Monday, November 13, 2023

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor Review

Developer: Respawn
Publisher: EA
Platforms: PS5, XBSX, PC
Price: $69.99
Version Played: PC

A long time ago, back in April 2023, right here on Earth, the sequel to Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Star Wars Jedi: Survivor, was released, and it really shouldn't have. It's been 6 months since this game came out and the PC version still feels like it's held together with duct tape. I've had crashes, plenty of bugs, and horrible performance. And this is after a bunch of patches. I shudder to think what this game was like on launch day.

My biggest problem with this game is the framerate. My PC is much more powerful than the recommended specs, yet I still can't get a solid 60 at 1080p, even with ray tracing and HDR turned off. I can't get a solid anything since there is no option to cap it, like in Fallen Order. I don't think it's just one thing, like the big open areas in Koboh, I saw the framerate tank in a lot of small areas, too. And to top it all off, the graphics options are all messed up. I couldn't switch resolution at one point, using windowed full screen is a huge hit on performance for some reason, and the DLSS quality option doesn't even work. The DLSS performance option actually lowered both the resolution and the framerate by at least half. That's the opposite of what it's supposed to do.
The actual game is pretty good, though. I think they addressed most of the issues I had with the first game. This game has bigger and more open areas, it's less linear, has more puzzles, and more NPCs to talk to. This one feels a lot more like an action adventure or action RPG than an Uncharted game, and I think that's definitely the right direction for the series.
At its core, Survivor still plays a lot like Fallen Order. You travel from planet to planet as the story progresses, acquire new abilities, and travel back to previous planets to access new areas with your new abilities. There's still a lot of combat, platforming, and exploration. The introduction of the planet Koboh really freshens things up, though. Koboh is the biggest planet and it acts as your home base throughout the game. It has a small village with shops, a stable for your mounts, and a cantina full of NPCs with quests and little stories to tell you. It even has a bathroom. Koboh has a large open area in the center and it connects to a bunch of other areas, which are structured a lot like the planets in Fallen Order, with that more linear, wrap-around back to the save point kind of level design. There's also a bunch of caves and enemy bases all over. I wouldn't say Koboh is quite “Open World” since a lot of it is locked behind story progression or abilities, but it’s certainly leaning more in that Zelda OOT-like direction. I probably spent 25% of my game time just running around Koboh while exploring, hunting down treasure chests, and doing sidequests. The planet Jedha has a similar structure, but it's much smaller, and there isn't nearly as much to do there.
I thought the first game could have really used more puzzles, and I guess I wasn't the only one because this game has a lot more puzzles. It’s not just the Force pulling doors open kind of stuff, either. There’s real puzzles here. A lot of which revolve around using your new gadgets. I think Cal is done with the blocked memories stuff, so Instead of having him remember more Jedi skills, you just get items and upgrades for BD-1. There's a grappling hook, an electric dart, and this thing that makes BD spray some kind of gunk everywhere, like FLUDD in Super Mario Sunshine. You can use this gunk to route weird purple electricity around to burn down these black vines that block a lot of doors in the game. Cal also gets a dash, which comes from an item and is not a Jedi skill. You can use this dash to go through barriers. Mostly while platforming. There's a lot of platforming, too. Maybe too much. I think it gets kind old halfway through the game.
There are also some new Zelda BOTW-like shrines called Meditation Chambers. They’re just little bite-sized dungeons that are all about puzzles, just like shrines. Some are part of the story, but most are optional. They’re fun and have good rewards, but there’s only 7 of them in the whole game. I would have liked these to have been a bigger part of the game, but I guess they had bigger things to worry about, like getting the game out the door.
