Astro’s Playroom Review

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Astro Bot’s Rescue Mission was an excellent demonstration of the possibilities of the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR. A couple of years later, here comes Astro’s Playroom, an excellent demonstration of the PlayStation 5 and its DualSense controller. I wasn’t expecting an innovation in platforming mechanics or ideas; that’s now what these games are about. I played through familiar ideas with a few interesting sensations. 

Astro’s Playroom is a wonderful stroll through PlayStations’ history. I ran into classic PlayStation hardware, PlayStation themed callbacks, and just a deluge of all things PlayStation. It was cute, nostalgic, and done so well for a freebie title. 

Each of the four worlds highlighted one of the four PlayStations that passed us by, but that’s just window dressing to the real attraction which were the different ways they utilized the DualSense haptics, adaptive triggers, and other features that many probably forgot existed on the DualShock 4. Remember motion controls?

I consumed Astro’s Playroom in its in entirety. It was the perfect length and left me wanting just a bit more. It was a brilliant introduction to the DualSense controller and the PlayStation 5 hardware and software capabilities. Every PlayStation 5 owner owns it, it’s just a matter of whether they will find time for it and I firmly believe people should. It’s that good.

Verdict:
Must Play

Ratings Guide

Hades PC Review

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I played roguelike games before, but never in the action or platforming flavour. I recognized the Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells of the world as quality games, but I let them pass me by for other games. SuperGiant Games’ Hades would have been one of those passing games as well, if not for an aggressive sale on the Epic Games Store. For less than $10, it would have been silly of me not to partake. And after playing so much of it for the past four weeks or so, it may very well be my game of the year.

Hades’ greatest feat was its story and how it weaved the narrative tightly with the roguelike loop. I’ve seen the credits roll, I’ve sunk over 30 hours into the game, and I still want to see what else this game has to offer from a narrative perspective. There are just so many lines of dialogue for all the characters in the game; the sheer amount of it is the most impressive part of the game. Yes, they’re usually only handful of lines per run, but each one adds context and flavor on top of the ever growing Zagreus.

Zagreus, son of Hades, was driven to find out what happened to his mother. He lives in the Underworld and through his adoptive mother, Nyx, he was put in touch with his relatives on Olympus who want to see their own join them. The Olympians help Zagreus by sending him random Boons (power-ups). Zagreus needed all the help he could muster because these random assortment of levels designed to keep shades (souls) from escaping the depths of the Underworld are full of tormented shades who have been employed by the realm’s master to serve as guards. 

Every run takes Zagreus through Tartarus, Asphodel, and Elysium. Each area has its share of style, enemies, and bosses. And despite running through the same set of areas, and enemies, I still find enjoyment through each and every run. An average run takes about 30 to 40 minutes and I have no problem going through two per day. At the height of my Hades time, I was pulling off two or three runs per session. Hades has that addictive “one more” run quality that can turn 8pm to 11:30pm in a blink of an eye.

Greek mythology is well worn territory and yet Hades managed to carve out its own unique take on it. Each and every character appears to be quite likable despite their sordid histories. Much of it was their charm and relatively pleasant demeanors. As the game progressed, I started to see different sides to the Olympians and other characters. The trademark Olympian pettiness began to bubble to the surface; not a single one of them was above it. 

Supergiant Games’ knows action games. Their first title, Bastion, felt very good to play and Hades tops that easily. They don’t explain how/why Zagreus can dash through physical objects, but it felt good to easily move about without much impedance. It felt like was controlling a ninja at times; an unstoppable elemental force that can swipe through enemies with ease. 

I never got tired of it, and even now, over 40 runs later, I still find the time to do a least a run per day. I’m continually being rewarded with drips of story, and so far that’s enough to sustain me. Systems like the fine grain challenge system in the latter stages gave me the power to choose my poison. I’m glad it’s not just the same types of enemies with more hit points. Supergiant Games thought of everything and I am simply in awe of their thoughtfulness. It’s easily their best work to date.

Verdict:
Must Play

Ratings Guide

SM3DA: Super Mario 64 Review

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It finally happened! I finished Super Mario 64 courtesy of Super Mario 3D All-Stars on the Nintendo Switch. I collected 71 stars and rushed towards Bowser so I can finally put this respectable but outdated game behind me. 

I was initially very impressed with Super Mario 64. Nintendo improved the user interface, increased the resolution, and steadied the framerate. They were appreciated improvements, but I eventually discovered that those improvements were not enough to make Super Mario 64 palatable in 2020. 

The lack of precise camera control reared its ugly head very early on. There were a number of options to cycle through, but there were numerous moments where none of those options were ideal. Early levels that didn’t feature many bottomless pits or a large number of moving objects were mostly fine. I would only need to make the occasional minor shift to the camera. However, it was a true test of patience in levels like Rainbow Ride where I was cycling through the motion of making jumps and flipping through less than ideal camera angles. 

