sand in such a way to make it look like gold, while another takes place in some ancient ruins, whose blue lighting, seaweed-like clothe and jellyfish clothe creatures mimic the water levels found in most games. The musical score is a beauty to listen to, and helps capture the appropriate emotion for each chapter of the game.

Journey’s aesthetics successfully back up the game’s minimalistic style, and the story itself feels more honest and less self-important than other artsy indy titles such as Limbo, which helps the emotion shine through all the more. The last few chapters in particular are things of beauty.

The other reason Journey proves better than most other games of its ilk is its unique implementation of multiplayer.

JourneyThroughout any given playthrough, players may randomly come across another player from around the world. No player names are shown (until after the credits), and the only interaction between players are the aforementioned echoes, which can help boost each player’s scarf power, thus allowing them to work together to reach the next segment of the game.

It’s a unique spin on multiplayer that is complimented by the game’s insistence on minimalism. The inability to communicate while still being able to aide one another makes for a very subtle and friendly take on co-op. And the fact that you aren’t guaranteed to run into anyone else makes it all the more of a pleasure when you do run into them.

In the end, Journey provides a rare kind of experience in games, one that’s soothing and calm, as opposed to brutal and competitive. By doing so it is a very enjoyable experience, but as stated, the lack of gameplay depth or any real means of longevity do hold it back as a game. The short length doesn’t matter, if anything, the story benefits from it. But the lack of anything to do outside of going from point A to point B and other additional features means that the Journey is very short lived.

It may lack depth in many areas, but Journey can at least claim something that the majority of its contemporaries can’t. While many such artsy games just feel like Super Mario traded fun for pretentiousness, Journey boasts ideas of its own.

6

Star Wars Battlefront Review

*Review based on the Playstation 4 version*

Star Wars Battlefront

Star Wars Battlefront is both the third major installment and a reboot of the similarly titled Star Wars Battlefront series. Being ten years since the release of Battlefront II, this reboot came as something of a long sought-after treasure. The good news is that this new version of Battlefront really delivers in the department of Star Wars fandom. On the downside, the new Battlefront doesn’t bring a whole lot of newness to the genre.

If ever there were a game that replicated the look and feel of the battles of the Star Wars films, this is it. The visuals are fantastic, and bring the world of Star Wars to life. Various locations from the films are recreated, and more often than not you’ll feel like you’re a part of one of the famous action scenes from the series.

The game is primarily a multiplayer shooter, with players taking control of either the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire. Players are able to customize their character’s appearance as either a Rebel soldier or an Imperial stormtrooper, as well as select from a wide range of blasters that have attributes of their own. Similarly, players can select from a pool of secondary items to form a “hand,” with different hands being able to be equipped, giving the player plenty of options to suit their play style.

New blasters, items and customization options progressively unlock as the player earns more credits and levels up from their multiplayer battles. There are even power-ups to pick up in-game to help you out even further.

Though the controls can take some getting used to, the core gameplay is fun. Considerably less fun is controlling a vehicle. During certain game modes, players can take control of vehicles on the land and in the sky, but most of them move too fast and are difficult to get the hang of and maneuver through the environments. Some modes favor the vehicles more than others, and some players may want to dedicate more time to mastering them. But for most players, the standard on-foot action is simply more fun and accessible.

In a number of game modes, both the Rebellion and the Empire have three playable heroes. The Rebels get Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, while the Empire has Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and Emperor Palpatine. Depending on the mode selected, players will take turns playing as the hero characters, or earn the right to play as them.

The heroes aren’t customizabe like the standard character, but they are considerably more powerful, able to take out the average player in a single hit. The heroes have specials unique to them, such as Darth Vader’s Force choke or Boba Fett’s jetpack, but have one notable disadvantage as to not entirely overpower them. The standard characters’ health will automatically heal after a short time, similar to the Halo games. But heroes can only heal via a special item dropped by Princess Leia (Rebels) or Palpatine (Empire). The heroes also can’t pick up the power-ups throughout the stage, and have to rely solely on their innate abilities.

