Far Cry 4 (2014)

Every once in a while, I get an overwhelming urge to play a big open-world game. There is a sense of freedom that these games encourage: you can go anywhere and do anything. I saw Far Cry 4 sitting in my Steam library from some sale long ago, and I remembered playing Far Cry 3 back in high school and loving it. I decided to give Far Cry 4 a go, and I was promptly reminded why I am not a huge fan of Ubisoft’s brand of open-world games. They lack soul.

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In Far Cry 4 you play as Ajay, an American on a journey to spread his mother’s ashes in her home country of Kyrat. This fictional country resides in the Himalayas, and is wrought with corruption, civil war, and strife. Ajay lands himself in the middle of a struggle between the Golden Path, a rebel group looking to overthrow the government, and Pagan Min, a ruthless dictator who uses his Royal Army to crush all opposition.

What stands out about any of Ubisoft’s games are their enormous open-worlds. Kyrat is vast, beautiful, and dense. As you travel through Kyrat, there are literally hundreds of activities to partake in. Some are quests, some are random encounters, some are collectibles, and some are tasks to gain control of Kyrat. As a first-person shooter intending to allow the player for a myriad of combat options, Far Cry 4 does a few things correctly. The game does not take itself too seriously, and it allows the player to feel like a powerful super-soldier. While this is at a disconnect from the story of being an average American with no combat experience, it does allow for quite a bit of fun as wreak havoc through the luscious countryside of Kyrat.

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One of my favorite aspects of Far Cry 4 was that it has a knack for organically creating memorable moments in combat. Many first-person shooters fall into the pattern of hiding behind cover and taking out a couple of enemies when you pop your head up. Far Cry 4 is filled with bombastic and over-the-top scenes, and they don’t rely on pre-determined set pieces. Raining grenades on an enemy convoy from your gyrocopter, watching as single rhino annihilates an encampment, or riding on the back of an elephant to crash the gates of a general’s fortress, this game can spontaneously create some outrageous moments.

Despite the flashes of fun, I found Far Cry 4 got dull and repetitive quick. One of the causes of this is that the world is too dense, but many of the tasks are just repeats. There are hundreds of collectibles, but they are never interesting to find. There are tons of side-quests, but really there are only a few different types that end up being replicated over and over again. Wild animals and random encounters with enemies are frequent as you travel across Kyrat, constantly impeding you as you try to just go from point A to point B. You can make the argument that the player can simply ignore the side content if they aren’t interested in it, but that’s the whole purpose of an open-world game. When I play an open-world game, I want to experience the world and complete interesting quests, not do the same racing mini-game or free-the-hostages side quest over and over again. Outside of the main story, there are no characters or stories to be told. Just repetitive content to fill a giant world.

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Moreover, you cannot simply ignore the side-content. You begin the game with a pitiful inventory size, so you need to hunt animals for their pelts. The game constantly bombards the player with random enemy encounters, so you need defeat outposts and fortresses to be able to safely across the map. The map itself is completely shrouded until you climb each radio tower to unveil a small portion. These activities can all be reasonably fun, but doing them twenty times each just kills enjoyment that could have been had. Sure, you could ignore it all, but it’s such a large chunk of the game’s content and feels almost necessary by design.

Despite being such a large world with opportunities for biodiversity, each area in the game feels identical to the last. It’s a hilly region with a lot of trees, and sometimes a river. That’s it. That is every area in the game. Even the landmarks and marked areas on the map are completely uninteresting. There may be caves, small buildings, or farms that are marked by the game to be explored, but there is genuinely nothing of substance here. Maybe there are some treasure chests with money, but I was swimming with cash despite never looking for it.

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The world has no life to it. There are no interesting characters or storylines to be discovered. Everything in the game seems to be designed as a task to be checked off on big list. Go here, do this monotonous side quest, hunt 2 rhino, take down 100 propaganda posters. It’s content for the sake of being content. No soul, care, or interesting ideas found their way into this game. The only unique and intriguing areas in the game were reserved for the main story missions. But the actual explorable open world is just barren.

Possibly the biggest sin that Far Cry 4 commits is how derivative it is. It has been eight years since I played Far Cry 3, yet I was hit with a wave of déjà vu as I played Far Cry 4. It’s the exact same structure. An inexperienced American gets dropped into a conflict in a lush country. There is some psychopathic villain who seems somewhat empathetic towards you. You climb radio towers to unveil the map, you hunt the local fauna, you take over enemy settlements, you do some mundane sidequests, and you help a rebel group with questionable leadership take over the country. It every way, Far Cry 4 just feels like Far Cry 3 in a slightly different country. If you’ve played Far Cry 3, or almost any Ubisoft game for that matter, you’ve already experienced what Far Cry 4 has to offer.

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Overall, I grew bored of Far Cry 4 remarkably quickly. After a couple of hours, you could legitimately experience almost everything the game has to offer. It’s forgettable, unoriginal, and dull. There are some fun moments to be had, but they are fleeting and buried under layers of monotony. Blowing stuff up with a grenade launcher can only take the game so far. Far Cry 4 is the video game equivalent of Wonder Bread; while it is not outright bad or offensive, there is nothing remarkable about it, it’s just boring.

Metro 2033 (2010)

I didn’t know what to expect when I booted up Metro 2033. I had a vague idea of what the game was about, but I was excited to try a cult classic. After playing Metro 2033, I can see why it has a niche appeal. The best way I can describe it is that the game is an unpolished gem. It has a rough exterior: a handful of bugs, some mechanical missteps, and a lack of polish. But with a little refinement, this could have been a truly phenomenal game. It harbors an engaging atmosphere, tense environment, and an immersive gameplay loop.

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You play as a young man living under Moscow after a nuclear war. The metro stations under the city have become one of the last bastions of civilization. Each station serves as a community, and the tunnels connecting them are the lifeblood of the few remaining people on the planet. People have separated into different factions and humanity has descended into tribalism. The radiation has caused new life to evolve, and these new monstrous beings are threatening the few communities that are left. The main character is tasked with traveling through the metro to inform one of the main factions that the threat of monsters is rapidly escalating, and something must be done.

Metro 2033 is both a survival horror game and a first-person shooter. The game has a heavy emphasis on limited resources. Gas mask filters, ammunition, and med-kits are the primary tools that you are going to need to survive. Mask filters in particular are critical: if you spend time in an irradiated area you need to have a working gas mask. You cannot purchase extra filters outside of the first station in the game, so you are obligated to scrounge and scavenge to survive. This is when the game is at its best. Creeping through dark and claustrophobic environments, not knowing what awaits around the corner builds tension and anxiety. There is a desire to move quickly, as to not waste precious air on your current filter. But you also want to be vigilant to collect any ammo and filters that may be lying around.

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The feeling of tension permeates Metro 2033. You want to be stealthy and avoid enemies as to not waste ammo and med-kits. But go too slow and you may run out of filters. There is a brilliant dynamic at play. The seesaw between preserving filters and preserving other resources is rarely balanced, and depending on your current state in the game you may favor one thing far more than the other. During the starting sections of the game I took my time, avoiding enemies like the plague as to not waste precious ammo. As the game progressed, I accrued a small arsenal of ammunition but I was running out of working mask filters. I started to move more quickly, making use of my scavenged ammo to dispatch foes rather than avoid them.

One of the best aspects of Metro 2033 is its immersive nature. The HUD is fairly minimalistic, and only appears when it needs to. The setting, despite being a bit sci-fi, feels grounded in reality. The subways beneath Moscow were genuinely designed to act as shelters during the Cold War. The fact that factions have sprouted and are vying for control of the metro feels realistic and prompts me to wonder more about the game’s world. The scarcity of mask filters, the importance of ammunition, and a few other mechanics also immersed me in the gameplay. Instead of having a menu to display objectives and important information, the character keeps a journal that keeps all of those details. Light also plays an important role in the game. While you have a flashlight at your disposal, it must be kept charged. If you don’t have an opportunity to recharge it then you can always rely on the lighter to illuminate a small area. Metro 2033 is just filled with these minor details, but combined they equate to a genuinely immersive experience.

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I loved the atmosphere and world of Metro 2033, but I wanted way more of it. As you travel through the metro you rarely spend more than a brief moment at each station. There is very little to explore or interact with at these hubs of human activity. I wish I could converse with some of the NPCs at these locations to get a deeper understanding of the game’s world. I would’ve loved to learn the ideology and genesis of each station’s community. Yet instead they act as fleeting seconds of respite between the dingy and claustrophobic tunnels between them.

