Red Dead Redemption 2 Impressions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Souls Review

*Review based on Dark Souls release as Dark Souls Remastered*

Dark Souls is a difficult game. Many enemies and bosses can kill you with one stroke, deadly traps will lead to instant death, and invading players always have it out for you. The challenge of Dark Souls has become the stuff of gaming legend. And yet, that difficulty is hardly the summation of Dark Souls. Rather, the steep challenge is justified by being part of one of the most tightly constructed, immersive and overall satisfying experiences in all of video games. Yes, Dark Souls is difficult, but it’s so much more than that.

Director Hidetaka Miyazaki followed the blueprint of his earlier title Demon’s Souls when crafting this spiritual sequel. Dark Souls transcended its predecessor by delving into deeper gameplay territories. The most prominent of which being its merging with the Metroidvania sub-genre, with each land to be discovered in the game connecting with another, and shortcuts between them to be found once you meet the right requirements.

The world in question is Lordran, one of the great settings in video games. The people of Lordran suffer the curse of being undead. Unlike most fantasy stories, the undead of Dark Souls look like human beings, but they are unable to die, instead losing more and more of their humanity upon death, eventually becoming a ‘Hollow’ (essentially a mindless zombie, and more akin to what is usually labeled as ‘undead’). Players take on the role of the ‘Chosen Undead,’ who escapes from the Undead Asylum and arrives in Lordran, where they begin a pilgrimage that is destined to bring them face to face with Lord Gwyn, an old god responsible for the undead curse.

As is the standard for the series, most story and world elements are intentionally vague, with snippets of character dialogue and flavorful descriptions of items giving insight into the world of Lordran. It proves to be one of the more effective means of video game storytelling, with players able to delve into the narrative should they choose, or simply bask in pure gameplay.

From the get-go, Dark Souls’ gameplay presents a staggering amount of variety: Players can customize their character to be more focused on heavy physical damage, magic attacks, healing, quick strikes, and more. And even when you do decide which direction to take your character, there are still several different routes you can take with each build. Even the core gameplay provides different styles, whether it’s a weapon in one hand and a shield in the other, two weapons, a weapon and a staff, there’s no shortage of options. You can even swap into holding a weapon with both hands at the press of a button.

The depth in gameplay just never lets up. There are new mechanics constantly being introduced, and some which are so subtle you may not realize they were there until late into the journey.

Two of the key mechanics players will need to know are souls and humanity. Souls are acquired from defeating enemies, and work as both experience points to level up your character and currency for buying items, weapons and armor. Humanity is a bit rarer, being an occasional drop from enemies and scattered about the world, as well as rewarded for helping other players fell bosses. When the player dies (and you will die), they become Hollow which – along with making their character look more deathly – prevents you from summoning other players for help. Adding to the game’s challenge, every time you die, you lose your souls and humanity (though you retain unused humanity in your inventory). You have a chance to reclaim your lost earnings if you can return to the spot you died, but if you die again before you make it, you lose everything.

The now-iconic Bonfires serve as checkpoints, but are also where you spend souls to level up, repair and upgrade equipment, and where you can spend a humanity to undo the effects of Hollowing. Resting at bonfires also refills your Estus Flask – your primary source of healing – and you can increase the usage of your Flask at any bonfire you’ve kindled, which also costs a humanity. Suffice to say, discovering a new bonfire after a series of rough patches is a godsend.

The sheer amount of detail that emits from every environment of Lordran is staggering. The level design is among the best of any Metroidvania title, with every destination being perfectly staged with enemy and item placements, not to mention secrets around every corner (a number of which rival Symphony of the Night’s inverted castle in how they change and expand upon the whole experience). Even in its most painfully difficult moments, it’s all too easy to get absorbed in Dark Souls’ structure and depth.

If things get too difficult, you can always call on other players to help you out by finding their summon signs across the land (with players usually leaving them around bonfires and boss doors). You can summon up to two other players to aide you in an area until you rid it of its boss, but you can’t summon players when hollowed. There is a caveat to staying human, however, as whenever you’re not hollow you are susceptible to invasion by enemy players. Of course, if you’re getting stuck on a particular segment, or simply want to help or hinder someone else, you can always leave a summon sign or invade another player for a change of pace.

On its own, the multiplayer of Dark Souls – both cooperative and combative – has rightfully proven influential over the years, as it remains a fun and refreshing change from multiplayer norms. But to add another layer to everything, players can join Covenants throughout their journey, which often have their own benefits and rewards for both friendly and fiendish multiplayer.