Star Wars BattlefrontBattlefront has a host of different game modes, and one might argue it actually boasts too many of them. While most are simple and fun – like Supremacy, which throws all of the games features into the mix as player’s vie for control points, and Heroes vs. Villains, in which random player’s become the aforementioned hero characters and try to eliminate the other team’s heroes – but a number of the game modes are just run-of-the-mill shooter cliches.

Another downside  comes in the form of the game’s audio. When Battlefront is using the John Williams film scores, it’s of course a joy to listen to. But the game’s original music is more than a little forgettable. The character voice samples are also bland and repetitious. This is especially true for the heroes, who repeat a series of lines that are quasi-related to some of the ones they say in the movies (“How much is Jabba offering you?” Han Solo might say when Boba Fett fires at him). The sound effects for the weapons are all pulled from the movies, so they work fine, but the original music and sound clips are kind of a bore.

Though games like this are mainly made with multiplayer in mind, it may be a bit of a disappointment for some that there is no single player campaign to speak of. Aside from some training missions, there’s not a whole lot here for those looking for a single player experience.

Perhaps the biggest downside to the package is simply that, if you’ve played this kind of game before, then you more or less know the drill. The Star Wars license makes it more aesthetically pleasing and more welcoming than most of its kind (especially considering there’s no mention of the prequels to speak of), and for diehard fans of the Galaxy far, far away that may be enough.

If you love Star Wars, then Star Wars Battlefront will certainly give you a lot to enjoy in its better modes. But the lack of an extra something more means that Star Wars Battlefront, while fun, ultimately isn’t the definitive Star Wars shooter it could have been.

Despite the drawbacks, Star Wars Battlefront can provide a good deal of fun. Best of all, it replicates the look and feel of the saga like so few games have.

 

7

Totally Hyped for Ni No Kuni II!!

Ni no Kuni II

After Playstation Experience, many gamers were left with even higher anticipation for Uncharted 4, and utter confusion as to whether the remake of Final Fantasy VII is actually a remake at all. But for me, there was one thing that stood out above everything else presented at the event, and that’s Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom.

When Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was released in the US in January 2013, it became one of my favorite RPGs of all time, and despite its release so early in the year, it remained my favorite game of 2013, and my favorite PS3 exclusive.

Though the game sold decently well and got its fair share of acclaim, it didn’t necessarily fly off shelves. And while it won a number of awards in the RPG genre, it failed to gain very many mentions for Game of the Year in 2013 (perhaps because it wasn’t purposefully created to be a Game of the Year like GTAV, Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us were).

So what made Ni no Kuni so special? For one, it was a good old-fashioned JRPG made new. It didn’t reinvent the genre, but it combined elements from series like Pokemon and Dragon Quest in a way that made it feel fresh and innovative. It had the best cel-shading since The Winder, giving the graphics a gorgeous, timeless appeal. The character designs and cut scenes were created by Studio Ghibli, and composer Joe Hisaishi – famous for his scores for Ghibli films – provided the game’s phenomenal soundtrack. And, of course, it told one of the sweetest stories I’ve ever seen in a video game, complete with one of gaming’s greatest cast of characters.

Ni no Kuni was a terrific game, and holds a special place in my heart for both personal reasons and for the game itself. And the announced sequel looks to keep the heart of the original, which can only be a great thing.

Ni no Kuni III’m not sure what other people’s reaction are to the fact that Ni no Kuni II features the same game world but a new cast of characters. Personally, I don’t think it would make much sense to have the same characters from the first game, since that felt like a complete story (more accurately, two complete stories). I suspect some of the secondary and tertiary characters will show up again, which is perfectly fine, but I’m excited to see where the game goes with the new characters.

The released trailer already gives a brief introduction to some of the characters and plot elements (though only vaguely), and shows how beautiful the series’ visuals look on PS4. Once again Ghibli animators and Joe Hisaishi return for the character designs and music, respectively. And it all looks wonderful.

