Thursday, February 27, 2020

Vice: Project Doom Review

Vice: Project Doom (Gun-Dec on Famicom) is one of those games I always passed on at Blockbuster. I used to see it on the shelf and think, “Does this have something to do with Miami Vice?” and “Why is the guy from Big Trouble in Little China airbrushed on the cover?”. Even though the game got enough buzz to be on the cover of Nintendo Power, I paid it no attention because it was an NES game coming out months after the SNES had launched. I was playing Super Castlevania IV and Final Fight by then. But when it showed up on NSO NES, I had to try it, and I was pleasantly surprised.

There’s a reason why this game has a bootleg Kurt Russel on the cover; Vice: Project Doom takes a lot of inspiration from 80s action movies. The first level starts with a top-town car chase, then you run across a construction site in front of the Hudson River with New York City in the background, fight a mutant rat man boss, and end up in Chinatown for Level 2. So we just went from Spy-Hunter, to Escape from New York, and ended up in Big Trouble in Little China. The whole game is like that, and frankly, I don’t mind. That’s a big part of Vice: Project Doom’s charm. Everything about it feels like an homage to an 80s action movie or videogame.

Perhaps the most obvious homage is the story cutscenes. Apparently, the developers at Aicom were big fans of Ninja Gaiden and Snatcher. One of the first cutscenes faithfully recreates the "Who's there" scene from Ninja Gaiden by having someone sneak up on you from the shadows. Hart also does the Gillian Seed (Snatcher) gun aiming pose multiple times during the game. I've never played Snatcher, but even I recognized the pose.

At its core, Vice: Project Doom is a Ninja Gaiden clone. The locales, crazed Ninjas, and annoying birds are all present here. Most of the game is fast-paced, side scrolling action platforming. There are a couple of other level types that keep things fresh, though. There's top-down Spy-Hunter-esque car driving shoot-em up levels, and Operation Wolf style shooting levels. Even though the shooting levels look like a light gun game, you control the cursor with a controller. No Zapper required! I’ve seen a few other NES games do this, like Bayou Billy, but I think it's done much better here. Both the driving and shooting levels are pretty fun, and they’re over quickly, so they’re not a big deal if you don’t like them, like Bayou Billy’s.

Vice: Project Doom's gameplay borrows heavily from Ninja Gaiden and Castlevania, but it's not nearly as punishing as those games were on the NES. Vice: Project Doom has frequent checkpoints, unlimited continues, bosses with easy to learn patterns, and you can always get a health refilling piece of meat before a boss. You don't even have to break a wall for it. Vice Project Doom's controls are also much more fluid than either Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania's. There is a healthy amount of knockback here, but Hart's jumps are much floatier, he has a lot of air control, you don't have to press anything to grab on to ladders in midair, and your laser whip attacks cover about a 180 degree arc around you. You can hit enemies coming from above or below you with a normal attack. Neither Hayabusa or Belmont can do that. Quinn can also run at full speed while ducking, like how people in movies run from cover to cover during shootouts. I wonder if this inspired Gears' roadie run. I love this mechanic. It's so much more fun than just ducking and staying still until enemy attacks end.

Quinn also gets a couple of subweapons, a gun, and some grenades. These feel very situational, though. I only used them to kill enemies standing close to a ledge. The gun has a longer range than your laser whip, but it's not as far as you'd expect from a gun. Your bullets are also pretty limited since they're randomly dropped by enemies. The grenade's range is much longer, but they travel in a downward arc, so you still can't hit someone all the way across the screen with them, and they're even more limited than the gun's ammo.

The music in Vice: Project Doom really isn't anything special. It's mostly very generic and repetitive chiptune rock with some pretty annoying sounds in it. I think I heard a fire alarm and a deflating balloon in there. It's not anywhere near Ninja Gaiden quality. The graphics are pretty nice, though. Vice: Project Doom has a dark and gritty style that reminds me of NES games like Batman and Shatterhand. I like how it uses 2 or 3 shades of a color to texture objects and shades them with dark blacks that blend into the background. The game does have a bit of slowdown every now and then, but nothing too bad. Overall, I think this is a pretty nice looking NES game.