I suppose we do have to go back and talk about the notorious difficulty of Dark Souls. While the game can get brutally difficult – to the point of intimidating some players – it’s never unfair. Whether its equipping the proper armor to withstand poisoning or finding the right spot to best hide from a boss’ devastating attack, there are always methods to what seems like madness. More importantly, there is always a sense of strategy, with players able to survive any onslaught if they know when to dodge, block or attack. While a lesser designed game may simply leave you throwing your hands in the air and giving up under such difficulty, Dark Souls is so well designed that it will leave you wanting to push yourself to see things through. Dark Souls may have you feeling like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, going about the same situation in different ways until you get it right. And when you do get it right, there’s seldom an experience in gaming that even approaches its sense of reward.

Though it was originally released in 2011, Dark Souls’ visuals have held up nicely, with the remastered version making it look all the more at home on current hardware. Better still is its art direction, which should rank among the best of the medium. There’s not a location or creature that doesn’t stick with you. Combine that with the game’s incredible musical score and unparalleled sound work, and Dark Souls is quite the spectacle, and presents perhaps the most absorbing fantasy world in gaming.

There are a few minor issues with Dark Souls, but nothing that truly undermines its overall excellence. Later in the game you gain the ability to warp between specific bonfires, though you may wish you gained the ability a little sooner when you find yourself going back and forth in the earlier half of the game. Then there’s the backstabbing mechanic, which is just far too easy for players to perform on one another. While being invaded by opposing players may be par for the course, it kind of sullies a lot of player-versus-player encounters when everyone is simply trying to pull off a backstab on each other in place of using their full moveset. But again, these are little more than quibbles.

Yes, Dark Souls is a very difficult game, but it’s so much more than that. While most of the video game world became preoccupied with trying to replicate the spectacle of Hollywood once the medium made the jump to 3D, Dark Souls instead feels more akin to what would have happened if the older style of games from the 80s and early 90s had evolved into the present day. Like the best games from those early years, Dark Souls requires its players to gain an intimate knowledge of its every last location and trinket in order to see things through. It combines those older traditions with one idea after another that are entire its own, and continues to build on them throughout its entirety.

Dark Souls is a difficult video game. But it also happens to be one of the very best.

Praise the sun!

 

9

Perfect Dark Review

*Review based on Perfect Dark’s Xbox 360 re-release as part of Rare Replay*

In 1997, Rare (then known as Rareware) released Goldeneye 007 on the Nintendo 64. Based on the James Bond film released two years prior, the video game adaptation proved to be the far more influential entity, single-handedly reinventing the first-person shooter genre on home consoles, which remain the most prominent genre of video game on home platforms even today. It was inevitable that Rare would seek to create a sequel, but after losing the James Bond license, the developer had to start from scratch, opting for a spiritual successor to continue Goldeneye 007’s legacy.

The game in question ended up being the 2000 N64 title Perfect Dark, an original IP that combined Goldeneye’s gameplay with a new science fiction setting. The tonal shift allowed for some fun additions to what Goldeneye started (alien weapons!), and though the 360 release and an Xbox One controller make Perfect Dark more playable than Goldeneye by modern standards, it has still felt the effects of aging. While Perfect Dark once felt like an all-time great, it now comes across as a merely decent FPS outing.

The setting for Perfect Dark sees two alien races at war with each other; the Maians, who resemble the typical gray alien archetype, and the Skedar, vicious reptilian creatures who can use holographic technology to disguise as humans. The struggles between these two races have found their way to Earth, with the Maians finding allies in the Carrington Institute, a research and development facility; and the Skedar serving as benefactors to the corrupt dataDyne corporation, who are using Skedar technology and weapons for nefarious means. In the middle of it all is Joanna Dark, an agent for Carrington Institute tasked with uncovering dataDyne’s plots.

It’s actually a pretty entertaining story, and it has a lot of fun with long-standing conspiracy theories and old sci-fi tropes. Joana Dark also had all the makings of an iconic video game character, which sadly never quite came to fruition (largely due to the game’s underwhelming 2005 sequel). Perhaps best of all is that the game itself is still pretty fun…if you’re playing the re-release that was first available for download on the Xbox 360 and became a part of Rare Replay.

The sad truth is that – with the exception of a handful of titles (namely those with “Mario,” “Zelda” and “Banjo” in the titles) – the N64 library hasn’t exactly aged gracefully. There is some reason to that, of course. After 2D gaming had time to develop and evolve, leading to the 16-bit golden age, the N64 was part of gaming’s early 3D years. Things were starting over, and the Nintendo 64 was like Nintendo’s canary in this new mine.

