For me personally, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is an exemplar of why game developers and publishers need to release free demos of their games for download. I had never touched a Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game before this one. I always thought they looked cute but never interesting enough to bother spending money on and playing. When I saw that the demo for this remake was free to try, though, I thought, "Why not? Can't beat free." Within about ten minutes, I was hooked. I still waited a couple months to buy the full game (I had one of my VERY rare moments of financial responsibility), but once that tax refund check hit, you better believe I used what little I got back to pick up a copy (along with Doom Eternal).
The basic premise is that you're a human turned into a Pokemon through plot device magic, and you team up with a BFF Pokemon (in my case, Jeff Dahmer the Charmander and Lil Homie the Squirtle, respectively) to form a rescue team to go help save Pokemon in danger from the natural disasters occurring all over the land. I named my team PokeBros. From there, you go through procedurally generated dungeons, battle random Pokemon, pick up items, and try to find the stairs to the next level of the dungeon as you search for whatever Pokemon it is you're tasked with saving. Sometimes when you defeat an enemy Pokemon, it can develop acute Stockholm Syndrome and feel some kinship with you after you beat the shit out of it. This Pokemon will then ask to join your party. For the rest of the dungeon, it will serve as an ally NPC. When you clear the dungeon (assuming it hasn't been defeated by an enemy), the ally NPC Pokemon will ask to join your rescue team. If you have a camp it can stay in (each camp only allows certain Pokemon, so build as many camps as you can as quickly as you can), you can invite it to join your rescue team. If you don't have a camp for it or decline to invite it, you'll get some money as a reward for giving it a great adventure (and beating the shit out of it). If you invite it join your team, it can fill one of the three playable slots in your rescue team. Keep in mind, though, that you can only have up to five ally NPC Pokemon with you at a time. This was disappointing to me as I found my sixth abused Sandshrew that asked to join but couldn't and forced me to abandon my dreams of building a grand Sandshrew army.
The game of which this is a remake was a 2D Game Boy Advance game, and while the remake keeps the 2D gameplay, the environments and characters themselves have been redone in a 3D style that has an EXTREMELY visually pleasing hand-drawn aesthetic. Honestly, the visuals are probably my favorite part of the game. The gameplay is great, the characters are cute, and I obviously love building as large a reserve of rescue team members as I can, but the graphics are just to beautiful and well-done that it's hard not to be stunned. It's reminiscent of Muramasa on Wii and Vita with the art direction. That's not to say that it necessarily looks exactly like Muramasa, but the obvious care and artistic flair with which the visual style was crafted definitely reminded me a lot of it. As far as game features, though, it's mostly a pretty standard dungeon crawler, but there is one that I want to mention specifically - the rescue system. Not rescuing NPCs - that's the whole point of the game - but when your team gets knocked out. If all three members of your team faint in a dungeon, you have two options - respawn and lose all of your money, progress, and items; or put in a rescue request. If you choose the latter option and have the ability to play online, you can put up a request (with a seven day expiration) and hope that another real player online will see your request, take the job, and rescue your team. From there, you can continue your journey through the dungeon where you were defeated without losing any items or money. If you don't have the ability to play online but do have more than three Pokemon that you've recruited, you can put together a second three-man team and go rescue yourself. This is definitely the faster way, but I personally preferred having someone rescue me and using my other Pokemon to rescue other people who've put up requests in the meantime. It's not efficient, but it was more fun to me personally. It was a really nice touch, and while it's not true multiplayer, it's a cool way to get player interactivity into the game.
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX may have been my first experience with the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon spin-off series, but I highly doubt it will be my last one. I had an absolute blast playing it, and I'll definitely be going back to do some of the post-game content. It's addicting and chill all at the same time, and it's just so damn CUTE. The art direction really steals the show, and while that in no way should diminish one's appreciation for the fantastic soundtrack in the game, it's not often that I see games as oozing with artistic style as this one. This is definitely a game to keep on your radar, folks. If nothing else, download the demo (it's free; what do you have to lose?) and see if it scratches that itch for you the way that it did for me.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Wii, Wii U, and 3DS via Virtual Console
Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War (sometimes referred to as Fire Emblem 4 as it was the fourth retail release) is one of the seven Fire Emblem games that never saw a release outside of Japan (eight if you count BS Fire Emblem), and that's a real shame because this game is incredible. With this game's completion, Thracia 776 is now the only game in the series that I haven't played as of the time of writing, and setting that one aside as I obviously can't judge it, Genealogy of the Holy War has solidly taken the #3 spot on my ranking of Fire Emblem games after Awakening and Three Houses, respectively.
