Also available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Stadia, and Windows
Cyberpunk 2077 is the quintessential example of corporate bosses ruining the artistic vision of game developers in my opinion. When this game was revealed, it had the potential to be the greatest open world game ever made, and in the state it's in today, it's a solidly great game. When it launched, though...Jesus Christ, it was a disaster. It was playable on PC at launch, but if you were using a PS4 or Xbox One - especially base model instead of a PS4 Pro or Xbox One X - you were in for a miserable time. Frame rate was a disaster, bugs galore many of which were game-breaking, and a generally muddled resolution and craptastic frame rate were what gamers were treated to. Playing via backwards compatibility on PS5 or Xbox Series X was, like PC, playable, but it still wasn't what CD Projekt Red had hyped us up for. With all of that said, that's why it sat on my shelf for a year and a half before I played it. I tried it on my One X when it came out, but I didn't actually play more than an hour until the Series X optimization patch dropped. I wanted to experience the best possible version of this game so I could judge the game on its merits rather than the incompetence of CD Projekt Red (regardless of whether it was the development or publishing wing to blame).
Cyberpunk 2077 takes place in the world built by a long-standing tabletop RPG series. Like most people who probably played this game, I've had no experience with the series. Basically, you play as V, a merc in Night City doing whatever jobs pay the bills and trying to become a legend of Night City's seedier side. You end up with the mental construct of famed terrorist Johnny Silverhand in your head, though - basically sharing your brain with his soul. Since Johnny Silverhand is played by Keanu Reeves, you shouldn't need to hear anything else to sell you on this game. The game mostly lets you play how you want; you can choose from three backgrounds (gangbanger garbage, corporate scum, or glorious nomad), you can get through most of the game either by killing or non-fatally incapacitating your foes, and even lock yourself out of entire quest lines depending on the choices you make. There's not a morality system per se, but your choices absolutely impact various aspects of the game.
The game's visuals look, at least on Series X, fantastic. It definitely looks better than it did on One X a year and a half ago. On Series X, you can choose between a higher frame rate with more basic visual effects or ray tracing at 30 fps. The ray tracing can be pretty noticeable at certain times of day, but at other times of day, it really doesn't look at that different from the non-ray tracing mode. With that said, I personally think the added visual effects of the ray tracing just isn't worth the constantly very noticeable drop in frame rate. That said, though, on the performance mode, I only noticed frame rate drops when transitioning to a different part of Night City (although it visibly stuttered at those points). The game's audio design is also fantastic with some great voice acting and a truly killer soundtrack. Honestly, the soundtrack is one of the best parts of the game.
The game plays a lot like what you expect from a gun-based RPG from CDPR. The gunplay isn't quite as accurate in my opinion as a true first person shooter, but it's significantly better with accuracy than Fallout. The driving mechanics can also take a little bit of getting used to - it feels like your wheels are coated in Crisco - but once you do get a feel for it, driving is actually one of the most fun parts of the game. I really can't say enough good things about the gameplay itself. Unfortunately, even after a year and a half of patching and fixing and playing on the most powerful home console released thus far, it's riddled with bugs. These bugs are almost all thankfully dumb and often funny glitches rather than game-breaking bugs, but I did have to close and reload to fix a few, and it's just unacceptable to have this many bugs this persistent in a game with this large a budget this long after launch. It's a shame because it really just gives the game a sloppy and utterly unpolished feel.
Cyberpunk 2077 is absolutely worth playing if you have a PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, or powerful PC. I'm gonna say to avoid it if you only have last-gen consoles. It's definitely a lot better than it was at launch, but those consoles just don't have the horsepower the game needs to be done justice. CD Projekt Red needs to take a step back and take a long, hard look at its practices, though, because they definitely overpromised and underdelivered with this one. That said, the game is a TON of fun in the state it's in now 18 months post-launch. Hopefully they'll learn from this game's disaster of a launch, but I've learned better than to trust corporations to learn from their mistakes.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Stadia, Luna, Linux, macOS, and Windows
Metro Exodus is the latest entry in the Metro series, a series of first-person shooters with a horror element based on novels by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky (don't worry, he's a vocal opponent of Putin's invasion of Ukraine). Exodus took a sort of pseudo-open world format, something I'll explain in a bit, which was the game's biggest diversion from the last two games in the series.
The most important thing to know up-front if you're going into Exodus after Last Light is that the game is a direct sequel, but it specifically takes place after the good ending of Last Light. I got the bad ending (because I can't stop murdering people I think need murdering), and I was VERY confused when I started Exodus because I wasn't aware of that. "Why aren't you dead?" "Why is he here?" "What's going on?!?" So just keep that in mind. The premise of the game is that Artyom learns that there are suvivors outside of Moscow, something that no one thought was the case, so through some plot events, he and a handful of Spartan Rangers end up taking a train on a long journey out of Moscow to look for survivors and see what the state of the world and Russia are.
Visually, the game looks great. Granted, I'm playing the Series X version, but at the end of the day, it's an 8th gen game that just got polished up to 9th gen kind of like how 2033 Redux and Last Light Redux were just remastered 7th gen games, not true 8th gen games. I mention that because, looking at the screenshots, a lot of people are going to point out that it doesn't look as good as games made specifically for PS5 and Series X, and that's fair. That said, though, it's a huge step up from 2033 and Last Light, so credit where it's due; it looks pretty solid for a game from 2019. The voice acting, while still a bit wonky for some characters, is generally better than in the older games.
I described the game as "pseudo-open world," and what I mean by that is that you get to explore each of the game's areas like you would in an open world game, but the game is divided into distinct sections that don't transition fluidly into one another, and you can't move between regions at will. This part of the game is in Part A, then when you finish that main quest, you move into Part B for the next part of the game. It's a good way to do it that fits the game's story way better than a true open world design, but with gaming's current belief that "open world is best," it's worth noting up front.
Metro Exodus is an excellent entry in an already pretty solid series. It's not going to blow anyone's mind with visuals, gameplay, or story, but it's extremely competent in all of those areas. Unfortunately, the aren't any Nazis to murder, but there are some cultists and cannibals, so that's a decent consolation murder. The story is much less supernatural than 2033 and more grounded in, for lack of a better phrase, reality, but I was a bit let down by the ending. Of course, my murder sprees got me the bad ending again, and while the good ending is definitely better, it's still wasn't super satisfying in my opinion. Still, like Mass Effect 3, don't let the disappointing ending dissuade you; the ride is more than worth the play.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia, Linux, OSX, and Windows
Metro: Last Light is a direct sequel to Metro: 2033 and picks up after the end of that game. In its original release, Last Light took on a much more action-oriented approach compared to 2033’s more horror-focused gameplay, but the Redux remaster of the two allows you freely choose between the more ammo and more action focus of Last Light and the less ammo and more horror focus of 2033 for both games. I, of course, being a violence and carnage loving American, chose the former in both games.
The story picks up one year after the end of 2033. After Artyom defeats the Dark Ones and destroys their nest, he goes off doing badass Spartan Ranger stuff until he hears a rumor about a single surviving Dark One. Miller, commander of the Spartan Rangers, sends Artyom out to kill this last Dark One with his daughter, Anna, tagging along for sniper support. Khan, Artyom’s cryptic mystic friend from the first game, urges Artyom not to kill the Dark One and encourages him to try to communicate with it instead. While conflicted, Artyom sets out to accomplish the mission assigned to him by Miller, opting to take a “cross that bridge when I come to it” approach on whether or not to kill the Dark One.
Obviously, things don’t go exactly to plan (there wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise), so Artyom is once again trekking across the Metro and leaving mountains of mutant, Nazi, and communist corpses in his wake. As far as the overall feel of the game, Last Light feels a lot more fast-paced than 2033 if you’re playing the original releases, but the Redux remasters do a good job of keeping it feeling pretty on-par with 2033 if you play through them in the same gameplay style (Spartan for more action, Survival for more horror). Last Light does, however, have some much larger environments than 2033 for some awesome firefights. Visually, the game is identical to 2033 if playing the remasters and only a little more polished looking if playing the original releases, but they’re definitely nice-looking games. The stealth mechanics are extremely well done, balancing visibility in light and the effect sound has on enemy alertness. You’re also, fortunately, not required to use stealth unless you want to minimize kills and go for the good ending, so you can just kill everything if that’s more your style (something I learned the hard way - the good ending is canon, so if you go on a genocidal rampage like I did and get the bad ending, the start of Exodus will leave you confused and googling to figure out wtf is going on).
