The alluring fantasy motif of Death Tales piqued my interest in this adventure game that previously had flown under my radar. Stylish settings, compelling character design and an overall beautiful aesthetic suggest a unique adventure in a strange but fascinating land. And while the beguiling presentation did contribute to an enjoyable experience in total, did other aspects of the game likewise rise to the occasion?
Arcade Distillery does craft an impressive fantasy world with copious use of expressive lines, colorful palettes and fanciful characters animated in a style that at times reminds me of marionettes. The score includes vintage fantasy themes whether music in the early Soulless Realm levels that’s reminiscent of Tim Burton films or compositions in Forest Night Time locations that suggest a more dramatic adventure.
The game’s levels also include the city of Vesilia, Mountains and variations on a theme. In this way, while the variety of locale is not extensive, changes related to the time of day or local conditions help vary the setting, including deep, vibrant earth tones during the day and shades of blue, purple, etc. at night, as well as backdrops of swaying trees, leaves, embers and more.
The characters that inhabit this world likewise match the exaggerated storybook style and eye-catching color, whether the playable Reaper, sidekick Spaura (the Reaper’s Soul Bearer), the Grim Reaper, Death, Soulless Queen or others. Some resemble variations on birds, a dead deer, people, even frogs, but almost always with a creative flair – including the unique 2D animation – that separates them from ordinary creatures.
All this helps establish the distinctive fantasy that is supported by little details like a grinning moon or sun that resemble the Cheshire Cat, trees (I think) that look like creatures or people, roots that conjure snakes, and structures that resemble birds. It’s an inspired setting for any game, and the premise of a Reaper traveling the world to gather souls for Death should make good use of such a fantasy setting.
The story, however, doesn’t do it any favors. It can be a little hard to follow, partly because it scrolls at the bottom of the screen and partly due to a plot and wording that sometimes confuses. More clarity or text requiring a button press to proceed would have helped. That said, the story follows a Reaper who refuses to take a soul, setting in motion events that reveal a schism among the powers that be and imbalance in the world.
For what it’s worth, the story has little practical impact on playing the main character of the Reaper. Regardless of the situation that the Reaper and Spaura find themselves in, the central task at hand is always the defeat of foes and the collection of their souls. Whether gathering them for the Grim Reaper and, ultimately, Death or helping displaced souls, the core action is still the same. Even side quests have the same impact.
Speaking of side quests, as well as the characters that issue them, there are far fewer than I’d presumed given the marketing I’d seen. Aside from the main characters and a couple others at the beginning, there aren’t that many to be found and neither is there much in the way of quests. And to the extent there are any, they aren’t very consequential and don’t vary from the task of collecting souls.
A video for the PC version in fact seemed to show many more character models than appear in the Switch version I played. I likewise expected more player volition given a choice presented to the player early on. But I can’t tell that the choice had any more impact than either rewarding the player or not. Also, I don’t recall another choice in the game. All in all, these early inclusions are exceptions rather than the rule.
Thank goodness, then, that the central task of wandering the land and collecting souls proves entertaining in its design and execution. Players on the Switch can jump (B), attack (Y), dash (A), cast spells (left and right shoulders), aim spells (right stick up) and use special moves: heavy combo (Y,Y, hold Y; or heavy attack of Y 5 times), launch attack (hold Y), windmill attack (left stick up + Y) and ground slam (B + left stick down + Y).
Controls are intuitive and responsive, providing fluid movements and constant action. Enemies can be kept reeling with repeat attacks and multiple foes can be hit at the same time, even launching adversaries together into the air with successive uppercuts. Players can dash to avoid hits or to strike quickly, including from the air, as is the case jumping, too, which also enables the ground slam move.
The basic move set works well enough against various foes that include witches, other conjurers and various robot types using melee or ranged attacks. But the environment, foes or sheer numbers might require the use of other offensive options. And while players shouldn’t expect the standard arsenal of different combos or chained attacks, they’ll have a variety of spells and weapon variations to access during their journey.
These additional items can be collected from chests, chosen at level completion, or purchased from the vendor Fiona in Vesilia with essence the player receives (along with spirit and life) upon defeating enemies. Among other things, they might enable players to spawn bullets, rockets or flame; summon meteors, stampeding unicorns(!) or a conjurer; or perform an extra action like a hit at the end of a dash.
Besides sickles or blades, Fiona also sells armor and hoods, which all have either offensive or defensive capabilities. Similarly, spell-cast training can be purchased from Inan, a protector of the forests in Inan’s Cove. These all provide players with more options. And while players can select bounties from Vesilia’s Lead Reaper for eliminating enemies or bosses, their main benefit is rewarding players with essence to buy more items.
What to do with all these items? The good news is that Arcade Distillery allows for five Gear Sets accessible from the Equip screen in the Menu (plus key). Each set allows a choice of Weapon (sickle/blade), Hood and Armor, as well as two spells (mapped to the left/right shoulders). Players can switch between sets on the fly, but also can alter each set anytime choosing among all weapons, hoods, etc. that have been collected.
Part of the fun is experimenting with each loadout and figuring out which you like best including for a specific situation. For more demanding platforming sections, I chose a set with armor that uses wings to slow descent and a hood that enables higher jumps. For combat I generally preferred armor that boosts protection and life, hoods that spawned meteors or rockets, and sickles/blades that offered health or bullets.
