Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment Review

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is the latest expansion to the fantastic retro platformer – Shovel Knight. Much more than just a rehash of the base game, Specter of Torment stands on its own thanks to its twitchy new move-set and badass boss encounters. It is standalone, and can be played independently of the original campaign, and is provided for free by the wonderful folks over at Yacht Club Games.

Specter of Torment doesn’t reinvent the Shovel Knight wheel, and that’s a good thing. At first glance you might think that its more along the lines of Yacht Club’s first expansion, Plague of Shadows, which I personally bounced off of. Its not, and that’s largely because Specter of Torment features eight brand new levels, as opposed to Plague of Shadow’s remixed stages from the base game.

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But the real draw here is the protagonist of Specter of Torment, the enigmatic Specter Knight himself. In the original Shovel of Hope campaign, Spectre Knight was my favourite boss encounter, and its a real treat to play as him here. His move set is completely unique, and it makes navigating through these surprisingly difficult stages a delight. This is a hardcore platformer, and a major part of that is due to one of Specter Knights most important new techniques, the Dash Slash. Requiring precision timing, the Dash Slash manoeuvre is initiated in mid-air, and cause’s Specter Knight to fly through the air in a vicious diagonal arc, damaging enemies and allowing the player access to normally out of reach areas. It’s simple enough to begin with and is fun and fluid to use, but some of the later level’s demand a mastery of this technique that was surprising. I was constantly impressed with the way Specter of Torment kept this mechanic fresh and innovative throughout the 3-4 hours it took me to complete the campaign.

The music and art style are much the same as in the original, with the 8-bit tunes getting some remixes. Both are of fantastic quality, which isn’t really surprising considering the love and attention Yacht Club has evidently poured into the base game. The Shovel Knight games really are a love-letter to a genre of games they are almost single-handedly responsible for reinvigorating. The story line was nice enough, told through flashback sequences interspersed between the regular levels. Its a little bit darker than the original’s narrative, and actually sets up the events of the main game, but it isn’t quite as memorable. Shovel Knight and Shield Knights tale was surprisingly heartwarming, and while Specter of Torment tells a serviceable tale, it really isn’t the main draw here.

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Spectre Knight also receives a full complement of new abilities, or curios as they are known. There is a decent variety here, from various projectiles to the ability to fly and even summon a skeleton ally. Personally I found the healing ability to be essential, and maybe even a little overpowered, as I barely found the need to use the more offensive powers. Red skulls are scattered throughout the game that allow the purchase of these abilities, and collecting them all can be really challenging, and some are fiendishly well hidden. This all adds to the games replayability, along with a much appreciated new game plus mode.

Specter of Torment is a super fun way to experience the already awesome Shovel Knight universe. If you haven’t played the original, you really should do that first, as its the contrast with the original that makes Specter of Torment feel truly unique. And if you do own the original, then you really have no excuse not to jump back in here. The series trademark humour and heart are on full display, and here’s hoping it continues with the upcoming King Knight expansion!

K.

 

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Steins;Gate 0 Review

Steins;Gate 0 is a visual novel developed by 5pb and Nitroplus, and over the past week I powered through the 40-45 hours it takes to see its six different endings and earn its platinum trophy. It was certainly a whirlwind of emotions, and a roller coaster ride that I truly enjoyed, and I think you will as well. Before we dive into the review proper, lets get some basic housekeeping out of the way:

Firstly, Steins;Gate 0 is a pseudo-sequel to the original game, Steins;Gate. It takes place during one of the alternate endings of the original, but due in no small part to some masterful writing and the time-jumping nature of  the narrative, I consider it a prequel of sorts as well. It should go without saying then, that you absolutely should play the original game first. At the very least, consider watching the fantastic anime series. Also, considering this game features very little in the way of actual gameplay and consists almost entirely of reading a lot of text, it can be hard to discuss this title without at least referencing the events that take place within it.

