Saturday, April 28, 2018

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon Review

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon is the follow up to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. It was originally released by Konami in 2001 as a Game Boy Advance launch game. It is also available on the Wii U Virtual Console. I’ll always remember it as the darkest Castlevania. Not because of it’s graphics or themes, but because I could hardly see anything on my launch GBA. Playing this on a TV is almost like playing a new game for me.

The story is set in 1830, 33 years after Symphony of the Night and 87 years before Bloodlines. Recurring Castlevania boss, Camilla, has resurrected Dracula once again. Nathan Graves, his Vampire hunting teacher Morris Baldwin, and his rival Hugh Baldwin run in to stop her, but they're too late. Dracula is revived at partial power, he captures Morris, and throws Nathan and Hugh down into the catacombs of the castle. Nathan then sets off to save his master, and Hugh sets off to try and beat him to it. Hugh is sort of like the Gary Oak of the game. He is jealous that his dad gave Nathan the “Hunter Whip” instead of him, so now he must show Nathan up somehow.

I found the standoffish way the game handles the lore very weird. For example, Morris Baldwin has Morris as his first name and not his last, like John Morris from Bloodlines. Was he originally related to Jonathan, Quincy, and John Morris? What about this “Hunter Whip”? Is it the Vampire Killer, or just a really nice whip? And why does the castle have areas that look like Castlevania, but is only referred to as an old Austrian castle? It comes off like they changed the story to not have anything to do with the Belmonts or Dracula's Castle.

In 2002, Koji Igarashi took Circle of the Moon out of the official timeline. Igarashi was working on Castlevania Chronicle at the time, and was not involved with Circle of the Moon, so that might have had something to do with it. He claimed that the development team always intended it to be a standalone game, though. CotM was listed in the timeline that came with Portrait of Ruin pre-orders, but was not included in the official timeline that Konami released in 2009.

Circle of the Moon is a Metroidvania, and is structured very similarly to Symphony of the Night. There's still a lot of freedom to explore, hidden rooms, XP, armor, consumables, and stats. Classic Castlevania special weapons, like the axe, holy water, and cross return, and you still break candles to get hearts to use them. Unlike in SOTN, though, there is no money or shop, so you can't buy or sell anything. That means that if you want a specific item, like potions or gear, you're going to have to farm for it.

Nathan himself controls a lot like Richter Belmont, but with floaty jumps, like Alucard. I feel like he jumps unusually high for a Castlevania game. Nathan can only whip forwards and twirl the whip, but not like Richter or Simon in SCIV, you just hold B down to do it. He also gets a slide by default, which comes in handy for sliding through small passages. It can also damage enemies that are too small to hit with the whip, adding a new layer to the combat. Nathan doesn’t walk with purpose, like a Belmont, he walks slowly, like he's going on a leisurely stroll. Luckily, the first ability you get is a pair of boots that allow you to run by double tapping forward. Other abilities include a double jump, a block breaking tackle, the ability to push crates, and the weirdest wall jump I've ever seen in a Metroidvania. You just hold R near a wall while jumping and go through a long and floaty wall kicking animation. Some of the last few things you're rewarded with after killing bosses include a switch that breaks sarcophagi blocking your way and boots that cleanse the water in the sewer area. That's right, magic sewage cleaning boots.

Nathan only gets one whip throughout the whole game, but he can use magical weapons and spells, thanks to the Dual Setup System. The DSS lets you combine cards, which some enemies drop, for up to 100 different effects. There are 10 Action Cards and 10 Attribute Cards, which you can combine for effects like a flame whip, ice whip, a rose thorn sword, a 25% luck boost, and even a Rondo of Blood style item crash. I was initially disappointed that there were no other weapons in this game, but the DSS more than makes up for it. The amount of MP consumed by effects like the flame whip become so low as you level and upgrade your gear that you can pretty much use them as long as you want.

Circle of the Moon is certainly not an ugly game but it doesn't look as good as Symphony of the Night. The GBA’s resolution really holds it back. GBA games were just a little over half the resolution of the average PlayStation game. The graphics look much more pixelated, and color gradients aren't nearly as smooth as in SOTN. The environments look fairly detailed, and it features a lot of new enemy sprites and edits of sprites from Rondo of Blood and SOTN, which look good for the most part. The frame rate is smooth throughout most of the game, but it does slow down when a lot of enemies are on screen.