I’d be lying if I said Goldeneye 007 lives up to its reputation when playing today. Yes, it played a hugely influential role in the direction gaming would take from that point on, but it feels bare bones compared to what the FPS genre has provided since, and it feels like an utter slog to control. The same could probably be said about Perfect Dark’s original N64 release, as it followed close to Goldeneye’s rulebook, and there’s only so much developers could do to work with that awkward N64 controller. But while the character models may still look clumpy, Perfect Dark’s re-release allowed Rare to implement some much-needed improvements to the control scheme. It may still feel small by today’s standards, but at least the re-release prevents Perfect Dark from feeling like a relic like Goldeneye.

The second joystick found on contemporary controllers alone improves Perfect Dark’s sense of control greatly. And the additional buttons only add to this improvement, making the overall control scheme much more fluid than it could be on the N64’s controller. Sure, there are still a few dated design choices (like Joanna being able to carry as many weapons as you could find, which makes cycling through them a bit of a chore), but again, it’s great to be able to play Perfect Dark with some lessons learned from the FPSs that showed up in the years after its original release.

Another great addition is the inclusion of online multiplayer, which came courtesy of Perfect Dark’s 360 release. Perfect Dark was one of the Nintendo 64’s better multiplayer titles back in the day, and the online functionality only gives it more replay value.

On the downside of things, some of Perfect Dark’s more dated elements also find their way into multiplayer modes. Back in gaming’s earlier years, being able to find “cheats” was something that was rewarded, and concepts like balance weren’t the issues they are today. That was true even in the N64 years, with Perfect Dark’s weaponry often being a case of just that.

Sure, some of these weapons were cool and novel – such as the Laptop Gun, which could be used by the player or placed on the ground to act as a turret – while others were a bit too overpowered. The primary culprit of this being the Farsight, a Maian sniper rifle that could not only see through walls, but killed opponents in a single hit without fail. Back in the day we all accepted the Farsight as its own reward for finding it. But now that video games have matured a little bit and don’t reward shortcuts quite so prominently, something like the Farsight now feels like a cheap and annoying product of a bygone era.

Perfect Dark certainly won’t wow anyone who didn’t experience it back in its day, and it probably won’t impress those who did if they take off the rose-tinted glasses. But the adjustments made to Perfect Dark’s re-release make it feel far more functional than its archaic predecessor Goldeneye 007. Just make sure you play it on more contemporary hardware. Revisiting Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64 could prove every bit as disappointing as a revisit to Goldeneye.

 

5

PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds Review

*Review based on the Xbox One version of the game*

PlayerUnknown’s BattleGrounds is a rare kind of video game, the kind that – despite a heavy amount of drawbacks – nonetheless delivers the feelings it intends to elicit. When it was released in its early stages throughout 2017, PUBG’s popularity spread like wildfire, with even it’s open-beta becoming more widely played than titles such as Overwatch for a time. PUBG was only “properly” released at the tail-end of 2017. Though this finished product still feels largely unfinished, PUBG ultimately succeeds thanks to the intensity and atmosphere it provides.

The modder known as PlayerUnknown became somewhat infamous for his many mods to existing games, which modified them after the 2000 film Battle Royale, pitting players in an all-out fight to the death amongst each other. BattleGround serves as PlayerUnknown’s means of making his own game out of the concept.

The premise is simple: up to 100 players join a game, parachute onto an island, and scourge that island for weapons and armor in a fight to be the last person standing. Players only have one life, and the placements of weapons and items are randomized in every session, meaning you’re in a constant scramble to find the best gear before your opponents can do the same. Things get more complicated as time goes by, however, as the playable area of the island gradually decreases over time, and those caught outside of the safe zone will take damage and eventually die. Additionally, red zones show up from time to time, forcing any players within them to take shelter or risk being bombed. This means that the longer a game goes, the more the remaining players are forced into tighter scenarios to do battle, no longer relying on the safe hiding places the early game provides.

The ultimate goal is to be the last person standing, which is much easier said than done. However, because of the difficulty of that task, you are awarded points for your overall performance (how long you survive, how many players you kill, how many items you collect). If you can get well equipped and survive to the top 10, all while taking down a few opponents along the way, you’re guaranteed a pretty hefty score. On the downside of things, the points you get are only used to obtain customizable options for your character, which are of course obtained randomly, and more often than not, cost more points than they’re worth.

The core gameplay in mostly well done. Players can choose between first-person or third-person perspectives, each boasting their own advantages and disadvantages in combat. For the most part, the controls are your standard shooter affair. Nothing all that new, but certainly functional with its tried-and-true approach. What really makes PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround work, however, is the sheer intensity of the concept itself.

