Blasphemous (2019)

Religious imagery is perhaps the most popular theme in any form of media. Despite this, perhaps nothing has a more brutal take on the Christian mythos as Blasphemous. Rooted in Spanish Catholicism, Blasphemous constructs a world that takes the religious cornerstones of guilt and penance to extreme levels. The game is a classic metroidvania, and a well-designed one at that. While Blasphemous does not innovate on the genre, its masterful art, imagery, and atmosphere are plenty to make it stand out in a sea of similar games.

Blasphemous does not hesitate to make its gore apparent to the player. The opening moments of the game have the player awakening on a pile of corpses, all which are doppelgangers that resemble the player. You immediately encounter an unsightly beast; a warden who appears to be searching for survivors of the unseen massacre and slaughtering them. The main character, the Penitent One, slices the warden open to fill his helmet with blood and dons it before continuing on his quest.

After the player’s introduction to the game, you become aware of the parallels between this fictional world and historical events such as the operation of the Spanish Inquisition. The world of Blasphemous is centered on the ideas of guilt and penance. Everybody worships what is known as the Grievous Miracle, a magical force that arbitrarily doles punishments to the world’s inhabitants. People see these punishments as blessings, and happily endure extreme pain as a way to repent for their sins. Self-flagellation, bare-footed pilgrimages, carrying crosses, and whippings are all common forms of mortification of the flesh. Everyone carries the weight of guilt, and consequently seek penance through suffering to receive forgiveness.

The imagery of Blasphemous is particularly striking. Every character is suffering at the hands of the Grievous Miracle, everyone is on some journey to complete their punishment. Everything in the game mirrors the grandiose nature of religious text. The areas are named things like “The Mountains of the Endless Dusk” or “Where Olive Trees Wither”. There are sprawling cathedrals and towering statues that dwarf the Penitent One. The artwork is absolutely stunning. The immaculately designed backgrounds, the gothic architecture, the detailed character models, and the violent animations superbly represent the brutal yet magnificent vision of this religious world.

A key aspect of any metroidvania is the level design and the emphasis on natural exploration. Blasphemous has a fairly unique approach to the design staple of finding new items that unlock new areas of the map. Interestingly, Blasphemous can be completed with only the abilities and items that you begin the game with. All subsequent upgrades are found off the beaten path and are entirely optional. I find this to be remarkable as most games in the genre follow the same formula of beating a boss to acquire an upgrade that lets you progress to the next area. But Blasphemous encourages the player to make discoveries on their own.

I was engrossed in exploring the world of Blasphemous. Part of the reason was because of how the game framed its upgrade system. Many metroidvanias make the mistake of having upgrades be obvious in their functionality. For example, many games include a double-jump that allows the player to reach higher up areas. This is fine, but it takes a little mystery out of exploration and some excitement when you finally do unlock the double-jump. When you see a ledge that’s too high to reach, you know that you will eventually unlock a double-jump. And when you do gain access to that ability you already know where it can be used. But Blasphemous takes a different approach, as most of its upgrades are framed as a tool that the Penitent One uses to change their perception of the world around them.

For example, a blessed cloth allows the player to hear the last thoughts of some of the deceased scattered around the world. These spectral thoughts are often hints to puzzles that the player would have no way of solving otherwise. Another upgrade reveals floating, bloody platforms to the Penitent One. These platforms can be used to reach secret ledges that couldn’t be accessed otherwise. Whenever you do finally obtain one of these exploration upgrades, it immediately makes you wonder what effect it has on the world around you. It makes me want to actually explore, rather than being prompted to by the game. This natural desire to unearth the secrets of the world is a property that is key to any metroidvania, and Blasphemous nails this.

I’d argue that the weakest aspect of Blasphemous is its combat and movement. There’s something about this game that makes its gameplay feel a little off compared to its contemporaries like Hollow Knight and Ori and The Blind Forest. The animations and hitboxes of Blasphemous can feel a little desynced at times. It’s not offensively bad but I definitely felt like it wasn’t as clean or polished as some of the masterful metroidvanias that have been released recently. The combat itself is incredibly simplistic, which can be a great direction if utilized properly. Not every game needs to have crazy combos or require split second reaction time. Blasphemous relies more on learning enemy patterns and reacting to them appropriately.

This approach shines during the numerous boss fights scattered throughout the game. The bosses have a variety of attacks and abilities that will test the player’s ability to learn and read their movements and tells. Unfortunately, the basic enemies in the game are not as entertaining as the bosses. The issue is that the vast majority of enemies only have a single attack, and once you learn how to react to that attack, the encounter becomes trivial. You always know what they are going to do, so you barely need to even pay attention anymore. Moreover, because the combat is so simplistic, you cannot make it more entertaining for yourself by coming up with new combos or trying different techniques.

While Blasphemous does have a progression system that unlocks new attacks, you can rarely string these techniques together in any meaningful way. Most enemies will succumb to a few simple swings of the sword, so you will never get to even try more complex inputs. The lack of build customization is also an issue. Many games with simplistic combat can get away with it by offering the player diversity in how they build their character. Blasphemous does offer three different categories of items to equip, but they do a poor job at truly distinguishing different playstyles.

The first category of items that can be equipped are called prayers. Prayers are essentially magic spells that use a resource called Fervour which is gained by attacking and executing enemies. You can only equip one prayer at a time, and they are fairly weak in general. They cost a hefty amount of Fervour so you cannot cast them often, they rarely do more damage than just slashing at enemies, and they take a long time to cast which leaves the player vulnerable. They are just underwhelming and I often forgot that I had a prayer equipped because their use cases are so few and far between. The only way that I see prayers being valuable is if the player makes a hyper-specialized build using rosary beads.

Rosary beads are items found throughout the world, and a few can be equipped at any time. Individually, most of them are fairly mediocre. A few are exceptionally powerful but they are difficult to uncover. The problem is that the best rosary beads are pretty generalist bonuses. Things like doing more damage and being invincible while healing are too good to pass up. Other rosary beads provide protection against certain elements, but these are only useful against particular bosses. There’s not really a great way to make an interesting build using rosary beads outside of a prayer-focused approach. You could increase prayer damage, decrease prayer cast time, increase maximum Fervour, and increase Fervour generation to give yourself a prayer casting focus rather than a sword slashing one. But I doubt most players will even contemplate going this route considering how weak prayers are in the first place.

The last customizable option is possibly the worst: Mea Culpa hearts. The Mea Culpa is the name of the sword that the Penitent One carries, and you can equip specialized hearts into the sword to give it different effects. The interesting thing is that all bonuses are tied to some drawback. For example, you can do more damage at the cost of taking more damage. The problem is that the drawbacks often outweigh the bonuses. It almost feels like a detriment to equip many of these hearts.

While the lack of build diversity does hurt the game’s combat, it also dissuades the player from spending too much time hunting for secrets. With two fairly unimportant collectibles and three unimpactful build item categories, most things that you uncover in the world of Blasphemous are disappointing. The act of exploration was entertaining, but I can see players getting dissuaded from continuing after the majority of their rewards are useless trinkets and baubles.

As a bit of a side note, I played Blasphemous after the first expansion was released, and before the second expansion was announced. I usually don’t mention this sort of thing, but Blasphemous infamously was janky immediately following its release. It’s a shame that people who bought the game early were burnt by it not being fully-baked, but if that was the case for you than I encourage you to give it another chance with the recent patches.