Despite this game having some great ideas, they are buried underneath some frustrating technical issues. One particularly insidious bug was one that would stop text and dialogue from displaying, or cut it off short. While it was annoying to miss flavorful conversations because of this glitch, it was far more irritating when it led to me missing critical information. There were four instances that the game never displayed info that it was supposed to. It never showed how to charge the flashlight, it didn’t have text to prompt the player to use the lighter to burn cobwebs, and it never displayed the information on gas mask filters and how to change them. After a quick google search all of these things were supposed to be in the game, but just never initiated for me for whatever reason. Interestingly I played the game on the ‘Redux’ version, which is supposed to be a remaster. I’m not sure if this version causes this bug, or if it was something present in the original.

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This same glitch led to my most aggravated moment while playing. In one part of the game, a character is supposed to tell you information on a new enemy type and how to deal with them. This new monster apparently can be avoided by staring them down, after a few seconds they will back away. However, if you look away or shoot at this enemy, they will immediately go on a rampage. I never got this important bit of info. The conversation never triggered. So, I fought these enemies as I would any other enemy. But these foes have enormous health pools and kill the player in a single hit. I would legitimately empty hundreds of rounds of precious ammo to no avail. After brute forcing my way through this section, I found out how it was supposed to be played. It was disappointing because I actually now think that these were an interesting enemy. They build anxiety and tension as you stare them down. But my experience was marred by a bug in the game.

My final issue with the Metro 2033 is that the game occasionally drifts away from its strengths. Most of the game can be played as a stealthy scavenger, but there are moments that just devolved into standard FPS gameplay. Metro 2033 is at its best when it is tense, gritty, and anxiety inducing. But it turns into a generic FPS when having to partake in extended firefights. Luckily this didn’t happen too often, but there were enough examples of this that I have to talk about it. The game’s actual FPS mechanics are passable, but they certainly aren’t its strength.

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Metro 2033 is a lovable mess. Sure, it has plenty of technical issues, an unfinished world, and a few mediocre sections. But it also fosters some genuinely immersive gameplay and world design. The game attempts to make the player feel like they actually are the main character. It’s odd how such minor and seemingly important things can make a game feel so much more genuine. The diary, lighter, mask filters, minimalistic HUD, and flashlight all seem like they are just minor things but they are critical to making Metro 2033 feel immersive and realistic. Despite the game being a bit messy in its execution, I did enjoy my time with Metro 2033 and I am excited to play its sequels.

Baba is You (2019)

It is a rare occasion in which I get to play a truly innovative game. Games that push the boundaries of a unique concept can be difficult to come by. That is why I was excited to try the acclaimed puzzle game Baba is You. This indie game presents an elegant idea: rules are meant to be broken. This is a game about rules, and how you can manipulate them to reach your goal.

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Like many puzzle games, the premise of Baba is You is to get to the goal. The genius of the game is that the rules are ever changing. Each level is a square grid, and each rule is simply laid out for the player. It starts innocuous enough; the first level begins with rules such as “flag is win”, “Baba is you”, and “wall is stop”. You are a little white creature called Baba, you must make your win to the flag to win, and any wall in your way will stop you. What makes this game special is that the player can manipulate the rules as each word is movable. For example, you can push the word “wall” to break up the sentence “wall is stop”. Now that rule no longer exists, and you can freely walk through walls. Moreover, you can use whatever words are given to you to form new rules. In the previous example, you could use the given words to make “wall is win” to change the win condition of the level.

The idea behind Baba is You is absolutely phenomenal. In every game that I have played, rules are concrete. Through tutorials, text, or simple trial and error the player must deduce the mechanics of the game and how everything interacts. In Baba is You, every level has its own ruleset laid out in plain sight. It’s up to the player to manipulate those rules to their advantage. Breaking up sentences to invalidate troublesome barriers, or forming new rules that could prove useful. As the game progresses, new words begin appearing that could drastically change how levels need to be approached. Part of the beauty of the game is that despite the ever-changing rules, the win condition always remains the same: whatever object is “you” needs to be touching whatever is “win”. This inevitable end-state of any puzzle is a helpful starting point to begin thinking about how you can achieve victory.

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The most critical aspect to any puzzle game is its level design. Challenges must be creative and fully utilize the games mechanics, while at the same time having relatively simple solutions that are not obtuse. If you’ve played many puzzle games, I’m sure that you’ve run into a roadblock and after finally stumbling into the solution you say “how the hell was I supposed to figure that out”. Designers must avoid this feeling while simultaneously crafting puzzles that force you to think. Baba is You has fantastic level design. Most solutions are simple to execute and don’t require some obscure mechanic. The designs are ingenious in that most levels require some trick or tactic that any other level hadn’t utilized yet, but remain simple and seem obvious once you discover the solution.

Moreover, Baba is You utilizes its unique premise to challenge preconceived notions. Most gamers are going to have internal habits that are going to be broken. You are going to make false assumptions about how to beat a level, and the developer was fully aware of that. Many of the levels have this uncanny quality to exploit the player’s desire to immediately attempt an obvious solution. It baits you into using an object the same way that you’ve used it so many times before, but that assumption will only lead you away from the goal. Many times, you feel so close to solving a puzzle, but in reality, you are so far off from the correct solution.

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Additionally, for a game that is all about breaking rules Baba is You is remarkably good at stopping unintentional or “cheese” solutions from working. Again, it felt like the developer thought of every way a person could attempt to solve a level and prevented everything but the intended solution from working. The final note on level design that I want to touch on is the ability for each level to foster an “aha!” moment. It’s a great feeling when you figure out some trick that you hadn’t thought of before that makes the puzzle a breeze. Baba is You excels at creating those sensations when a level finally clicks.

One of the most important aspects to Baba is You is how relatively easy it is to get into. Some of my favorite puzzle games are notoriously unapproachable. Stephen’s Sausage Roll and SHENZHEN I/O are both confusing and cumbersome for new players, and as a result many people don’t give the games a fair chance. Baba is You is comparably simple to pick up and play. The game starts with extremely easy levels for the player to grasp the basics. Moreover, while there are over 200 individual levels, you only need to complete a few dozen to beat the game. You can pick and choose which levels you want to do, so if you get stuck on one particularly troublesome puzzle, you can skip it entirely and try something else.

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Despite Baba is You being easy to pick up, it can be an extremely challenging game. While the beginning sections of the game are there to ease new players in, there is plenty of optional content that will test even the most veteran puzzler. The final few sections of the game in particular are insane. These parts are entirely optional, but they utilize a rapidly expanding ruleset and rely on meta solutions. How you complete one puzzle may affect another puzzle, and how to get to the next puzzle is dependent on how you completed a previous puzzle. I don’t want explain too much, as it may ruin the surprise for people who do want to experience these sections. It suffices to say that Baba is You truly maximizes the potential of its concept and it boasts plenty of difficult content.

My single point of contention with Baba is You comes from the moments where a level truly stumps the player. Baba is You relies on players to experiment with the rules on their own, nothing is explained outright. It is up to the player to figure out how each rule and object interacts. For the most part, this is a good thing. It respects the player’s intelligence and rewards creative use of rule manipulation. It also fosters those “aha” moments I spoke of before. The problem arises in that it can be a common occurrence where a puzzle completely stumps the player.

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The issue is that nearly every single level in the game relies on some trick to complete it. Once you figure out the trick, the level seems elegant and simple. But if you haven’t figured it out then the puzzle is quite literally impossible. In other puzzle games, there is usually a series of moves or steps to get to the goal; you can make intermittent progress towards the finish as you figure out each individual step. Baba is You on the other hand relies on grand revelations and “aha” moments, so it may so happen that you stare at a puzzle for an hour and have made no progress. While these moments are frustrating, I do have to commend the game for providing a way to avoid this. As previously mentioned, you don’t have to complete every puzzle to beat the game. If one is stumping you, you can avoid it entirely. While I did end up 100% completing every puzzle in the game, any moment of frustration was self-inflicted because the game provides the option to circumvent any particularly tricky levels.

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Something about Baba is You clicked for me in a way no other puzzle game has. It has a truly remarkable premise and incredibly designed logic-based puzzles. In a way, it reminds me of the enjoyable side of programming. Logically stringing together rules and statements to solve some problem is inherently satisfying to me. It is for these reasons that I give Baba is You a 10/10. I highly recommend this game for anybody who enjoys puzzles as it may be the best puzzle game ever made.

