Metroid Dread (2021)

Metroid was a historic series that had been inexplicably abandoned. The last new 2D Metroid game was Metroid Fusion back in 2002. Nearly 20 years later we get Metroid Dread, a game that was firsts announced in 2005. 3rd party developer MercurySteam was handed the reigns to the series after delivering the successful remake, Metroid: Samus Returns, and man did they deliver with the first original Metroid game in a long time. Metroid Dread is a glorious modernization of the series. While it does have its flaws, Metroid Dread is exactly what was needed to reignite the series.

It’s clear that MercurySteam put a ton of resources into the movement and combat of Metroid Dread. Running and jumping around an alien planet never felt so smooth. Maybe it’s because all the previous Metroid games were from 20 years ago, but Metroid Dread goes a long way to make controlling Samus extremely crisp. Not only are the controls precise, but there a few extra movement options that open up your movement through the world: sliding, ledge grabbing, and countering. Some of these were added in Metroid: Samus Returns, but Metroid Dread incorporates them to the main series.

Combat in Metroid Dread is absolutely glorious. As much as I enjoy the OG Metroid games, they had a tendency of being a little clunky to pilot. A lot of the boss fights ended up being a stat check where you would just standstill and fire at the bosses, hoping that you would kill them before they would kill you. Metroid Dread repeatedly tells you that no attack is unavoidable, and it isn’t lying. Between the more precise controls, expanded movement options, and the telegraphed enemy attacks, avoiding damage is an important skill to master. And Metroid Dread is better for it.

Figuring out how to defeat bosses is one of my favorite aspects of Metroid Dread. Learning their movesets, how to dodge seemingly unavoidable attacks, and discovering openings to deal huge damage is just so satisfying. Many bosses seemed ridiculous and intimidating at first, but after experimenting I learned that many of them could be taken down fairly quickly. And it doesn’t feel like you have to rely on a trial-and-error approach either. Being slow and cautious and dealing incremental damage is a totally valid strategy as well. 

My one gripe with the combat is that while the bosses were engaging affairs, most of the basic enemies were far too easy. The main reason for this is the all-powerful counter attack that the player has access to. Most enemies in the game have attacks which flash before hitting you, indicating that it is counterable. When an attack is countered, the enemy is left vulnerable and will almost always be killed by your very next attack. And if you successfully kill a basic enemy with a counter, they drop bonus resources.

Players will quickly realize that countering is the dominant strategy for dealing with standard enemies. It’s much easier to execute than trying to evade fast moving enemies, it kills enemies faster than just shooting them outright, and it gives extra health and missiles for performing it. Honestly, it’s just too powerful. It’s also not as engaging to dip, duck, dodge, and shoot at aliens. It’s simply a reaction time mini-game where you press the button when the enemy’s attack flashes. Countering should not make enemies so vulnerable, and not let you kill them in a single attack. That way it remains a viable defensive option that lets the player get some free hits in, but doesn’t become the dominant offensive tactic as well.

The unique feature of Metroid Dread that makes it stand out amongst its predecessors is the inclusion of the EMMI robots. In each major area there is an EMMI Zone, a cluster of rooms that are being patrolled by the dread inspiring robot. The EMMIs are invincible robots that lurk in hallways, listening and scanning for you. If one sees you, it will hunt you down. If it catches you, it will instantly kill you with only a miniscule chance to counter it. Ultimately, you are meant to avoid the EMMIs until you can kill them.

The inclusion of the EMMIs has been met with mixed reactions. Some people think they are frustrating to constantly avoid, but I personally enjoyed the switch-up from traditional gameplay. The EMMI Zones invoke a feeling of horror, you have to quickly find your way to the nearest exit or else risk being prey to the indomitable machines. These sections are pretty forgiving, if you die you aren’t brought all the way back to the previous save, but instead you respawn where you entered the EMMI Zone. I enjoyed the frantic chases as I tried to dodge around the EMMIs, and the developers were restrained in making sure these sections were never overly long or frustrating.

 There’s a reason that the Metroid series has spawned an entire genre of games focused on exploration. Metroid has become synonymous with backtracking in the gaming world. Metroid Dread is an odd case because while I do think it has some clever level design, it also has some shortcomings. In the sprawling maze of tunnels that make up most metroidvanias, it can quickly become daunting to find where to go next. Getting lost in these games is almost a given. But the developers of Metroid Dread utilized some intelligent tricks to avoid the player getting too lost.

The core loop of many metroidvanias is acquiring a new power and then finding somewhere to use that newly obtained ability to access a new area. It can often be tricky to find the critical path forward, but Metroid Dread cleverly places opportunities to use your recently acquired upgrade very close to where you acquire it. For example, when you acquire a wall climbing ability, there is sure to be a climbable wall in your vicinity. This subtly guides the player to where to go without blatantly leading them by the nose. There is also some sequence breaking that the developers deliberately created for more advanced players to find. If you do stumble upon a way to deviate from the critical path you are rewarded with unique cutscenes.

Despite there being some subtle guidance when exploring, at times there is some obvious railroading. I found that there was a surprising amount of points-of-no-return, spots at which once you pass them you won’t be able to return to your previous location until much later in the game. This essentially cuts the player off from backtracking, making sure they don’t go too far backwards and get lost in the process. I’m not a fan of this as it felt like the developers were holding my hand and telling me not to explore too much without their permission.

Games like Super Metroid and Metroid Prime are known for their atmosphere if nothing else. The feeling of being isolated on an alien planet is conveyed so well. The visuals and music work in harmony to transport the player to a hostile world. Metroid Dread is just not as successful in this department. The music is entirely forgettable, and the visual backgrounds aren’t much better. Metallic hallway after metallic hallway is not pleasant to look at, and it certainly doesn’t convey that you are on an alien planet. There are a few interesting spots that utilize the 2.5D style of graphics extremely well. I loved seeing little alien creatures scurry about in the background of caves, or watching rain pour down and waves crash on the exterior of an alien base.

An unfortunate side effect of having poor visual design is how it affects player exploration. There are eight different areas in Metroid Dread, and while each one has their own flair, they often blend together. It can be hard to remember where you saw a secret or alternative path when every single room looks exactly the same. It’s especially unfortunate because graphically the game looks solid, it’s just that the art direction is bland.

I’m glad that the Metroid series is making a strong return, and Metroid Dread inspires confidence in the series. While I do think that it is weaker in certain aspects like exploration and atmosphere, it is an undeniably fantastic entry in the historic series. The modernized movement and combat are brilliant, this is the smoothest Metroid game by a long shot. Moreover, MercurySteam didn’t play it too safe by just regurgitating an older Metroid game as the addition of EMMIs was great. It is for these reasons that I give Metroid Dread an 8/10. Metroid Dread is more action focused than its ancestors, and even if it isn’t as atmospheric as Super Metroid or Metroid Prime, it is an entry to the series that nobody should miss.