The GBA’s sound hardware was a step down from the PlayStation’s, and even the SNES’s, but Circle of the Moon still manages to have an awesome soundtrack. It features great new tracks, like “Awake”, “Proof of Blood”, and “Fate to Despair”, which evoke the sound of SOTN’s orchestral tracks. It also features awesome new remixes of classic tracks, like “Vampire Killer”, “Dance of Illusions”, “The sinking Old Sanctuary” from Bloodlines, and “Clockwork Mansion” from Super Castlevania IV. I don't think the decision to include SOTN style music and classic remixes was a coincidence. It feels like they're trying to merge the classic whip wielding games with the new SOTN style with the music, too.

I think Circle of the Moon is definitely one of the better SOTN style Castlevanias. The music and graphics are good, even if they are held back by the GBA hardware, the gameplay feels like a good mix of the classic whip wielding Castlevanias and the new SOTN style, and the DSS card system gives you a lot of cool stuff to play with. I didn't think the abilities, like the double jump, were anything special, and stuff like the boots that cleanse the sewage were pretty lame, but traversing the castle was pretty fun, thanks to the great level and enemy designs. I don't think Circle of the Moon is quite as good as Symphony of the Night, but it's definitely worth playing.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Shantae: ½ Genie Hero - Costume Pack! Review

Costume Pack is the latest and final DLC pack for Shantae: ½ Genie Hero. It adds 3 new modes to the game; Ninja Mode, Officer Mode, and Beach Mode. Each of these modes is a separate game from the main game, just like Pirate Queen’s Quest and Friends to the End, so it's really 3 new versions of the game. It's available now for $7.99, and is included with Shantae ½ Genie Hero Ultimate Edition.

All the new modes start pretty much the same way. Shantae gets a new costume and sets off to put it to use. She decides to master the way of the Ninja when she gets the Ninja costume, for example. They are not deep or thought provoking stories, but there’s a lot of funny and cute dialogue that Shantae fans will enjoy.

These new modes are all in the “Friends to the End” mold. They take the old levels and change the enemy placement and platforms around a bit to fit the new characters, or new costumes this time. The levels are built for straightforward action platforming and most of the hidden areas from ½GH and PQQ are blocked off. The bosses are mostly the same as in all other DLC packs, aside from some costume specific platforming changes.

The squid collecting, leveling, and continue systems from Friends to the End all return for Costume Pack. Every level has 3 blue squids (or 5 Space Hooligans in Officer Mode) for Shantae to collect. If you get every squid, you get an extra piece of artwork after the credits. Collecting gems that drop from enemies and jars will level you up and upgrade your abilities up to level 4. For example, Ninja Shantae will throw more shurikens and slash quicker with her sword as you level up. If you get hit, you lose gems and go down in levels. There are no lives in these modes, so you restart from the last save whenever you lose all your hearts. Shantae only gets 3 hearts for the whole game, but getting hit by enemies and falling into pits only takes off half or a quarter heart most of the time.

The unrestricted stage select function from Friends to the End also returns, and it pretty much breaks all of these systems. Want to level up and fill your hearts before a boss? Just go to a stage with an easy heart or gem jar near the beginning, rinse and repeat. All bosses have a save point right before them, so you won't lose any progress. Want to save your squid collection progress before you die in a level you haven't beaten? Just use the stage select and you’ll be able to save, and then come back refreshed and with all the squids still collected. I was kind of surprised that they didn't change any of this from how it worked in Friends to the End.

In Ninja Mode, Shantae dons a green Ibuki costume and does her best Ryu Hayabusa impersonation. This mode plays kind of like Ninja Gaiden with a smoke bomb teleport move. Shantae’s main attack is a sword slash, she throws shurikens, she can back dash, and she can cling to walls and jump off them, just like in Ninja Gaiden. She also has the Naruto run down pat. The teleport is the main platforming gimmick in this mode. You can teleport a short distance in any direction while in the air, and in any direction except down while on a platform or on the ground. You can’t teleport through stone platforms or walls, and you can only teleport once in the air, so you can't use it to go wherever you want, like Nightcrawler or something. Ninja Mode is my favorite new mode in this DLC. I hope WayForward makes a full Ninja Shantae game, or at least brings the costume back in a future Shantae game.

