Saturday, May 26, 2018

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon Review

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is the Kickstarter stretch goal game funded by backers of the main Bloodstained game, Ritual of the Night. It’s an 8-bit retro game in the style of classic 8-bit and 16-bit Castlevania games and takes a lot of inspiration from Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and Castlevania: Rondo of Blood in particular. It was developed by Inti Creates, makers of Mega Man 9 & 10, Mega Man Zero 1-4, and Blaster Master Zero. Its release has been a pretty big mess, with console and handheld Kickstarter backers still not having their codes and the game being delayed on 3DS in Europe and on Xbox One worldwide, but it is available for $9.99 on NS, 3DS, PS4, PSV, and PC right now.

Not knowing the story of Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, it’s hard to tell when this game takes place, but it was originally pitched as a prequel to Ritual of the Night. They’ve since changed their wording to say that it’s a spinoff of the main game. You play as the Demon Hunter, Zangetsu. He was cursed by demons (with the Curse of the Moon, I guess) and now he wants revenge on all demons. One night, he sensed a great demon in the general direction of a big castle and heads that way. That’s pretty much how they explain it in the game, too. Similarly to a lot of NES games, there’s not a lot of story here. This is mostly an introduction to the characters we’ll see more of in Ritual of the Night.

Curse of the Moon plays a lot like the NES Castlevanias, but faster. Running speed feels more like Ninja Gaiden than old-school Castlevanias. That speed also applies to going up stairs, by the way. Jumping feels a bit floatier, but not quite like in SotN, and you don’t get any air control. You still break candles to get items and subweapons, and a lot of the items do the same thing as items in Castlevania, but they look different. Hearts give you HP instead of weapon points and vases give you weapon points instead of making you invisible. Switching characters is instant, rather than a long animation, like in Castlevania III, and you get to keep all 4 characters you recruit, unlike in Castlevania III. “Veteran” mode still has lives, continues, and knockback when you get hit by enemies, but there is also a “Casual” mode which removes knockback and gives you infinite lives. There is no punishment for playing in Casual instead of Veteran, as far as I can tell, so play however you want.

Curse of the Moon is not a Metroidvania, like Ritual of the Night will be. It has a linear level-by-level structure, just like most of the 8-bit and 16-bit Castlevanias. The levels have branching paths, which you’ll need specific characters to get to sometimes, but it’s not like you end up in a completely different level, or fight a different boss at the end, like you do in Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. All paths lead to the same bosses and levels. Branching paths are limited to within the levels themselves, so it’s not like Castlevania III either. The level design plays it pretty safe. There aren’t a lot of crazy traps, and it doesn’t make you do a lot more than jump over pits and fight enemies, but it’s not bad at all. And yes, there are breakable walls and wall hearts. No wall turkeys, though.

The 4 playable characters are Zangetsu, Miriam, Alfred, and Gebel. They each have different attacks, stats, subweapons, and abilities. Zangetsu is a sort of sword wielding Samurai Demon Hunter. He’s the Mario of the game. He’s well rounded and pretty good in any situation. His subweapons include a Vampire Killer-like ball and chain that does an upwards diagonal attack, a very holy water-like magic charm attack, and a spell that infuses his sword with demonic energy. Zangetsu feels a lot like Ryu Hayabusa from NES Ninja Gaiden. He’s the only one of the playable characters that doesn’t feel like a Castlevania III character. His counterpart would have to be Grant, but he is definitely not like Grant.

Miriam is the main character of Ritual of the Night and the first character Zangetsu meets in the game. She is the Belmont of the game. Actually, she feels more like an 8-bit Nathan Graves from Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. Her whip attack is slow, like a Belmont’s, but it has a long reach, her HP and AP are almost as high as Zangetsu’s, she has the highest jump, and she can slide. Her subweapons are the dagger, a big heavy axe, a boomerang sickle, and a diagonal 3 sword attack.

The second character Zangetsu meets is Alfred, who is not a butler. Alfred is an Alchemist in search of the Liber Logaeth. Whatever that is. He is basically Sypha from Castlevania III. Maybe he’s her grandfather or something. He has very low health and he uses a staff as his main weapon, which has a very short range. Alfred’s strength is his subweapons. All his subweapons are very powerful magic spells, and every time he kills enemies with magic, they drop weapon point vases, so you can use his magic more than other character’s subweapons. Alfred’s magic spells include an ice sword attack that freezes enemies and creates platforms, a damaging fire wheel shield, a magical clone of himself, and a super strong electric ray attack.