All in all, Metro: Last Light is an excellent follow-up to 2033, but it is worth noting that this isn’t just Russian Fallout; the game is still linear, and there’s a decent bit of supernatural shit going on, and unlike 2033, the supernatural shit is more out-in-front in Last Light. For me personally, that was a bit of a turn-off, but it’s by no means bad. It’s not explained very fully, but that’s part of the game’s MO - the mystery shrouding the effects of the nuclear bombs. If you enjoyed 2033, you’ll love Last Light. Personally, I found it fairly standard, but it was definitely on the upper end of average, and I have no problem recommending it. I played around with it a bit on Switch, too, and while there are some obvious graphical downgrades, it runs really well (loading times aside) and is a definite jewel of the slew of Switch ports we’ve seen.
My Rating - 3 Neps
One of the very few Zelda games that I’d never played before was Four Swords Adventure simply because it’s so hard to find four people willing to commit and enough hardware to actually play through it. Thankfully, though, I found a local retro gamer group on Facebook and was able to meet up with my friends Heather, John, and Brandon several times between January and May of this year to play through the game, and it was a great time both as a game and socially in general. It got this old hermit out of his shell.
The game feels a lot like a typical 2D Zelda adventure just with support for four player co-op. Your adventure takes you through 24 stages spanning eight areas and 10 boss battles. Most of the game’s enemies and weapons are familiar to longtime Zelda fans, but there’s enough new that keeps the game fresh and exciting even for veteran players. While it’s not nearly as good as Link to the Past from the SNES era, Four Swords Adventures is very reminiscent of that game and feels very much like an homage to it. The game’s graphics look like what I imagine Link to the Past being if it were made on a stronger 2D system, and while I think the sound design isn’t as good as games like Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, or Breath of the Wild, it’s still a Zelda game which means that the soundtrack is fantastic.
What makes the game totally unique is that it requires Game Boy Advance systems and Gamecube link cables to play. The Gamecube is playing the game, but the connected GBAs are used to control your character, and within certain parts of dungeons, you use the GBA screen to see your character. Most of the action stays on the main screen, and every player has to be together at the screen’s edge to move to the screen to the next area, but the shift from the main screen to Game Boy Advance screen is an extremely cool way to structure a multiplayer Zelda even if it does get costly to make sure everyone has a GBA and cable to link to the Gamecube.
It’s a shame that this game is so cumbersome to play in 2022 because it really is a fantastic co-op experience. There just aren’t that many people that have a Gamecube, the game, four GBAs, and four link cables outside of groups of retro gaming enthusiasts. I wish Nintendo would re-release this game - even if only digitally - on Switch and allow for online multiplayer. It would give this game a new lease on life with an infinitely more convenient way to play. Still, though, cumbersome logistics aside, if you find a group of friends with the needed hardware and have the opportunity to play this game, I strongly recommend it.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Steam
When it comes to visual novels starring scantily clad and well-endowed anime women, I’m easy to please. Sakura Angels checks all of those requirements for me. As part of the long-running Sakura series (not to be confused with Sakura Wars), you pretty much know what to expect from Sakura Angels if you’ve played anything else in the series - big tiddy waifu characters, a short and fairly shallow story, and character tropes for days. For the sake of transparency, I’ll state up front that Gamuzumi sent me a Switch code for Sakura Angels for review. Thanks so much, Gamuzumi!
The premise of the game is pretty typical. A high school boy finds himself thrust into a bizarre magical-girl scenario where large-breasted magical girls end up enrolling in his school, get put in his class, and end up being his new BFFs to protect him from the mysterious evil forces that want him for some reason. It’s basically the plot of every other anime on Crunchyroll, so if you’re looking for an original or especially compelling story, look elsewhere; the story is just an excuse for the boobs here. The main characters are both straight up tropes; there’s a bubbly girl with brown hair with a seemingly-aloof-but-actually-commanding personality, and a tsundere girl with pink hair. Again, not deep or unique characters, but they’re not supposed to be. Tropes provide a comfortable context for characters, and this game is the epitome of comfort food for degenerate weebs like me.
The game is super short (although I prefer the phrase “bite sized”) with my play clocking in at about three hours. Like I said, it’s comfort food; if you have a bad day at work, you can come home and enjoy a mindless bite-sized lewd game on your Switch. For a lot of people, the length would be the biggest turn off, and for $10, I do think it’s a bit too short; I think $5 would be a more appropriate price for the game. Still, though, I enjoyed my brief time with it. It’s cute and entertaining enough that I would definitely recommend it for fans of the genre if you see it on sale for 50% or more off. I can’t recommend it at full price, though; it’s just not long, original, or compelling enough to justify a $10 price tag.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on Xbox 360, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia, Linux, OSX, and Windows
One of my favorite types of games is post-apocalypse, and that’s especially true when it’s a nuclear apocalypse that leans into the “horrific mutations” trope. It’s why Fallout is one of my favorite game series. Metro may not scratch that itch for me quite the way that Fallout does, but it does fit the bill nicely with an interestingly non-American setting. Granted, April 2022 is not exactly when I’m keen on having a Russian protagonist in my game, but Metro 2033 *does* allow me to kill Nazis, communists, and mutated creatures all in one game, so I’ll deal with playing as a Russian.
Metro 2033 is based on a book of the same title by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky. The premise is that an isolated nuclear exchange in 2013 quickly expanded into a global nuclear holocaust; in Moscow, where the game takes places, only a few dozen thousand of the city’s several million residents managed to escape into the metro system that served as makeshift fallout shelters. 20 years after the bombs fell, the surface is still horribly toxic and irradiated; traversal is impossible without a gas mask, and radiation is a constant concern not to mention the monstrous mutants roaming the city ruins. As such, what human life remains is in micro-states at the metro’s various stations. You’ve got Hanza, a network of brutally capitalist trade stations, the Red Line (your obligatory Russian communists), the Reich (the also obligatory neo-Nazis), a handful of free stations, and Polis which is the headquarters of the Spartan Rangers. These Rangers are the sort of “white knights” of the metro (or as close as you get, anyway), trying to set up FOBs on the surface and reclaim what humanity once had but lost.
The game focuses around Artyom, a resident of the free station of Exhibition who finds himself on a quest to make it to Polis and deliver a message to the leader of the Rangers (which, in typical video game fashion, turns into a grander quest for Artyom). Along the way, Artyom must deal with raiders, Nazis, communists, and mutants galore. With the original releases on PS3 and 360, Metro 2033 played very much like a horror game with very scarce ammo, spongey enemies, and an emphasis on stealth. With the Metro Redux remasters on PS4, Xbox One, and Switch, however, you can swap between the horror-esque original format and the more action-oriented focus that the sequel, Metro Last Light, took. I’ve played it both ways, but I tend to prefer the heavier action for Metro. Both ways of playing are excellent, however, and you can’t go wrong either way.
Unfortunately, the remaster leaves a bit to be desired. On the plus side, the game does hit a native 1080p and a consistent 60 fps as opposed to the 720p and target 30 fps of the original release. On the other hand, using the PS5 to play it via backwards compatibility was a little underwhelming. I understand that not every game is going to have enhancements to take advantage of the power of the Series X and PS5, and that’s totally okay, but what isn’t okay is the pretty severe screen tearing that I saw in some of the cutscenes. Screen tearing is the most jarring performance issue you can have short of outright crashes in my opinion, and it really killed the experience in places. Fortunately, this is mainly an issue in cutscenes, but it did pop up here and there during the faster action scenes of gameplay.
As a whole, Metro 2033 is a fun game that’s definitely worth playing for fellow apocalypse junkies like me, but definitely play the remaster if you have the chance. It’s still not perfect with the screen tearing, but the performance and visuals are much better than the original release (plus is just a lot more accessible with the lack of the backwards compatibility that the current generation has with the older 7th generation consoles). It falls short of Fallout for nuclear apocalypse action as well as Resident Evil for survival horror, but I think it strikes a solid balance between the two that makes it worth playing as its own unique hybrid of action and horror.
