Thursday, 14 February 2019

Axiom Verge Review (Switch)


There was a time when ‘Metroidvania’ titles were flooding the market. Recent trends have a seen a move towards the super hard ‘Rogue-like’ game and with no new Castlevania or classic Metroid on the horizon gamers have been at a loss as to how to scratch their map filling itch. But fear not because Axiom Verge has made it Switch and it’s a little bit special.

The brain child of one man studio Tom Happ, the game follows the long twisting story of a scientist who awakens in a strange world after he dies in an accident. It’s certainly closer to Metroid than Castlevania but there’s also enough of a difference to not make it seem like one of those carbon copy knock offs you used to get called things like Poc-Man or Space Invaded. Considering the lack of this type of game around at the minute and the fact the last proper 2D Metroid was back on the 3DS there’s certainly a gap in the market.

If you’re not familiar with this type of game then let us explain. In Axiom Verge you explore and leap around the various landscapes shooting monsters and looking for useful objects. Upgrades normally give you a new move of some kind. In this case the first few you find add a drill for destroying certain types of wall, a high jump and shift scrambler thing. These objects then allow bypassing of certain obstacles and exploring further. You basically keep going until you meet a boss or hit an area where you clearly need something to progress and it’s wonderfully addictive as your little map constantly updates and fills out the layout of the areas.

Of course, you have to want to explore and Axiom Verge does a good job of keeping you locked into it. The environments are beautifully realised in their old school pixel style and each area has a unique look and characteristic. Enemy types also vary widely from area to area and the accompanying musical score sets the scene perfectly. The game also does a good job of keeping interesting looking things just about out of sight so you are always intrigued to go back later and see what they are.

The bosses you come up against start off large and proceed to get bigger and badder as the game progresses. They all require decent dexterity and brain power to overcome and this is a throwback to the shoot the 'glowing weak spot’ of old days. We didn’t come across anything crushingly difficult but you do need to be your toes. The difficulty level in general is set just about right. There is the odd spike here and there but our exploration was never stopped for too long. It can be annoying to be sent back a long way to the last save point but you do keep your exploration progress.

The save points are spread around each area and see our hero entering a pod which regenerates their health. These aren’t exactly everywhere so you do have been careful when exploring as there can be a bit of distance between them. We did find this a little frustrating to begin with but once we found a few upgrades it became much less of an issue. The one thing we really would have liked to have seen is the ability to teleport between save points. It was the developer’s choice not to integrate this but it would have solved the frustration of realising you need to be all the way over on the other side of the map.

There isn’t much hand holding here either. Don’t expect map markers of flashing squares to guide you to where you need to go. We didn’t really have much issue with this as you nearly always have to go to the bit you haven’t been able to explore yet so it wasn’t exactly rocket science to work out what to do next most of the time. If you do find something that looks interesting the Switch version allows you to drop a little reminder marker there for you to come back to later.

Level design is strong throughout, which is good as there’s a serious chunk of game to get through here. It’s massively impressive to think this has been created by a one-person team as it has the production values and feel of something made by a much bigger collection of people. It’s filled with moments that you’ll remember and it seems to have been so carefully created that you can’t help but marvel at what has been achieved at times.

Overall, Axiom Verge is a highly impressive game. It remains original enough while playing off core values of classic games to keep away feelings that you’ve seen it all before. It offers up surprises and fun new things to play with at regular intervals and gives players some big beasties to test themselves against. It’s a well thought-out game that has moments of genuine brilliance among a core of all round good design. It’s very easy to recommend this to fans of the genre as there hasn’t been a Metroidvania this good since Zero Mission.

Overall 9/10

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

New Super Luigi U Deluxe Review (Switch)


Back in 2013 Nintendo announced that it would be the year of Luigi. That year had Luigi’s Mansion and a new Mario and Luigi game to push the green dude into the lime light. But then this rather unique add on for Super Mario Bros U was released and is one of the more creative ways that Nintendo has brought the other Mario brother to the forefront.