Overall, Blasphemous is more than just a competent metroidvania. It has an identity of its own, with strong theming and powerful imagery. The sheer brutality of its art and world alone is enough to make it an experience worth your time. Its unique take on how exploration is framed makes Blasphemous a worthwhile metroidvania among its peers. Even thought combat was overly simplistic and repetitive, the rest of the game made up for that. It is for these reasons that I give Blasphemous an 8/10. In a genre brimming with similar games, the style and atmosphere of Blasphemous set it apart.

Super Mario Sunshine (2002)

I think we all fall in love with some piece of media that we know is massively flawed. Maybe your guilty pleasure is a reality TV show, or a cringey rom-com, or maybe you are a fan of 100 gecs. For me, Super Mario Sunshine is my broken game of choice. I’m willing to admit my intense nostalgia for this game, but having played it many times I am well aware of its flaws. Maybe it’s because of the warm island vacation theme of Super Mario Sunshine, but playing this game just makes me happy. It’s like wrapping up in a thick blanket with hot chocolate in winter, Super Mario Sunshine is cozy.

Just from a technical standpoint, Super Mario Sunshine was a pretty massive improvement from its predecessor: Super Mario 64. Visually the game is much more appealing, and in my opinion, it controls a lot smoother as well. There are some other significant differences from its predecessor: the world design, the mission structure, and the inclusion of F.L.U.D.D.. I think all of these changes have pros and cons, and they definitively make Super Mario Sunshine unique.

The world of Super Mario Sunshine is a tropical paradise, through and through. The plot of the game is that Mario and company set out for vacation on Delfino Island, but get wrapped up in helping restore the island after a mysterious villain frames Mario for covering the island in graffiti. The player will visit the various attractions of this tropical island including villages, theme parks, resorts, beaches, and other serene environments. I love the consistent atmosphere of Super Mario Sunshine. Every other Super Mario game focuses on variety of distinct areas, while this game goes all-in on the vacation theme.

I’ll admit that I am not much of a beach-goer in real life. Yet for some reason I love every single beach level in any video game. I always attribute this to growing up with Super Mario Sunshine and its lush palm trees, clear waters, bright sunlight, and tropical tunes. This all begins with the phenomenal hub area of Delfino Plaza. From there you can access all of the other areas in the game, but I spent countless hours as a kid just running and jumping through the streets, leaping on top of the buildings, and sliding on the beach. There are plenty of secrets to be found which makes it a compelling area to explore. The vibrant colors and bright sunlight make it a warm and welcoming area, allowing the player to play around with the various mechanics of Mario’s controls.

The number one thing that sets Super Mario Sunshine apart from its peers is its unique movement mechanics. Mario can do all the classic moves from Super Mario 64, with the exception of the long jump. Instead, Mario comes equipped with F.L.U.D.D., which is a device that allows the player to spray water and use water as a jetpack. You cannot float around indefinitely, but you can get an extra couple seconds of hangtime during a jump. The reason that Super Mario Sunshine is divisive is for its use of F.LU.D.D., the argument is that it deemphasizes the traditional platforming. The player no longer has to make precise jumps, and can float around for a second before landing on platforms.

While it is true that Super Mario Sunshine has less emphasis on pure platforming challenges, it still manages to capture the player’s creativity to attempt tricky maneuvers. I spent hours just trying to scale walls use a combination of side-flips, wall-jumps, and jetpacking. Not to mention that F.L.U.D.D. can be upgraded with extra nozzles that further break the player’s ability to quickly maneuver around the map. Furthermore, Super Mario Sunshine benefits from the fact that it isn’t a pure platformer. The game feels like a hybrid of an adventure game and a platformer. There are more exploration and puzzle-solving elements in Super Mario Sunshine opposed to just platforming, which it shares in common with Super Mario 64. I quite like this combination as it makes the game feel like a genuine adventure across Delfino Island, rather than just a set of arbitrary platforms to jump between.

Super Mario Sunshine is what I would classify as experimental. The use of F.L.U.D.D., the lack of emphasis on platforming, the consistent theme, and the unique level structures all make for an atypical Super Mario experience. Most levels in the game have the player preform some task before they can acquire a shine and complete the stage. While I think that this approach succeeds most of time, sometimes the experiment goes wrong. Super Mario Sunshine has an unusual number of god-awful levels. I don’t mean that they are just boring or forgettable, but instead are truly painful and are known for making people tear their hair out.

In a game where there are 120 shines to collect, not every one is going to be a winner. But Super Mario Sunshine contains over a dozen stages that I dread revisiting every time I play the game. Most of these levels fundamentally change how to move, and all of them feel like janky nightmares. The lily pad level for example has the player steer a sinking lily pad down a fast-moving stream of deadly water using only their water nozzle. You have to precisely collect 8 coins during the ride, and if you miss a single one you have to restart the stage. Not to mention that just getting to this area is a 10-to-15-minute ordeal of tediously waiting on a boat. Super Mario Sunshine benefits from its willingness to experiment, but be prepared to play some genuinely terrible levels.

As previously mentioned, there are 120 shines total in the game. There are eight areas, including the hub world of Delfino Plaza. Aside from the standard levels in each area, they all also contain 30 blue coins. You can trade in 10 blue coins for a single shine. The blue coins are a classic example of a great idea that was terribly executed. The blue coins encourage the player to explore the environments around them, uncovering secrets and trying to jump to hidden locations. Exploration is the strong suit of Super Mario Sunshine, and the blue coins are a huge aspect of this. With such a wonderfully constructed paradise, it would be a shame if the player wasn’t prompted to spend time looking around.

While the blue coins are great at encouraging exploration, they have some major flaws in their execution. First and foremost, there are 240 of them in the game. Meaning that there are 24 shines that are comprised of blue coins; that’s 20% of the total shines in the game. Honestly, that is just too many, they could achieve the same effect with only half that amount. The next issue is that they feel genuinely bad to collect. When grabbing a secret item, I should feel accomplished. Instead, the blue coins make me feel annoyed. The reason for this is that every time you collect one a text prompt appears that asks if you would like to save the game. The text box and saving process only takes a few seconds each time, but over the course of 240 blue coins it can get grating. Interrupting the player’s experience is typically not a good thing.

The biggest problem with the blue coins, however, is how they are spread out across the areas. Each area has 30 blue coins total, and there are 8 separate levels in each area. The issue is that some blue coins only appear in certain levels in the area. For example, one blue coin may be in the first and second missions, but may not be in the following missions. Furthermore, the game does not tell you which missions you are missing blue coins in. You may know that you need 5 more blue coins from an area, but you have no idea which of the eight levels that those blue coins reside in. To legitimately find them all you would have to thoroughly explore all 8 missions in an area. It would be incredibly tedious and repetitive.

Truthfully, I use a guide to find whatever blue coins I’m missing by the end of the game. I’m not sure how anybody is expected to find them all legitimately. I understand that blue coins are an entirely optional objective. But at the same time, I feel like the Super Mario games are designed such that the player is encouraged to collect all 120 stars or shines. You may only need 50 to complete the game, but honestly that feels wrong. The fix for the blue coins would be to simply inform the player how many blue coins are left in each mission to collect, that way you could visit the levels and know that there are blue coins present. It would save a lot of wasted time and frustrated exploration.