What really sets Genealogy apart from the three games that came before it is that the story is split into two distinct parts with a distinct line-up of characters for each part that only has a couple instances of overlap. In the first half of the game, your protagonist is Sigurd, the young heir next in line to become lord of the Grannvale territory of Chalphy. The bulk of Grannvale's army - including Sigurd's lord father - is away fighting a war against the Kingdom of Issach in the northeastern corner of the continent of Jugdral. During this moment of vulnerability at home, the neighboring kingdom of Verdane in Jugdral's southwest corner launches an unprovoked invasion of Grannvale. Sigurd must take what few knights were left in Chalphy and protect the kingdom from these invaders. This leads into what ends up being a much longer military campaign than Sigurd expected, and along the way, he picks up new friends and allies. For the first six of the game's twelve chapters, you play as Sigurd and his army. Then, after some plot points I won't spoil, the game jumps forward fifteen years.
The last six chapters have Sigurd's son, Seliph, as the protagonist. In the time between the two generations, Grannvale has moved from being a relatively peaceful kingdom to being an autocratic empire ruling all of Jugdral with an iron fist. Seliph is thrust into the position of revolutionary as fate places him in command of an army of liberation that, starting in Isaach, begins a march throughout eastern Jugdral with the goal of freeing the continent from the Empire's grasp and restoring justice and freedom to Grannvale. With the exception of Finn, a knight from Leonster in Jugdral's southeastern Thracian peninsula, none of your combat troops from the first generation make a return in part two. One non-combat unit from part one becomes a combat unit in part two, and one combat unit from part one becomes a non-combat character in part two, but Finn is the only one who takes part in combat in both generations.
The "generation" mechanic, which wouldn't come back until my beloved Fire Emblem Awakening, it really what sets Genealogy of the Holy War apart. To put it briefly, each female in your army will, if my count was right, have two children if they're paired with a male lover by the end of Chapter 5. The son will inherit the items and skills of whomever the father was, and the daughter will inherit the items and skills of whomever the mother was. If there's a female unit who isn't paired up, some boring and much less powerful substitute unit will take the children's places. Protip - Ayra's children could single handedly win the second half of the game for you. I mean, not literally, but they're broken in the most glorious ways possible.
The character art is really good and, with the exception of some enemy units, makes each of your units feel unique and special. The enemies leave a little to be desired in that regard, though, as even named enemies tend to look the same. Almost all of the female mages look exactly the same with just different eye and hair colors, most of the male generals look the same, and most of the dark priests pretty much look the same. At least the player characters - the ones you see most of the time - each look solid and unique. The sprites, too, look really nice. The game's soundtrack, something that always stands out as special to me in Fire Emblem games, doesn't disappoint here, either, as all of the game's music is extremely well composed and fits the mood and tone of whatever's going on perfectly.
The game's general objective is pretty much the same as most Fire Emblem games - evil cult tries to resurrect evil dragon to take over the world, so good guys descended from legendary good guys have to team up, awaken some super good dragon, and beat the evil dragon to save the world. Most of the series follows the same basic script. It's the details and smaller story elements that make each game unique, and they really knock those out of the park with this game. As I said in the beginning, this game rocketed into my top three, and it's definitely my favorite pre-3DS Fire Emblem game. It gets everything right. There were one or two little translation quirks I noticed where the wording was just a little awkward - "I crave your forgiveness" being a line that stood out to me and probably could more accurately have been translated as "I beg your pardon" or simply "Please forgive me" - but I've seen officially licensed translations that people were paid to do that had more errors than this free fan translation, so you know what? A+ on this one, dude. If you had taken me in cold and told me that this was an official commercial localization, I'd have totally believed it without hesitation.