The plethora of options in this regard contributed to a degree of RPG inventory swapping. But they also have a visible and practical impact on gameplay. The action can grow chaotic when grinning meteors rain down, unicorns or conjurers leave a rainbow in their wake, rockets hit their targets, flames erupt, and enemies attack or explode in a shower of red (life), blue (spirit) and yellow (essence) orbs.
The FX are a sight to behold when in pitched combat. And it helps that there is little to no noticeable slowdown when the action becomes frenetic. However, it’s also a distraction when the screen fills with activity. The problem is that the small player-controlled Reaper can disappear among foes and particle FX, in particular because he turns red when hit, the same as hit enemies. At that point, button mashing is the best option.
The screen won’t always be filled with action, though, as some areas aren’t packed with foes and spell use depends on whether or not they have a cool down period and how much spirit fills the respective gauge needed to cast spells. Defeating foes can replenish spirit, and collecting spirit shards can extend the gauge, in the same way that collecting pieces of a torn heart card can gain one life heart.
Platforming sections, too, can help break up the action, albeit not as much as you’d think. Gaps in terrain, varying elevations, moving platforms and various obstacles that fall, swing or rise task players with familiar challenges. But these can be complicated by attacking foes. Spell casting can help clear a path in lieu of ranged attacks, but they can sap the spirit meter needed to pull them off.
In these ways resource management becomes more important, as players need to determine which Gear Set is appropriate for any given scenario, whether to select items with more offensive or defensive capabilities, and which spells might be best depending on their strength and cool down period. Now, this isn’t the most challenging journey, but planning in advance for certain foes or terrain can help player progression.
I should mention that I’m not very good when it comes to side-scrolling games. But I did manage to get to the final boss. If I’d played local co-op, where a second player controls Spaura, I might have beaten it by now. The point being, that others by comparison might find the game easy. For me, the challenge was tuned just right. I died sometimes platforming and other times fighting, but never felt cheated or frustrated.
To the extent there were disappointments, they were the aforementioned omissions, where better exposition would have helped the story, more gameplay variety or quests would have broadened the appeal, and player volition would have deepened immersion. It also doesn’t help that there was spell-cast training for spells I never saw (i.e., Heal Totem, Ice Block, Bomb Totem) that might have helped, at least against the final boss.
Still my overall impression of Death Tales was a positive one where I was often entertained by the inspired, almost fairy tale like quality of the eye-popping presentation and beautiful fantasy score, and happily engaged by the over-the-top combat involving an arsenal of rockets, meteors and stampeding unicorns in the service of a sickle-swinging soul reaper. With its current $9.99 price of admission, the game is worth a visit.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of Death Tales, which released December 3, 2020, and is also available on PlayStation 4 and PC.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
If you’ve seen any advertising or social media for Cloudpunk you likely were drawn to the dark, neon bathed metropolis bustling with pedestrians and drivers. The alluring cyberpunk setting in fact is well worth the visit. But the true appeal of this gem from Ion Lands is when players take a closer look, past the admittedly gorgeous façade, to discover a fascinating cast of characters struggling to survive a dystopian future where all is not as it seems.
It’s worth noting that I spent the first two hours of the game (I’m currently about seven hours in) just moving around the colorful cityscape that is Nivalis. Ion Lands should be lauded for crafting a glorious setting of towering buildings in neon neighborhoods that are nonetheless distinct from each other, such as the claustrophobic jungle of Midtown, curved roofs of Little China, modular units of the Stacks, or casino/clubs of Fulcrum Sector.
Indeed, the developer said that the city is one of the main characters of the game. And it most definitely HAS character. In my time with the game so far, I feel rewarded by the simple act of exploration. The level design consistently impresses with its verticality and depth. Every elevation seems to possess a neighborhood or single location worth a flyby or visit. This is in addition to the well-realized cyberpunk aesthetic that first attracted me.
That aesthetic is the result of designing with voxels, a choice that makes sense when you understand – as the developer did – that the modern architecture of today’s cities is more modular in nature. Using blocks or cubes to build this metropolis therefore fits with the vision of a futuristic skyline. In that context, even voxel characters don’t seem out of place, especially androids or the many humans with cybernetic implants or other artificial accoutrements.
The wisdom of this design is clear when exploring from the air. Flying is a treat whether following established lanes or venturing off the beaten path, snaking one’s way through narrow gaps or emerging above busy urban sprawl, all adorned with blue, red, green and yellow neon. Controls (on Xbox One) are simple and responsive, with the left stick controlling direction and the right ascend/descend, while RT/LT accelerates/brakes, and RB/LB strafes right/left.
Managing ascent/descent while accelerating takes a little getting used to, as does flying fast into a turn where you can easily drift into objects. But practice makes perfect and learning when to do the former is part of the process. Importantly, I haven’t felt like I had to fight the controls. There are times when I feel like movement is blocked, but that’s usually because I’m in cramped quarters even if I can’t see it because of the camera in those tight areas.
Helpfully, there are highways for getting around town more quickly, as well as vehicle upgrades that can be found or purchased. I bought improved bumpers before I realized I’d already found some earlier, and I paid for a kind of turbo feature that can be used by pressing a button. There are also mechanics where you can get repairs made, and gas stations for replenishing fuel (the HUD includes a fuel gauge, while smoke warns of damage).
The HUD, which can be turned off, includes a minimap in the lower right with color icons that correspond to character tasks in the upper right. Helpfully, when in the same general direction, a single icon might display multiple colors. The map actually can be too helpful, even showing locations for pickups. But turning it off is problematic, as players can’t even see objects when dealing with merchants or dealers.
