Sunday, May 31, 2020

Panzer Dragoon: Remake Review

Developer: MegaPixel Studio
Publisher: Forever Entertainment S.A.
Price: $25
Available On: Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia, and PC in the future.
Version Played: Switch

Panzer Dragoon: Remake is, of course, a remake of the 1995 Sega Saturn launch game. That’s what the icon on my Switch says it’s called. I don’t make this stuff up. They really couldn’t come up with something a little more creative? The unimaginative title pretty much lets you know what you should expect from this remake. It’s a barebones, low budget remake lacking many of the cool extras you might expect from a modern remake of a cult classic. They might as well have called it Great Value Panzer Dragoon. They didn’t even put the original game in here. And the few new features and extras that did make it in are either poorly thought out or on the skimpy side, for the most part. Nearly every addition to the game was screwed up in some way. There is still a great game here for fans of on-rails shooters, though. This remake at least gets the gameplay right.

If you’re not familiar with Panzer Dragoon, it’s basically the spiritual successor to Space Harrier and Sega’s answer to Nintendo’s Star Fox at the same time. It's a 3D shoot 'em up in which you ride on a dragon flying on a predetermined path. You don't have control of where you're going, but you can fly your dragon around the screen to avoid enemy attacks. You control your reticle and the dragon with the left stick, at the same time, and use the L and R buttons to change the direction your rider is facing. Your dragon is always flying in the same direction, but enemies can come from any direction, so you need to keep an eye on the radar and look around you to take them out. That’s probably the biggest difference from Star Fox in terms of gameplay. You can mash the B or A buttons to shoot, but like in Star Fox 64, the shooting game is really all about locking onto multiple targets and unleashing powerful homing attacks. You lock on by holding down the attack button and running the reticle over the enemies. Then you release the button and watch things blow up.

There are no barrel rolls (or dragon rolls) in Panzer Dragoon, but there is a dodge move you can do by double tapping and holding left or right on the d-pad. But it doesn't work with the analog stick, so I found myself switching to the d-pad when I really needed it. Mostly during boss battles. The Saturn didn't have an analog stick controller at launch, so you had no choice but to play the original with the d-pad, but I think they should have put in an easier way to dodge. You really need it for some fights, and using the d-pad just doesn't feel as good as using the analog stick. That's just one of the many obvious things missing from this remake. I tried mapping left and right to ZL and ZR through the Switch's options, but I never really got used to double tapping and holding them down to dodge like that.

There are also a couple of new control options; modern controls and Gyro controls. Modern controls are basically FPS controls. They let you move the dragon independently from the crosshairs and shoot with ZL or ZR. I don’t get what they’re going for with the gyro controls. They’re just a mess. The lack of customization options pretty much ruin both configurations for me. The only things you can do in the control options is change the look sensitivity and invert the Y axis, and when you invert the Y axis, you do it for both sticks at the same time, which makes the modern controls unusable for me since I play with inverted aiming. I don’t want to invert my movement when using FPS-like controls, just my aiming.

The Gyro controls feel like the developers didn’t really know why people were asking for them in the first place. The way they have it set up has you moving the dragon and the crosshairs at the same time with motion controls on the left joycon, or the whole controller if you’re using a Pro Controller or are playing handheld. What you’d want to do with motion controls in an on-rails shooter is what Sin & Punishment: Star Successor did on the Wii. You moved your character with the analog stick on the Nunchuck, and moved the crosshairs with motion controls on the Wiimote. It was awesome! It felt as natural as using a mouse on a PC. I Tweeted this to the developers, and they told me tweaks are coming, so hopefully they get it right eventually.

Panzer Dragoon might have been a graphical showcase for the Saturn back in the day, but most of the time, it looked like a bunch of rocks surrounded by fog. This remake adds a bunch of new stuff to the backgrounds. The first level actually looks like the flooded city it’s supposed to be, and not the bunch of pillars in the middle of the ocean it looked like in the original, and the forest level is actually surrounded by trees and mountains instead of simply having a forest canopy texture on the floor. It looks very different from how it looked on Saturn, but it fits the art style of the series, and kind of reminds me of Panzer Dragoon Orta.