Feudal Alloy (2019)

I’ve discussed a decent amount of indie metroidvanias since starting this website. It’s not surprising considering how many of these kinds of games are made. It stands to reason that new games in this niche must do something special to stand out, or risk being forgotten in an oversaturated market. Feudal Alloy looked promising to me, it had an interesting concept and setting, and I had hoped that it would do enough to at least be a decent metroidvania. Unfortunately, this game feels unfinished in every regard. Every aspect of the game could use polishing, and some components are missing entirely.

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The idea behind Feudal Alloy is undoubtedly intriguing: you play as Attu, a fish-controlled robot in a medieval world. Attu was a resident of a farming town that produces oil for all of the robots, but a dastardly group of bandit robots ransacked the village and stole all of the resources. With sword in hand, Attu sets off on a quest to reclaim what was stolen. As a metroidvania you must progress through a sprawling world, collecting upgrades that allow you to progress further and further. Without a doubt, the best aspect of Feudal Alloy is its art style. The hand drawn characters and environments are appropriately detailed and are imaginative. It pains me to say that the positive aspects of Feudal Alloy end there.

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Like most metroidvanias, as you roam the tunnels and rooms of the expansive map, you will run into enemies. The combat is pretty standard, you can swing your sword to damage foes, and you must avoid damage by jumping or moving out of the way. You eventually unlock some additional techniques such as dashing, the ability to throw bombs, blocking, and unleashing electrical discharges to stun enemies. The game at least has a thematic stamina system, as you use Attu’s various abilities he will begin to overheat. If Attu reaches his heat limit, he will no longer be able to attack or dash, and will need to cool off before continuing. It functions as most stamina systems, but it was a nice touch that it thematically fit the game.

The combat is all pretty typical, there is not much here that stands out from any other game. If anything, it can fill a bit stiff and unreliable at times. The hitboxes of Attu and enemies feel a little inconsistent. While it’s not frustratingly bad, the game is definitely lacking the buttery-smoothness of one if its peers: Hollow Knight. The aerial combat in particular is pretty clunky. Jumping above enemies and slashing them from above does not bounce Attu high enough, so you end up just falling straight into the enemy and taking damage. The biggest disappointment in the combat department is its lack of bosses. There are only two bosses in the entire game. Instead, there are an abundance of challenge rooms which bombard the player with wave after wave of normal enemies. These kinds of rooms are fine once in a while, but they felt like filler for where a unique boss should have been. It definitely seems like there were supposed to be more bosses, but the developers just put these challenge rooms in their place to save time.

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As a metroidvania, exploration is a key aspect of Feudal Alloy. The player must figure out where to go, and what new paths can be traversed when an upgrade is found. Similar to the combat, Feudal Alloy follows a pretty standard exploration formula but with some flaws. The environments are pretty similar looking, and landmarks are essentially non-existent. It can be difficult to remember any important locations and how to get there since everything just blends together visually. Moreover, some parts of the map just don’t make geometric sense. It’s hard to explain, but when looking at the map, rooms just don’t line up with where the doors physically are. For example, the map will show a door on the left side of the room, but in reality, the door is on the floor. These inconsistencies can make navigation difficult.

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The other big problem that I had with the exploration was the lack of proper secrets. Sure, there are a ton of hidden paths and secrets to find, but not a single one of them is rewarding in the slightest. Most of them contain a stash of money, but money is virtually worthless. The only other prize you could find is a new piece of gear to equip, but that rarely felt helpful. You can buy health potions and coolant to restore stamina with the money you find, but these are extremely cheap and I never worried about running out of money. You could also buy new equipment, but the realistically there was little reason to ever do so.

New gear in Feudal Alloy feels relatively useless. There are five stats: damage, armor, cooling speed, overheat temperature, and health. Armor and health are essentially the same as they both increase how much damage you can take. Similarly, cooling speed and overheat temperature also are functionally comparable. You can’t even tell what your stats are really doing. There’s no way to tell how much damage your dealing or taking, so it’s hard to judge how much a stat increase is doing for you. Moreover, finding or buying new gear rarely feels rewarding. All it does is slightly swap around which stats it gives you. One chest piece may give you one less damage tick, but one more health tick. I didn’t feel like there was meaningful equipment parity or choice since everything was so similar.

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My final gripe about the game was how it underutilized its story and setting. The couple sentences that I wrote to describe the basis of the story is all that there is in the game. I’m not exaggerating when I say there is a short blurb at the beginning of the game explaining the story, and that’s the extent of the narrative in the game. There are no additional characters, lore, side quests, or even a narrative arc that progresses through the game. Bandits stole the oil and Attu is trying to get it back. That’s it. It’s really disappointing because the setting is actually fairly interesting. I want to know more about the fish-controlled robots, but there is just no worldbuilding of any sort.

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Overall, Feudal Alloy isn’t a particularly bad game, it’s just not finished. The combat needs fine tuning and there needs to be more bosses. Exploration needs to feel more rewarding, and one way to accomplish that would be to make gear more unique. The environments need to be more distinct so that navigation is more natural. And there needs to be some sort of story, worldbuilding, and lore to utilize the unique setting of the game. It is for these reasons that I give Feudal Alloy a 4/10. This is a game that feels like it is still in the alpha stages of development, as nearly every aspect feels unfinished and unpolished.

 

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX (2020)

As a kid, Pokémon was undoubtedly my favorite franchise. I played through all of the games dozens of times, I watched the TV show, I had trading cards and toys, I loved everything Pokémon. When Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team came out in 2005, I happily played it despite it being a spin-off with little resemblance to the main games. This rogue-lite dungeon crawler with a Pokémon skin remained a fond memory of mine, so when it was announced it was getting a remake in 2020, I was ecstatic to revisit it. The main concern I had for the game was whether its gameplay would still be enjoyable so many years later. Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

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What I wasn’t worried about was the game’s sense of charm. I bought the game during my final semester of college, with many projects and final exams looming, and in the height of the COVID-19 lock-down. It suffices to say that I was looking for a relaxing and wholesome game during these stressful times. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX has charm in spades. The premise of the game is that you play as a Pokémon, teaming up with some Poké-pals to rescue others who are in trouble. You form a rescue team in a small village, undertaking missions to help others and raise your reputation. The music, visuals, and the wholesome nature of the game does an excellent job at establishing the comforting environment that I was looking for.

The main issue that I had with Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is not really the game’s fault. It’s a remake of a 2005 game, and as such it must emulate the core mechanics of the original. The thing is, the gameplay of the original game was an outdated formula back when it was released fifteen years ago. In 2020, a dungeon crawler of this nature is outdone by its peers. In Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX, you enter randomly generated dungeons, exploring each floor, and progressing deeper and deeper until you reach your goal. There are items to pick up, adversarial Pokémon to battle, helpless inhabitants to rescue, and even a few bosses to fight. The game is played on a square grid, and is turn based. When you move a space forward, so do all of the other Pokémon that happen to be in the dungeon.

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When an opposing Pokémon gets in your way, you can take it down with whatever moves that you and your party have at your disposal. There is a small chance that defeating an enemy will inspire them to join your cause. As a dungeon crawler, you proceed floor by floor, searching for the next staircase to progress. Inventory management plays a crucial role as you must keep an ample supply of food, healing items, and other trinkets that may assist on your journey. The problem with all of this is that the game is completely brainless. You can completely zone out, just walk through the dungeon searching for the next floor, and whenever you encounter an enemy you just pick the best move to dispatch of them as soon as possible. There is very little strategy, planning, skill, or nuance of any sort.

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I understand that the Pokémon series is meant to be accessible by everyone, including little kids. But there is a difference between an easy game and a repetitive grind. Unfortunately, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is the latter. Every mission plays out the exact same way, and there is very little the player can do to spice things up. You can switch party members out, but for all of the story missions you need to keep two out of your three party slots as the main characters. It doesn’t allow for a lot of freedom when team-building. Moreover, there is not a great sense of progression either. You cannot even evolve until the post-game, so it doesn’t feel like there is a concrete goal to work towards. After a couple of ventures into a dungeon, I started to feel the tedium of the game set in.

The one exception to the repetitive and overly simple aspect of the game is the post-game content, which there is plenty of. The dungeons and quests after you complete the main story are slightly more challenging, and actually encourage building specific teams to take on certain dungeons and bosses. There is at least some element of strategic planning here. But it comes too little too late, as I was tired of the game’s repetitive formula by the time I had completed the main story.

