Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Messenger Review

The Messenger is a Ninja themed action platformer from indie developer, Sabotage, and publisher, Devolver Digital. It's available now on Switch and PC for $19.99. This game might look like an off-brand 2D Ninja Gaiden revival at a glance, but there’s a lot more going on here. It's actually much closer to platformers like Shovel Knight Specter of Torment, with a little Metroidvania exploration thrown in.

In The Messenger, you play as a young Ninja bored with his daily training in a secluded Ninja village. The Ninjas there are waiting for the arrival of the legendary “Western Hero” who will save the world from demons. The Western Hero isn't necessarily from the geographical West, he's just coming from the left side of the screen. Like in a lot of 2D platformers, the world starts on the left and ends on the right. One day, demons finally show up, and sure enough, the Western Hero shows up, too. He drives the demons away and gives you a scroll to take to the highest mountain in the land, making you the Messenger.

That's just the basic premise, though. The game is full of interesting twists, which usually affect the gameplay in some way. It breaks the fourth wall and is silly at times, but it works. The game doesn’t take itself too seriously. The characters seem to be aware that they're in a videogame and often make gameplay related jokes. This kind of stuff usually comes off incredibly lame in other games, but the writing here is witty and actually funny.

The game starts off as a straightforward action platformer. You can run, jump, slash things with your sword, and double jump using game's main mechanic, the Cloudstep. Cloudstepping allows you to double jump, but only after slashing something with your sword while in the middle of a jump. It can be an enemy, hanging lanterns, or an enemy's projectile, after buying an upgrade. As you progress through the game, you’ll get other abilities which you’ll have to use in combination with the Cloudstep to make it through the game’s platforming obstacle courses.

The 3 major upgrades are the Climbing Claws, Rope Dart (AKA grappling hook), and Wingsuit. The Climbing Claws allow you to cling to walls, climb on them, and attack and jump from them. This is a real wall climb. You don’t slide down the wall, like in mega Man X, and you don’t need to do the Ninja Gaiden 1 shimmy to climb up them. The Rope Dart pulls you to whatever you grapple onto and propels you farther if you do it while jumping. You can use this to stay airborne and Cloudstep across large gaps. The Wingsuit allows you to glide in the air by pressing B when descending from a jump. It’s similar to the flying squirrel suit in NSMBU. You can do this before and after Cloudstepping, and there’s an upgrade to do a spinning vertical attack while gliding, so you can do another Cloudstep after that, and stay airborne indefinitely, as long as you have something to hit. I won’t try to sugarcoat it, constantly juggling yourself in the air and grappling to things to boost your speed while in the air can get demanding and sometimes confusing, but it makes for some great platforming.

Around a third of the way through the game, things start getting weird. There are twists in the story that I won’t go into, but the result is that the game turns into a Metroidvania. There’s time travel involved and portals that let you travel between 2 time periods start opening up all over the world. The “8-bit” world is in the past and the “16-bit” world is the future. It works kind of like the Light and Dark Worlds in Zelda LttP, and in a bunch of other games. You’ll have to constantly travel between the 2 eras to progress past obstacles and make your way through the levels. A new hub area with portals to all the levels becomes available, and you’ll have to collect a bunch of musical notes to play the song that will open the door to the last level. Yes, it’s very Mario 64.

I think The Messenger is a great platformer, but I don’t think it’s a great Metroidvania. There are a few puzzles in the second half of the game, but the level design never really changes to fit the Metroidvania gameplay I associate with games like Castlevania SOTN. The levels always feel like they’re made for challenging platforming, so backtracking and wandering around aimlessly looking for musical notes gets tiresome very quickly. Thankfully, you can get free hints from an NPC, and if that's not enough, the shopkeeper will mark where you need to go on the map for 300 shards, the in-game currency. Once you take the exploration aspect out, you can just focus on the platforming, which is where the game truly shines.

The Messenger also has a bunch of great bosses. They’re all very different and put your Ninja skills to the test. You’ll have to master the Cloudstep and all the different combinations of it and other moves to make it past these guys. I had a pretty rough time with one that required me to stay off the ground for a whole phase of the fight.