This game gets a thumbs up from me. It definitely exceeded my expectations. How can a game with an airbrushed bootleg Kurt Russel on the cover possibly be any good, right? Well, don't judge an NES game by its box art. The music isn't great, but the gameplay is fun, the graphics are pretty nice for an NES game, and the story and cutscenes are crazy and over the top, just like the 80s action movies it pays homage to. If you're into NES action games, like Ninja Gaiden, you'll probably like this, too.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Guacamelee Review

Guacamelee isn't exactly the Wrestlevania I imagined. You play as a guy wearing a Lucha mask, and he does piledrivers and suplexes, but this is a Mexican themed Metroidvania first and foremost. Lucha Libre is only a small part of Guacamelee. You could say it's the cilantro of Guacamelee. Aztec temples, Mexican folklore, and colorful characters would be the tomatoes, onions, and jalapenos that give Guacamelee its unique flavor. The avocado in Guacamelee tastes very familiar, though. It tastes like Metroid and Castlevania.

What initially caught my eye about Guacamelee was Juan’s Lucha mask, but I’m not sure if he’s even a wrestler. There’s wrestling memorabilia and a weight bench in his house, but he starts the game without the mask. He’s an agave farmer. That’s the fruit they make tequila from. One day, Calaca, the villain of the story, kills Juan and kidnaps the president's daughter to sacrifice her in a ritual. That’s when Juan gets the Lucha mask, which is what allows him to come back to life. Is Juan a bad enough dude to save the president's daughter? The premise sounds kind of like Rondo of Blood's, but there are actually a lot of twists and turns involving Calaca’s origin and his henchmen throughout the game, which make the story anything but your standard save the princess stuff. It’s a story of love, betrayal, jealousy, and revenge. And it’s much more interesting than what you usually get in Metroid and Castlevania games. It kind of caught me by surprise, and I really enjoyed it.

While Guacamelee’s Mexican setting is pretty unique for a video game, the core gameplay is fairly standard Metroidvania stuff but with a Mexican twist. Instead of exploring Chozo ruins or Dracula’s castle, dungeons are Aztec temples, villages are Mexican pueblos in the Simon's Quest style, and instead of Morph Ball mazes, there’s chicken mazes. Juan can turn into a chicken and go into small tunnels his human form wouldn’t fit in. You can find equivalents for most, if not all, of Juan’s traversal abilities in Metroid, Castlevania, and Zelda games.

The thing that really stands out to me about Guacamelee’s gameplay is the combat system. Guacamelee’s combat shares more in common with beat ‘em ups and fighting games than the average Metroidvania. It’s not just that Juan throws headbutts and dragon punches instead of slashing, whipping, or shooting lasers out of his arm. There’s combos, juggles, hit stun, knockdowns, launchers, and throws, just like in beat ‘em ups and fighting games. You have to use beat ‘em up strategies in battle, too. You have to try to get all the enemies on one side so they don’t surround you, hit as many enemies as possible with special moves, and throw enemies into each other to keep crowds in check, for example. Add to this the fact that you’re on a 2D plane and there’s a combo counter, and you can probably see why this reminds me a lot of Viewtiful Joe.

The Zelda part comes in the form of the living and dead world mechanic, which is a lot like A Link to the Past and Twilight Princess' light and dark world mechanic. You can switch between worlds to hide or reveal walls, doors, and platforms, meet different NPCs, and fight enemies in the opposite world. You can only switch by going through portals in the beginning, but you get the ability to switch with a button press pretty early on. This mechanic fits with the life and death theme of the game, but it's not something that requires much thought. It's not much of a puzzle solving mechanic. It's always obvious when you need to switch because you can see the outline of platforms in the opposite world, walls you can pass through sparkle in the living world, and you can see the shadowy silhouette of enemies waiting in the opposite world. This mechanic just means you have to press an extra button while platforming and enemies in the opposite world can hit you but you can't hit them during combat.

I like a good platforming challenge, but I thought both the platforming and combat became too complicated for their own good the further I got into the game because of the world switching mechanic. It made me not want to play the post game stuff at all. There are platforming sections where you have to switch worlds in midair like 10 times, and long fights where you battle waves of enemies coming at you from both worlds. Guacamelee also does that Twilight Princess thing in which the game constantly locks you in a room and makes you fight a bunch of enemies. I'm not a fan of inescapable gauntlets to begin with, so having to deal with enemies you can't hit in one world makes them even worse.