This remake definitely isn't a graphical showcase for the Switch. On the default mode, the game runs at somewhere between 30 and 60fps and 972p docked. The framerate goes all over the place depending on the area and enemies. The graphics aren’t that amazing, so I don’t get why it can’t run better than that. There is a “Performance Mode” that runs the game at more like 50 to 60fps, but also lowers the resolution to 504p in both docked and handheld modes. It doesn’t look great, but it feels much better to play than at 30ish. The game also has some horrible load times. I’m talking like 20 seconds to load a cutscene and around 40 to load a new level. Keep your phone handy.

There is a new version of the soundtrack, with arranged songs by Saori Kobayashi, who isn't the composer of the original game's OST, but did work on Panzer Dragoon Saga and Panzer Dragoon Orta. The new versions of the songs are really good. Kobayashi remade the synth tracks with an orchestra, some of the original orchestrated songs now have a more robust sound with more instruments, and some tracks were stripped down a bit for a more dramatic sound. It's still the same songs, though. You can also play with the original Yoshitaka Azuma version of the soundtrack, which is still amazing.

There really isn’t much in terms of extras. Like I mentioned earlier, the original game is not included here. It was included in Panzer Dragoon Orta, which is backwards compatible on XBO, if you want to hunt that down. The only unlockables in this game are some cheat codes and a gallery with some production art. After beating the game, you’ll be able to enter a version of the Konami code to go into “Pandora’s Box”, which is a menu with a stage select and toggles for different cheats, like god mode and easy bosses. Some other cheat codes will also randomly appear during loading screens after you beat the game, or you can just get them from GameFAQs.

I don’t have enough sugar to coat all of this game’s issues, but this is still a fun on-rails shooter despite them. I think it actually plays even better than the original. If you enjoy games like Star Fox 64, Rez, and Sin & Punishment, you’ll probably love this. The gameplay is tight, the art style is spot on, and the soundtrack is still great, but nearly everything else about the game feels unfinished or poorly thought out. The framerate, resolution, and control options are especially puzzling. If you’re still interested, I recommend waiting for this to hit Steam since it’ll probably run better on PC.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Streets of Rage 4 Review

Developers: LizardCube, Guard Crush Games
Publisher: DotEmu
Available on: PC, NS, PS4, XBO
Number of Players: 1-4 Local, 2 Online
Price: $25
Version Played: PC

It's been 28 years since Streets of Rage 2 came out. Beat 'em ups have come a long way since then. Capcom threw everything but the kitchen sink at the genre with Battle Circuit in 1997, Double Dragon Advance brought a classic series back with re-imagined combat in 2003, and more recently, the bar was raised even higher by games like Fight'N Rage and River City Girls. In my opinion, it’s the depth of the combat that makes a great BEU. Streets of Rage 4 plays like a game made in a bubble, though. It feels like it's purposely ignoring everything BEUs have done since SOR2.

Streets of Rage 4 is basically SOR2 with juggles. It feels more like a sequel to SOR2 than a sequel to SOR3. It's slow and feels like a step backwards from SOR3 in terms of mobility. I get the feeling that the developers balanced the game around local co-op, where you can juggle enemies back and forth, and don't constantly feel like you have to be everywhere at once, so they only gave a run to Cherry, one of the 2 new characters in the game. I understand wanting to make each character unique, but there are better ways to do that. Characters in SOR4 just feel like they're missing essential tools. This might have been okay if the online didn't suck, but it’s absolutely worthless, and not everyone has people to play with locally. Most of the time, I played the game alone, with Blaze, and I always felt like I was missing something. Having to slowly walk across the screen to get to an enemy is tedious. Maybe if the game was in 4:3, it wouldn't feel so slow, but it's not 1992 anymore. The lack of running makes the game feel archaic.

None of the main characters have SOR3’s vertical dodge rolls, either. They could really use them, though! A lot of enemies and bosses have attacks which have them quickly running or jumping all the way across the screen, or shooting guns, and your only way to avoid them is by slowly walking up and down, or using a defensive special and giving up health anyway. Again, it feels like I'm missing an important tool here. This becomes increasingly frustrating as you work your way into the higher difficulties, where you fight faster and more aggressive enemies with even more armor.