If you see another player’s parachute landing nearby when you make contact with the island, you know you’re probably going to have to fight them for gear early on. You’ll race to the safe zone once the warning of a decreasing playing field approaches, hoping you don’t run into a more prepared player along the way. You may take solace in finding some stronger weapons and equipment, and choose to hide away for awhile, staring at the entrance to your hiding spot and anxiously wait for a would-be killer to enter so you can (hopefully) get them first. You’ll jump for joy when you see an unmanned vehicle lying around, effectively ensuring you some protection in addition to fast travel; and you’ll quake in fear if you’re walking out in the open, but hear a running engine approaching.

It really is something else to experience. Though this all comes with the caveat of frequent long stretches between finding opponents – leaving some matches feeling uneventful and empty – it also helps build a good deal of tension. You’ll never not be on your toes in anticipation and dread. PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround is a fight for survival, and boy, does it feel like it.

Unfortunately, despite no longer being an open beta, PUBG still suffers from some appalling technical issues. You’ll notice many of the game’s textures will take a good while to load in a game’s early moments, your character’s movements may become jittery from time to time, and you may even find you’re not picking up items when you’re clearly highlighting them and pressing the proper button. At its worst, you may even get booted from a game at a most inopportune time (no small deal with how lengthy matches can get), and should you actually manage to rejoin the game you were kicked from, chances are another player will have killed you in the interim.

With a game this popular, it’s disheartening that so many technical issues persist. Hopefully as the game is updated and development continues, these rough edges can be smoothened out and the experience can become more fluid and polished. But as of now, PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround still feels like it never left the beta.

Still, unfinished though it may seem, PUBG still manages to produce a uniquely intense experience. It turns the multiplayer shooter into a survival-horror sandbox. By dropping players into a massive open-world, leaving them to fend for themselves and kill one another, PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround creates something that’s as engrossing as it is brutal and unforgiving.

 

6

Video Game Awards 2018: Best Indie Game

Indie video games have come a long way. The late 2000s saw independent developers really start booming, with many a critical darling being released. That trend continues today, though I personally would argue the difference between then and now is that the indie games of today warrant the praise they receive. Abandoning the forced “arthouse” attempts of the late 2000s, indie games have more readily embraced themselves as video games, and have begun to really flourish because of it.

Though 2017 wasn’t quite the highpoint for indie gaming as some other recent years (not every year can boast a Shovel Knight or Undertale), it still provided some stellar indie experiences.

 

Winner: Cuphead

In all honesty, this award was a toss up between Cuphead and Hollow Knight. But in the case of the latter, I have been unable to finish the game, due to my computer crapping out and slowing down whenever I get to a boss fight, so it looks like I need to wait for a new computer or the Switch version to be released before I can play it to its fullest. So it looks like Cuphead wins by default.

With that said, it doesn’t take anything away from Cuphead’s quality. Sure, Cuphead is far from perfect (some of the bosses feel a little cheap, and the run-n-gun platforming stages are non-entities), but what Cuphead does well, it does very well.

Of course, the hand-drawn, 1930s cartoon visuals are what immediately gets your attention and, my god, are they beautiful. But the gameplay is also fine-tuned and addictive, and as difficult as it can get, Cuphead keeps drawing you back in.

It may not be perfect, but Cuphead is a charmer all its own.

 

Runner-up: Hollow Knight

Video Game Awards 2018: Best Online Multiplayer

It seems like ever since playing games online through consoles became a thing in the mid-2000s, online gaming has taken priority for many gamers and developers. I suppose it’s not difficult to see why. Being able to test your skills against the world for a few quick rounds or lengthy play sessions makes provides a constantly changing experience.

With online multiplayer reaching new heights in the last few years, picking the most standout example of the genre in 2017 is no easy task. But in the end, I had to pick something.

 

Winner: PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround

Truth be told, this category was a toss up between PUBG and Splatoon 2. While there’s an easy argument to be made that Splatoon 2 is actually the better game in terms of polish and refinement, I tip the scale to PUBG here for the simple fact that Splatoon 2 – though great – stuck close to the playbook of Splatoon 1. And sure, PlayerUnknown’s BattleGround may not be the most original title, either, but it has become the definitive “battle royal” style of game.

I’m not about to pretend that PUBG isn’t without its problems, as a host of technical issues (ranging from textures taking a notably long time to load and even getting booted from matches far more frequently than you’d hope for a title this prominent), and it’s true that it only left it’s beta phase at the tail-end of 2017 (and it can really feel like it at times), the fact of the matter is PUBG captures a sense of survival and loneliness to an almost poetic level.

PUBG can be hectic and stressful as you scurry across the map looking for weapons and gear for your inevitable showdowns with other players doing the same (all while your available survival space keeps shrinking), and there may even be lengthy stretches where you don’t even see a hint of another player. But few games have you on the edge of your seat quite like it.

