Also available on iOS, Android, and Windows
Back in 2001, there was a PC horror game released exclusively in South Korea called White Day: A Labyrinth Named School, and while being released exclusively in Korean and in South Korea kept it from attaining worldwide fame, it did garner somewhat of a cult following. In 2015, the game was remade for mobile phones and released originally exclusively in South Korea before getting a worldwide release a few months later. In August of 2017, it was ported to Windows and PlayStation 4 with a worldwide release.
When I first read that White Day was not only getting released in North America but a physical release as well (though the physical release came out a month after the digital release), I was extremely excited. I'd not heard of the original game before reading about this remake, but I'm a big fan of East Asian horror. Western horror so often relies on serial killers or natural monsters (zombies, werewolves, etc), but Eastern horror is far more likely to be rooted in religious mythology and the supernatural, and I find stories with those themes to be FAR more interesting and frightening.
A little history lesson (since I am, after all, a history teacher) for those who aren't familiar with the holiday White Day (I wasn't before I googled it for the game) - White Day is a companion holiday to Valentine's Day celebrated primarily in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. Valentine's Day, like in the West, is February 14, but it's traditionally just for girls to give chocolates to guys either out of romantic interest, friendly courtesy, or social obligation. White Day, on the other hand, is always one month later - March 14 - and when guys are expected to "return the favor" so to speak. They give chocolate and gifts to girls they fancy, but there's also a social expectation that they give gifts to any girls who gave them something on Valentine's Day regardless of their personal feelings for her. Also, as a bit of fun trivia, there's a social rule of thumb that a guy's White Day gift needs to be two to three times the approximate value of the Valentine's Day gift he was given. Anyway, the premise of the game White Day is that you're this high school student in South Korea who recently transferred to a new school. You notice that this girl you have a crush on left her diary at the school, so you go to the school at night to give her the diary and the White Day gift you got for her (I assume by putting them in her desk or something; that's never made clear). I'm just kind of assuming that showing up at your high school at 9 pm isn't nearly as weird in Japan and South Korea as it would be in the United States because it seems not to be an uncommon setting for Eastern horror games.
To avoid big spoilers, I'll keep the conflict explanation brief, but basically the high school's main building was used as a hospital during the Korean War, and a lot of wounded soldiers and civilians are thought to have died there. There was also a "cursed" pond on the property that trapped the soul of anyone who died in it. The school eventually needed to expand and erected a new building on top of the pond after filling it - the Korean equivalent of building a house on a Native American burial ground, I presume - and eternally screwing up the building's feng shui and basically turning it into the Bobby Mackey's Korean Music World. At 10 pm, the school's doors automatically lock or something, so you and these three other dumb chicks are trapped in this hella haunted school that's patrolled at night by a couple of legitimately psychopathic janitors with baseball bats. Between the pissed off ghosts, insane custodians, and typical high school drama when you've got three chicks and dude trapped in the same building under stress, you have to find a way to escape the school without getting possessed, mutilated, or bludgeoned to death. Unfortunately, the story is only a little more clearly told by than the game than it was in these past two paragraphs.
If I didn't know that it's the remake of a 16 year old game, I'd say that it was inspired by Outlast and Amnesia because the complete lack of combat ability is very reminiscent of those games especially Outlast. Throughout most of the game, you're by yourself as you try to solve the mysteries of the school's dark history, find out what's going on with your classmates, and find a way out of the school. The choices you make along the way determine your ending, and there are 12 possible endings, giving the game a lot of replay value. Fortunately each playthrough only takes between six and seven hours on average, so it's not a particularly daunting game to play through multiple times. Some of the puzzles do bring to mind puzzles in the older Resident Evil games albeit simpler puzzles, and that's absolutely a good thing. The various puzzles and riddles aren't terribly difficult to figure out, but most of them do require you to stop and think for a minute or two. In that regard, the gameplay and overall game design are both extremely well done.
Graphically, the game looks very good when you consider its origins; it is, after all, a port of an Android and iOS game. The sound design, unfortunately, leaves a lot to be desired; the game may look very nice, but it sounds terrible. The voice acting, while not nearly as bad as Pokken Tournament's, is very hit or miss. One of the characters sounds fine - not great, but not awful - but the others all sound like actual high school students recorded the dialogue for a class project. It's not just the voice acting, either; the sound effects and enemy sounds are horrible. The janitors will whistle this same tune that doesn't even flow particularly well over and over again, and while it's great for giving you a rough idea of where they are in relation to you, it gets annoying quickly. Most the ghosts' sound effects feel rather bland, but the biggest offender is the final "boss." You know those cheap Halloween decorations at Walmart and Dollar General that just go "OoOoOoOoOoOoO" when you press a button, and you're about ready to kill your kid if he pushes again after the second time? That's the boss - completely uninterrupted - over and over again for the entire fight. It's unbearable, and it legitimately put a big ol' mark in the game's "minus" column for me.
One thing that the game does get very VERY right, however, is the atmosphere, and that creepy atmosphere makes up for its serious sound sins. White Day isn't scary because there are hoards of zombies chasing you while you have precious few bullets, and it's not scary because there's a giant mutated behemoth after your blood; it's scary because it establishes the feeling of alienation and isolation extremely well. It's really not even the janitors that are scary although being chased by them isn't pleasant by any means; they're more of an annoyance than anything else. The general feel and mood of the game is what makes it so damn creepy, and that's EXACTLY the kind of feeling that I want from a horror game. The little touches are also done better than just about any game I've ever played. Unexplained footsteps can be heard above you, a knock on the window will jar you from your puzzle solving, and random rattling glass will startle you when the suspense winds you up too tightly. Almost absent are jump scares, and "almost" is the operative word there; there are really only two or three jump scares in the game, and because they're so scarce, the very few that are in the game are used to great effect.