I have completed Super Mario Sunshine numerous times, but my most recent playthrough may be the last time that I 100% the game for a long time. At its best, Super Mario Sunshine is an adventure in a tropical paradise. Controlling Mario is a wonderfully smooth and fun experience. On the flipside, Super Mario Sunshine contains many infuriating levels and a healthy chunk of hard-to-find blue coins. In the future I’m just going to stick to the good, and avoid the bad, and I suggest everyone else do the same. Super Mario Sunshine is not a perfect game, but it is a favorite of mine. Something about that relaxing atmosphere keeps be coming back time and time again.

Devil May Cry 5 (2019)

I consider myself lucky in that I am able to enjoy nearly all varieties of games. From turn-based strategy to action games, from family-friendly to sadistically difficult, from low-budget indie game to massive triple-A production; I’m able to have a good time with almost anything, provided it’s well designed and crafted. But after playing through the Devil May Cry series, often regarded as pinnacle of character action games, I have feeling that I just don’t enjoy the genre all that much. I can understand how well designed they are, but for some reason they never click for me. That being said, Devil May Cry 5 was my favorite amongst the series.

Somewhere along the way of playing the series, I realized that something about these games just never clicked for me. Yet I held out hope, seeing as even the most recent game was over ten-years-old. I figured that the more modern Devil May Cry 5 would impress me. And it did. I truly did have fun while playing Devil May Cry 5, yet, I just couldn’t get absorbed like so many other people did. I would play for maybe an hour at a time before getting mentally exhausted. I had no desire to replay the game on higher difficulties, which something that the series is obviously designed for. I’m writing all of this to give some perspective on the rest of my review. I think Devil May Cry 5 is a phenomenal game, but I clearly am not a character action game fan, so some nuances of the genre may be lost on me.

Devil May Cry 5 is the triumphant return of the beloved series, which had been on hold for over a decade (not including the despised reboot). The game clearly demonstrates a willingness to appease to older fans of the series, while also marching forward to introduce plenty of new concepts. Beloved characters make returns, and new characters share the spotlight. You spend time playing as three separate characters. Dante obviously plays a role, as no Devil May Cry game would be complete without him. Nero is the focal point of the story arc, as this serves as a coming-of-age tale for the young protagonist. A new face, V, is a dark and edgy character who seems intent on assisting Nero on his journey.

The story of Devil May Cry 5 is my favorite in the series, and it stays faithful to the corny and bombastic style that Devil May Cry is known for. Demons have invaded earth, and the crew of demon hunters sets off to destroy the source of corruption. Dante quickly discovers that the source of the demonic resurgence is Urizen, a mysterious king who seems to have a connection to the famed demon hunter. I’m not going to spoil anything, but fans of the series will revel in the story of Devil May Cry 5. Its themes, presentation, and narrative are all extremely on-point for the series. Ultimately, it serves as a coming-of-age tale for the young hero Nero, who is often pushed aside for the legendary demon hunter Dante. Nero is often fraught with feelings of inadequacy, and his journey in Devil May Cry 5 is tremendous character development and launches Nero into the spotlight.

 While I mostly enjoyed the story and the moments that pleased long-time fans, there are a few gripes that I have about some of its structure. There is a specific moment in the game that is played out in all three characters’ perspectives, and the first half of the game is each character’s paths leading up to that point. What results is retreading a lot of ground, since that specific moment is shown at the very beginning of the game. Most of the interesting plot happens in the later stages of the game, and I grew pretty tired of seeing the same events over and over.

My other issue in the story was how it sidelined certain characters. Outside of the three protagonists, the only other character to get significant screen time was the new mechanic and driver Nico. While Nico fits in well with the Devil May Cry cast, series mainstays like Trish and Lady are pushed aside for the entirety of the game.

As to be expected of any Devil May Cry game, Devil May Cry 5 is all about the bombastic action. The player takes control of Nero, V, and Dante to fight through hordes of demons as stylishly as possible. Each of the three characters has their own unique playstyle to help them rack up monstrous combos. Nero makes use of a mechanical arm and can equip a variety of tools that can be expended in combat. V cannot partake in combat himself, and instead relies on controlling his three demonic pets to do his bidding for him. Dante’s style is reminiscent of all the classic titles, utilizing multiple weapons and stances to make for a deep and complex scheme that experienced players will revel in.

The combat is absolutely phenomenal, and any veteran of the series will be pleased with it. There is plenty of depth and stylish tricks that can be executed. Fighting through hordes of demons just feels right. The blasting music and flashy visuals are sure to get the blood pumping. The bosses are significantly tougher than any of the standard enemy encounters, requiring a bit more caution rather than just trying to rack up huge combos. Even though I’m not particularly good at these games, I still had a ton of fun slicing through the crowds of demonic entities and trying to accumulate as many style points as possible.

Even though I have played all the Devil May Cry games, I would consider myself extremely inexperienced. These games are meant to be played through multiple times, unlocking new techniques and higher difficulty levels as you go. The series encourages the player to master its mechanics. Truthfully, I am a poor fit for the series considering that I rarely replay games. Moreover, the combo-based action may be too much for my brain to handle. I feel more at home in more reactive action games like Furi, Bloodborne, or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice rather than the high-octane and aggressive style of Devil May Cry.

Overall, Devil May Cry 5 is by far my favorite in the series. It’s a triumphant return of the stylish series, which will please any veteran of the series. The goofy characters, over-the-top action, and stylish combat are all present. It is for these reasons that I give Devil May Cry 5 an 8.5/10. I may have realized that the genre wasn’t for me, but it is a masterful game nonetheless.

Snakebird (2015)

Snakebird is the perfect example of the old saying “never judge a book by its cover”. It’s bright, colorful, has cute creatures, it just looks so warm and inviting. Don’t be fooled, underneath that cute exterior is a brutally difficult puzzle game. Despite the game being extraordinarily simple, Snakebird poses challenges that will stump anybody. The level design makes clever use of the movement mechanics to create over fifty unique and tough levels.

The premise of Snakebird is that you control snakes on a grid, and the goal is to reach the ending portal on each level. As you move the head of the snake, the body follows. As long as one segment of the snake is supported by a platform, you can maintain all sorts of strange shapes. The goal is to manipulate the snake in each level such that you can overcome obstacles and the reach the portal. Conceptually, the game is simple. Outside of manipulating the snake, there are only a few other ideas to add to the puzzles. Things like pushing boxes, controlling multiple snakes, and collecting fruit to grow are all additional mechanics, but they are easy to grasp.

The beauty of Snakebird is its simplicity. A common point of frustration in puzzle games is when you don’t fully understand a mechanic, so you waste time trying to solve the puzzle without having the knowledge to actually solve it. Nothing is more aggravating then bashing your head against a puzzle then realizing you were missing something all along. Snakebird circumvents this conundrum by basing all of its puzzles around the core movement mechanics. Despite this, there are a plethora of challenging levels that really test the player’s mastery of how to control the snake.

While the simplicity of Snakebird is in fact it’s greatest asset, it is also the game’s greatest weakness. While I was occasionally frustrated by more complex puzzle games like Stephen’s Sausage Roll, Baba is You, and The Witness, those games felt much more memorable because of their willingness to push the boundaries. There were frequent “aha!” moments in those titles, which I didn’t encounter nearly as much in Snakebird. There were a few levels that had a unique use of the movement mechanics, but even after only a couple weeks after beating the game there are only a handful of levels that I remember.