Bayonetta (2009)

I feel the need to preface any review of character action games with the fact that I am not particularly good at these games, and I rarely gain any level of mastery of their systems. I think it’s important to state this because character action games often thrive when you put in the time to really master their systems, so I frequently miss out on deep mechanics. That being said, I believe that Bayonetta is the most approachable character action game that I have played. I enjoyed the Devil May Cry series, but I often felt that I was just scratching the surface of what was possible in those games. But in Bayonetta, I felt much more comfortable executing combos and performing advanced techniques.

Before diving into the complex combat mechanics of Bayonetta, it should be no surprise that I need to mention the character design. There has been no shortage of controversy surrounding the gratuitously sexualized main character. The game’s director, Hideki Kamiya has made it clear that he wanted Bayonetta to be a sexy character. She has the build of a supermodel, regularly gets into sexy poses, makes plenty of innuendos, and even goes almost fully nude when utilizing her witch powers.

While I’m typically grossed out by hypersexualized characters in video games or television, Bayonetta is not the typical character that serves as eye candy. She’s an undeniable badass who toys with her opponents. She is totally in control of her own sexuality. She has a cheeky personality that pokes fun of her angelic opponents and their puritan values. I think this is fine and even a subversion of a common misogynistic character type. However, I think Bayonetta takes the sexual aspects too far in many places. While she is meant to be a sexual character, there are many sequences and scenes that are clearly meant just to be eye candy for the player. Zooming in on her assets while she sensually dances objectified her rather than empowering her.

While there’s no doubt that Bayonetta is a badass and sexy character, the game’s actual story absurd. Story has never been a central aspect of character actions games, and I can’t fault Bayonetta too hard for its nonsensical story when it is clearly not the focus of the game. But there are a ton of cutscenes, cinematics, and exposition dumps that get in the way of actually interacting with the fun parts of the game. I suppose a nonsensical and over the top story is better than a boring, monotonous one. But I wish Bayonetta was paced more evenly instead of leaving all of the story to the very end of the game.

The real appeal to character action games like Bayonetta is obviously the action. Weaving together complex combos, juggling enemies like they are ragdolls, unleashing powerful attacks, and looking stylish while doing it. While I like to say I’m not good at these kinds of games, Bayonetta felt extremely approachable for players who are inexperienced in the genre. There are a few key traits to Bayonetta that I believe makes it so easy to get into. Those being simplistic combos and the emphasis on dodging.

I’ve always had a really time hard in Devil May Cry games trying to learn all the different combos. You had a single attack button and had to combine directional inputs and correct timings in order to execute combos. Not to mention style switching and changing weapons. Bayonetta has two attack buttons, punch and kick. Hitting these buttons in different orders will result in different combos. Between load screens, you can play around in practice mode and look at the long list of all the possible combinations. Learning a few simple combinations can take the player a long way.

It was much simpler for me to just memorize “punch, kick, punch” then having to learn a bunch of directional inputs and timings. Bayonetta does a fantastic job emphasizing the use of the combos because the final attack of each combo is an extra powerful hit called a Wicked Weave. The player is taught that finishing combos is vital because so much of the power is in the final attack.

Another interesting thing about the combos in Bayonetta is that each individual attack is meant to be held. Bayonetta has guns attached to her hands and feet, and when you execute a punch or kick you can hold down the button to shoot. This does not break combos, and it does a surprising amount of damage. I quite like this feature because it discourages simple button mashing, and instead gives the player some brief moments to think about what they’re doing. I don’t have to frantically hit buttons to pull off combos, and I can take my time and am rewarded for it.

The biggest separator between Bayonetta and Devil May Cry is the emphasis on dodging. Bayonetta has a dedicated dodge button, and it is obvious that it is vitally important. If you dodge right when an enemy attack is about to hit you, you’ll activate Witch Time. This temporarily pauses time, allowing you to unleash some big combos on powerless foes. I love this feature as an inexperienced player as it really allows me to try out some cool attacks. Also, it just feels badass to dodge a hit and the last second and get rewarded with a few seconds of Witch Time.

Dodging in Bayonetta has a slightly more advanced mechanic tied to it called dodge offset. If you execute it properly, you can continue your combo right where you left off. Dodge offset is definitely something that takes some getting used to, but it is a vital trick to learn if you really want to master Bayonetta. Considering that much of your damage is part of the Wicked Weave at the end of a combo, maintaining that combo is important. This is a brilliant addition as it allows players to achieve higher mastery while utilizing and combining the core mechanics of Bayonetta: combos and dodging.

While I did not master Bayonetta myself, I can say there is plenty of complexity for those who do really want to dive deep. A long list of combos and unlockable attacks, dodge offset, a few different weapons to try out, and unlockable accessories. The accessories and magic meter are things that you are unlikely to even tinker with in your first playthrough. Similar to Devil May Cry, you will be graded at the end of each chapter if you want to challenge yourself. There is plenty of content to try, and it will take plenty of times to really master Bayonetta if that is what you are looking for.

While I do think Bayonetta herself and the other characters in the game look superb, unfortunately much of the environment design is pretty drab. Bayonetta is from the era in gaming where everything was dull brown and grey. The set pieces themselves were spectacular, but the environment was just boring. It’s odd because the character and enemy design is fantastic. The enemies all adhere to the angelic theme quite well. Bayonetta is a really well thought out character, and all her animations are fluid and graceful. The game looks really good outside of the dull environments.

Hideki Kamiya is known for his love of old school arcade games, for better or worse. Both Bayonetta and Devil May Cry were inspired by sitting in an arcade and trying to reach a high score on a game you’ve played many times before. But Bayonetta has some strange arcade gimmick levels that just abysmal. There’s one where you ride a motorcycle down a highway and another where you ride atop a rocket. Both of these levels are obviously throwbacks to old arcade games, and both are awkward, break the flow of the game, and just go on for way too long. It’s only two levels but the game really doesn’t have many levels in total, so these levels are particularly painful.

Another frustrating relic is the reliance on Quick Time Events (QTEs). During cutscenes, a button prompt could flash for a half a second and if you miss it, you instantly die. During certain fights, you have to mash a button extremely quickly or you will take significant damage. And when finishing off a boss or using a special Torture Attack you have to mash a specific button. QTEs are rarely a fun feature in games, especially in the case of Bayonetta because they have tight timers. If you don’t know the QTE is coming or what button to press, you can’t possibly react quick enough. It’s not a big deal for veteran players who are seeking high grades as they known when one is coming up, but it often feels like a cheap and unavoidable death for first timers.

Overall, I think Bayonetta is my favorite character action game. While it has its flaws like the annoying gimmicks, poor story, and drab environments, the combat is just too good to be brought down. Beginners can make use of simplistic combos and Witch Time. Advanced players have plenty to master like dodge offset, various weapons, and special accessories. While she is a controversial character who I think is overly sexualized, it’s undeniable that Bayonetta is one of the best designed and memorable characters in gaming. If you like action games, do yourself and favor and give Bayonetta a try.

Cadence of Hyrule (2019)

Despite being one of the most prolific and well-known series of all time, The Legend of Zelda has few notable spin-offs. At first glance, it seems odd that a crossover was made with Crypt of the NecroDancer, a rhythm based roguelite game. As a game series known for its carefully crafted adventures, the randomly generated roguelite worlds seems antithetical to what The Legend of Zelda is known for. While I do think Cadence of Hyrule: Crypt of the NecroDancer Featuring The Legend of Zelda has fun combat, the roguelite formula does not lend itself well to the traditional The Legend of Zelda style.