I feel very conflicted about White Day, truthfully. It looks nice, the school's backstory is really interesting, and the atmosphere is almost flawlessly executed; but the storytelling leaves some to be desired, the voice acting is bad, and the general sound effect design is just terrible. All things considered, however, I still think that this is worth playing for horror fans and especially fans of Eastern horror. Preferably borrow it from a friend or wait for a good Steam sale, but despite the game's flaws, it's still a good time. I thoroughly enjoyed my six hours with it, and I fully intend to come back to it later to see some of the other endings.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Pokken Tournament DX (Switch)
Also available on Wii U
Pokken Tournament was one of the most unique Wii U exclusives and really could have (and should have in my opinion) been a system seller. While part of me is always disappointed to see a game for my favorite underdog console lose exclusivity, it really would have been a shame for Pokken Tournament to have been played by so few gamers relatively speaking, but what would be a bigger shame is for console players (as opposed to arcade) never to have gotten the extra content added over time since Nintendo and Bandai did not deign to give Wii U owners any of the arcade DLC.
For those who aren't familiar with Pokken Tournament, it's a fighting game with Pokemon characters. Given that it was developed by Bandai Namco, it feels a lot like Tekken in many ways, although it's important to note that Pokken definitely does have a very distinctive feel that makes it far more than just "Tekken with Pokemon." The game features 21 playable Pokemon as well as 32 non-playable assist Pokemon (which are bound in preset pairs) as well as a very nice variety of stages with an array of themes. There's a single player mode, online play, local play, and - added to DX given the handheld nature of the Switch - a wireless play mode. The game gives an all around very nice choice of game modes, stages, and characters. The cherry on top is that has a clever "phase" system that will switch between a 3D "Field Phase" and a 2D "Duel Phase" whenever a player makes a strong hit. It sounds like it would get jarring and obnoxious, and I'm sure that there are some who dislike it, but I personally find it to be an extremely clever feature that flows very well and adds a depth and quirk to the game that makes me stand out from the fighting game crowd even more.
Given that Pokken Tournament DX is an enhanced Switch port of the original Pokken Tournament for Wii U, the game is mostly the same as the original release although there are some key differences.
First and foremost, the four characters added post-launch to the arcade game that were omitted from the Wii U port - Croagunk, Empoleon, Darkrai, and Scizor - are all included as well as one character that neither the arcade version nor the Wii U version will get - Decidueye. Also exclusive to the Switch port is a new pair of support Pokemon - Litten and Popplio. My only real complaint with the character roster here is that Shadow Mewtwo is unlocked right from the start; in the Wii U version, you had to finish the story mode in order to unlock Shadow Mewtwo or use the Shadow Mewtwo amiibo card included in the first print of the Wii U game. Not only is it nice to have the "boss" character as a goal to unlock, but it does kind of suck that my sexy Shadow Mewtwo card doesn't really have any use here. Sad face.
While the Wii U wasn't a graphical powerhouse and, as a port, the Switch version doesn't make any big changes to the visuals, the game is still a very good looking game. There's an impressive amount of detail on the character models that make the Pokemon feel more "real," for lack of a better word, and they ever did in the other games. The music - especially on the Magikarp Festival stage - is also fantastic. Legit I think Magikarp Festival has the greatest background music of any stage in any fighting game ever made. It's a light but infectiously catchy EDM beat that you'll start bobbing to without realizing it. While Magikarp Festival certainly stands out as the most memorable, all of the music in the game is quite well done. The sound design in general is, for the most part, quite good with attack sound effects that make the stronger hits really have a satisfying feel to them.
Most fighting games aren't really known or played for their narratives and single player campaigns, but as such things are a big deal to me, I have to address Pokken Tournament's story mode. In the context of fighting games, it's not terrible, but it's certainly not one of the better single player experiences I've played. The story itself is okay - something made Mewtwo turn dark and go crazy and you, for some reason, seem to be the only one able to stop him and turn him back to normal - but it's not particularly memorable or compelling. The pacing is pretty bad; I understand that a lot of developers want to make a single player mode last more than an hour or two, but through a single playthrough of the story mode, I fought nearly 150 battles. When you've only got a character roster of 21 Pokemon, it starts to feel repetitive. I really think the single player could have benefited from some brevity. As tired and stale as the story mode itself can be, however, the greatest sin that this game's single player commits is having what is truly among the worst voice acting of this entire console generation. If HD graphics had been a thing in 1997, I'd absolutely believe that this game was from that year. That's how atrocious the voice acting is. It's bad enough that your "adviser" won't shut the hell up and even her "Please don't talk to me" option just makes her limit her obnoxious voice to before and after a battle, the terrible voice acting makes it extremely cringe-worthy. Just hit the mute button while characters are talking; none of them were voiced by legitimate actors.
While I found the story mode to be every bit as disappointing as I remembered from my Wii U playthrough a couple years ago, this is a game that not even I play for the single player. This is one of the few fighting games that I've found that I actually enjoy. It's extremely approachable with simple controls and easy to learn combos and controls that allow customization. It also supports the Pokken gamepad that Hori released back when the Wii U original came out, and the Wii U controllers are identical to the Switch branded one in all but color scheme and branding; 90% of my playthrough was done with my Pikachu Pokken controller. The online matchmaking is fast and stable, and the array of local play options make this a game that is absolutely able to fill the void until the inevitable Super Smash Bros game for Switch.
Pokken Tournament DX may not be the next Dreamcast Soul Calibur in terms of fighting game masterpieces, but it's an exceptionally well crafted and well balanced fighting game that's had more care put into its development than pretty much any traditional fighting game of this generation. Between its beautiful visuals, its clever 2D/3D hybrid style, and it's nearly perfect gamepad (assuming one chooses to buy one), it's an extraordinary game that is an absolute must-own for Switch owners and especially Pokemon fans. As fantastic as the Wii's Pokemon Battle Revolution was, a fighting game like this really is the closest we'll probably get to the Pokemon battles we all watched on the anime, and that's hella dope.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Shadow Warrior 2 (PlayStation 4)
Also available on Xbox One and Windows
Shadow Warrior 2 is the sequel to the 2013 Shadow Warrior which was a reboot of a 1997 game. I played the first Shadow Warrior reboot a few years ago, but when I saw that Special Reserve Games was doing a physical print of Shadow Warrior 2 (with the original Shadow Run included, too), I had to jump on that. Needless to say, I was not disappointed in the slightest once I finally got around to playing the game.