My Rating - 3 Neps
I clearly remember when The Last of Us first came out on PlayStation 3. It was my junior year of college, and I remember going to Gamestop to pick up my copy as soon as my last class ended that day. I hadn’t seen much about the game, having only recently gotten my PS3, but my roommate, Nick, and our friend, John, had been hyping it up hugely, so I was thoroughly swayed. As soon as I got home with the game and got it installed, I had so many errors and problems just trying to get through the first 20 minutes of the game that I knew my hard drive was in the process of dying. I immediately ran across the street to Staples, bought the first 500 GB hard drive of the right type, and swapped it out that afternoon. I then spent the whole night playing because, from the very first scene of the game, I was hooked. For the past nine years, I’ve said that The Last of Us is one of the greatest masterpieces of the medium. I know that’s a controversial opinion with a lot of folks who think the game is overrated, but I’ve never been that sucked in by writing, voice acting, and top-notch motion capture. For whatever reason, though, I waited a long time before playing The Last of Us Part II, not getting to it until early 2022. It had some big shoes to fill, so maybe I put it off knowing that it wouldn’t be able to live up to my adoration for the first game.
The Last of Us Part II picks up a few years after the first game ended. Ellie and Joel, having completed their journey to the Fireflies, settle in the town of Jackson and live, for the post-apocalypse, pretty peaceful lives. However, Overarching Story Event happens (I’m not going to spoil it for in case - somehow - someone else hasn’t played it and miraculously managed to avoid online spoilers), and Ellie sets off with her girlfriend to hunt down the perpetrators of the aforementioned event. That’s the basic premise of the game. It’s a wholly less intriguing premise, in my opinion, than “kid is immune to the disease that destroyed humanity and sets out to find a doctor who can use her blood to make a vaccine,” but it’s a classic revenge story. The character interactions are once again the highlight of the game, but nothing quite matches up to seeing Joel’s prickly exterior soften towards Ellie in the first game.
The gameplay and combat is what you expect from Naughty Dog - fun and responsive but not stunning in any way. You get a number of skills you can level up by finding vitamin supplements throughout the world, and you can upgrade your guns at workbenches with parts that you find. Ammo is scarce as are the materials used to make bombs and health packs which gives the game a bit of a survival horror feel. While most of the game is more tension than horror, there are some parts like the hospital and some of the apartment buildings that are legitimately straight-up classic Resident Evil style horror. Those were my favorite parts of the game. My least favorite part, honestly, is the last third or so. The game’s perspective shifts about 2/3 of the way through and makes you spend a few hours playing as the antagonist. On the one hand, I have to applaud this choice as it definitely does make the player empathize at least a little bit with the antagonist. This works decently well from a narrative perspective, but it introduces characters that I just found myself wanting to explore more and being left unsatisfied, and it sets up a game-ending that I found completely unsatisfying. The ending isn’t bad, per se, but I absolutely hated it. It didn’t give me a sense of finality, but it also didn’t leave me wanting a third game. Underwhelming is the best word I can think of for that ending, and that’s a shame given how dramatically the game started and how amazing the first game was.
The Last of Us Part II was good. Taken as a whole, I’ll even go as far as to call it great, especially since my problems with the ending are largely my personal taste and not actual bad writing or execution. It’s a major letdown compared to the first game, though. I wholeheartedly reject the online complaints of “It’s too woke!” Yes, the protagonist is openly gay. Yes, there’s an explicitly transgender character in the game. Those aren’t bad things, and they aren’t “forcing diversity” because, like it or not, gay and trans people exist in the real world, so of course, they should exist in our games, too. I loved those aspects. It was the disappointment I felt at the ending and the overall lack of care I felt for some of the philosophical points the game tries to make that let me down. It tries to make the points of “Revenge doesn’t help anything” and “Violence only begets violence,” and I absolutely endorse both of those points, but while the game shows that, it doesn’t make me feel that. I sympathize with some of the antagonist’s friends and companions, but I never actually empathize with them. I kept thinking “Oh, I get why they did that. Now let me butcher them.” Maybe that was the point - that unlikable characters can still have understandable motivations - but it just didn’t do it for me. If you played the first game, I recommend playing this one, but you’re not missing a monumental masterpiece if you skip it, and there’s definitely no reason to play this if you haven’t played or didn’t like the first game.
My Rating - 4 Neps
For over a decade, Pokemon fans have been clamoring for Game Freak to change the standard gameplay formula for the Pokemon Games. Let’s Go did that, but it seems like that was both too similar to Pokemon Go and not different enough from the main games for fans. That was one of the biggest complaints I kept seeing with Sword and Shield (other than the graphics) - it’s too similar. Well, that and several other complaints have all been handily addressed with the newest entry in the series, Pokemon Legends: Arceus.
Pokemon Legends: Arceus (hereafter simply “Legends”) takes place in Sinnoh but in the distant past before Pokemon Centers, before gyms, and before the region was even called “Sinnoh;” the region is called Hisui at this time. You are thrown into a space-time distortion of some sort by a mysterious voice. You wake up on Prelude Beach with nothing to help you and no idea where or even when you are. You end up being brought into the Galaxy Team Expedition’s Survey Corps to help the resident professor as he tries to complete the first Pokedex and learn more about the Pokemon of the region. During this time, very little is known about Pokemon, and most people still see them as monsters to be feared rather than intelligent creatures to be befriended.
Immediately noticeable is the change to the core gameplay. You can still battle Pokemon and catch them by weakening them before throwing a Pokeball as always, but you can also throw Pokeballs at them in the overworld and, provided your aim is good enough, hit them for a chance to catch them. Different Pokemon will react differently to you; some will just kind of ignore you and keep doing what they’re doing, some will run in fear as soon as they see you, and some will immediately attack you. You’ll need to utilize stealth and hide in tall grass to avoid detection. If you’re attacked by a Pokemon, you’ll need to throw out one of yours to battle or be quick to run away because they can and will hurt you and knock you out, not just your Pokemon.
The flow of battle has changed, too; it’s not strictly turn-based anymore. Your speed stat and the speed of individual moves now play a role in the order of battle, so you may find yourself (or your opponent) getting to attack two or even three times in a row. Each move, once mastered, also has three “styles” that you can use. The attack’s basic style is exactly like normal and uses one PP, but once you master the move, you can also choose to use either the Agile Style or the Strong Style for two PP. Agile style is faster but does a little bit less damage. Strong Style is slower but does more damage and is a little bit more accurate. This is a seemingly simple mechanic change that actually plays a huge role in strategy down the line; do you use a strong style move in hopes of knocking your opponent out in one hit, or do you use the agile style to gain an additional move and either use a different attack or throw a Pokeball?
Since there are no gyms or Pokemon League, progression is obviously quite different, as well. Instead of eight gym badges, you gain star ranks in the Survey Corps for completing research tasks in the Pokedex. Each Pokemon has around 20 or 25 research tasks to complete. The more tasks you complete, the higher your rank goes. This affects what level Pokemon will listen to you and what balls you can craft. You only need to complete a handful to get the dex entry to rank 10 and get the “complete” label, but if you complete ALL of it, you get the “perfect” label. These labels are also a part of why the game has a reputation for being so generous with shiny spawn rates. The base rate of a Pokemon’s spawning in its shiny form is just a little less than 1 in 4000. For Pokemon whose dex entry is “complete,” that drops to around 1 in 2000; if the dex entry is “perfect,” it’s about 1 in 1000. You also get the Shiny Charm when you “complete” every dex entry which further boosts your shiny odds, and there are “outbreak” events that will randomly spawn in one of the game’s regions. These outbreaks will cause anywhere from half a dozen to two dozen Pokemon of a specific species to spawn, and they have elevated shiny rates. Theoretically, if you had the shiny charm, a perfect dex entry, and an outbreak, your chances of seeing a shiny Pokemon are about 1 in 185 which is pretty much as generous as the series has been with encounter rates.