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On the bright side, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is at least a faithful remake of the original game. Other than a few minor changes, this game replicates the original experience, as a remake should. The new painterly art style is phenomenal, it exudes a warm feeling, perfect for the cozy atmosphere of the game. Another change was that the IQ system was reworked into a simpler system in which each Pokémon has a “rare quality” that has some significant effect on the party as a whole. I think this was a positive change, as I remember the IQ system being fairly confusing, but that could just because I played the original game when I was a little kid.

The final new change is that the player can now recruit more Pokémon in each dungeon if they are fortunate enough. You can still only bring three members into each dungeon, but now you can have a party of up to size eight if you were to recruit five additional Pokémon while traversing the dungeon. In the original game you could only recruit one additional Pokémon per dungeon, so this definitely makes collecting new allies a simpler affair. The downside here is that having too many allies can trivialize dungeons and boss fights. It’s already an easy game, and it only becomes easier when you have twice the party members that you were originally intended to have. Instead of allowing you to have eight members in a party, I wish you could simply recruit new Pokémon without them being a member of the party immediately. This would keep the benefit of being able to recruit new team members beyond the one additional Pokémon per dungeon, but also avoid trivializing the entire game.

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Overall, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is a victim of its origins. It’s a fine remake, but the game that it remade just doesn’t hold up very well. The game is cute, charming, and wholesome, but it’s impossible to ignore the outdated gameplay. A niche audience may still enjoy the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games, but I found the game to be incredibly tedious and repetitive. It is for these reasons I give Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX a 5/10. Sometimes it’s better to let nostalgic games remain a fond memory.

Astral Chain (2019)

I have never been particularly good at action games which rely on combo-heavy gameplay. While I may enjoy them to an extent, I usually fall back on bread and butter combos, never utilizing the full potential of the games. When I first learned of Astral Chain, I was excited at the prospect of an action game that deemphasized combos, and instead was geared towards positioning and strategic use of combat options. Astral Chain is unique in that you are essentially controlling two characters at once: the main character and their metallic companion. This concept had a lot of promise, and I was excited for an action game that I could really master. Unfortunately, my time with the Astral Chain did not pan out so well, and I was ultimately disappointed by the game’s shortcomings.

The idea behind Astral Chain is that you play as a futuristic police officer in a decaying world. The world is being corrupted by some extradimensional being, and you are assigned to a special task force to defend the last city on Earth from the spreading corruption. You are equipped with a captured entity from the other dimension, chained and tamed so that you can utilize its abilities against its own brethren. You control both the main character and this being, called a legion. By holding down on one of the gamepad triggers, you can move the legion and use any abilities related to it. If you are not holding the trigger, you are controlling the main character, and the legion will attack the nearest enemy automatically. Most of the time you can simply let the legion do its own thing while only you focus on piloting the main character.

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What drew me into Astral Chain was how strategic the combat seemed at a glance. There are five separate legions that you will acquire throughout the course of the game. Each has a panoply of special abilities, and as such some are better suited for certain enemy archetypes. On top of this the actual chain connecting the player and the legion is a physical entity that has consequences on the battlefield. You can use it as a trip wire to stop charging foes, or you can use it tie up and immobilize enemies, or you can use it to have the human dash to the legion or vice versa. All of this is great, there are tons of ways to mix up combat and come up with your own style. Utilizing all of the legion’s abilities, using the chain itself, and positioning the legion and main character simultaneously makes for a hectic but fun combat system. There’s no need to memorize long strings of button inputs to pull off a combo, instead you improvise your own methods of operating the legion.

While I love that the combat is unique and lets players develop their own styles, it also has quite a few issues. The most glaring and common issue in the combat is the camera. It can often be difficult to tell what is going on due to the fact that it can be finicky to position the camera well. This is exacerbated by the fact that for some reason many of the arenas are extremely cramped. Moreover, there are big, flashy animations that obscure what is happening.

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One of the more bizarre problems with the combat was how the dodge functioned. In most games, dodging provides the player with invincibility frames, so you could dodge through attacks if timed properly. Astral Chain functions similarly, except there is a noticeable lack of invincibility frames. This is fine for the quicker attacks, since the player still can properly avoid them with well-timed dodges. But for longer, lingering attacks such as spinning slashes or shockwaves, the dodge is not sufficient. You could dodge the attack, but get hit by a lingering hitbox and take damage regardless of how well you timed your dodge. I think the idea behind this was to force the player to focus on properly spacing and moving far away from enemies when they use these kinds of attacks, but many times combat is so chaotic you cannot possibly tell if they are going to do a spinning attack or regular slash.

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Astral Chain isn’t a particularly long game, there are around a dozen “chapters” to complete. This is fine, except for the fact that the first couple chapters of the game are essentially elongated tutorials. One of the most crucial mechanics in the game, sync attacking, is not even unlocked until the third chapter. Spending such a significant portion of a game in tutorial-town is something that I always abhor in games. I somewhat understand it, since Astral Chain has a ton of buttons and intricacies. However, the first chapters are extremely boring and a poor introduction to the game. The combat in these beginning sections is just mashing the attack button and dodging when appropriate. The legion gets very little use. Considering the legion is such a crucial aspect of the game, I would have like for these chapters to have introduced the core mechanics of the legion earlier on.

The action portion of Astral Chain is certainly unique and it can be a blast, but it is held back by some of the nagging issues I mentioned. Unfortunately, the rest of the game is far less redeemable. The setting itself is interesting, and the art style is sharp and vibrant. Other than that, I found the non-action parts of Astral Chain to be painful. The voice acting was somewhat stiff, but perhaps that was because the script was so poor. The main character doesn’t talk at all, and their twin is an unlikeable jerk throughout the course of the game. The dialogue just doesn’t feel natural in the slightest. This isn’t helped by the fact that the story itself was a big anime trope. That would be ok if the elaborate and crazy narrative ideas actually made sense. The villains are so poorly explained that their motives and ultimate goals remain a mystery even after beating the game.

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The strongest part of Astral Chain is undeniably its combat. It’s strange then that the game puts so many roadblocks between combat encounters. A ludicrous amount of time is spent wandering around environments doing random tasks before you can actually get to the fun parts. The game often transports the player to the “astral plane” which is a different dimension in which most of the combat takes place. Unfortunately, between encounters the player is often left to explore, do light puzzle solving, or do the dreaded platforming sections. It feels like the developers had an idea in mind to put downtime between action sequences, but put zero effort into actually making the downtime anything but a chore.

The astral plane is so dull to look at, so exploring it grows tiresome quickly. The “puzzles” in the game generally consist of moving a block from point A to a highlighted point B. There are no obstructions are anything that could constitute an actual puzzle. And the platforming is downright frustrating. Your character cannot jump, and you must rely on dashing to the legion to make it across gaps. But where exactly your character will land is not obvious, so sometimes you just don’t dash far enough despite your legion being on a platform. Moreover, you can get stuck on the tiniest pieces of environment geometry and will instantly fall.

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Outside of the astral plane, there are plenty of other time-wasting tasks to get in the way of fun. The stealth sections are absolutely unnecessary and unrefined for instance. Most of the game’s side quests are poorly tuned mini-games. Moving stacks of boxes using motion controls, chasing down petty criminals, and shooting balloons are ultimately not engaging tasks. The biggest culprit of being an underdeveloped time-sink are the investigations. At the beginning of each chapter, you generally must run around a crime scene to gather clues about some mysterious occurrence. Of course, there is no actual logic or deduction here. It’s just talking to various characters who give you highlighted clues, and then at the end you take a quiz by matching the clues to some questions. Maybe I was disappointed because I had just played the masterful deduction game Return of the Obra Dinn, but the investigations felt like they were slapped on during the end of development rather than being a fully fleshed out feature.

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Overall, I did not enjoy my time with Astral Chain. It’s a game that I think spread itself too thin with many different ideas rather than focus on refining one or two. If the platforming, puzzling, stealth, exploration, and side quests were dropped entirely I think the game would be better off for it. Moreover, if time hadn’t been spent making these underdeveloped features, maybe more time could have been spent to refine the core aspects of the game. The combat was fun, but it definitely could’ve been fine tuned. The investigations needed a lot of work to be turned into a decent feature. If the game had been centered around combat and investigations, I think it could’ve been a more succinct experience rather than the mess that it is. It is for these reasons that I am giving Astral Chain a 4/10. There are much better action games out there, as this game is a muddled and unfocused collection of ideas.