The basic plot of Shadow Warrior 2 without spoiling much is that you're an extremely skilled (and extremely crude) mercenary/assassin who has someone else's soul stuck in your body with you and who has to prevent an immortal goddess from opening the gates to some void and destroying the world. It takes a lot of Chinese mythology as its inspiration and strings the most gloriously ridiculous story and dialogue out of it.
At the end of the day, Shadow Warrior 2 is a first person shooter, but it's not a first person shooter like most others. The best way I can think of to describe it is Red Steel 2's gameplay with Duke Nukem's humor and Doom 2016's feel. You're using a triple barrel shotgun to blast demons in the face then finish them off with a sword all while making dick jokes. It definitely doesn't take itself seriously but still has rock solid gameplay and pretty dang good controls, and the dialogue and humor are absolutely the best parts of the game. Granted, you have to have a fairly immature sense of humor, but given that my sense of humor never developed past middle school, I loved every second of the game. There's some pretty decent character development over the course of the game as well, but that's honestly the weakest aspect of the writing.
The game's visuals, while not AAA level, are very good. The guns especially have had a lot of care and detail put into their models, and the enemy designs look great. While it's not exactly precise based on where you attack each time, enemies will have chunks blown or cut out of them if, say, you've shot them with a shotgun or cut them with a sword. You'll occasionally have ninja using one arm to attack you because you've cut off the other arm. When you blast an enemy point blank with a shotgun (especially if it's a triple barrel shotgun that fires all three barrels at once), their bodies explode in a cloud of red mist and viscera. Extremely reminiscent of Doom and exceptionally satisfying.
Shadow Warrior 2 isn't going to appeal to everyone. It's MUCH more goofy than serious, and it's almost as over-the-top with crude humor as Shadows of the Damned, but if you're into sex jokes and ridiculous weapons, it's a FANTASTIC game. There are side missions to complete and a ton of weapons to collect and try, so it's not lacking in content. I had an absolute ball with it, and whether you picked up the Special Reserve Games release or have it digitally, it is definitely worth a playthrough.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Dying: Reborn VR (PlayStation VR)
Dying: Reborn VR was the other game that I downloaded bundled with Weeping Doll, and at first, I was pretty into it. I quickly discovered, however, that UploadVR was spot-on when they gave their review the header "Should Have Stayed Dead." This is a brilliant example of what's wrong with VR - too short, too basic, and too expensive. Thanks god I got mine in that bundle on sale.
So here's the first issue with Dying: Reborn VR - it's not a full game. Oh, they charge the $10 price tag of a full game, but it's not one. Dying: Reborn on Vita and PS4 is a six chapter game; what you get in Dying: Reborn VR is abridged versions of the first three chapters. You get no conclusion or even the full versions of the first three levels. It's little more than a glorified and premium-priced demo. The story isn't even good, either, so I finished the "game" with zero desire to know how the full story ends.
Thankfully, when compared to Weeping Doll, the visuals are improved in Dying: Reborn VR, and the issue of audio cut out was absent. Unfortunately the sound effects were worse, the music was horrible and way too loud, and the voice acting is legitimately among the worst I've ever heard in a game. Not only that but it seems to have been done all in one take as the voice actors would say things completely different from the subtitles on screen and even stumble over their lines a bit. I actually HOPE it was done in one take because if that's the product of rehearsals, re-recordings, and editing, then I can only assume that they literally grabbed some random guy off the street and said "Here, you're voicing this character that no one will ever care about. You've got five minutes to rehearse."
Dying: Reborn VR managed to be an even worse game than Weeping Doll. It looks much better, and the atmosphere is certainly creepy, but the game just FEELS like a rip-off given that you're paying for what is, in reality, less than half of a game. That's a real shame, too, because the puzzles are actually pretty good. They're not masterful works of a genius or anything, but they make you think and are relatively enjoyable to solve. It sucks that those puzzles are completely undermined by a bullshit business model and no way to get the rest of the story short of buying the non-VR "full" game separately. Don't even bother with this no matter how much you love VR; if you want a mediocre "thriller" game with pretty good puzzles, just buy the normal Dying: Rebirth.
My Rating - 1 Nep
Weeping Doll (PlayStation VR)
Weeping Doll serves as proof that it's not just the Wii U that has astoundingly bad shovelware. I got Weeping Doll as part of a two-pack download during a recent PSN Flash Sale, and I'm extremely glad that I got the two for $5 instead of the usual $20 because, truthfully, even $2.50 is overpaying for this game.
The basic premise is that you're a maid to some rich family that calls you freaking about something trying to kill them. Naturally, you immediately set to work cleaning the house. Once you start hearing suspicious sounds, however, you realize "Hey, maybe something's amiss here" and start trying to figure out what's going on. 45 to 60 minutes of rudimentary puzzle solving and sub-par voice acting later, you're at the end of the game. About five minutes after that, you actually realize you're at the end of the game. The problem with the ending is that there isn't one, really; the story wraps up, but you're given no prompt that you've finished the game. You just wander aimlessly until you either get frustrated and quit or wander back into the foyer where you started and notice that all of the portraits on the walls have been replaced with the faces and names of the development team (although, truthfully, I'm not sure I'd want my name or face associated with this game). Oh, and when you're doing this wandering? There's no actual "movement" per se; you can pick where you want to go by positioning the character's ghostly looking outline, and then you press X to "warp" there pretty much. It's dumb.
The visuals look terrible even by PSVR standards, the sound effects are bare-bones and uninspired, and the voice acting is so bad that it wouldn't be the slightest bit out of place in the late 1990s. The story itself is moderately interesting for a little bit, but it quickly loses any charm it may have initially held. Add all this to the fact that the sound kept cutting out on me - which I originally thought was my ear buds messing up until I found that no other VR game gave me that issue - and you've got what could graciously be described as "a hot mess."
Weeping Doll is a straight cluster. The visuals are terrible, the sound effects are boring, the story is mundane, and the voice acting is horrendous. The puzzles do little more than insult your intelligence, and there's not a single scare to be found, either jump scare or atmospheric dread. There's seriously nothing redeeming about this game at all except "It's in VR" if you like virtual reality (I do), but even then, with Resident Evil VII's PS VR support, why would you even need this? If you can afford a PS VR headset in the first place, you can afford a game that's actually worth playing because this sure as hell isn't that.