I think the graphics in The Messenger are pretty nice. The future era looks especially awesome. I guess the 2 graphical styles are supposed to be 8-bit in the past and 16-bit in the future, but I don’t think either either style hits that mark, because they just look too good. It’s not even as close as in other fake 8-bit games, like Shovel Knight and Bloodstained CotM, so I’m not even sure if that was the intent. The 8-bit past looks more like a TG16 game than an NES game, and the 16-bit future looks like a modern day 2D indie game with really nice pixel art.

I think there are a few good songs in the soundtrack and it fits the mood of the game, but for the most part, I didn’t really like the music. I think it sounds like an indie rock band doing Halloween songs. Not the band, the holiday. It’s very repetitive, goofy, and it has a certain bassy chiptune sound that reminds me of classic tunes, like the Donkey Kong stage intro theme. The audio quality is also way too good to fool anyone into thinking it’s coming from an 8-bit or 16-bit system.

The Messenger is not the Ninja Metroidvania I’ve been waiting for, but it is the awesome Ninja platformer I didn’t know I wanted. I don’t think the platforming level design mixes very well with Metroidvania exploration, but you can choose to get rid of a lot of it. I’d be interested in seeing if they choose to focus on just one style of gameplay in a sequel. I can’t help but think that this game would have been better without any exploration at all.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Mega Man 11 Review

After a 10 year hiatus, Mega Man is back with a brand new game. This isn't an 8-bit throwback, this is the real deal. Mega Man 11 feels like the true sequel to MM8 that MM9 was purposely trying not to be. MM11 looks, sounds, and plays like a modern game. A $30, retro inspired game, but still a game that moves the series forward.

Mega Man 11 doesn't explain anything about Zero or the connection to the 21XX future of Mega Man X, and Proto Man and Bass aren't even in it, but I feel like its story does more to flesh out the Mega Man universe than any game in the series since MM7. Mega Man 11’s story revolves around the game's main mechanic, the Double Gear system. This robot upgrade was developed by Dr. Wily back in the days when he and Dr. Light didn't have facial hair and hadn't gone gray. In the intro, we see Dr Wily having a flashback dream of how a committee of scientists chose to pursue Light's ideas of making robots with independent thought instead of developing the Double Gear system based on his prototype. We only get a short glimpse of Wily and Light in their college years, but this does a great job showing us why Dr. Wily still holds a grudge against Dr. Light.

Dr. Wily's dream inspires him to finish his work on the Double Gear system. Then he does what he does in every game, he uses it to steal a bunch of Robot Masters from Light's lab to try and take over the world. Which begs the question, is Dr. Wily a robot now? Did he pull a Dr. Gero or did he install the Double Gear system onto his personal flying saucer? Mega Man then has Dr. light install the old prototype on him to help him fight Wily. The prototype causes great strain the robots who use it, but Mega Man doesn't seem to mind. I guess he can always buy a new body from Roll and Auto.

The Double Gear system allows you to boost Mega Man's power or speed for a short period of time. Both Gears share a timer, and if you use either one for too long, they overheat and can't be used for a while. The Power Gear increases the attack power of Mega Man's buster shots, fires a second charged shot, and boosts the power of all Robot Master weapons. It's a lot like the X-Buster upgrade in Mega Man X, except this one is on a timer. The Speed Gear is supposed to be a speed boost, but it actually looks more like slow motion in-game. Everything slows down, including Mega Man, allowing you to maneuver past obstacles, hit fast moving targets, or just have more time to attack an enemy. You can also buy an upgrade from Dr. Light's Lab that allows you to move at regular speed during the speed boost. You can use both Gears at once, but only when Mega Man is at low health. You can't cancel the effect when using them together; though, which forces them to overheat and go on cooldown.

The Double Gear system is a cool addition to the classic Mega Man gameplay. It lets you to play around with the platforming mechanics and helps you get through some sections with ease, but it is not mandatory. You can ignore it if you want a more old-school experience. You can beat the game without using it at all, if you're really hardcore.

Aside from the Double Gear system, MM11 feels a lot like classic Mega Man. The level design is very linear, and there's no exploration or hidden items, like in MM7 and the X series. Every level has some kind of unique obstacle or theme that sets it apart from the rest, without feeling gimmicky. There are some returning enemies and obstacles, but the levels feel new and fresh, and not like a greatest hits of Mega Man levels. For example, Torch Man’s level is a robot campgrounds with robotic gas lantern owls that light the night, robot mushroom torch enemies that can be used as platforms, and walls of flame that chase you through lumber platforming mazes. It’s unlike any fire themed level in previous Mega Man games.