One thing worth pointing out that you never want turned off is the incredible score. It’s a big reason why the simple act of exploration is so thrilling, as the electronic music is perfectly suited to the cyberpunk setting and can range from trance to upbeat dance. Like Daft Punk’s score for Tron: Legacy, it’s hard to imagine Cloudpunk without it. In fact, I’ll sometimes stop until a new music clip plays, as the non-music interludes feel lacking by comparison.
Which is not to say that sound is lacking in the game, as there is plenty to immerse players in that department. The ever-present sound of your own hover car (including as it accelerates or ascends/descends), other vehicles not to mention occasional police sirens, trains, advertisements or government announcements, pedestrians/crowds, robots/machines, moving platforms and nightclubs all combine to effectively convey a bustling metropolis.
Exploring the bustle of Nivalis on foot means first finding a space to park your vehicle (you can’t set down anywhere to disembark). Thankfully exploration on foot is just as simple as flying, and offers various perspectives including first- and third-person and several camera options for the latter. I enjoy first-person exploration, but prefer backtracking in third-person on exterior walkways as it provides a side-scrolling perspective of the immediate area.
The only issues related to the camera when on foot involve a shifting perspective in third-person that sometimes requires a change in controller input, or the inability to see a pickup as you approach it in first person (as some lie flat, and unlike some games there is no pop up icon). But these are minor and controls, as with flight, work well and include the same buttons and commands. It’s also rare to bump into people or some objects, which can be nice or distracting.
On foot navigation is helped with platforms that serve as people movers up or down or across large expanses. There are no accessible stairs I’ve come across yet. The only downside is sometimes having to wait for the platforms, which never appear to have anyone else using them. One preference is that I’d have liked to enter some establishments, especially those with open doors, but you can only enter buildings when the opportunity presents itself.
Aiding pedestrians are portals that effectively teleport you to another area in the neighborhood. Like the platforms, these are marked in the HUD minimap. There are similar portals at the end of highways when in flight, though they take drivers to different districts of Nivalis and involve loading screens that require a momentary wait. On foot, travel through the portals is almost instantaneous. The same is true of some doors, once you’re allowed to pass.
Thus far the only time my travels around the city were restricted is either when I’ve hit the ceiling or low point for flight, or when I’ve encountered a barrier on foot that requires something to pass (like a keycard or a favor for a bouncer). In general I’ve been impressed with how open Nivalis appears to be at least seven hours in, which is probably part of the reason I’ve spent so much time to date just wandering around.
Other reasons for my wanderlust are the collectibles, pickups, upgrades, merchants, dealers, vendors, random characters and other NPCs my character can encounter. Players can obtain objects to sell or upgrade their home or vehicle, plus items that might turn out useful (an NPC happened to be a collector of an artifact in my inventory, which netted me an achievement). But the real allure is the characters you’ll find wandering or during missions.
The story follows your character Rania, a driver for the semi-legal delivery service Cloudpunk, as she picks up packages and passengers throughout Nivalis. Everyone, and everything, has a story though Rania is encouraged at every turn to not ask questions. But it’s the captivating answers that provide the real color in this neon playground, and Rania is almost as eager to listen as others are to divulge their thoughts, feelings or worries about life in the city.
The game starts out promising by introducing players to a forlorn android trying to put the pieces of its life back together, an engineer who marvels at a city that’s so old they don’t even have names for all the building parts, an AI canine companion only too happy to help with digital tasks, a chatty package and Rania’s boss at Control who appears to be trying to protect her from unscrupulous customers not to mention a pretty bad day at the office.
Digging deeper you learn how androids might yearn for acceptance, a home or an occupation; how the city is in such disrepair that malfunctions or collapsing zones claim scores of citizens; how some will trade favors for drugs or obsess over a wrong; how shady characters and collectives operating on the fringes might be more influential than appears; or how an enigmatic AI might fit into the entire scheme of things behind the neon curtain that is Nivalis.
Excellent dialog and voice acting go a long way toward immersing players, as do realistic but creative headshots beside dialog captions that put a face to voxel characters. And while there are no dialog options (which feels like a missed opportunity), players at times are presented with the option to pursue different actions. These choices can emerge from quests, which include collecting punch cards, getting engine parts, buying narcotics, or simply delivering your cargo.
These, in turn, can open doors, figuratively and literally. Sell a valuable engine part to pocket the price and force an older racer into an overdue retirement, or deliver it to him and help him continue racing while paying off his debt to a mechanic. Deliver a ticking package or dump your cargo. It remains to be seen what longer term consequences exist for selecting one option over another, but at least there is some player volition during the game.
The first choice gamers face is whether Cloudpunk is worth the investment in time and money. And for me the answer is a resounding yes. Ion Lands has crafted more than a pretty package. Interactions with citizens of Nivalis deliver the real goods, with discussions ranging from funny to poignant, adding heart at the center of a beautiful urban dystopia. Visit Nivalis for the glorious neon skyline, and you’ll stay for the colorful hover car confessions.
(This post is based on a review key for the Xbox One version of Cloudpunk, which is also available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Steam, and released October 15 on consoles.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Paradise Killer is not your typical video game, and we can all be grateful for that. Kaizen Game Works has built an elaborate fantasy where the principal gameplay involves interviewing colorful characters about outlandish acts while scouring an open world island for clues to a crime and even to the nature of this strange world.