Staring at a door as you duck inside of the bathtub of an abandoned house, fingers on your trigger as you wait for a would-be killer to emerge can be truly intense. So much so that you may forget you’re just staring at a door for a while. It’s part action, part survival and part horror, which helps the experience thrive even in the midst of its many blemishes.

 

Runner-up: Splatoon 2

Runner-up: ARMS

Video Game Awards 2018: Best Visuals

“Wow! Look at that graphic!”

Since the early days of gaming, people have always clamored for the visuals. This has proven to have its drawbacks – as is evidenced by the “Bit Wars” of the 1990s, or the “PC master race” crowd – but there is something to be said about a game that’s just pleasing to look at.

Now, that doesn’t mean “realistic graphics = good graphics” (yet another blinded mindset many gamers follow on the subject), there are plenty of games that we once thought looked realistic that now look laughable. But if a game’s visuals can go above and beyond what they set out to do – whether it’s realism or a fanciful art direction – it can help a game standout and (usually in the case of the latter category) help it hold up over time. It should be a surprise what 2017’s best game to look at was.

 

Winner: Cuphead

I was tempted to simply write “It’s Cuphead lol” and leave it at that, but I suppose I can’t always be the jokester. Some additional description can go a long way.

In all honesty, how much do I really need to say? Just look at any screenshot or (better still) watch some footage of Cuphead, and it’s an utter delight for the eyes. Cuphead sought to replicate the look of 1930s cartoons, and it got the look down pat. The hand-drawn characters and environments are stunning to behold, and watching it all in action showcases a fine attention to detail and visual polish that few games can compete with.

Amidst all of its chaos and mayhem, Cuphead proves to be something beautiful. A testament to the timeless quality of hand-drawn animation, and a reminder that even the most silly and surreal concept can be a work of art.

 

Runner-up: Super Mario Odyssey

Runner-up: Persona 5

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…

 

6

Banjo-Tooie Review

*Review based on Banjo-Tooie’s release as part of Rare Replay*

There’s perhaps no game that better represents the “everything and the kitchen sink” mentality than Rare’s Banjo-Tooie. This 2000 sequel to Banjo-Kazooie looked to improve upon its predecessor in virtually every regard. Though Tooie was also released after Rare’s over-bloated Donkey Kong 64, so it attempted to find a balance between making the Banjo-Kazooie experience bigger and better, while avoiding the pitfalls of tedium found in DK64. For the most part, Banjo-Tooie succeeded in its difficult balancing act, providing one of the N64’s best experiences, and an adventure that was so massive it still feels like a hefty title even by today’s standards.

Though Banjo-Tooie retains the same Mario 64-style gameplay of Kazooie, it also seems to have taken a few notes from Ocarina of Time, as Tooie’s overworld structure feels more like something out of an action/adventure title. The whimsical yet sinister halls of Gruntilda’s Lair give way to the wide, open world of the Isle O’ Hags (named for its penchant of housing evil old crones like Gruntilda and her sisters, Mingella and Blobelda), of which Spiral Mountain and the aforementioned Lair are only a small part.

The story here, while possibly even more loose than Kazooie’s, is perhaps presented in a more original manner. Instead of the usual damsel in distress plot of platformers, Banjo-Tooie more or less feels like a quest for vengeance, albeit one in which the characters are a bunch of comical animals who are constantly making fun of each other.

Appropriately set two years after the original, Banjo-Tooie sees Gruntilda resurrected by her sisters (who promptly tell the now skeletal witch to stop with her constant rhyming). Seeking revenge, Gruntilda decides to destroy Banjo’s house, where Banjo and Kazooie are playing a game of poker against Mumbo Jumbo and Bottles. Mumbo Jumbo sees the undead Gruntilda readying a devastating spell, and warns the others. Banjo and Kazooie join Mumbo in evacuating the house, but Bottles – believing it to be a rouse to cheat in the card game – stubbornly stays put. Banjo, Kazooie and Mumbo remain unscathed (unbeknownst to Gruntilda at the time), but the destruction of the house also leads to the death of Bottles, who becomes a cartoony ghost floating above his crispy corpse.

Gruntilda’s not done there though, and soon plans to use a machine to drain the life out of as many people as possible, in what is a seldom mentioned means of making a new body for herself. Gruntilda manages to zombify a Jinjo king named Jingaling, but like the first game, Gruntilda’s machinery is a bit buggy, and so she needs a lot more time to power it up to drain enough life from the island to bring back her former, girth-y self. This of course gives Banjo and Kazooie ample time to adventure out and stop the witch, in hopes of avenging their friends and hoping for a way to bring them back (though Kazooie is a bit annoyed that she needs to go on another adventure for Bottles’ sake).