My Rating - 5 Neps
Animal Crossing is a series that I've heard a lot about from a lot of friends and always meant to get into but somehow never did. I even bought New Leaf on 3DS when I saw the Nintendo Selects release on sale for like $15, but I never actually got around to playing it. When New Horizons was announced for Switch, I knew that this game would be my entry point to the series, and wow, what an entry point that was!
I knew going into this game that it would either be a game of which I quickly grew bored or a game that quickly consumes my life. Unsurprisingly, it turned out to be the latter. As of the time of writing, the game has been out for just under three weeks, and I've put nearly 100 hours into it. The premise is simple; the ruthless venture capitalist, Tom Nook, designs this "island getaway" package where you can move to a deserted island and start a new life (a new life that immediately begins deeply in debt). It's basically just indentured servitude but with cute animals and fewer beatings. At first, you only owe Tom Nook for the moving expenses. If you want to upgrade from a tent to a house, though, that's another loan. From there, you can expand your house six times, each expansion requiring an increasingly large loan. When all's said and done, you end up owing Nook a total of 5,696,000 bells. That's a lot of money. You also have to pay him whenever you want to change the outside appearance of your house (although that becomes free once you pay off the last upgrade loan), whenever you want to move your house, whenever you want to build a bridge, or whenever you want to build a staircase. You also have to pay him if you want to add a new house to your island to get a new villager. Donald Trump wishes he had the business acumen of Tom Nook.
The most striking thing about the game for me was the visuals. They're bright, they're colorful, they're gorgeous, and they're CUTE AS HELL. There are a ton of different villagers you can recruit to your island, loads of clothes to wear, and an ENORMOUS selection of furniture and designs to use to decorate your house and your island as a whole. You can also make your own designs to use as wallpaper, flooring, canvas paintings, clothes, or wall art - something they should NOT have let me do. I spent my entire playthrough jumping from outrageously lewd outfits to fabulously effeminate outfits. Especially once that Bunny Day event hit. NOBODY can pull off that cute flowery yellow dress like I can. #swag
So as for the "goal" of the game, your main objective (other than do whatever the hell you want because it's Animal Crossing) is to get your island to a three star rating so the world renowned musician and all-around Good Boy K.K. Slider will come perform a concert on your island. To do that, you need to get villagers to move to your island, upgrade your resident services, and make your island generally appealing to folks. Build bridges, build stairs, clear away weeds, put up decorations, etc. Once you get K.K. Slider to perform on your island, the credits roll, and you unlock the terraforming ability, letting you add or remove waterways, cliffs, and paths from your island.
My favorite part of the game, though, is the connectivity. You can visit friends' islands. You can have them visit your island. You can send each other letters and gifts. It's just such a nice, relaxing, friendly game. Unless Flake visits your island and digs up all your flowers. >_> You can also build the museum where you can donate one of each bug, fish, or fossil you find to show off in exhibits, and being a TOTAL and unrepentant nerd, that was probably my favorite part. I liked discovering a new fossil or catching a new bug, but my absolute favorite thing was catching a new fish. Some bugs and fish only appear during certain hours and certain months of the year, so there's a lot of reason to keep coming back to the game now and then easily built in.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons may have been my first Animal Crossing game, but it certainly won't be my last. Honestly, I really can't think of much negative to say about it. The fishing can be annoying with the big fish sometimes fleeing within half a second of biting your lure, giving you almost no time to start reeling in, and it's annoying that you can't craft in bulk, but those are such minor complaints in the grand scheme of the game. It's such a perfect little relaxation game. "What do you do?" is a question I see online a lot, and legit, you just do whatever you want. You just vibe, man. Fish. Hunt bugs. Landscape. Whatever. Animal Crossing is what you make of it, and that's exactly what we need during the biggest pandemic in over a century.
