NieR: Automata Review

For the Glory of Mankind.

Developer: Platinum Games

Publisher: Square Enix

Reviewed for: PS4 Pro

Played: Around 35 hours, receiving endings A, B, C, D, and E, along with some post game cleanup.

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NieR: Automata is something unique in a landscape of games attempting to follow popular trends and genre norms. Much like the robotic foes you spend most of your time slicing through, Automata has been pieced together from the cast off mechanics of genres that we have come to know and love, and even those that are probably better off left by the wayside. This fusion of satisfying play styles is held together by a narrative penned by auteur game designer Yoko Tarō, and while not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, NieR: Automata is an unforgettable experience that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled on any of its many, many different endings.

Taking place in the far distant future, Automata tells the story of three androids fighting a proxy war on a ravaged Earth, seeking to reclaim it from the machines occupying it. The human survivors of this robotic apocalypse sought refuge on the moon, where they have developed elite android combat units known as YorHa. These soldiers are the eyes through which the world of Automata is seen, and through which concepts like duty, emotion and individualism are explored by the player.

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The protagonist, at least initially, is 2B. A front-line unit designed to be the perfect soldier, 2B’s journey is one of exploration, as she discover’s there is more to the machines on earth than humanity’s leadership would have her believe. Accompanying her, and arguably the true protagonist of the game, is 9S. A scanner model, 9S is the emotional link to the games narrative, and has the strongest and most effective arc by far, once all is said and done. Finally, we have A2, an outdated model turned traitor to her YorHa brethren. A2 is a little one note, and really only present for the back third of the game, but her unique mechanics are a welcome change to Automata’s combat system, especially after some of 9S’s slower segments.

One of the games major supporting characters is Pascal, a pacifist, sentient machine that has a surprisingly large role to play, even if the majority of it is spent doling out fetch quests to pad out some of the middle sections of the game. I wish Pascal was a little more interesting, but like virtually every other character you will meet, there is very little actual growth. Most end up being one note, and rather flat. This is a shame, because Nier; Automata is well written, and the world these flat, one note characters inhabit is intriguing and full of mystery.

And before we get to the thing’s NieR gets right, we do have to talk about NieR’s greatest sin. The large, semi open areas that the majority of the game takes place in are unfortunately quite boring. While there are some beautiful vistas to behold, the world is sparse, which I suppose could be intentional, as it certainly feels desolate. Unfortunately, they aren’t very exciting to explore, and are for the most part quite straight forward. While there are some locked doors that cant be accessed until later playthroughs, most of the loot found hidden off the beaten path is fairly trivial, as the materials required for upgrading weapons is dropped by enemies fairly generously. I could forgive a lot of the above, if you didn’t have to travel back to each of these bland environments so many times. For example, the factory that the opening hour of the game takes place in, has to be revisited five times throughout the course of the game as part of the critical path. It isn’t that interesting to begin with, and that’s not even including the multiple times you need to return there as part of various side quests.

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Where Automata truly shines though, is in its combat. Developed by Platinum Games, hardened veterans of the action-rpg genre, the combat is lightning fast and deeply satisfying. Playing as 2B, you are able to dual-wield any weapon in the game, of which there are dozens across four categories. For example, say you had a sword equipped to your first slot, and a spear in the second, each weapon has its own string of attack’s and can be combined fluidly with the other at any point. Further, each weapon has a differing move set, depending on which slot it is equipped to. So, a spear in slot one has a wider, more sweeping move set when compared to a spear in slot two, that consists of stabs and thrusts. Further, each weapon can be upgraded multiple times, each time adding more attacks to the combo chain and providing additional benefits, such as extra damage while at full health. There is nothing stopping you from equipping two spears either, to become a whirling dervish of death.

Each android is also accompanied by a pod, a little helper drone that supports you in battle and acts as a kind of robotic commentator to everything you do. By holding down the appropriate button, your pod will unleash a barrage of laser fire, functioning as your basic ranged attack. There are different types of pod, all upgradeable, with different methods of attack, but I found the starting unit to be the most effective. Your pod can also be equipped with various programs, that function as special attacks. Again, the default is a powerful ranged blast attack, and I found myself using it for the majority of the game. Embarrassingly, I assumed that the limited selection at shops were all the programs available. It wasn’t until I was about to complete the game I discovered exotic programs like a grappling hook that could be used in combat, or a gravity bomb that could be used to set up groups of enemies for devastating AOE’s.