Gebel is the final character you’ll meet. He’s supposed to be the villain of Ritual of the Night. He was implanted with magic shards, like Miriam, and hates alchemists and humans. He is basically Alucard from Castlevania III, but he is not a Vampire, as far as I know. For his main attack, he flicks his cape and shoots 3 bats out of it. This attack has a medium range and covers a large diagonal cone in front of and above him, so it’s good for hitting enemies on top of stairs. Gebel can’t use any subweapons, but he can use his weapon points to turn into a bat and fly around, just like Alucard. While in bat form, he can do and upwards dash and a forwards dash, which can damage enemies and break candles in the way.

Zangetsu meets the other 3 characters after killing the first 3 bosses in the game. How you interact with these characters will determine how difficult the game becomes as you play it, what ending you get, and what you unlock after you beat it. You have 3 options; you can talk to them and recruit them, kill them, or just ignore them. Recruiting the others will result in a much easier game, with more checkpoints, and what basically amounts to 4 lives per life, since each character has its own health bar, and losing a character only means you can’t use them until everyone dies and you restart on the next life. If you kill the others, Zangetsu will gain new powers, like a crescent air slash, a double jump, and a short dash that helps you make long jumps. If you ignore the other characters, you just keep playing as regular Zangetsu with no extra abilities. Solo Zangetsu games are the hardest and most NES Castlevania-like ways to play the game, since you don’t get the others’ abilities or 4 lives per life. You also restart at the beginning of the level after dying.

The graphics look pretty nice for an 8-bit style game. They capture the look of an NES game, but could never be done on a real NES. It looks good, but not as good as something like Shovel Knight. The framerate is stays smooth throughout the whole game, even during the most hectic boss fights. The backgrounds are varied, colorful, and fairly detailed. They have multiple parallax scrolling layers and a some cool looking animated elements, but nothing too crazy. The character sprites look very simple and don’t use a lot of colors, so they kind of look like they’re from a GBC game. The most impressive graphical showpiece is probably the bosses, some of are which are huge and fill the whole screen. They also have flashy attacks, including Rondo of Blood style desperation moves.

I loved the music in CotM. It is 8-bit chiptune music, but it is very well done. Not every song is amazing, just most of them. Michiru Yamane, who worked on a lot of Castlevania soundtracks and is working on RotN’s soundtrack, also worked on this one, and it shows. It wouldn't sound out of place in a Castlevania game. If they still made 8-bit Castlevanias, that is. This soundtrack sounds a bit too modern for the NES, but it’s not quite Castlevania Rave music. I can’t wait to hear the orchestrated versions of these songs in RotN.

This is a great game! I love how you can play it in many different ways and be rewarded for it. It has nice graphics, great music, and fun Classicvania gameplay. I think both new and old Castlevania fans will enjoy it. It’s definitely worth $10. I’m glad that Inti Creates is keeping this style of game alive, and I hope we get a sequel in the same style someday. I would love to see a game like this with graphics like Azure Striker Gunvolt.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Fox n Forests Review

Fox n Forests is a 2D action adventure platformer developed by Bonus Level Entertainment. It's available on Steam, Switch, and PS4 for $19.99, and it's coming soon to Xbox One. It’s inspired by games, like Ghosts 'n Goblins, Mega Man X, and Actraiser 2, and combines different elements from many classic SNES games.

You play as Rick, a fox on a mission to save the forest by collecting magical bark for an ancient talking tree. The tree has been losing his power in his old age, allowing evil forces to take over the forest. The magical bark will supposedly rejuvenate the old tree and help him protect the forest. The game has a children's book style presentation, with rhymes and horrible puns. It never takes itself seriously, and often breaks the fourth wall. I’m all for light-heartedness, but this whole thing comes off like a lame Internet meme, and I often felt like skipping all of the text.

The main gimmick in Fox n Forests is the season switching mechanic. Pressing ZR (R2) or ZL (L2) will change the season, and make platforms appear, open new paths, and even help you kill some enemies. For example, you might come across a lake you need to get across, so you switch the season from Spring to Winter, and run over the frozen lake. There are only 2 predetermined seasons per level, so it’s not like you’ll be scrolling through all four. It’s a pretty neat mechanic, but it’s tied to the same resource as you magic arrows, so you’ll constantly be mana starved if you use either one too much.

Fox n Forests’ combat feels like it can't decide if it wants to be Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Actraiser 2. Shooting is the safest, and often easiest way to kill enemies, but you can't shoot while jumping, running, or ducking. You stop in your tracks every time you try to shoot while running (like in GnG), and there's no canceling out of the shooting animation. You get 3 different kinds of shots as you beat bosses, but since they all use the same resource as season switching, I never felt like I could use them as much as I wanted to.

