Astro’s Playroom (2020)

One of the biggest surprises when I started up my Playstation 5 for the first time was Astro’s Playroom. Not that the game existed, but simply how much effort and soul went into making it. I expected a short tech demo, showcasing the haptic feedback of the controller. Astro’s Playroom is much more than that, and despite it being a short game, it’s one that nobody who owns a PS5 should miss. 

Astro’s Playroom is a celebration of everything Playstation. It’s a platformer with a few short levels, but each of these levels is packed with references and homages to Playstation’s past. There are a ton of cute little robots acting out scenes from classic and obscure games alike. There are tons of collectibles that showcase old Playstations and their respective peripherals. Finding puzzle pieces unlocks murals that celebrate Playstation throughout the years. 

The levels themselves are creative, varied, and enjoyable to traverse. There are four main areas along with a small hub world and a final boss battle. Each of the main areas has four levels, and those levels alternate between traditional platformer and more gimmicky concepts. The levels are extremely short, but I found them to be great nonetheless. They are visually engaging and packed to the brim with secrets, collectibles, and fun scenes. The gimmick-based levels utilize the motion controls of the new controller in creative methods, and they work well.

I was impressed with how well Astro’s Playroom showcased the new features of the PS5’s controller. Even after playing a few more PS5 titles, few utilize the stellar haptic feedback like Astro’s Playroom. The dynamic rumbling can really add some phenomenal textural feedback to the player. I distinctly remember a certain part of the game when I was holding on to a moving platform because the rumble had a very distinctive clicking sensation. If it had just been a standard rumbling, it would not have stuck out in my mind at all.

Astro’s Playroom is a short game. It only took me a few hours to complete it and find all the collectibles. This is not a bad thing. It’s a short but sweet experience. I’d love to see a more expansive version of Astro’s Playroom, but there would need to be an overhaul of the movement mechanics. Movement is super simple, you can walk, jump, and briefly hover. This is fine for a quick and free title that comes included with the PS5. But to compete with other major 3D platformers, Astro would need more complex movement to keep traversal interesting.

Take for example the 3D entries of Super Mario. They are simple, approachable, and easy to grasp. However, there are plenty of extra mechanics like triple jumps, side flips, long jumps, slides, and momentum. Traversing the environments in Super Mario games is like exploring a playground. As you master the movement, you can find shortcuts and more easily navigate obstacles. Astro’s Playroom feels like it’s on rails in comparison. It’s not egregious since the game is so compact and there are plenty of gimmicky interludes to mix up the movement. If there were to be a longer sequel to Astro’s Playroom, I’d love to see some more intricate movement.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by Astro’s Playroom. It’s an approachable, charming, and enjoyable bite-sized game. Not every game needs to be an expansive behemoth, and I love when games have a more focused approach. While it doesn’t have complex movement, Astro’s Playroom is a joy to explore. It is for these reasons I give Astro’s Playroom an 7.5/10. It’s not a game that is going to revolutionize platformers, but Astro’s Playroom is an excellent romp through imaginative environments. 

Control (2019)

I can appreciate when a studio tries to do something different. There are tons of well-made games out that are completely risk-averse, they just combine proven ideas and concepts in a slightly different way. As a studio, Remedy has always impressed me with how they were willing to develop games around wacky concepts. While Alan Wake had grating combat, the setting and atmosphere were unmatched. Control is Remedy’s latest creation, and it fully dives into the untapped genre of New Weird. Sadly, Control was as disappointing as it was exciting.

It is undeniable that Control is fully committed to creating an unforgettable world. You play as Jesse Faden, a woman looking for her brother who went missing when they were children. Her search led her to the Federal Bureau of Control (FBC), a mysterious government organization whose mission is to study paranormal occurrences. The game opens when Jesse stumbles into the brutalist concrete structure where the FBC is headquartered.

What makes Control so intriguing is its setting. The juxtaposition of the boring office building with its contents of horrifying and extradimensional objects is incredibly engaging to explore. Reading the logs of the workers here as they treat the paranormal as if it was just another day at the office is my favorite aspect of the game. Control is very obviously inspired by existing ideas like the SCP Foundation and House of Leaves. It does a great job at bringing these ideas to life. I loved seeing everyday objects like rubber ducks, refrigerators, and standing fans locked away in containment. Reading how they are extraordinarily dangerous and should be treated with extreme caution and learning how the building that the FBC resides in is a living labyrinth is just such a phenomenal experience.