Your android can be upgraded by attaching what are known as Plug-In Chips, which can be bought and are frequently dropped by enemies. These function as Automata’s upgrade system, and it is incredibly robust once fully unlocked. Like any machine, YorHa units have limited memory, and can only equip a certain number of upgrades. Once all of these upgrades have been purchased, you will have a lot of options to play around with, and you really can create a unique build or playstyle. For example, I built 2B as a real glass cannon, with multiple attack and speed upgrades, but also several chips that would not only heal me for every machine I destroyed, but also every time I even hit one. This translated into an ultra aggressive play style where I was constantly on the offensive, and the game felt more akin to something like Bloodborne. Conversely, playing as 9S, all of my chips buffed his unique hacking skill, his movement speed and his pods ranged attack, which felt like playing a ranged caster in other games.

And we should talk about the music, which is uniformly incredible. I think the highest praise I can give it, is that I listen to it out loud in my apartment when I’m working. I’m listening to it as I write this in fact. The soundtrack to NieR; Automata is, much like the game itself, loud, bombastic, epic and deeply weird. Whether its one of the booming orchestral epics that accompany boss fights, with melodic Gregorian chants that make you believe you might be fighting God himself, or any of the more stripped back tunes that you might hear in the Resistance Camp or in Pascal’s Village, the OST is fantastic, and one of the games greatest strengths.

Another strength, although not as consistent, is the games emphasis on differing game styles to mix thing’s up. You might be exploring an open three dimensional space, and upon entering a hallway the perspective will shift to that of a two dimensional sidescroller or platformer, not unlike Mario. Of course, you can still be laying down constant fire with your pod, which makes these segments reminiscent of sidescrolling shooter like the Metal Slug series. 9S has a hacking mechanic that plays out like a top down shooter, and while used in interesting ways, can become a little tiring with repeated use. Even the most mundane fights in an open area can end up feeling like a third person shooter, as the weight of enemy fire that you are forced to dodge can feel like area-denial attacks. Boss fights especially can come to resemble games from the bullet hell genre, and are truly intense in the latter stages of the game. And of course there are the flight suit segments, that play like Ikaruga or Space Invaders, with you vanquishing wave after wave of enemie fighters. A personal favorite section of mine featured a full motion FMV battle taking place in the background while you fight off enemy aircraft in the foreground, strangely reminiscent of the Battle of the Garden’s in Final Fantasy VIII, to date one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a game.

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In this way, NieR: Automata truly keeps you guessing. It’s a weird beast, that you cant ever truly pin down. It constantly bombards you with ever shifting gameplay styles, keeping you on the back foot, fighting through by the skin of your teeth. Then it might deliver a quieter moment in the form of philosophical monologue on the nature of self determinism straight from the mouth of a strange looking robot. There is the childlike sense of humor present throughout the game, with gags that sometime work, but always succeed in selling this world as alien and unfathomable. And of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the games insistent sexualisation of 2B to an uncomfortable degree, with the camera angle always gently trying to peek under her skirt. But aside from that last part, every aspect comes together in a way that just works. This game should be a mess of confused ideas and concepts, but aside from some pacing issues in the middle and a few too many fetch quests, the game as a whole comes together in a big way.

One of the best JRPG’s of the modern era, NieR: Automota is a flawed masterpiece that has to be experienced to be believed. It’s fantastic soundtrack complements its brilliant combat system perfectly, and guides you down the rabbit hole of its desperately compelling narrative. Yoko Taro and Platinum Games have crafted something truly unique, and like 9S and 2B themselves, complement each others strengths while masking their weakness’s. In a landscape full of sequels and stale ideas, Automata has taken something from virtually every genre that has come before, and in doing so, it feel’s like they have created something that defies definition.