 

Return of the Obra Dinn (2018)

Puzzles come in all sorts of forms. There are plenty of variations of brain teasers: sudoku, crosswords, mazes, logic puzzles, Sokoban, cryptic puzzles, and mechanical puzzles. Return of the Obra Dinn is unique in its core premise in that it that it does not clearly fit into any of these typical categories. It is a game of deductive reasoning. The player must use snapshots in time to determine facts about characters and their fates. Obvious hints are rarely given to you, and often times you must use logical reasoning to solve the scenarios in front of you. I have truly never played a game similar to Return of the Obra Dinn, and I hope to play more games like it in the future.

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The premise of the game is that you are an investigator tasked with examining the mysterious and abandoned vessel: the Obra Dinn. All sixty crew members and passengers have vanished, yet the ship returned from its voyage all the same. Equipped with a magical stopwatch, it is your job to determine the fate of each of the ship’s inhabitants. You are given a group picture with all the passengers, and a separate document of their names, jobs, and nationalities. The goal is to match the faces to the names, as well as what happened to them. If they are dead, you must additionally deduce how they died and who killed them.

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Each body you discover on the ship whirs the stopwatch into motion and a snapshot of the moment that person died is revealed to you. The player is tasked with using the exact moment of a character’s death to determine clues about that character, as well as any others who may happen to be present. Brief bouts of dialogue and audio are played in the moments leading up to the still frame, which often contain vital information to each scene. The magic of the game is how cleverly information is hidden. As previously mentioned, you need 3 pieces of information to solve a character’s fate: matching the name to the face, how they died, and who killed them. You may easily deduce one of these facts from the scene of a character’s death, but it takes logic and observational skills to figure out the rest.

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Some clues are simple and should be obvious to most people. In the first few scenes in the game the captain’s fate will be made abundantly clear. Other characters will require you to use process of elimination, or make logical conclusions based off of environmental clues. You can use a character’s garb or accent to narrow down who they could possibly be. Any given snapshot contains tons of information, much of that information pertaining to the characters in the background. It is the player’s job to notice the details and piece together all of the scenes to paint a coherent picture. It is hard to explain the game in a way that gives its premise justice since I don’t want to spoil any of its surprises. If you like watching murder mysteries and guessing who the killer is, this game its right up your alley.

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To match the unique gameplay, Return of the Obra Dinn uses a seldom seen visual style in video games: dithering. The game is completely in black and white, and it works well in the context of the game. If the game had a more detailed art style and used colors, the player could easily determine which characters are in a given scene by matching their visage to their appearance in the journal. The art style gives the game a distinct look while also being an integral function. Moreover, the visuals harken back to much older PC games, giving Return of the Obra Dinn a vintage vibe. It certainly could have been a PC game from the 90s, but it’s a wonderful game all the same.

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One of the most brilliant aspects of Return of the Obra Dinn is how it validates your deductions. There are sixty characters who you need to determine the fate of, and as such there needed to be some method to confirm given character’s fates as you play. Having to wait until you filled out all sixty characters would be a nightmare, as you would need to get all sixty correct at the same time to beat the game. And you would have no idea which fates were correct or incorrect until hours into the game. The opposite is also a problem: if each fate were individually validated, it would be all to easy just to guess each character by plugging in different combinations of fates. Instead, fates are validated in threes. This means that if you fill out three fates completely correctly, the game will let you know and lock in those fates as correct. This prevents being able to easily guess fates, and also gives you periodic chances to find out whether your deductions are correct or not.

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Even with the safeguard of having to get three fates correct, I still feel like the validation system is too abusable. There are a few different ways to use this system to guess fates about characters. While it is completely up to the player if they want to abuse the system to get freebies by guessing, I still consider it a flaw in the design of the game. It’s so easy to exploit the system, and as a result it’s extremely tempting to do so. When you get stuck on a certain character, the option to just guess is always there at the back of your mind, tempting you. It’s a shame if you do wind up cheesing the system and guessing a few characters, as there really are ample hints spread out through the game. And it’s not like you can just replay the game the correct way afterwards, since you know all of the answers. Do not ruin the game for yourself, play it the right way; do not guess. The only way to prevent this type of exploit would be to add some sort of timer on each character after modifying what you think their fate was. I think thirty seconds to a minute would be plenty of downtime that would deter people from brute force guessing through all of the options as it would take far too much time to do so.

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My only other problem with Return of the Obra Dinn is that the game is a little bloated with time wasters. Its not a particularly long game, and that’s fine. But between each fragment in time there is a minute or two of downtime where the game plays an animation leading you to the next body. Obviously, it makes sense to show the player where to go next, but the animation is unnecessarily drawn out. Moreover, if you ever want to replay a scene (which you are going to be doing a lot of), you are going to have to find the body associated with the scene and spin up the watch. I wish you could just click on the desired scene in the notebook to watch it. I spent a lot of time fumbling around trying to find the right bodies to replay scenes. Its not a big deal, but when I’m trying to solve a mystery, I don’t want to have to spend a few minutes searching the ship every time I want to examine something again.

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Overall, Return of the Obra Dinn is a phenomenal game with a unique premise. I rarely play through games quickly. It takes me a while to click with a game and sink my teeth into it. Perhaps the highest praise I could give this game is that I played through the entire game in a single day. The addicting feeling of discovering clues, piecing together tidbits of information, logically deducing whodunnit cases, and solving fates culminated in a game that I could just not put down. It is for these reasons that I give Return of the Obra Dinn a 9.5/10. I wish that there were similar games out there, but this is truly a novel experience. For now, I will excitedly wait a few months for when I have forgotten all of the fates and can replay the game.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 (2019)

As a kid, I grew up playing what would become the Gamecube classics. Metroid Prime, Super Smash Bros Melee, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Super Mario Sunshine, and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door were all staples for young me. One game among these landmark series that seems to be forgotten Luigi’s Mansion. This spooky spinoff centered around Luigi had masterful atmosphere and a unique approach to gameplay that set it apart. Unfortunately, the series seemed to be a one-hit-wonder as a mediocre sequel wouldn’t be released until 12 years later on a handheld console. To the surprise of many, Luigi’s Mansion 3 was announced in 2018 as a revival to the series, and it was released a year later in 2019. The question was: would it match the quality of the original Luigi’s Mansion as a proper sequel, or would it be another failed attempt?

The premise of Luigi’s Mansion 3 is that Luigi and pals get invited to stay at a luxurious hotel. As it turns out, this was an elaborate trap by King Boo to capture Luigi as vengeance for all of his ghost-catching antics. The player must travel up the hotel, floor by floor, in order to rescue Luigi’s companions. Of course, Luigi has access to the Poltergust G-00, a vacuum equipped to suck up any ghosts that you happen to come across. To make your way up the hotel, you must acquire elevator buttons which give access to the higher floors. To get these buttons, the player must thoroughly explore each floor, solving puzzles, battling hordes of spectral ghouls, and ultimately defeating a boss ghost.

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To assist Luigi in his ghostbusting endeavor is an improved Poltergust, which has a few new features. As usual, Luigi must stun ghosts by blinding with his flashlight, then he must suck them up using his vacuum. What’s new however, is that Luigi can now slam ghosts caught in the vacuum’s grasp. This addition is natural and feels absolutely phenomenal when battling ghosts. Rather than just slowly draining away at ghost’s health, the slam ability gives the player much more control to deal damage. You can also slam enemies into each other, making for a great crowd-control tool to deal with large groups of ghosts. Another new tool is the plunger, which sticks onto surfaces and allows Luigi to pull on it using the Poltergust. This has limited use in combat, but it is frequently used when exploring rooms and solving puzzles. The plunger synergizes fantastically with the slam ability, as you can slam things that you stick with the plunger. These two additions feel perfect in the environment of Luigi’s Mansion.

The new addition that stands out the most is Gooigi. The Poltergust wields the power to create a Luigi clone out of mysterious goo. Gooigi is a tremendous addition to the game as it enhances puzzles, combat, exploration, and even enables coop play. Gooigi can sink through grates, push himself through bars, or travel through pipes, but dissolves upon touching water. Many instances of the game require clever use of Gooigi to make it through a room that regular old Luigi could not normally traverse. While you can only control one of Luigi or Gooigi at a time, you can use them in unison to tackle obstacles that require the power of two vacuums. While I really enjoyed the addition of Gooigi as well as the plunger and slam, the last new feature felt underutilized: the dark light. It shines a UV light instead of a normal flashlight, and this can reveal hidden things. This feature was alright as it rewarded observant players who noticed when something in a room was missing, but in reality, it was all too easy to just shine the dark light on every surface to see if there were any invisible goodies.