I also don't really like the way the game blocks off areas with lame color coded blocks. I get that they're easy to see and understand, but couldn't they have come up with something that blended in better with the environments and maybe wasn't so obvious? I guess I just expect a bit more puzzle solving and getting lost in a Metroidvania. I never felt like I had to use critical thinking to do anything in this game.

Guacamelee has a very striking graphical style, which I love. Not a lot of games pull off the cartoon look so well. Especially one so stylish and abstract. I would not be surprised to hear that Samurai Jack was the main influence for Guacamelee's graphics because it has that same kind of colorful and rigid look to everything. I also love how the color palette perfectly sets the mood. The colors instantly make me think of Mexican art and decor.

I like most of Guacamelee's soundtrack. It has a lot of instrumental Mariachi style music with acoustic guitars and trumpets, which remind me of a Ska band I like, The Cat Empire. I especially liked one of the songs which sounds like a Castlevania cover with traditional Mexican instruments. It was on a ferry and there were mermen jumping out of the water, so I don't think it was a coincidence. I don't like the more modern sounding tracks, though. They start putting in record scratching and stuff, and I don't think that really fits the game.

I liked Guacamelee, but I was done with it once I beat Calaca. I don't feel much desire to go back and 100% it. I've had my fill of those annoying world switching battles for now. This is a pretty good Metroidvania, though. The graphics and music are nice, it has an interesting story, the beat 'em up combat system is good, and there's a lot of challenging platforming. I also really like the Mexican setting. I don't think this is the greatest indie Metroidvania, but I'm interested in playing Guacamelee 2 now because I think this series has potential.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Monster Hunter World: Iceborne (PC) Review

Did you miss your old pals Brachydios and Tigrex? Well, they're back in Monster Hunter World's first and final expansion, Monster Hunter World: Iceborne. Yeah, Capcom already said they won't be doing another one. This expansion is basically the Ultimate version of MHW, except you don't have to restart from the beginning. It picks up right where the first game left off. Iceborne features a new story campaign, 2 new hunting areas, a new hub village, a handful of new monsters, a bunch of returning monsters from previous games, and of course, tons of new weapons and armor sets.

In order to unlock all the new quests and monsters, you're going to have to play through Iceborne's campaign. Now, don't get me wrong, MHW's gameplay is still solid as ever, and the new and returning monsters are a welcome addition, but Iceborne's campaign is pretty underwhelming. The structure and pacing just feel too restrictive, grindy, and slow after basically being able to do whatever I wanted for months in the base game.

It starts off well enough with a quest that takes you to the new snowy area, Hoarfrost Reach. That sounds exactly how you think it does. But it quickly goes downhill from there. By the fourth quest of the campaign, you're already back in Astera. I hadn't even checked everything out in the new village. Then you're sent right back into the Wildspire Wastes to fight a recolored Paolumu, as if everyone wasn't sick of the Wildspire Wastes by now. Way to deflate that hype balloon, Capcom. It feels like the game is stalling already. The Master Rank 1 Optional quests available at this time actually send you to the Ancient Forest to kill Great Jagras and Pukei-Pukei. I was fighting Deviljhos and Elder Dragons before Iceborne, and you send me to Ancient Forest to kill a Jagras? Capcom, please.

The pacing of the campaign is horrible. One of the biggest issues with it is that you can’t just play the Assigned Quests. You have to play the Optional Quests, too. You’re not forced to, but monsters in the campaign go up in rank at such a rapid pace, and each rank is such an upgrade for them, you’ll have to upgrade your gear if you don’t want to die in 2 hits. As the game progressed, I would have to spend more and more time making sets to take on each one because they all have different types of elemental attacks and blights you have to counter. Monster Hunter is 50% about preparing for a fight, I get that, but I didn’t buy Iceborne to make yet another Rathalos set. I was very disappointed seeing so many old MHW monsters in the Optional Quests.