Celeste Review

Keep Climbing

Developer: Matt Makes Games

Publisher: Matt Makes Games

Reviewed for: Nintendo Switch

Played: Around 15 Hours

 

 

Celeste is a game about climbing a mountain, both figuratively and literally. It’s also a tough as nails hardcore platformer, the likes of which I have never encountered before. And while it can be tough, it`s mostly fair. I had more than a couple of deaths due to the precise timing required by the game, but I suppose that could be a failing of the hardware I was using (attached Joycons).

Developed and published by Matt Makes Games, based out of Canada and consisting mostly of the titular Matt Thorson and a small team of his friends, Matt Makes Games have delivered an impressive title in Celeste, and won widespread acclaim for its charming mix of retro visuals, hardcore platforming mechanics and heartfelt story.

At it`s core, Celeste nails its central conceit, which is trial and error. You as the player will die over and over again searching for the solution to the complex jumping puzzles that are presented in each of the games eight or so levels. Every level has its own set of rules or obstacles, be it a strong wind that constantly forces you backwards, or platforms that will collapse underneath you.

That may not sound revolutionary, but its the precision and timing that is required to progress that I found to be the most rewarding. Celeste doesn’t pull any punches, and while there is an assist mode that can help players that are struggling with some of the games more diabolical challenges, the adrenaline felt after completing a complex sequence is the games true reward.

And you will die. Constantly. Literally hundreds of times. My final death counter (helpfully, or maybe sadistically displayed after each level) was just shy of a thousand after my first run through the game. I don’t even know if that is a lot, as I felt like I played pretty well, and didn’t feel like I got bogged down too often. Thankfully you re-spawn instantly, which really helps with experimentation, as you rarely lose more than a few seconds progress.

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The world of Celeste is told through it’s charming art style and snappy dialogue. There aren’t a lot of cut scenes, per se, but I looked forward to dialogue between the central characters. But while the witty exchanges characters engage in was great, the story itselfactually fell a little flat for me, honestly. It beats you over the head with its central theme, over and over again and with little subtlety: Depression is like climbing a mountain, and you just have to keep climbing to get out!

Which is a shame, because Madeline is a likeable enough character, but you learn very little about her. Every cliche metaphor for learning to love the parts of yourself that you don’t like is relayed through her and thrown at you the player with very little unique commentary on mental illness. Supporting characters like the loveable hiker Theo were interesting if also a little underdeveloped. I haven’t unlocked the games true ending, which requires quite a bit of grinding, but I wouldn’t expect even the ending to make up for the games sloppy handling of what is admittedly a hard concept to nail down, let alone in a platformer.

In summation, Celeste is a spectacular platformer that is well worth any Switch owners time. Hell it’s worth any gamer’s time, as its available on a bunch of platforms. I wish it was a bit more in depth in regards to the narrative, but it’s mechanics are rock solid and addictive, and it’s art style and soundtrack really set the bar incredibly high for whatever Matt Makes Games decide to do next. I cant wait to see what they do next.

 

Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony Review

All Rise

Developer: Spike Chunsoft

Publisher: Spike Chunsoft, NIS America

Reviewed for : Vita

Played: 40+ Hours

 

With Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony, Spike Chunsoft delivers an explosive and somewhat divisive third entry in the Danganronpa series. Without spoilers, its kind of hard to describe just exactly why this game is so controversial amongst longtime fans. I wont spoil anything here, but V3 stands out as one of the best visual novels on the market due to its impeccable writing, despite ultimately falling short of true greatness due to its clunky gameplay mechanics and some pacing issues around the middle.

For newcomers, the basic concept of Danganronpa goes something like this: Sixteen Ultimate students are imprisoned together and forced into a killing game. To escape, a student needs to kill one of their fellows and get away with it. The flip side of this is that if the “blackened” (the murderer) does succeed, everyone else will be executed instead.  Once a body has been discovered, a class trial will ensue after an  investigation period. During this trial, the player engages in a bunch of mini games and shoot “truth bullets” at key phrases to progress the plot. All of this is overseen by the maniacal series mascot Monokuma, a monochromatic bear that presides over this crazy kangaroo court, dolling out his own dark brand of justice. In V3, he is joined by his evil offspring, the Monocubs.