The game feels like it's made for shooting, but every new move and upgrade you can buy is for melee attacks. With such a big focus on melee, you'd think it would be your go to attack, but meleeing is the last thing you want to do most of the time, because that's the easiest way to get hit by enemies. You don't have a neutral melee attack, because that's the shooting stance, so meleeing always feels like a secondary, last resort attack.

I think a lot of the problems with this game stem from the town or hub area and everything it involves. In the Forest Plaza, or town, you'll find 3 shops, 3 spots to plant trees, and the ancient talking tree. In the shops, you'll be able to upgrade your melee attack power, buy new melee moves, heart containers, MP upgrades, and special attack potions. You can't just buy all this with the gold that enemies drop, though. Buying most of this stuff is gated by your progress and how many different doodads you’ve collected. Your progress through the game is also gated by the amount of seeds you’ve collected. After beating a boss, you'll be able to plant the seeds you've collected to open up a new area. All these collectables are hidden in each level, and often require the magic arrows to get to them, so you're forced to replay each level multiple times. And to make matters worse, you don’t get to keep anything unless you finish the whole level. You can’t just grab the thingys and go back to the world map, like in Mega Man X.

Levels in Fox n Forests are like 3 Mega Man X3 levels put together. They are way too long and full of hidden whatchamacallits to collect. There are usually 5 seeds and 2 grind stones (a fitting name) in each, and 6 of them also have a crystal ore. The levels have linear action platforming design in one part, and usually more maze-like lower and higher areas, which have most of the doodads. The platforming and exploring by themselves are fine, but enemies respawn like 5 seconds after being killed, so that gets annoying when trying to solve a puzzle. Sometimes the thingamajigs are in underground tunnels and caves, and sometimes they’re above the trees on the mountain tops. There are checkpoints, but they’re not automatic, you have to buy them with gold. If you do not buy the checkpoints, you start back at the beginning or at the last one you bought, and you lose all the money and doohickeys you’ve collected.

Fox n Forests levels are at their best when they're focused on doing one thing. There is a vertically scrolling, Castlevania Clock Tower-like level, and 2 Gradius-like levels in which you ride on your partridge friend, like a biplane, and shoot down birds while avoiding hazards by switching seasons. You’re still dealing with the MP double edged sword of using the season switching and magic arrows, but these are some of the best levels in the game, because there aren’t 3 different layers to go looking for gizmos in.

The graphics are definitely the highlight of the game. They really nail the look of a Super Nintendo game. The SNES could never handle a game that looked this good and had the season switching mechanic, though. The art style is very reminiscent of Capcom SNES games, like Demon’s Crest and The Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse. The sprites are colorful and fairly detailed, even if they’re in SNES resolution, and every level has 2 different seasons, which look completely different. I played the Switch version, and it has some weird frame skipping issue that is very noticeable in the forested areas, but it didn’t affect gameplay. Hopefully that gets taken care of with a patch.

I didn’t like the music and sound effects at all. The music is very samey, simple, and repetitive. None of the songs really stood out to me. The sound effects all sound very muffled, like someone put a pillow over the microphone or something. I get that it’s supposed to be retro, but this is the bad kind of retro. Games don’t have to sound cheap just because they’re retro.

This game looked like it had potential, but all these gating systems with the N64 Rare style thingy collecting messed everything up. Somewhere underneath all this padding there is what could have been a really cool SNES style action platformer. As it is right now, it's a jack of all trades and a master of none. This game would have probably turned out better as an arcadey Ghosts ‘n Goblins style game, like the name suggests.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Castlevania Chronicles Review

Castlevania Chronicles is a port of the Sharp X68000 version of Akumajou Dracula for the PlayStation. It's a remake of Castlevania (NES), much like Super Castlevania IV, only much more faithful to the original. The X68000 game was originally released in 1993, just a couple of years after Super Castlevania IV. It was in development at the same time as Bloodlines and Rondo of Blood. The PlayStation version came out in 2001, and it features the original game with some UI changes, and a new Arranged mode with rebalanced difficulty, a new soundtrack, and some graphical changes. Koji Igarashi originally wanted to release a series of Castlevania remakes, including remakes of Castlevania II and III, but Castlevania Chronicles, Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth on Wii, and the PSP game, Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles were the only ones he got a chance to make.

This game retells the story of the original Castlevania, and expands on it by mentioning a bit of the Belmont family history. The story takes place in 1691, 100 years after the events of the Game Boy game, Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge, in which Christopher Belmont killed Dracula for the second time. In a very Rondo of Blood style opening FMV, a cult of Dracula fanatics performs a Black Mass, and resurrects Dracula once again. According to the manual, this all happened on Easter, too. So now, the latest Belmont Vampire Hunter, Simon, sets off to vanquish the horrible night, like his ancestors did.