Of course, the trailer didn’t show a whole lot in terms of gameplay, but there’s still plenty of time for that. Considering it’s only the second game in the series (not counting mobile spinoffs), and that the first one came out almost three years ago already (in the US, in Japan its been almost five), it’s not exactly like the series has seen overexposure. I’m hoping the gameplay remains similar to the first title, with maybe some meaningful additions here and there. There’s no need for a total overhaul at this point.

Sadly, the game has no release date as of yet (otherwise I may have to revise my list of most anticipated 2016 games), but no doubt it has joined the likes of Yooka-Laylee and Zelda Wii U as one of my most hyped games on the horizon.

If Ni no Kuni II is anywhere near as beautiful of a game as its predecessor, it will be a real work of art.

Top 5 Most Anticipated Games of 2016

Now that it’s December, 2015 is nearing its end. Along with preparing for the holiday season (and subsequently, the one-year anniversary of this site), Star Wars, and New Year’s Resolutions that I’ll probably stick to for five days, December also serves as a time to reflect on the year ahead.

This future-hype naturally finds its way into the world of video games as well. So as we all prepare to look back at the best games of 2015, we also look forward to our most anticipated games of 2016. And I am no different!

The following are my top five most anticipated games of 2016. They may look a bit different from most people’s selections, but for one reason or another, these games all have my attention. Let’s start with a runner-up then get to the top five!

Runner-up: Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam

Platform: Nintendo 3DS

Honestly, I had six games that stood out that I could choose from, so I feel guilty about placing any of them as a runner-up. But since a “top 6” list just sounds goofy, someone had to take the fall. Since Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam comes out in January, I don’t have much more of a wait. So that bumps it to a runner-up on this list of anticipation (just go with it).

Aside from Paper Mario: Sticker Star, there hasn’t been a bad Mario RPG. Though Dream Team was a considerable step down from Bowser’s Inside Story, I have high hopes for Paper Jam. Being a crossover between Mario’s two ongoing RPG series, Paper Jam has the potential to bring a new sense of creativity to the Mario RPG formula.

I do have to wonder where Mario RPGs will go from here though. After you have both series cross paths, it seems like it would be a good time to give Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi a break, and maybe start a new direction for the Mario RPGs. But maybe that’s just me.

Now on to the top 5!

5: Dark Souls 3

Dark Souls 3

Platform: Multiplatform

Dark Souls is one of the better modern franchises in gaming (even if I kinda suck at it), and I’m really excited to die repeatedly play this new entry. I do kind of hope it adds more to the series than Dark Souls II did though. As great of a game as it was, I don’t want the third entry to just do what the first two already did. I hope DS3 can take all the good things from the series (of which there are many) and add some new twists into the mix as well.

What makes the Dark Souls series great is that it really feels like a modernized version of the kinds of games you’d play on the NES back in the day. It’s incredibly difficult, focused entirely on gameplay, and features a kind of progression that would feel at home on an 8-bit console. Yet it also feels brand new. The series has so far continued this trend through three games (remember, Demon Souls was the first game, Dark Souls was the second), and I’m confident it can repeat its success for a fourth time.

4: Star Fox Zero

Star Fox Zero

Platform: Wii U

Lack of multiplayer aside, Star Fox Zero looks to be the return to form I’ve been waiting for from the series. The gameplay looks like a modernized Star Fox 64, none of the weirdly sexualized characters from the subsequent games are present, and the story is going back to basics. It pretty much looks like the proper follow-up to Star Fox 64, which has somehow not yet happened in almost two decades.

If Star Fox Zero does indeed end up being this generation’s Star Fox 64, then it will be well worth the wait. Now I just hope the game’s delay into 2016 means they’re adding a multiplayer mode.

3: Mighty No. 9

Mighty No. 9

Platform: Multiplatform

Though the Red Ash Kickstarter fiasco might have put a sour taste in gamer’s mouths in regards to Keiji Inafune’s Comcept studio, I’m still super excited for Mighty No. 9.