Exploring the oldest house itself is a highlight of the game. Finding little secrets, reading documents, and taking in the environment is great. The game has no mini-map or quest markers, which is appreciate. Naturally reading signs and using landmarks to navigate is far more engaging than staring at a marker. I will say that the map itself is pretty hard to parse, it doesn’t show elevation or overlapping levels very well. While I love being able to navigate without relying on maps, I do wish it wasn’t completely worthless.

The core of the gameplay in Control is its combat. It plays as a third-person-shooter, and in all honestly it can be described as serviceable. You have a gun that can change into five different forms. Additionally, you unlock powers like telekinesis, mind-control, shielding, and levitation. I appreciate that the combat is fast-moving. Moving around makes it difficult for enemies to hit you or pin you down. Additionally, enemies drop health when killed so you have to keep moving to reacquire some valuable health. It all works fine, but it feels like it is missing something.

The best part of the combat is that it simply feels good. Picking up and launching pieces of the environment sounds and looks phenomenal. The destructible environment is top-tier. Everything can be ripped from its hinges, thrown, and explode. Wreaking havoc around the FBC and watching enemies get obliterated by fire extinguishers, fax machines, or chunks of concrete is addicting. It is a feast for the eyes and ears.

A big issue with the combat is that the telekinesis ability, called launch, is just way too powerful. I love that the dominant strategy utilizes launch as it is the best aspect of the combat. But it’s too dominant. Most enemies can be killed in a single usage of launch. And there is never a shortage of stuff to launch. The only weakness is that it uses energy, which needs some time to recover when you run out. What ends up happening is that in every single encounter in the game, with no exceptions, is that you spam launch until you run out of energy. Then you use your gun of choice until your energy recovers so you can spam launch again. The guns are pitifully weak when compared to launch. If some of the other powers or the guns were stronger, some alternative strategies could have been viable and fun to try.

Another issue with the combat is that the enemies are boring. For some reason, in a game centered around the paranormal and extradimensional, most of the enemies are boring humanoids. Many of them function as regular humans with guns. Others have some supernatural powers. They rarely pose a threat, and it’s just baffling that in a game with such brilliant concepts that they leaned on humanoids. Again, the combat is fine. It’s serviceable. But most of the time it boils down to “spam launch at the red guys”.

Mirroring the disappointing combat, the main story also fails to capitalize on the excellent concept that Control has. Jesse has some compelling motivation to delve into the FBC. And after experiencing paranormal events in her childhood, she feels at home at the FBC. But the actual story involves a lot of running around to find something, realizing its not there, and then going on a wild goose chase. Control has such a cool concept, but it feels underutilized in the main story. The side stories go farther into the weirdness that Control should exemplify.

After reading the dossiers and documents that uncover the lore of Control, I expected more of the narrative of Control. I expected layers upon layers of conspiracy. I wanted to be shocked. But the main story was normal, not paranormal. The ending in particular was extremely unfulfilling and doesn’t even try to answer the few interesting questions the game asks. In a game with such a fascinating setting and weird concepts, I was extremely disappointed that the driving forces behind the plot were an evil red presence and a good blue presence.

While I can appreciate the fact that Control tried to do something different with its concept, it falls into the pitfalls of many modern games. Bloating the game with random mechanics is never a benefit. There’s no reason for Control to have crafting system. Finding a secret to only be rewarded with a meaningless “House Memory” crafting material is deflating. There’s also upgrades to weapons and abilities to be found, but sorting through a menu to find the “more damage” augmentation is tedious. Not to mention there is a pointless carrying limit, meaning that you frequently have to sift through your inventory to dump the bad upgrades.

Another bit of bloat is the random quests. The side quests in general are great. They delve deep into the lore and world of Control. But for some reason there are random radiant quests. These randomly pop up and have you chase down groups of randomly spawned enemies. There are also expeditions and board containment quests that also are randomly generated to acquire more upgrades and crafting material. These just feel like bloat that water down the experience.