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The bulk of gameplay in Luigi’s Mansion 3 is two things: combat and exploration. As previously mentioned, combat generally consists of stunning ghosts, sucking them up, and repeatedly slamming them until their health is depleted. Its decently fun, but it’s too easy for the majority of the game. The slam move makes Luigi an all-powerful ghost terminator, once you get a single enemy in your grasp, it becomes tremendously simple to clear out the whole room just by slamming ghosts into each other. This isn’t helped by the fact that there is pitiful enemy variety in the game. There are only four main types of basic enemies that you will be frequently fighting. While it was satisfying to wreck these fodder foes, the real enjoyment in combat came through the boss fights. Each floor houses a unique boss which are a lot trickier to defeat than their basic counterparts. The bosses are puzzle-like encounters as the player must deduce how to damage them. Surprisingly, the bosses actually become moderately difficult as you progress through the game. While the basic ghosts are too simple to be engaging, the bosses were a ton of fun.

The other half of gameplay in Luigi’s Mansion 3 is exploration. Running around in each room and sucking up every perceivable object is key to the Luigi’s Mansion 3 experience. The environment is jam-packed with hundreds of objects and destructible pieces of furniture that fly around the room as you clean out the room. The player is rewarded with money as a reward for diligently vacuuming everything in sight. Its strangely addicting to just clean out an entire room and watch as dollar bills and gold coins go flying as you slam desks and chairs and tables into pieces. The visceral satisfaction of turning chaos into order by sucking up debris is paired with the fulfilling sound of collecting coins. There are secrets and puzzles hidden that only an observant player could spot. People who are paying attention will be greeted with fat stacks of cash or collectible gems. As someone who likes to search every nook and cranny, I appreciate the effort to make the game dense with collectibles.

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With all of the time spent just examining each room for details and secrets, it’s a blessing that Luigi’s Mansion 3 looks so good. The Nintendo Switch is not a powerhouse console by any stretch of the imagination, but Luigi’s Mansion 3 is in the running for the best-looking game on the Switch. Even with flurries of items flying about the room, the framerate never dips and visual fidelity is kept constant. Proper lighting and shading are integral in representing in dark and dangerous hotel. The details on even the most minute objects is superb. Luigi is animated with supreme fluidity as he shivers and tip-toes past his supernatural foes.  Moreover, each floor in Luigi’s Mansion 3 fits some sort of overarching theme. Some themes make sense in the context of the hotel, such as a shopping floor, a floor filled guest suites, or the basement filled with plumbing. Others feel like portals to different dimensions, like visiting and Egyptian tomb or a pirate ship. Nevertheless, the variety in environments keeps the game from ever feeling too repetitive.

One of my key complaints with Luigi’s Mansion 3 is even though the game is ripe with opportunities to uncover secrets, it often feels pointless to do so. The player is showered with coins for doing anything and everything. While there are six gems per floor to find, that is essentially the extent of exploration. Money feels virtually worthless because you get so much of it, and there is basically nothing to spend it on. There literally three things that can be purchased with in game money: extra lives, boo trackers, and gem trackers. Extra lives are nice for beginner players, but I suspect the game is already pretty easy for most players, so they won’t need extra lives. The boo trackers are worthless as boos can easily be found since the controller rumbles when one is nearby. The only worthwhile purchase is the gem tracker, which I admit is a great feature. It shows the player the room that a random gem is hidden in, without disclosing its exact location. This is great as it lets the player track down the last few gems that they are missing without sacrificing the experience of actually finding and uncovering the gem. Ultimately, even with me purchasing a decent amount of gem trackers, I still had a ridiculous surplus of cash.

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I often found myself wondering why I was cleaning out rooms and searching for secrets. That immediate satisfaction of collecting stacks of cash or gold bars was often followed by the question of purpose. There has to be some sort of goal that the player can work toward, not just some nebulous number increasing by the thousands. Giving upgrades to the player’s health or vacuuming capabilities could have been an interesting money sink. Even purely cosmetic options such as alternative costumes for Luigi or different colors for Gooigi could have served as an acceptable way to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the game rains upon you.

While Luigi’s Mansion 3 certainly has fluid animations, actually controlling Luigi is far less crisp. General movement is alright, Luigi is pretty slow and cannot jump. This is a solid contrast to the more acrobatic Mario. The main issue lies in how aiming the Poltergust works. Because the camera is at a fixed perspective, aiming feels inconsistent and awkward. This is not always a problem, since sucking things up with the vacuum has a large area of effect, so accuracy is not necessary. But in certain instances, you will be required to precisely aim the plunger, light, or vacuum. It can get moderately frustrating on some of the late bosses when you have a small window to attack, and you waste loads of time futzing with where your vacuum is pointing.

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My last gripe with Luigi’s Mansion 3 is a more subjective problem and it ultimately a matter of preference. When comparing this game to the original, its clear that there is a distinct deviation in design. The original Luigi’s Mansion was darker, grittier, and generally felt more unsettling. Sure, it was still a Nintendo game and as such had children as its primary audience, so it was not scary or horrifying. But as a kid I do remember being genuinely anxious about exploring the mansion, and I think this is due to a few things. First, the visual styles of the games are subtly different. The original game was darker and colors were muted. In Luigi’s Mansion 3, the game is brighter and colors are more vibrant, giving the game a more cartoonish look.

Moreover, the tone of the original game felt a bit more serious. Maybe I am misremembering, but it felt like the ghosts in that game were genuinely out to get you. In Luigi’s Mansion 3, the tone of the game is far more light-hearted and comedic. This makes the game more family friendly, especially as there is a coop mode, but it lacks that unsettling feeling that the original game embodied. This is also mirrored in the level and world design. The game is much more linear than the original, both in individual levels and throughout the entire map. Every floor plays out similarly: you arrive at the floor, traverse through some rooms, solve some puzzles, fight some ghosts, defeat the boss, and then move onto the next floor. Floors are rarely interconnected. The game felt like a series of individual levels rather than a sprawling labyrinth of hallways and rooms.

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Overall, Luigi’s Mansion 3 is a return to form, but with some hiccups. Having a full-fledged Luigi’s Mansion game on the Switch is a blessing, but it makes me nostalgic for the original. Perhaps I am just wearing rose-tinted glasses, but this game’s atmosphere and level design pale in comparison to the original game. Each room in Luigi’s Mansion 3 is brimming with objects to vacuum, furniture to destroy, and puzzles to be uncovered, this is all helped by the gorgeous visual design. Moreover, the combat in this game is the best in the series and the plethora of unique bosses highlight how fun it can be. It is for these reasons that I give Luigi’s Mansion 3 a 7/10. Despite its flaws, Luigi’s Mansion 3 satisfies a primitive urge to shift chaos into order by vacuuming up every object in sight.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses (2019)

The Fire Emblem series is one that is divisively split across different eras. The staunch difference between the “new” and the “old” is palpable. The newer games in the series have a much more pronounced emphasis on the characters and their relationships, as opposed to the older games which placed importance primarily on gameplay. The newer games in the series feel a lot more anime-ish than their ancestors. Fire Emblem: Three Houses makes strides to attempt to reconcile these separate styles, so that fans of both the new and the old will be satisfied.

The premise of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is that the player is a professor at a prestigious institution for nobles from three nations of the fictional land of Fódlan. The members of the institution separated into three houses according to their home nation, and the player must choose which house they would like to lead. This important choice will dictate which characters you will be using and how the story progresses. Of course, the land of Fódlan is not safe from strife, as eventually tension between the three nations erupt. The shift between playing at war and war itself is well delineated in the gameplay. Fire Emblem: Three Houses separates its core gameplay into two parts: the monastery and battles.

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The monastery houses the institution, and all of the corresponding activities. This parallels to the newer aspects of the series as the player teaches students, converses with various characters, completes side-quests, plays mini-games, and various other life simulation features. The battles are standard to the series, turn-based tactical bouts of war. The battles themselves seem to mirror the older games in the series with more interesting maps and objectives. By cleanly separating the game into its components, players could focus more one which aspect they enjoy more, and I appreciate the attempt to satisfy all fans of the series.