Pokemon has always been an RPG, but one common RPG staple that it’s never had is a formal quest system. Well, that’s been added here, too. You’ve got around two dozen main quests that progress the main story as well as nearly 100 side quests - “requests” is what they’re called. These don’t provide progress towards your star rank or even outright money rewards, but you do usually get items as rewards, and in a few cases, these requests are the only way to catch certain Pokemon. Some of these are stupid easy - “show me a Scyther” or “bring me three of this common item” - but others are EXTREMELY time-consuming, like the infamous “bring me a Buizel taller than 2’8”” request. I loved the side quests, though, and it gives some more meat to the game’s single-player experience.
There are some valid criticisms, though. The game honestly doesn’t look very good. It doesn’t look god awful or anything, but it does a bit like a Wii game that was just upscaled to 1080p in most instances. The Pokemon themselves look pretty good, and that’s what I care most about, and the attacks look awesome, but the environments themselves aren’t very impressive at all. The world also feels a bit empty after a while. There are lots of Pokemon to fight and catch, but the environments themselves aren’t that interesting to explore for the most part; there are only a few caves to explore, you can only climb mountains to a certain point, and there aren’t that many islands to explore. It’s serviceable, but it just feels a little lacking.
The game has some faults, and the fact that only about a quarter of the Pokemon in existence are included in the game is a bummer, but it’s still a ton of fun. The few new Pokemon and new forms are awesome, so that makes up for the relatively low number of Pokemon in the game, but I still find myself wishing there were more. Trying to finish every research task for every Pokemon will definitely keep me busy for a LONG time, though, so for those who thought Sword’s and Shield’s offline offerings were far too slim, Legends definitely makes up for that. It’s not my personal favorite Pokemon game, but it may well be the best one as far as refreshing the mechanics and making the world feel alive for players. If you’ve ever been interested in Pokemon, this is definitely a game to pick up and play no matter how long it’s been since your last Pokemon adventure.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Switch and Windows
Metal Slug 1st Mission was a good handheld adaptation of the Metal Slug series, but it very much felt "good" rather than "great." That's almost completely remedied in Metal Slug 2nd Mission. Pretty much everyone about the game is improved here, and it's one of the best examples of a sequel done right that I've played lately. As a disclaimer, the screenshots are from the Switch release included in Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 since I can't capture screenshots from my actual Neo Geo Pocket.
The first major change worth noting is that there are two playable characters, a dude and a chick. You'll get some different story tidbits throughout the game depending on which character you pick, and while I haven't played through the game enough times to test this fully, what stages you play seems to depend at least in part on your character of choice. There are just over three dozen stages, and they seem to be mostly split down the middle with a few shared between the two. Considering that the previous game had seventeen stages, that's a big improvement. The game also looks and sounds significantly nicer with better graphics, sound effects (including some great explosion sounds and lot of voice work), and music.
One of the improvements between 1st Mission and 2nd Mission that will most often benefit players is the improved weapon diversity. In addition to the airplane and the titular Metal Slug, there's also a submarine that you use in a couple of missions. Your array of weapon drops is expanded as well with some truly awesome weapons like the flamethrower and missile launcher, two of the most powerful weapons in the game. You'll need the added firepower, too, as the bosses seemed to take way more damage to destroy compared to the previous game. You'll also have aliens to contend with in the latter half of the game in addition to the regular human enemies.
Metal Slug 2nd Mission is a huge improvement on the previous game in pretty much every way. There's still a lot of slow down when things get really busy on screen, and this is especially common when you're using the missile launcher, but even with the slow down, it's an extraordinarily fun game that definitely surpasses my expectations. The Neo Geo Pocket is pretty much the best handheld for arcade titles up until the DS or arguably the 3DS, and that definitely shows with games like this. Metal Slug 2nd Mission pushes SNK's little handheld to its limits, and it definitely deserves your attention.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Switch and Windows
Metal Slug is one of SNK's most beloved series, so when their handheld game system came out back in the 90s, they obviously had to put a Metal Slug game on there. Being a 90s handheld system, Metal Slug 1st Mission for the Neo Geo Pocket is obviously SIGNIFICANTLY scaled back from its arcade roots, but despite the hardware limitations, it still manages to feel pretty authentically Metal Slug. As a disclaimer, the screenshots are from the Switch release included in Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol 1 since I can't capture screenshots from my actual Neo Geo Pocket.
One of the most impressive things about this first handheld Metal Slug game is its length. Not all of the levels are super long, but there are seventeen levels in the game. Most of the main series games have somewhere around half a dozen levels, and while those levels are longer, they're also running on much more capable hardware. Considering that the Neo Geo Pocket was a Game Boy contemporary, 1st Mission has an impressive amount of content. The controls aren't nearly as smooth as on the MVS, but they work surprisingly well given the system's limited button inputs. You obviously move with the thumbstick on the left. With the A and B buttons, one is jump and one is fire. The option button lets you switch between your gun and grenades. An inelegant control scheme, but it works and makes the most of the buttons available.
You play as an unnamed "Hero" although everyone who's familiar with the series immediately knows that it's Marco. After you finish the game, you unlock a female to play as, but she plays exactly the same with absolutely no changes whatsoever to the story. The missions are all fairly straight forward. With most of them, you just have to kill your way to the end, although there are some where you have to fight your way to a boss whom you have to kill, and there's one super cool mission where you're on a little handcar and have to catch up to the front of a moving cargo train. The sprites aren't amazing, but they look fine especially considering the hardware. The audio is the same; it's certainly no bad, but it's not going to impress you with the sound effects or the music.
Metal Slug 1st Mission definitely doesn't stand up to its arcade counterparts, but as a 90s handheld game, it's extremely competent. When you consider the fact that there are 17 missions, it's a more robust offering than a lot of handheld games of the era. It can be pretty tough until you get a handle on the controls, although the Switch port definitely makes that less of an issue with the ability to remap buttons as well as a rewind function. Whether you play on SNK's nearly 30 year old handheld or Nintendo's newest handheld, it's a game worth playing.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on Switch and Windows
Like Armed 7 and Salazius Next, the last two games I reviewed, Wolflame is a truly excellent Dreamcast shmup made by genius team at Astro Port. Unlike those two games, it's not included in Shmup Collection on Wii U, but it fortunately is included in the Shmup Collection on Switch. Real OGs, however, will play this on Dreamcast. As a disclaimer, the screenshots here are taken from the Switch port so as to avoid having to borrow someone else's screenshots as I don't have the ability at the moment to capture screenshots from Dreamcast hardware.
Unlike Armed 7 and Salazius Next, Wolflame is a vertically scrolling shooter. Personally, I much prefer the vertical scrolling to horizontal scrolling, so this was a great change of pace for me after playing two horizontally scrolling shooters. Like the two aforementioned games, Astro Port did a fantastic job with every aspect of this game. The sprite art, as always, is fantastic, and I personally think that this has the best music of any of their games to date (at least the ones that I've played). As always, tight controls bring an exceptionally fun and responsive shooter, and when you die, you always know it's your fault. You won't find any cheap or BS deaths here.
The only thing really keeping Wolflame from perfection are the lack of multiplayer. The difficulty curve is extremely fair, the bosses are tough but not insurmountable, and each of the three weapon pick-up types are totally distinct and have their own roles. It would have been cool to see some environmental hazards in the level design like with Salazius Next, but as a more traditional vertical shmup, Wolflame is hard to beat. Being on the Dreamcast is yet another check in its column.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Wii U, Switch, and Windows
Satazius Next, like Armed 7, is not only a relatively recent release for the ill-fated and underappreciated (at least during its life) Dreamcast, but it's also among the finest shmups I've ever played. Once again, the folks at Astro Port have produced a truly exceptional and breathtaking Dreamcast shooter and, to my infinite pleasure, seen fit to port it both to the Switch as well as my beloved Wii U. As a disclaimer, the screenshots here are taken from the Switch port so as to avoid having to borrow someone else's screenshots as I don't have the ability at the moment to capture screenshots from Dreamcast hardware.
