LTTP: It Takes Two [Xbox]

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It took us a couple of months, but we finished Hazelight Studio’s It Takes Two. I didn’t intend on trying it any time soon, but after hearing so much positive buzz surrounding it, I suggested it to my fiancée after the game appeared on Xbox Game Pass and we took to it quite quickly. Momentum waned a bit as the story and character motivations were watered down to pad out video game ideas, but we kept coming back to it and eventually finished it.

I didn’t play A Way Out, but I played Josef Fares’ directorial debut, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. His first game felt cohesive and concise. It Takes Two was incredibly well polished, filled to the brim with lavish content, and neat gameplay ideas, but the story felt thin and couldn’t reasonably justify the length of the game. I felt they didn’t need to invoke the rule of three in order maintain a better pace.

There were a lot of fun and interesting co-operative gameplay ideas that kept me motivated; every new area and level was like a small jolt of “wow”.  We both knew the story was going to wrap up in the proverbial tidy bow, but I was legitimately impressed with how much new stuff we kept seeing. The pervading thought mind through all of this was: “This is what Electronic Arts money gets you. And they’re going ham with it!” It’s a bit of a weird comparison, but I had the same feeling with Max Payne 3. It’s impressive how much high quality work was used or experienced just once and never seen again.

Friendly checkpointing, generous aim assist, and well designed challenges kept engagement high and frustrations low. That may seem like a throwaway compliment, but not even the great Nintendo can execute on the high bar that Hazelight Studio set with this game. I was consistently impressed with how they created common ground for two video game players on the opposite sides of controller proficiency.

The story was very predictable and while there were some cruel moments involving a stuff elephant, nothing surprised us on that front. It served as simple fodder or kittling for discussions for us. We either both agreed on the outcomes that transpired or who was “in the wrong”. We didn’t break out into any multi-hour discussions, but I think we still appreciated those discussion prompts.

It Takes Two was a triumph in co-operative games for the simple reason that it was something that my partner and I could sit down and play together without having it be entirely a shooter of some kind. Co-operative puzzle platforming was interesting for the both us and we were able to contribute in our own way; it wasn’t just video game skill leading the way. It could have used a bit more editing and it wouldn’t have hurt to see the story visit new territory, but in the end it was a fun time and I still highly recommend it.

Verdict:
I liked it!

Ratings Guide

LTTP: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

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Third time’s the charm with Vanillaware and I. I tried Odin Sphere, but found the original PS2 release onerous to play. (The remaster was only marginally better.) I didn’t like Dragon’s Crown Pro either so I really didn’t pay much attention to 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim until I started seeing the praise and noticing that it wasn’t a beat ’em up game like their previous works. I was cautiously optimistic so I put it on the watch list and finally picked up a copy during Boxing Day 2021.

I generally like the look of VanillaWare games despite their grotesquely proportioned women. Things were looking up for 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim though; it only had one character was stupidly busty. The rest of the cast was fine, but a majority of them weren’t instantly memorable. Generic anime high schooler was a very common through line.

VanillaWare aren’t a big budget studio and they tend to wring out a lot of use with what they make. With Odin Sphere and Dragon’s Crown, the backdrops, character animations, and gameplay ideas were reused to their breaking points. Unfortunately for beat ’em up styled games, that breaking point hits me very fast. 

13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim mitigated wearing out their assets in a few ways. Firstly, they developed a story that justified the need to see events from different character’s perspectives. They made it actually interesting to revisit areas to reveal meaningful story tidbits. 

Secondly, they metered out exposure by splitting up the gameplay and story segments and then gating progress based on the different characters and battles. Subdividing the story into different character arcs may have been a source of frustration early on, but it ensured I wasn’t burning out on any one thing too quickly; they saved me from myself and I ended up appreciating it.

The story started off quite slow and reserved. After the tutorial and character introductions were out the way, the pace and science fiction tropes began flowing. The tropes may sound like a knock against 13 Sentinels, but there were so many of them that it somehow all gelled together to create something that compelled me to come back to on a nightly basis.