One of the single most disappointing aspects of Control for me was how poorly it utilized its naturally horrifying concept. It is missing the element of cosmic horror, fearing the unknown and unknowable. Jesse is just so powerful that it’s hard to be scared of anything that could be lurking around the corner. None of the enemies, aside from some optional side quest bosses, invoke that feeling of terror. Moreover, Jesse’s reactions to the world itself makes it hard to ever be truly afraid. After cleansing a cursed television that mind-controlled people and watching their heads explode, Jesse’s reaction could be summed up to “Huh too bad”. The was a unique opportunity here to lean into the natural anxiety and fear that the unknown instills. Unfortunately, Control does not even scratch the surface of these ideas.

I love that Control leaned into being different and weird. It’s not afraid to hide lore in tucked-away documents. It stays away from many modern conventions like quest markers and mini-maps, and the game is better for it. But while Control has a unique concept and setting, it just doesn’t bring these ideas into the gameplay or story. Nothing is egregiously bad, but it feels like a waste of such a creative setting. It is for these reasons I give Control a 6.5/10. Control could have defined the genre of New Weird, but instead it’s a serviceable 3rd-person-shooter in a unique universe.

Bayonetta 2 (2014)

In my review of Bayonetta, I praised the game for being a more approachable character action game while maintaining a high level of potential complexity. Bayonetta 2 polishes this concept to an absurd degree, improving on many of the faults of the original game. Despite Bayonetta being an excellent action game, it had some glaring faults such as its dull color palette, overabundance of frustrating gimmicks, and punishing QTE sequences. Bayonetta 2 alleviates all of these issues, making it an even better experience for general audiences.

The most immediately obvious improvement that Bayonetta 2 makes is the art direction and use of vibrant colors. I lamented about the dull browns and grays that dominated the landscape of the original Bayonetta. In the prologue alone Bayonetta 2 obviously puts emphasis on livening up the color scheme. The environments are far more memorable and pleasant to look at because of this. It makes the spectacular animations and set pieces pop even more. It may seem like I am being overly nitpicky when complaining about the original game’s dull colors, but I’m adamant that for a game all about being stylish and sexy that it should have been more appealing to the eyes. I have to applaud Bayonetta 2 for overhauling this aspect.

Thankfully, Quick Time Events (QTEs) have been greatly diminished in Bayonetta 2. Dying because you didn’t press the X button in half of a second feels cheap and unearned. Even worse, it stops you from being able to just watch and enjoy spectacle cutscenes because you are always on edge waiting for a QTE if you know that it is a possibility. I’m glad that these have been removed. There is still the occasional button mashing QTE, but you know when it’s about to happen and you can’t die as a result of it, so it’s far less egregious than the QTEs in cutscenes.

Another feature that I’m happy was renovated was the gimmick sections. Bayonetta had a couple of levels that were outright frustrating to play because they relied heavily on arcade gimmicks. Bayonetta 2 remedies this by reducing the amount of non-combat sections there are in the game and also polishing them further. Riding the demonic horse or jet fighter in Bayonetta 2 is far better than riding the motorcycle or rocket in its predecessor. They’ve added additional attacks to make these sections more engaging. Additionally, these sections are far shorter so they feel less intrusive this time around. I still prefer the actual combat to these sections, but now they serve as welcome switch-ups rather than frustrating interruptions.

The combat of Bayonetta is lauded for its approachability and deep complexity. Bayonetta 2 implements the combat in a near identical way, with a few changes. The most noticeable change is that the “Normal” difficulty of Bayonetta 2 is easier than its predecessor. While I did enjoy overcoming some of the more challenging encounters that the original Bayonetta offered, I felt more inclined to try new combos and techniques when the damage was turned down a bit.

The other major addition to combat is a new ability called Umbran Climax. When you have a full magic gauge you can activate it, letting Bayonetta channel her demonic powers. It essentially turns all of your attacks into Wicked Weaves, making them do more damage, have wider area of effects, and staggers enemies. While I do think that Umbran Climax is a fun spectacle, it does feel too powerful. There rarely feels like there’s a purpose to using the magic gauge for Torture Attacks or using accessories when Umbran Climax is just so potent.