Overall, I don’t have much to say about Snakebird. It is a cute puzzle game that will be plenty difficult for anybody looking for a challenge. It won’t blow anybody away with a unique premise or innovative puzzles, but it does make great use of the few mechanics that it does showcase. While I don’t think it falls into the “must play” category I do believe it is a worthwhile game for experienced puzzle game players. Snakebird is not a game that is going to revolutionize the genre, and that’s ok. It is a phenomenal demonstration of a title that accomplishes a lot with just a simple core idea.

The Outer Worlds (2019)

We deserve better than The Outer Worlds. I know that sounds harsh, but as a fan of Western RPGs like Fallout and Mass Effect, I think The Outer Worlds is frankly dull. It received plenty of fanfare and hype upon release, but I genuinely believe that is due to the Fallout series fall from grace and people being hopeful for a new series to challenge Bethesda. Truthfully, I don’t think The Outer Worlds is a bad game, just that it is exceedingly mediocre and fails to take any interesting risks.

The Outer Worlds is a Western RPG that takes place in a far-off solar system that has been colonized by humanity. The colony has become a corporate dystopia as companies control every facet of human life. The player is a colonist who is awoken from being cryogenically frozen, tasked with assisting in reawakening the rest of the frozen colonists. You will travel across the system, encountering many communities and people along the way. Each individual area is somewhat small, at least compared to most other open world RPGs. I think this is fine considering that it lets each community feel more self-contained and focused.

At first glance, The Outer Worlds is a great Western RPG. It seemingly has well-written dialogue, tons of stat checks, an interesting world, an abundance of decisions to make, and consequences for your actions. I genuinely enjoyed this game during my time in the first major area of the game: Edgewater. The town and its citizens are owned by a corporation, who don’t care for human life unless it is productive. I enjoyed making decisions both on the micro and the macro levels during my first few hours with the game. It felt like there were numerous ways to handle situations. Minor things like how to acquire a key from somebody had plenty of methods to proceed: talk them into handing it over, pickpocket it, lockpick the door, find another way around, or kill them outright. At a macro level there were seemingly plenty of important moral decisions that would shape the story of the game.

The reality that I learned as the game progressed was that none of the decisions matter. At all. It was an illusion that was shattered after progressing past Edgewater. Let’s start with the stat aspect of the game. Like any RPG, you create a character and assign them stats. These stats will affect your character’s mastery of certain things like using melee weapons, guns, hacking, sneaking, lying, etc. They also unlock abilities at certain thresholds. The problem arises in how the stats are distributed upon level up. The stats are grouped into categories of two or three, and when you level up you can put points into the overarching categories. Meaning if you want to level up your hacking skills, you also are leveling up sneaking and lockpicking at the same time. Every stat functions this way up until a certain threshold.

This system is problematic because it is incredibly difficult to create a specialized character. You can’t just focus on a couple stats. You want to create a sneaky sniper? Well, your character will also be good with machine guns, pistols, hacking, and lockpicking. Any micro decision loses its weight because your character is going to be well-rounded by default. It doesn’t matter that the game gives you the option to lockpick, hack, or pickpocket your way to opening a door because you are going to be good at all three of those things. It doesn’t ever feel rewarding to use a stat to overcome an obstacle.

The problem is further exacerbated by the lack of important decisions in dialogue. In a more interesting RPG, every choice that you make during speech sends you down a different branch in the dialogue tree. In The Outer Worlds, the tree’s branches loop back on themselves. Many decisions lead to the same outcome, most of the time being a positive one. I don’t think I ever managed to seriously upset a character during dialogue. Aside from engaging in combat, dialogue is the main gameplay mechanic in most RPGs. But in The Outer Worlds there is no way to mess up during dialogue, you choose any option and get a good outcome. Once I realized this, dialogue became far less engaging as I knew that I didn’t need to determine what the best options were based on the character’s temperament and responses.

A major aspect of any Western RPG is decision making. The player’s choices usually shape the landscape of the world, and there are vastly differing outcomes depending on what factions you decide to support. Unfortunately, in The Outer Worlds, the major decisions either do no matter or there is a blatantly obvious correct answer. Most decisions in the game just don’t matter. There are a handful of factions, I was able to easily be friendly with every single one of them until the very end of the game. In one instance I was hired to collect information on one faction’s competitor. But instead of helping the original quest giver I betrayed them and helped their opposition. Instead of ruining my reputation with them, the original quest giver did not care one bit and actually increased my reputation. It is comically difficult to actually upset any faction unless you outright start killing them.

Moreover, most major decisions have a “correct” answer. Most of the time its obvious. This is because the corporate dystopia setting is overplayed. The system and its inhabitants are suffering under the rule of a collection of corporations called the Board. The problem is that the Board not only disregards human freedom, but also is laughably stupid. They are an antagonist with absolutely no redeeming qualities.

I think there could’ve been more interesting decisions to make if the Board was portrayed as being ruthlessly pragmatic. The solar system is a hostile and difficult place to live, and if the Board were actually successful at running the colony at the expense of human freedom then there could actually be some interesting moral questions. Do you sacrifice lives and stability to bring freedom to the colonists? But instead, the theme that corporations are bad is shoved down the player’s throat, making every single decision have a correct answer. It’s just not all that interesting.

 Outside of dialogue and decision making, the core gameplay of The Outer Worlds is combat and exploration. You traverse between major areas, fighting enemies along the way. Combat itself is… functional. It’s to be expected considering that this is an RPG and not a dedicated FPS like DOOM. You shoot guns (or use melee weapons) at enemies until their health is depleted. You have companions who can use special abilities every once in a while, and enemies have weak spots that can debilitate them if hit. All in all, combat is fine, there is nothing painful about it but it certainly isn’t a highlight of the game.

I think the most frustrating thing about the combat is the lack of variety. I think this falls more into the RPG aspects of the game as there is very little you can do to make encounters more interesting. There is a pitiful collection of weaponry, and many guns are just upgrades to what you were already using. Acquiring “Assault Rifle v2” isn’t that exciting when you are already using “Assault Rifle”. There are only two armor slots and none of the equipment I found gave an interesting advantage outside of passively giving a few skill points.

Despite all of that, combat could have been more fun if the context for the combat was more exciting. Instead, most of the time you fight nameless marauders or the same few monster types. It’s hard to really get engaged in the combat when none of the enemies you fight have any connection to the world or story other than just wanting to kill you. Moreover, resources are plentiful so it’s not like much strategy has to go into combat either. I never came close to running out of bullets or health packs, and I acquired an abundance junk that I sold off and made tons of money to upgrade my equipment.

Lastly, the setting of The Outer Worlds is poorly utilized. This is partially due to the fact that every narrative thread eventually cycles back to the theme that “corporations are bad”. I love exploring the wasteland of the Fallout series. Discovering areas and learning about what had happened there was genuinely appealing. But in The Outer Worlds, most backstory and lore boils down to “corporations are bad”. It’s rarely more interesting than that. Realistically, outside of the few major hubs most of the map is barren. The setting pales in comparison to the Fallout series.