If all of that sounds like a lot to take on, its because it is. Danganronpa has always been insane, but that’s part of the charm. Take for instance the Ultimate’s themselves. These students have hyper advanced skills in their chosen fields, whether it makes sense or not. From the Ultimate Anthropologist to the Ultimate Tennis Pro to the Ultimate Supreme Leader, each character is wildly colourful and has a lot of personality, even if their Ultimate abilities don’t actually come up thematically or in gameplay a whole lot.

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But where V3 really sells itself and its twisted world is in its aforementioned writing, which is really top notch. From the characters themselves, to the twists and turns of each of the murders and the ultimate reveals of the overarching plot itself, Danganronpa is rarely predictable, V3 in particular. Unfortunately, at least for me personally, the big twist of this entry falls a little flat, which was kind of disappointing. The narrative had me completely enthralled for around 35 hours, but sadly lost me with a reveal that I didn’t quite feel was earned, either through the narrative buildup or by the groundwork laid by past entries in the series. Now, that last point is totally subjective, I respect what the devs where going for, it just didn’t entirely work for me. I think they should be applauded for the risks they took though, as it may be one of the most ambitious endings  to a piece of media I’ve yet seen, and very unique to the medium of video games.

Well done, too, is the dialogue of characters during the free time events that occurs several times in a chapter. These give the player a chance to learn more about the other Ultimates, and if you spend enough time with a certain character you will unlock a Friendship Fragment, which can be used to buy skills for the various mini games used in class trials. I appreciated getting to know more about the other characters in the game, not only because they are all interesting, but because in hindsight some of them foreshadow future events. Remember, some of these people will commit murder, while others are potential victims. These relationships are on a timer, without explicit time limits!

I wish I could heap praise on the aforementioned mini games as well, but sadly these have always been the series weak point. I really wish that the Danganronpa games of the future would just get rid of them all entirely, they really bring nothing to the table and actually take away from the product as a whole. It would be fine if these were a once off thing, but you end up doing each one several times per trial. Spread out over the games six trials, and you’re looking at hours of awful mini games just to advance the narrative. I think, of all of them, the Non-Stop Debate is probably the best, because it has a sort of narrative focus. Characters will chime in and throw dialogue at you, and you need to “shoot” a certain phrase to either agree or disagree with that character. This is actually where the series gets its name, Dangan (bullet) Ronpa (refutation). I’ve seen it translated literally as ”winning an argument with a bullet”, which I think is pretty cool. New to the series is the ability to lie during these encounters, which ends up being thematically quite resonant with the overall story, but only occurs a handful of times.

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The games best character. Sadistic, psychotic, and incredibly entertaining!

Less cool, segway, are the other mini games. Hangman’s Gambit is literally just the word game Hangman that we all played in primary school, but you pick out moving letters with the help of a sonar. There is a minesweeper-esque mini game that is forgettable at best. Another new section is the Debate Scrum, in which two sides will face off over a point of contention by way of a word association game. Again, if that sounds interesting, it might be the first time you do it, but quickly wears out its welcome, like an unwanted house guest that moves in to your spare bedroom when you weren’t looking. But the most egregious of all is Psyche Taxi. I would audibly groan whenever this one popped up, as it meant I would be spending the next several minutes of my life driving a taxi that controls poorly down a neon stretch of highway gathering orbs that represented part of a phrase the game was trying to spell out. Its not that this segment is bad per se, it is just so aggressively bland that it might as well have not existed. Oh, and when you spell out the word you run over women who then climb into the taxi with you. Again, just unnecessary.

And despite spending so much of your playtime slogging through the boring mini games, Danganronpa V3 is, as a whole, better than the sum of its parts. While it would invariably be a better title without the dead weight of the series baggage, would it still be Danganronpa? That’s not for me to say. What I will say is that V3’s strength’s far outweigh its weaknesses, its narrative is compelling and somewhat controversial. It rewards its players with a well crafted story, and I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen next.