My Rating - 1 Nep
Also available on PlayStation Vita and Windows
Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls is a spin-off to the Danganronpa series that takes place in the same timeline as the first two games but adopts a totally different genre. Whereas Trigger Happy Havoc and Goodbye Despair were mostly visual novels (albeit with some adventure and exploration involved), Ultra Despair Girls is a third person shooter. While the storytelling and overall tone of despair isn't quite as well done here as in the first two games, it's still a great game for fans of the Danganronpa series.
The game takes place shortly after the events of Danganronpa 2 and stars Komaru Naegi, little sister of the first game's protagonist, Makoto Naegi, and Toko Fukawa, one of the other characters from the first game. When a Future Foundation mission to rescue a "Captive" goes awry, the clueless and mostly helpless Komaru, recently rescued from an 18 month kidnapping and confinement, finds herself on a hostile island filled with homicidal Monokumas with only this bizarre and rather distasteful girl, Toko, to help her survive. Thus begins her mission to escape the Towa City and find out what the hell has been going on in the world since her imprisonment began.
The game is broken into five chapters, each one filled with a variety of (admittedly simple) puzzles and a boss fight. The game starts out extremely interesting as it gives a bit more backstory to what the survivors of the Killing School Life had been up to since their escape from Hope's Peak Academy. Unfortunately the plot goes from interesting to okay around the end of chapter 2. It's not that the writing suddenly tanks or anything. Rather it just feels like it plateaus a bit whereas the first two games kept taking the drama to new heights with each chapter. I do try to give credit where credit is due, however, and the writers did do an excellent job with Toko's character development. I felt that she was a fairly static character, all things considered, in the first game, and they really delved into her personality and flaws in this game, giving her character a depth that she never quite achieved in the first game.
Visually the game looks pretty much like you'd expect from Danganronpa with only fairly minor enhancements over the first two games. The sound, unfortunately, doesn't quite live up to the first game's masterpiece soundtrack. It's not bad, per se, but it's just pretty average all around. The enemy character designs are quite well done, though, even if the soundtrack doesn't stand out. Over the course of the game, you fight close a dozen different kinds of Monokumas, and different Monokumas require different strategies and different ammunition types. Each type of Monokuma is well designed and much more than just a pallet swap, something that a lot of games tend to fall victim to.
Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls doesn't really stand out as being particularly impressive, especially for those who aren't fans of the Danganronpa series, but it's a very competent even if average game. Those just looking for a good shooter may not find what they want here, but even if it ranks third out of three in this department, the story is worth playing through. It doesn't quite live up to the high standards set by Trigger Happy Havoc, but it's a good game in its own right. Just don't expect Game of the Year material.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Metroid: Samus Returns (3DS)
Metroid is a Nintendo franchise that I got into fairly late in the game - not until Metroid Prime Trilogy on Wii. I've picked up *most* of the series since then, but one that I still don't have is Metroid II: Return of Samus for Game Boy (although I do have it downloaded on my 3DS). When I saw the announcement this summer of a full remake of the game for 3DS, then, I was ecstatic. Not only do we get another modern 2D Metroid game, but it's a remake of the second chapter in Samus's story, one that I'd not gotten yet.
The basic premise of the game is that, after destroying the Space Pirate's Metroids and putting an end to Mother Brain, she is contracted once again by the Galactic Federation, this time to exterminate the Metroids on their home planet of SR388 to remove the threat that they could ever be used and weaponized again. So basically she's paid to commit a complete and total genocide. Aside from the plot and basic 2D action-platforming genre, however, Samus Returns is pretty much a completely different game from Return of Samus. The levels are completely different, there are power-ups and enemies that didn't appear in the original game, and the game is about twice as long. Both games do come on cartridges, however, but Samus Returns is actually in color, so that's a nice plus.
A lot of folks were disappointed (to put it lightly) when Metroid: Other M came out on Wii years ago, and without getting into that particular debate, I think all of those who felt burned by Other M will be extremely pleased with Samus Returns. This is the 2D Metroid game that longtime fans have been wanting and dreaming of. With one exception, the game plays like a dream with a near flawless framerate and silky smooth movement. My only complaint with the control is the grappling beam. Nine times out of ten, it works just fine and does exactly what it's supposed to, but there is one particular room in which the only way out - either back the way you came or forward - involves using the grapple beam to swing and grab on to a nearby ledge. This particular jump (it's the same on both sides) requires PERFECTION in your jump, and even when I was doing the exact same thing every time (as far as I could tell; clearly I wasn't actually), it was a total crap shoot whether or not Samus would actually grab the ledge. I probably had a 5% success rate on that jump, failing so much that I actually closed my 3DS and googled how to use the grapple beam just in case I was doing something wrong. That one instance aside, I never had a single complaint with the controls; every other screw up with clearly and obviously user error on my part, and with some practice, I managed to correct all of those.
While it really shouldn't surprise me that Nintendo manages to coax every scrap of power possible out of their hardware, I was surprised by just how good the game looks on 3DS. As I mentioned above, the frame rate is absolutely smooth, but the game looks beautiful as well, and those two things don't always go hand in hand. I've not played many Vita games that look quite as good as Samus Returns, and while there have been a few, that number isn't very high. The soundtrack, too, is every bit as impressive as the visuals. At no point, really, does the background music not fit the tone of whatever's going on, be it a boss fight, a sprint through a lethally hot room, or an unnerving gait through a barren clearing. It doesn't stop at the music, though; the entirety of the sound design is superb from the weapon effects to the enemy screeches to the minute ambient sounds, everything is expertly balanced so as to enhance the tone while never stealing the spotlight.