The strongest aspect of Cadence of Hyrule is without a doubt its presentation. The modern version of the classic top-down The Legend of Zelda world and characters is phenomenal. The sprites are clean, the colors are vibrant, and the animations are fluid. Being a game with a heavy emphasis on music, Cadence of Hyrule knocks it out of the park with its remixes. The Legend of Zelda series is brimming with memorable tracks, and Cadence of Hyrule brings them all back with style. It truly is fantastic how identifiable yet fresh all the tunes are, they are top tier remixes.

Crypt of the NecroDancer is a unique roguelite dungeon crawler in which you move to the beat. On every beat of the song, you have a small window to move in a direction. Enemies also move in a similar fashion, each with their own patterns. Some only move if you step directly in front of them, some move predictably every couple of beats, and some move erratically. It’s definitely an interesting twist on traditional dungeon crawling. Movement is essentially turn-based, but you have to think quickly and time your inputs to the beat.

It can be remarkably tricky to get a handle on the beat-based movement of Cadence of Hyrule. The majority of my deaths in the game came from the first hour or so while I was figuring out the rhythm and how to maneuver. I was pretty frustrated initially by constantly missing the beat, but eventually it becomes second nature to sync to the rhythm. I appreciate the fact that there was an optional mode to disable the timing-specific beat system. In fixed-beat mode the enemies move only when you move. While I did not personally activate this mode, I think it was an important inclusion given the initial awkwardness of the beat system.

There is a bit of an awkward difficulty curve in Cadence of Hyrule due to this system. Traditionally, games should get progressively more difficult as you keep playing as a way to test your mastery. Unfortunately, I felt that Cadence of Hyrule was the most difficult at the very beginning. The combination of learning how to move and having no health or weapons made for a brutal beginning. As soon as I got a grasp on how to play, got some health upgrades, and got a more powerful weapon the game became pretty easy aside from the very last dungeon. I wish some of the mid and late game content took more mastery, as I was able to steamroll most screens without much regard for strategy.

Despite the uneven difficulty curve, I do think the movement and combat in Cadence of Hyrule is enjoyable. It’s a solid twist on traditional top-down adventure games. Once you get in the rhythm, it becomes natural to strategize on the fly. It’s fun to learn the enemies’ patterns and they best approaches to deal with them. Maneuvering around each battle becomes second-nature, unless you lose the beat. While it’s not a system that fits every game, I think it is fantastic and creative approach. Especially when paired with the glorious soundtrack.  

It’s important to note that Cadence of Hyrule is not a true roguelite, but instead is much closer to being a more traditional adventure game with intermittent checkpoints. While there are some roguelite elements like losing some items upon death and a randomized map, I felt that it was closer to a traditional The Legend of Zelda game than I initially expected. To be honest, I wish they went even farther in ditched the roguelite formula altogether for this spin-off.

The randomized overworld just does not work well in a The Legend of Zelda game. These games are about exploration and progression. They are carefully crafted adventures that carefully guide the player in where to go, every element is intentionally placed. Unfortunately, I felt that Cadence of Hyrule just felt forgettable outside of a few distinct locations. Most screens are just generic layouts filled with enemies. There are some puzzles and upgrades to be found around the world, but ultimately the sense of adventure is lacking in comparison to the main series.

A key facet of a roguelite is to provide some variation between subsequent runs, to keep things fresh. I had no desire to play Cadence of Hyrule multiple times because I felt there was nothing remotely different after a single run. You will always unlock the same upgrades, weapons, and items. The only difference may be the order. The overworld is randomized between runs, but that really doesn’t accomplish the goal of replayability. It doesn’t really change anything that the desert area is now in the Northwest instead of the Northeast for example. You can improve your score between runs, but really that’s not a compelling reason to be a roguelite as plenty of games have a scoring system.

Truthfully, I believe Cadence of Hyrule would have been more enjoyable if it entirely abandoned its roguelite aspects. If the world was more intentionally designed like a traditional The Legend of Zelda game, it would have been more enjoyable to explore. The roguelite elements add nothing when there are plenty of checkpoints and there are always the same weapons between runs. I can appreciate the rhythm-based movement and combat that comes from Crypt of the NecroDancer, but the other elements just don’t work as well in Cadence of Hyrule.

Overall, Cadence of Hyrule is a fun mash-up that has some flaws as a result of its DNA. While I love the fact that an indie developer got a chance at The Legend of Zelda, and I think they did the series justice, I felt that it was missing the sense of adventure. The presentation is extraordinary, and the combat is fun once you get the hang of it, but to me exploration is key to the series. The randomized world of Cadence of Hyrule made exploration uninteresting and repetitive. It is for these reasons I give Cadence of Hyrule a 6/10. While I enjoyed Cadence of Hyrule, more than anything it made me yearn for a new top-down The Legend of Zelda game in the classic style.

Untitled Goose Game (2019)

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the condensed, more focused experiences of shorter games. Time is at a premium, and I’d rather a game contain only the very best ideas and executions of its premise rather than be bloated and go on for way too long. Untitled Goose Game is one of the best examples of “short but sweet” in the gaming industry. You play as a horrible goose whose only goal is to annoy and antagonize the residents of a quaint town.

Untitled Goose Game is a rare kind of game. It’s a pure experience, built with a singular purpose of having the player be a goose. There is no bloat. You start the game and are told how to move, grab things, honk, and flap your wings. There’s not a lengthy tutorial explaining how to interact with the NPCs or steal items. There are no dialog sequences or a written story; the story is instead told through the environmental storytelling. I really appreciate it when a game trims the fat and trusts the player to figure things out. It leaves the joy of discovery and problem solving in the player’s hands rather than it being spoon-fed to them.

The game consists of a few different areas in the village to play around in. Each area has a list of mayhem inducing tasks, but leaves the player to figure out how they want to accomplish those tasks. From stealing vegetables to have a picnic, to chasing a terrified boy until he hides in a phone booth, to pulling the stool out from an old man trying to sit down, the goose is an arbiter of chaos. At its heart, Untitled Goose Game is a mix of puzzle game and stealth game. It’s up to the player to figure out how to finish their list of disorderly deeds, but usually you have to be somewhat stealthy to prevent the pesky humans from undoing your hard work.

Part of the fun that comes with being a goose is just messing about and being an absolute pain in the ass. While the list of tasks is solid guidance on what to do to progress the game, there is a ton of other fun interactions to engage with. I loved just exploring the tiny town and finding what items I could mess with. It almost feels like a modern Hitman game in the sense that the developers thought of so many different interactions and possibilities in the context of being a goose.