I'm multiple hours into the game, and I'm impressed not only with how players can start to piece together the chief mystery of the game through diligent detective work, but how their dedication is rewarded with details and lore that collectively help begin to make sense of this exceedingly bizarre universe. It's a rich, outrageous tapestry.
You know you can expect a unique -- if not intimidating -- experience when the set up requires a few screens of background info. In short, the Syndicate has abducted Citizens to use their psychic powers of worship to ultimately resurrect their dead alien gods on successive islands perfected with each iteration despite corruption by demons attracted to the psychic power.
This cycle decreases demonic corruption over time but involves a slaughter of island Citizens when each island dies. Island Sequence 25 was supposed to be perfect but the murder of the ruling Council during the transition, reportedly by a Citizen possessed by demons, halted the process and brought disgraced Syndicate investigator Lady Love Dies back from exile.
To its credit, Kaizen Game Works provides a variety of options including turning screenshake and flickering lights on or off, selecting normal or open dyslexic dialog font, three kinds of color correction, and an autowalk setting. Controls themselves work well on Nintendo Switch: Movement (Left Stick), Camera (Right Stick), Interact (A), Crouch (B), Jump (R), Spring (Hold L), Torch (ZR) and AR Vision (Hold ZL).
Navigation is simple, whether in TV or Handheld mode. That's important considering so much of the game relies on exploring the world of Island Sequence 24 (not to mention other locations I've visited thus far, including a pyramid and space; and the game suggests Island Sequence 25 might be an option). That's an aspect of the game right up my alley.
I honestly didn't expect a completely free-roam game but that's essentially what you get (the only restriction I've found is a transition screen when riding a kind of Jet Ski). Walk, sprint and jump along paths, waterways, hills, beaches, buildings and other artificial structures. Players can even unlock a double jump to access more challenging areas.
The game makes such efforts not just entertaining but worthwhile. Along the way, players will discover items like Blood Crystals (Syndicate currency) to purchase drinks from vending machines, operate foot baths, make blood donations at temples, curry favors, unlock fast travel, etc.; red, blue, green and yellow crests to install at certain stations; and relics (photos, carvings, etc.) with info or lore.
Some related actions might, in turn, reveal more secrets like the location of important software upgrades, abilities like the double jump, more relics or Blood Crystals, important information, or -- in the case of fast travel unlocks -- wallpaper for your OS. Even the hidden items that don't appear to offer much value still contribute to the world's offbeat lore.
Better yet, there are clues and other details throughout the island that contribute to your case, even in areas where you might not expect to find anything of note. For gamers like me who love exploration, that adds extra incentive and satisfaction to scouring every area. And there are many areas high and low, inside and out, to investigate along the way.
To assist in this regard is a map, AR Vision and audio and visual cues. The map is only available via menus and does not show direction so is less helpful than other options like AR Vision, which is very useful for showing where, how far and how critical individuals might be at any given moment. Nearby items, conversely, will emit and show cues to alert you to their presence.
When Lady Love Dies encounters others in the Syndicate, there will be scripted exchanges that help establish not only member relationships but her involvement as well, including her role as the former head of the Paradise Psycho Unit charged with protecting the council and how the god Damned Harmony's deception resulted in her exile to the Idle Lands.
But there are also plenty of opportunities to help shape each conversation. Dialog options like Question, Doubt, Surprised, Irritated and Suspicious determine how Lady Love Dies reacts and how others respond. Such choices can prove useful whether in the initial discussion or when the player opts to address the Case Files or to Hang Out.
Case File options allow the investigator to ask each individual about elements related to the case, such as certain deaths, the nature of security or its breaches, the prime suspect, others' alibis and even each individual's suspicions, alibi or possible motives. Hang Out is structured more like an informal chat and can explore their relationship.
Even though I've been playing the game a while, it's too early to tell how impactful various dialog choices will prove later in the game, especially when making a case against a suspect. But I usually take advantage of opportunities to improve relationships and one did pay off when someone had a change of heart and shared more info than they initially were prepared to do.
Likewise I'm eager to find out how several strategic choices play out, such as placating a character with an outsized ego, acting devout for a zealot, or telling a pesky demon that pops up everywhere what I believe it wants to hear. If the example above -- and notifications that I've increased relationships -- is any indication, these choices should bear fruit down the line.
In the process of such conversations, the investigator will collect testimony, evidence and clues. Lady Love Dies can also use the Vision Engine for scene investigation, identifying and gathering key observations and items found at crime scenes or important settings. All such elements are then catalogued in her helpful Starlight OS for future reference.
The Starlight interface (+ button) includes Investigation Notes, Case Files, Inventory, Population, Timeline and Music menus. The two most helpful sources are Investigation Notes, which includes notes on potential leads and suspects, and Case Files related to each suspect (Motive, Alibi, Alibi Breakers) and crime. These offer detailed refreshers on information gathered.
The Inventory includes Key Items like a blood sample, unlock card, letter report; Upgrades to help unlock Nightmare Computer restrictions; and Relics such as photos, books, Island Sequence mementos, recordings and carvings. Population shows the Council, Syndicate and Citizens. Timeline displays History, Island Sequence 24/Current Island and Last Night.
Music deserves more attention as the upbeat electronic soundtrack -- a kind of contemporary electro pop sound -- provides an entertaining background to the grandiose goings on. Tracks (cassette tapes) are obtained from radio towers that broadcast music and are played in a loop. Options in Starlight include edit, restart, shuffle and volume.
