Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review

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  1. Excitement
  2. Accomplishment
  3. Plateau
  4. Drop off

Every Animal Crossing player goes through the same steps at their own pace. I’m on step 3. I invested over 125 hours into Animal Crossing: New Horizons and I still feel good about checking in on a regular basis. I am not making the headway that I expected nor is my island anywhere near as pretty as I hoped it was, but I’m okay with this. Animal Crossing: New Horizons landed at just the right time and has given me and many others a sense of routine and progression.

There’s technically a built-in goal that triggers the rolling of credits, but there’s still a lot more game to enjoy and experience. I wanted to build more bridges, arrange more landmarks, and furnish my multi-story house with weird and wonderful furniture.

My criticisms of Animal Crossing: New Leaf still ring true with New Horizons. The menus could be friendlier to navigate, repetitive dialog continues to plague players, and the general flow of everything is still as deliberate and plodding like it always is. New additions like crafting and terrain customizations give Animal Crossing big shakeups but all these features will be worn down by the Animal Crossing ethos. 

The lack of interactivity may not be a new gripe for long time fans, but it’s quite strange when there’s absolutely no interaction with certain objects. I can dive into the ocean after the July 2020 update, but I cannot do a damn thing with this hot tub that I just crafted. 

I was okay with the fact that Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a game about gathering items in the service of decorating. I decorated my island, my house, and my character. The real time aspect of the game continues to amuse me for days, weeks, and even months. Nintendo already released regular events and patches that introduced new content and functionality. Unfortunately, while they all satisfied the definition of new content, they don’t always satisfy. Re-adding the ability to swim and dive in the ocean is amusing, but taking photos for a pair of llamas? Not so much.

There are no surprises in Animal Crossing: New Horizons; players will know whether this appeals to them or not. How long before you reach the drop off point will depends on your level of patience. My fiancée went through all four steps within three weeks. There was so much excitement that she even considered getting a Switch of her own. I’m still puttering away on the island for the both of us. It can definitely be better, but at the same time, I also like it for what it is.

Verdict:
I like it

Ratings Guide

Gears Tactics Review

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When Microsoft announced a tactical Gears of War game in the vein of XCOM, I believe many were like me in thinking: this is a match made in heaven. Gears of War has the enemy variety, the weapon variety, and inherent cover focused gameplay to make the transition from third person shooter to a tactical strategy game. I had blind faith that The Coalition and Splash Damage were going to execute on the tactical layer. Instead, my focus on how the strategic layer was going to function in the context of Gears of War.

I knew Gears Tactics was going to take place shortly after the COG disseminated their own cities in a failed effort to snuff out the Locusts. The idea of building up a small army to fight back against the Locusts made was a suitable premise that wouldn’t be too dissimilar to the aliens invading Earth in XCOM. I thought there would even be a research and development element considering the fact that Gears 5 had upgrades to tech. The Baird of this prequel era could have been the head of R&D, for example. 

To my surprise, a meaningful strategic layer was absent. I initially thought Gears Tactics would have been fine without one because other games like Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle fared very well with just a simple character management layer. 

Gears Tactics focused on their cast of named characters for story missions while customizable nobodies filled out the roster for side missions. I originally set out to play the game at the intermediate difficulty with Ironman mode on, but that turned out to be a mistake. If a named character like Gabriel Diaz or Sid Redburn died in battle, the game was over — save file deleted. Turns out character story driven games are a lot tougher to play through when you have VIPs to progress with.

I initially found the level of challenge fair on the intermediate difficulty. The different mixes of classes, objectives, and maps kept me on my toes for about a third of the game. It didn’t take long before I started to see familiar scenarios crop up. XCOM: Enemy Unknown was no stranger to these mission reruns, but they had a bigger pool of scenarios and locales to draw from.

Weapons, equipment, and armor were necessary to keep pace with the growing challenge that was the Locust horde. However, focusing on maximizing grenades proved to be far too effective for me to give it up. Chaining executions for increased action points via classic chainsaws, curb stomping or bayonet charges gave Gears Tactics a puzzle element that was very reminiscent of Mario & Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. If played correctly, an entire squad of Locusts could be cleared before they took a shot. It may sound broken, but it’s also incredibly satisfying.

Those moments of self-gratification were dampened by the fact that many of the Locusts enemy units charged blindly towards the Gears. All I had to do was setup in a choke position and watch them all succumb to overwatch gun fire. This strategy worked far too often in regular mission encounters. Boss battles were a different beast altogether and were the game’s highlight moments. They took the Brumak and Corpser and made them even more satisfying to fight than in Gears of War proper. Mixing fodder units with the giant boss’ far reaching attacks and shifting strategies kept these encounters engaging throughout. After facing off with the Brumak in Act 1, I played through the rest of game hoping for more that. Unfortunately, there were only two other bosses that capped off each of the remaining acts.

I initially theorized Gears Tactics was so focused on its core action because they wanted to focus the Gears of War fan’s attention to it. I believed they didn’t want to muddy the experience with geeky R&D distractions and the like, but by the end of it all, I simply believe the developers needed more resources to make this brilliant union truly sing. There relatively minor issues with unit pathfinding causing said units to get stuck on things, but the most glaring issue is the lack of variety to sustain such a long game. It felt like they had an act’s worth of gameplay and story ideas and stretched out into three overly long acts. 