It’s hard to believe Mega Man hasn’t appeared in a game outside of Super Smash Bros. for over five years. But if Capcom won’t let us have the Blue Bomber, at least we have a spiritual sequel to look forward to.

Mighty No. 9 really does look like a Mega Man title, and hopefully the gameplay and level design can live up to that heralded series. As a huge bonus, the game looks to feature several different additional modes to add some replayability and change up the experience.

2: The Legend of Zelda Wii U

Zelda Wii U

Platform: Wii U (but maybe NX)

The latest “proper” addition in The Legend of Zelda series looks to be the most ambitious entry yet. It could be one of the last great Wii U games, or one of the first great NX ones. Or both.

The Legend of Zelda is one of gaming’s greatest series, and a new home console entry is always a big deal. But this one in particular seems to be aiming to change up Zelda conventions, and hopefully, as we learn more about the game, that becomes more apparent.

Though I really wish Nintendo would give the series another art direction as daring as The Wind Waker, I like the new cel-shaded look. It looks a lot like a more advanced take on what Skyward Sword did visually. But while Skyward Sword used its visuals to guise the aging technology of the Wii, this new Zelda actually looks to be taking full advantage of its hardware.

My two great hopes for Zelda Wii U is that it really does change up the series, since Zelda games, great as they are, lack the consistent sense of newness of its sister series, Super Mario, and that the main adventure is only as long as it needs to be. I’m actually among those who loved Skyward Sword, but I admit that game would have been better if it were trimmed a few hours shorter. There’s no need to stretch a game’s length just for the heck of it. I’ll take a 10 hour game that feels complete over a 60 hour one that feels largely comprised of filler.

Anyway, it’s Zelda. Of course I have it on this list!

1: Yooka-Laylee

Yooka-Laylee

Platform: Multiplatform

Rare made some of the greatest video games of my youth. With a resume that includes the likes of Donkey Kong Country 2 (arguably the best 2D platformer), Banjo-Kazooie (arguably the best 3D platformer until Mario went to space), Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark, and so many other classics, it’s a wonder how the developer has fallen so far from grace over the last decade.

Yooka-Laylee is something of a dream come true for me. The new studio Playtonic Games – founded by a small group of some of Rare’s finest former developers – debuted the game as a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie series in a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign. And so far, everything about the game is looking like a modernized version of the Banjo-Kazooie style of platformer.

Playtonic has been vocal in saying that the game isn’t merely a re-skin of Banjo-Kazooie, however, and that Yooka-Laylee is making the winning formula new again. The collectibles will all serve a purpose, the game will have a greater sense of freedom in exploration, and players will have some forms of customization in gameplay and progression.

After Nuts & Bolts more or less kicked Banjo-Kazooie fans in the… nuts & bolts, Yooka-Laylee looks like the proper follow-up to Banjo-Tooe that I’ve waited fifteen years for. It was even the first game on Kickstarter I’ve helped fund. The only other game I’ve funded since was Red Ash. And well, let’s just move on.

Yooka-Laylee simply looks to bring back a style of game that’s been all but forgotten in the last few console generations. Given the minds behind it, I have a lot of confidence they’ll be able to pull it off. Really, there’s no reason why Yooka-Laylee wouldn’t be my most anticipated game of 2016.

Shovel Knight Review

Shovel Knight

On the surface, Shovel Knight might resemble any one of the countless retro-inspired indy titles that have been released since Mega Man 9 made 8-bit graphics popular again. While most such NES-inspired indy games seem to completely fallback on nostalgia, Shovel Knight is a much wiser game. It doesn’t bother to hide its inspirations of Super Mario Bros. 3, Castlevania and, most prominently, Mega Man. But Shovel Knight understands that there were more to these games than 8-bit sprites and chiptunes. These games aren’t remembered for nostalgia alone, and they continue to endure because of the genius of their game designs. Shovel Knight seeks to replicate a similar genius, and while its inspirations are obvious, it does so in its own way. If you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking Shovel Knight was a NES classic from gaming’s earlier days.