What the game effectively does it take all the stages from the original game and rethink them. Luigi handles differently to Mario and as well as slipping and sliding all over the place he also has a longer, floating jump. This means that many levels have bigger gaps to traverse and lots of platforms to teeter around on the edge of.

Without exception, all the stages are now much harder than before and later levels require precise timing and judgment of distance for you to have any hope of making it to the end. The levels are also shorter and as such do away with checkpoints and only give you one hundred seconds to complete them. There’s nothing quite so panic inducing as hearing the ‘hurry up’ siren go as soon as you start a level.

The time is not your only enemy as levels soon descend into endless gauntlets of spikes, swinging piranha plants, collapsing platforms and pits. It’s probably the closest a Mario game will ever get to Super Meat Boy, even if it can’t quite hit the same sweet spot. Adding to the difficulty and tension is the fact you still can’t save until you beat a castle and anyone trying to get all three gold coins in each level better head off for Jedi training right now.

The multiplayer modes are still here and for those wanting to play with the less skilled you have the option of the Nabbit. Nabbit is invincible and allows players to enjoy the platforming without the frustration of constant death. You can use Nabbit in single player as well but then where’s the fun in that?

In terms of course design there are a few that are more forgettable than the main games levels but on the whole they provide short bursts of intense platforming fun. Many courses are quite different from their Mario U versions and needless to say everything still looks gorgeous and moves along at a crazy pace.

Overall, it’s fairly simple to work out if you’re going to like Super Luigi U . If you enjoyed the original Super Mario U and want a new challenge, then this fits the bill. There’s a lot of content here and it’s different enough to avoid simply being a tired re-tread of something you have already done. It may essentially be more of the same (and no longer come in the lovely green box), but that’s no bad thing at all and it is a great addition to the Switch package.

 8/10

Friday, 11 January 2019

New Super Mario U Deluxe Review (Switch)


Originally released at the launch of the Wii U we were initially sceptical about the ‘New Super Mario’ brand as it had been somewhat tired and generic too this point. Once we played it though are initial fears disappeared. Now, transitioning to the Switch, the game remains worthy of the Mario name. 

Right from the first level you can tell something is different. It just feels so much better than other games in the NSMB series. Everything seems to have had just that little bit more attention paid to it. The mechanics feel tighter, the music seems stronger and it still looks lovely.

It all starts with the world map which is now in the more traditional style of Super Mario Bros 3 or Super Mario World instead of the line of levels running from left to right. It helps makes the multiple routes feel more like an exploration and the secret levels see paths winding off into unknown parts with islands popping up and rainbows forming. What is on display shows the imagination of classic Mario and this is also present in the level designs.

Many of the NSMB levels before this felt generic and tired. Here, levels are fast and devious and contain tricks and gimmicks that may only appear in a handful of places, or even just once. This means that players will come away with levels that they remember and love playing. Nothing is overdone and some of what is here is equals the very best of Super Mario Bros level design.
One level in particular is set out in a spooky illustration style, a graphical effect which is present nowhere else in the game. One water level might have you dodging a continually circling dragon, while the next will see you climbing up through a series of water bubbles trapped in the air. Everyone will have their own favourites.

The bosses are also much better than NSMB2. The Koopa kids return along with Bowser Jnr and a few others. But this time they take more than five seconds to defeat. Still not as difficult as some of the bosses of old but at least now you feel a sense of achievement for toppling them. 

In terms of power ups there are the usual suspects of the fire flower and invincibility star. The ice flower also returns (but is now much better implemented), and the mini mushroom makes very fleeting appearances.  Yoshi is also here in both adult and baby form, though he will leave you at the end of a level. The new addition is the flying squirrel suit. This allows you to float over large distances and gives you one extra jump while in the air. This subtle difference to the Racoon, Cape and Tanooki costumes of the past allows for some excellent and clever use through the levels – something you’ll have to make good use of to find all the hidden coins.