Although it's a late release in the 3DS lifespan, Metroid: Samus Returns is definitely one of the brightest first party gems of the handheld's library and an absolute must-play for fans of the Metroid series. While this is going to be a VERY unpopular opinion, I personally preferred Other M as far as gameplay goes, but Samus Returns is still an absolutely fabulous game. It's not particularly long - one can finish it in less than 10 hours if one foregoes a lot of optional backtracking - but it's an incredible journey with some seriously tough boss fights that will have you screaming in frustration. As is the case with well designed bosses, however, they're extremely manageable once you learn their patterns and their attacks. I absolutely recommend this game to anyone with a 3DS, and if you're a Metroid fan, I'd seriously suggest buying a 3DS or 2DS just for this game. It definitely makes up for the craptastic Metroid Prime: Federation Force.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Lego Worlds (Switch)
Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows
My childhood hopes and dreams are crushed. Lego Worlds had so much potential and lived up to absolutely none of it. This game should have been like Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign - even if it's not a perfect game, there's no way Traveller's Tales should have been able to screw this up. Unfortunately, just as Clinton found a way to lose to a xenophobe who open mocked a disabled man during a campaign event, Traveller's Tales found a way to make a sandbox Lego game kind of suck.
A lot of people have described Lego Worlds as "Minecraft with Legos," but that's not entirely accurate. I would say it's like No Man's Sky crossed with Minecraft but all made out of Legos. The box boasts "infinite worlds," and it's important to note what that means. The worlds are not infinite. On the contrary, the worlds are distressingly finite. The NUMBER of worlds are infinite because they're all procedurally generated. In fairness, some of the worlds are pretty big, but some of them are smaller than the Super Mario 64 level "Bob-omb Battlefield." As with Minecraft, you can build whatever you want, but it very quickly becomes apparent that the focus is more on the exploration than the construction. That's not necessarily a bad thing; especially when you find a huge subterranean cavern, it's a lot of fun to explore. What can make things a bit dull is that, given the size of Lego bricks, construction from scratch takes a LONG time, and the controls for it are extremely finicky. This is one way in which Minecraft's admittedly boring "literally everything is a cube" design is a boon; it makes construction much quicker and much more intuitive.
The reason that I say that Lego Worlds is a bit like No Man's Sky is not just because it's ridiculously disappointing (although that's also true of both games) but because the game turns into a mindless trudge through random worlds that all start to look the same on a hunt for increasingly hard to find objectives. The end goal of the game's Adventure mode is to collect 100 gold bricks and become a "Master Builder." At first, this seems like it shouldn't be too hard because the game throws gold bricks at you left and right for the simplest quests. The problem is that as your collection of gold bricks builds, the game gets stingier and stingier with them to the point where I explored whole worlds and couldn't find a single gold brick. That's not to say that there weren't any in that world, but that does bring me to the next major issue with the game - it's riddled with bugs. I haven't played on PC or the Switch's more powerful companions, there were a lot of instances in which there was a marker on my map - either a green marker for a quest, a blue marker for the shop balloon, or a gold marker for a special chest - but nothing was there. The chests are typically underground, so it makes sense that those aren't always immediately visible, but even after excavating right on top of the marker all the way down to the bottom of the map's Z axis, there would sometimes be no chest. Those instances weren't a majority of the time by any means, but I'd say that happened a good 10% or 15% of the time, and that's just way too much.
I suspect that the mysteriously empty quest and chest makers are rooted in this next issue, but there are a PLETHORA of performance issues in the game, or at the very least, in the Switch version. The frame rate on land is usually pretty fair - a few dips now and then, but nothing major - but the frame rate seems to drop to 10-15 frame per second underwater. When you're using the landscape tool to remove areas of land, the game will lag behind what you're trying to do if you try to remove more than a little bit. I used this method with the largest removal area that I could to dig down for chests, and the game would lag a full second a half behind the bricks I'm removing. Another issue with the caverns (or being underground in general) is that the camera will occasionally clip up above ground on its own, and about half the time, your character will get warped to the ground above. This may not sound like a big deal, but when you've spent the better part of a half hour exploring caverns to hunt for treasure chests in hopes of finding a gold brick or two, it's extraordinarily irksome to be ripped away and have no idea where the entrance to that cavern was or even where in it you were.
One of the GOOD features of the game is the second function of your "discovery tool," the tool with which you discover things. The second function of that is to place any object, person, or animal you've "discovered," but if you've found blueprints for Lego buildings or structures, you can "place" them as well, automatically building them. One of the BAD things about this feature is that no one bothered to spend any time on quality assurance for the Switch port as building these structures causes the game to absolutely CHUG along and - on rare occasion - completely freeze entirely. I was trying to build a big ass castle (because it's like a rule that in any sandbox construction game, you build a big ass castle) after I had found a couple gold bricks in a cavern, and about halfway through auto-building my castle, the castle just sort of quits building itself. The "bricks flying into shape" sound doesn't quit, and the little spinny white loading symbol is still in the middle of the Switch screen, but I can't move more than a few steps in any direction, and it just sits there. After like three minutes, I gave up and just closed the game and restarted. That doesn't happen too terribly often, but in my playthrough, it probably happened to me two or three times.
The one thing that the game does get right is the visuals. The game definitely looks pretty, and there are some really nice light effects on the bricks from which the world is made. The problem (yes, even with the stuff it gets right, the game screws something up) is that the draw distance is ABYSMAL. We're talking legit PlayStation 1 draw distances here, but unlike Silent Hill, Lego Worlds doesn't use any kind of pseudo-fog effect to hide its craptastic draw distance; the world just pops in an out of existence abruptly. This REALLY kills an otherwise pretty good initial presentation. To make matters worse, not only does the world wait until you're basically on top of it to render, but with a lot of the NPCs in the game, they take time to appear even when you're standing right beside where they should be. There were a few instances in which it took legit like 10 seconds for a quest person to appear, begging the question of whether those aforementioned empty quest makers were really empty or just taking their sweet damn time to load into the world.