I say “main characters” because you can unlock all the SOR2 and SOR3 characters (minus Roo/Victy the Kangaroo) in their original, pixelated, 16-bit forms. These old-school characters have all the old moves, including running and rolling for the SOR3 characters, but lack some of the moves designed around keeping juggles going, like off the ground attacks and air specials, so they feel kind of handicapped when compared to the SOR4 characters. I really don’t like using any of them. You unlock characters as you get points for beating stages in the game, and the SOR3 characters are the last ones you unlock, so you have to play quite a bit to get them, too.

Streets of Rage 4 lacks the depth of games like River City Girls, but it is still fun. I like the juggles and the moment to moment combat, even if I feel like I don’t always have the tools to do what I want. The way you can regain the HP you use on specials by doing damage before getting hit again is pretty cool, too. SOR4 plays like a better SOR2, and I think SOR2 still holds up, so I can’t say I don’t like it. I just think it would have been a lot better if it had running and rolling. Some fighting game input moves would have been cool, too. SOR4 feels shallow, even when compared to Capcom's games from 20+ years ago.

Streets of Rage was never a real arcade game, but it was always structured like one. Not SOR4, though. You get infinite continues in Story mode, but there is no mode in which you can just continue right where you died and pick another character as if you’ve put another quarter into the machine, like in the Genesis games. If you die, you restart the level, and if you’re playing co-op, you just have to wait until the other players die or beat the stage to continue.

SOR4's modes remind me more of games like Devil May Cry than SOR. After you beat the story and unlock Stage Select mode, you can play whatever stage you’ve reached in any difficulty. So say you beat the story on normal, you can now go into Stage Select and play any of those levels again to farm points or go for better grades. Cutscenes still play in Stage Select, and you keep unlocking new levels as you play through the game again on higher difficulties, so there really isn't much reason to keep playing Story after unlocking Stage Select mode. Your lives are reset to the difficulty's default after every stage in Story, too, so the only real difference in playing Story is that you can use Assists after dying. Assists give you more lives and special moves, but cut your score by some percentage.

There is a mode called Arcade, but it's actually a 1 credit clear mode. You always start from the beginning, you can't save your progress, and you don't get any continues, but your lives aren't reset after beating a level. There's also a Boss Rush and a Battle mode in the game. Battle doesn't have a VS CPU option; though, so I only played it online, and that sucked. Online is just terrible in all modes. It's always like playing in slow motion.

I feel like this game’s focus strayed too far away from the arcade style of the Genesis games. Beat ‘em ups were never about letter grades, high scores, Boss Rush, or the tacked on VS modes. Leaving out something as obvious as a real arcade mode in Streets of Rage, when your main influence is obviously SOR2, is just beyond me. This game can never be that game you play with relatives during the holidays, like an old Ninja Turtles arcade game on MAME, in this state.

This game does look amazing, though. I think LizardCube's comic book style really works for Streets of Rage. The 2D shading techniques really give the game a gritty sort of look, even if it's very different from the rough, pixelated look of the Genesis games. I think the new character designs strike a good balance between the anime and comic book styles, and look pretty cool for the most part, too. I think they did a good job making the characters look like their 16-bit versions while aging them and bringing them into HD. I don't really like how Axel aged 20 years while Blaze and Adam only aged 10, though. I especially love the backgrounds. They’re all so detailed and full of little references. I saw stuff that reminded me of SOR, TMNT arcade and NES games, Final Fight, Street Fighter, and even Shinobi.

Streets of Rage 1 and 2 (not 3!) were always known for their great soundtracks, so SOR4 had a lot to live up to. There's definitely some good tracks in SOR4, but there are also some stinkers. I know SOR had all sorts of music genres on Genesis, but some of these tracks in SOR4 just feel out of place. The game abruptly transitions from an awesome, SOR2 stage 1 remix by Yuzo Koshiro to some wacky EDM mess right in the middle of the first level, for example. I wish Koshiro had done the whole thing. He's obviously the man to go to for SOR music. He only did a handful of songs, though. The rest of the soundtrack is pretty hit or miss. Too much dubstep.