The one exception is the jazz accompaniment for The Way of Blood Bar, a kind of hard-boiled interlude between two patrons of a cocktail bar -- in silhouette but suggestive of a man and woman -- who reflect on their current and past circumstances. It's an interesting mystery within a mystery, as it takes place in Island Sequence 25.
In the process of exploring the island and investigating the crime, Lady Love Dies will encounter puzzles along the way. These include light puzzles like finding and placing objects, operating machinery in the proper sequence, and matching puzzle pieces to decipher arcane hieroglyphics of the Nightmare Computer.
Like the puzzles, the game thus far is not necessarily challenging, though some strategy is involved in dialog choices or scaling areas for pickups. After all, Lady Love Dies -- like all Syndicate members -- is immortal. She'll land falls from any height without a scratch (helpful to reach some pickups), and resurrect at nearby spawn (save) points upon drowning in the ocean.
Indeed, there's no combat that I've encountered yet. There's a gun that can be obtained, but it remains to be seen how it comes into play. So for some, the light challenge and dearth of combat might be a turnoff, but for me and others I imagine, it's a welcome change of pace in a medium where the former is standard fare.
And standard fare is precisely what Paradise Killer is not. The over the top characters, ridiculous setting and imaginative lore all come together for an exceptional gaming experience. It's not without issues, like small text in menus (worst in handheld mode), lots of seemingly inconsequential pickups, and repeat lines whose spirit doesn't match the dialog.
There are also minor presentation issues like glitchy lighting in handheld mode or rain inside the Council building. But the overall presentation and gameplay is simply top notch. A highly stylized, cell shaded world with distinct colorful characters and well designed layouts provide a dazzling backdrop for political/religious intrigue of the highest order.
Immersive dialog options and platforming opportunities complement the stylish setting for a rewarding experience in total that deserves players' attention not just as a quality experience but as a unique one that has few rivals in terms of its operatic fantasy elements and investigative legwork in a crime drama procedural that's literally out of this world.
(This post is based on a review key for the Nintendo Switch version of Paradise Killer, which is also available on Steam and released September 4. The game retails for $19.99 but is on sale for a limited time for $15.99.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Summer in Mara originally caught my eye with its charming design that displayed a kind of vibrant anime or cartoon style, interesting characters, beautiful settings, captivating music and pleasant gameplay variety. The promise shown by early clips and the aspirations of developer Chibig, a small studio in Spain, were enough to convince me to support a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for the first time.
To judge by the first several hours, the game doesn't disappoint. It's no wonder that the creators found inspiration in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Stardew Valley and Studio Ghibli films, as solid exploration, farming and presentation complement each other. Time will tell if minor issues grate over the reportedly 20 hour journey by main character Koa that involves 20 characters, 20 islands and about 300 quests.
The Nintendo Switch version so far works well in either dock or handheld mode (text including dialog reads perfectly fine in the latter, for instance, though the map is an exception, and controls function reasonably well in both modes). I tried to keep my expectations in check when even the title screen wowed with an exuberant score and delightful graphics. Settings on this screen include language and volume for music or sound effects.
It's worth noting that while the maximum setting for music is loud and clear, the same cannot be said for the maximum FX setting (and I know I'm not alone in this regard to judge by Discord feedback). Footsteps are a prime example as they're constant but barely audible, even when lowering the music setting. But character and ambient noises (there is no spoken dialog) like birds or ocean waves are more clear and add atmosphere.
As for the music, I can't overemphasize how important the score is to the enjoyment of this game. The theme that plays during the title screen and the title sequence has become one of my favorite pieces of video game music. But the game's background music, too, is simply captivating. The use of string instruments like violin or guitar, plus whistling on more upbeat tunes, is wonderfully melodic and complements the game well.
While there is no spoken dialog, conversations (advanced with the A button) have a realistic cadence and exchange between distinct personalities. For instance, young Koa can be headstrong, excitable and impulsive but also dutiful, respectful and eager, while Yaya Haku can be stern but also helpful, nurturing and encouraging. Residents of Qalis like Saimi or Edegan can start aloof or abrasive but warm up over time. Then there's Noho, who loves to tell tales.
As for the game's visuals, the distinct anime aesthetic is most pronounced in the character design, particularly during conversations. There is a fantasy element to quidos of Qalis. Yaya Haku bears a resemblance to other quidos, though they represent a range of colors and various sizes. Koa is clearly more human in appearance, and there are other characters including some that resemble cats.
The story to begin with is relatively spare as players are introduced more to the mechanics of gameplay at the start than to the narrative. But an opening cut scene sets the stage as a flashback reveals how Yaya Haku rescued baby Koa from a burning ship. Yaya Haku slowly reveals to Koa the importance of guardians in protecting from threats, which ultimately include an evil organization exploiting the ocean Mara for its resources.
World building in Mara is impressive, with picturesque landscapes and attractive structures that are familiar but can display creativity and elements of fantasy. Scenes are alive with ambient sounds and fluid animation for Koa; clouds, grass and airborne particles blown by the wind; and fauna such as birds, rabbits, squirrels and fish. Characters, however, break that immersion by remaining in place at all hours, though their gaze will follow Koa.
Sometimes, too, animation can glitch, be it clouds that are stationary at times or the day/night cycle. The latter generally works well though it can feel like it comes around too often as Koa tires easily at night. But effective lighting and shadows during both periods help sell the passage of time. One drawback is a quick transition from daytime to night, with a rapid descent of the sun and movement of shadows.