In Officer Mode, Shantae cosplays as Patricia Wagon and gets the block switching mechanic from Mighty Switch Force. If you haven’t played the Mighty Switch Force games, they revolve around Patricia’s ability to push and pull groups of blocks into and out of the background with a switch on her special helmet. For example, you can jump off a platform and pull the platform you’re going to land on forward, while pushing the platform you were just on into the background at the same time, while in mid-air. Shantae also gets a stun gun as her main attack, and she loses the ability to duck, swim, and back dash. This mode also replaces the collectable blue squids with Space Hooligans, like in MSF. I'm not a big MSF fan, but this mode is a lot of fun. The block switching mechanic works really well in a platformer with longer stages. Don't worry if you're no good at Mighty Switch Force, this never gets anywhere near as hard as those games. I thought Officer Mode had the best platforming out of the 3 new modes.

In Beach Mode, Shantae wears a bikini and is looking for a good place to tan, or something. The main gimmick in this mode is the sunburn meter. Shantae has about 20 seconds to either collect a bottle of sunscreen or jump in some water, or she will get sunburned and start losing health, even indoors and in caves. She will lose health very quickly, too. This makes me feel like I have to rush though the level, which I hate, because Shantae is not a blue hedgehog. Shantae gets her familiar hair whip and backdash here, and she can throw a beach ball, which bounces around the screen diagonally. This is a good move for attacking enemies above and below you. Shantae can also get inside a bubble and (very) slowly float around for a bit. The bubble will burst if it hits anything, though, including walls and platforms. I don't like this mode at all. The bubble is really slow, and since I was rushing through the levels, I was not collecting gems, so I was constantly around level 2. It also makes no sense to get sunburned in a cave.

If you're going to get one Shantae: ½GH DLC pack, get Pirate Queen's Quest! If you can get 2, this is on par or maybe slightly better than Friends to the End. The Ninja and Officer modes are both a lot of fun. You might feel a little dejavu if you already played the other campaigns, though. Even though the platforming is different enough to be enjoyable, it's not different enough to make you forget that you've already played these levels to death.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Hollow Knight Review

Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania developed by Team Cherry. It came out on PC, Mac, and Linux in 2017 and is coming out on Switch sometime in 2018. Aside from the Igavanias, this is the Metroidvaniaest Metroidvania I’ve ever played. It really felt like a mix of both Metroid and Castlevania in terms of environments, controls, and abilities.

I can't really say much about Hollow Knight’s story, because what is there is very vague. The game opens with a short cutscene showing our hero waking up, breaking free from some chains, and setting off on his adventure. We're not told what he's waking up from, why he was chained down, or what he's setting off to do. You just kind of start piecing the story together as you play the game. Maybe you can glean something from the way the NPCs talk or the state the environments are in. Nothing in the game really spells things out for you, though.

Have you ever picked up a rock and found a bunch of bugs underneath? That's kind of what the world of Hollow Knight is like, but with gothic architecture. Houses look like they were made from giant insect husks, cave walls are lined with fossilized snail shells, and city streets have ornate street lamps and wrought iron fences sitting on top of brick paved streets. Of course, everything has some kind of bug motif. The street lamps curl like snail shells, there’s bug gargoyles, and fences have scarab designs on them. That doesn't mean this world is all scary and gross, though. There's beautiful gardens, castles, and weird bubble covered areas. And even though all the characters are bugs, ghosts, and ghosts of bugs, they're drawn in a cute cartoon style.

Hollow Knight has a haunting soundtrack full of melancholy violin and piano music. It’s a bit depressing, and it fits the game perfectly. I think a lot of the sound effects are also on point. Every surface makes a different sound when you walk on it or hit it with your sword. You can hear ambient sounds, like wind, running water, and falling rain. It’s all very well done. I like the music and sound effects in Hollow Knight, but I found most of the voices incredibly annoying. A lot enemies sound like a guy making slurping and farting noises into a bucket, and NPCs sound like a guy trying to sound like an animal or some anthropomorphic bug. Some of these voices also loop over and over, even when you're not talking to these NPCs. I made sure not to leave the game idle close to these NPCs because of this.

The controls remind me a lot of Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow. It has a very similar floaty feel to the jumps, your sword attacks are similar to Alucard’s and Soma Cruz’s, and your walk also has a sort of ghostly glide to it. The abilities you gain along the way are mostly the usual Metroidvania abilities. There's a double jump, a dash, a wall jump, and a Metroid Shinespark-like ability. You also learn some magic spells, which are mostly used for attacking, but can also be used to open paths. For a game this big, I felt like the abilities were too few and far between. A lot of times I was rewarded with a magic spell with very limited use, or some useless token after exploring the farthest areas of a zone or beating a boss. It’s like they made this gigantic map and didn't have anything to put in it.