My Rating - 5 Neps
Age of Empires is a game that always has had and always will have a special place in my heart. It was my first introduction to the real time strategy genre, and it was my first non-shareware or freeware PC game. I first played the original Age of Empires back in elementary school - I think in the second grade - when my friend, Thomas, had it on his computer (probably a whim-of-the-moment purchase of his dad's). I vividly remember playing it on his dad's laptop on the counter in their kitchen sitting on barstools and being completely enthralled by the ability to build a city, raise an army, and destroy our enemies. That game set me on the path of RTS obsession that has lasted into the present day. Not that I've ever gotten any good at the games, but whatever, they're fun.
Age of Empires II, a sequel that was far superior by pretty much every metric, was definitely more popular and went on to receive both an HD remaster with new content as well as a later UHD remaster with even more new content. When a UHD remaster of the original game was finally announced (sadly without any cool new expansion like AoE2 got), I was obviously ecstatic. I did, however, make myself wait until it went on sale in one of my VERY rare moments of good financial sense. After all, I downloaded the HD remaster of Age of Empires II on day one (in one of my VERY common moments of bad financial sense), so other than nostalgia, there was no pressing need to download the remaster of the original game. That sale finally came (at least the one I noticed) during this COVID-19 pandemic - 50% off on Steam, marked down to $10 from $20. Normally $5 and below is my threshold for buying digital games I probably don't need, but whatever, I'll bite at $10 for the sake of nostalgia.
So this Definitive Edition includes both the five campaigns from the original Age of Empires as well as the five campaigns from the Rise of Rome expansion pack. Visually, they didn't rework the models for everything to the point where it looks like Starcraft II or Halo Wars, but the visuals definitely got a very nice overhaul, and there are three specific parts of the visuals that do deserve extra praise for looking especially outstanding - the water animations, the fire animations, and the destroy building models and animations. They really went above and beyond on those three things specifically, so much so that it almost looks out of place with the rest of the game just how good those look.
It's been so long since I've played the almost-quarter-century old release, so I can't be sure if the audio was actually good then, or if it's nostalgia coloring my memory, but everything sounds as crisp in the remaster as I remember it sounding in the original. Your villagers still say the classic "Rogan?" when you select them, and the priests still chant the famous and heavily memed "Wololo!" when converting an enemy unit. Honestly, "Wololo" and my fond memories of that are half the reason I took the 20+ hours to replay all ten campaigns. Another thing gloriously retained from the original release are the cheat codes. It's worth noting that the cheats do NOT disable achievements (although the achievements are all really easy to get without cheats except for the one that requires winning a ranked match online), but who cares about achievements - I can spawn babies riding tricycles with shotguns or stormtroopers with nuclear-armed rocket launchers at my Town Center! Also worth noting is that Microsoft has integrated Age of Empires's achievements with the Xbox achievement system, so your achievements give you points for your Xbox Live Gamerscore.
The campaigns themselves have always been a bit of an annoyance for me in their pacing. They jump around chronologically. You'll do a campaign taking place in the 300s CE and then the very next campaign is in the 200s BCE. As a history teacher, I know full well that you don't always teach history in a strictly chronological order, but when all of your campaigns (in the second half, anyway) deal with the Roman Empire, I feel like chronology is a good thing to maintain there. At least the campaigns themselves are pretty fun, and they do a good job of talking about the events they're depicting in the instruction section before you start each mission. I also need to give the devs a shout-out for using CE and BCE as opposed to the archaic and inherently sectarian AD and BC. For those who don't know, AD is "Anno Domini" which is Latin for "In the year of the Lord," and BC is "Before Christ." Those are, for reasons that should be obvious, not fit for a secular academic context. Instead, academics use CE for Common Era and BCE for Before Common Era.
All things considered, Age of Empires Definitive Edition is an exemplar of what a remaster should be in my opinion. They don't add much, but they don't take away, either; they give you a game you remember fondly from childhood (or adolescence) but make it prettier and smoother to fit with modern standards. The scenario and campaign creators are kept fully intact, the campaigns are kept intact, and the cheats are kept functional. They've also increased the number of units you can select at one time and the number you can have assigned to a specific hotkey (up to 36 from an original of 8 or 16 if memory serves). It's Age of Empires that you don't need Windows 95 to run well, and it looks great on modern displays. What more could an old school RTS fan ask for?