And while I always do my very best to avoid spoilers in my reviews, it is virtually impossible not to spoil the events of the original Steins;Gate when discussing Steins;Gate 0. You have been warned. Got it? Good! 

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The Steins;Gate series is the tale of one ordinary mans all-out, no holds barred battle with fate and the laws of God and the universe itself. It’s incredibly in-depth narrative is not for the faint of heart, as it goes to some very dark places, but at its core is a tale of hope, faith in ones friendships in the face of adversity, and ultimately, of redemption. Like the best sci-fi, it is based in real world science, but very quickly goes off the deep end into territory that can only be described as fantastical.

So, time for some setup. In case you forgot, the original Steins;Gate story revolves around university student/wannabe Mad Scientist, Okabe Rintaro, who (with the help of some very likeable friends) accidentally invents a time machine and inadvertently sets off a chain of events that will change the world. As punishment for tampering with the laws of the universe and altering the past with an invention known as the PhoneWave (name subject to change), Okabe is forced to watch as his childhood friend Mayuri Shiina is killed over and over again, despite repeatedly attempting to fix the timeline and the events that cause her death. After a lot of trial and error, he discovers that by changing events drastically enough he can break away from his own Alpha timeline to a Beta world line, where Mayuri survives. But, in the Beta world line, it is Kurisu Makise, the genius teenage scientist (and Okabe’s potential love interest) that helped invent the PhoneWave (name subject to change) in the first place who is fated to die repeatedly. Also, in the Beta timeline, World War 3 occurs, which you know, isn’t great. The goal of the original Steins:Gate was to try and find a perfect timeline known as “Steins Gate”, in which both Mayuri and Kurisu survive and WW3 is averted, along with all of the drama that goes with getting there.

Still with me? Steins;Gate 0 pretty much just assumes you are familiar with all of the above, and drops you right in the deep end. I played the original multiple times around a year ago, and found that I needed a bit of a refresher course.

Set in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, the otaku Mecca, the story of Steins;Gate 0 takes place in the Beta word line, during the ending of the original game, but explores a different side of things. In this world line, Kurisu convinces Okabe to let her die, so that Mayuri can have a chance to live a happy life. Picking up several months later, the story begins with Okabe attempting to deal with the extreme depression and PTSD he has developed as a result of the horrendous events he has experienced. On top of that, he is wracked with the guilt he feels over not being able to save Kurisu. He destroys the PhoneWave (name subject to change) and swears never to tamper with the world lines again, and tries to live a normal life as a shell of his former self.

If that all sounds pretty heavy, its because it is. This game really doesn’t pull any punches, emotionally speaking, and expects you to keep track of a bunch of characters, concepts and timelines. All of the original game’s cast returns, and there are several new faces introduced that are integral to the plot. I suppose if the original game’s themes dealt with time travel and the effects of tampering with the past, Steins;Gate 0 deals with the ramifications of such a technology having been invented, and the power struggle and technological arms race that would inevitably ensue as nations and shadowy organisations scramble to obtain their device. An artificial intelligence known as “Amadeus” is also introduced and is pretty essential to the plot, as it possesses the digital memories of Kurisu Makise, and is the impetus for a lot of the decisions made in the game.

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All of this is presented in a series of incredibly long story vignettes. If you have never played a visual novel, the emphasis is on the “novel” part. The original game had some 40,000 lines of dialogue, and I would wager this one is even longer. While Steins;Gate 0 is available on consoles, I chose the PlayStation Vita version for the portability factor, and I would recommend it wholeheartedly. Basically, you stare at some admittedly pretty great looking characters that spout reams of dialogue at you (which is, impressively, entirely voiced but only in Japanese). The location are pretty great too, and are presented as static backgrounds for the talking character portraits. I have spent a lot of time in Akihabara, and to see locations and landmarks in this game that I have physically been to was an awesome nostalgia trip.