Then, as if the time spent making and upgrading gear wasn’t enough, the campaign starts stalling by making you do filler quests, like going on expeditions to explore areas you’ve already been to, and going back into old areas to collect monster tracks, just like they did for the Tempered monsters in the base game. This is padding. The whole thing feels like something that should have been about 10 quests, but was spread out into 20. I would’ve liked to have seen more new monsters used in the campaign, and then have been able to repeat those quests in Optional to finish the armor sets. I would also have liked to have had more quests in Hoarfrost Reach and less in the old areas.

Your endgame reward for playing all the way through the campaign is the new hunting grounds, The Guiding Lands. This zone combines 4 of the major environment types into one huge zone. They say it’s the biggest zone, but I think Hoarfrost Reach is actually bigger. The Guiding Lands has Ancient Forest, Wilspire Wastes, Rotten Vale, and Coral Highlands themed zones. These are not reused zones, they just look like the old zones. The Guiding Lands also has a leveling component to it. Each zone can be leveled up by killing monsters and collecting monster tracks in them. The higher level the zone is, the higher the level of the monsters that spawn in it will be. That means that level 1 zones will have Great Jagras and Barroths in them. The Guiding Lands is the Iceborne campaign in a nutshell. It makes you collect footprints and fight monsters you have no interest in fighting for the 500th time to get to what you want. I kind of hate it. The leveling of the zones is also not permanent. There’s a balancing effect that levels down zones as you level others up. I think a zone that can have all these monsters in it is cool, but the execution is terrible. I don’t want to level these zones by killing more Rathalos, and I don’t want to collect more monster tracks, either.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about The Guiding Lands is that you still can't change decorations at the camp. So if a monster spawns and you don't already have a set to fight it, you have to go back to town to put one together. And since the monsters leave this zone more quickly, they might leave before you get back. You also lose all your buffs once you go back to town.

Even though the campaign sucks, I stuck with the game because MHW’s gameplay is still great. I’d even say that this is the best MH has ever played. I didn’t think Monster Hunter needed any more mechanics because, frankly, the game is still kind of bloated, but the changes they’ve made are actually really good. Every weapon has gotten new moves, there’s a new clutch claw mechanic, and there’s even mounts/taxis.

The new clutch claw move allows you to use your claw shot to cling to a monster and attack it. You can hit it with your weapon, or shoot it in the face if you have some slinger ammo equipped. This might sound like the mounting mechanic, but it’s actually a totally different thing. If you shoot a monster in the face with some strong ammo, you can knock them down, stagger them and make them run into walls, and even make them fall off cliffs for massive damage. The clutch claw also gives melee weapon users something to do to flying monsters besides shooting them with flash bombs.

My favorite new feature is the mounts, which are more like taxis. If you befriend a zone’s Felyne tribe by doing a quest, your Palico will learn how to talk to some of the monsters in that zone and it will get a new item that calls a mount for you. You can’t control this mount directly, but you can have it take you wherever you want in the zone by setting a destination for it on the map. These taxis are much faster than running, and you can use items while mounted.

Iceborne had a rocky start in regards to performance, but some of that has been ironed out with patches by now. Apparently, some of it had to do with the new anti-cheat program attached to the game, which was using a lot of CPU power. The game itself has gotten a pretty big performance boost, though. I can now run the game with higher settings and at a higher framerate on the same PC. I actually used the volumetric rendering for the fog this time around because I think it looks really good in the snowy environments. Besides the performance boost, the snow area has a new snow deformation effect to go along with all the snow everywhere. You and the monsters make trails in the snow as you run through it. I haven’t tried writing my name in it, but it looks pretty cool.

There is a new soundtrack to go along with Iceborne, but the way the game uses music dynamically doesn’t really let you listen to all of it as much as I’d like. The new songs are really good, though. They're all orchestrated, just like on the first game's soundtrack. The OST is on Spotify, if you want to hear the entire songs.

Wow, this review sounds really negative. Well, I’m not very happy with the campaign, and I think the Guiding Lands is a cool idea with a bad execution. Iceborne does add a bunch of monsters to the game, though. That’s what I really wanted out of Iceborne. The game badly needed more monsters. I really like the new moves and mounts, too. I guess this should be obvious, but this expansion is strictly for the hardcore Monster Hunter fans.