I think the bosses are pretty good for the most part. I like most of their designs. I'm not a fan of Bounce Man, his balloon themed stage, or his clown music, but the rest are cool. The actual boss fights are really good, especially when only using the Mega Buster and not tearing them apart with the weapon they're weak against. They all use the Double Gear system, so they have second phases in which they do more powerful attacks with the Power Gear or slow down (or speed up) time to do a special attack with the Speed Gear. The one that really stands out to me is Block Man. He uses the Power Gear to turn into a huge block goliath. Impact Man also has a big second form in which he turns into a construction site drilling machine, but it’s not as big as Block Man's. Not all of the bosses have huge second forms, but they do have very flashy attacks reminiscent of Marvel VS Capcom super moves. I got the feeling that they were not afraid to try some new things with these boss fights.

Mega Man 11 has 3 difficulties available from the start and a harder “Superhero” difficulty unlockable by beating the game on normal. Newcomer is the easiest one. It gives you infinite lives; infinite Beats, which pull you out of pits; you take less damage and do more damage; there's no knockback; and you get a few of the Dr. Light’s Lab upgrades preinstalled for free, among other things. Everything is pretty much a pushover in this mode. Casual is also very easy, but doesn’t give you infinite lives or as many freebies, like Beat. I played on normal and felt like the challenge was just right. This is probably where people who have recently played through the MM Legacy Collections will want to start. I felt like I actually had to strategize and think about what items and upgrades I bought first, and I actually had to use E-Tanks to beat some bosses I didn't have the best weapon for, since I didn't know the boss order yet. Superhero mode is a lot like Normal in that you don't get any freebies, but you take more damage and do less damage, there are a lot less item drops, and there are no items lying around. There's a good difficulty for everyone here.

Mega Man 11 also includes a gallery with bios for all enemies and Robot Masters and a MMLC-like Challenges section with online leaderboards. The Challenges include a boss rush, time attack, score attack, and challenges where you try to get through a level by jumping or attacking as few times as possible. There’s also a challenge called Dr. Light’s Trial that has you fighting through 30 unique areas. The Robot Master bios are witty and silly. They kind of remind me of the database from MM&B, but these are much longer. I was hoping for an art gallery with production drawings here, but it's all 3D models.

Technically speaking, the graphics in MM11 are not mind blowing, but the style is spot on and the framerate is a solid 60. The color palette is very reminiscent of the NES games, with lots of light blues and greens; the textures are just detailed enough that they don’t look flat, but still look cartoony; and the toon outlines and cel shading make the characters stand out and give them that 3 tone shading on top of the textures that completes the anime style. Mega Man, Roll, Beat, Rush, and Auto all look really cute and closer to their pre-Mega Man 8 designs. Mega Man and Roll in particular look like a mix between their Smash Bros and Powered Up versions. The character designs are a big improvement over the more anatomically correct MM8 designs all around.

The music sounds very techno inspired with just a hint of the classic Mega Man sound. Some songs sound closer to the NES style, but most sound more like Mega Man dance music. It’s fine, but I wish more of them sounded like Fuse Man’s theme, which is my favorite. I think his and Block Man's themes capture the MM sound the best. All the voices sound great except for Mega Man’s English voice, which sounds a bit too adult for me. I know he's called Mega Man, but I think he should always sound like a 10 year old boy. His Japanese voice sounds much better. The rest of the cast is pretty spot on, including all the Robot Masters, who are constantly talking during their battles.

I had a lot of fun with Mega Man 11. I feel like it accomplished what it set out to do. The story is interesting, the level designs and boss battles are great, and the graphics get the MM style right without resorting to 8-bit graphics. MM11 feels like the sequel to MM8 I've been waiting for. I was left wanting more, though. This game is just as long as previous MM games. That is to say, not very long at all. MM veterans will easily beat this game in a few hours on their first playthrough. Knowing Capcom; though, there will be another Mega Man game soon enough.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Mega Man 9 Review

Mega Man 9 was originally released in 2008 on PS3, X360, and Wii. It was the big come back game for the series at the time. Even though plenty of MM spin-offs were released after Mega Man & Bass, there had not been a new original series game since 1998. MM9 was a trendsetter for downloadable games and 2D retro revivals, but at the same time, it set the series back about 4 console generations. In a time when HD consoles were becoming the standard, Capcom and developer, Inti Creates, made a game that looked like an NES game. It would take another 10 years to get a Mega Man game that looked like it was made in the century it was released in.