There’s no debating that Untitled Goose Game is short. The main game can be completed in a couple of hours, and while there is some bonus content in the post-game, the meat of Untitled Goose Game can be experience in an afternoon. A common sentiment among gamers is that “hours per dollar” is a valuable metric in judging a game’s worth. This is a garbage way of determining if a game is good. It’s how we end up with 100+ hour games that are filled with repetitive and unnecessary bloat. I’d rather have a short, focused experience than one that drags on for way too long and outlives its entertainment. My most common complaint with many games is that they are too long and up being tedious as you drag towards the finish line. Untitled Goose Game is an absolute delight that is the perfect length for its premise.

Overall, Untitled Goose Game is the perfect game to sit on the couch with your friends or family and just be goofy for a few hours. There’s something genuine and pure about the Untitled Goose Game, it’s just fun. It may not blow anyone’s mind, and it certainly isn’t going to revolutionize the industry, but there’s nothing wrong with just having some plain old fun. It is for these reasons that I give Untitled Goose Game an 8/10. Be a goose, cause some chaos, honk at bystanders, steal what is rightfully yours, and chase children to your hearts content.

Hades (2020)

I always try to be wary about external hype when going into a new game. It can alter your expectations, making you overly critical. Alternatively, hype potentially blinds you from issues if you buy into the narrative too hard. That being said, it was extremely difficult to avoid the talk around Hades. Being the indie darling of 2020, winning a plethora of awards, including multiple Game of the Year awards and even a Hugo Award, made it hard to ignore Hades. I had high expectations going into Hades, and while I believe it is an excellent game, I don’t quite get a lot of the unanimous and unquestioned praise that it has received.

As a roguelite, Hades is all about battling your way through the layers of the underworld to escape to the surface. You play as Zagreus, the son of Hades, who has recently discovered the true identity of his birth mother and that she lives outside of underworld. Every time you die, you are sent right back to the beginning. Don’t fret though, Hades is all about progression, whether or not you succeed in any individual escape attempt.

A large factor in the appeal of Hades is that it is always moving forward. Even when you fail, it’s not painful. Not only do you bring back valuable materials to power up for future runs, but you also get the pleasure of conversing with the gods who reside in the hub. They always have new dialogue, often revealing new story tidbits. They have complex relationships with Zagreus and the other gods, which you get to hear in bite-sized chunks after every run.

During your escape, you are also offered assistance by the gods of Mt Olympus. As you play the game you will talk to them, furthering your relationships and learning more about them. The quality and sheer quantity of writing here is absurd. In dozens of hours playing the game, I don’t think there was a single repeated line. And the writers did a phenomenal job giving each of the gods a distinct personality. All of the dialogue felt believable, not like the cheesy or over-dramatic dialogue that is more common in video games.

The writing was only further brought to life by the artistry of the game. The voice actors gave tremendous presence and fitting personality to the characters. Hermes is a fast talker, Athena is stoic, Zeus is confident but quick to anger, Demeter is cold, and so on. Every line is excellently delivered. Furthermore, the art style that Supergiant Games is known for is absolutely phenomenal. It brings the mythical gods to life. The aesthetic is downright gorgeous, both in combat and when conversing with the gods.

Your first attempt to escape the underworld will be nigh impossible. With little knowledge of the enemies and obstacles in your way, and a complete lack of any permanent power-ups, you stand nearly no chance. But it won’t be too long before you are on the doorstep of Greece, Hades does a phenomenal job marrying your skill progression with your character progression to create an engaging gameplay loop. As you clear rooms and make it deeper in each run, you earn different currencies to purchase permanent upgrades.

While each upgrade may seem individually weak, they quickly add up to drastically increase your power. The further you make it in each run, the more currency you earn. This creates an engaging loop in which every run you get better at playing the game while also increasing Zagreus’ strength, guaranteeing that you will steadily make more and more progress. If you are skilled at the game you will power up faster, while if you are doing poorly, you may not earn a ton of currency at first. This is genius as it allows the player’s skill to progress in parallel with their upgrades.

I had a blast with Hades while building up to successfully complete my first run. I felt myself getting closer and closer with each attempt. Gaining power and hearing more of the story as I talked to the gods. But after reaching the end for the first time, I felt that the successive runs quickly grew repetitive. There is plenty of variety to be found in Hades, choosing a weapon, the aspect of the weapon, and the randomized boons between runs does greatly increase variety. But still that variety felt stunted in comparison to other games in its genre. Furthermore, the goals after escaping the underworld felt more centered on grinding instead of an ultimate achievement.

I understand that the roguelite genre is all about replayablity. Repetition is baked into the genre, and it is totally understandable that Hades follows suit. But Hades lacks variety between runs to keep things interesting. You always fight through the same four areas with the same four bosses. Thematically it makes sense, but it can get stale without interesting boon combinations. On each run you acquire boons from the gods that act as power-ups for that run. Zeus boons electric enemies, Poseidon knocks enemies around with waves, Artemis gives critical strike, Dionysus poisons enemies with wine, so on and so forth. But ultimately many of the boons just feel like different flavors of the same thing: more damage.

You can get some really interesting combinations of boons that synergize well together, but it felt like most of the time boons are just colorful ways to up your damage. The real variety between runs feels like it comes in the weapon selection. There are six weapons to start the run with, each with multiple unlockable aspects that modify how the weapon behaves. Additionally, on each run you can find two hammers which further transform the weapon. For example, you can find a rapid-fire modifier for the bow, or make the spear bounce between enemies when you throw it. Its these huge modifications in playstyle that opens up interesting variety between runs. But the boons and level designs often do very little to make each run feel distinct.

My other major issue with the grind of Hades is that the ultimate goal is focused on grinding rather than accomplishing something. To truly “beat” the game and see the end credits you need to achieve ten successful escape attempts. To further relationships in the epilogue, you need many more. I prefer a format like Enter the Gungeon in which there are concrete goals like beating a final boss or unlocking a new character. Hades just feels like you are supposed to play it a lot. It gets frustrating when I’ve beaten the game 7 times in a row on progressively higher difficulties but need to do it 3 more times just to see the end credits.

While I do think Hades can be repetitive, I do appreciate its in-depth difficulty system. After your first successful clear, you can choose to increase the “heat” of any subsequent runs. There are dozens of different options to toggle, many of which can drastically change a run. You can add timers to force yourself to move quickly, add more powerful enemies, make traps more dangerous, give bosses more potent move sets, so on and so forth. Every time you play on a new heat level with a given weapon, you will be able to attain rare resources, which encourages the player to keep upping the challenge.

The aspect that I think defines Hades as a roguelite is how it handles the randomization aspect. Games like The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon can be extremely volatile. In one run you may get extremely powerful combinations of weapons and buffs, and in the next you get absolute garbage that makes it nigh impossible to succeed. Randomization is the lifeblood of roguelites and roguelikes, as few people would want to play the same game over and over with little variety. But conversely, if the game is too random, it can be immensely frustrating to be stuck in a run where you have gotten nothing of value. Hades handles this in an interesting way by allowing to player to choose what bonuses they will be acquiring.

You are almost always given an option between multiple rooms, with the reward of the room being visible before you even enter. That way you can decide which god’s boons will fit your build and choose accordingly. You won’t get stuck getting a mishmash of useless bonuses. Moreover, when choosing a boon from a god you will get a choice between three different boons. There is still some randomization on which gods will be available and which boons they will offer, but the combination of choosing which reward you want and getting a choice of three boon different options minimizes the odds that you get undesirable bonuses.