Castlevania Chronicles plays a lot like Castlevania on NES. Simon walks slowly, but with purpose, whipping has a short windup animation, and there’s no jumping on or off stairs. The main differences in the controls are that you can whip downwards and diagonally while in the air, and you have a little bit of air control while jumping. You still get knocked back whenever you get hit in the Original mode, but not in the Arranged mode. The knockback animation isn't completely removed, you just kind of go through the animation, but stay in the same place. You also take about half the damage in Arranged mode. The reduced damage and removal of knockback in Arranged mode might sound like small changes, but they make the game much easier. Overall, the game feels little less archaic than the NES game, but still very much like a Classicvania.

Just like in the original, you can upgrade your whip 3 times by collecting upgrades, which you get from breaking candles. You can also get money bags, subweapons, and hearts which allow you to use the subweapons. Classic subweapons, like the boomerang cross, dagger, axe, and holy water return, along with a new herb item, which lets you heal yourself. You can also find items hidden within breakable walls, such as upgrades for your subweapons, and the classic meat, AKA wall turkeys.

The game is structured in a linear, level by level style. There are 24 levels, each split up into 3 parts or “blocks”, with a boss at the end. Classic Castlevania bosses, like Medusa, the Giant Bat, Death, and Dracula are back, along with a few from later games, like the Werewolf, and the Wizard. Most stages look a lot like Castlevania I and Super Castlevania stages, but there are also some original areas. I always enjoy seeing old areas return. It makes the castle feel like a real place, with history and personality to it. Like in the original, each block serves as a checkpoint, but you have to restart from the beginning of the level if you lose all your lives. You still get infinite continues, and like in the Famicom Disk System version of Castlevania, you can save your progress in the 3 available save files. No passwords required.

Castlevania Chronicles looks pretty good when compared to other 16-bit castlevanias, like Rondo of Blood and Super Castlevania IV. The sprites are fairly detailed, and the framerate stays smooth throughout the whole game. It looks like a 16-bit version of the NES game. The Arranged mode has new Simon and Dracula sprites based on the new Ayami Kojima designs, but besides that, it looks the same as the Original mode. The new sprites don’t seem to be too popular with fans of the game, but I prefer them. I was never a big fan of the Conan knockoff Simon Belmont, or the Bela Lugosi style Dracula for that matter. I think the long hair and facial hair Dracula works better for Castlevania. Original mode Simon reminds me too much of Simon in the Haunted Castle arcade game, too.

They really went all out with the soundtrack for this game. It actually has 4 soundtracks. There’s the new remixed soundtrack they did for the Arranged Mode and 3 versions of the old soundtrack. The remixed soundtrack features high quality audio remixes of classic tunes, including Vampire Killer, Bloody Tears, and Wicked Child, with a lot of electronic dance music influence. It sounds kind of like a Castlevania rave. Which sounds like a good time, but sometimes feels kind of goofy while playing the game. The 3 versions of the old soundtrack are all the same songs, but with different synthesizer instrumentation, so they sound very different. I prefer the FM synthesizer version, since it sounds the most like the 16-bit games I’m used to, and it’s pretty rocking.

I really enjoyed this game. It’s a fun throwback to the first Castlevania. It has good graphics, a great soundtrack, and fun Classicvania gameplay. It is a very tough game, but Arranged mode has difficulty options to make it much more manageable. It’s still pretty challenging, though. Definitely check it out if you like the Classicvania style games. It's available as a PS Classic for $5.99.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance Review

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance is the second Castlevania game for the Game Boy Advance, and the third in the Metroidvania style. It was originally released in 2002, about a year after Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. It is also available on the Wii U Virtual Console. Development of HoD was handled by Konami’s Tokyo studio instead of the Kobe studio who made Circle of the Moon. Koji Igarashi, who was not involved with Circle of the Moon, was the producer and scenario writer for HoD.

Harmony of Dissonance takes place in 1748, 50 years after the events of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, and 44 years before Rondo of Blood. It’s sort of a sequel to Simon’s Quest, and it references story and gameplay elements from that game. You play as Juste Belmont, Simon Belmont’s grandson, and maybe Richter's father or grandfather, too. He and his friend Maxim come across Castlevania while searching for their kidnapped friend, Lydie. It's later revealed that Maxim was jealous of Juste, because he's such a superstar Vampire Hunter, and decided to steal his thunder by collecting Dracula's body parts, which was Juste’s job as a Belmont. The collected body parts are what made Dracula's castle appear.