Despite my review being mostly negative, I don’t genuinely hate The Outer Worlds. It is a perfectly functional Western RPG. It runs well, looks good, has RPG elements, has dialogue decisions, and it has not-terrible combat. The reason I am coming off as mostly negative is that the general consensus on this game on release was overwhelmingly positive. I think this is due to two primary reasons.

First and foremost, people are looking for a new Western RPG series. Since Bethesda and BioWare have absolutely annihilated any trust that they once had with their recent releases, people are looking for a new developer to compete with those behemoths. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, The Outer Worlds seems fantastic during the first few hours with the game. But as you continue playing you realize its flaws. Reviewers nowadays are focused on getting out their thoughts before anyone else so they can generate more clicks and subsequently more ad revenue. This leads to a lot of reviews being little more than a “first impressions” style, which would play well into The Outer Worlds strengths.

Overall, The Outer Worlds is adequate. There is very little that is special about the game. It doesn’t do anything particularly well, but it doesn’t do anything particularly poorly either. It feels like the designers were incredibly risk averse when creating this game. It ultimately culminates in a bland and forgettable RPG. It is for these reasons that I am giving The Outer Worlds a 5.5/10. I hope The Outer Worlds serves as a solid base for a more ambitious sequel, because by itself it is the definition of mediocrity.

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales (2018)

Gwent is one of the best “game within a game” examples ever. In The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, the player can take a break from monster slaying to sit down and play the card game known as Gwent. I probably spent more time in taverns playing this addicting minigame than I spent actually adventuring. I was elated to hear that there was a fully-fledged roleplaying game that utilized Gwent as its main mechanic. Yet my actual experience with Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales was more of a rollercoaster than the fun revisit to Gwent that I was expecting.

My first moment of confusion was during the tutorial, when I realized that this version of Gwent was monumentally different than what I played in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt. In the original version of Gwent, each game would have three rounds, and the player to win two rounds won the match. The interesting facet was that you only had ten cards for the entirety of the match. You may win a round, but if you played too many cards doing it, you were in a poor position to win the match. It was interesting as the players had to come up with powerful combos that only required a few cards, or use cards that allowed them to gain tempo on their opponent. You had to know which round to intentionally lose and how to bait your opponent to playing their good cards too early. It was a game of strategy and momentum.

The Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales version of Gwent is substantially different for the most part. Most battles do not even retain the standard 3-round format. The majority of matches in this game are single round affairs, which to me is missing such a crucial aspect of the original game. When the game is only a single round, it just becomes an arms race of who can play the most powerful cards and combos. Previously, you had to play your powerful cards at optimal times such that you wouldn’t waste them on an already won round, now it doesn’t matter.

Truthfully, the original version of Gwent had its own fair share of balance problems, but I would’ve liked to see the design team work on fixing those problems rather than just changing the entire format. The three round battles do still exist, but they aren’t plentiful. Eventually, the new version of Gwent did grow on me, but it was incredibly off-putting the first time I played Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales. The original version needed changes to rebalance it and keep it fresh, but it didn’t need an entire overhaul.

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales follows the story of Queen Meve and her campaign against Nilfgaardian invaders. This war precedes the events in the mainline trilogy of The Witcher. You play as Queen Meve, the ruler of Lyria and Rivia, during an invasion of her homeland. The warrior queen is conspired against and forced from her throne, and the game follows her adventure to rebuild her army and retake her kingdoms. In typical fashion of the series, there is an abundance of decisions to make, often with no obvious answer. The game plays as a top-down point-and-click adventure game, and the battles are represented by the card game Gwent. As you travel across the various areas you will have to make many moral and strategic decisions regarding your army and subjects.

The presentation of the game is top notch. The artwork, voice acting, story, and interactions with the various characters in the game was the absolute highpoint of the experience. The story itself was fairly intriguing, but the characters and decision making carried the game. You meet various important figures throughout the game who you can recruit to advise Queen Meve and join her army. But every decision has potential for backfiring completely. You may want to recruit an elf who was being attacked by humans, but maybe that elf is a spy and will betray you and sabotage your army.

Each decision not only has ramifications not only in the story, but in regards to your army as well. Recruiting new characters lets you use their special card during battles. But be careful, as a bad decision may lead to you losing resources like gold or soldiers. The universe of The Witcher is a tumultuous one, there are many factions vying for power. Subterfuge is a common tactic to weaken opposing forces. Be aware that whoever you decide to recruit and rely on may at some point betray you.

As previously mentioned, the core “action” in the game is represented through the card game Gwent. You can modify your army by swapping out cards and building a deck that fits your needs. To craft or upgrade cards, you gather three resources as you explore: gold, recruits, and wood. You use these resources to supply the war machine, which of course is represented by your deck of cards. The deck building aspect of the game is pretty fun, as cards have various effects that you can find synergy between. There are many different strategies that can be played around with. You can make a deck that spams the board with tons of cards, or focus on just powering up a few specific cards, or you can use cards that deal damage to your opponent’s cards. There are a lot of different options to try out, and the game is not shy about introducing new sets of cards to experiment with.

Despite feeling a bit frustrated at the differences between the original Gwent and this new version, the card game variation of Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales eventually did grow on me. The cards in this game are much more complex than its predecessor. Each card has a unique effect, which you can often chain together for some synergistic combos. Finding out which cards worked well together was a lot of fun. Perhaps the most interesting encounters were the frequent “puzzle battles”. In these battles the player is given a preset hand and a special objective. Usually there would be a specific order of operations in how to play the hand to complete the battle. These were nice detours from all of the standard Gwent encounters, as those could grow repetitive very quickly.

Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales is a fairly long game; it takes about 30-35 hours to complete. For the amount of content in the game, that is too long. Gwent can be a lot of fun, and I was invested in the story and characters, yet I was burnt out entirely by the time I reached the end of the game. I think the problem stems from the fact that once you build a sufficiently powerful deck, you can just steamroll every single encounter the same exact way. By the second or third chapter in the game I had created a deck that easily dealt with nearly every battle, and I didn’t really have to think much outside of the more unique puzzle battles. This led to many of the encounters feeling very same-y and repetitive. This was exacerbated by the fact that the 4th and 5th chapters of the game are filled to the brim with repetitive battles that have absolutely no impact or relationship to the story.

The repetitive nature of the game could have been at least somewhat avoided if the game encouraged the player to craft multiple decks or to at least switch it up from time to time. While you do unlock plenty of cards during a playthrough, you still need to use resources to craft them. This disincentivizes the player from trying out new decks unless they absolutely need to. If you have a deck that works well, there’s no need to waste resources that you may need later. The odd thing is that the game forces the player to switch up their deck in the transition from chapter one to chapter 2, then never does this again. I understand not wanting to force players to stop using decks that they may enjoy using, but they could have at least encouraged rebuilding your deck from time to time.

My last complaint with the game may be a petty one, but I absolutely despise the design of the final boss. I played on the highest difficulty available, and for the most part the game was never too challenging. But the final boss was an absolutely insane difficulty spike that felt blatantly unfair. He has multiple abilities that are individually so overpowered that just having one would be plenty challenging.

