Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Pokemon Scarlet and Violet: The Teal Mask Review

Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Price: $34.99

The Teal Mask is the first of 2 expansions for Pokemon Scarlet and Violet included in The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero DLC bundle. It adds new story content, a new area, and 110 Pokemon to the game. If you were looking for performance fixes; though, you won't find many here.

Let's get this out of the way; this patch does not fix the framerate. In fact, it doesn't fix anything about the graphics. The framerate is still bad in the old areas, and it's just as bad in the new areas. Shadows still flicker, NPCs and Pokemon still drop to 2 frames per second when they're more than 10 ft away from you, and you can still see the LOD deforming mountains as you run around. The only thing that has gotten a noticeable improvement is the Pokemon PC boxes, which now load almost instantly. The boxes were very annoying because they didn't load custom wallpapers until you did something in the box and took like 5 seconds to start loading the Pokemon icons, so this is a great improvement, but it's probably not the fix most people were hoping for. Frankly, I don't think they're ever going to fix the framerate unless the next Nintendo system can somehow do it itself. The developers still working on this game are just making content.

The Teal Mask takes place in a completely new area called, The Land of Kitakami. They don't call it a new "region", like Paldea. I think it's only a little bigger than the Crown Tundra. It's a mountainous area surrounded by forests, so it doesn't look like it's the area North East of Paldea, but you take a bus there, so I guess it must be close. The area North East of Paldea still isn't filled in, by the way. Kitakami as a new place to run around in is pretty cool. I love the rural Japanese theme with the rice paddies, forests, and shrines, and the new music is really good. This is where I'll go when I want to do some raids now.
The story of The Teal Mask revolves around a legend from the local town of Mossui. It says that it was once attacked by an ogre and 3 Pokemon defended the people. Of course, the ogre is a legendary Pokemon, and it's still living in the area, so you have to investigate. Were you expecting something else? The campaign is pretty short. I finished it in about 5 hours. It does a great job introducing Kitakami and the new legendary Pokemon, though. You travel all over the place, battle the new legendaries, and get to know the new characters from the Blueberry Academy. I actually like this story better than the ones in the main game. I like how it's more about the new Pokemon. Although, the trainers from the Blueberry Academy do play a big part in it, too. This expansion doesn't have much to do with Area Zero or the Scarlet/Violet Book, but they make sure to let you know that stuff will be the focus of the next one.
The Kitakami Pokedex has 200 Pokemon; 90 that were already in Scarlet and Violet, 102 returning from previous games, 7 new ones, and a new form of Ursaluna, which is introduced in an awesome sidequest. It also adds a bunch of regional forms from previous games, like Alolan Vulpix and Galarian Weezing. In addition to the 4 legendaries introduced during the story, there's also a new Applin evolution, Dipplin, and the Matcha-themed Pokemon, Poltchageist and Sinistcha, which are a lot like Polteageist and Sinistea, but are different species, with their own Pokedex numbers, and not regional forms.
I like the designs of Fezandipity, Munkidori, and Okidogi because they look like they were inspired by characters from 80s Kung Fu movies, but my favorite new Pokemon are Sinistcha and Poltchageist. I just love the idea of changing Sinistea and Polteageist into Matcha-themed Pokemon to match the Japanese setting of Kitakami. I feel like they should sort out this regional form VS new Pokemon species mess, though. Pick one. Why are they adding a new regional form after doing new species in SV? Bloodmoon Ursaluna and all those Alolan and Galarian forms should just be new Pokemon. I haven't found a way to evolve into those old regional forms, by the way. You can bring them in from Pokemon Home, but you can't evolve a Pikachu into an Alolan Raichu, for example.
Unlike in the main game, there is level scaling in Kitakami. I first played through the campaign on my main save file with level 100 Pokemon, and all the Pokemon I battled were over level 50. When I went there on a save file with no Gym badges, I was able to start the story and both the other trainers' Pokemon and wild Pokemon were around level 15. I did start running into wild Pokemon around 10 levels higher than mine the farther I got away from the starting area, though. I didn't try going through the whole story on this save file, but I'm guessing badge requirements still apply here, so you'd have to go back to Paldea and get some badges to control level 20+ Pokemon at some point.
The Teal Mask is a fun expansion, but it's not very big. This feels more like The Isle of Armor than The Crown Tundra. I like the story, Kitakami is a cool place to run around in, and the new Pokemon look great. The game really could have used a fix for the horrible framerate, though. While I had fun with it, the whole thing just feels like something to hold you over until The Indigo Disk comes out.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Prison City Review