Hollow Knight doesn't have XP or levels, and like with the abilities, health and attack power upgrades are also few and far between. I started the game with 5 masks (AKA hearts) and finished it with 7. Each mask is split up into 4 shards, like heart containers in Zelda, and there aren't a lot of them in the game. You can upgrade your sword attacks in a few ways, but the main one that actually improves the damage of your sword can only be done a few times. I only upgraded it twice. All this amounts to is a game that doesn’t feel very rewarding, but stays challenging throughout. You can't just outpower everything. The difference in power between your character at the start and the end of the game is not very big. The game gets easier as you learn how to fight each enemy, and not so much as you gain power.

Another way Hollow Knight allows you to upgrade and customize your character is through the Charm system. Charms are little emblems you find around the world and buy from NPCs, which give you different bonuses when you equip them. You only have a limited amount of notches to equip the Charms in, though, so you can't have all the powerful stuff on at once. There’s charms that makes your nail (sword) longer, poison enemies that hit you, and give you different ways to gain Soul, the MP of the game. Those are some of the better ones. There's also a bunch that give you very small bonuses, like more frames of invincibility when you get hit or less knockback when you attack with your sword. Stuff that they should probably just give you by default. Another Charm bonus they should have probably given you by default is the compass, which marks your position on the map. Yeah, you have to choose between things like less knockback or being able to tell where you are on the map. It's these weird little things this game does to increase the difficulty that really rub me the wrong way.

This is a hard game, and that’s fine, but I feel like half of that difficulty is because of bad design decisions. On one hand, the platforming, bosses, and enemies are challenging, and that gives you a feeling of accomplishment when you beat them. When you die, you have to return to where you died and kill your ghost to get your money back. That adds tension. Nobody tells you where to go next, forcing you to explore. That's the good kind of difficulty. Then, on the other hand, the game does a bunch of little annoying things to make your life miserable, like the dumb Charms I mentioned earlier. For example, this game doesn't automatically give you a map for each area. First you have to find the cartographer in each area, then you have to buy the map from him, then you have to buy a quill to fill in the maps (In town, not from him. That would be too easy.), and then the map doesn't even fill in where you’ve been until you sit at a bench again, which are the healing and checkpoint spots. You also have to pay to set up some benches, and you have to pay to open up fast travel points, too. The game is full of this kind of stuff. It feels like unimaginative padding. Like they couldn't come up with anything cool for you to buy, so they made you buy all this little stuff you get for free in other Metroidvanias.

I want to love this game, but I feel like it wants to fight me every step of the way. Hollow Knight is a good looking game with great controls and challenging bosses and platforming, but it has too much fluff. The map is too big for the amount of useful stuff in it. The balance of things you buy and things you find is completely out of whack. Exploration doesn't feel rewarding when all you find is a Wanderer's Journal that you can't even read. Everything is a struggle. It makes little things that are default in other games double edged swords or things you have to buy or min max. I feel like less would have been more here.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Monster World IV Review

Monster World IV is a side scrolling action adventure game developed by Westone and published by Sega. It was originally released on the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis) in Japan in 1994. It wasn't released in English until 2012, when it came out on Wii VC, PS3, and X360. It's the 6th game in the Wonder Boy series and the 4th of the Monster World games.

Chronologically, MWIV takes place after Wonder Boy in Monster World, and is the last game in the timeline. At least until Monster Boy and The Cursed Kingdom comes out. It follows the story of a girl named Asha, who hears the elemental spirits of Monster World cry for help in the wind one day. She sets off for Monster World to become a Warrior and finds a Genie lamp along the way. The Genie takes Asha to Rapadagna, where she meets with Queen Purapril XIII, the descendant of the playable characters in Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair. The Queen basically knights Asha, and gives her the title of Warrior. She then tells her about the elemental spirits who have been kidnapped (sounds familiar), and Asha agrees to help. The Queen tells Asha to go to the treasure room, and there she finds the medallion to open the door to the first dungeon and a mysterious egg. This egg hatches into a blue Pepelogoo, a small round floating creature that looks like a cross between a cat, a bird, and Kirby.