His first ability makes it so any card that you destroy will automatically be replaced by a card in his deck, so it becomes detrimental to destroy any of his cards. His next ability allows one of his cards to get a 10-point strength boost every turn, which is a fairly large amount. For reference, one of Queen Meve’s possible abilities boosts a card by only 4 points, and it has a 4-turn cooldown. Finally, he has numerous cards that are so absurd they feel like a joke. One in particular allows him to draw 3 extra cards and also boosts every one of his cards by 2 points. In a game where you can’t draw cards outside of special circumstance, having a card that allows you to draw just one extra card would be valuable, let alone three extras and a power boost to go along with in.

I pretty much steamrolled the entirety of Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales up until this final encounter. In fact, this was initially an unwinnable encounter for me. My deck was tailored to do damage and destroy enemy cards. Yet this tactic is literally unusable against the final boss, since destroying his cards just causes another to spawn in its place. I had to scrap my entire deck and rebuild it from scratch specifically designed to beat this one encounter. Even then it took me numerous tries to finally be successful. It just is not a fair fight under any circumstance.

Overall, my experience with Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales was all over the place. I initially was not happy with the changes to the key formula of Gwent. It eventually grew on me and I had a lot of fun for a few chapters. The worldbuilding, art, story, decision making, and characters were all top-notch. Then the prolonged ending and absolutely aggravating final boss left a poor taste in my mouth. It is for these reasons that I give Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales a 6.5/10. This is a game that could have benefitted from cutting out a bunch of superfluous content and focused on just the key battles instead.

Super Mario 64 (1996)

Super Mario 64 is one of the most influential games of all time. It may not technically be the first 3D game created, but it certainly began the trend that would dominate the industry for decades. Nearly twenty-five years later, does this cornerstone of gaming history still hold up? The short answer: somewhat. There are certain aspects of Super Mario 64 that I wish its successors adopted, but there are bound to be some age-related issues. As gaming has progressed through the years, we have become accustomed to certain trends.

One more modern trend that I glad Super Mario 64 was not subject to was on overly lengthy tutorial. The absolute worst part of any game is the painful amount of time spent reading text on how to play and trying to decipher all of the games intricate systems. I prefer a more natural learning curve, let the player figure it out on their own. Super Mario 64 does just that, it provides a couple paragraph textbox that tells you what each button does, then it lets you jump right into the game. The exterior of Peach’s Castle serves as a playground for the player to become accustomed to running and jumping around in 3D space, something that was probably very new to anybody playing this game on release. This lack of handholding is also wonderful for players who are already familiar with the control scheme, as it lets you jump right into the game without going through a lengthy tutorial.

The premise of Super Mario 64 is the same of any other Super Mario game: run and jump around some obstacles to beat levels, and eventually face off with Bowser to save Princess Peach. What made Super Mario 64 so revolutionary was that it was in 3D, which is a technology that not many games had utilized previously. Not only was the game in 3D, but it made major strides to make movement in a 3-dimensional space feel fluid, natural, and fun. Compared to its contemporaries, Super Mario 64 was extraordinary when it came to just controlling the main character. The development team spent a ton of time fine-tuning Mario’s speed, momentum, weight, and mobility options. The end result is that just the act of running and jumping around is fun, rather than the cumbersome nightmare that many other games from the early 3D era are.

The hub of Super Mario 64 is one of the most memorable in all of gaming. Peach’s Castle contains portraits which the player can jump into to access the individual worlds. There are plenty of secrets scattered throughout the castle for the player to uncover. Each world contains seven levels, each rewarding a star. As you collect more stars, you can access more parts of the castle. Levels can be a variety of challenges, ranging from straightforward platforming gauntlets to boss battles to collecting 100 coins. My favorite feature in Super Mario 64 that is absent in its successors is that you can collect the stars in whatever order that you like. Once you enter a world, all the stars are available to be discovered. It’s up to the player to figure out where each star is and how to reach it.

Most of my issues with Super Mario 64 are a result of the game’s age. While the controls were revolutionary at the time, they can be a bit tricky to get used to compared to more modern 3D platformers. Mario is a bit slippery, and his momentum can often get you into trouble. One thing that I never figured out was simply turning around. Sometimes, when turning around Mario will just instantly face in the direction you point, which feels natural. Other times, he does a weird 180-degree rotation that often got me killed. When I’m facing a ledge and want to turn around, the last thing I want to happen is for Mario to move forward and then right to complete his turnaround. Lastly, the slopes in this game are absolutely brutal. If you do as much as come into contact with a slope, be prepared to start slipping and sliding away for what feels like an eternity.

Some other issues I assume are due to technical limitations. Every world has a star in which the player must hunt down and collect 100 coins. The problem is that regular coins have an awful draw distance, meaning you can’t see them if you are more than a few meters away. It can be frustrating to find coins when you can’t even see them unless you are close enough. As an early 3D game, Super Mario 64 is a bit ugly truthfully. Some of the game’s worlds and obstacles lack character. There are lots of big grey rectangular concrete platforms. Many areas just seem contrived, like they were solely made to be platforms to be jumped on rather than a coherent world. I appreciate the more natural environments of this game’s successors.

By far and away the largest issue with Super Mario 64 was its camera. While having camera that the player can rotate in 3D space was absolutely brilliant at the time, the technology was obviously in its infancy. I grew infinitely frustrated with how the camera would often get stuck in unsatisfactory angles, or it would refuse to rotate when I needed it to. Many jumps became orders of magnitude more difficult simply because the camera was in an awful position. Again, it’s hard to fault the game too much as this was brand new technology. Nevertheless, people who have never played this game before will inevitably struggle with the camera.

Truthfully, I never played Super Mario 64 in its heyday. In fact, the game is a few days older than I am. By the time I played Super Mario 64, all of its groundbreaking design ideas just became standard throughout the industry. In all honesty, Super Mario 64 is probably the least enjoyable 3D Super Mario game for me to play. The wonky camera, occasionally slippery controls, and a few boring environments made it so I was often wishing to play the game’s successors instead. Yet as I revisited the series as a whole, I found myself appreciating Super Mario 64.

The fact that each world was an unchanging arena in which the player could discover stars in any order is something that I found myself longing for in the other Super Mario titles. The sense of discovery and exploration was something that wasn’t matched until Super Mario Odyssey. Not to mention that Peach’s Castle is a magnificent hub, which seems to be a relic in the series now. Only Super Mario Sunshine had a comparable hub to hangout in. I vastly prefer the open-ended mission structure in Super Mario 64 over the more railroaded linear levels in Super Mario Galaxy. The game just feels like a genuine adventure. You visit themed worlds and explore them to collect stars and save Princess Peach. There is no fluff, there is no filler, it’s just pure fun.

Overall, if you grew up with Super Mario 64 it is definitely worth a revisit for nostalgia’s sake. Even if you’ve never played it, I do recommend giving it a shot just to experience it. Super Mario 64 may be outshone by more modern games on a technical level, but there is a level of care and effort put into the game that is difficult to describe. It’s obvious why this game was so revolutionary, and many modern games could learn a thing or two from Super Mario 64.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020)

I’m just going to come right out and say it: I don’t like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I know, I’m a soulless heathen who hates joy. I almost find it hard to understand how this became one of Nintendo’s highest selling games of all time. I could see a niche appeal for the Animal Crossing franchise, but to me this game was a never-ending cascade of boring and tedious tasks. I can totally understand it being a relaxing escape for many people, and I think the perfect storm of circumstances allowed Animal Crossing: New Horizons to rise to the top of the sales charts.