I'm trying really hard to be positive here because this is not a bad game, but it makes me mad just thinking about it. If they wanted me to play this like a Devil May Cry game where I keep playing it on harder difficulties, then they should have made the combat Devil May Cry quality. It's a fun game, it looks great, and it feels like SOR, but I expected more from a modern BEU. It's just not in the same league as stuff like River City Girls, or even 23 year old Battle Circuit. I'll still go back to this if I ever get the chance to play it in local co-op; though, because that seems like the best way to play it, and I didn't get to do that.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Animal Crossing: New Horizons Review

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Available On: Nintendo Switch
Price: $60

Animal Crossing is many things to many people. For some, it’s all about collecting every piece of furniture in the game. For me, it was always about decorating my home with all the Nintendo stuff and interacting with my villagers. New Horizons isn't just about decorating your home; though, you have to decorate the whole island, and I have yet to see a single Nintendo item. Villagers don’t seem to leave their clothes at each other’s houses as much, either. Animal Crossing has changed a lot since New Leaf. I know there’s been 3 Animal Crossing games since New Leaf, but I didn’t play any of them! I don’t think they’re canon anyway.

Coming from New Leaf, I was blown away by how much AC has improved in terms of UI and ease of use. First of all, you get a lot more bag space in New Horizons. In New Leaf, you got 16 bag spaces. People got around this limit by keeping 10 opened letter envelopes on them at all times and stuffing their tools in them to free up bag space. You can’t carry envelopes around anymore, but there's no need to. You can have up to 40 bag spaces now. You have to make a little progress in the game before unlocking them, but that’s not hard to do. Oh, and fruit stacks now! Game changer. I still run out of bag space while doing my daily routine, but nowhere near as often as in previous games.

Equipping your tools is much easier now thanks to the new item wheel. It’s very similar to item wheels in other games, like Monster Hunter World and Zelda Skyward Sword. When you make or buy a tool, like an axe, umbrella, or slingshot, it’s automatically set to one of the slots on your item wheel. You can also do this manually by clicking on a tool in your inventory. You can then simply press up on the d-pad to bring up the wheel and then select a tool to equip with the left stick. You can also press left and right on the d-pad to scroll through all the tools in your bag. This saves a lot of time and makes your daily island routine much easier.

Home decoration has gotten a major overhaul. You don’t have to get in the right position, drop something, and then push it around anymore. You can now go into an overhead view in which you can quickly move furniture around and hang stuff on the walls with a cursor. You can also access both your character’s inventory and your home’s storage in this mode and place furniture, or even change the wallpaper and flooring, directly from them. It’s really easy to use and makes decorating your home a breeze.

New Horizons gives you full control over where everything is built. Your house, bridges, stores, your neighbors’ houses, everything. You won’t have villagers moving in right on top of your orchards anymore. When you’re about to get a new house or building in town, Tom Nook will give you an item which you can use to mark where the building will go. It even lets you preview how the building will look there. It’s pretty awesome. I love the amount of control you’re given over the town, and you’re not even the mayor here!

This is still a game in which you can make your own fun and set your own goals, but you can get some kind of direction now, if you want. Tom Nook and Isabelle always have something to say about how your island is coming along and what you could do to improve it, even before unlocking star ratings. There’s also the equivalent of achievements and MMO-like daily quests. This is the Nook Miles system. It’s a rewards program. You get Nook Miles for doing everything from watering flowers to getting fossils assessed. There’s a bunch of achievement-like long-term goals, like wishing upon 300 shooting stars, and there’s always 5 smaller things you can do to get more miles. You might get one that gives you 100 Nook Miles for changing your clothes, and when you complete that one, another one will pop up that will give you some Nook Miles for catching a certain kind of butterfly or selling fruit. There’s always something you can do to get Nook Miles. You can spend Nook Miles on special furniture, recipes, clothes, and tickets to go to tiny deserted islands, which you can completely destroy and strip of all resources with no consequences.

