Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Pokemon Scarlet and Violet: The Teal Mask Review

Developer: Game Freak
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Price: $34.99

The Teal Mask is the first of 2 expansions for Pokemon Scarlet and Violet included in The Hidden Treasure of Area Zero DLC bundle. It adds new story content, a new area, and 110 Pokemon to the game. If you were looking for performance fixes; though, you won't find many here.

Let's get this out of the way; this patch does not fix the framerate. In fact, it doesn't fix anything about the graphics. The framerate is still bad in the old areas, and it's just as bad in the new areas. Shadows still flicker, NPCs and Pokemon still drop to 2 frames per second when they're more than 10 ft away from you, and you can still see the LOD deforming mountains as you run around. The only thing that has gotten a noticeable improvement is the Pokemon PC boxes, which now load almost instantly. The boxes were very annoying because they didn't load custom wallpapers until you did something in the box and took like 5 seconds to start loading the Pokemon icons, so this is a great improvement, but it's probably not the fix most people were hoping for. Frankly, I don't think they're ever going to fix the framerate unless the next Nintendo system can somehow do it itself. The developers still working on this game are just making content.

The Teal Mask takes place in a completely new area called, The Land of Kitakami. They don't call it a new "region", like Paldea. I think it's only a little bigger than the Crown Tundra. It's a mountainous area surrounded by forests, so it doesn't look like it's the area North East of Paldea, but you take a bus there, so I guess it must be close. The area North East of Paldea still isn't filled in, by the way. Kitakami as a new place to run around in is pretty cool. I love the rural Japanese theme with the rice paddies, forests, and shrines, and the new music is really good. This is where I'll go when I want to do some raids now.
The story of The Teal Mask revolves around a legend from the local town of Mossui. It says that it was once attacked by an ogre and 3 Pokemon defended the people. Of course, the ogre is a legendary Pokemon, and it's still living in the area, so you have to investigate. Were you expecting something else? The campaign is pretty short. I finished it in about 5 hours. It does a great job introducing Kitakami and the new legendary Pokemon, though. You travel all over the place, battle the new legendaries, and get to know the new characters from the Blueberry Academy. I actually like this story better than the ones in the main game. I like how it's more about the new Pokemon. Although, the trainers from the Blueberry Academy do play a big part in it, too. This expansion doesn't have much to do with Area Zero or the Scarlet/Violet Book, but they make sure to let you know that stuff will be the focus of the next one.
The Kitakami Pokedex has 200 Pokemon; 90 that were already in Scarlet and Violet, 102 returning from previous games, 7 new ones, and a new form of Ursaluna, which is introduced in an awesome sidequest. It also adds a bunch of regional forms from previous games, like Alolan Vulpix and Galarian Weezing. In addition to the 4 legendaries introduced during the story, there's also a new Applin evolution, Dipplin, and the Matcha-themed Pokemon, Poltchageist and Sinistcha, which are a lot like Polteageist and Sinistea, but are different species, with their own Pokedex numbers, and not regional forms.
I like the designs of Fezandipity, Munkidori, and Okidogi because they look like they were inspired by characters from 80s Kung Fu movies, but my favorite new Pokemon are Sinistcha and Poltchageist. I just love the idea of changing Sinistea and Polteageist into Matcha-themed Pokemon to match the Japanese setting of Kitakami. I feel like they should sort out this regional form VS new Pokemon species mess, though. Pick one. Why are they adding a new regional form after doing new species in SV? Bloodmoon Ursaluna and all those Alolan and Galarian forms should just be new Pokemon. I haven't found a way to evolve into those old regional forms, by the way. You can bring them in from Pokemon Home, but you can't evolve a Pikachu into an Alolan Raichu, for example.
Unlike in the main game, there is level scaling in Kitakami. I first played through the campaign on my main save file with level 100 Pokemon, and all the Pokemon I battled were over level 50. When I went there on a save file with no Gym badges, I was able to start the story and both the other trainers' Pokemon and wild Pokemon were around level 15. I did start running into wild Pokemon around 10 levels higher than mine the farther I got away from the starting area, though. I didn't try going through the whole story on this save file, but I'm guessing badge requirements still apply here, so you'd have to go back to Paldea and get some badges to control level 20+ Pokemon at some point.
The Teal Mask is a fun expansion, but it's not very big. This feels more like The Isle of Armor than The Crown Tundra. I like the story, Kitakami is a cool place to run around in, and the new Pokemon look great. The game really could have used a fix for the horrible framerate, though. While I had fun with it, the whole thing just feels like something to hold you over until The Indigo Disk comes out.