Animal Crossing games are what are known as life sims. You play as a villager in a town full of wacky animal characters, interacting with them and completing various tasks. Things like chopping wood, fishing, catching bugs, picking up weeds, and decorating with furniture that you collect. It’s not a question that Animal Crossing: New Horizons massively expanded upon the series, adding many new features that I’m sure will become the standard for the franchise.

In previous Animal Crossing titles, the player would move to already existing town, full of buildings and residents. Animal Crossing: New Horizons takes the sim aspect to the extreme, as it places the player on a deserted island with nothing but a tent and a couple of villagers. You take advantage of the resources available by chopping trees and mining rocks. Eventually, you will be able to get some serious infrastructure going. Houses for villagers, a town shop, a museum, a community center, bridges, paths, and a myriad of furniture to decorate your town. You get to place every component, eventually you can even terraform the landscape to fully tailor your island to your liking.

This extreme level of customization is further expanded upon by the new mechanic introduced in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, crafting. This brilliant addition allows players to create furniture as long as they have the know-how and the materials. In previous games, if you wanted a piece of furniture you would need to pray that it would show up in the shop so you could buy it. Being able to craft furniture on the spot is such a massive improvement from the previous formula as it gives you a goal to work towards if you want to make some specific item.

Another new idea is the implementation of “Nook Miles”. These serve as a point system in which you can earn points by completing tasks. Most of the time, these tasks are already things that you are going to be doing anyway like talking to villagers, chopping trees, catching fish, etc. With these points, you can purchase unique items, cloths, or recipes from a terminal. You can even acquire a travel ticket that lets you briefly visit a randomly generated island from which you can gather resources or recruit a new villager.

Probably the most important addition to the series is online play. In Animal Crossing: New Horizons, you can visit your friends’ islands and show off you own. It can be a bit cumbersome to visit a friend, but being able to hangout with your friends is definitely a welcome feature. You can even access their shop and see what items are up for sale. Seeing how other people decorated their island, and taking inspiration to work on your own is the perfect addition to the series.   

Ultimately, Animal Crossing: New Horizons serves as a relaxing way to kill time. There’s no threat, end goal, or rush to do anything. The game actually encourages you to only play a little bit at a time. It gives you daily tasks like talking to your villagers or simply logging on every day. Moreover, many things that happen in the game take real time to come to fruition. Buildings take days to be completed, fruit only grow every few days, fish and bug species are exclusive to certain months and time of day. It’s not meant to be a game that you sit down and grind away at for hours at a time until you “beat” it. There really is no goal. You make of it whatever you want.

Despite all of this, I became mind-numbingly bored of this game long before I could accomplish much of anything. I always “complete” a game before reviewing it, but in a never-ending game like this I at least try to experience most of the content. But for Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I gave up after a couple dozen hour spread across a few weeks. I initially was enticed to come back every day by the carrot-on-a-stick that the game waves in front of the player. Come back tomorrow and the museum will be built, the day after that your house will be complete, the day after that a new part of the island opens, the day after that a new villager arrives, etc. This combined with the tempting daily tasks were a clever trick to get players to become invested in the game, but nevertheless I didn’t keep playing for long.

The problem is this: the game is just boring. Every single mechanic in the game is tedium, rather than being engaging gameplay. Walking up to a tree and bonking it three times is simply not enjoyable. Catching fish and bugs is a little better as they require an aspect of timing, but I still wouldn’t classify those activities as fun. The game is a life sim, so interacting with the villagers should be a crucial part of the game, but to me they felt more like decorations than actual residents on your island. They repeat the same dialogue over and over, walking around the island in circles. I just don’t get it. What exactly is there to actually do in this game? And this is coming from a guy who absolutely adores the hiking and pathfinding of Death Stranding.

I suppose the main appeal of the game is to decorate your island however you want. At first, I spent a considerable amount of time just crafting decorations and arranging them how I wanted. I would get a brief moment of satisfaction before realizing that the tiny section of the island I just decorated took me hours of grinding materials just to adorn how I wanted. At that point, I realized that Animal Crossing: New Horizons wasn’t worth my time. Perhaps I just didn’t connect with the game’s core concepts, but I also feel like the problems don’t stop there.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a quality of life and user experience nightmare. There is an overabundance of repetitive and useless textboxes that you can’t skip. Want to donate a creature to the museum? Thirty seconds of the same exact dialogue every time. Want to sell some items? Dialogue. Want to fly to an island? Get ready to click through a minute of text. It doesn’t seem like much, but this time adds up fast. The inventory is pitifully small, and you are going to need to make frequent trips to the shop or storage to clear it out. You can’t craft things in bulk, so if you want to make ten copies of a certain item, be prepared to sit there for 5 minutes mashing the A button. Moreover, tools break fairly often for some bizarre reason. I can’t surmise a game design reason for this inconvenience, it seems like this happens just to frustrate the player and waste their time.

It seems like this might be the perfect family game, if everyone could make their own island and visit each other it would be an amazing experience for any group of people sharing a console. Yet it seems out of sheer greed the designers made it so there could only be one island per console. If you want another island you have to go buy another $300 Nintendo Switch. Well okay, at least every one can share that one island, right? Nope. Only the player who made it can actively make changes or do anything of value. Any other player is merely a spectator. These decisions are nothing but anti-consumer tactics. What could have been a game that entire families can enjoy together will instead lead to arguments over who gets to make the island.

 Perhaps it is out of the scope of a standard review, but I want to touch on why I believe this game rapidly became one of the best-selling games of all time. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released on March 20th, 2020, at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. People were stuck inside, with a lot of time to kill, a lot of stress, and not much human contact. As it turns out, you can easily sink tons of hours into this game, it’s very relaxing and stress free, and it allows you to visit your friend’s islands and hang out. The pandemic created an environment in which Animal Crossing could appeal to the locked down populace. The game would have been successful regardless seeing as it was a long-awaited title that improved upon a popular franchise. But I wonder if the pandemic did play a major role in launching the game’s widespread popularity and made it such a viral sensation.

Overall, I came the conclusion that the Animal Crossing series is just not for me. I prefer games with more concrete goals, or at least some sort of objective. Stardew Valley has a similar vibe to Animal Crossing, yet it does a far better job at having an engaging gameplay loop. Everything in Animal Crossing: New Horizons felt monotonous and anything worthwhile just took too long. It is for these reasons that I give Animal Crossing: New Horizons a 5/10. It obviously clicked better for many others, but to me it was just a boring time sink absent of any payoff. I can see it having a niche appeal for people who just want a relaxing game where you don’t have to worry about anything.

Link’s Awakening (2019)

Remakes are always tough to review, considering that they can be approached in many different manners. Some remakes are a complete reimagining of the original, others try to fix glaring issues, and some are just a modernization. Link’s Awakening fits into the final category. A few quality of life changes, an updated art style, and a couple new features bring the 1991 Gameboy game into the modern era. The question is: did they do enough? There are some aspects of the game that are too faithful to a nearly 30-year old handheld title that was heavily limited by its hardware.

The remake of this classic title may be a tad too faithful to its origins. To be fair there were some much needed improvements, but I’d say the game is a slightly modernized clone of the original. The biggest, and most important change, was an update to how the inventory works. In the original game, Link could only equip two items at a time, including his sword and shield. Since you virtually always needed your sword equipped, you constantly had to swap around the second slot depending on which item you needed. This was a giant inconvenience that has been mostly eliminated in this remake.