Developer: Programancer
Publisher : Retroware
Platform: PC
Price: $16.99

If you dig deep into the NES action game library, like really deep, past the Mega Mans, Ninja Gaidens, and Castlevanias, and below Batman and Shadow of the Ninja, you might come across Shatter Hand and Power Blade 1 and 2. Prison City is like a sequel to all 3 of these games at the same time. It's also like an NES game that had the Escape From New York license, but was changed into something else late in development. It copies the best mechanics from those obscure NES games and the prison city premise from Escape From New York.
The structure of Prison City is basically the same as Power Blade. You choose from 8 action platforming-filled levels to play, and open the final one after beating all 8, like in Mega Man. And just like in Power Blade, levels in Prison City require you to find an NPC with a key, which you need to open the door to the boss. Levels have branching paths and let you freely run around and explore, but this isn’t a Metroidvania. Levels are self-contained, all powerups are temporary, and you don't even get upgrades or powers after beating a boss. The difficulty does ramp up as you go through the levels from top to bottom, but there is no specific order to them, and you never get anything from one level that will help you beat another level except extra lives.
Prison City basically plays like Power Blade 2, but with climbing inspired by Shatterhand. I say inspired because the climbing in Prison City gives you a lot more freedom of movement. You can't actually climb in Shatterhand, you either hold up on the d-pad or hold down the jump button (A on NES) to cling onto fences. Prison City's climbing works the same way, but it also lets you climb on the fences, shimmy along tubes, and grab onto the edge of platforms. Your only other traversal abilities are the jump and the slide, which you do by pressing the jump button while holding down on the d-pad. The controls take some getting used to since you don't grab onto things automatically, but they work well once you get the hang of it.
Your main attack is some kind of lightsaber boomerang hybrid, which works almost exactly like the boomerang in the Power Blade games. You have a little meter that fills up when you’re not attacking, and if you attack with a full meter, you do max damage, and if you mash the button, you do reduced damage. Honestly, I never paid too much attention to the meter, I just spammed the hell out of the attack button. You can also use grenades with the X button (Switch controls), which work like special moves that hit everything on screen. The game has simple controls that could probably be done on an NES controller if you put the grenades on select or something, but the platforming can get very tricky when you constantly have to jump, slide, and grab onto things while avoiding enemies and hazards.
The thing that will turn a lot of people off about this game is the difficulty. This game really feels like a game designed to be hard in an unfair way, like many NES games back in the day. Getting through these levels and beating the bosses on the Modern (Normal) difficulty requires multiple playthroughs and memorization. These levels are filled with low ceilings which you’ll bonk your head on before a jump, enemies in places where they’ll knock you back into pits, enemies with weak attack tells, the dreaded 8-bit enemy birds, dark rooms in which you can’t see where you’re going (My favorite!), and pretty much every cheap difficulty trick you can think of. I love a good challenge, but this game is just trolling. The level design just isn’t good enough to make multiple playthroughs dealing with this kind of difficulty much fun.
Thankfully, this game gives you tons of difficulty options. You can set it so you have infinite lives, respawn after falling into pits, have more health, do more damage, and basically make yourself invincible. I turned on infinite lives and all of a sudden, the game became much more enjoyable. That made it feel a lot more like “Modern” retro indie games to me since I didn’t have to restart levels after dying.
Out of all the 8-bit retro games I've played, Prison City does one of the best jobs at actually looking like an NES game. The color palette, sprite detail, and animations are all pretty much perfect. There are very few things here that look like something the NES couldn't do. The game doesn't do a very good job of making hazards and platforms stand out, though. I often found myself trying to jump on something that was actually part of the background or getting hit by something I thought was a background decoration when playing a level for the 1st time. There's also the resolution of the game, which doesn't scale evenly into full screen. I don't know what the game is rendering at, but setting the game to full screen makes it look blurry and introduces a lot of flickering.
If you're not too proud to drop the difficulty, Prison City isn't bad. I actually like it better than what I've played of Shatterhand and the Power Blade games. I think the trollish level design is going to turn a lot of people off, though, even on Easy. Maybe you're into that sort of thing, though. If you're into those old NES action games that were made extra difficult so that you couldn't beat them during a weekend rental, maybe you'll like this game more than me.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Pikmin 4 Review

Developer: Nintendo EPD
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Price: $59.99

The Pikmin series always felt a little un-Nintendo-like to me. I mean, you play as a little astronaut who can't jump, even though he's named after Mario, you don't have direct control of the Pikmin, and it has realistic graphics reminiscent of a science book. It's the polar opposite of Mario and everything else Nintendo makes. Pikmin 4 is still that game it was on GameCube at its core, but it's been modernized and refined into something more people can get into.