Dark Souls 3: The Fire Fades Review

Let The Feast Begin

Developer: FromSoftware

Publisher: Bandai Namco

Reviewed for: PC and PS4

Played: 100+ hours

 

So much has been written about Dark Souls, and the Souls series as a whole, that its really quite hard to come at it fresh. By now, we know of the series’ legendary difficulty and the impenetrable lore that is hidden so deviously throughout its massive game worlds. Its asynchronous multiplayer is unique in games, and the formula (Fromula?) that has made the series so iconic has been aped by so many games now that “Soulslike” has even become its own genre. 

But even with all that said, there is just something so compelling about the complete package. The Fire Fades Edition collects Dark Souls 3 and its subsequent DLC offerings, Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City, into one enormous game that can easily eat up all of your free time and most of your sanity, if you let it. We are talking about dozens of areas, bosses, NPC’s, and hundreds of items and weapons and armour sets. All of this is built upon one of the most satisfying combat systems I’ve ever played, which somehow manages to keep combat encounters fresh and exciting right up until the credits roll.

This is due in part to the fantastic gameplay loop that has been the hallmark of the franchise. You as the player enter a horrifying nightmare-scape of an area, timidly encounter fearsome foes, and usually die a couple of times experimenting how best to engage said foes. As you become more proficient at foe slaying, you accumulate the souls that are used to strengthen your character and purchase items and equipment, but lose them if you die. You are given one chance to reclaim your souls, but die again and they are gone for good. And while the bonfires that act as the games checkpoint system allow for quick travel and a welcome reprieve from the oppressive kingdom of Lothric, they also cause most enemies in the game to respawn. It’s a simple loop, but its so very effective at building the tension that I find so addictive. Do I push on, for glory and untold spoils, or do I play it safe and retreat, only to have to play through an area again? Couple that with the fact that most of the time new areas can only be accessed after defeating some hideous boss creature, this element of risk and reward is incredibly engaging, and I subsequently spent most of my time playing on the very edge of my seat.

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This last title takes us to the kingdom of Lothric in which, like Lordran and Drangleic before it, things have gone very much awry. As the Ashen One, an Undead who has been awoken by the tolling of bells, it is your duty to seek out the Lords of Cinder and return them to their vacant thrones, by force as it turns out. The story is really open to interpretation and a whole community has sprung up around the lore of the series. After rolling credits I immediately fell down a rabbit hole of lore videos, in particular I enjoyed Vaatividya’s analysis and would highly recommend them. But something that isn’t brought up often enough in relation to the narrative is the quality of the voice acting, which is totally off the charts. NPC’s in the Soul’s really sell this grim-dark universe, and they range from the incredibly morose to the surprisingly comedic.

What I like most about the various narrative threads and quest lines in Dark Souls 3 is that not only are most of them optional, I was in fact not even aware several story lines existed on my first playthough. It was only after failing them, for apparently no reason, that I became aware there was more going on here than meets the eye. Unless certain prerequisites are met, NPC’s can die or simply just vanish from the central hub of the game (Firelink Shrine). And while some players might find that frustrating, this is a game that lends itself to repeat playthroughs, what with its multiple endings and near infinite build options and new game plus modes. Getting to see some of the more obscure story lines play out was incredibly satisfying, even if some of the triggers for certain events will be missed by the vast majority of players.

While a lot of players may have experienced the base game at launch, myself included, From’d DLC offerings are reason enough to plan a return journey to Lothric. The first, Ashes of Ariandel, was a tad too short for my liking. It more than made up for it with its fantastic final boss fight though, which is unique amongst all bosses in the Souls series. Set inside a universe contained within a painting, Ariandel is a land of frozen forests and wild beasts that mirrors the horrors of the outside world. It has a Norse aesthetic that is used effectively, and its sombre narrative provides an interesting trail of breadcrumbs that lead  directly into the second piece of DLC. I was expecting them to be self contained tales, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out how intrinsically they are linked.