In the new Link’s Awakening the sword, shield, Power Bracelet, and Pegasus Boots are all permanently equipped once you obtain them. There is much less swapping around items and fiddling around in menus. Still, there could have been more “default” items mapped to buttons. Roc’s Feather for instance was one of my most used items, meaning it had to take up an item slot of most of the game. While the new permanently equipped items are an improvement, it could’ve been taken a step further.

Other than the way items are handled, the only other major change to the game was its visuals. The new art style is a bit odd, and I’m not a huge fan of it. While it does look alright, it makes everything look like a doll or a toy. To me, The Legend of Zelda games embody adventure, and playing as a shiny plastic toy just does not match the vibe of an epic quest. One other thing that was added to the new version of the game was Dampe’s shack. This feature lets the player build their own dungeons using pre-built rooms. It’s not really worth even talking about this feature, as it’s so restrictive and useless that it may as well not exist.

As far as The Legend of Zelda games go, Link’s Awakening is one of the more bizarre entries. There are classic Super Mario enemies like Goombas, there are rarely seen The Legend of Zelda items like Roc’s Feather, and there are plenty of self-aware jokes. It is somewhat jarring to have a The Legend of Zelda game make jokes that reference the fact that is a game. There is an explanation for these strange occurrences, but Link’s Awakening has a distinctly surreal vibe. Link’s Awakening is filled with meta humor, which definitely makes it one of the more unique The Legend of Zelda games.

The most appealing aspect of Link’s Awakening to me was how dense the world is. The map itself is actually pretty tiny, it only takes a couple of minutes to traverse from one end to the other. Despite this, it was designed in such a way that the world has plenty of distinct zones and areas that are jam packed with things to discover. Whenever I acquired a new item, the first thing I would do is search around the map for where I might be able to utilize it to uncover any secrets. Every screen has something hiding in it, and Link’s Awakening does a great job at encouraging the player to keep exploring.

The reason why the game does such a great job at prompting exploration is because it lacksany semblance of handholding. There is a helpful owl who may give the player the idea of where they need to go, but figuring out how to get there is a whole other beast. It really is up to the player to scour the map for any sign of how to progress. For the most part, I enjoyed being left to discover things for myself. That being said, there can be cryptic sections of the game that seem like a relic of the past. The infamous trading quest to acquire the boomerang is one of the best examples of this. You repeatedly trade one item for another in a lengthy sequence, not knowing who wants your current item. It amounts to having to wander around and talk to a bunch of NPCs, praying that they will trade for whatever item you currently have.

Plenty of enemies are designed in a similar manner, in that they require a specific method to defeat them and you must keep guessing until you figure that method out. The worst example of this was the Armos Knight boss. I spent a good chunk of time hitting this boss with all my different items and attacks to figure out how to damage it. As it turns out, you need to hit the boss at a very specific time, in a very specific spot, with a very specific attack. I usually try not to complain about isolated incidents, but this example it felt like something was very wrong. There was really no indication at all of the required timing, weak point, and required weapon.  

An important aspect of almost any The Legend of Zelda game are its dungeons. The dungeon design of Link’s Awakening is pretty basic, which was disappointing to me. None of them were particularly bad or frustrating, just boring. The only dungeon that stood out was the Eagle’s Tower, as that had an interesting theme and central puzzle idea. Every other dungeon just reused the same basic formula of hitting switches and gathering keys. Moreover, the boss design was fairly forgettable as well. This is potentially because the bosses were tremendously easy to defeat.

Overall, I think Link’s Awakening suffers from being a nearly 30-year old Gameboy game. A shocking revelation, I know. But I am somewhat disappointed that the developers did not really take the opportunity to modernize Link’s Awakening. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a fun game, but you can definitely tell that is a relic from a bygone era. It is for these reasons that I give Link’s Awakening a 7/10. A respectable piece of The Legend of Zelda history, but it’s not going to impress anybody in the modern day.   

ibb & obb (2013)

True coop games are hard to come by. Many titles shoehorn in a coop experience, but rarely are games obviously and intentionally designed around having multiple players. ibb & obb is a game that must be played with two players, meaning that everything in the game was designed with that in mind. I thought I was going to play a simple and cutesy puzzle-platformer with my friend, and ibb & obb certainly started out that way.

In ibb & obb you play as two little blobs, unsurprisingly named ibb and obb. These little guys are pretty unremarkable, the only thing they can do is jump. Each level has a mix of platforming and puzzle challenges blocking the way forward. Some levels make use of new mechanics that change the landscape of the stage. You and your partner must assist and cooperate with each other, one player cannot simple carry the other. There are certain obstacles that require ibb, others that require obb. Moreover, both players need to complete the aforementioned challenges before moving on. Meaning one player completing a trick series of jumps is simply not enough.

The puzzles of ibb & obb generally utilize some augmentation of gravity. Whether it be reversed gravity, or using bouncy pads to store momentum and bounce higher, you are going to have to get used to a variety of new gimmicks that change the way the game plays. Most of these mechanics are welcome additions, as they can add fun little twists to the more traditional platforming puzzles. The game starts remarkably relaxed, there are few enemies, the jumps are forgiving, and the puzzles are simple. But as you progress through this short adventure, the levels build on each other and become increasingly difficult.

My friend and I began the game with the intention of finding all of the collectibles. Since the game was easy enough, we wanted to challenge ourselves by hunting down the shiny little orbs in every level. We quickly gave up on that goal once the levels started to become sadistic. Just beating each stage became challenging enough. What started as a chill and relaxing platformer suddenly became brutally difficult. The puzzles often required finnicky jumps and obtuse maneuvers. Many times, we would ask ourselves if what were doing was even the intended solution because it was so precise and time-consuming to pull off. But the more aggravating part of ibb & obb was when the platforming sections began to ramp up in difficulty.

A key aspect of the game is that when one player dies, you both die. You both need to pull off a platforming challenge simultaneously. This transforms any moderately difficult obstacle into something far more insidious. Using basic probability, let’s say there is a section that you can conquer one in every five attempts. When both partners need to complete that section in the same attempt, now you only have a one in twenty-five chance of success. You become significantly more unlikely to succeed when both players are required to complete the challenge on the same attempt.

This is an issue that is ingrained in the way the game was designed. The whole game is built around the fact that if one player dies, both players die. You rely on each other, so this mechanic cannot be simply stripped away without fundamentally changing the game. If I were to suggest a fix, it would be to keep the level design on the easier side. Difficulty quickly compounds when both players need to succeed at the same time. I think ibb & obb would have served better as a relaxing adventure through and through. Instead, it lures you with some calm and simple stages, then proceeds to ramp up the difficulty exponentially. 

Overall, I’m not sure that I can fully recommend ibb & obb. I enjoy the aesthetic of the game, and can definitely get behind a coop puzzle-platformer. I thoroughly enjoyed the beginning of the game, but my friend and I grew frustrated with it quickly. By the time our journey came to an end, we were more than ready to move on, never looking back to collect whatever secrets lay hidden in each stage. Even as a fan of difficult games, I think having to rely on both players to succeed at the same time is a recipe for irritation. We had some fun moments with the ibb & obb, but ultimately it does not join the short list of “great coop experiences”.