If I were to describe Pikmin to a newcomer, I'd say it's something between a real-time strategy game and playing a pet class, like a Necromancer, in Diablo. Your character can't do much, but they can command an army of Pikmin to attack enemies, collect resources, build bridges, and break walls much like units in an RTS. You start off with a few Pikmin and grow more as they take resources back to their nest, the Onion. Yes, grow. They're plant creatures.
The more Pikmin you have with you, the easier it is to kill enemies, and the more stuff they'll be able to carry back to the ship. Each different color Pikmin has different skills and resistances, so there's strategy involved in deciding which Pikmin to take with you because you can only take 3 different types out of the 8. The original 3 are Red, Blue, and Yellow. Red Pikmin are fire resistant and do more damage, Yellow Pikmin are shock resistant and can be thrown higher up in the air, and Blue Pikmin are water resistant and can swim. Flying, Purple (heavy), and White (poison) Pikmin also return. You and your Pikmin are about as small as insects, and the game takes place in parks, gardens, and forests, so a frog can be a giant monster, a sandbag can be an unclimbable mountain, and a puddle can be a lake or river. It's like “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” meets the Discovery Channel.
There's a new Pikmin, too, the Ice Pikmin. These little ice cube Pikmin are resistant to cold, so they can fight ice enemies and destroy ice walls without freezing. They can freeze enemies after getting a few hits in too, so they are great for boss battles. Ice Pikmin can also freeze water, so you can throw a bunch of them in a pool to freeze it and then walk on top of it. They’re very useful and fun to use.
But the coolest new character is definitely your dog mount, Oatchi. It sounds like Yoshi! Get it? You can, of course, ride on Oatchi and go faster, but he can do much more than that. Oatchi can attack, break obstacles, gather Pikmin, and carry things back to the ship. He also has a powerful charge attack that can stun enemies, so he's great in boss battles, too. You can upgrade Oatchi to the point where he’s as strong as 100 Pikmin, so he's kind of like a super Pikmin. Oatchi has health and can get KOed, but he is unkillable, so even if you get all your Pikmin killed, you can still use Oatchi to grow more. He's definitely a good boy.
Like in previous Pikmin games, Pikmin 4's campaign is broken up into 15 minute days. Each in-game day is a mission to recover as much treasure and save as many missing astronauts as possible before sunset. If any Pikmin is not in your party or at base when the sun goes down, they get eaten by monsters. I told you this was un-Nintendo-like. Pikmin 1 had a hard time limit of 30 days, so you had to play efficiently enough so that you could actually beat the game. Pikmin 2 got rid of that day limit, but Pikmin 3 added a system which required you to collect fruit to make juice to fuel your ship, so there was still a limit to how long you had to beat the game because there was only so much fruit in the game. Pikmin 4 gets rid of both the day limit and the fruit juice system, so you can spend as many days exploring each area as you want. You can also rewind time by a few minutes, so even if all your Pikmin die, you don't have to live with your mistakes, and you're never going to end up with an unbeatable game.
Pikmin 4 has 6 levels which are very similar to levels in past Pikmin games. They're standalone environments full of enemies, obstacles, and things to collect. You can hop around and go back to previous levels without losing any progress, so the level design takes advantage of this by adding some Zelda-like elements. For example, you might need a specific type of Pikmin or item to do something, like carry treasure across water or break a wall, so you can go back to the hub and get the item or come back later when you have the right Pikmin for the job. The game is constantly throwing new Pikmin, items, and upgrades at you, even late in the game, so there's many ways you can go about playing through everything in the campaign.
Items and upgrades can be purchased from NPCs in the hub area with the currency you get from having your Pikmin take gems back to your ship. You can buy things that make you resistant to hazards, like poison and fire, health upgrades, and gadgets, like a drone that lets you scout ahead and a signal that calls idle Pikmin to your location. You can buy single use items, like bombs and lightning attacks, too. There’s also an NPC who will teach your dog new tricks, like the ability to run around and gather stray Pikmin, faster swimming, and harder hitting attacks.
Each area also has a bunch of underground "caves" containing different types of challenges. Some have you going through and fighting a boss at the end, some are time trials that require you to kill all the enemies or collect all the treasure, and some are basically multiplayer battles against computer controlled opponents. These caves have no time limit and they freeze the day timer outside as well, so you don’t have to worry about that while you’re inside. You have to rescue the castaways from these caves to progress through the campaign, so they're a big part of the story. Unlike in the overworld areas, enemies in caves will respawn after you've completed them, so you can replay them later if you want.
Once you bring the rescued astronauts back to the hub area, you can play the Night Expeditions, which are literally a tower defense mode. You go into small rearranged sections of the levels from the campaign and defend little mud towers from the enemies, who will be much more aggressive and rush the towers. These Night Expeditions only take about 5 minutes, but they get pretty intense, especially when you have to defend 2 towers at once. You use special ghost Pikmin in them, which are exclusive to this mode, so you don’t have to worry about losing the Pikmin you need for the campaign here. I thought these were pretty good. I don't want a whole Pikmin tower defense game or anything, but they're a fun change of pace from the campaign, and I like that they don't affect my Pikmin reserves.
There is something for those who want something more like the old Pikmin games too, Olimar's Shipwreck Tale. This is a mode you unlock after beating the 4th area in the campaign. It has a 15 day time limit and has you playing through rearranged versions of some of the campaign's overworld areas with only the the original Red, Blue, and Yellow Pikmin, while looking for ship parts, like in Pikmin 1. You get a choice of items and upgrades after each day, and you find a dog in one area, so it's not exactly like an old Pikmin game, but it's close. This mode also lets you rewind and even go back and restart your adventure from any previous day, so you can't end up with an unbeatable game here either. I thought this mode was a fun challenge, and it's different enough from the campaign to be worth playing.
If I have one issue with this game, it's the controls. I thought the Wiimote and Nunchuck were pretty much the perfect controller for Pikmin 3. You could just point and throw Pikmin around. You even had a lock-on mechanic. Pikmin 4's Joycon configuration, which can use motion controls, kind of tries to replicate the Wiimote and Nunchuck controls, but they just aren't as fast and responsive. They make you hold the A or B buttons before you can move the cursor around and whistle or throw Pikmin, adding an extra step. The cursor also always feels like you're dragging it around the screen, which is a lot slower than just pointing. The cursor is also very sticky and just kind of locks onto anything it passes over, which can get very annoying when there’s lots of enemies and treasure on screen.
Pikmin 4 is the best looking game Nintendo has released on Switch. Sure, it's not a big open world game, like Zelda TotK, but technically, it just looks better than all their other games. The textures look realistic, it actually uses depth of field effects well, there's lots of plants everywhere, the water looks great, and the lighting looks fantastic as it changes throughout the day. There's a lot going on. Pikmin has always been all about that realistic National Geographic look, and this game definitely nails it. The game runs at 30 FPS, but it's pretty smooth, with very few hiccups.
There's definitely some good songs in Pikmin 4's soundtrack, but most of the time, you're just listening to very forgettable quiet and sort of ambient music. Music does play while you're out in the world, but none of it stuck with me at all. The music that plays when you finish a day or go back to the base is pretty good, though. The ambient sound effects are also very well done.