Not to beat a dead horse here, but I really cant overstate the fact that you don’t actually “do” a lot in this game. You have a cell phone that will occasionally ring, and you press a button to answer it, or to reply to text messages. And while answering (or ignoring) specific phone calls is actually how you access the different paths and endings that can be achieved, that is really all you as the player are required to do. For me, that was fine, visual novels are something I have grown to really enjoy but they do require a lot of patience. Similarly, being set in Akihabra, Steins;Gate 0 really leans into its otaku and anime roots, and that might be off putting for some. One of the games main characters, works in a maid cafe and wears cat ears constantly. She also finishes every sentence with “nyan”, because I guess that’s what cat-girls do? It can be a little grating, but as the quality of writing is incredibly high, I can forgive some of these very Japanese quirks. More troublesome, in my opinion, is the games treatment of Luka or Lukako as he is mockingly referred to. A male character that is described as being incredibly feminine, the jokes that are made about his perceived sexuality/gender made me a little uncomfortable. Its nothing too crude, but it is constant, and seems a little off in this day and age. Another complaint I have is there is very little indication of what kind of narrative path you are on. I straight up got the worst of six possible endings on my first playthough, and I could see that deterring some players who might not even know how or why they went down that route.

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In summary Steins;Gate 0 is a fantastic title that I really enjoyed my time with. I didn’t even mention the soundtrack, and I find some of the slower piano pieces it features popping into my brain even days after seeing the credits roll. While the game may go on a little too long (especially if you want to see everything it has to offer), the strength and originality of its narrative more than makes up for any short comings it might have. It can also be incredibly meta, in a way that is truly unique to the video game genre: as you achieve certain endings, you learn more about the overall plot, and are able to load a save file and take a different path through the narrative, just like the characters in the narrative do with the use of time travel. Its incredibly clever, and especially after unlocking the true ending, was something I really appreciated. I would recommend Steins;Gate 0 to any fan of visual novels, and the series as a whole to any Vita owner. 

Now if you will excuse me, I have some bananas in the microwave and I’m expecting a phone call. What could possibly go wrong?

El. Psy. Kongroo.

K.

 

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Review

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is an absolute spectacle, in the best possible sense of the word. Truly a touchstone amongst gamers of all ages, many of us grew up with fond memories of earlier titles in the franchise. But this latest, and best, iteration of the series has it all with a truly monumental selection of characters and tracks that offers extremely impressive replay value. 

Even if you didn’t grow up as a Nintendo kid, there is just so much to recommend here. Visually, everything just pops right off the Switch screen, with a vibrancy and colour pallet that is never too distracting, but is certainly eye catching. And as you boost and drift your way around courses full of exploding turtle shells and rogue bananas, Mario Kart never drops below it’s 60fps, and handles like a dream.

In docked mode the game renders in full 1080p resolution, but for me personally handheld mode is where this game is at it’s best. And while you take a hit to resolution (720p in handheld mode), Nintendo didn’t sacrifice frame rate for portability. This is where the potential and longevity of the game really is, at least for me. I purchased the game digitally, and will never delete it from my Switch, simply for the ability to play a couple of rounds ANYWHERE. And if you happen to be able to connect to a WiFi network, say at your house or a local cafe, this stops being a game and becomes a platform.

Lets be honest here. The AI controlled bots you will spend your time racing against offline in single player are certainly competent, and are great to mess around with. But playing Mario Kart with friends or other players online is by now a time-honoured institution, something I take deadly seriously. There is nothing quite like wiping that smug grin off your best friends face with a well timed blue shell, or the feeling of dominating international players as a brightly coloured Shy Guy. Local co op is easy to use and feels great too, you and a friend can even play online together. I haven’t played with more than two players locally yet, but that requires your switch to be in docked mode.

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Don’t be the guy that has to play as Link. Nobody likes that guy.