The presentation of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a bit all over the place. Character art is superb and the game is fully voice acted. The game is by far the most ambitious entry into the series. I’d wager that this is due to the move from an old handheld console to a new home console. This huge upgrade in hardware let the developers really increase the scope of the game. There are multiple routes, each with different characters, battles, interactions, and stories. Additionally, there is an entire explorable monastery, which is really more like a small town. It houses every character in the game who can be conversed with at any time. Despite all of these great things, it is impossible to ignore just how ugly the game is. The 3D visuals are incredibly out of date, it genuinely looks similar to Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance which was released back in 2005. I rarely harp on graphics, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses is just so jarringly unpleasant to look at.

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One of the core aspects of the Fire Emblem series is its emphasis on resource management. The two primary management facets make a return: weapons have limited uses until they break and you want to dole out experience to appropriate members of your army. In Fire Emblem: Three Houses there are some additional resources that correspond with being a professor to inexperienced recruits. Each unit in your house begins as a complete novice, and you can tailor them however you would like. Of course, each character has their own strengths and weaknesses that should be taken into account. Once a character has learned enough about their requisite class and is a high enough level, they can take an exam to promote to the next tier of classes. For example, one of my units had an affinity for lances and horseback riding, so that is what I trained him in. As he mastered those traits, he went from being a basic recruit, to a soldier, to a cavalier, and finally became a paladin.

I really enjoyed the beginning portion of the game as I took note of all of my units and their strengths. I planned out paths for them, figuring out what classes I would like them to be down the line. Moreover, time is extremely limited in the early game. You can only train a couple of units per session, so I had to carefully choose who needed training the most. Planning out my army from scratch was incredibly enjoyable. Trying to fill all of my needs in terms of units while also satisfying each character’s strengths was a fun management aspect.

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The switch to the Switch led the developers of Fire Emblem: Three Houses to make as expansive of a game as possible. I appreciate that the developers attempted to include as many features as possible. Alongside the explorable monastery, multiple routes, and personally teaching each unit, Fire Emblem: Three Houses also brings back a few key gameplay features. First and foremost are abilities. In the past few Fire Emblem games, units would be granted new abilities upon reaching certain thresholds within their classes. These class specific abilities are great because they further specialize units and differentiate classes.

In addition to abilities, combat arts make a return from Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Similar to abilities, combat arts are learned by units throughout the game but instead of inherent bonuses, combat arts are more powerful attacks that can be used at the cost of weapon durability. Some of these attacks do additional damage, while others have special traits like immobilizing enemies. Moreover, Fire Emblem: Three Houses introduces a whole new strategic option: battalions. Battalions can be equipped to units, granting them small bonuses in stats while also allowing them to use battalion specific gambits. These gambits were frequently low-accuracy but high-power attacks, often times hitting multiple enemies. While I found combat arts and gambits to have a more niche use than the ubiquitous abilities, I am glad that there are additional tactical options at the player’s disposal.

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While I do appreciate that Intelligent Systems attempted to incorporate more features to flesh out the experience, I felt as if the monastery and life simulation aspects were ultimately lacking. In the early game, time is valuable and choices are endless. I wanted to carefully plan how to spend my time to get the most out of it. Additionally, figuring out what class path I wanted each unit to take was an interesting puzzle. But once you decide what class you want each unit to be, there really is no engaging gameplay left in the monastery. Sure, you can reclass units and teach them other skills, but there is rarely a point to doing that. Once you invest significant time and experience into a certain skill, you aren’t going to stop using that skill to focus on another. Moreover, as you progress through the game, you gain “professor level” which allows you to spend more time at the monastery. This makes choices feel less important, as you have more than enough time to complete everything that you want to do.

A common comparison that I see is between Persona 5 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses, as both have significant downtime spent doing social simulation. I think Persona 5 was more successful in this department because time was extremely scarce in that game, you had to carefully plan your schedule where as you don’t have to do that in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Additionally, in Persona 5 any action you took had an immediate benefit, such as improving your relationship with a character or increasing one of your stats. In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, there is a layer of abstraction between an action and its benefit. When spending time with a character for example, you increase their “motivation”. The higher the motivation, the more time you can spend lecturing them. So, in order to increase a unit’s level in some skill, you need to spend time with them to motivate them, then spend more time to lecture them on the appropriate subject, and repeat that cycle numerous times to see any benefit. The disconnect between the action and the payoff makes the whole thing far less rewarding to engage in.

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Another issue I have with the monastery is just how barren and repetitive it gets. Outside of recruiting characters from other houses, there is nothing that feels worthwhile to engage in. Between every major battle the player is encouraged to explore the monastery: completing quests, talking to characters, doing mini-games, lecturing, so on and so forth. The problem is how shallow all of these tasks actually are.

All of the quests are incredibly blatant fetch quest padding, there is no substance here. Talking to characters can sometimes be interesting as they have different dialogue depending on where you are in the story, but most of the time its just filler one-liners. The mini-games such as fishing, tournaments, or gardening are all pretty boring and unimportant. The lecturing is fun in the beginning as you figure out what you want each character to focus on, but past that its just a matter of clicking on the character and their respective skill to put experience into it. The only worthwhile thing to do in the monastery is listening to support conversations between characters, but this is hardly a new feature and has existed in nearly every Fire Emblem game to date. Ultimately, the monastery is a pretty shallow time waster, and I feel like it significantly hurts the game.

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I would not be so offended by the monastery if it wasn’t such a gargantuan waste of time. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a very long game, especially by Fire Emblem standards. For me, it was about a sixty-hour game to complete a single path, which is two to three times longer than any other Fire Emblem game that I’ve played. There is the same amount of main story battles in this game as any of the other games in the series, so all of that extra time is spent futzing about in the monastery. There is an option to “skip” things like exploring the monastery or lecturing, but it just seems counterintuitive to what the series entails. Resource management is important, so outright skipping things like managing a character’s skill experience just feels wrong to me. Moreover, it is not optimal and is sure to make playthroughs more difficult than they really should be.

Its telling that when I began playing the game, I was excited to try all of the paths to experience all of their characters and unique stories, but by the end of the game I had no desire to attempt even a second playthrough. Not because the gameplay was bad, but it was just such an unnecessarily long experience that it began to drag. Furthermore, the first half of each path is exactly the same, except for the characters of the house you are leading. All of this just put me off playing the game a second time, even as a huge fan of the series who wanted to see how each route would play out.

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While I believe that the time spent in the monastery is by far and way the largest issue in the game, there are a few other problems that will nag at series veterans. Primarily that the game is far too easy. There are a few reasons for this, one of which being that the game only launched with three difficulties: easy, medium and hard. I usually play on the “lunatic” difficulty in Fire Emblem games, but that option was not added until a patch after release. I had to settle for hard, which was suspiciously simple, even for an experience player. This is partially due to the ability to rewind time, a returning feature from Fire Emblem: Shadow’s of Valentia.

Turn-based games involving some sort of luck factor always have the issue that sometimes the player can get unlucky and get screwed over. While it is the player’s job to mitigate risk and take high-percentage plays, sometimes lady luck just isn’t on your side. The ability to rewind turns is a feature that included in Fire Emblem: Three Houses to prevent this. I welcome this idea, as it prevents losing units or having to restart chapters due to an unlucky roll. The issue arises with how often the game lets you use this feature. Being able to do this once or twice a battle to combat bad luck is reasonable, being able to rewind time ten times in a single battle is unacceptable. It completely undermines the point of tactical decisions in the game. The goal of games such as Fire Emblem or XCOM is to make low-risk moves to maximize chances for success. By allowing the player to undo moves so frequently, it lets the player make reckless decisions and play poorly with the knowledge that they can just undo it if things go south.

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Moreover, the map design in the game was not capable of being pushed to a point of sufficiently challenging players. Unfortunately, this is due to the fact that any unit can be made into any class that you want and reclassed at any time. This puts map designers in a tough spot, as they can’t possibly know what units the player has in their arsenal to design around. Maps can’t require or heavily encourage the use of a certain type of unit, as there is no guarantee that the player ever pushed one of their units into that class. Generally, the maps are pretty decent, especially by modern Fire Emblem standards. There are some interesting objectives, and many maps encourage the player to move quickly. Its just a shame that the maps are frequently too easy and let the player steamroll them without having to engage in strategic thinking.

My final, and undoubtably nitpicky, complaint about Fire Emblem: Three Houses is how the classes are handled. Admittedly, some classes got some interesting features which I appreciate: archers are far more useful than they were in the past due to increased range, and mages get to carry more interesting spells for various situations. Class balance has always been a bit of a problem in the series, but not nearly as bad as it is in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Certain classes are just exceedingly powerful, while others are strangely weak. This is a large problem because the player gets to choose what class each unit is, so naturally players are going to gravitate towards the more powerful ones. There’s just no reason to ever use half of the classes in the game, and that kills variety. Furthermore, each unit begins as a basic recruit, so the early portions of the game feel like you are just using ten of the same unit.