The heads-up display is mostly uncluttered, which helps enjoy the scenic surroundings. There is a hunger gauge in the upper left of the screen, symbolized by four fruit that can be filled by eating or drinking. A bar accompanies them and appears to move in unison -- some suggest this is a stamina bar, but I don't see a corresponding change especially when running at a constant pace. When swimming, a breath bar appears below the hunger gauge.
A welcome feature, at least for me, is that Koa can't get hurt in this game (i.e. by falling). So forgetting to eat/drink or sleep has no more severe consequence than forcing Koa to rest. That said, mandatory naps can prove annoying, as they're more frequent when Koa is hungry or tired, and sometimes food can be in limited supply such as early on in Qalis, where there are few fruit/vegetable-bearing plants and Koa has little money to buy any food.
Players will be forced to return to checkpoints to nap (progress won’t be lost, but on larger maps like Qalis it can require backtracking, which takes up valuable time in between sometimes frequent naps). Thankfully players are alerted when Koa is hungry/tired so there's time to eat/drink if there's anything in the inventory. Likewise a day/night cycle clock in the upper right of the HUD can prompt players to have Koa sleep.
Koa's inventory can be found by pressing the plus button to open the Menu. Inside, players can alternate between Map, Inventory and Quests using right/left shoulder buttons. Navigate the Inventory of Consumables, Vegetables, Materials, Sea and Special with directional buttons. Menu controls in general are fairly intuitive. The map, however, is not interactive at least early on. It only shows locations of characters, and quests don't appear on the map.
The menu also can be accessed via directional buttons: Pressing up opens Quests and down opens Inventory. Pressing right or left equips or cycles through tools. Which tool is equipped determines the respective actions available via the X or Y buttons. Pressing X with the hoe equipped brings up the Inventory, with the axe or hammer it brings up Build (fence, chicken coop or well).
The Y button is effectively the action button. Pressing Y with the hoe equipped enables prepare soil, plant seeds, harvest vegetables and clean weeds; with the axe, chop trees and build/destroy (i.e. chicken coops, pig pens, fences); and with the hammer, build/destroy wells or smash stones. Holding Y repeats the action until it fills a gauge and the action is fulfilled, the menu opened (if it involves the inventory), or a prompt indicates the next action.
With the hand icon selected, Y enables hit trees or plants, which knocks fruit like apples, oranges or blueberries to fall off (thankfully they don't roll away from the player's grasp, as can happen in other games). Y also enables talk and navigate boats. One downside is that targeting can be a challenge when objects are close together, i.e. instead of destroying a fence I'm beside I get options to clean weeds, prepare soil or plant crops.
Destroying objects breaks them down into their component materials for use in crafting. Wood, stone, etc. can be used to craft pens, wells and other structures. But, as with drinks or meals, recipes are needed first. These are given as reward for completing tasks in the world or for others (i.e. gathering oranges unlocks the orange juice recipe). Crafting/cooking takes place in Koa's home, with options for Tools, Workshop, Kitchen and Sleep.
Cooking can involve fish, which can be hooked at specific locations by ponds or the seashore. Fishing is a minigame that requires a rod, fishing line and bait. Players first have to press the displayed button (which changes) when a moving sphere hits one of two concentric circles, then keep a rectangle in sync with a fish icon moving along a horizontal line. Success nabs a fish; failure, trash. It can be exacting, but an entertaining diversion.
Crafted objects can be placed with thumbsticks and/or directional buttons. The process, like with crafting/cooking, is intuitive and relatively quick. The left thumbstick also controls walk/swim/steer boats (add the right trigger to move faster, the left to reverse boats). The right stick moves the camera. These controls work well, though boating can be floaty/imprecise, and the camera can't pan up (a shame in Qalis with its large buildings/structures).
Koa seems to be able to run indefinitely, especially as the bar with the hunger gauge doesn't appear to behave like a stamina bar. That said, she did lose the option to run on two occasions (after receiving instructions, like checking a light by the beach). She also teleports back to a checkpoint if she strays too far afield. Koa can also jump satisfyingly high with the B button, clearing many obstacles, though invisible walls prevent some leaps.
The fact that movement in general works well is a blessing in a game where exploration is so important, whether Koa is gathering fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish or stone on her island; boating or diving on open waters; or visiting other islands in the same archipelago. And although the base mechanics are solid and enjoyable, the game would benefit from a less restrictive design around rest, not to mention a fast travel option that doesn't exact a high cost.
Be that as it may, Qalis is a wonderful place to visit. The city itself is larger than I expected, with several city blocks of multistory buildings at varied elevations. On one hand it resembles a popular seaside town including picturesque parks with a playground, rolling hills and wildlife; beaches with umbrellas and sunbathers; and an oceanfront walkway with benches and street lamps.
In many ways it's idyllic but it also manages to be distinctive. Fantasy elements add character and a unique feel to Qalis, such as an open-air market in the hull of a boat-shaped structure that's topped off impressively by a whale blowing water out of its blowhole. Elsewhere, there's a building with a giant hand attached, another with a planet topping it off, and at least one with Asian influences.
The resident quidos likewise come in a variety of character models that are creatively designed and well realized. Interesting characters and dialog options are complemented by various NPCs with their own commentary (though as with other games, models and commentary can repeat). Their outsized personalities not only entertain but will give Koa quests that will send her to get information or objects from others or other locations.