I suppose I should address the elephant in the room, even if it personally doesn’t affect me. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is a re-release, a game of the year edition if you will. It was originally released for the Wii U, and is virtually the same game aside from a bunch of new characters and a revamped Battle Mode (more on that later). If you already own the game than there really isn’t a whole lot new here to draw you back in, except for the aforementioned portability. For me personally, I’m choosing to treat this like its a brand new game, because for me it is. I never owned a Wii U, and this is my first time playing Mario Kart 8. I can certainly see why some might be hesitant to essentially buy this game twice, and that’s your prerogative. But if you missed out on MK8D the first time, or like me you skipped the Wii U, this is undoubtedly the definitive version, and alongside Zelda: Breath of the Wild is an essential part of any Switch owners collection.

Now, on to some of those extras. Personally, I prefer Grand Prix to Battle Mode, but the inclusion of several new modes such as Shine Thief, Renegade Roundup and Bob-omb Blast certainly doesn’t detract from that, and is a welcome change when you want to mix things up. The inclusion of these modes only adds to MK8D’s replayability, and I’m all for that. We also have new characters such as Link and the Inklings, which are nice. In what I can only describe as a master-stroke of marketing, though, Nintendo has also included some awesome Amiibo skins for your Mii character (with the purchase of the corresponding Amiibo, of course). I’ve never really been interested in Amiibo, until now that is. I play exclusively as my Mii, and I want all of them. ALL of them.

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I suppose my only real gripe with MK8D is the fact that everything is unlocked from the get go. This might seem like the most entitled, pedantic complaint ever, but here we are. I think this was Nintendo’s attempt at extending a virtual olive branch of sorts to those who had already bought Mario Kart on the Wii U, but it seems misguided. There is a sense of achievement to unlocking new courses and characters as you progress, and I would be willing to bet money that more people play MK8D on the Switch over it’s lifespan than ever did on the Wii U. Still, its a minor issue, and at least there are kart and bike upgrades to unlock. 

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe is fantastic, and really showcases what Nintendo’s first party is capable of. Its gorgeous, plays like a dream and is very nearly infinitely replayable. Coupled with the ease of use of the Switch, this is a game that is just as perfect for a long flight or car trip as it is for a night in with friends. And while it’s a slightly harder sell for people that purchased the Wii U version, this is a must have title for anyone that owns a Switch.

K.

Yomawari: Night Alone Review

Yomawari: Night Alone reads like a demented fairy tale straight out of Japanese folklore with a modern twist. The survival horror, from creators Nippon Ichi Software, immediately sucks you into its grim, dark world within moments of booting the game up, and continues to throw twisted monstrosities at you for the several hours it will take you to complete it. From its isometric view, Yomowari seems deceptively cute, as you play as an unnamed young girl with a lovingly animated red bow in her hair. This game is anything but, however, as it deals with heavy themes such as mortality, loneliness, and the supernatural.

Right out of the gate, the player is treated to an emotional gut punch in the game’s tutorial. I wont spoil it here, but suffice to say, I don’t think a tutorial has ever invested me in a character or a world so effectively. The premise of Yomowari is simple: A young girl loses her dog, and her older sister goes out to look for it. When she never makes it home, it is up to the young heroine to venture out to save them both. And they need saving, as the surprisingly expansive town they hail from in rural Japan is inhabited by scores of demons straight from the depths of hell.

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Gameplay is a fairly simple affair, and will not surprise anyone familiar with the survival horror genre. The game is broken into chapters, and each chapter sends the player to different corners of the map in search of keys and other items that will allow them to progress to the next. What makes Yomawari unique is that virtually the entire game world is open from the start, and while some areas are gated, there is a lot to see and do. You wander dark, deserted streets with nothing but a flashlight as your only protection from the evil spirits that roam the night.