Juste might look more like Alucard than a Belmont, but he is not a Vampire or Dhampir. Juste has a trailing shadow because he has Belnades blood flowing through his veins. I guess Simon’s kid had a child with a Belnades. That's probably why Juste has white hair, white eyes, and really pale skin, too. Because Juste has both Belmont and Belnades blood, he’s basically a super Vampire Hunter who can wield the Vampire Killer and cast magic.

Juste plays a lot like Alucard, but with a whip instead of a sword. Most of the weird control quirks of Nathan Graves from Circle of the Moon are gone. Juste doesn't look like he's going on a stroll, he looks more like he's jogging, and he can jump much farther than Nathan, so he doesn't have to constantly sprint everywhere to make every little jump. Juste has forward and back dash moves, but he doesn't gain momentum to jump farther from them, they're just for evading enemy attacks and traversing the castle. It is weird that they used both L and R for 2 different dash moves, especially since the GBA only has 4 buttons, but it's not like they had anything better to put on them. Juste only gets 3 new abilities throughout the whole game, so everything works fine with the amount of buttons.

The abilities in HoD are all very basic returning skills from past Castlevania games. There's a double jump, a slide, and a super jump. Juste can also do a divekick after getting the double jump. A lot of the progress blocking obstacles in the castle require key items and equipment to get past them instead of abilities. There are some stone blocks which will only break when you super jump to them while wearing a specific pair of boots, and stone doors that only break when you have a special whip enhancement equipped, for example. Most of the rewards you get after beating a boss are pieces of armor, health and heart upgrades, and furniture for Juste’s room. Animal Crossing was starting to get popular in Japan around this time.

Harmony of Dissonance’s magic system allows you to combine the classic Castlevania subweapons with 5 different magic books for powerful and flashy spells. You can combine the holy water and wind book for a Rondo of Blood item crash style holy water rain spell, for example. It is a little bit like CotM’s DSS cards, but with a lot less guesswork and no farming required. The magic books are found hidden around the castle, just like most other items. Bosses and enemies have different elemental weaknesses, which are detailed in the bestiary, so experimenting with different schools of magic is encouraged.

Like in Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance takes place in a gigantic interconnected castle. The twist here is that the castle is duplicated early on in the game. It's kind of like Hyrule and the Dark World in Zelda LttP, but not nearly as ingenious. Castle A looks like a normal version of Castlevania at night, and Castle B looks like a ruined version of the castle at sunset. They have different enemies, bosses, items, and obstacles, but the layout is exactly the same. There are a few times when doing something in one castle will open a path in the other, but I don't think this mechanic was used to its full potential. Not being able to quickly travel between the 2 castles probably hindered that.

I thought the 2 castles made the game a real slog. It feels like padding. Like they just had to do something like SotN's inverted castle. There are teleports to get around the castle, and portals to go to the other castle, but they're too apart. Since there's no real flow or logic to where you should be going most of the time, I often found myself traveling all over both castles and exploring the same areas twice while looking for the right path. The level design of the castle is nothing special either. There's a lot of dead ends, very little platforming, and lots of zigzag pattern staircases. It's almost comical how many zigzag staircases there are. There is only one breakable wall in the whole game. There are a few sections where you can break environment pieces to make platforms, but no secret wall turkeys or anything. There's a few rooms with some crate pushing, and those are the most interesting puzzles in the game. Overall, it’s a pretty boring castle when compared to other games in the series.

This game does have some nice looking areas, but also a lot of ugly ones. It looks like they threw out all the new CotM sprites, and only reused Rondo and SotN sprites. Lots of areas in the game have plain one color environment pieces and bright backgrounds with clashing colors. Some areas in the ruined castle are mostly or completely in black and white, even when other areas in it are not, which doesn't make much sense to me. I guess they didn't want to make a game with dark graphics that would be hard to see on a GBA, like CotM, but they went too far in the other direction. The frame rate is good throughout the whole game, at least.

The music in Harmony of Dissonance is just sad. The melodies are fine. There are some new and some returning tunes, and it sounds like Castlevania music, but the audio quality is pathetic. It sounds like a radio station with bad reception. It sounds muffled and distorted. NES music sounds cleaner than this, and that's not an exaggeration, I checked.

Something went wrong with this game. It's like they tried to outdo both Symphony of the Night and Circle of the Moon, but failed miserably. The castle is the worst of the Metroidvanias, and then they duplicate it, there's a lot of ugly backgrounds, and the quality of the audio is pathetic. The core Castlevania gameplay is good, as expected, Simon's Quest fans will enjoy the story, and the magic system is pretty cool, but that's not enough to carry this game out of mediocrity.