Satazius Next, like Armed 7, is a horizontally scrolling shooter, but Astro Port really went above and beyond with this one. Like their other games, the sprites are fantastic and the music exceptional, and the controls are as tight as responsive as you could possibly hope for. What makes Satazius stand out, though, is the incredible level design. In most shmups, the enemies and their shots are your main danger - hence the colloquial nickname "bullet hell" - and any obstacles in the level are mostly just a minor annoyance to add a little extra challenge. While not to understate the threat that the enemies pose to you, that formula gets flipped on its head in Satazius Next. Especially after the first couple of levels, the obstacles and physical design of the levels is definitely your greatest threat while the enemies mostly serve to exacerbate that threat by limiting your movement with their shots. I very rarely died to enemy fire in this game, but the level itself killed me a LOT. There are tons of platformers with ingeniously brutal level designs and layouts, but Satazius Next is one of the few shmups I've played with equally diabolical level designs, and it makes the game feel totally different to most of the genre. With multiple difficulty levels and weapons to unlock and level up, there's a lot of replay value here, too.
Satazius Next took me over twice as long to clear on Easy as Armed 7 did just because of how difficult the levels got. Once you get to the second half of the game, the brutal levels are accompanied by some seriously damage-sponge bosses, too. It's certainly not the hardest shmup I've ever played, but it's one that poses a genuine challenge as opposed to just being generally "hard," if that distinction makes any sense. You have to memorize not just enemy patterns but level layouts, and that's something most of the genre doesn't require, at least not to this extent. It made for a refreshing (even if frustrating) experience, and I truly can't recommend this game highly enough. It's definitely in my Top 10 Shmups of All Time list now.
My Rating - 5 Neps
Also available on Wii U, Switch, and Windows
Armed 7 is proof that the Dreamcast is still getting great games in the many years following its last "official" release thanks to the folks at Astro Port. Having since been ported to Wii U and Switch as part of Shmup Collection as well as being released on Steam, Armed 7 is an exemplar of horizontal shooter excellence. As a disclaimer, all screenshots were captured from the Switch version so as to avoid having to borrow someone else's screenshots.
Armed 7 is a retro-styled arcade shmup that not only captures the feel of the 16-bit era perfectly but, in my opinion, surpasses most of the offerings from that era. The visuals are colorful with gorgeous sprite work, the music is fantastic and upbeat enough to capture the action of a shmup but not so much that it distracts the player, and best of all, the controls are perfectly tight and responsive without the slightest hint of delay. With seven stages each capped with a boss and four difficulty settings, it's approachable for newcomers but challenging for veterans. It's not quite perfect - multiplayer would have been a welcome addition - but it's damn close.
Armed 7 is one of the best shmups on the Dreamcast, and it's a welcome addition to the Shmup Collection compilations on Switch and Wii U. While most folks won't play it on actual Dreamcast hardware, it plays like a dream no matter your platform of choice. Unless you're going for the physical Wii U release of Shmup Collection from Europe, it's affordably priced and a definite must-own for any shmup fan.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 5, Google Stadia, and Windows
A little over a decade ago, a quirky little RPG called Cthulhu Saves the World made its debut on the Xbox 360 Indie storefront. I didn't have a 360 at the time, but as soon as I got one about three years later, it was among the first games that I downloaded. The entire premise of an RPG in which an eldritch evil saves the world rather than destroying it was enough to lure me in, and the humor in the game was spot on. Years later, a holiday themed prequel comes along. When Limited Run Games did a physical printing of this Christmas prequel, you know I had to jump on it.
Cthulhu Saves Christmas starts with, obviously, Cthulhu waking up in this bed in R'lyeh to find a present in his room. Upon opening the present, he realizes that it's actually an anti-present of sorts; instead of getting something, his powers are magically taken. Assuming that Santa was the culprit, he sets off to slay the slovenly saint, but he soon discovers that it was not actually Santa who stole his powers but the Christmas League of Evil, a group of Christmas-themed villains who have kidnapped Santa and seek to destroy Christmas. Without Santa, Christmas will never come. Clearly, the Grinch was an amateur who didn't have the first clue about how to actually steal Christmas.
The gameplay is a throwback to classic 8-bit and 16-bit JRPGs. You explore an overworld, open chests to find items, and battle enemies in a turn based format. Each area is capped with a boss at the end, and between areas, you'll have the opportunity to do a few side events out of a sizeable list to develop relationships with NPCs, gain better equipment, and generally flesh out the humor of the story. That's really where this game most excels - the humor. The writing in this game is absolutely hilarious, and it references not only Lovecraft (obviously) but also a slew of European myths as well as 4th-wall-breaking jokes. Not even game can pull that off, but this and its predecessor are the only ones I've played that can match Neptunia for well-delivered meta jokes.
Visually, the pixel sprites are gorgeous, and the game world looks fantastic, too. The music, while not jaw-dropping or anything, is excellent and never gets stale or annoying. The game has several difficulty levels from which to choose ranging from probably-too-easy to brutally challenging. When you finish the game, there's also a New Game+ to enjoy where you keep your characters, levels, items, etc. Since you can increase or decrease difficulty in-game via the menu, New Game+ is perfect for turning up the difficulty for a replay.
Cthulhu Saves Christmas is a perfect game for the holidays as it's not too long - only five or six hours - so you can play through it at Christmas and still have plenty of time to spend with your family. If, like me, you got distracted and Christmas and are playing this a month later, it's the perfect length for a single evening or two of gaming. At $10, it's a definite step up in price from Cthulhu Saves the World, but it's also a whole leap forward in quality, and I think that's a very reasonable price for the game that you get. It's extra enjoyable if you've played Cthulhu Saves the World (which is, unfortunately, now only available on PC; fingers crossed for a port to modern consoles), but even if you haven't played that, this is a fantastic experience in and of itself. I only wish it were longer.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Android, iOS, and Windows
Lost Phone Stories is actually a compilation of two games, A Normal Lost Phone and Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story. Both games follow the same format; you find a lost phone and, as one does, invade the owner's privacy by rutting around through the phone's contents and trying to deduce passwords to facilitate further privacy invasion. It's basically like an NSA agent simulator.
A Normal Lost Phone has you invade the privacy of Sam, a normal kid stuck in a conservative and podunk small town. Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story, as the title suggests, has you invade the privacy of Laura, a woman trying to balance her work life, her social life, and her love life. I'm not going to say anything else about these characters or their stories because the entire point of the game is piece together what their lives are like based on text messages, emails, and the like that you find in their phone. As such, pretty much any other details would spoil the games.
Like Bury Me, My Love, the whole game is a phone screen. Being the sequel, Another Lost Phone has a nicer looking and more intuitive interface, but both games are pretty simple to figure out. You'll start off with a phone that has text messages, emails, a few apps that require passwords to access, and no internet access. You'll need to figure out the password to the open wifi network to access some of the emails and whatnot, and you'll need to figure out the passwords to the locked apps. These passwords can be deduced by investigating the messages to which you do have access. As you read through these messages, you piece together not only the passwords to the locked apps but the lives of the people whose phones you have and the secret struggles with which they've been dealing.
There's more I'd like to say about A Normal Lost Phone and Another Lost Phone: Laura's Story, but unfortunately, doing so would spoil major parts of the games, and since the "big reveal" in each game is pretty impactful (albeit easily predictable in Laura's case), I'll end my review with this - play these games. They're short at about two hours each (less if you're better at figuring shit out than I am), and they're well-worth the playtime and cheap cost of admission. They may not knock your socks off, but I was thoroughly impressed with how so simple a game concept could have me so quickly get sucked into this character's life and wanting to know more. It's not "exciting" per se, but it is quite interesting, so if you're into more thought-provoking games with good social messages, these are probably up your alley.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Android, iOS, and Windows
Every now and then, you play a game that you expect to be just okay, and it ends up just completely blowing you away. Bury Me, My Love was that game for me. It's also an example of when bringing a mobile game to Switch isn't just a pointless cash grab; this may have originally been a mobile game that makes the most sense on mobile, but this is no Forge of Empires or Candy Crush. This is a game that should honestly be ported to PlayStation and Xbox, too, just so that more people can have a chance to play it.
Bury Me, My Love tells the story of Nour, a Syrian woman fleeing the civil war as a refugee, as she makes the long and perilous journey to Europe. An important thing to note about the title is that this isn't a "you know the end before you get there" situation where you know Nour is going to die on the way; "bury me, my love" is a common Syrian phrase that basically means "Be careful and don't die before I do." The entire game is a text message conversation between Nour and her husband, Majd, as whom you play. As far as gameplay format goes, it's basically a visual novel, but the fact that you literally only ever see a phone screen makes it pretty unique as far as visual novels go. There are no character animations, and there's no CGI; it's just chat bubbles, the occasional picture message, and a map you can pull up to track Nour's journey. It's totally unique, at least as far as games I've played go, and it helps to really get you invested in the characters and the story because you feel like you're the one texting Nour even if your do only have two or three options whenever the game allows you to make a dialogue choice.