An early questline, as an example, sends Koa to retrieve a plant from her island for Saimi, but first she must get a special tool from Caleb, who in turn wants crops from Koa. So Koa has to return to her island to plant Caleb's seeds, grow his crops, return them to Caleb in Qalis in exchange for the tool recipe, return to her island to craft the tool, harvest the plant and return to Qalis to give the plant to Saimi.
This follows a fetch quest pattern that fans of RPGs will be familiar with. It also follows the established means for one way of obtaining recipes that will help upgrade Koa's tools, which will be necessary to do additional things that she couldn't before including removing weeds, breaking down boulders or harvesting certain plants. So this will open up new gameplay options as Koa's journey continues and no doubt also help progress the story forward.
Chibig has also planted the seed (pun intended) for the gameplay that follows with a philosophy toward life that Yaya Haku passed on to Koa early in the game. Namely, that we must always help others; that every action, no matter how small, can benefit others, whether it's bringing someone something they need, or planting a seed. And while there are truly mean people, others that appear mean are lost and need help to find their way again.
It's hard to argue with such a wholesome, proactive and restorative philosophy, especially when it factors into the gameplay in such a significant way. No doubt that approach will help players progress, though the charming world and melodic score go a long way in that regard. However, obstacles such as backtracking between islands, cumbersome fast travel, and hunger/sleep demands could weigh on players' overall enjoyment.
That's a concern, but honestly it's too early to tell. I might be several hours into the game, but bear in mind that up till now I've only visited two of the game's 20 islands, have not had an opportunity to explore the game's underwater environments and have only begun the story and its 300 quests. There is a lot for me yet to explore. Any issues I've encountered are at worst inconveniences along the way.
Indeed, to judge by the first hours of Summer in Mara, the game has met and in some ways exceeded my already high expectations. The colorful natural and artificial settings, imbued with creative fantasy elements, are bolstered by equally colorful personalities in support of fun, intuitive gameplay elements and bound together with a captivating score and wholesome message to deliver an entertaining journey that hopefully in the long run can overcome a few early issues.
(This post was based on the Nintendo Switch version of Summer in Mara, which released today, June 16, 2020, on that platform and on PC. It releases later on PS4 and Xbox One.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Wurroom is the creation of Michael Rfdshir and Serge Bulat. What kind of creation is open to interpretation. Described as an interactive art experience or short exploration adventure game with casual point-and-click puzzles, its surreal imagery, lack of context or structure, and experiential gameplay defies familiar labels. And in this way, it proves that art is in the eye of the beholder.
Indeed some have suggested this roughly 10 minute long experience is not a video game at all. By that same token, I imagine others will claim this is not art. But as far as I'm concerned, it's both and helps push the boundaries of the medium in important ways that hopefully continue to redefine the nature of video games, their place in entertainment, and their acceptance as a legitimate art form.
The game begins with the warning “this game could be played only in handheld mode” because, as players soon discover, gameplay involves touchscreen controls. This is entirely appropriate and verges on the absurd (in a good way) given the opening setting reveals a surreal landscape populated by hands (walking on index and middle fingers), before a large hand comes down and scoops one up.
From that point on, players will use a hand icon with moving fingers to accomplish a variety of tasks. The first interactive scene includes a simple sculpture of a head (think Easter Island) and a shovel. Pressing on the screen reveals a hand icon, which then grabs the shovel. Dragging one’s finger across the screen moves the grabbed object, while pressing anywhere moves it immediately to that spot.
If you land on an interactive location, animation will be triggered either in-game or as a cutscene. The animation is appealing, as it’s in the Claymation – or stop-frame animation – style (with malleable objects reportedly handmade from plasticine). The animation can create more gameplay options or lead to another scene. Pressing and dragging can activate buttons or levers, for instance, or even transform the clay object into something else.
These are the chief gameplay elements. Players might interact with seemingly inanimate objects like cubes or with other creatures, though most things in this pliable world aren’t truly inanimate. Most move on their own or when the player interacts with them, either automatically or when pulled on. There are snails, TVs, mugs, etc. among settings in the air, on water, on land and in blank spaces save for a few objects.
All are colorful and each has a distinctive feel, even when sometimes displaying a similar object(s). The music is perfect accompaniment for the unusual visuals, with a synth sound that at times simulates wind instruments and/or percussion for a contemplative or upbeat score. There's no question that this world dazzles at the same time that it intrigues. Even if players are left without words adequate to describe their experience.
All the creators ask is that you participate. Like the pebble that leaves expanding ripples in its modest wake, players literally touch this world in simple acts that transform it in significant and unexpected ways. And those interactions entertain at the same time that they confound. It is accessible and enigmatic -- both easy and hard to put your finger on. Video game and art. A beautiful and fun curiosity.
But that's all the more reason that gamers should seek out this unusual title. At about 10 minutes long and either free or costing at most $1, it's a negligible investment in a thoroughly trippy exercise that stays with you long after you finished playing. Controls are simple and intuitive so don't get in the way of an interactive world that only asks you to leave your expectations at the door while it rewards your curiosity with an unusual journey.
(This post was based on a review code of Wurroom for the Nintendo Switch, provided by Sometimes You. The game released April 1, 2020, on that platform and on PS4, and is currently $0.99. It released November 8, 2019, on PC and is currently free on Steam.)
(Be sure to check out additional images here: Screenshots.)