But what this game is really about is combat. It might look the same at a glance, but there's been a lot of little tweaks that make it feel different. I think it actually gets a lot harder in this game. It's not necessarily slower, but it does feel like your combo, parry, and dodge timing is stricter, and enemies are much more aggressive. Cal’s lightsaber fighting styles are also a lot more focused. He’s not switching from double bladed to single or dual wielding for different attacks, for example.
There's also 2 new lightsaber fighting styles; the blaster and crossguard. Blaster uses a lightsaber in one hand and a blaster in the other, like some kind of Jedi pirate. You don't need to pick up ammo for the blaster, but you do have to hit enemies with the lightsaber to recharge it. It's kind of a weird mechanic, like something out of World of Warcraft, but I guess they still want you to be a Jedi and not a Mandalorian. Shooting the enemies you want to shoot requires a lot of messing around with the lock-on, which still sucks, so I wasn't a big fan of this style.
The crossguard basically treats the lightsaber like a giant broadsword. I guess it's inspired by Kylo Ren, but it's also like Baylan Skoll’s fighting style in Ahsoka. Big slow swords really aren't my thing, so I didn't use this a whole lot either.
Like I mentioned, the lock-on system is still terrible. The biggest problem is that it's on R3(RS), which is the worst button for it because you have to take your thumb off the attack (face) buttons to use it. You also activate your super ability by pressing L3(LS) and R3(RS) at the same time, so every time you do that, you lose your target. You could change it, but then you’d have to put something else on there, like your Force abilities, which would suck too. There's too many abilities and not enough buttons on the controller. The lock-on is also very finicky and sometimes changes targets on its own. I guess it's switching depending on who’s hitting you. There is some sort of auto aim going on when not locked on, but that does the same target switching thing and it doesn’t let you strafe around your target.
Something I thought was pretty cool, but not used enough is the AI companions. Someone from the Mantis crew usually tags along on story missions. They fight alongside you and can be used like a sort of extra ability. For example, Merrin tags along on Jedha and she can use her Nightsister magic to rewind time on certain parts of the environment, so she can clear caved in paths and stuff. Merrin will always tag along with you on Jedha, but you can't bring her with you while exploring anywhere else. You don't even get to choose whether or not you want someone to come with you. It would be cool if this feature was expanded on in the next game. Everyone wants to spend more time with Merrin, right?
I don't know if the story in this game was actually worse or if I’m just still mad at the first game’s ending. I don't think I can ever believe that whatever happy ending is promised for Cal is going to come true. He's just going to win the fight and flush the lottery ticket down the toilet, so to speak. Or destroy the Holocron. He spends the whole game fighting for something he doesn't seem to actually want. I also can never believe that anything that happens in these games will affect anything else in the Star Wars universe, even though this game is nothing but fallout from things that happened in Revenge of the Sith and the High Republic. I thought the big twists near the end of the game were pretty bad too. They were (poorly) explained eventually, but they just come off like they're there for shock value when they happen. At least they made Cere a lot more badass and Cal a little less lame than in the first game.
I think everything about the sound in this game is great. I love the soundtrack. It sounds like a Star Wars movie score, even though it's not just remixing the classic tunes, and the cantina songs give us an interesting look at what in-universe music sounds like. The voice acting is also really well done. I wasn't too fond of the Mantis crew after the first game, but their performances in this one make them hard not to like. Cal’s performance especially is much better than in the first game. All the sound effects are spot on, too.
There's a lot of good things about this game, but all the issues really bring it down. I could never be immersed in the game for too long before running into a bug, seeing the framerate drop by half, or having the game crash. I guess they just bit off more than they could chew. This game came out around 3 and a half years after Fallen Order, and here we are 6 months after release with a game that still doesn't feel like it's ready. Maybe it'll be awesome by the time the 3rd game comes out.