Verdict:
It was okay

Ratings Guide

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

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Ori and the Blind Forest was an early Xbox One exclusive that helped validate Microsoft’s struggling console. The sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, would have been the perfect way to cap off the Xbox One generation, but performance issues reportedly dampened that prospect. Fortunately, Microsoft’s strategy shifted since Ori’s debut and their first party published games are also available on Windows 10 via Xbox Game Pass for PC service. My aging NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1070 was able to deliver a steady 4K 60FPS with (what I assume to be) asset loading related hitches. 

Options outside of the game paid off for Moon Studios and there were even more ways to play within as well. Combat expanded significantly to include a number of abilities to accommodate different playstyles. Ori could wield a giant energy hammer, or fire energy bolts, or even summon a sprite that attacks enemies automatically. There’s a very light layer of strategy required but most enemies were dispatched with ease at the default difficulty. The challenge laid elsewhere.

Like its predecessor, Will of the Wisps was a challenging but forgiving platformer. Generous checkpoints and instantaneous reloading allowed the designers to include tricky jumps, hops, and dashes throughout the game without the frustration of replaying large chunks of the game when Ori failed. The most challenging and thrilling sections were the escape sequences which pitted Ori against an auto scrolling obstacle course of death. I felt they managed to execute and implement these sequences better in this game thanks to improved signposting which resulted in fewer retries. Nothing robbed an escape sequence of its thrill quite like a dozen retries of the same sequence. 

I initially thought the boss fights were going to be as challenging as the platforming. I mistakenly believed Moon Studios was going to pursue challenging combat like Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight. They did not. In fact, I would argue that the boss encounters were a bit too easy. I was able to brute force my way through most of it through healing and being flush with health orbs. I’m guessing things would be a bit more challenging at a higher difficulty though and if I didn’t bias Ori’s Shard loadout towards damage output.

Speaking of Hollow Knight, the Shards system should be familiar to anyone who played that game. It allowed me to increase enemy health for more in-game currency, or reduce energy costs for special moves; there were a fairly large variety of shards that allowed me to customize my experience in meaningful ways. To be honest, I think I made it too easy for myself. It didn’t make the platforming easier but it did take the bite out of much of the combat.

The Blind Forest’s soundtrack was one of those excellent scores that worked both in-game and outside of it. I revisit that soundtrack at least once per year since it’s release and I will do the same with the Will of the Wisps’. In some ways, it felt like an expansion of the style and atmosphere from the first game. Will of the Wisps soundtrack was allowed to breathe and steep in different moods. Some pieces reminded me of themes from different properties like Pirates of the Caribbean or Harry Potter; full of whimsy and emotion. Every time I think about it, I want to put on my headphones and experience it again.

I loved every minute of Ori and the Will of the Wisps. It’s one of those Metroidvania style games that I uncover every bit of the map for. I don’t even do that for Metroid games that I like. I don’t know if I love it enough to attempt a “no death” run, but I can easily see myself revisiting it at a higher difficulty. While the technical shortcomings are a bummer, I felt like Moon Studios realized their full Ori vision with this game. It’s my favorite Xbox exclusive of 2020 and that’s with new consoles coming later this year. It’s just that good.

Verdict:
I love it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Luigi’s Mansion 3

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We did it! It took months and months, but we finally finished Luigi’s Mansion 3. 

Minor correction: I finished Luigi’s Mansion 3.

My fiancée and I started Luigi’s Mansion 3 together late last year and we chipped away at it for months before I finally wrapped it up in early June 2020. Why did it take so long? A number of fundamental issues contributed to a rapid descent in interest.  Needless backtracking and growing frustrations with the controls during boss fights were primary factors.

The game made a wonderful first impression with its charming visuals and highly interactive environments. The ability to vacuum up nearly everything in the world was both impressive and fun. We would discover hidden secrets and coins which rewarded our desire for exploration.

Solving puzzles with the flashlight, UV light, and manipulation of world objects via the Poltergust vacuum amused for about a third of the game. Then we were asked to backtrack to older levels to chase down a ghost cat. They disrupted the game’s momentum by delaying the next piece of new content. We devoured each hotel level; we vacuumed up very inch of each level before we moved on and then they asked us to revisit those levels and look for this ghost cat by vacuuming up stuff again.

We collected a lot of money as a result of all the vacuuming. Unfortunately for us, we had nothing worthwhile to spend it on. There were purchasable hints for other collectibles, but that was it. I would have loved an upgrade mechanic or costumes for Luigi; something fun to cash all this currency for.

It started to feel like a drag but we pushed forward. We were amused by Luigi’s reactions to the antics surrounding him. We had fun taking down the early boss fights and figuring hidden tricks of the spooky hotel. The boss fights started out as wonderful caps to finish off each level, but they gradually became increasingly annoying. I never felt 100% comfortable with the controls and I’ve been playing all manner of console games for decades. Some of these boss fights required a level of finesse that these controls did not reliably deliver. These encounters transitioned from fun victories to frustration laden slogs as we repeated fights due to minor execution errors. 

I wrapped up the last few levels of Luigi’s Mansion on my own. My fiancée had checked out and gave me the blessing to finish it on my own. Since I initially played a large chunk of the game co-operatively, the switch to controlling both Luigi and his slime clone, Gooigi, was a bit awkward. It felt fine when I was simply exploring the levels, but it felt unnatural during combat. I stumbled my way through the last few levels and managed to defeat King Boo after a handful of tries, but was left dissatisfied with the gameplay.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 held a lot of promise early on and I was disappointed to see it fail to deliver on that promise. If they axed all the backtracking, included meaningful rewards for exploration, and tweaked the boss fights to accommodate their controls, I think my fiancée and I would have seen it through together. In the end, I was left playing with myself and that felt weird.

Verdict:
It was okay

Ratings Guide

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