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The monster design is up to par with the base game, and in particular the Corvian Knights are a ferocious surprise for the unwary. Similarly, the packs of deadly wolves that prowl the opening woodlands signal to each other and hound the player relentlessly. Less impressive are the groups of Follower enemies, inspired by the Undead Legion of Farron, who just feel a little too similar to basic soldier type enemies we have seen throughout the series.

The Ringed City, conversely, nails its environments and smaller enemies encounters but somewhat drops the ball in its boss fights. The journey through the Slag Heap is exciting and provides a real challenge to players with its combination of deadly environments and Angel enemies, that had me flashing back PTSD style to the first Dark Souls Anor Londo and its infamous Silver Knight archers. Upon reaching the Ringed City proper, the DLC really hits its stride both in gameplay and from a narrative standpoint. And while I was fascinated by the lore implications of what transpires in the closing moments of The Ringed City, which really wraps up the Soul’s series as a whole, it is ultimately let down by its final boss fight. While suitably difficult, after eventually slaying this final foe, I found myself kind of confused. The encounter didn’t feel like a final boss fight, so much so that I spent another hour or so searching for a path I may have missed, and I ultimately was left feeling unsatisfied, which isn’t what you want to come away from a game feeling.

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Dark Souls 3: The Fire Fades is a fantastic title that will keep players playing for hours on end, and long until the night. Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City complement the base game perfectly, and even if they don’t live up to it in terms of narrative and boss encounters, are a meaty addition to an already lengthy game. And it is content worth exploring, for the brave and skilled alike, and for the ash that seeketh embers.

Yes, indeed.

Blog Update 20/05

Whats going on, everybody? Thought it might be time for an update with what I’m doing here. I’ve just recently moved to Melbourne, Victoria, which is nearly the opposite side of Australia from my hometown of Noosa in Queensland. It’s a big change, going from a smaller coastal town to a very modern European style city, but I’m loving it even if it is currently freezing compared to what I’m used too!

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My first priority was to find gainful employment. I think I’ve got a pretty sweet gig lined up, so now I can switch some of my focus back to my writing here (and to PLAYING VIDEO GAMES), and start to look towards the future. The focus will be reviews, as that is the part of my wheelhouse that I’m looking to improve, and seems to be the best way to drive traffic. I’m kind of at a crossroads as to where to start though, as there are a couple of titles I would like to cover. While I will definitely try to cover newer games, there are a few older games that I’m tinkering around with at the moment, and I’d like to cover those too. Here are a few games I’m currently playing and am considering for review: 

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Persona 5

As I’ve been travelling these past couple of months, I’ve only had handheld consoles to tide me over. Now that I’m home, I can finally catch up on the big console releases that I missed, and the game I’ve been dying to dive into: Persona 5. It was absolutely worth the wait, and I am really enjoying my time with it. I’ve spent about 15 hours with it this week, but I don’t think it will be the game I review next. I want to take my time with it, and Persona games are almost designed to discourage blasting through the critical path. Its a once in a generation type of game, and I want to enjoy it at a leisurely pace.

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Darkest Dungeon

I’ve been fiddling around with Darkest Dungeon again, and ever since Red Hook released the Radiant update I’ve been thinking about playing it for review. Despite a couple of improvements that sort of make life a little easier, this is still a gruellingly difficult game and will probably require no small amount of effort on my part to see it through to the end. Super fun game though, and I think I’m up for it. Currently playing it on Vita, so I think it will be my off-game that I will play alongside something a little beefier, like…

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Dark Souls 3

I love the Dark Souls series, and while I played through Dark Souls 3 at launch, I haven’t touched it since. I think it’s time to return to Lothric, and experience the apparently fantastic DLC that From Software have released. The problem is, I will be playing on PC (with a PS4 controller) and will need to start from scratch. Strangely, I’m looking forward to returning to this dark and gothic world. It’s winter here and the weather is awful, so it just seems kind of appropriate.

 

And that’s kind of where I’m at, I’ll still be writing opinion pieces in the interim as I plug through the above games. I’ve got some cool handheld related accessories coming in the next couple of days that I might review as well, just to keep exercising that writing muscle. Let me know what you think, and feel free to recommend some titles for review, I’m open to anything!

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.

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.