I am torn on how randomization is handled in Hades. Minimizing the frustration of getting unlucky runs is fantastic, but perhaps Hades leans too far in letting the player choose their benefits. The game can never really have any incredibly powerful unrestricted boons, as the player would choose it every single time. As a result, it’s exceedingly rare to get truly crazy combinations of bonuses that feel game-breakingly powerful. Much of the appeal from playing roguelites comes from wanting to see what overpowered build you can cook up next. In Hades I always felt like I had a powerful build, but nothing overpowered.

An underrated aspect of Hades is how much information it provides on what different things actually do. It clearly and concisely describes which attacks are being enhanced, and exactly what the bonus is. This sounds obvious, but I constantly had to play Enter the Gungeon with a wiki tab open because the game simply does not tell you what the different weapons or their synergies are. I greatly appreciate how Hades gives the player all the information they need to make informed decisions.

The gameplay as a whole is extremely fun as a simple beat-‘em-up. Hades feels like a modern arcade game, smashing through waves of weak enemies with a limited moveset. There aren’t any crazy combos, and the many of the enemy types are glorified punching bags. It’s fun to unleash hell on mobs, and Hades has great visual and audio feedback. The bosses are where I felt the meat of the challenge was, as you had to be fairly familiar with their movesets in order to avoid damage.

The combat is nothing revolutionary, but it is addictive. I did feel like at times it could be a bit button-mashy. Because of how snappy your controls are, it can be a pretty effective strategy to dash around a bunch and mash the attack button. Enemies that don’t have armor and are not bosses can easily be stun-locked if you just keep hitting them, making spamming attacks very potent. My only other issue is with the visual clarity, as the battlefield can quickly become cluttered with hyper-stylized visual effects. It can often be tricky to read what enemies are doing when there are a dozen different flashy visual effects firing off as you attack. But I ultimately don’t think it’s a huge issue considering that Hades is not a game that demands perfection or precise timing.

Overall, I believe Hades is a different breed of roguelite. With a heavy focus on meta-progression and character development, there is always something to work towards. It abandons some of the genre’s traditional frustrations like the influence of luck and lack of information. Hades was a ton of fun to play until I had a few clears under my belt, which is when I began to miss the truly random builds and combinations that I could acquire in other roguelites. It is for these reasons I give Hades an 8.5/10. It is a spectacularly well-crafted game, but it doesn’t boast the infinite replayabilty of the other games in its genre.

Paper Mario: The Origami King (2020)

Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the Paper Mario series knows how contentious the modern games are. The early games in the series were considered masterful RPGs, but Nintendo decided to ditch the formula for whatever reason and take Paper Mario in a different direction. With every new release, fans are clamoring for a return to glory, and the latest entry shows how being caught between two genres is hampering the series. Paper Mario: The Origami King is not a bad game by any means, but it is confusing and feels like the directors have no idea where to take the series. Despite enjoying my time with the game, I couldn’t help but think how much better the game would be with just some minor changes.

I will not hide my biases, Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door was one of my favorite games growing up. The sense of adventure, mystery, comradery, and imagination were enthralling. You explored a diverse and interesting world, gathering a whacky cast of characters to explore with. All the while gaining experience and items to become stronger. The combat was turn-based, you’d select from a list of moves for Mario and his partner based on whatever you felt was best in a particular battle. While it wasn’t incredibly complex, there was some strategy and tactics involved, which is something that cannot be said for Paper Mario: The Origami King.

Before I get to my issues with the combat system, I must mention that Paper Mario: The Origami King does an adequate job with nearly every other aspect of the game. The world and adventure itself are actually extremely engaging. There are plenty of imaginative areas, each one with their own self-contained story that you must unravel. This is reminiscent of the original games in the series, in order to defeat the big-bad-guy you have to travel across the land and do something in each of the main areas. While the main plot itself is fairly straightforward, most of the sense of adventure can be found when exploring the more contained locales.

There are plenty of fun and unique areas to explore, which for me was the highlight of the game. The Japanese castle theme park, the cruise ship, the spa in the sky, the open sea dotted with islands, there are some fantastic places that would fit right in when it comes to classic Paper Mario. There are plenty of towns that are fun to explore and find the secrets of. Moreover, the writing and wit in this game is truly remarkable. When I think of Nintendo, I rarely think of games with clever writing. Most of their catalog either has minimal dialog or extremely cheesy writing. Paper Mario: The Origami King can be genuinely funny, with plenty of wit that doesn’t necessarily bash you over the head to the point of being annoying.

For lovers of collectibles, there is plenty of secrets to be found. The areas in Paper Mario: The Origami King aren’t overwhelmingly large, but they are absolutely packed with stuff to find. Between rescuing Toads, finding trophies, and uncovering secret Hearts, I always felt that there was something to be found. Solving little puzzles or spotting hidden markers is always a welcome detour when exploring the world.

Where the game inspires ire for me mostly has to do with the executive decisions stifling creativity. It is no secret that some executive has decided that spin-off Mario games are heavily limited in what they can include. There can be no new races of creatures, any new characters cannot be named, and existing races can only have a slightly modified experience. What this equates to is a lack of interesting characters. If the level of writing is any indication, the writers on this game were clearly talented. I wish they were given the chance to create a cast of fantastic characters and partners to accompany Mario on his journey.

The single most frustrating part about Paper Mario: The Origami King is also a result of executive meddling: the combat. For some bizarre reason, somebody high up at Nintendo has decided that the Paper Mario series should no longer be RPGs. As a result, the modern games rely on gimmicks to fuel their combat systems instead of traditional turn-based combat. In the case of Paper Mario: The Origami King, the gimmick is what I shall refer to as “ring puzzles”. When getting into combat, enemies are spread across four concentric rings, with Mario standing in the center. You can turn the rings clockwise or counter-clockwise, and also shift portions of the ring in and out. Ultimately, the point of the system is to line up enemies so Mario can hit them all with a single attack. If you line up all the enemies in a line or a square, you get an attack bonus and can hit them all with a given attack.

I honestly don’t think that the ring puzzle system is an inherently terrible idea. It could potentially add some strategy to a battle, letting the player line up enemies in different patterns so they can choose different attacks. But ultimately the system is binary: you either get a perfect line-up or you don’t. There is no strategy or tactics whatsoever, it is simply a puzzle of lining up enemies within a given timeframe and number of moves. If you fail the puzzle, you take a bit of damage and the battle lasts a little longer. I tried to avoid combat as much as possible since there is barely any benefit to doing it, it was incredibly repetitive, and it just felt like a waste of time. And it’s not like this is a minor part of the game, the combat system is half of the game. I love puzzles but this system just does not work.

The boss battles were a little better than the standard combat in the game, as they functioned slightly differently. They were still ring puzzles, but you had to line up the rings to guide Mario to the correct spots to take certain actions. They did feel a little too lengthy, but I think that is a function of how they were designed. Each boss seems like they only have a single tactic to beat them. Usually, you have to do a couple of specific actions in a row to deal damage. I think the battles would be fairly quick but there is a lot of trial and error trying to figure out which actions you need to take to actually damage the boss.