When I was triple jumping and running around in the relatively gapless spaces of the early levels, the finicky controls did not bother me. As Super Mario 64 began to demand more precision and sticking Mario in tighter platforms with bottomless pits underneath, then the touchy controls began to annoy me to no end. Some state that this isn’t much of a problem with the N64 controller and if that’s the case, Nintendo should have done more to adjust the Super Mario 64 in this 3D All Stars collection. 

Even if the controls worked well, I felt that the developers went too far towards making a realistic Mario instead of a fun Mario. What’s the point of having Mario crawl? What’s the point of having him perform a U-turn when he turned around? Why did he suddenly decide to slide on his belly on steep inclines? Why did he even have punch or kick attacks with pathetic range? I felt these decisions were made because they could. Nintendo wanted to explore and experiment with Super Mario 64 which resulted in many lessons learned for future games. 

The castle serving as a hub was initially charming and twee. Jumping into paintings to enter different levels and spaces was a clever conceit that invited and rewarded exploration. All the good feelings evaporated away as I pushed deeper into the castle and bumped into the “game over” screen. Having to restart outside of the castle every time I restart the game was annoying. Having to catch the stupid Haunted House Boo every single time I wanted to play that level was even sillier. All these initially charming elements quickly got in the way of the fun.

I respect Super Mario 64, but I do not like it. I found it fascinating in spots, but was overwhelmingly frustrated by a majority of it. I wouldn’t miss this game if it suddenly deleted itself from the package because I do not see myself returning to collect the rest of the Stars. Perhaps I’m unfairly harsh, but this is the game Nintendo decided was good enough to put in a $79.99 package in 2020. They thought it was good enough to stand on its own without significant changes; I’m saying they were wrong.

Verdict:
I didn’t like it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Final Fantasy VI (SNES)

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I started Final Fantasy VI at least three times now. I started it a couple of times via PC SNES emulators of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it was the third time on the SNES Classic where I finally saw credits. It took me about 35 hours to conclude that it was “okay”.

The game started very strong and maintained a great pace until the World of Ruin. I loved meeting the new characters, seeing the new places, and the escalating absurdity of Ultros. The soundtrack was on point from the very first minute and was the timeless highlight of the entire game. It far outstripped the visuals which I found a bit dodgy in spots. Mode 7 was all the rage back then, but it did not age well at all. The same could be said with a lot of the more realistic looking backgrounds.

Chrono Trigger is the gold standard for JRPGs from the SNES era for me — especially from the visuals standpoint which I found to be very cohesive. The characters, the enemies, and the backgrounds all fit well in that classic. By comparison, Final Fantasy VI looked like they had three different artists with three divergent styles creating the backgrounds, enemies, and heroes. When they decided to mash them together, the results were inconsistent at best.

I decided to play the game with a revised translation by the Final Fantasy VI Relocalization Project because I wanted minimize the dated nature of this game. The translation patch also included bug fixes (and introduced a minor text based one) along with small rebalances, but I still found many of the characters hugely overpowered and too useful to not use. Edgar, Celes, Sabin, and Cyan were my A squad. They took down Kefka. I only used other characters because there were situations where I was forced to manage three squads of characters in epic battles or to solve environment puzzles. 

Relm, Gau, Setzer, and Strago were effectively useless without magic spells so I invested time rotating characters and assigning them different Espers so they could become viable in combat. I ended up with a well rounded team where everyone can heal or revive. They weren’t all as effective as Celes, but being able to have anyone cast Arise was a bit broken.

Unfortunately, like I have done so with many JRPGs, I found myself fairly under-leveled during my run up to Kefka. I was able to fell just about every boss encounter with ease except for him. I remedied that with a couple of hours of farming, but it wasn’t fun. 

I also found the idea behind Active Time Battle’s Active mode silly and stuck with Wait mode. Trying to navigate a poorly organized list of spells isn’t my idea of fun. Inputting fighting game motions in a JRPG? That was fun. I still found the idea behind Sabin’s Blitz commands to be the highlight mechanic of the game. He was a powerful or risky character to pick depending on your own proficiency with command inputs which is not something we saw much of after Final Fantasy VIII. Even then, the commands in that game didn’t ask players to pull off half circle or 270 degree motions. Oh, and they didn’t explain how input those commands so there was a lot of early trial and error.

I haven’t relied on an FAQ or walkthrough for just playing a game in ages, but Final Fantasy VI brought that back in a major way. There are things that just aren’t explained well even when you read through thick manual. Speaking of manual, the one included in Final Fantasy VI reads more like a mini-walkthrough than a manual. It even spoils a bit of the story.

Despite its shortcomings towards the latter act of the game, I’m glad I finally finished Final Fantasy VI. I was happy to have finally experienced its wonderful soundtrack in context. I enjoyed many of the battle scenarios; they made good use of the large cast of characters that many other games in this genre do not. I liked the idea of the World of Ruin, but it quickly felt like someone threw a carefully arranged deck of cards and then the game made me play 52-card pick up. It had a few bright spots, but that final chunk of the game felt like a depressing slog which is kind of fitting considering what happened.

Verdict:
It was okay

Ratings Guide

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