Ultimately, the combat of Bayonetta 2 is strikingly similar to its predecessor, and that is for the best because it truly is some of the greatest combat you will find in an action game. I will mention that at the very highest levels of gameplay Bayonetta 2 may not be as satisfying. Larger enemies do not stagger easily, making it challenging to keep up combos. Additionally, many enemies can block or dodge in the middle of your combo. Personally, these things did not bother me, and I doubt they will bother most players. But if you are the type who likes to go for Pure Platinum medals on the highest difficulty, then these small irritants may be a far greater problem.

The story of Bayonetta was complete nonsense, and while I do think that Bayonetta 2 is better in this regard, it still spends too much time on its narrative aspects. I actually quite like the conclusion of Bayonetta 2, as it retroactively makes Bayonetta make more sense. But I wish PlatinumGames would realize that people play these games for the action, spectacle, and characters. These games aren’t meant to be masterpieces of storytelling, and that’s fine. But the writing and dialogue is just hard to sit through sometimes. It wouldn’t be such a problem if the game didn’t have two and a half hours of cutscenes in a relatively short game. Spending a quarter or a third of the game length in cutscenes for a game that should be all about the action feels excessive and unnecessary.

 The only major fault of Bayonetta 2 is that is very much derivative of the original. I don’t mean this in a disparaging way or that Bayonetta 2 is not enjoyable. In all honesty, I vastly prefer Bayonetta 2 to Bayonetta. It polishes the formula in many ways, removing the undesirable aspects and making technological improvements. However, Bayonetta 2 is relatively risk free, and while it’s not a bad thing to give the players more of what they want, it’s hard to hold it in the same regard as Bayonetta which made all the critical innovations. Bayonetta 2 may be a more enjoyable game, but it’s a far less important one when compared to Bayonetta.

In nearly every way, Bayonetta 2 is an improvement over Bayonetta. It cleans up many of the frustrating aspects that made me scratch my head while playing Bayonetta. It maintains the high level of combat that the series has become known for, and it is accessible to newcomers due to the emphasis on dodging and Witch Time. Despite this, Bayonetta 2 will have a hard time taking the spotlight from Bayonetta; it’s a great follow-up but it owes everything to its predecessor.

Spiritfarer (2020)

After the brutal and challenging adventure known as Elden Ring, I felt like I needed a more relaxed game. I was extremely excited to start Spiritfarer, a cozy journey where you escort spirit passengers on their path to the afterlife. At first, I was enthralled with Spiritfarer, I think it was a novel idea. A game that tackles the themes of death and mental health in a healthy manner surely can be impactful for many people. But I found that Spiritfarer is frankly just too long for the limited amount of actual gameplay that it contains.

The premise of Spiritfarer is that you play as Stella, a young woman who has entered the spirit realm and is given the important role of escorting spirits to the afterlife. You sail the seas in your little boat, stopping at islands along the way and talking to local spirits. Some of whom will become passengers on Stella’s vessel. As occupants on the ship, you will have to fulfill their desires and requests until they feel they are ready to move onto the afterlife.

Spiritfarer engages with the idea of death and moving on in an elegant fashion. Spirits become familiar friends on the vessel. Talking to you, sharing their memories, and hanging around as you carry out your quests. Then suddenly they decide their time has come to an end, and you must bring them to their final destination. These tearjerking moments are equal parts depressing and gratifying. As you share your last moments with the characters you’ve come to know and love, you realize that it wasn’t meant to last forever and sometimes people are just ready to move on. It’s sad, but death is real, and Spiritfarer harbors lessons for everyone.

There is overarching plot in Spiritfarer. Astute players may be able to predict what is happening early on in the journey. Mysteriously, Stella seems to know all of the spirits that join her on the ship from their previous lives. Unfortunately, I felt that the interconnected story elements fell a little flat. Stella’s story is very sparsely spread out across the entire 30+ hour game, with much of it needing to be inferred. The game focuses more on the individual spirits backgrounds and their stories.

Truthfully, I also felt that the self-contained stories about each character also were underwhelming. Somehow, Spiritfarer is simultaneously underwritten and overwritten. Characters have a ton of dialogue, sometimes it seems to never end. But at the same time much of that dialogue is entirely fluff, not revealing anything meaningful about the spirit, their background, or their personality. A lot is left to the player to be inferred, which is fine, but it did feel like there was big chunks of the story cut out. Which makes sense when you learn that there is an entirely separate artbook which does contain more details about Stella and the characters.