And I think this is where the game really shines (pun intended). You are completely unable to protect yourself, so all you can do when confronted by an enemy is either run or hide. Some of these creatures will react (violently) to the light of your torch, and others come running at the slightest sound. You can sneak past groups of enemies, and distract them with thrown items. Its not an incredibly in-depth stealth system, but its varied enough and doesn’t wear out its welcome. Progress can be saved at Jizo statues that are spread fairly liberally across the map, and they also function as the games fast-travel points.

A flaw of this was that I never felt very punished by death. It really just meant I would be greeted by a blessedly very brief loading screen, and a short run back to where I had met my demise. Some of the games mini boss like creatures could be frustrating, though, requiring dozens of attempts, and perfect memorisation of their attack patterns. But that never took away from the genuine fear I felt after encountering some of these creatures. And I think that was because of their uniquely Japanese design. From massive tentacled beasts that would sweep entire streets with their appendages, to the souls of dead children who would attack only when you showed your back to them, the variety was quite impressive.

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But what really sold me, was realising that Yomowari has side quests, and semi unscripted events. Wandering down a particularly dark street, I came across a headless horse that galloped past me, off into the night. I would encounter the same beast again several chapters later, and while I never figured out its purpose, the horse was completely benign. I took to feeding stray cats  with some pet food I happened across, until I fed the wrong cat. After that, I swore I wouldn’t feed any animals that I encountered. I also engaged in a particularly creepy game of hide and seek with a ghostly little girl that really did just want to play. Then I came across a ringing cell phone, left abandoned in the street. What followed was probably the most chilling of my encounters, and the most memorable.

It probably took me around 5 hours to complete Yomawari, and I did it in a single sitting, but I think you could probably spend at least that long again scouring every nook and cranny. Thankfully, after rolling credits, you are able to explore the entire map (which seems to have been hand drawn by the protagonist, and suits the aesthetic perfectly) at your leisure to snap up any remaining collectables you might have missed. And you will probably miss some, as they can be fiendishly well hidden, or heavily guarded. I considered attempting the platinum trophy, it certainly seems doable, but would require a hefty amount of exploration.

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I’m very happy  with my time spent with the game. Its narrative is fairly open ended, and I immediately went online to see other peoples interpretations of certain events. And it has stayed with me, its the kind of game that creeps up on you. I will be keeping a very close eye on the recently announced sequel Yomawari: Midnight Shadows, as I cant wait to see what the team does next. All in all I would recommend Yomawari: Night Alone to anyone looking for something a little bit different. Its a short experience, but memorable, and it played exceptionally well on the Vita.

Now if you will excuse me, I need to double check my door is locked.

K.

 

 

Final Fantasy VI Review

Squaresoft, 1994.

“I’ll never let go. I promise.” Locke

I love video games, I have for as long as I can remember, and reviewing them is something that I have always wanted to do. Shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Wrong. I racked my brain for days, trying to decide on the perfect title to dissect. I wanted it to be an RPG, that was obvious. It had to be something that I had enjoyed personally, and what i would consider to be a classic. Something that had a memorable cast, engaging game play, and that told a story worth telling. Actually, looking back, once I had those parameters set, it shouldn’t have been as hard as it was.

Final Fantasy VI, released as Final Fantasy III in North America, is not my favourite game in the series. That honour belongs to the much maligned, and admittedly somewhat angsty Final Fantasy VIII. No, it’s not my favourite, but I do think it’s the most important. Its strong focus on narrative, and character arcs would be aped by RPG’s for decades to come, and its more character specific take on the ATB (Active Time Battle) is something I wish the series would return too, where an individual party member is more than just a blank slate.

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VI is the story of the mysterious, amnesiac Terra. Or arguably of the turncoat Imperial commander, Celes. I’ve even heard claims that the actual protagonist is the self styled treasure hunter/thief, Locke. And while today it’s tale of a ragtag rebel outfit resisting a nefarious empire might seem overplayed, but back in ’94 it was quite fresh (at least in video games). It’s a unique Final Fantasy game in that it’s hard to decide whose story it actually is, you could argue that XII is somewhat similar in that regard, but I digress.