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A bizarre decision was to include weapon mastery and all of its perks as abilities rather than just being inherent. In previous games characters would get increased hit rate, avoidance, and critical strike chance after gaining a level in their weapon skill. In this game, you have to equip a “mastery” skill into one of the character’s ability slots. Additionally, skills like “breaker” or “faire” which are gained from mastering a weapon have to also be equipped in an ability slot. A character only has five slots for abilities, and right off the bat three of those are taken simply for weapon mastery. The more interesting abilities have to fight over the remaining two slots. Moreover, this completely negates any potential for hybrid units. There’s no feasible way for units to use multiple weapon types, since you need three ability slots to fully utilize a weapon and you only get five ability slots. And that’s not accounting for other powerful abilities.

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The classes also do not have anything resembling clear and intentional paths to follow. There are five tiers of class: recruit, basic, intermediate, advanced, master. For many units, there exists no logical path through these tiers. For example, if you want to make a unit which flies on the back of a Pegasus: they begin as a recruit, then become a soldier, then become a Pegasus Knight, then there is no advanced Pegasus class, and then they become a Falcon Knight. Inexplicably, there is a gap between intermediate and master. So, I either must turn my Pegasus unit into an unrelated advanced class, or simply leave them as an intermediate class until they are ready to become a Falcon Knight. Neither choice is particularly appealing.

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The master classes in general are completely wonky, many of them are bizarre hybrid classes, which as previously stated are just not viable. They have no sensible paths which lead into them. For example, Mortal Savant requires a master of swords and magic, yet none of the tiers below master have a class which remotely resembles this. For many classes, their logical path ends at the advanced tier, as there is no corresponding master class. It’s a shame because it feels like my units were done promoting halfway through the game, since there was no rational master class to promote them into.

I understand that I am harsh on Fire Emblem: Three Houses, as I am with every series that I love. After playing so many of these games, and playing them for so long, I’d like to think that I am fairly knowledgeable about the series and its mechanics. Things like the difficulty, class balance, and map design weren’t major flaws, but were noticeably problematic. The biggest issue, the monastery outright decimated any desire I had to replay the game on separate routes. Its slow, repetitive, tedious, and a large part of the games play time. Despite this, Fire Emblem: Three Houses still manages to be a triumphant success for the series. The scope of the game, the story, the swathe of new mechanics, the multitude of playable routes, the interesting characters, and the solid gameplay all make for one of the best modern Fire Emblem games. It is for these reasons that I give Fire Emblem: Three Houses a 7.5/10. While not perfect, Fire Emblem: Three Houses melds the varying directions of the franchise into one cohesive game.

Cuphead (2017)

It’s not often that you will see a game with as much effort put into its presentation as Cuphead. This run and gun indie game was carefully drawn, frame by frame, in an attempt to recreate the legendary cartoon style from the 1930s. Animation studios like Disney and Fleischer obviously inspired Cuphead, and the artists went through great, painstaking lengths to imitate that classic cartoon feeling. Not only did Cuphead succeed in adapting the “rubber hose” style of animation to a game, but they also succeeded in making the game itself pretty damn fun.

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If you’ve heard anything about Cuphead you know these two things: it’s animated frame by frame by hand, and it’s hard as hell. It’s an interesting combination; many of the bosses look absolutely amazing and you just want to revel in their detail, yet you can barely find time to breath as you are being pelted by wave after wave of projectiles. The game looks like it straight out of an old cartoon, and it’s is apparent that an enormous amount of time and effort was dedicated to giving Cuphead its unique look. Additionally, an entire orchestra was brought it to create a magnificent soundtrack. The developers of Cuphead made sure that the presentation was authentic to their vision, and it shows.

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The premise of Cuphead is that you play as that the main character and his friend lost a deal with the devil, and as payment they must round up the souls of individuals who have been hiding from the devil. You travel across Inkwell Isle, fighting bosses and collecting their soul contracts upon their defeat. The vast majority of the game’s content are these boss battles, but there are a few scattered classic run and gun levels to provide a different sort of challenge. Mostly, you will be fighting various bosses, each with a few different phases and assorted attack patterns to learn. Dodging and weaving through projectiles, learning varying patterns, and using windows of opportunity to deal damage are key skills that the player must learn if they want to conquer Cuphead.

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There is no doubt that Cuphead is a difficult game, but it is rarely a frustrating game. The beauty of the game, other than its gorgeous visual presentation, is how compact its fights are. The vast majority of bosses are easily beatable in under two minutes each. Each phase of a boss will only last for 30-45 seconds as long as you are dealing consistent damage. Granted, these are intense bouts that feel far longer than they actually are, but in reality, you can quickly master any boss. These short fights make the learning process far more forgiving.

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You are going to die quite a few times when first encountering a boss, but you learn as you play, figuring out how to dodge tricky attack patterns on subsequent attempts. Some games can feel unfair when you get hit with some new attack pattern that you cannot possibly anticipate, but Cuphead diminishes this feeling by only having fights being a couple minutes long. You don’t lose significant progress upon death. Moreover, most attacks in the game are “fair” in the sense that you have a realistic chance of dodging them the first time you see them. You can react to fair attacks; they don’t come out of nowhere nor do they require previous knowledge to anticipate them. Unfortunately, there are a few instances of “unfair” attacks in Cuphead that can get a bit irritating.

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While most of the bosses and their corresponding attack patterns are well-designed, there are a few outliers that definitely were teetering on being frustrating. There were a few instances of attacks that came out ridiculously fast, or attacks that have very precise locations where you can stand to be safe. Both of these types of patterns feel unfair that you could not possibly react to them, you had to have seen these attacks and learn their signals to reliably dodge them. This isn’t a huge deal as battles are so short, as you can quickly retry with newfound knowledge. What is less forgivable are the more erratic bosses.

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There are a few late-game bosses in Cuphead that I felt had unpredictable, and sometimes undodgeable attack patterns. Grim Matchstick, Rumor Honeybottoms, Cala Maria, and Dr. Kahl’s Robot all made me pretty aggravated. All of these bosses have overlapping hazards: the first two have moving platforms that you have to jump between while dodging their attacks, and the latter two can launch multiple attack patterns at the same time. Both of these scenarios I would classify as unfair. The hazards often overlapped in ways that made them random, overly difficult, or straight-up unavoidable. It makes the process of figuring out the boss’ attack patterns far more maddening, as each attempt is going to yield different combinations and it will be difficult to reproduce success.

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Other than the occasional frustrating boss, there were a couple of minor and nitpicky issues in Cuphead. On rare occasion, the developer decided that putting things in the foreground to block the player’s vision was a good idea. It wasn’t. When I’m in an intense boss fight and focused on dodging waves of projectiles, I certainly do not want a pillar obscuring my character, the boss, or the thing that I’m trying to dodge. Another gripe that I have with Cuphead is its non-boss levels. These levels are classified as “run n’ gun”, and are akin to the classic titles run and gun games such as Contra or Metal Slug. These levels are not particularly offensive, but they are uninspired and dull in comparison to the more intricate and interesting boss fights.

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The run n’ gun stages just feel like they were slapped on at the end of development in order for the game to have content other than boss fights. Each of these stages houses five coins, which can be used to purchase various upgrades. These upgrades include different weapons and charms which can be used to augment some aspect of gameplay. The various guns were a great addition, as they are fun to test out and are incredibly helpful on some bosses. Charms, on the other hand, feel unbelievably poorly balanced. There are technically six charms to choose from, but in reality, there is only one charm: the smoke bomb. This charm is overwhelmingly more powerful than its peers, and at times it feels blatantly overpowered. It augments the player’s dash so that you are invincible while dashing. This is always incredibly strong, but it outright breaks certain bosses as you can easily dash through all of their attacks.

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Overall, Cuphead is a masterclass in presentation. The meticulous work done to replicate the recognizable animation style from decades ago is what sets this game apart. The gameplay itself is solid as well since most of the bosses are well designed. While it is a difficult game that can occasionally feel a bit unfair, its short battles keep it from being overly frustrating or tedious. It is for these reasons that I give Cuphead an 8/10. Cuphead is a glorious combination of classics. The cartoonish animations, the full orchestral soundtrack, and the recapturing of a classic video game genre all meld together for one great game.