My Rating - 5 Neps
Doom Eternal (Xbox One)
Also available on PlayStation 4, Switch (release date TBD as of writing), and Windows
Doom 2016 is, in my opinion, the best game in the entire Doom series, so when the follow-up, Doom Eternal, got announced, I was more than a little excited. The fast paced goregasm balls-to-the-wall action that the 2016 reboot offered with the promise of more lore and 4K visuals (okay, technically 1800p on Xbox One X, but close enough for console) had me positively salivating. When Doom Eternal finally dropped, what we got made some changes that has the fanbase kind of divided over which game is better, 2016 or Eternal, but is nonetheless an absolute masterpiece.
The timeline can be more than a little confusing for Doom, but given how much world-building Doom Eternal does, something that the 2016 game started putting some real emphasis on, it's worth mentioning. For the most part, the games' releases are the order in which the timeline takes place minus Doom 3 which is almost certainly a parallel timeline. There's some debate over whether 2016 (and, thus, Doom Eternal) are another separate timeline or connected to the original timeline just 100 years in the future. Given how Doom 64 ends and how Doom 2016 starts, I say that 2016 takes place 100 years after 64, and that's backed up by some of the lore elements explored in Doom eternal. Or you could just disregard the story and massacre demons. Normally story is a core part of the experience in my opinion, but with Doom, I tend to make an exception for folks given how damn satisfying the combat is.
I've seen a lot of folks including close friends of mine say that Doom Eternal is the absolute peak of the series if not the best FPS game ever made. While I don't quite heap that much praise on it, it is an absolutely phenomenal game. The visuals, obviously, are unbelievable on Xbox One X, so I can only imagine how impressive they'd be on max PC settings. The combat, as I've mentioned, is also extraordinarily fun and addicting. It's very different from your standard FPS, though, and that can take some getting used to. There's no aiming down the sights, there's no reloading, there's no crouch, there's no stealth, there's no cover system. You rush forward, guns blazing, chainsaw roaring, and zip from enemy to enemy to finish them off with a glory kills so brutal that some could put Mortal Kombat to shame. That actually brings my only major complaint with the game - the Marauders.
These are new enemies introduced in Eternal. The Marauders definitely introduce some serious challenge to the game, but it's an addition that acts as a detriment to the game in my opinion. Unlike most enemies where the basic strategy is "throw an enormous amount of firepower while avoiding attacks," the Marauder is an extremely defensive enemy. If you're too close, he blasts you with a shotgun. If you're too far, he throws red energy blades at you. If you're at a perfect Goldilocks distance, his eyes will glow green just before he rushes at you for a melee attack. When his eyes are glowing green is the only time you can deal damage (preferably with the Super Shotgun); attacking him any other time will cause him to automatically raise a red energy shield, blocking all damage. Throughout all this, he repeatedly spawns a glowing orange ethereal wolf to attack you. The wolf only takes a couple shots to disperse, but the Marauder will keep respawning it throughout your fight. If it's just you and the Marauder, it's really annoying but doable; if it's you, the Marauder, and other demons, you're in for a fight tougher than most boss battles depending on what demons are there and how many. The biggest problem that I have with the Marauders is that they just break the flow of the gameplay. 95% of the game is frantic, intense, fast paced action, but the Marauder completely negates that, requiring you instead to take a slow and methodical approach of just waiting for an opening before getting off a shot or two. I loved almost all of Doom Eternal, but those Marauders were, in my opinion, distinctly NOT fun at all.
One of the things I love about Doom Eternal is the upgrades and collectibles (including secret unlockable cheat codes that you can activate when replaying a previously cleared mission). Each weapon except the Super Shotgun and BFG-9000 has to weapon mods that can be unlocked, and each of these mods have two or three upgrades that can be unlocked. If you unlock every upgrade for a mod, you can complete a challenge to unlock a "master upgrade" for that mod. Likewise, your suit has five categories each with a handful of upgrades to unlock. Some of these suit upgrades are directly combat related, like faster grenade cooldown or freezing enemies longer with ice grenades, whereas some are more passive upgrades, like a wider area of auto-map fill-in or faster ledge grabbing. There are also upgrades you can get with Sentinel crystals which will let you upgrade your max health, max armor, or max ammo a few times as well as giving a few other bonuses depending on what specific upgrades you choose. Lastly, there are runes to unlock that can change your gameplay experience. You can have three runes active at a time, and they provide upgrades like doing a glory kill from farther away, having a chance to survive a death blow once, etc. All of these various upgrades and options really allow you to mold the game to suit your preferred playstyle in a way that a lot of games don't allow.