Virtual reality is made for games like Good Goliath, where players immerse themselves in the fantasy of creating havoc as a giant. Grab and toss people or the weapons they hurl your way as successive enemy waves seek to bring you down. It's standard fare that's elevated by the unique perspective, fun scenarios and overall polish, though the sometimes imprecise and repetitive gameplay threaten to cut it down to size.
First, a disclaimer. I've played for hours, but so far have progressed only through the first third of the game (more than three of nine levels). I'm admittedly not the most coordinated gamer. So I will (and you should) keep that in mind as I discuss what is generally a fun game to begin with that most gamers will likely enjoy for its sheer scale, sense of humor, intuitive gameplay, inspired art design and quality production values.
The first thing players will notice in this Knocktwice Games release is the entertaining voiceover that introduces them to the plight of the giant. The narrative and storybook delivery create a fairytale premise for the misunderstood Goliath, who intends no harm and just wants to return home but has alarmed people by appearing at a time when giants no longer roam the countryside. This conflict provides context for the confrontations to follow.
While the story provides the foundation for the action, players will be motivated not just by survival but by scoring. All damage dealt by gamers is tabulated for a final score at the end of each stage and bronze, silver and gold medals awarded at the end of each level, if I recall. Extra points are awarded for multiple hits, long distance, etc., as well as for taking no damage and clearing a stage quickly. Bullseyes encourage extra target practice.
Of course, players won't need such encouragement when faced with waves of villagers, knights or pirates, and their catapults or cannons, or tougher enemies such as witches, conjured or captured giants, and section bosses. Gamers will be too busy fending off or returning fire with pitchforks, halberds, lances, barrels, explosive barrels, cannonballs and even wagon wheels, boulders, sharks and fireballs.
Gameplay boils down to outlasting waves of enemies by avoiding incoming fire while also snatching some projectiles from the air for a return engagement. And it can be quite funny, as foes will launch their own screaming people at players, who can lob them back or toss them into the ocean to lure a shark, which in turn will do more damage. But do check yourself for pointy objects (pitchforks, halberds, spiked bombs, sharks) and clingy people!
Enemy targets like people or boats can take three hits depending on weapon, though weapons like anchors or sharks are one-hit wonders, and explosive barrels of TNT or bombs can take out multiple foes. And for the record, the latter attacks are sites to behold, with nice particle effects and lots of debris. This is especially true of Peasantville, the first level, which features destructible environments dotted with bullseyes.
For all the damage that the player can do, they're vulnerable to being hurt, too. The game does warn players to tilt their heads to avoid projectiles, but this fool will tell you it's not foolproof. Some attacks during the game can be avoided but others cannot, and players can still take damage. Thankfully, bakers will helpfully walk or float by carrying healing cakes that players can nab with a well placed hit.
This is one of the key gameplay elements. While some weapons will be tossed at the player, others will need to be obtained by hitting a respective target. Critical blows will force people to cough up explosives, boats to launch their anchors into the air, and giant skulls mounted on pillars (pirates are a resourceful lot) to disgorge their cannons. Combined with using people as shark bait or cannon ammo, it's an important strategic consideration.
So how does all this play out? Like the combat in most castle-defense games or horde-type game modes, enemy waves in each level start out simple before progressing to more challenging stages. To begin with, the Move controllers function well, especially given the basic mechanics of grab, throw and deflect. The headset, too, manages to track dodge movements well enough to avoid danger.
Indeed snatching objects out of the air and tossing them back is extremely fun and rewarding particularly the more damage you inflict. Players are literally giving as good as they get, and there is a real sense of satisfaction and just desserts in that effort. Plus, it's surprisingly easy to catch pitchforks, halberds, lances, etc. despite their narrow circumference and quick movement. But the real joy is in catching clearly terrified people or ravished sharks.
This is where the game shines, but also where I struggled. The more enemies and projectiles on screen the more options players have both to select a weapon of choice in any given moment for each hand and also to identify which target to hit. And this happens constantly in real time. Grab lesser weapons to force foes to give up TNT or bombs, use those to cause more damage and/or retrieve the same or anchors, etc.
Imagine dodging incoming attacks while reaching up to snatch projectiles out of the air, swinging your arms down to toss them at explosives carrying foes or boats, raising your arms again to collect those explosives tossed up as debris, dropping your arms to throw them at enemies, catching anchors or other debris, tossing those, while also using foes as shark bait or hitting a baker for healing cake. And repeat nonstop until the wave is defeated.
This also applies to when bosses are on the field, though naturally they present their own challenges as they're tougher to bring down and hurl kinds of boulders at players, all in the midst of smaller foes and enemy catapults or cannons still firing on all cylinders. Helpfully, blue-tinged boulders contain orbs that detonate on impact, though both they and red-tinged boulders have to be punched apart first. All told, battles are high-intensity affairs.
It's during such barrages that players might encounter issues with responsiveness or targeting. I found that the more hectic is the battle and the more quick are my movements, the harder it was to dodge attacks, catch projectiles or hit my mark when targeting foes. This could be an issue of tracking via the headset or motion controllers or, admittedly, worse coordination on my part when panicking under fire.
I know for a fact I'm less adept than others when it comes to demanding gameplay, so I do take that into consideration and make allowances when writing my impressions. It's possible this won't be an issue for many. Still, I always appreciate when developers include multiple difficulties, or customization options to improve accessibility for gamers. And to their credit, Knocktwice Games allows players to adjust Throw Strength.
If I recall, the default Throw Strength is set to 6 out of a total of 10. I maxed out mine and it did in fact improve m