Like the first game, it’s a simple plot that’s made more lively by the funny characters and dialogue (with the gibberish, garbled speech making a triumphant return), and its darker tone certainly sets it apart from other games in the genre (seeing Spiral Mountain dilapidated and ruined serves as a fitting introduction to this sequel’s tonal shift).

As stated, this is a much bigger adventure than the original Banjo-Kazooie, with more moves to learn, more items to collect, and much bigger stages to visit. Tooie is a wise game in assuming those who are playing it are familiar with the original title, and thus the titular duo retain all the moves they learned in their first go around, and tutorials are kept to a minimum (though Bottles’ ghost can refresh you on the basic moves if you visit one of his molehills in Spiral Mountain). This means that, while the adventure might be a much heftier affair than Kazooie, you feel like the adventure gets going just as quickly as its predecessor.

There are, of course, some changes to the mix: Jiggies are still the main collectible, and are needed to unlock new worlds. But now the Jiggies are to be taken to the temple of Master Jiggywiggy, a powerful sorcerer with a comical, puzzle piece-shaped head who tasks the heroic duo with completing interactive puzzle mini-games in order to open up a stage. This adds a bit more fun to the equation than the first game simply having Banjo stand on a pad and pressing a button to use the Jiggies and unlock a level.

Music notes are now gathered in clumps of five, as well as a hidden bunch of twenty to be found on every stage. So while there are still technically a grand total of 100 notes per stage, there are less physical items to collect. The notes also serve a new purpose, seeing as Gruntilda’s Lair is behind our heroes and they no longer need to open its many doors. With Bottles dead, his drill sergeant brother Jamjars takes over in mentoring Banjo and Kazooie their new moves, and requires a set amount of music notes for each subsequent move in his arsenal (which, to be honest, feels like a more fleshed out mechanic than simply finding a molehill). The moves here are a lot more robust and varied than the first game (including new fire, ice and grenade eggs), with the main hook being the ability to split Banjo and Kazooie up, with each also learning their own solo moves.

“I’m sorry, was it Humba Wumba, or hubba hubba?!”

Another new character – and change to the formula – comes in the form of Humba Wumba, a shaman who takes over Mumbo’s former role of transforming our heroes into various forms. Mumbo Jumbo himself now becomes a playable character, with both shamans requiring Banjo and Kazooie to find a creature called a Glowbo in order to perform their shamanistic duties on every stage.

Perhaps Tooie’s other great addition is the implementation of proper boss fights. Sure, Gruntilda proved to be a memorable final boss in Kazooie, but aside from her, anything that resembled a boss encounter was closer to being a minor obstacle than they were a level’s crescendo. Every level gets its own boss battle here, and the overworld even sees three fights with Gruntilda’s baffingly loyal henchman, Klungo. While they may be a bit on the easy side, the boss fights that are present in Tooie feel like they add a bit more personality to the stages, and are certainly a step up from the non-bosses of Kazooie.

The differences in boss encounters between games may also be telling of the overal nature of the N64 Banjo games themselves. As great as Banjo-Kazooie was, Banjo-Tooie simply feels like a more fleshed-out experience. Much of what the first game attempted is more properly realized in this second adventure.

Banjo-Kazooie saw a tiny taste of Metroidvania added to the 3D platforming mix, with the titular duo learning their moves to access new areas of Gruntilda’s Lair. But the game failed to capitalize on the concept and implement such elements into the levels themselves, meaning that once a stage was drained of its collectibles, there were no reasons for return visits. Banjo-Tooie pulls the trigger on the concept, and though it may not exactly be the 3D Metroidvania that Metroid Prime or Dark Souls would end up being, it was probably the closest thing 3D gaming had to the genre at the time of its release.

“Though the FPS segments are few, they provide a fun change of pace fro the rest of the game.”

Banjo-Tooie frequently features segments in levels that must be returned to at a later time, once some additional abilities have been earned. More interesting still, the Isle O’ Hags is even presented as a connected world, with some stages directly linking to others. To emphasize the concept, there’s even a train that connects a handful of the levels and the overworld together. Some may find the backtracking a tad excessive, but some accommodations are made by implementing warp pads in the stages, and silos that allow Banjo and Kazooie to fast-travel the overworld.

The other key ‘lacking’ aspect of the original which is polished by Tooie are the transformations. This time around, every stage has its own transformation, and the different forms the titular duo take – whether it be a T-rex, a submarine, a washing machine that launches underwear at enemies, or the returning bee – are all a lot more versatile than they were in the first game. Granted, it’s still unfortunate that most of the transformations are still only used to gain one or two Jiggies apiece, but at least they feel properly implemented this second time around.