I was honestly very surprised by Pikmin 4. I've played all the others and liked them, but I wasn't expecting to love this one so much. It's by far the best Pikmin game. It just has so much content, great challenges, beautiful graphics, and great new additions, like Oatchi, the new modes, ice Pikmin, and the hub area. I didn't even talk about multiplayer. It's local only, so I didn't get to play against anyone, but you can play against the computer, at least. Regardless, Pikmin 4 is one of the best games I've played this year. I can't recommend it enough.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Gravity Circuit Review

Developer: Domesticated Ant Games
Publisher: PID Games
Platforms: NS, PS4/PS5, PC, Mac, Linux
Price: PS4/PS5, NS - $21.99, PC - $16.99
Version Played: PC

Gravity Circuit is a 2D action platformer that wears its inspiration on its sleeve. You're probably getting big Mega Man X vibes from the screenshots, and there's definitely a lot of that, but there's also a lot of beat 'em up influence here. I mean like the Viewtiful Joe platformer/beat 'em up hybrid kind. But even though I’m constantly reminded of classic games while playing it, Gravity Circuit feels fresh. We just don't see this combination of platformer and beat 'em up very often. The game's art style and graphics are also unlike what we usually see in modern retro-inspired games. Gravity Circuit feels both familiar and different and it’s definitely worth taking notice of.