I was initially invested because of the strategy gameplay scenarios, but by the end, I just wanted to know how this wild story pieced itself together. I was content with the ending and even got a tiny bit misty eyed with some of the revelations and moments in the epilogue. 

I had reservations about the size of the cast. I thought I would lose track of storylines and wondered how many of them would resonate. As it turns out, if you spend enough time steeped in this game (just over 30 hours), you get to know everyone and everything rather well. Thankfully they included an easily accessible events timeline and information files that I could peruse at any time for a refresher.

I don’t think it’s a controversial opinion, but I despised the selfishness of Megumi Yakushiji.

Whenever I feel a strong negative reaction to a character’s actions, and discuss hypotheticals with my fiancee about a character’s decisions, I praise the writers for making me care enough about their story. While her choices ended up working out, her motivations were not just and nobody will ever call her out on it — in fact, she gets a very happy ending which upon reflection, sends the message: Obeying talking animals and shooting your friends with mystery bullets always pays off.

The gameplay half of this game was very straightforward, but I felt like I broke it from the get go. As soon as I was able to generate A.I. controlled interceptors and sentry turrets, I kept dumping upgrade points into it and then kept spamming them in battles. I S ranked every mission except for the last couple on the first try. I figured the game would force me to change tactics at one point, but it turns out that investing in drones, chainsaw swords, and EMPs was enough to bulldoze everything. Don’t get me wrong, I still found it satisfying to stomp through the hordes of enemies, but I was hoping for a bit more variety in the objectives. 

I ended up liking 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim quite a bit, but when I evaluate its component pieces, I realized a lot of what I liked about it was in the cutscenes and story payoffs. The strategy gameplay missions were serviceable if not repetitive. The adventure/story segments were not interesting mechanically often exposed the limits of asset variety as well. What made this game work was how the gameplay, story, and mysterious context of everything melded together to deliver an experience that warranted all that repetition. Intrigue and curiosity took me a long way with this and thankfully for me, I had boatloads of both.

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

Metroid Dread Review

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11 years. That’s how long it took Nintendo to release a new 2D instalment in the Metroid franchise. It took them a long time to find someone else to pick up the mantle after the disappointing Metroid: Other M. The Dread project was given to MercurySteam after they proved themselves with the awesome Metroid: Samus Returns.

Metroid Dread played like a very refined Metroid: Samus Returns. Samus’ parry ability and 360 free aim returned, but she also developed the ability to slide under openings that were previously only accessible with the Morph ball. Additions like that and the wall climbing made her feel more versatile and nimble while staying with the confines of the game’s structure. She still required the staple of abilities like the Morph Ball, Space Jump, and Power Bombs to unlock the map.

The flow of the game did not deviate much from the Metroid games before it. There were little wrinkles like teleporters that brought Samus from one area to another to cut down on back tracking, but progress was still gated by abilities. 

The big “disruption” to progress were the E.M.M.I. encounters that offered a change of pace. I liked the idea of being hunted by an indestructible robot foe, but I didn’t like the punishment for getting caught. I might as well just skip to the Game Over screen because having to guess the right window to parry and escape the killer robots’ attacks was not fun. Samus would eventually obtain the ability to cloak and hide, but that would just delay the inevitable if she took the wrong turn somewhere. I found myself focusing on running away or kiting the E.M.M.I. through long winded paths just to buy Samus time to make her way to her destination. I would have preferred if the E.M.M.I. just sapped large chunks of her life away when Samus got caught.

Taking away health would have forced me to a bit more careful with platforming. The bosses kicked Samus’ ass, but the fodder enemies were easily dispatched thanks to the heavy reliance on the parrying mechanic. It’s not a slight against that mechanic, but perhaps one shot killing every enemy after a successful parry was a bit much.

I played Dread entirely in handheld mode which is made me consider picking up an OLED model. I found the game to look very nice on the original Switch’s LCD, but I know all those colors would have popped even more on an OLED. I only wish the game didn’t struggle to maintain its silky smooth framerate; there were a handful of areas where there were just a few too many X parasite thingies to render.