The game is likely to last you a while as well. You can race through the main levels in three or four days but there are many secret routes to find and getting all three star coins will take a long time. Once all the coins in a land have been found it unlocks a Star Road level which will put your reflexes and brain to an even tougher test. Even with all the levels finished and secrets found we find it hard to believe any gamer would put it away and never play it again. It manages to capture that retro ethos of running through the levels you already know just for the sheer fun of it.

Challenges are available such as time trials and the coin attack mode found in NSMB2. There are also specific special challenges such as dodging fireballs or staying in the air for as long as you can by bouncing off Goomba heads.

Multiplayer takes the form of Coin battle mode as players fight to gain the most coins. The four player story mode in the previous Wii game is also here and still proves as awkward and chaotic as ever. The levels of the main game certainly seem to have been designed with single players in mind and it’s fair to say there’s nothing amazing here but they prove fun additions and distractions from the single player story game.

There may not be anything as revolutionary here as Super Mario galaxy but New Super Mario Bros U shows that the old 2D Mario still has the magic when the property is treated with care and affection. In truth this is a fine successor to Super Mario World and could have held the title of something closer to Super Mario World 5 (if we don’t count Yoshi’s Island). That alone should be enough to convince you to own a copy if you haven’t bought it already for the Wii U. There isn’t much here in the way of extras for returning players but for the people new to it should provide hours of fun.

Overall 8/10


(There will be a separate Luigi U review to follow)

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

N++ Ultimate Edition Review (Switch)


We’ve been playing the N series for a long time but the rather lovely limited physical release of the Ultimate Edition on Switch was too much to resist (yes, we actually bought a game to review with our own money!), and a chance to head back into such a pure piece of skill based gaming is something the Switch really needed. The fact the game has now almost doubled in size certainly helps as well.

N++ Ultimate Edition is the final version of the game in the N series and comes packed with a ridiculous amount of content. You get pretty much all the levels from N and N+, N++ and a whole host of new levels of well. In all there are around 4000 thousand levels to test yourself against. If that isn’t enough there are also race and co-op levels to try out. If that still isn’t enough there’s also a level editor to make and share levels online.

As well as levels there are a host of graphical options and music tracks to unlock as well. It’s hard to think how exactly any more could have been squeezed in here. It’s certainly good to have lots of different things to play around with as you’ll be dying a lot. Luckily, restarts are pretty much instantaneous now so you can set off to make exactly the same mistake again in a matter of seconds.

Presentation in N has always been minimalist and it remains the same here with a simple selection of colours for each scheme and clearly defined level design. It means everything is focused on getting your little ninja to zoom around the levels at break neck speed and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We really liked the retro graphic scheme (not a massive surprise perhaps?), which makes the game look Vectrex-esque with lots of neon outlines.

The goal of each level is to hit a switch that opens the exit door and then make your way to it. A timer bar continually ticks down throughout the set of levels you have picked and it can be topped up by picking up little gold squares. Hit the switch, grab the squares and avoid the mines and obstacles and then move on. That is essentially it, a simple concept but one that never gets old.

With the new levels come some new enemies to get your head around. The missile and gun turrets return along with all your most loathed contraptions from before but now you also have to deal with a host of new death machines such as the evil ninjas that follow your exact movement trail. Of course if they catch you it’s all over but then everything kills you in this game. Everything.

The gameplay itself is based around an inertia system. As your ninja runs, jumps and falls they pick up speed which can then be used to launch off surfaces or up the side of walls. Hit the ground from too high and you die, but hit the ground on a downward slope and your ninja will just keep running ready for the next set of acrobatics. It’s a simple system that works perfectly and you can only wonder how long it took to balance out in testing. Most importantly it makes you feel like a badass super ninja and when you get the flow of a level there a few better feelings. Luckily, the game allows you to watch replays of both your and everyone else’s best runs to show off and also see how to shave seconds off your time.

Overall, N++ is an outstanding game. It’s just so full of excellent content and imaginative ideas that platform fans have to check it out. It’ll also last you forever and even if you do get through everything then you can start designing your own levels. It’s the definitive version of one of the best indie games ever. Buy it, love it and get killed thousands of times in it.

Overall 9/10