Six paragraphs in, and I've barely even addressed the actual gameplay. As I mentioned, the game is more about discovery and exploration than anything else, and you've got a "discovery tool" to add stuff to your database. You can then summon anything in your database wherever you want including animals and vehicles to ride (I like the spaceships, personally). You also have a "build tool" that lets you build things from scratch with bricks, and a "copy tool" that lets you save a copy of anything you find in the world within a set three dimensional space and recreate it later with the discovery tool. Next you've got your paint tool that let's you - you guessed it - paint things. The thing that's kind of neat about this is that the color paint you choose can change the bricks' properties in some situations. If, for example, you paint a house with the "River Water" color, that house literally becomes water. Gravity doesn't affect water in Lego Worlds like it does in Minecraft (remember, the world world is made out of bricks), so the house will stand up like normal, but if you walk into a wall, you'll suddenly be swimming underwater. You can also open an inventory to select the various weapons that you've found for the admittedly limited combat in the game as well as a character customizer that lets you customize your character with parts from any of the various Lego characters you've discovered. I've not spent much time playing around with different options, but I do know that some character parts have different effects. For example, with your default character, you have a limited oxygen supply underwater, but if you use the skeleton head once unlocking it, you can breathe underwater (although I guess it would be more accurate to say "not have to breathe anywhere").
Lego Worlds is a functional game, but it stretches that description at times on Switch. I haven't tried multiplayer, either online or local, and I imagine that it would actually be decently fun with a friend, but it gets so monotonous so fast solo. There's some post-game stuff I could do, but honestly, I have zero incentive. If I find someone else who has the game for Switch and wants to play together, I may pick it back up and give it another shot, but really, it made a horrible first impression, middle impression, last impression, and every impression in between. Nothing about this game really impressed me, and because I had SUCH high hopes and hype for it, that made the disappointment sting so much worse. I really can't recommend this game to anyone unless you're a SUPER hardcore Lego fan. Hell, I'm a super hardcore Lego fan, and I still thought the game was pretty much garbage. There's definite potential, but without some No Man's Sky-level content updates, that potential is probably going to remain wasted.
My Rating - 2 Neps
Cosmic Star Heroine (Steam)
Also available on PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Linux, and OSX
Cosmic Star Heroine is a game I went into knowing nothing about, immediately felt very conflicted about, and then fell absolutely in love with. I started playing it because Colin said he was going to start it, and I like playing single player games alongside someone else and swapping experiences. When I fired it up and saw the 16-bit-esque pixel graphics, I immediately though "Oh Christ, another damn pixel art game..." but I had kept hearing good things about it, and my friend, Aaron, had given me the Steam code for the game a few months ago, so I decided I'd stick with it. Jesus Christ, I'm so glad that I did.
It's immediately evident that Cosmic Star Heroine takes a lot of inspiration from Chrono Trigger, Phantasy Star, and Mass Effect. It's a 2D JRPG like the former two games, but it has lot of playable characters from whom to choose and a save-the-galaxy sci-fi theme like the latter. Although I didn't realize this until I was about a third of the way through the game, it's made by the same folks who made the PHENOMENAL Cthulhu Saves the World and the (supposedly but I haven't played it yet) excellent Breath of Death VII, two other pixel art indie RPGs. While having satirical rather than serious plots, those games are extremely well regarded (as is Cosmic Star Heroine), so made perfect sense to me why I was enjoying this game so much once I realized that it was the same development team. As I later found out, Cthulhu and the protagonist from Breath of Death actually make cameo appearances as optional side quest bosses (as does the Raccoon City Police Department from Resident Evil 2).
The game plays like a fairly standard JRPG with a team of up to four playable characters (out of a total of eleven) and one non-player "support" character who gives certain buffs (+25% damage to organics, +25% healing, +10% exp gain, etc). Rather than a typical MP system, the game uses a "charge" system whereby your characters' abilities each have one use, and to recharge that ability, the character must spend a turn defending. The game is very approachable and doesn't get bogged down in grinding or meticulous item rationing like a lot of JRPGs because your characters' health is always restored after each battle. The game takes place almost entirely on three different planets with an almost-endgame dungeon and the actually-endgame dungeon away from those three planets. Once a certain point is reached, one can travel freely between the three planets and hunt sidequests and fight optional bosses.
The visuals, being pixel art, don't really stand out as WOW! levels of impressive or anything, but they are definitely well done, and the backgrounds and environments definitely have unique character and charm. The game's music is actually fantastic - something that's often neglected in indie RPGs - and it's the sound design along with the writing that really make the game shine. The music is always fitting for the situation or the locale, and the writing is extremely well done with a story that keeps players interested and engaged and characters who never bore and who are, for the most part, pretty well developed throughout the game's progression. The humor in the game is one of the best aspects of the writing in my opinion, and that will come as no surprise to those who've played Cthulhu Saves the World.
Cosmic Star Heroine is definitely an extraordinary indie game. I've become increasingly difficult to impress with indie games over the years, especially those that employ the done-to-death pixel aesthetic, but this game manages to do it. It's well written, brilliantly designed, and more playable than a lot of AAA games with cutting edge graphics and 3D game engines. It's a simple game, but it's an example of simplicity at its finest. With a handful of platforms supported (not to mention Limited Run Games' upcoming physical releases for Vita and PS4), this is a game that all RPG lovers need to play. I can promise you that it won't disappoint in the slightest.
My Rating - 5 Neps
Cave Story+ (Switch)
Also available on PlayStation Portable, Wii, DSi, 3DS, Linux, OSX, and Windows
Cave Story is one of the most well known and prolific indie game success stories. Of course, it's not an indie game anymore - major publishers picked it up for console ports and remasters - but it started life as one dude's project to make a bitchin' freeware game in his spare time. The Switch port, obviously, has had numerous features added, a redone soundtrack, and completely remastered visuals over the freeware PC original, but the heart of what makes the game special is way it tells a fairly unique story with likeable characters and a gameplay style that very much pays homage to the 2D Metroid games.
The back of the Switch box describes Cave Story+ as a "super-challenging shooter platformer," and that's an extremely accurate statement. I played on the lowest difficulty (because I'm a punk ass bitch), and I still found the game to be extremely challenging. You play as a little robot boy who finds himself in a cave full of monsters. You eventually make your way to a village of furries...or something...and some doctor is kidnapping them for some (presumably) nefarious ends. Most of the furries are jerks, but there are a couple who are pretty cool, so you decide to help them. Then the doctor does some more screwed up stuff, so you decide to caress his fleshy, human face with your cold, robot fist. There are a few endings depending on what you do in certain parts of the game, so you could save everyone just in the nick of time and be a big damn hero. You could also choose to let everyone die. They're not the most gratifying different endings, but it does at least add some replay value.