Everyone in Rapadagna has a pet Pepelogoo, but theirs are yellow. Asha’s blue Pepelogoo is rare and special, like a shiny Pokemon. Blue Pepelogoos have magical powers. Unlike in other Metroidvanias, Asha never gains new abilities, her Pepelogoo is what gives her the ability to glide, double jump, and a bunch of different things to solve puzzles. Asha can call Pepelogoo and throw him onto a lava spout to use him as a platform (I know it's a him because he doesn't have a bow on his head), have him hit switches for her, and use him like an umbrella to shield her from falling fireballs, among many other things. Pepelogoo will get bigger as you progress through the story, and you will lose the ability to run while carrying him, because he gets too heavy for Asha. It's kind to lose abilities as you progress through a game like this, but it's not needed in later dungeons, and it works within the context of the story.

Monster World IV plays similarly to Wonder Boy in Monster World, but its structure is much more linear. There are only 2 towns in the game, and one of them is Asha's home, which you can't go back to once you enter the first dungeon. The other town is Rapadagna, which is the main hub of the game. You’ll go back to Rapadagna after every dungeon to buy new equipment, explore, and talk to the townsfolk in order to find the medallion which will open the door to the next dungeon. Most of the travel and sidequests from Wonder Boy in Monster World are gone, but Rapadagna is very well done, and is full of secrets and NPCs that change as you progress through the game.

Monster World IV has similar dungeons to the ones in Wonder Boy in Monster World, but with a bigger emphasis on puzzles, key items, and exploration. They're kind of like side scrolling Zelda dungeons. The first dungeon is fairly straightforward. You kill enemies to activate platforms and find keys to open doors. You’ll be running all over the place looking for items and solving riddles in the later ones, though. I think the length of the second and third dungeons give the game a steep learning curve, but it gets easier as you get more hearts, new equipment, and learn how to fight different enemies. Thankfully, you can use your Genie to go back to town to heal and save, and then come back and try again. Your puzzle progress is saved, and any mini bosses or special enemies stay dead, so you don't have to do everything over.

Every dungeon is closed off after you beat the boss in it, so you can miss out on some Life Drops, Healing Medicine, and gold if you're not exploring well enough. You're not going to miss out on anything that will prevent you from finishing the game, but you might not be able to max out your hearts by the end of the game. Healing Medicines are also limited to chests and are not sold in stores, so it's a good idea to save some of the ones found in town for the end of the game.

The combat in MWIV reminds me of Zelda II and Castlevania. Every enemy has its own unique attack patterns and defenses, so you have to experiment with different tactics. Some enemies will always attack right after being attacked, so you have to block with your shield, while others use their shields to block, so you have to attack at the same time they attack. You have to put some thought into how you fight each one, or you won't make it very far. Most of the bosses don't require elaborate tactics, though. Most boss fights feel like a race to see who can do the most damage. I usually just attacked as much as possible and made sure I had enough health to survive.

Monster World IV feels like it was made by people who were very familiar with the Genesis and what it was capable of. 1994 was pretty late in the system’s life after all. The framerate is good throughout most of the game, but it also doesn't throw more than 2 or 3 enemies at you at a time. The backgrounds are more complex than in Wonder Boy In Monster World, and have more little details, like flowers, rocks, and grass. They also have multiple scrolling layers of fog, clouds, and mountains in the distance. The game has that unique, colorful anime style, like previous games, but the sprites have more midtones and are much more detailed in general. Asha and Pepelogoo have a bunch of cute animations for all their moves, whenever you use Pepelogoo to solve a puzzle, and for special story moments. This game has a ton of charm, and it still looks better than many modern day 2D games.

Monster World does something really interesting with it's music. It takes the main theme and remixes it in many different styles and genres. Most of the soundtrack consists of different versions of the main theme, or songs that work the main theme in somehow. There's one version the sounds like stereotypical Egyptian music, a slower more mysterious version, and a more upbeat and whimsical version, among others. A simple trumpet version of this theme also plays when you're going into a new area. It’s literally all over the game. There are also some original tracks and returning ones from previous Monster World games, which are a real treat for fans of the previous games.

This is one of those legendary import only games I always heard about, like Castlevania Rondo of Blood, and like Rondo of Blood, it totally lives up to the hype. This is one my favorite Metroidvanias. I think it's a must play for anyone who likes Zelda or Shantae, or is a new Wonder Boy fan after playing the recent Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap remake. It has a wonderful art style, colorful 2D graphics, a great soundtrack, it's challenging, and Pepelogoos are super cute.