The confusing part about Paper Mario: The Origami King for me is how hard it tries to not be like the RPGs of the olden days, but how zero effort was put into actually doing something different. The combat is still turn-based, but instead of tactically choosing moves you just attempt a ring puzzle. There are still partners in the game, but due to creativity being stifled they aren’t unique and have no name. They also only part of your party for a single area, are nearly useless in battle, and have no abilities in the overworld. There is still progression, you receive Hearts that boost your max health and damage. Instead of battles just giving you experience and leveling you up, rewarding the player for participating in battles, you just receive those special Hearts at set points in the game. There are still badges to augment your battling capabilities, but there is no actual choice or strategy in which ones to equip.

While I undoubtably miss the old Paper Mario formula, I’d be ok with something new. But Paper Mario: The Origami King isn’t something new, it’s simply the same RPG formula but with the actual good parts stripped out. Turn-based combat without strategy, partners without names or abilities, level-ups without experience, and badges without build diversity; the game still has all the systems of the old games, but without the context that makes those systems function in an engaging way. If Nintendo made Paper Mario to be an action-adventure game it’d disappointing but it’d be preferable to these half-assed RPGs that seem to just dangle the game that players actually want in their faces without quite giving it to them.

Overall, Paper Mario: The Origami King is a competent game. It has an imaginative world and plenty of diverse locations. The writing, dialog, and art are superb, but is hampered by the directives sent down by executives. Paper Mario is a series caught between two genres, and it suffers for it. The fans want RPGs, and the games are perfect for that style of gameplay, but the executives at Nintendo want it to be an action-adventure series without actually committing to it. It is for these reasons that I give Paper Mario: The Origami King a 6/10. Exploring the world of Paper Mario is fun, but even as somebody who loves puzzle games, I absolutely could not stand the ring puzzle combat system.

Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (2014)

Great old school platformers can be tough to come by in modern gaming. While there are some retro gems out there like Celeste, Shovel Knight, Sonic Mania, and A Hat in Time, it feels like major studios have mostly abandoned the concept of a pure platformer. Sure, plenty of games have platforming aspects to them, but it is rarely the focal feature. When a game like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze comes along, anybody who is a fan of platformers should stop what they are doing and play it as soon as possible. It’s a fantastic game consisting of imaginative and fun visuals, superb difficulty, and tightly-crafted level design.

As far as Nintendo platformers go, Donkey Kong Country games have always been the most challenging of the bunch. That being said, I was impressed with how approachable Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was. The first zone of the game was fairly straightforward, and the difficulty of the game slowly ramped up as time progressed. There are tons of powerups that you can buy if you need an extra boost, and if you are really struggling there is a Funky Kong mode available on the Switch port that serves as an easy mode. But what’s more impressive is the numerous hidden aspects that can crank up the difficulty for experienced players looking for a challenge.

In each stage there are hidden puzzle pieces for completitionists to hunt down. While I ignored those for the most part, the more visible “K-O-N-G” letters were my main focus. The letters are easy to spot, but often require a more difficult or risky jump to collect. And if you collect all four letters in every level in a zone you unlock a secret stage. The secret stages are where the meat of the game’s challenge was for me. I found most of the regular levels to be tricky enough that I needed to play well, but not perfectly. The secret stages often required such precision and timing that I felt like I really needed to master them. And if you manage to conquer all the secret stages, you unlock a challenging hidden zone with three more devastatingly difficult levels. And if you succeed in that you unlock Hard Mode.

Of course, you can entirely ignore the puzzle pieces, letters, hidden exits, secret levels, the bonus zone, and Hard Mode entirely. But the fact that all of these things were included as extra little ways to incrementally tune up the difficulty was wonderful. Letting the player pick what is important to them is a great way to introduce some optional difficulty instead of just giving the player five different difficulty modes at the start. But the most impressive thing about Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze was how the level design facilitated multiple styles of play.

A majority of the standard levels in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are designed such that you can mostly take your time and think about what you are doing before you make the leap. While there some frantic and exciting sequences requiring you to move quickly, it’s a game that can be taken at whatever pace the player desires. But something interesting happens when you try to go as fast as possible through a level. You realize that everything lines up perfectly. As you bop from one enemy’s head to another to maintain your momentum, the platforms and enemies seem carefully placed to facilitate this level of speed. That’s because they are. While every level seems like a standard platforming stage at first glance, there is a deeper complexity behind the speed running curtain. I was extremely impressed by the level of thought and effort put into every single level in the game.

On top of the effort put into the gameplay and flow of each level, there was also a tremendous amount of care put into the visual experience. There are so many fun settings that make it feel like you are running and jumping through an animated movie. Not only is the background a spectacle, but the visuals tie into the gameplay. You can ride a rhino and dodge fireballs as a volcano erupts in the distance, or swing between decorative floats during a Lion King like celebration in the savannah, or jump between platforms as an avalanche sweeps away the platforms below you. There are tons of memorable stages that will go down as some of my favorite platforming levels of all time.

My only complaints with Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are fairly minor. It could be frustrating to get to the end of a level, notice that there is a secret exit, and realize that you have the wrong power-up to access it. This meant that you would have to restart the entire stage with a certain Kong partner and make it all the way to the end without dying or taking more than 2 hits of damage. I say this is minor because these are completely optional stages, but still, I rarely enjoy having to redo a level through no fault of my own.

Furthermore, I was not a huge fan of the boss fights at the end of each world. They were often pretty long with no checkpoints. They usually had three phases, getting progressively more challenging every three times that you hit them. But I found that the first and second phases were simple, and the final phase was fairly difficult. It could take a few attempts to learn the final phase patterns, and having to go through the entire boring lead-up every time could be a bit boring.

Overall, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is an excellent platformer in a world deprived of the genre. It combines imagination, visual spectacle, and exciting gameplay to create a spectacular experience. The level of care put into the level design is astounding. Whether you are someone new to the genre or an experienced platformer player, you can definitely find what you are looking for in Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze.

Valfaris (2019)

Sometimes you just need to take a break from the massive open world RPGs and the like and dive into some old-school shooters. Valfaris is a modern indie game that was clearly inspired by the past. Its roots stem from the genre of run-and-guns that began with the classic Contra. Initially I was skeptical of Valfaris; I felt like it was nothing more than a stylized throwback without anything to make it standout. But I was wrong, even though Valfaris is from an ancient genre it manages to be unique by virtue of its carefully crafted level design.

Valfaris is an old-school run-and-gun that plays heavily with the themes of metal. The game reminds me quite a bit of DOOM stylistically, the key difference being that in Valfaris you are obliterating aliens instead of ripping demons apart. The music is appropriately metal, pumping the player’s adrenaline without becoming too hectic or distracting. I will mention that the visual sprites could sometimes be a little messy and hard to read.

I appreciate the game’s commitment to the theme, and individually all of the artwork is great. However, when the environments, backgrounds, enemies, projectiles, and animations are all together sometimes the screen would be difficult to read. This could be a little frustrating in more challenging portions of the game as you may not have even seen the attack or enemy that damaged you.