Our story begins in the small mining village of Narshe, where an “Esper” is unearthed. Sent to claim it for the Empire, is the aforementioned amnesiac and initially brainwashed, Terra. Mounted on the imposing Imperial Magitek armour, slogging through the driving snow, and flanked by the ill-fated Biggs and Wedge, the opening cinematic is one of VI’s most iconic image’s, and should be instantly recognisable to any true RPG fan.

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It’s full of touching moments, too many to list. My favourite, though, would have to be the iconic ”coin” scene. Edgar, atop the battlements of Figaro castle who would, with the toss of a coin, seal his own fate and that of his twin brother Sabin… and that of an entire kingdom. It’s a scene that’s bound to tug at the heart strings of anyone with siblings, doubly so when you learn that the outcome was a foregone conclusion. And of course, the whole scene is set to a stand out tune on what is a truly extraordinary soundtrack – The Coin Song, a melancholy re-arrangement of the unforgettable Edgar & Sabin theme.

And speaking of soundtracks, Nobuo Ueamatsu’s work on VI may (in my humble opinion) just be the finest collection the great composer has ever produced. While I think other games in the series may have stronger tracks, (To Zanarkand, Those Who Fight Further, and The Man With The Machine Gun come to mind, from Final Fantasy’s X, VII and VIII, respectively) VI’s score as a cohesive whole is quite simply masterful. It feature’s rousing anthems, like the aforementioned Edgar & Sabin’s Theme and Cayenne, to more sombre piece’s like The Mystic Forest and Forever Rachel. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the games boss battle theme – The Decisive Battle. My personal favourite track, I once heard a street performer play a stripped down acoustic version on my very first visit to Akihabra, making it both a song and a day I will never forget. It never failed to get me pumped up for a boss fight, and really, what more can you ask of a boss theme?

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“The Reaper is always one step behind me” – Shadow

Gameplay is very much traditional Final Fantasy, which is to say, it utilises the ATB system, and is very story focused. For those unfamiliar, the ATB system is a turn-based combat system in which the players characters are able to attack when their action gauge is full, with some attacks/abilities taking a little longer. The speed at which a characters turn comes around is tied to their speed stat, and can be influenced with spells such as Haste. Its a tense system, as it has a feeling of randomness to it, and you cant see your foe’s gauge so you never know what attack you will be hit with next. The basic gameplay loop consists of narrative scenes and dungeon crawling with a surprising amount of side-questing, which is truly impressive considering this was released as a 16-bit game. And of course, random battles. One of my favourite aspects of VI’s battle system is that each of the games fourteen playable characters have a unique skill that makes them feel truly different, making the choice of what party members to bring alone feel less arbitrary, and more like choosing the right man (or woman, and whatever Gogo is) for the job at hand.

Like most games in the Final Fantasy series, VI is a game that needs be experienced to truly understand why it is more than just the sum of its parts. Sure, it has an engaging narrative, a cast free of the many tropes found in the genre today, and an incredible soundtrack. It has an engaging battle system and tons of replay value. Its art style is original and instantly recognisable, and it has a truly evil arch villain (Kefka) that actually achieves his goals, and the better part of the game is spent trying to deal with the consequences of that. How many games can you name where that is the case?

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You think a minor thing like the end of the world was gonna do me in?” Sabin

Any of those qualities alone would make for a great game. But its the way these elements are woven together so effortlessly that truly makes VI such a timeless game. Its that, and its so much more. Developers are still trying to recapture VI’s magic,for the most part unsuccessfully. It has so much heart, and it’s full of real emotion. Its a story of growth, and of redemption. It’s a tale of longing, and of timeless love. Its an epic of adversity, and of friendship. It’s a fantasy based in reality….

And it’s a journey I would recommend taking.

K.