Visually, the game uses the "retro" aesthetic of which I'm extraordinarily sick, but it is done very well here, so I have to give credit where credit is due, and in fairness to the game, it first came out back in 2004, so it was before the torrent of dime-a-dozen "retro" indie games. The soundtrack is what really stands out, though. Obviously both have been dramatically enhanced over the preceding 13 years, but the end result is a good looking game in spite of my prejudice against pixel art and a truly stellar soundtrack. The level design is clever and challenging with secrets to find and death traps to avoid. The only problem I have with the design of the game is the use of set save points. I understand that specific, pre-set save locations are part of the challenge, but it's more an inconvenience to me than anything else, although the portable nature of the Switch does mitigate that somewhat.
Cave Story+ is a hard game for me to score, and I really am almost evenly torn between giving it a 3 or a 4 on my 5 point scale. I, personally, thought it was good but not amazing due to a number of stylistic choices - set save points, pixel art aesthetic, the use of a boss rush, for example - but those are subjective complaints, and it's not really fair to hold that against a game when trying to score it. The visuals are very well done despite being in a style for which I don't care, and the soundtrack more than makes up for that style choice. Save points irritate me, but I know their intended purpose, and while I think boss rushes are bullshit and not fun, there's nothing objective flawed about them, especially if you like the challenge. The game isn't particularly memorable or outstanding to me, but it's easy for me to see why it's so popular and why so many people hold it in such high regard. In terms of design and refinement, it really is an impressive game, and given how accessible it is these days, it's definitely a game I'd recommend everyone play at least once.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Windows, and arcade
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is a home port collection of Capcom's two Dungeons & Dragons arcade games - Tower of Doom (from 1993) and Shadow over Mystara (from 1996). The games play like beat 'em ups in the vein of the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Double Dragon games with some RPG elements thrown in because D&D. I downloaded the game on my Wii U during Capcom's recent sale for like $3, but I'd say this would be a good buy at up to $10 (though, if memory serves, the standard price is $15, and I do think that's a little steep).
The narrative is a riveting tale of a brave band of warriors' struggle to protect the realm from the evils of a dread warlock and his army of terrifying demons. Or something. I didn't really pay attention; as my characters' names, Titzzzz and Anal!!, demonstrate, I didn't take the narrative as seriously as I perhaps could have. They were accompanied by the only-slightly-more-seriously-named Pepsi and TSwift, respectively, since I played online with Colin. The game features your typical Dungeons and Dragons enemies - kobolds, goblins, ogres, beholders, a couple dragons, evil elves, etc. That familiarity can feel a bit stale to some, but it never leaves you feeling out of place since none of the enemies should be alien to those familiar with the fantasy genre.
With regards to visuals, both games show their age, although Shadow over Mystara features DRAMATICALLY improved visuals over Tower of Doom even considering the three year difference between them. Some of the scrolling backgrounds in Shadow of Mystara, especially towards the end, are really impressive. The sound design isn't as noteworthy, though it's perfectly competent. One thing that is worth pointing out, however, that changed from the first game to the second is the selection of playable characters. While the first game featured four playable characters, the second game expands the roster to include six or seven, giving some more options for different gameplay styles and adding some replay value. The single greatest aspect of this whole two-game collection, however, was in Tower of Doom. You're given branching paths a few times, and one of these paths offered the choice of facing a fearsome red dragon on your own to save this village instead of trying to rally allies. This is what Colin and I chose, confident that Pepsi and Titzzzz were a match for the foul beast. We were a little discouraged when it asked us three separate times if we were REALLY sure we wanted to fight this dragon that no one had ever managed to injure on our own, but we were confident! We then proceeded to die approximately seven times each over the course of about thirty seconds without even hurting the dragon enough to trigger its health bar. "Oh shit," we though to ourselves, "we should have listened to the stupid villagers; this thing really is invincible." Eventually, however, we managed to hurt it enough to get a life bar, and after a lot of struggling and a LOT of deaths, we manage to slay the monster. You were a worthy adversary, dragon; fuck you.
Having played both Tower of Doom and Shadow over Mystara within a couple of days of one another, I can compare the two fairly easily; and despite being older, more limited in terms of player character options, and far inferior graphically, Tower of Doom definitely comes out as the superior game in my opinion. That's not to say that Shadow over Mystara is bad by any means, but it made some changes that just didn't go in the right direction. The hit detection felt off - some attacks would look like they definitely should have hit, and some would leave you wondering how you didn't miss - and the way the health and lives were set up felt needlessly difficult. You were a bit sturdier than in Tower of Doom, but you got one life per continue. There's a mode called Vampirism that you can unlock, and activating that will restore a little of your health with each hit on an enemy, but even with that, there are a few bosses that have attacks that will kill you no matter your health with a single hit. That part didn't feel "unfair," per se, but it did feel like it made the game more frustrating than fun.
Dungeons & Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara is a good two-game collection from back in the early 90s' glory days of arcade beat 'em ups. The second one shows the mid-90s roots with its general not-as-fun-itude, but it's still a good game, and the inclusion of online multiplayer on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, and Steam makes it a blast go play through with friends. If you can find it on sale, absolutely give it a download if you're a fan of the genre. I'm not sure I'd suggest paying the full $10, but if you can find it for less than $3 like I did, do NOT pass it up.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Daytona USA (Xbox 360)
Also available on Saturn, PlayStation 3, Windows, and arcade
Daytona USA is the epitome of arcade racing perfection. Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure of playing the game in the arcades, and I've only played it a few times on Saturn, but when Colin told me that it was on sale for like a dollar or two on Xbox Live Arcade, I knew I had to download it as soon as I got home.