Sadly, Banjo-Tooie itself falls victim to its overly ambitious nature, and at least one of its own elements is as underutilized as Banjo’s transformations in the first game. Strangely, this element once again revolves around Mumbo Jumbo. That is to say, his addition as a playable character feels underdeveloped. As cool as the idea of playing as Mumbo is, he doesn’t really have a lot to do, nor does he have a lot he can do. Mumbo is simply used to walk to a ‘Mumbo pad’ to perform a level-specific spell. While these spells can sometimes be interesting (the very first stage allows Mumbo to take control of a golden giant who can crush anything in its path), they once again fall under the “one or two Jiggies” category, and even then, it’s still usually Banjo who needs to collect the Jiggy in the end. Mumbo’s moveset is also extremely limited, as his only other actions aside from walking and casting spells on the Mumbo pads are jumping and shocking enemies with his magic wand. I wouldn’t assume Mumbo would have the versatility as the primary characters and learn new moves throughout the adventure as they do. But perhaps if he had a few more of their acrobatics, and a little more to do, it would make Mumbo’s promotion more worthwhile.

If there’s another complaint to be had with Banjo-Tooie, it’s that one of the game’s eight proper stages – the smog-riddled factory of Grunty Industries – is a bit of a convoluted maze, with environments that look similar to each other, and some needlessly tedious changes of pace to the fast-traveling (with elevators only being accessible in Banjo’s washing machine form, and the warps pads being inaccessible to said washing machine). Having played through Banjo-Tooie numerous times, it is this level that seemingly breaks the flow of the adventure. Sure, things pick back up a bit with the two subsequent stages, which house the game’s most original themes (one being the crossover fire and ice world of Hailfire Peaks, and the other being the bizarre sky world of Cloud Cuckooland), but Grunty Industries is probably the point in the game that will deter players from achieving one-hundred percent completion.

“Like the first game, Banjo-Tooie ends with a game show. Only this time around, you can also play said game show with other players.”

All things considered, however, Banjo-Tooie is an improvement over its predecessor, and remains one of the N64’s few timeless titles. It may still have some flaws holding it back from stealing Mario’s platforming crown, but Tooie perhaps remains the most ambitious platformer ever made (so ambitious, in fact, that a notorious “counter-operative” multiplayer mode – in which a second player took control of Bottle’s angry spirit – though unfinished, remains intact in the game’s code.). If the hefty adventure somehow weren’t enough, Banjo-Tooie also features a multiplayer mode where players can partake in the many mini-games once they’ve been played in the main story, and can even face-off in first-person shooter death matches that parody Rare’s Goldeneye and Perfect Dark (and, humorously, hold up better than the games they’re parodying). Top it all off with some of the best graphics of the N64 generation, and another stellar Grant Kirkhope soundtrack, and Banjo-Tooie remains a platformer whose aspirations have been seldom approached in the years since.

 

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Banjo-Kazooie Review

*Review based on Banjo-Kazooie’s release as part of Rare Replay*

In the wake of Super Mario 64 came a new kind of platformer. Differing from the 2D sidescrollers of the past and earlier, more linear 3D platformers such as Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario 64 ushered in a more open-world style for the genre, one that had a greater focus on collecting specific key items at the player’s own leisure,  as opposed to simply making it to the end of a stage. Of all the ‘collect-a-thon’ 3D platformers that were born in Super Mario 64’s wake, there’s perhaps no more beloved example of this sub-genre than Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie.

Released in 1998 – a mere two years after Mario took his revolutionary first steps into the third-dimension – Rare sought to accomplish the seemingly impossible, and beat Mario at his own game. Rare’s bear and bird duo nearly pulled off that feat, delivering one of the N64’s best offerings, and one of the few games for the console that’s still a whole lot of fun to play today.

In Banjo-Kazooie, players take control of the titular duo: Banjo, the lazy honey bear, and Kazooie, the sarcastic bird who lives in Banjo’s backpack. The player primarily controls Banjo for movement, with Kazooie boasting most of the special abilities.

The story is simple stuff, with an evil witch named Gruntilda kidnapping Banjo’s younger sister Tooty in an attempt to steal her beauty. Unfortunately for Gruntilda, her henchman Klungo is a bit of a bungler, and his beauty-extracting machine is on the fritz, giving Banjo and Kazooie ample time to set off to Gruntilda’s Lair on a rescue mission. It’s your typical damsel in distress plot, but the game’s consistently charming characters and often hilarious dialogue make it a unique adventure.

Speaking of dialogue, Banjo-Kazooie’s “garbled speech” is one of its most iconic attributes, with each character having their own distinct gibberish noises playing over dialogue instead of any kind of traditional voiceovers. Some of these “voices” may be a little irritating, but they’ve become somewhat iconic in the years since the game’s release, as they’ve added to the game’s already stellar sound work, with an unforgettable soundtrack by Grant Kirkhope that captures Banjo-Kazooie’s unique sense of charm and whimsy.