Thursday, September 7, 2023

Prison City Review

Developer: Programancer
Publisher : Retroware
Platform: PC
Price: $16.99

If you dig deep into the NES action game library, like really deep, past the Mega Mans, Ninja Gaidens, and Castlevanias, and below Batman and Shadow of the Ninja, you might come across Shatter Hand and Power Blade 1 and 2. Prison City is like a sequel to all 3 of these games at the same time. It's also like an NES game that had the Escape From New York license, but was changed into something else late in development. It copies the best mechanics from those obscure NES games and the prison city premise from Escape From New York.
The structure of Prison City is basically the same as Power Blade. You choose from 8 action platforming-filled levels to play, and open the final one after beating all 8, like in Mega Man. And just like in Power Blade, levels in Prison City require you to find an NPC with a key, which you need to open the door to the boss. Levels have branching paths and let you freely run around and explore, but this isn’t a Metroidvania. Levels are self-contained, all powerups are temporary, and you don't even get upgrades or powers after beating a boss. The difficulty does ramp up as you go through the levels from top to bottom, but there is no specific order to them, and you never get anything from one level that will help you beat another level except extra lives.
Prison City basically plays like Power Blade 2, but with climbing inspired by Shatterhand. I say inspired because the climbing in Prison City gives you a lot more freedom of movement. You can't actually climb in Shatterhand, you either hold up on the d-pad or hold down the jump button (A on NES) to cling onto fences. Prison City's climbing works the same way, but it also lets you climb on the fences, shimmy along tubes, and grab onto the edge of platforms. Your only other traversal abilities are the jump and the slide, which you do by pressing the jump button while holding down on the d-pad. The controls take some getting used to since you don't grab onto things automatically, but they work well once you get the hang of it.
Your main attack is some kind of lightsaber boomerang hybrid, which works almost exactly like the boomerang in the Power Blade games. You have a little meter that fills up when you’re not attacking, and if you attack with a full meter, you do max damage, and if you mash the button, you do reduced damage. Honestly, I never paid too much attention to the meter, I just spammed the hell out of the attack button. You can also use grenades with the X button (Switch controls), which work like special moves that hit everything on screen. The game has simple controls that could probably be done on an NES controller if you put the grenades on select or something, but the platforming can get very tricky when you constantly have to jump, slide, and grab onto things while avoiding enemies and hazards.
The thing that will turn a lot of people off about this game is the difficulty. This game really feels like a game designed to be hard in an unfair way, like many NES games back in the day. Getting through these levels and beating the bosses on the Modern (Normal) difficulty requires multiple playthroughs and memorization. These levels are filled with low ceilings which you’ll bonk your head on before a jump, enemies in places where they’ll knock you back into pits, enemies with weak attack tells, the dreaded 8-bit enemy birds, dark rooms in which you can’t see where you’re going (My favorite!), and pretty much every cheap difficulty trick you can think of. I love a good challenge, but this game is just trolling. The level design just isn’t good enough to make multiple playthroughs dealing with this kind of difficulty much fun.
Thankfully, this game gives you tons of difficulty options. You can set it so you have infinite lives, respawn after falling into pits, have more health, do more damage, and basically make yourself invincible. I turned on infinite lives and all of a sudden, the game became much more enjoyable. That made it feel a lot more like “Modern” retro indie games to me since I didn’t have to restart levels after dying.
Out of all the 8-bit retro games I've played, Prison City does one of the best jobs at actually looking like an NES game. The color palette, sprite detail, and animations are all pretty much perfect. There are very few things here that look like something the NES couldn't do. The game doesn't do a very good job of making hazards and platforms stand out, though. I often found myself trying to jump on something that was actually part of the background or getting hit by something I thought was a background decoration when playing a level for the 1st time. There's also the resolution of the game, which doesn't scale evenly into full screen. I don't know what the game is rendering at, but setting the game to full screen makes it look blurry and introduces a lot of flickering.
If you're not too proud to drop the difficulty, Prison City isn't bad. I actually like it better than what I've played of Shatterhand and the Power Blade games. I think the trollish level design is going to turn a lot of people off, though, even on Easy. Maybe you're into that sort of thing, though. If you're into those old NES action games that were made extra difficult so that you couldn't beat them during a weekend rental, maybe you'll like this game more than me.