Shovel KnightShovel Knight works like many platformers from the 8-bit era, though its titular character has two primary means of attack: A simple strike with his mighty shovel or – pulling a page from Scrooge McDuck – a pogo stick-like jump. Shovel Knight also gains magic items throughout his adventure, akin to Castlevania, which grant him additional attacks or defensive actions.

Naturally, wielding a shovel as a weapon also means that Shovel Knight can dig up dirt to find gold and gems, which he’ll need in order to buy upgrades to his armor, shovel, hit points, magic points and the aforementioned magic items. But be weary, because defeat means that Shovel Knight loses a chunk of his collected treasure. If Shovel Knight can return to the spot he fell he can reclaim it, but should he fall again before regaining his lost treasure, it’s gone. The game lacks a traditional ‘lives’ system, so game overs are never a concern even in the game’s most difficult moments, but losing your collected goods is a fun, modernized compensation for the traditional game over.

The gameplay really is as simple as that. Run, jump, shovel, dig. But the game uses these simple mechanics to their fullest, and through some incredible and varied level design, it ends up being a deep gameplay experience.

Shovel KnightThe stages are strewn together through a Super Mario Bros. 3 style world map, separated into four different segments. Shovel Knight allows players to select which order they want to tackle the levels in each segment, but every main stage in each must be completed before moving on to the next segment.

The main stages are lengthy platforming romps that not only grow progressively more challenging, but also more creative. Each main stage is capped off with a boss fight against a different themed knight (all of which includes the title of “Knight” at the end of their name, in a nice tribute to Mega Man’s Robot Masters). Additional challenges, boss fights and optional stages can be found on the world map, should you want to go the extra mile for completion and treasure.

Like many such indy games that build on old school blueprints, Shovel Knight is a challenging game. But whereas many of its peers feel the need to throw insurmountable obstacles at players right out the gate to prove their difficulty, Shovel Knight instead has a nice difficulty curve. It starts off with a simple introductory level to ease players into the game, and continuously becomes more difficult as the game goes on. This helps Shovel Knight’s difficulty feel more fair and, as a result, more fun than its contemporaries.

Despite Shovel Knight’s challenge, it finds a brilliant means to cater to players of varying skill levels through its checkpoints. The levels all feature numerous checkpoints, so more easygoing players don’t have to fret about starting a stage over should they run into a particularly difficult section. But those wanting to test their abilities can destroy the checkpoints – gaining additional treasure in the process – to render them moot, meaning they’ll have to go through the whole stage all over again should they fall. It’s a simple but genius mechanic that adds an interesting twist on difficulty and balance.

The game features an appropriately simplistic story, with Shovel Knight traveling to defeat the knights of the Order of No Quarter in order to unlock the Tower of Fate, hoping against all odds to defeat the evil Enchantress and rescue his (presumed dead) partner, Shield Knight. What’s interesting about Shovel Knight’s story is that, simple as it is, the game finds time to provide some quiet story moments to make Shovel Knight a more sympathetic character than most of his 8-bit kin. And despite what the game’s title and its hero’s weapon of choice might suggest, the game and its story never once feel tongue-in-cheek. It earnestly pays homage to retro games and their simplicity, never falling prey to cheap and easy parodies.

Shovel KnightNaturally, Shovel Knight also includes a soundtrack reminiscent of the 8-bit classics that inspired it. Shovel Knight’s soundtrack is full of personality and energy, and can be compared favorably to many of the Mega Man soundtracks, which is no small feat. It also takes advantage of modern hardware by allowing more colorful visuals than the 8-bit games of yesteryear.

It’s hard not to be wowed by everything Shovel Knight accomplishes. Its tight, polished gameplay is complimented by fantastic level design, a nice difficulty curve, fun visuals and stellar music. It not only draws its inspiration from Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Castlevania, but it can sit comfortably alongside them in 8-bit glory.

 

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