Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Pokémon Sword and Shield Expansion Pass: The Isle of Armor Review

Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Price: $29.99

Here’s something different for the mainline Pokemon games. Instead of releasing the same game with a bit more content as a third version, Game Freak has released a real expansion pack for the latest games, Pokemon Sword and Shield. It’s about time! They might mess around patch a game next. Who knows! This is a wild and adventurous Game Freak. The Isle of Armor is the first of 2 expansions included with the Pokemon Sword and Shield Expansion Pass. Shouldn’t it be The Isle of Armour since Galar is based on the UK, though? The next one, The Crown Tundra, is scheduled to be released later this year. The Isle of Armor adds a bunch of returning Pokemon from past Gens, some new story content, and a new Wild Area-like zone to play in.

The entirety of the Isle of Armor is basically a new Wild Area. You always have a controllable camera outdoors, there’s Pokemon Dens everywhere, and you can see other trainers running around when you go online. The only places that are not like the Wild Area are the 3 story-related buildings in the zone. The Isle of Armor is much bigger and more varied than the base game’s Wild Area, though. There’s a swamp, caves, a desert, fields, and you can also ride your bike over the ocean and explore a bunch of little islands surrounding the main island. It’s pretty awesome. Although, I found it much harder to just look up at the sky and see where all the Pokemon Den beams are because of all the mountains separating the different zones.

The new zone and Pokemon Dens are the real main attraction of this expansion. This new Wild Area is all that will be left after strolling through the story content. This is where you’ll catch the returning Pokemon, unless you just want to bring them in through Pokemon Home and call it a day. This is also where you’ll be able to farm the mushrooms to make Max Soup, which spawn around the island after you beat 3 Dens. If the Wild Area and Max Raid battles are not your idea of fun, you’ll be very disappointed with The Isle of Armor ‘cause the story content here isn’t very exciting.

The story content in the Isle of Armor is very MMO-like and nothing like the old legendary and mythical Pokemon scenarios in previous Gens. It’s more like something out of World of Warcraft. When you get to the Isle of Armor, you start a series of quests to train the new legendary Pokemon, Kubfu. The quests have you going around the island collecting different things to make Max Soup, which permanently gives all compatible Pokemon the Gigantamax ability. So yeah, you wasted all that time farming that Gigantamax Charizard with less than stellar stats because you can just train any old Charmander into the perfect Gigantamax Charizard now. You’ll also be doing battle with your new rival and the dojo’s master a few times along the way. After you’re done with the 3 fetch quests, you’ll go through a small battle tower to finish Kubfu’s training and evolve it into Urshifu. This is the most traditional part of this story content, and it’s only 5 trainer battles. It’s sort of like a Gym. Depending on which tower you choose, you’ll evolve Kubfu into a different form of Urshifu. This is a one time thing, by the way. Once you choose a tower, the other one is closed to you forever.

The Isle of Armor has level 60 Pokemon in it, but to finish the story, you’ll probably need Kubfu to be closer to level 70. I guess they want you to grind Dens a little bit to level Kubfu up, but if you’re like me and been playing in the Wild Area for the past few months, you probably have enough XP candy to level Kubfu to 100 in 5 seconds, so this probably won’t be an issue and you’ll have this story stuff done it a couple of hours. Yeah, that’s it. A couple of hours of story content. Maybe. You could just steamroll through most of this content with your level 100 Pokemon too.

You can also expand your dojo, like Garrisons and Class Halls in WoW. Expanding the dojo is really just something to dump your Watts into. You can use your Watts to add a bunch of stuff to the dojo, like a barber and vending machines with Pokemon vitamins and drinks. You can turn the dojo into your Pokemon Center, changing room, and Pokemart. So, just like in Pokemon X and Y!

Another cool thing they took away and has come back with the Isle of Armor is follower Pokemon. You can have any Pokemon follow you around the Isle of Armor, but only in the Isle of Armor. This doesn’t work in the old areas. Also, you’re the only one who can see your Pokemon, so this isn’t a way you can show off your shinies to everyone online. It’s still awesome, though!

I’m kind of disappointed with the Isle of Armor. I probably spent more time making a level 60 team to play through it at the right level than I actually spent playing through the story content. The Isle of Armor is a cool place to hang out in and do Max Raid Battles, but I have a living Dex in Pokemon Home, I don’t really need these Pokemon. The new clothes, haircuts, and follower Pokemon are great, though! I hope The Crown Tundra is much more than just another Wild Area.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Shantae and the Seven Sirens Review

Developer: WayForward
Platforms: PC, NS, PS4, XBO
Price: $30
Version Played: Switch

I've been a Shantae fan since the GBC game, and even though I love the series, I know the games have been pretty hit or miss. The previous game, Half-Genie Hero, while not a bad game, was a miss for me. It wasn't what I wanted from a Shantae game at all. I know I'm not the only one who feels that way, and I guess the developers, WayForward, heard the fans because Shantae and the Seven Sirens goes back to the series' Metroidvania roots. I'd even say this is the most Metroid-like of all Shantae games.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens is structured very differently from Pirate’s Curse or the first 2 Shantae games. It has a huge interconnected world, but it doesn’t have that Simon’s Quest or Wonder Boy-like layout in which you mostly travel by going left or right. There is still a top layer to the world, with lots of areas to explore and a few towns to visit, but most of the game is set underground, like in Super Metroid. Dungeons are still in and they’re still self-contained, though. It’s not like Super Metroid in that the whole game takes place on the same map.