Friday, November 3, 2023

Super Mario Bros Wonder Review

Developer: Nintendo EPD
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Price: $59.99

For a while there, I thought Nintendo was going to keep pumping out New Super Mario Bros games every other year, but it's been 10 years since New Super Luigi U came out in 2013, The Year of Luigi. It's been nothing but 3D and Mario Maker games since then. So how does Nintendo top the creativity we saw in Odyssey and Mario Maker? Not by making another NSMB.

Super Mario Bros Wonder is 2D Mario after taking off the training weights. It's not held back by the rules and conventions of previous games. It feels like Mario with the freedom to do anything as creative as Odyssey, and well, you don't even get the tools to do most of this stuff in Mario Maker.
The main thing that lets SMBW do whatever it wants is the Wonder Flowers. These are unique items found in most levels. Sometimes they're hidden and finding them is a puzzle unto itself, and sometimes they're in plain sight. Some show up at the beginning of a level and some show up near the end. You don't even have to use them to finish most levels. Their implementation alone is unpredictable, and what happens when you touch them is even moreso.
Wonder Flowers might turn you into a Goomba, flip the water and sky, or even turn the level into a musical performance. There really are no rules to them, and they just keep throwing new wacky ideas at you throughout the whole game. A few of the Wonder effects are repeated a few times, but since the levels are so different, you're never just doing the same thing again. Even bosses use Wonder effects, so even though you're just fighting Bowser Jr over and over, each fight is very different.
Wonder Flowers aren't the only thing used to make levels unique, though. There's also an equippable badge system that gives you different perks and abilities. You get badges after beating specific test levels and can equip one at a time. You can get the ability to swim against currents like the frog suit in Mario 3, use your hat to slow fall, charge high jumps by crouching like in Mario 2, and a bunch of other moves. There's also badges that let you start with a Super Mushroom, attract coins like a magnet, give you a secret item radar, and other cool things that aren't moves.
Each badge is introduced in a level designed around using that badge and there's also harder levels designed around mastering the use of each badge. Sometimes you need a specific badge to reach a collectible or secret exit, but that doesn't happen often, and you never need a specific badge to beat a level outside their test levels. Some badges are never needed at all, or even very useful outside those levels. I think badges are a cool way to make different kinds of levels without having to give you all of these abilities at once and designing levels around a character that can do anything.
Another tool in SMBW's toolbelt is the new powerups. SMBW introduces the Bubble Flower, Drill Mushroom, and Elephant Fruit. Of course, the classic Super Mushroom, Fire Flower, and Super Star are back, too.
The Bubble Flower gives you the ability to shoot bubbles, which do damage to enemies, and can be jumped on, like enemies. This basically gives you the ability to place a platform to bounce off wherever you want. I just love that idea. It sounds so overpowered in a platformer. It's not, but this is still my favorite new item.
The Drill Mushroom gives you a drill hat and a drill effect on your butt stomp, so you can attack enemies above you with your head and get the ability to burrow into the floors and ceilings, like a mole. It's similar to one of the powerups from Super Mario Galaxy 2. This item is really cool if you know how to use it, but it's by far the least used of the new items.
The Elephant Fruit is by far the most common of the new items. It gives you extra strength to push objects around, the ability to break bricks and spray water with your trunk, and it makes your stomps do more damage. It's a very useful powerup because it comes in handy for solving a lot of the puzzles. I think it's the least exciting of the new powerups, though. I just don't think it's as creative as the other 2 and it's used everywhere in the game.
I feel like they really went out of their way to push the level design past what other Mario games have done with this game. There's regular levels with Wonder Flowers, Badge tests, Wiggler races, levels focused on Zelda-like puzzles, and even one screen levels. The way the game only uses an idea a few times, or in really short levels, reminds me a lot of SMB3, which never feels like it's overusing ideas or has big levels simply for the sake of having big levels. This game just just does the thing it wants to do and moves on, and I love that about it.
Continuing the on-again, off-again trend of having lots of playable characters in Mario platformers, SMBW has a total of 12 playable characters. Two of them are male Toads and 4 of them are Yoshis, but still. Everyone controls the same except for the Yoshis, who get all the usual Yoshi abilities, like the flutter jump, tongue grabs, and spitting. You can even ride Yoshi in multiplayer. Neither Yoshi or Nabbit take damage, but they still die if they fall in a pit, and they can't use transforming powerups, like the Fire Flower. They're the closest thing to an easy mode the game has.
I did try the online stuff, but didn't find it very interesting. There is no online co-op here, but you can connect to the Internet and see other people running around. They look like ghosts in Mario Kart or something, but they are actually people playing at the same time and they can also see you. You can't really interact with them, but you can leave cardboard cutouts of your character around to mark stuff and revive people's ghosts when they die. Do I wish the game had real online multiplayer? No. I remember the online multiplayer in Mario Maker 2, and it was a laggy mess. If they can't get it to work better than that, then don't even bother.
One of the things I kept hearing people ask for in a new 2D Mario was a new art style. Well, this is a new art style. It's just not that different from NSMB's. Mario's head is a little bigger and everyone looks a little cuter, but that's about it. The biggest difference is in the animation. Everyone has so much personality and there’s a lot more squashing and stretching now. It's much more cartoon-like than NSMB, and the character designs are very reminiscent of old Mario art. Mario and Luigi reach out of pipes to catch their hats, Yoshi's nose gets red while flutter jumping, and even Goombas open their mouths in horror right before you jump on them. Of course, the game also looks amazing. The backgrounds especially blow anything in other Mario games out of the water. The game also runs at a solid 60 FPS and feels super responsive.
I don't think the music is bad, but it's just so mellow and low-key most of the time. Even the new versions of songs from previous games sound like the chill Reggae remix or something. I think I want Mario music to be more upbeat. Maybe they just wanted to get as far away as possible from the WAH-WAH sounds of NSMB. As far as Mario and Luigi's new VO goes, the new guy does a pretty good impersonation of Charles Martinet, but he ain't no Charles Martinet. It's fine, but I won't be upset if they get someone else for the next game.

I also have to mention how good the HD rumble in this game is. It actually plays music as you run over music note blocks. Yes, the rumble plays music. You can feel your character's feet as they land jumps, go in and out of pipes, slide down walls, swim, and all sorts of stuff. I haven't felt HD rumble this cool since Mario Odyssey. You should definitely turn it on for this game.
I think this is the best 2D Mario game since Super Mario Bros 3. I'm not a NSMB hater, I just love this game that much. Everything about it just feels like it has been carefully crafted and refined to perfection. That's why it reminds me so much of SMB3. There are very few things about this game that I think are annoying, should have been left out, or aren't worth playing. This is one I just had to 100%. Now I just want more. Hopefully there's some kind of expansion, or maybe a new Mario Maker with stuff from this game.