Mega Man 9’s story has Dr Wily framing Dr Light with a video of him saying his robots are going to take over the world. Wily has Light arrested and then goes on TV to try and get people to send him money to build robots to save the world from Dr Light's robots, but it's actually to try to take over the world again. It’s kind of nostalgic and funny, but never even tries to follow up on anything from MM7, MM8, and MM&B. Bass never even shows up in the game. It’s almost like an alternate universe Mega Man 6.5. As far as I know, it takes place after MM&B, but they could have fooled me. There are at least more cutscenes than in any of the NES games, and they look really nice.

Mega Man 6.5 is a good way to describe a lot of things about Mega Man 9. This game looks like it could have been released in 1995 on the NES. The color palette, size of the sprites, and number of frames of animation all look like they're right out an NES game. The game doesn’t even have a widescreen aspect ratio. There's nothing that looks like it couldn't be done on an NES here, like some of the stuff you see in other fake 8-bit games, like Shovel Knight. The frame rate might be the only thing that wouldn't have been so smooth on the NES. Not even MM6’s frame rate was this smooth throughout the whole game.

The graphics nail the NES look, but none of the levels really stand out for looking amazing. Nearly every level theme has already been done, and done better, in the NES games. Concrete Man's forest doesn't look as good as Plant Man's in MM6, or even Wood Man's from MM2. We've seen space levels, like Galaxy Man's; metallic electricity themed levels, like Plug Man's; and sky levels, like Tornado Man's all done better in MM4-6. The backgrounds don't have as much variety, and the sprites aren't as detailed as in the last 3 NES games.

Mega Man's controls are also a big step back for the series. All the way back to MM2. Mega Man doesn't have the slide or the charge shot in this game. I know there's a group of people who like Mega Man without the charge shot better, but I am not one of them. I feel like we're losing a bit of the depth of the combat without it. I don't get why they took out the slide at all. Is there a group of slide haters out there too? They did put both the charge shot and the slide on Proto Man, but you have to start a separate game, with a separate save, to play as him. He also takes a lot more damage and knockback.

The stages and bosses are the highlight of Mega Man 9 for me. The level design feels like they cherry picked a bunch of obstacles from MM1-6 and mixed them in with a few new enemies. A lot of them feel like retreads of ideas from MM4-6, but they're all fun and challenging. That's one of the things this game has always been notorious for, its challenging levels. They're really not that much harder than the average MM level; though, they just have some very unforgiving sections that don't leave much room for error. For example, there's one section in Plug Man's stage where you have to shoot a Met, while on top of a disappearing block platform, while jumping onto the platform it's on. If you don't kill the Met, it's going to hit you and knock you back onto a bunch of spikes, which will kill you in 1 hit if you don't get out of them before your invincibility frames run out. Sections like that are challenging, but stick out for being too demanding when compared to the rest of the game. They're not necessarily fun level design.

I think most of the Robot Masters in this game have pretty cool designs. Jewel Man is the only lame looking one. They all have that sort of vaguely familiar Robot Master style, but don’t make me wonder if they've been done before when I look at them. Galaxy Man, Hornet Man, and Splash Woman all have very cool designs. I've definitely never seen mermaid or UFO Robot Masters. Most of their fights feel pretty original, too. It’s probably pretty hard to make a completely original MM boss fights 20+ years into the series, but they at least feel fresh here.

The music in this game is pretty great. They totally nailed the NES Mega Man sound. I like all the Robot Master themes. I especially love Tornado Man's theme. It just has all those sounds I associate with Mega Man music, such as the Proto Man-like whistles and fast chiptune drums. All the Wily stage themes are also awesome. My favorite is the first Wily stage theme. It just fits perfectly with the afternoon sky in the background of the level and makes it feel like Mega Man is on an epic mission.

Mega Man 9 is a good Mega Man game, but it's a very derivative Mega Man game. It never feels like it's doing anything to move the series forward. In fact, it's deliberately going backwards. It was a novel idea when it originally came out, but now that we have it in the same collection as the rest of the games in MMLC, it doesn't really stand out over any of them. I think if this game was released in 1995 people would remember it as just another good but not extraordinary Mega Man.