I like this layout, but I don’t prefer this layout. I don't think it really fits Shantae. Having most of the game take place beneath the island means that it’s mostly caves, temples, and underwater areas with metal walls. Everything is dingy, drab, and totally unlike the deserts, forests, and beaches found in previous games. I want more outdoor areas in Shantae. This game is lacking a lot of that bright and colorful Shantae flavor that I’m used to.

The dungeons are still classic Shantae. They’re very Zelda-like, and have you running all over looking for keys, solving puzzles, and platforming. A lot of the enemies, puzzles, and obstacles felt very familiar to me, but there’s some new stuff in there too. I feel like they especially tried to do new things with the bosses, but they were all pretty easy. You get a ton of money in this game, so I had no problem buying all the hair and subweapon upgrades and becoming a Half-Genie God pretty early in the game. That’s probably a big part of why everything was so easy.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Shantae game without a bunch of in-between dungeon fetch quests! But don’t worry, these are probably the best in the series, and not overdone, like in Half-Genie Hero. The quests in Seven Sirens have you exploring the world outside the dungeons for items to get the other Half-Genies to fuse their magic with Shantae. There’s still some of the usual funny, random item trading stuff too. The main fusion magic quests are cool because they tie in closely with the story and feel natural for Shantae to have to do. Unlike in Half-Genie Hero, where they felt like filler.

The Half-Genie fusion magic works like dances did in past games, except they’re not tied to animal transformations. They’re more like spells you use to attack and solve environmental puzzles, like charging up machines and moving walls around. They’re kind of like the medallions in A Link to the Past. There’s one that reveals hidden platforms, lightning, earthquake, and one that heals you and makes plants grow. They add an extra layer of depth to the puzzle solving in the game, and give Shantae a reason to dance, so they’re a welcome addition.

There are animal transformations in Seven Sirens, but there’s no dancing involved. You just transform when you need to. They’re instant, like Risky’s gear in Pirate’s Curse. There’s a Newt form that lets you climb on walls, a critter with a pointy shell you can drill through sand with, a turtle that lets you break bricks with stomps and dashes like a Koopa, a frog for swimming underwater, and an octopus form that gives you a triple jump. They’ve finally found an elegant way to give Shantae her trademark transformations without clumsy dancing mechanics, and I love it. Although, I do kind of miss being able to stay in the animal forms. I wouldn’t object to them bringing that back for a remake of the first game. Just as long as the dances are quick.

There’s also equippable cards in the game. Don’t worry, there’s no card minigame! These cards drop from monsters and give you little perks, like faster crawling, more damage in certain forms, and defensive bonuses. It’s very similar to many other trinket systems in other Metroidvanias. I don’t think it was really needed in Shantae, but it doesn’t hurt anything.

I'm pretty underwhelmed by the graphics in this game. I really don't like the dull and muted colors. It's an issue both underground and above. This is supposed to be a tropical island, but it always looks like there’s a cloud covering the sun. I want more vibrant colors in Shantae. A lot of the backgrounds also have that same hand painted look from Half-Genie Hero, but they're not polygons, so it looks like there's something missing. It looks like these are textures for polygons, but everything is flat. It looks weird knowing what HGH looked like. The character sprites and dialogue portraits still look pretty nice, though. The performance is also pretty good on Switch. I did run across a few areas where the framerate dropped when there were a lot of enemies on-screen, but it was a smooth 60 everywhere else.

I also have to mention the cutscenes. This game has an animated intro song by Studio Trigger, who worked on Kill La Kill. Animated cutscenes (by Wayforward) also play throughout the game. There’s a lot of them too. Every boss has an animated intro and other special moments are also accompanied by animated cutscenes. It’s a really nice touch. It makes me want a Shantae animated series.

The usual Shantae composer, Jake Kauffman, did not work on this game, so the music sounds very different from other Shantae games, but I thought it was still pretty good. There’s a lot of familiar Shantae melodies in here, and also some music that reminded me of old-school games, like Castlevania and Monster World IV. This game also has the most voice acting I’ve heard in a Shantae game. A lot of the cutscenes have voice acting, and Shantae and friends throw in a lot of one-liners during dialogue. Even more than in Half-Genie Hero.

Shantae and the Seven Sirens is a pretty fun game, but it never reaches the heights of Pirate’s Curse. That’s still the best Shantae game. Seven Sirens might be the second best Shantae game, though. I really like the dungeons, the game isn’t overly padded with fetch quests, and Shante’s magic and transformations make her feel very powerful. I also really appreciate them going back to the Metroidvania style. I don’t think the Metroid-like underground map really fits the series, though. I like the Simon’s Quest style much better. I also think graphics look pretty bland, and the awesome cutscenes make them look even worse by comparison.