Like I mentioned earlier, the focus of New Horizons isn't really about decorating your home, it's about decorating the whole island. Frankly, I had trouble warming up to the idea. The Japanese name is Animal Forest, after all. I don’t want my town to end up looking like the suburbs! It’s not really an option, though. That’s the game now. There’s only so much you can get out of it by only decorating your own home. Getting a 3 star rating unlocks KK Slider concerts, roads, and terraforming, for example. So I planted more flowers, put a bunch of furniture in my villager’s yards, and built fences around their houses. And you know what? I got into it. It’s a lot of work, since the home decorating view is not available outdoors and you have to place and move everything the old-school way, but it's fun. It’s creatively fulfilling in a way. But eventually, what I wanted to do with the island and the game’s mechanics clashed.

You see, New Horizons has a huge focus on crafting, which I guess comes from Pocket Camp, but I didn't play that. You can still buy furniture, find it on trees, and trade your neighbors stuff you don't want for it, but a huge chunk of it can only be crafted. You can't just look up the recipe on a Wiki and make it; though, you have to find and learn the recipe first. The problem with this is that opportunities to get recipes are pretty rare and random. Nook's Cranny only has a few you can buy. You have to find the rest in balloons, bottles washed ashore, or get them as gifts from neighbors. So I was constantly fighting my recipe app's limits while trying to decorate my way to a 5 star island as fast as I could. Compromises had to be made.

This a straight up Breath of the Wild-like crafting system, by the way. When you shake trees in New Horizons, branches fall down; when you hit trees with your axe, logs pop out; and when you hit rocks with your shovel, rocks and metal ore fly out of it. Even weeds and seashells are crafting materials now. Instead of filling my storage with furniture and clothes, I filled it with crafting materials. I don’t just shake my trees every day to get furniture, I hit them with a blunt axe to get 3 pieces of wood off them, too. A lot of my playtime consists of hoarding crafting materials. I feel the same way about the crafting in ACNH as I did about Breath of the Wild’s crafting, I don’t think this actually makes the game more fun. In fact, I think it’s a grind.

Once you get a 3 star rating, you unlock the Island Designer app on your NookPhone. This app lets you make different kinds of roads and trails, cliffs, rivers, and ponds. It’s a powerful tool, but a very clunky one to use. You actually have to use it one tile at a time. Want to build a dirt road that connects all homes to Nook’s Cranny? That could take a while. And what if you decide you want that dirt road to be cobblestone instead? You’ll just have to do the whole thing over again. One tile at a time. The tool feels like some kind of addon. It just doesn’t feel like the game was made with this ability in mind considering how finicky and hard it is to use compared to how easy it is to move furniture around in your home.

Another thing that really slows progress down is how you have to wait a day for anything to be built or demolished. After upgrading Tom Nook's office, you unlock the ability to move buildings around, build bridges and inclines, and have them demolished. All these things take 1 day to complete. That doesn’t sound too bad when you say it like that, but say you want to move a neighbor’s house a few tiles up so it lines up perfectly with their neighbor’s house. You’d have to move the house out of the way away one day, and then move it where you really wanted to move it on the second day because you can’t build a house somewhere where it touches another house, even if that house isn’t going to be there when that house is moved because it’s the same house. The same goes for changing the style of a bridge. You can’t just change the bridge’s style, you have to demolish the bridge one day and then build a new one the day after. You’re also limited to 1 building move and bridge, incline, or demolishing per day, so it’s not like you can remodel the whole island at once. It would take you at least 6 days to remodel 3 bridges, for example.

New Horizons isn’t exactly a Switch graphical showcase, but it does look nice. Everything is still pretty low poly, but these aren’t 3DS models, and the textures are much more detailed than ever before. I especially love how all the villagers look like they’re stuffed animals or something. There are also a lot of cool effects going on, like shiny wet surfaces when it rains, and depth of field when you talk to villagers. The lighting is really nice, too. It changes depending on the time of day and casts shadows in different directions. It’s a small thing, but it makes everything look great.

There’s definitely some frustrating things about New Horizons, but I still think it’s an amazing game. I can play this all day or just check in on it for 30 minutes while I focus on playing another game. I can always get something out of it. I never felt like that with past games because everything shut down at night. The future looks bright for support from Nintendo, too. We’ve already seen a few updates and events, and there’s more to come. Even if I start playing less now that I got a 5 star island, I’ll definitely keep coming back for the events.