One of the great things about Bury Me, My Love is how much replay value there is; there are a ton of options in this game, and the endings can vary wildly. Will Nour make it to Germany, will she end up stuck in Turkey, or will she end up going all the way to France? As you converse with her throughout her journey and give her advice on what she should do in various situations, where she ends up and what she experiences changes dramatically. The game is only a few hours long per playthrough, but you'll need several playthroughs to see all of the various endings Nour's journey can have. Knowing that each choice can have huge impacts on the ending and that there are, as far as I can tell, no truly pointless choices makes some of these choices feel pretty stressful for the player as you don't always have any real information to go on regarding what the better choice would be; you've gotta just go with your gut and guess.
The thing I love the most about this game is how it really highlights the Syrian refugee crisis. The game is several years old by this point, so the situation in Syria isn't quite what it was when the game was made, but Syria is still the largest displacement crisis in the world with over five and a half million Syrian refugees according to the United Nations, and Syria isn't the only refugee crisis even in that part of the world. While this is just a short indie game, it highlights the crisis in a personal way by showing you the perils these refugees endure just to have a chance at living in peace and safety. The game itself may be a work of fiction, but it's very much based on real situations and real people, and those people deserve attention and representation.
Bury Me, My Love is, in my opinion, a must-play for Switch owners. Hell, even if you don't have a Switch, you probably have a cell phone, and given that the game is entirely contained within a text message exchange, it's perfectly suited for mobile. Even being fictional, it puts a much more personal face on the issue of refugees and asylum seekers, in a world increasingly disrupted by civil unrest and climate change, we could all use a bit of sympathy and compassion where refugees are concerned. It'll only take you a few hours to finish a single playthrough, and it's a really great, moving story, so give it a download on your phone, Switch, or computer. I promise that you won't be disappointed.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows
Would You Like to Run an Idol Café? is a visual novel that's pretty much exactly what I want in a visual novel; cute anime girls one of whom each fills a part of the Holy Trinity of Waifus - Cat Girl, Childhood Friend, and Quiet Weirdo. While many visual novels go beyond this sacred set of three, any good one must have all three, and this one has excellent examples. I was graciously given a download code for this by my dear friend Shlib since he won a giveaway but decided that it wasn't his type of game, so thanks homie!
So first thing's first - this is a SHORT VN. We're talking probably eight hours for every ending. It's also not going to knock your socks off; it's no Muv-Luv Extra. It is, however, a solidly enjoyable game with several spots for dialogue choices to affect the course of the MC's relationship with the waifus. The basic premise is that you're a reformed ruffian who flunked his college entrance exams and gets a job as a waiter at a café while he waits to try his luck again at getting into college. This isn't technically a maid café, but the attire is basically "skimpy maid" for the women, and other than the cook, he's the only male employee. So it's basically a maid café. He also lives with his childhood friend (automatically best girl; I don't make the rules) who, unlike him, did not flunk her exams and is in her first year of college to be a nurse. She's also completely and totally obsessed with cute girls and idols.
The game is published by Winged Cloud, the glorious degenerates who brought you the absolutely massive Sakura franchise on Steam (Sakura Succubus, Sakura Agent, Sakura Santa, Sakura Beach, so on and so forth). With that said, you pretty much know what you're getting here - giant boobs, inexplicably single waifus, a totally boring protagonist who somehow has drop-dead gorgeous women madly in love with him, etc. If that's not your cup of tea, then I can absolutely promise that you won't like anything about this game. If that sounds even somewhat appealing to you, then you should probably get this game. It's not a kinetic visual novel as you do get to make choices that affect the outcome, but given its short length, there's not a whole great deal to see here. This is probably the shorted visual novel I've read in a few years if not ever, but I definitely enjoyed getting to know the characters. As law dictates, there's a tsundere waifu, so if that's your thing, rest assured, they've got you covered.
Honestly, there's only so much I can say about it without just telling you the entire plot. It's a visual novel shorter to read than the Lord of the Rings trilogy is to watch. You've got three waifus to pick from. The game ends right as you start getting into it, basically forcing you buy the as-of-yet-unreleased sequel (at least on Switch; it's out on Steam). It's a good time, though, and the perfect length for a long car, bus, or plane ride. Or a power outage. Since it's a visual novel, it puts next to no strain on the Switch, so a fully charged battery is more than enough for you to see every ending and dialogue choice. At $10, it's a pretty steep asking price given how short it is, but it's definitely worth throwing on your wishlist and waiting for a sale.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 4 and Windows
From the brilliant mind that brought you Epic Dumpster Bear and Epic Dumpster Bear 2: He Who Bears Wins, the video game indictments of unrestrained capitalism that you never knew you needed, comes JankBrain, the video game indictment of cryptocurrency and global plutocracy that you never knew you needed. I, along with my friend Jordan, have a truly bizarre and irrational adoration for Epic Dumpster Bear, so when we saw that a platformer in the same style starring one of the bosses from Epic Dumpster Bear 2 was coming out on Switch, we knew that we had to play it.
JankBrain, like Epic Dumpster Bear, is a 2D platformer that is, truthfully, rather simplistic. That's not a criticism, though; it doesn't get bogged down with added gimmicks or anything. The only gimmick here is the humor. As far as control and mechanics go, the only major differences between JankBrain and Epic Dumpster Bear is that JankBrain doesn't slide nearly as much as Dumpster Bear did, and JankBrain has a laser attack. While you can still bounce on top of most enemies to damage them, it doesn't do nearly as much damage as the laser. The bounce is really more useful for landing safely than dealing damage. The music, while not as catchy as Epic Dumpster Bear's in my opinion, fits the action in the game better; most people who went in blind without any Dumpster Bear experience would almost certainly say that the music is better in JankBrain.
I keep comparing JankBrain to Epic Dumpster Bear not only because they're the same style of game because they're at least ostensibly in the same bizarre universe. I think. JankBrain was the boss in World 4 of Epic Dumpster Bear 2, so they definitely exist in the same universe. I haven't finished all the bonus levels in JankBrain, so I'm not sure if the Dumpster Bear will make an appearance there, but at the very least, the titular character made his debut as an enemy in the second Dumpster Bear game. They also have the same type of humor. The premise of JankBrain is that JankBrain is an alien from a species with a body mass that is roughly 90% brain (make sense considering that he's just a brain with arms and legs), but rather than argue about philosophy like everyone else on his planet, he wants to go subjugate another planet, so he goes to Earth and, seeing how obsessed with money we are, decides that the best way is to take over the global economy by stealing all of the gold from the world's central banks. From there, the cutscenes after each boss lampoons how money is at the core of all human existence and, eventually, how stupid and actually worthless not only fiat currency but also cryptocurrency is. For a teacher of history and economics like me, it's fantastic.
JankBrain is definitely not nearly as smooth or polished as a AAA platformer like Mario or Donkey Kong, but for a $5 indie game, it's extremely competent and a ton of fun. The controls are tight, and while the hit detection is a little bit screwy - you'll find yourself dying to hits you're positive you should have avoided albeit barely - it's a ton of fun. The levels themselves are a great balance of easy to clear but very difficult to 100%, and the bosses are extremely challenging until you figure out the pattern. All in all, it doesn't have the charm that Epic Dumpster Bear does, but it's an arguably better-made game. If you're a fan of platformers, you absolutely owe it to yourself to play JankBrain.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 4, Switch, and Windows
A lot of games these days incorporate mythology into their stories and worlds, but it’s almost always Greek, Norse, Egyptian, or Abrahamic. Despite being the world’s third largest religion and the world’s oldest religion, Hindu mythology usually seems to get overlooked. Not only does this neglect a huge source of narrative inspiration, but it also limits the representation for people from the world’s second most populous nation. Raji, on the other hand, is a game that looks gorgeous, plays wonderfully, and has some fantastic storytelling, but it takes place in India and is steeped in Hindu mythology.