Where Valfaris shines isn’t in reinventing the genre, but instead it is the tightly designed levels that makes Valfaris enjoyable. Run-and-gun games are historically difficult, and Valfaris is no exception. However, I very rarely felt like the game was being unfair. The time between checkpoints felt perfectly designed. The tension created by weathering a horde of enemies, praying that a safe haven would be right around the corner is exhilarating. The absolute relief when hitting a checkpoint after a challenging section cannot be understated.

Moreover, the enemy design in Valfaris is superb. Most enemies are absolute cannon fodder, letting you shred your way through a level. But there are a few tougher baddies scattered about to up the challenge. Keeping on your toes, making sure none of the weaker grunts damage you while dodging the more elite aliens is a careful balancing act. But the key that makes Valfaris so engaging is that it follows the historical strategy that staying in motion is the best way to avoid damage.

Being aggressive, firing your gun constantly, swinging your sword at nearby enemies, and just moving around is the best defensive tactic. Staying in one place and shooting at enemies as they come is ineffective. They will catch you with stray shots and many enemies spawn from hives that will keep pumping out threats until you destroy their nest. That feeling of rushing in and causing havoc is superb.

Without a doubt my favorite aspect of Valfaris were the bosses. Every single one felt punishingly difficult the first time I encountered them. But fairly quickly I realized how predictable their patterns were and how consistently I could dodge them. I never felt like I got lucky, but instead that I mastered the boss and every one of their attacks. Without a dodge-roll, and your only defensive tool being a shield that saps your energy, running around and positioning yourself correctly becomes all the more important. It’s not a game of reactions, but a game of learning to stay mobile.

Valfaris gives the players an absolute arsenal of weapons to choose from for being a fairly short game. Surprisingly, each weapon is extremely unique and has different use cases. The difference in damage, range, spread-pattern, and special effects make every weapon fun to test out. I believe they are all fairly viable, although some are inevitably more powerful than others. You can equip a single sidearm, a melee weapon which deals high damage and restores energy, and a powerful main weapon that consumes energy when used.

It’s fun to test out different loadouts. But a critique that I have is that the upgrade system hampers the player’s ability to try new weapons. There are limited materials that can be used to upgrade your weapons, so once you start upgrading one it feels like you are committed to that choice. Especially once you get to the later part of the game you probably have a max-level weapon and aren’t going to want to swap it out for a fresh new one. I wish I didn’t feel so constricted when upgrading my weapons so that I could have experimented with some of the interesting choices that the game offers.

An interesting aspect of Valfaris is how it encourages and rewards risk in different ways. The most obvious is with the concept of Resurrection Idols. One of these can be found in every section between checkpoints, and extra ones can be found by diligent explorers. It costs a single Idol to activate a checkpoint. But if you choose not to activate the checkpoint and push forward, you get to keep the Idol. For every extra Idol you hold you gain bonus maximum health and maximum energy. I personally never took the risk and skipped a checkpoint, but it is an interesting risk for more experienced players to choose to gain a permanent bonus.

Moreover, at the end of every level there is a machine in which you can exchange bonus Idols for weapon upgrade materials. Effectively trading max health and energy for more power. The risks surrounding Idols and how to spend them is definitely an appreciated player choice. Another way the game handles risk is by encouraging the player to run around and slash at enemies. Melee attacks generate energy, which can be used for your heavy weapons and shield. So, if you want to play it safe and stay at range with your sidearm you can, but if you want to cause mayhem you need to slice up aliens to power your destructive rocket launchers and such.

Overall, Valfaris is an excellent modern run-and-gun. It’s hard to stand out in a sea of games that all stem from a genre that started 35 years ago. But Valfaris masterfully captures the thrilling side-scrolling action that defines the genre. The best way to describe it is 2D DOOM. Which is a pretty high compliment to give to any shooter. Despite a few minor issues like messy visuals and stunted upgrade paths, I believe Valfaris is an excellent game. It is for these reasons I give Valfaris an 8/10. While not being anything mind-blowingly new or innovative, Valfaris is the essence of run-and-gun.

Minit (2018)

An often-repeated idea in many gaming spaces is a game is only as valuable as how many hours of entertainment it provides. Games that provide dozens or hundreds of hours of content are hyped up, while games that are shorter or have a defined end are seen as a waste of money. I vehemently disagree with this mindset. Extremely long or open-ended games are usually bloated with tons of filler or subpar content. I much prefer shorter games that have a well-defined structure that isn’t beaten to death over the course of 100 hours. An extreme example of bite-sized experience is the indie game Minit.

Minit is a top-down adventure game that is clearly inspired by the original The Legend of Zelda games. Like the adventure games of old, you run around the world with sword in hand, solving puzzles and conquering foes. The twist of Minit is that every 60 seconds you die and are reborn at your home base. Every minute is a frantic rush to progress forward in some way, whether it be exploring a foreign area, solving a puzzle, or unlocking a new item.

Dying and respawning every minute causes the player to think about what they want to achieve in such a short time frame. Minit is incredibly tightly designed, I was shocked quickly I could traverse the world. I initially assumed that I would frequently run out of time having achieved nothing in a minute, but the map is so compact and dense that it was always simple to discover something of interest. The interconnected nature of the world allowed for quick navigation. Unlocking new items would allow access to previously inaccessible areas, and exploring these areas often revealed shortcuts to other parts of the map.

One of my main gripes with Minit was that it infrequently actually made use of its timer mechanic outside of just resetting the cycle. I do enjoy the concept of only having a minute in each cycle, as it forced such tight game design and pushes the player to carefully route their path through the world. However, most of the puzzles, exploration, and combat never utilize this mechanic at all.

There are a few clever uses such as interacting with a man who speaks very slowly, so if you want to hear what he says you must reach him early in the cycle. But for the most part the only impact that the minute long cycle has on the game is emoti the player to move quickly and with purpose. Interestingly, you could remove the minute long cycle and the game would still function perfectly well. I do think that it is still a worthwhile addition in how it motivates the player to maneuver through the game.

A common sentiment in many gaming spaces is the idea that games as a product should provide you with a sufficient amount of content to justify their price. I don’t wholeheartedly agree with this line of thinking as it is how we end up with 100-hour slog fests with repeated and tedious content. I much prefer if games deliver a focused experience, only including the very best that the designers had to offer. That being said, Minit is short. Incredibly short. Minit took me a little over an hour to complete. Even if I went hunting for all the hidden collectibles, I doubt it would’ve taken me more that 2 hours to 100% complete the game.

To be honest, I was refreshed with how short Minit was. It definitely did not overstay it’s welcome, which is one of the most pervasive issues that I have with games. But I think Minit is too extreme on the other end of the spectrum. There were definitely more ideas that could have been explored. Especially considering that the game barely scratched the surface when it came to time or cycle-based mechanics.