It’s been a long time since I thought about the X parasites and Metroids squaring off. Their introduction in Fusion brought a substantial change to Samus that I found functionally interesting, but aesthetically cringy. Making Samus more biomechnical was an interesting idea in Fusion, but I didn’t enjoy the path they went down in Dread. By the end, Samus became stupidly powerful and wouldn’t look out of place hanging out in the Kingdom of Atlantis as some kind of crustacean themed dark knight. It didn’t resonate with me at all. 

Weird suit transformations and other tiny misgivings aside, I really enjoyed my time Metroid Dread. It nearly convinced me to pick up a Switch OLED. I had such a good time playing through the game, and unraveling the map like a good one of these games should do. It took Nintendo a long, long time to add to the Metroid franchise, but they finally did and it was worth the wait.

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Yakuza Kiwami 2

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Yakuza 2 on the PlayStation 2 was an eye opening experience for me. It was my first Yakuza title and it was also my first time experiencing a smidgen of life in Japan. The neon of Japanese nightlife, the small cramped alleyways, the hostess clubs, and the art of punching tigers in the face. Yakuza Kiwami 2 allowed me to revisit all those wonderful memories through its faithful remake of that 2006 cult classic.

When I think back at Yakuza 2, I see Kiwami 2. The character models, the cutscenes, the cities; all the years of playing Yakuza games slowly evolved that image of Yakuza 2 to what Kiwami 2 actually looks like. The reality is anything but. I took a look at some screenshots and footage from that old PS2 game to remind myself how far the series progressed in the last 15 years.

While it plays and looks a whole lot better than the old PlayStation 2 version, I’ve grown accustomed to playing this game at 60 FPS and I really wish that was an option on the Xbox Series X. It runs fine on the console, but the sluggish response makes navigating in the cluttered and crowded streets of Osaka awkward. It’s hilariously awkward, but not ideal if I were trying to evoke the calm and cool Kiryu Kazuma demeanor.

 The story beats were as I remembered which only reminds me of the disappointment of not seeing Kaoru Sayama play a role in subsequent Yakuza game. I recognize that other prominent characters introduced in one game would fade away in the future games, but she was Kiryu’s love interest and the lame way that she just disappeared in Yakuza 3 and to never return was a bummer.

While the core story remained intact and relatively untouched, the peripheral activities and side missions received more significant reworks. The hostess management game from Yakuza 0 made its way here along with a brand new real time strategy game involving Majima’s construction crew fending off gangsters guest starred by Japanese wrestlers. I’m not familiar with any of those names, but they gave off strong wrestling vibes. 

I didn’t spend much time with either of those activities. I spent more time playing Riichi Mahjong which I actually learned how to play for the first time. It was similar to Hong Kong Mahjong which I learned earlier this year so I wasn’t going in blind. 

I also spent a fair bit of time completing all the side missions and trying to impress Haruka by taking her places around Osaka and Kamurocho. The latter I gave up on after her demands became increasingly ridiculous. Taking a little girl to various eateries around the Osaka was one thing, but her request for me to dominate a poker game in a seedy underground casino was just too much. This little girl needs to stop hanging out with Kiryu.

I declared Yakuza 2 as the best of the series for the longest time only to have it be dethroned by the excellent Yakuza 0. I wondered how well Yakuza 2 would hold up many years later and I’m glad to see that it has. It’s still the second best Yakuza title. I have yet to play Yakuza 5 and Like a Dragon, but I doubt they would do much to sway my opinion on this.

Framerate preferences aside, revisiting Yakuza Kiwami 2 was a pleasure. An engaging story set between two iconic Japanese locations filled with drama and over-the-top action? What’s not to love? With the remasters, remakes, and the availability of a majority of these games on Xbox Game Pass, it’s never been a better time to check out this weird and wonderful franchise.

Verdict:
I liked it

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