Mega Man fans will feel right at home with Gravity Circuit because it's structured just like a Mega Man Zero game. There's a short intro level, a hub base full of friendly NPCs, and you choose from 8 levels to play through before the final one. The big difference here is that beating bosses doesn't give you their powers. Instead, you buy enhancements and special moves from NPCs at the base.
The level design is also very Mega Man-like. Levels are all straightforward platforming action with lots of secret stuff to find off to the sides, just like in MMX. They all have unique themes, and the robot bosses all have some kind of related job to match. Some of the levels include a snowy mountain, a power plant, a rocky mine, and a junkyard.
I think we've seen all of those themes in Mega Man games before, but I still loved seeing what Gravity Circuit did with them. Enemies electrify the floors in the Power Plant, you're constantly breaking blocks and crumbling platforms in the Ore Mines, and you warp around through the Internet in the Cyberspace level. Or something like that. The game is full of fun gimmicks. They're not all winners, though. I'm not a fan of the highway level, which has you jumping from car to car and dodging oncoming obstacles from off screen. It reminded me of a certain infamous section in MM8. But overall, the platforming is both challenging and fun.
The thing that really sets Gravity Circuit apart from Mega Man is its combat. Kai's attacks are more reminiscent of Shinobi III and Viewtiful Joe. You have punches, Street Fighter style flash kicks, and dive kicks that bounce off enemies, just like in Shinobi III. You also get a hookshot, which is good for more than just swinging around. You can use it to attack and pick items up, but its main use is for grabbing defeated enemies, which you can then throw at other enemies for massive damage. You can run, slide, and even wall jump while carrying enemies around, so it really feels like the game was designed for you to constantly use this ability. You can get by without it, though. The game gives you a lot of different moves, so you don’t have to do things in just one specific way.
There's also 2 upgrade systems that really let you customize your abilities to fit your play style. There's Enhancement Chips and Burst Techniques. You can use Enhancement Chips to get a double jump, become invulnerable while sliding, zip to enemies with the hookshot, and a bunch of different things that change how much damage you take and how you fill the special meter. Burst Techniques are the special moves which use that meter. There's a dragon punch, spin kick, heal, and even a spinning piledriver. And yes, you can piledrive bosses! There's 20 Enhancement Chips and 20 Burst Techniques, and you can equip 3 of each at a time, so there's lots of different combinations to play around with.
One of the most striking things about Gravity Circuit is its graphics. This game isn't going for the usual 8-bit NES style a lot of retro-inspired games use. Most of the sprites are only using 4 shades of the same color, so it looks more like a Game Boy Color or Neo Geo Pocket game. The characters also have really big heads and hands, so they look even more comical than Mega Man characters usually do. This SD anime style reminds me a lot of Viewtiful Joe. I think it fits the lighthearted tone of the game very well
You might have noticed that the screenshots have some empty black space on the left and right sides. That’s because the game runs in a 15:9 aspect ratio instead of 16:9, just like the first Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon game. Bloodstained CotM looked like that because it was designed as a 3DS game first, and that’s the aspect ratio of the top screen. I have no idea if Gravity Circuit was originally a 3DS game, but that would make sense. There are options to stretch the image to fill the screen if it bothers you. I only played the game on PC, but as far as performance goes, it ran at a solid 60 FPS.
Gravity Circuit has a pretty great soundtrack. There's definitely a lot of Mega Man influence in it, and it covers a lot of genres. It has a lot of that sort of 90s Capcom Jazzy rock sound to it, and also some calmer stuff that kind of reminds me of Metroid Prime. The graphics might look like a GBC game, but I think the music sounds more like SNES or early PS1 games. It just has that synthesized keyboard and drums kind of sound to it. I think it fits the game perfectly.

I think Gravity Circuit is a must play for both action platformer and beat ’em up fans. Doubly so for fans of Mega Man and games like Dragon Ball: Advanced Adventure and Viewtiful Joe. The platforming is fun and challenging, the combat has a good beat ‘em up kind of feel to it, it has cool character designs, a beautiful GBC-like graphical style, and a great soundtrack. You really can’t go wrong with this one.