Overall, Minit is a short but sweet adventure harkening back to the games of yesteryear. I quite enjoyed the use of the minute long cycles and how they influenced the world design, but it felt underused when it came to game mechanics. If anything, Minit is a fun little adventure if you don’t feel like committing to a grandiose globetrotting RPG that spans dozens of hours. But if you are looking for a more comprehensive experience, you may have better luck elsewhere.

Subnautica (2018)

As a genre, survival games can be repetitive and uninspired. Many of them follow the same generic formula of gathering resources, building a base, and making sure you have enough food to survive. Most of these games have no end goal, they just kind of peter out after a while. Despite not being a fan of the genre, Subnautica caught my attention because it was different. The setting, story, and ultimate goal make it a survival game that stands out among its peers. With a higher emphasis on exploration and discovery as opposed to resource collection, Subnautica felt right up my alley.

As the giant spacefaring vessel Aurora plummets towards an unnamed ocean planet, life pods are jettisoned into the open waters with the few survivors of the crash. You begin your journey in one of these life pods. Equipped with some basic survival necessities like a couple days’ worth of food and water, you realize that you are going to need to take a dive into the alien waters to have any chance at survival.

As you dip your toes into the shallow waters around your life pod, you can start collecting resources. Catching fish to be turned into sustainment, and gathering minerals and other natural resources to start crafting new items. In the beginning hours of Subnautica, you cannot stray far from the water’s surface. With limited oxygen you need to frequently swim back to the surface to breathe. To travel farther and dive deeper you are going to need to craft some new equipment.

Like any survival game, Subnautica has a rather nebulous tech tree. While there is no defined path of equipment and upgrades that needs to be strictly followed, you will find it hard to progress until you craft the necessary upgrades. For example, to dive deeper you are going to want to get faster swimming fins and an oxygen tank. In the deeper waters you will find resources to craft vehicles that let you dive even deeper. And from there you can discover upgrades that can let you dive even deeper still. There is a defined gameplay loop of collecting resources to build new technology which in turn lets you go deeper to collect new resources that lets you build newer technology.

This is all pretty standard for a survival game so far, but Subnautica deviates from its peers in a few ways. The first being that the world is not procedurally generated. The world is predefined, and there is nothing to guide you but your own navigation skills. There is no map that shows you all the biomes, you have to use your compass and some landmarks to remember where you are. Beacons can be placed that make navigation simpler, and the giant crashed ship Aurora serves as an obvious visual anchor of where you are at all times. I liked the decision to leave exploration and discovery to the player’s own ingenuity instead of there being a map that you need to unveil. It cements the fact that you are on an alien planet, with nothing but your own resourcefulness to guide you.

The most important aspect that makes Subnautica stand out is its story. Most survival games are just about surviving, upgrading your gear, and building a base. You just play until you get bored. Subnautica has all those things, but you always have the ultimate goal of leaving the planet. You begin getting messages on your life pod’s radio from other life pods. This brilliantly nudges the player forwards to discover new biomes and technologies. You may be apprehensive at first to stray far from the safe shallow water near your life pod, but you will want to know what happened to the other survivors.

Eventually, your curiosity will be what drives you to delve into the deep, dark, and terrifying ocean. You need to know what happened to the Aurora, and the alien structures that you find will certainly pique your interest. I found that the story of Subnautica was a decent sci-fi tale. It does a phenomenal job at always leaving breadcrumbs for you to discover and make you want to learn more about the world and its secrets. Truthfully, I would’ve quit Subnautica fairly early on if it didn’t appeal to my sense of exploration and discovery.

Aside from the story, the other strong aspect of Subnautica is how genuinely terrifying it is. It’s not like a conventional horror game with grotesque monsters. You must contend with the flora and fauna of the world, some of which are hostile, and some of which are gargantuan. But these creatures don’t exist just to chase you down and kill you like something out of Resident Evil, they have habitats that they happily exist in regardless of your interference. There is no point in battling these beasts, you simple avoid them or use tools to inhibit them long enough for you to get away.

The brand of terror in Subnautica is one that exists almost entirely within the player’s mind. Primal fears like the fear of the dark, fear of the ocean, and fear of the unknown are constantly triggered. You cannot see 360 degrees around you, so there is a constant fear that some predator is lurking just behind you. Traversing into dark waters is always terrifying, you never know what is lurking there. There’s a magic to how unsettling and petrifying Subnautica can be despite not being a horror game at all.

Subautica has its fair share of issues, many of which are common for the survival game genre. Since the game has a tech tree and obvious upgrade paths, it can occasionally be frustrating to get stuck with absolutely no idea of how to acquire the next upgrade or what it even is. You need blueprints to build most new pieces of equipment, and finding these blueprints can be like searching for a needle in a haystack.

For example, one of the most obvious objectives the player has is to board the Aurora and scavenge it. But you need a laser cutter to open many of the sealed doors. It took me ages to find the necessary blueprints to build the laser cutter. They are often found in wreckages scattered on the ocean floor, but it is all too easy to glance over the blueprint while scavenging or miss the wreckage all together. This happened to me numerous times throughout the game, and it was immensely frustrating to aimlessly scour the entire ocean for wreckages that may or may not contain the blueprint I needed.

The worst example I can think of was when I had all but completed the game, I still had not unlocked the giant submarine vehicle. I never came across the necessary blueprints. This was doubly aggravating because I needed to build the submarine to finish the final piece of my spaceship. I spent hours exploring every inch of the world for that blueprint, for no reason other than to build a submarine that I didn’t even really need. I already completed the story; I was mere moments away from blasting off the planet forever.

 Additionally, Subnautica also has the classic issue of tedious resource collection that many survival games have. Towards the end of the game in particular the escape rocket requires a ton of resources. All of which the player has likely already collected plenty of times. I guess it serves as a final victory lap as you acquire the copious amounts of titanium and copper necessary to blast off, but by that time in the game I felt like I had already proven my mastery of the ocean.

The most objective flaw of Subnautica is the overwhelming number of technical issues. Although many of the game’s flaws have been getting patched through the years, its hard to ignore how buggy it was on launch and how it still is poorly optimized. The two big issues in particular are the framerate and the draw distance. While the framerate has improved over the years, there are still hiccups. But the more frustrating issue is the draw distance. In a game where exploration is the main mechanic, I should be able to see what is 50 meters in front of me.

This is what leads to the player missing many important wreckages or other landmarks. They swim around a biome, thinking they’ve fully explored it, but some pieces just hadn’t rendered. In many areas of the game, it makes sense that visibility is low. In dark zones or dusty terrain it makes sense to have obscured vision, but in the open ocean I should be able to see more than a few dozen meters in front of me.

Overall, Subnautica is the best survival game that I’ve played. It’s unique setting, sci-fi story, and actual tangible progression makes it more appealing to me than most other survival games. The perhaps unintentional terror and fear that it strikes into the player is something that cannot be forgotten. Nothing gives you chills more than when entering a new biome and you get warned that there are multiple hostile leviathan creature lurking about. All that being said, it still has many of the tedious aspects that plague survival games. It is for these reasons I give Subnautica a 7.5/10. The ocean may seem inhospitable, but I’m sure most people will quickly grow fond of the watery planet that you call home in Subnautica.