Doom Eternal may not technically be perfect in my book, but it's pretty damn close. Take out the Marauders, and it would pretty much be a perfect shooter in my opinion. It's also hard as balls; as a long-time champion of playing games on Bitch Mode because I'm a busy adult with too many other games I want to play, I feel only minimal shame in admitting that I played this game on the lowest difficulty and still got my ass handed to me a few times. Granted, a huge part of that is because I suck at video games (despite how many I play), but this game's overall challenge is legitimately a lot higher than Doom 2016. That's not a bad thing, mind you, but man, it really drives home the hectic insanity of the combat. If you like Doom, shooters in general, or just gore for the sake of gore, you owe it to yourself to play this game. Play it on PC if you're a graphics whore. Play on PS4 or Xbox One if you're a regular gamer. Play it on Switch once it comes out if you're a cool kid like me. Whatever you do, though, play it. It's fantastic.
My Rating - 5 Neps
Wolfenstein 3D (Steam)
Also available on Super Nintendo, Jaguar, 3DO, Mac OS, Acorn Archimedes, Apple IIGS, Game Boy Advance, Xbox, Linux, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, iOS, and Android
Having recently played through the entire Doom series, I had the itch revisit id's FPS breakout success from 1992, the legendary Wolfenstein 3D. I had played some of the console ports of Wolfenstein 3D - mainly the horribly censored SNES port and the glorious Jaguar port - but I'd never played through all six episodes start to finish. After a friend of mine heard this and took serious offense at the prospect of my playing a console port, I had an e-mail to redeem a gift copy of Wolfenstein 3D on Steam. The next eight hours were filled with Nazi killing and my own screams of frustration at the massive two-dimensional mazes that make up the game.
Because I had played Wolfenstein 3D before I played Doom back as a kid, it never struck me just how different these games play. Doom had always just been "a better Wolfenstein with demons instead of Nazis," but going back as an adult and playing Wolfenstein 3D after recently playing both Doom and Doom II, the differences are FAR more stark than I realized as a child. Despite being "3D," Wolfenstein is an entirely 2D game, just from a first person perspective. There are no stairs, no elevators, no ramps, no higher or lower levels. Unlike Doom, each level is just a large maze on a single plane. Somehow this aspect of the game had faded from my memory, and that aspect leads to a VERY different gameplay experience than Doom.
The other thing that struck me about Wolfenstein 3D is how primitive the game is compared to Doom. The visuals obviously are much more primitive, but the game itself just feels and plays a lot more primitive. You've got four weapons - a knife, a pistol, a submachine gun, and a chaingun - but you've really only got two weapons - knife and gun. That gun has three different firing rates depending on what you choose, but they all use a common pool of ammo, and there's not really any point in using anything below the fastest firing because they all do the same damage per shot from what I could tell. The game just doesn't feel quite as smooth or fluid, either. Maybe that's because the version I played was the original DOS release running in Steam via DOSBOX whereas I played a Switch port of Doom that probably had some smoothing under the hood, but it felt like a more radically different experience than I was expecting. Not bad, per se, but definitely different.
In my Doom review, I said that the gameplay was still just as satisfying as ever even if the graphics hadn't aged well. I'm not sure I can say the same about Wolfenstein 3D. To be clear, I still had a blast playing Wolfenstein for the most part (Episode 5 Floor 7 can die in a fire, though), but as a whole product, it definitely hasn't retained all of the playability that Doom has. It's ABSOLUTELY still worth experiencing and playing, especially if you love to kill Nazis (and if you don't, get the hell off my blog), but it's clear that id learned a lot and improved a lot in the year between Wolfenstein 3D and Doom.
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.