Daytona USA is a simple game - you drive a fairly standard stock car on one of three tracks and try to win. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity; it doesn't try to throw a million statistics at you to make a "hyper realistic" driving sim but rather perfect the basics of stock car racing. Of course, it's a little more involved than NASCAR - you're doing more than just making 2000 left turns (in two of the three tracks) - but it's very much an "easy to learn, difficult to master" sort of game. There are a handful of little secrets in the tracks, and the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 ports give some extra modes like time trials, various challenges, and even the bizarre karaoke mode. All of that is in addition to the online multiplayer via Xbox Live or PlayStation Network that gamers today have come to expect.
The visuals are fantastic for a 20+ year old arcade game. This port sees a nice bump to 720p and an unbroken 60 frame per second frame rate. The latter especially is a big part of what ensures an unforgettable racing experience. With such a simple game, there's not an enormous amount to say about Daytona USA, but the other side to that simplicity is that the gorgeous visuals and KILLER soundtrack really shine through. Anyone who is even tangentially familiar with Daytona USA will recognize the iconic "DAAAAAAYTOOONAAAAAA, LET'S GO AWAY!" of the intro song. Honestly, hearing that alone is worth the asking price in my opinion.
Daytona USA is not a complex game, but it's a masterful game. It may seem a bit shy in content by today's standards, but if you keep in mind that it first came to the arcade in 1993, it becomes clear just how special this game is. The visuals are a perfect fit, the music and sound effects are fantastic, the frame rate is rock solid, and it's just an all around uncommonly playable game. It's not often that a racing game will really knock my socks off, but this one absolutely did.
My Rating - 5 Neps
Here's a game I never expected to see exist - a Mario x Rabbids crossover game. It's also the only game that made me seriously question whether or not I was going to buy a Mario game. In the end, however, I decided my loathing of Rabbids was overpowered by my love of Mario, and I'm extremely glad that I fell on that side of the debate. I HATE Rabbids. Like, I hate everything about them. I hate the way they look. I hate they way they sound. I hate that their whole gimmick is to be the most annoying things on the planet. I hate them. I love Mario, though, and I love just about any Nintendo console exclusive. Thankfully, the game isn't as bad as it sounds. Just about everything about this game's appearance is deceptive at first - the stupid look of it, kiddy visuals, the notion of a game by Ubisoft that actually gets finished before it ships.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a turn based tactics game à la XCOM. While it's definitely not fair to say "It's just like XCOM!" it wouldn't be inaccurate to call it "XCOM Lite." For those of you who have played Civilizations Revolution, comparing that game to Civilization V is a lot like comparing this game to XCOM in terms of general scope. The gameplay and tactical choices are a lot narrower than in XCOM, the experience doesn't feel as grandiose, and the general presentation feels smaller scale, but the core of the game is the same. If you've played XCOM, then imagine that but smaller, simpler, and with Mario characters and Rabbids. The Rabbids are still insufferably annoying, but at least they're not as bad as they are in their own games for the most part.
If you've played Mario games before (and if you haven't, you've wasted your life up until now), you probably know that narrative isn't really a big factor there. For those interested, however, some science happens and Rabbids appear in this science-y chick's basement, and then some more science stuff happens, and the Rabbids get science-d away to the Mushroom Kingdom, and because Rabbids suck, the Mushroom Kingdom turns to shit, and then Mario is all "Dang, they messed up the kingdom. Guess I gotta do everything to fix it again" cause Peach is being her usual useless self, but then these Rabbids that are dressed like Luigi and Peach show up, and Mario's like "Cool, got myself a squad." So they're going along, shooting Rabbids in atypical totally-not-normal-Mario style, but then Peach is like "Psych, yo, I'm not useless in this game. Go go gadget shotgun!" and start blowing dudes' heads off (okay, so they turn into family-friendly blue science stuff) and being a general BAMF. Then Bowser Jr. is being a little shit like normal so you have to go beat the crap out of him and save the world. Or something like that. The story doesn't really make sense, but I'm pretty sure my version is better than the actual story.
So, stupid story aside (but really, I didn't expect anything different), Ubisoft actually got a LOT right with this game. It's not perfect - it was still developed by Ubisoft, after all - but it's REALLY good. The sound design, especially, stands out as stellar. The World 3 boss battle, in particular, was just stellar with regards to music. Even the overworld and results screen music, though, is extremely well done. Some of the game's soundtrack is original, but some of it - the most impressive parts, in my opinion - are arrangements of classic Mario tunes that long-time fans of the franchise will recognize right away. The visual design is great, too, with the Rabbids' costumes blending their stupid faces with Mario series character designs extremely well; the characters look true to their Mario counterparts while remaining distinctively Rabbid. For the most part, the environments and cut scenes look great, too, although there are certain instances - particularly some of the lava falls in World 4 - where you can see that the textures could have used a little bit more work.
Honestly, my only real gripes with the game are some performance issues and some somewhat uneven difficulty spikes. There were multiple instances throughout the game where the whole thing would freeze or hiccup for a second or two, sometimes during battle, sometimes on the overworld, and sometimes in a cut scene. It would always fix itself after a couple seconds and keep right on going like nothing ever happened, but it seemed far more prevalent in the latter half of the game. All in all, it felt like a little more testing and optimization could have been done, but as far as Ubisoft products go at launch, this is basically platinum tier. With regards to the difficult spikes, they generally weren't too bad, but going from World 2 to World 3 was a marked increase in difficulty, and about a quarter of the way through World 4, things got downright tough. 4-8 and the final boss in 4-9 were absolutely brutal, and I feel zero shame in admitting that I had to use the "Easy Mode" option for those last two fights. This is what I meant earlier when I said that the kiddy visuals are deceptive; I am absolutely confident that very, VERY few kids will be finishing this game on their own. It looks like it's for little kids, but the end of this game is worthy of any hardcore gamer.
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle was an unlikely game that I expected to find disappointing but ended up absolutely loving. Beneath the childlike and frankly stupid exterior (thanks to the damn Rabbids) lies a legitimate strategy game that is generally approachable but bears its teeth in full towards the end. There are a few minor performance issues as one should expect from Ubisoft, but the game looks good, sounds great, and plays beautifully. With challenges and scores awarded based on one's performance in each mission, there's a good bit of replay value there, and with story DLC - both solo and co-op - coming in the future, this is a game to which I'm sure I'll be returning.
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.