The titular character in Raji sees demons massacre her village and kidnap the village children including her little brother, Golu, on the day of Raksha Bandhan. She then sets out on a quest to save her brother from the demons, but unbeknownst to her, is being supported by the goddess Durga and the god Vishnu. While they cannot directly interact with her, they help her by granting her divine abilities as well as holy weapons to use in her crusade against the demons that plague her home.
Visually, the game is an absolute treat to the eyes. It varies between a limited overhead 3D perspective and a 2.5D perspective, but the characters, environments, and backdrops are absolutely stunning. This is one of those games that by itself disproves the notion that video games aren’t art. The combat feels a little imprecise and takes some getting used to, but the platforming is simply sublime. Very few indie games in my experience have nailed 2.5D platforming this perfectly. There were a few frame rate stutters during my playthrough, but these were exclusively in the cinematics and had absolutely no impact whatsoever on gameplay.
The music, as well, is superb. I’m generally a fan of traditional Indian music, and while the music is varied depending on the environment and what’s going on in the game, the music does a great job of capturing the setting. The benefit of having an actual Indian developer make this game rather than Americans or Japanese trying to make an Indian game is on full display in every aspect here. While some parts of the game do assume a basic knowledge of Hinduism - what Raksha Bandhan is, who Vishnu is, etc - so Westerners will want to keep Google handy to fill in the cultural caps, the game does encourage players to listen to the optional segments of Hindu lore. In each level, you’ll find a series of interactable places where Vishnu tells the player about a Hindu myth via voiceover, and listening to each of these in a level awards the player with a high-point achievement. It’s totally optional and has nothing to do with the game’s story, but it provides an incentive to take the time to immerse yourself in a little bit of Hindu mythology.
Raji: An Ancient Epic definitely feels like an indie game, but it’s one of the best that the indie scene has to offer as far as artistic design and cultural representation goes. I hope that this is a sign of things to come from the Indian game development scene as there’s a distinct lack of Hindu and Buddhist inspired games. Raji has everything you need in a solid game - tight platforming, gorgeous artwork, good character designs, a well-told story, and excellent music. It’s available on every major platform, and it’s only seven or eight hours long on average, so give it a play.
My Rating - 3 Neps
No one expected the Wii U’s last game to be a glorious swan song as, to most of the gaming industry, nothing about the Wii U was particularly glorious (an opinion with which I will disagree until my dying breath), but Captain U, while a fun and competent game to be the Wii U’s last, definitely isn’t the “bang” of a final game I wish the system had gotten.
Captain U by Ultra Dolphin Revolution is basically a massive love letter not only to the glory days of the NES (the name is an obvious homage to Captain N) but also to UDR’s other games with cameos by their previous game’s villains and obstacles thrown throughout. The game is a platformer that would be right at home on the NES if the colors and on-screen sprites weren’t a bit more than the NES could probably handle. It’s only nine levels long, but those levels are increasingly difficult, and when I say increasingly, I mean steeply. You get a handful of lives and no continues. If you know what you’re doing and don’t die, you can probably clear the game in 45 minutes or so, but it took me a solid four hours to be able to get through it, and that successful last run was 100% my getting lucky.
What makes Captain U more than just another generic pixel art platformer is the use of the Wii U Gamepad. Captain U himself has a “Power Pad” that he can use with the press of the A button. This leaves you defenseless but allows you to interact with some parts of the environment via the Gamepad’s touch screen. Some enemies can be stunned or harmed by tapping them, some platforms can be moved by dragging them on the touch screen, and some platforms move in response to tilting the Gamepad. You can also destroy destructible blocks by tapping them and place very short-lived temporary blocks to serve as platforms by tapping the touch screen. It’s certainly not the most brilliant use of the Gamepad screen that we’ve seen on the Wii U, but it’s a great one nonetheless, and beyond that, it’s awesome to see a new Wii U release in the last days of 2021.
Most people don’t play their Wii U anymore (you know, of the twelve people in the world who bought one in the first place), but Captain U is definitely a reason to dust it off. It’s short, it’s not at all complex, and it’s yet another 8-bit style game the likes of which have grossly oversaturated the market, but it oozes “love letter” and was developed specifically as a send-off for the Wii U. If you’re a fan of the console as I am, you definitely need to check out Captain U. It’s cheap, and even if you never finish it, it’s fun to pick up and play a little bit here and there.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4, Switch, and Windows
Three of my favorite things are scifi settings, mythology-based stories, and the horror genre. Apsulov: End of Gods brings all three together in one fairly well made gaming experience. It was on sale on Amazon recently, and when I saw the cover art and read a synopsis of the game, I knew I had to jump on it.
The basic premise of the game is that in the late 2020s, a company exploring the various realms mentioned in Norse mythology by exploiting the roots of Yggdrasil meets with sudden disaster. You wake up confused and unable to speak as a robotic surgical suite performs a bizarre “enhancement” surgery on you to give you “Sight,” an ability to see what can’t normally be seen. This isn’t quite as cool as it sounds as it’s really just runes on the wall and VERY slightly improved vision in the dark. And there is a LOT of dark. That’s my biggest complaint with the game; it’s too damn dark. You can’t see anything for most of the game. I get that darkness is part of the horror aesthetic and vibe, and that seeing everything is going to make a game much less spooktastic, but when you legitimately can’t see where you’re going for a solid 80% of the game, it gets to be a bit much and more frustrating than scary.
Visually, the game looks great. There’s an awesome blend of scifi and mystic aesthetics that brilliantly accents the nature of the game. As for the horror gameplay, most of the game feels very similar to Outlast, but it’s not a perfect analogy as you’re not totally defenseless. You get a means to defend yourself, but the energy for it gives opportunity to replenish very sparingly, and you also need that energy to unlock some doors, so the “to fight or to run” choice becomes critically important. As you progress through the game, you’re eventually faced with enemies that you really need to fight, so you’ll want to use that energy sparingly.
The story itself is overall good, but it does assume some basic knowledge of Norse mythology. Not a lot, mind you, but you’ll need a rudimentary baseline to fully appreciate and understand the story. Apsulov is a worthwhile game for Norse mythology junkies or big fans of the horror genre, but if you’re not one of those two, it’s a harder sell. The extreme darkness in most of the game is definitely excessive and to the game’s detriment, but it doesn’t outright ruin it as long as you’re patient. It’s definitely not as shallow a horror experience as Five Nights at Freddy’s, but just don’t go into it expecting something as solid as Outlast, SOMA, or Resident Evil.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on Windows
When the Alan Wake remaster came out late last year, we finally saw the game leave Xbox exclusivity and make its way to Playstation. Unfortunately for Playstation fans, developer Remedy has said that they have no plans to remaster the follow-up, so Alan Wake’s American Nightmare will remain an Xbox 360 exclusive. Thankfully, it’s included in Xbox’s backwards compatibility program, and it gets a nice frame rate boost when playing on the more powerful Xbox models.
American Nightmare picks up where Alan Wake left off. I’ll stay intentionally vague about that for folks who haven’t played Alan Wake but want to play the remaster in the future, but it flows pretty well into American Nightmare. That said, the storytelling kind of falls off a cliff past the initial setup, and that’s being generous. The story itself doesn’t make a ton of sense since it adds in a time loop mechanic - it’s basically “What if Groundhog Day were a horror movie?” - and they don’t do a great job of explaining why that happens. They give an explanation, but it’s not a great one. You finish the game asking, “Okay, but why?” and that’s not a good thing.
That said, the game is a lot of fun to play. The story may be quite lackluster, but the gameplay is rock solid. It gets repetitive, but the combat is fun, and you can unlock more weapons than the original game included by finding manuscript pages, although unlike the first game, this one doesn’t really explain why there are manuscript pages lying around Arizona. Still, it’s kind of awesome to run around with a nail gun and an assault rifle. As for the visuals and performance, I obviously benefited from playing on Series X with all the horsepower of the Golden Horde, so I can’t really speak to the experience of playing on 360 hardware especially with frame rate or resolution, but the models themselves looked good and speaks to how impressive the game’s development was if it just needed a resolution and FPS bump to make it feel almost like a last gen game.