When I began playing Spiritfarer, I was enthralled with its relaxing gameplay. I have never been a huge fan of life-simulation games akin to Animal Crossing, but I initially thought that Spiritfarer would be different. There’s plenty of resource management to upgrade your ship, some platforming elements, minigames to refine resources, and an actual narrative. But disappointingly, all of these elements lose their luster after a few hours and the game just does not evolve in any significant manner in its long runtime.

Take for instance the resource management. You need resources like wood, cloth, glass, etc., to construct new buildings. Generally, you collect raw resources while visiting islands and then refine them into materials to build things. To refine resources, you use specific buildings that each have their own mini-game to complete, rewarding bonus materials if you do well in the mini-game. The mini-games are fine at first, but become a complete time-sink as the game progresses. Some of them feel like they are specifically designed to waste your time. Mashing a button to hammer steel or waiting for metal to melt is just not interesting. Not to mention having to tend to crops and feed the chickens and direct the ship to its destination.

A huge opportunity was missed in Spiritfarer, which when I began the game, I thought for sure would be implemented. While spirits inhabit your ship, they have a mood level. You can keep them happy by feeding them food they enjoy, hugging them, or doing certain activities. The spirits are supposed to reward you with things when they are in a good mood. But the rewards are completely meaningless garbage. I’m not going to go out of my way to keep a spirit happy if all I get for it is a single wooden plank every two hours.

It really feels like there was an intention here to have spirits actually do the jobs they enjoy doing. The woodworker should chop logs in the lumber mill, the seamstress should sew fabric, the chef should make food in the kitchen. It’s so bizarre that as the game progresses, you unlock dozens of stations to create materials, but the spirits who obviously enjoy the activities don’t ever interact with them. Instead, the player has to juggle a bunch of time consuming mini-games that get tiresome after the third time you’ve played them.

I thought my ship would eventually transform into a self-sustaining colony. I could direct the ship and explore the islands and take care of whatever tasks I need to while the spirits partake in their hobbies and craft resources so long as they were in a good mood. Instead, they just kind of hang around on your ship, asking to be fed and occasionally giving you some lengthy dialogue about nothing in particular. I would have been far more attached to the characters if they actually felt like they were dynamic parts of the journey that assisted me instead of just being annoying chatty statues.

Unfortunately, most of the quests in Spiritfarer are also uninspiring. While I love the idea of helping the lost souls on your ship and fulfilling their final requests, the mechanical execution of quests is just lazy. Sailing back and forth between islands just to collect a single item or talk to another character for one minute is the epitome of fetch quests. Quests that incorporated some platforming or exploration felt far better than the repetitive fetch quests.

Spiritfarer is an undeniably gorgeous game. The art direction, character designs, and detailed animations are really the star of the game. I loved watching the characters just go about their business, or watching Stella’s cat chase her little ball. Moreover, the concept of sailing and building a community on this supernatural ferry is supremely cozy. This is admittedly what drew me into Spiritfarer, I just wish the gameplay or story did its part to keep my interest.

One of the most common issues that I’ve seen after playing and reflecting upon hundreds of games is that many of them are just too long for their own good. For some reason gamers love to spew nonsense about the amount of “hours per dollar” they get out of a game, leading to bloated experiences. If a movie or an album was eight hours long, it better have an extremely good reason, and even then, it would get lambasted by reviewers and the public. Why do we treat games differently? Honestly, if Spiritfarer was half or even a third of its current length of nearly 30 hours, it would be far more enjoyable. The mini-games and sailing back and forth doesn’t get nearly as repetitive or grating if you don’t have to keep doing it over and over. Spiritfarer simply wears out its welcome far prior to completing the game.

I really wanted to enjoy Spiritfarer. It’s central theme of memento mori and mental health are conveyed in a comforting environment. The game is visually stunning. But the overarching gameplay and story just aren’t enough to keep a fairly lengthy game entertaining for the full duration. It is for these reasons that I give Spiritfarer a 5/10. I seem to be in the minority as most people loved Spiritfarer, and I’m willing to admit that maybe I just have a strong aversion to games like Spiritfarer and Animal Crossing. Clearly a lot of love and care went into the making of Spiritfarer and I wish I could praise and recommend the game. But sadly, Spiritfarer misses some opportunities and is ultimately tedious.

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.