In terms of gameplay, Banjo-Kazooie is incredibly similar to the Mario adventure that inspired it. After completing a tutorial in Banjo’s home of Spiral Mountain, you traverse the chambers of Gruntilda’s Lair, which serves as something of a more sinister contrast to Peach’s Castle from Super Mario 64. Golden jigsaw pieces – called “Jiggies” – serve as the equivalent of Mario’s Power Stars, and a set amount are required to unlock each of the game’s nine proper stages. Meanwhile, music notes more or less take the place of coins, but have an added usage in unlocking further chambers within Gruntilda’s Lair.

Each of the stages house 10 Jiggies and 100 musical notes, while the Lair itself has an additional 10 Jiggies to collect, for a grand total of 100 Jiggies and 900 music notes. Not every collectible needs to be obtained to complete the game, however, and all of these items can be gathered at the player’s own pace.

This is where Banjo-Kazooie begins to deviate away from Mario 64’s influence and becomes its own beast. While Super Mario 64’s levels were presented in a sequence of missions (with players only able to go off the path and collect alternate stars from the selected mission on occasion), Banjo-Kazooie’s stages serve as wide-open sandboxes, with players able to gather the collectibles in whatever order at almost any time.

Perhaps an even bigger change to Mario’s formula is that Banjo and Kazooie progressively learn more moves throughout their adventure, provided they can find Bottles the mole hiding in one of his molehills on the first few stages. These moves range from using Kazooie’s legs to walk faster and climb steep slopes to shooting eggs from Kazooie’s mouth and rear. These moves are not only used to navigate through levels and defeat enemies, but many of them are required to find new sections of Gruntilda’s Lair and to reach specific Jiggies, giving the game a small dose of a Metroidvania element.

Along with Bottles, the most important side character is Mumbo Jumbo, a mystical shaman who transforms Banjo and Kazooie into a variety of forms, ranging from termites to pumpkins to bees. Just find some Mumbo Tokens and take them to Mumbo’s Hut to be able to achieve a level’s transformation at any given time.

There is a downside to both the progressing moveset and transformations, however, in that both features can feel a bit underutilized. While the prospect of revisiting levels with new moves to reach previously inaccessible places and items may sound enticing, chances are you’ll find every molehill in your first go around of one level and have everything you need for the next. Only two of the levels (the snow/Christmas-themed Freezeezy Peak and the desert stage of Gobi’s Valley) are particularly interchangeable, as both are unlocked close together, and each features one Jiggie that can only be accessed with a move learned in the other. As for the transformations, you’ll only change forms in five of the nine levels. And when you do get to transform, the different transformations are more or less just used to squeeze into a particular area Banjo himself can’t reach, all to obtain a single Jiggie.

The fact that such elements are present at all is a joy, as they’re a testament to the inventiveness that went into Banjo-Kazooie’s creation. But perhaps they were ideas ahead of what Rare could handle at the time, with both concepts of revisiting levels with new moves and the transformations fulfilling much more of their potential in the game’s 2000 sequel, Banjo-Tooie. By comparison, time has shown that Banjo-Kazooie couldn’t quite reach its ambitions.

If that is the case, it’s simply another testament to just how creative Rare was during Banjo-Kazooie’s development. The gameplay itself is some of the best on the Nintendo 64 and, much like Mario 64, remains a joy to play even today (though Mario 64’s sometimes clunky camera is still present). And the nine featured levels may just outdo Mario’s famed N64 outing, with some truly ingenious obstacles created to take advantage of Banjo and Kazooie’s versatile moves; and they feature themes that add new twists to platforming norms (such as the aforementioned ice world also being built around Christmas, or a sewer stage that houses a mechanical shark as its centerpiece. And Rare was wise to save their most creative level for last; a giant tree that can be visited in all four seasons of the year, with each season changing both the level’s challenges and its inhabitants). If that weren’t enough, Banjo-Kazooie’s playful spirit is perhaps most present after every level is completed, where the heroic duo take part in a quiz show/board game against the evil witch, in which players have to remember details about the game and their playthrough.

Banjo-Kazooie is simply a great time from beginning to end. That so many other games from its era – including beloved titles like Goldeneye 007 – feel so outdated by today’s standards while Banjo-Kazooie still remains one of the best games in the 3D platforming genre is telling of just how much creative energy went into the game, and how well it executed it. It may not always achieve its lofty ambitions, but Banjo-Kazooie is creative, fun and charming enough to stand the test of time.

 

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