All in all, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is a competent follow-up, but it definitely falls short of feeling like a true sequel. It’s definitely more of a gaiden-esque side story, and that’s pretty much how it was billed back when it first released. The story falls far short of the original game, but the combat is solid even if the game gets super repetitive. It’s not a stellar experience, but if you enjoyed Alan Wake’s combat, it’s definitely worth a play.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on Xbox 360, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4, and Windows
Alan Wake has been sitting on my 360 shelf for years, but for some reason, I've never gotten around to playing it. When the remaster came out on PS5, I figured that was the ideal way to get into the game. I always thought it looked like a cool sort of Twilight Zone horror game, and I honestly didn't realize how right about that I was.
You play as the titular Alan Wake, a thriller writer who's hit a two year writer's block and has gone with his wife to take a relaxing vacation to Bright Falls, Washington. Alan is generally a pretty bright guy, for some reason, he doesn't think there's anything odd about a woman in a black dress with a black funeral veil standing in a dark corner by the bathrooms in a diner, so then spoopy things ensue. His wife vanishes, the feds try to kill him, and a geriatric Viking Metallica has to help him. It sounds dumb, and a lot of it is, but it's the best kind of dumb - out there enough to be funny but unobtrusive enough not to interfere with an otherwise serious and well-written story.
Since I never played Alan Wake on 360, I can't compare the two from first hand experience, but having seen video of the original release, it's clear that this remaster has gotten a well-deserved fresh coat of paint with more detailed textures and a much higher resolution, and the frame rate has been improved and stabilized dramatically. That said, some of the mechanics still show that this is still, at its core, just a spruced up 360 game. The movement and dodging mechanic, especially, don't feel new or fluid at all. Alan Wake moves like a chunky tank with no speed or real agility at all - a little like Leon from Resident Evil 4 but without the sex appeal. The dodge is also frustrating by which I mean it sometimes just doesn't work. Maybe there's some secret to the mechanic that I missed, but I'd be moving around shooting at enemies, and I'd try to dodge an attack coming from the side, and half the time, he'd just stand there. Even when the dodge does sometimes work, the enemies routinely stun-lock you into a three to five hit combo that will take you from full health to 10% health before you can even move. As fun as the combat could be at times, it's also definitely the weakest part of the game.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Alan Wake, but it's far from perfect even with the remaster. The movement feels bumbling and clunky, the combat is fun at range but a pain up close, and the story, while a great blend of Stephen King, Twilight Zone, and Lovecraft, feels pretty mid-tier as far as horror game narratives go. Still, while it may not be a jaw-dropping masterpiece, it's a solid thriller-horror game, and I definitely recommend it. Heck, even if you've got a 360 copy lying around and don't want to buy the remaster, play that. It's not gonna look as nice or run as smoothly, but the game itself should be pretty much the same, and it's definitely worth experiencing for fans of all things spoopy.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Cruis'n USA and Cruis'n World are two of the most iconic arcade racers on the N64 (plus the mixed reception Cruis'n Exotica), and a lot of Nintendo fans have long awaited a return to the wacky racing that the Cruis'n games brought in the 90s. It took over 20 years (excluding the Game Boy Advance game; I'm just talking home console), but we finally have a new Cruis'n, and it's glorious.
Cruis'n Blast may not be the prettiest game out there - it honestly looks like one of the better PS3 games for the most part - but it's a TON of fun. It honestly doesn't look bad, either; it's just not quite as pretty as Mario Kart 8, for example. There are a few frame rate issues that I noticed here and there, but it never affected gameplay for me. Still, though, a racing game is where you want smooth gameplay at all times, so it's worth mentioning. The biggest disappointment here is that, while the game does support local multiplayer, there is no support whatsoever for online multiplayer. There have been teases that an update to add online multiplayer may be in the works, but it's still a bit odd and disappointing for a racing game released in late 2021 to exclude any online connectivity.
The main game modes here are, obviously, your classic arcade levels that you've played if you've had the fortune to play a Cruis'n Blast arcade machine (shoutout to Boxcar in Raleigh, North Carolina), time trials, and a handful of tours comprising four races each. Each of these tours have a theme; escaping the cops, extreme weather, etc. One disappointing thing is that you'll see the arcade tracks repeated over and over again just with variations rather than two dozen distinct tracks. It's not a deal breaker, but it is a bit of a bummer.
As is usually the case for me, my favorite part of the game was the unlocks. There are 23 cars in the game, but only five are available at the start, leaving 23 to unlock. Some of these are unlocked by clearing a certain tour and buying with money earned, but others are unlocked via keys found hidden throughout the game (three per stage). In addition to unlocking the vehicles themselves, using them earns you xp for that vehicle, and leveling up your vehicle unlocks the ability to purchase neon accent lights, some aesthetic body modification, and an engine upgrade. All in all, there's a lot to unlock which gives you ample reason to keep playing.
Cruis'n Blast isn't a perfect game, but it's a perfect "Nintendo" game if that makes sense. It's just "fun" in the purest sense. On paper, it should be a solidly mediocre game, but between the comfortable control mechanics, the rather "out there" vehicle selection, and the general wackiness of the game, it's just a goofy and extraordinarily enjoyable experience from start to finish. It may not be as refined a local multiplayer racer as Mario Kart, but Cruis'n Blast definitely deserves a place on any Switch owner's shelf (or SD card) because for those times when you want to just relax and shoot the shit without committing homicide over a blue shell, Cruis'n Blast is the perfect choice.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Everyone talks about game remakes - and rightly so - but what doesn't get enough attention are game demakes - when you take a game and make a dramatically scaled back version for older hardware. The most famous is probably the Chinese NES demake of Final Fantasy VII, but the most impressive as well as the most fun in my opinion is definitely Halo 2600, the aptly named Halo demake for Atari 2600.
2001's Xbox was the powerhouse console at the top of the spec lists of the 6th generation of console gaming, and 1977's Atari 2600 was the behemoth 2nd generation console that took the world (or at least America) by storm. What do these two have in common? Aside from being filled with Activision games of various quality, not much. Except for Halo. Created by Ed Fries, the guy who led the team that created the first Xbox and was key in acquiring studios like Rare and Bungie, Halo 2600 is a surprisingly good answer to the question "What if Halo had been created 20 years earlier?" It's obviously got no story told outside of the instruction manual (as was the case with pretty much all of the 2600's games) and very crude sprite graphics, but it's probably the best game ever to fit on a 4 KB cartridge, at least in my opinion.
When you start the game, you're greeted to a 2600 version of the Halo theme. The game itself plays a lot like a mix of Adventure and Berzerk. The combat is a lot like Berzerk in that you have to shoot enemies while avoiding getting shot yourself, and the game seamlessly progresses from screen to screen like Adventure. The enemies - really fantastically done sprites of Grunts and Elites - can shoot in any direction, but your pixel Master Chief can only shoot left or right, so it's important to get a feel for the controls and the timing of your attacks.
As you go through the game searching for keys to unlock the energy gates blocking your path, you'll get a gun upgrade (I like to imagine it's an upgrade from the assault rifle to the sniper rifle), a shield upgrade that lets you survive a single shot, and a boot upgrade that doubles your speed. While there's only so much detail the 2600 can cram into a landscape, you do see a variety of trees, rocks, and weird energy...things...as you progress. The culminating challenge is a final boss, a flying saucer-looking enemy, that you have to shoot several times to take out. If you manage to defeat the boss, congratulations! You beat the game! It immediately restarts but with a red title screen indicating that you've progressed to "hard mode" which really just has you play the game again but moving at like one-quarter speed.
Halo 2600 may not stand up to the likes of Halo Infinite for a deep and engaging narrative experience, but it's an extremely impressive demake that manages to cram the core "feel" of Halo into just four measly kilobytes. AtariAge, bless them, sold physical cartridges of this back in 2013 complete with box and instructional manual, although I imagine that most people played this on an emulator or a Harmony flash cartridge. Regardless of how you play it, it's one of the 2600 I most readily recommend, and it's a must for those of in the intersection of "Halo fan" and "retro gamer." It would be nice if there were a score counter or some enemy randomization for replay value, but it's a damn fun game nonetheless.
My Rating - 4 Neps
I'm a teacher.
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach high school history; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.