Monday 25 October 2021

Metroid Dread Review (Switch)


It’s been a long road to Metroid Dread. It’s not as if Metroid games even come around every console generation, but the once cancelled Dread has been worth the wait. It’s something truly special.

First of all, it’s a good idea to point out that Mercury Steam where also responsible for the other most recent Metroid game – Samus Returns on the 3DS. Samus Returns really divided fans and critics alike and to be honest it’s too long, the controls are awkward and gimmicky and even the general room layouts don’t really work. So it’s both a massive relief and somewhat of a surprise to find that Dread has removed pretty much every criticism levelled at that game. As such you can dismiss any worries you may have had about the development team. This is not Samus Returns.

As soon as you start playing it’s incredibly clear that a lot of thought has gone into how Samus controls. This has to be one of the most satisfying movement mechanics we’ve seen in years. Samus moves like a dream with everything the player does being slick and solid. At its finest it recalls games like Bayonetta and Vanquish with everything that unfurls on the screen being part of some kind of eye popping ballet of death as one move seamlessly transitions into another. Speed runners should have an absolute ball with this. Again, Samus Returns this is not.

Complimenting the controls, the look and sound of the game set the scene perfectly. The lush opening cinematics are shortly followed by dropping the player into beautifully detailed landscapes to explore. Each area of Dread has its distinctive own personality with ice, lava and botanical areas filled with effects and small details such as the glowing emergency lights on Samus’ suite when she enters a powered down room. The thing looks incredible from start to finish with design of the highest order present throughout. Even the loading screens as you move between sections are gorgeous.

The soundscape is equally impressive. The game moves away from the series trademark of soaring scores and replaces them with more atmospheric tracks that add to the sinister and foreboding feeling that permeates throughout the game. This is highlighted during the EMMI sections which are absolutely chilling and really add to the feeling of erm… dread. If Metroid ever decides to go full survival horror this shows it could probably pull it off.

Speaking of the EMMI, the new gimmick of the game works well. There are seven in total and all are impervious to your attacks until you get hold of a one use upgrade for your arm cannon. They are restricted to patrolling specific areas of the map which are clearly marked with special doors. As interesting as it would have been to have one following you around the entire map like a Terminator, in practice it would have got old fast as the EMMI perform instant kills on you if you get caught. Your only defence is an incredibly short window in which to counter which leaves the machines stunned so you can slide through their legs and run away.

Luckily the game checkpoints well so when you do get caught you can start again from just outside the area. The only real way to get through these areas is to run like hell and hope the EMMI don’t find you. The game does a great job of making your bad ass bounty hunter feel helpless in these sections with the diegetic noise the robots make doing everything it can to make your skin crawl.

Other highlights include some absolutely epic boss fights with beasties that normally take up most of the screen. These can seem imposing at first but every boss has attack patterns which once learned will see you down them remarkably quickly. In general the bosses didn’t stop our progress too much and the only real spike we found was in the game’s final showdown. Keep at it and you’ll get through though and there isn’t anything here that long time Metroid fans will feel overwhelmed by.

In terms of the flow of the general game it should come as little surprise that it follows the general Metroid format of explore map, find skill and explore the bits of the map you couldn’t explore before. Where it does differ slightly is that at some points the game becomes more linear by funnelling you down certain sections by locking doors. The skills you acquire are both the usual Metroid set mixed with some new additions. There’s a slight issue here in that some of the skills, such as the cloaking device, are used only a handful of times throughout the game which is a shame.

Overall though, Metroid Dread is a resounding triumph. The sound, look, design and control of the game is absolutely spot on. The feeling of exhilaration you get when escaping an EMMI or downing one of the gigantic bosses is unparalleled and the plot is a series high with twists and turns all the way from start to finish. It’s an incredible achievement that in a series with such a high water mark and in a genre which is so oversaturated with solid entries that this stands at very top of the pile. Whether you think it’s better than Super Metroid will likely be based on when you first played the seminal SNES classic but Dread is a game that deserves to sell systems and is an undeniable, remarkable classic.

Overall 10/10

Monday 18 October 2021

Unmetal Review (Steam)

Written by Thomas GJ Sharpe

It is surprising to me that there aren’t more send-ups of po-faced action games, and films for that matter. Indie darling Broforce was the last I can properly recall, but it was a through and through celebration of over-the-top action. Unmetal is Metal Gear done by Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, and is crass and clever, vintage and innovative, and most importantly, funny.

Jesse Fox is as absurd as Solid Snake. Exaggerated, hyperactive and farcical. Kojima’s weird family of mercenaries bickering about global espionage is as unbelievable as UnMetal’s world of pompous characters and bizarre situations. The developers, UnEpic, have skewered the tactical espionage action perfectly. Fox is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, and we play out the actions of his adventure while it is being discussed in an interrogation. This framing allows the gameplay to bend to this more than unreliable narrator. In-between the stealthy knocking out of guards, crafting of items (in a point-and-click style) and boss fights, Fox tells his tale to a dubious intelligence investigator. Were there piranha-men born from a botched artificial insemination procedure, lurking in the sewers? Why not. The flicking between gameplay and narration is effortlessly handled, allowing for a compelling mixture of story and action.

The gameplay is pretty challenging, often switching modes. This means that the segments of any gameplay style don’t really reach any true depth. There is little to master here, but the sheer number of ideas, pace changes and reversals means UnMetal is agile. There is a more puzzle-style challenge, even to the action. There isn’t anything you would be surprised at, level-wise, but the areas are contained and well designed. I got stuck a few times just by missing a path to travel, but most sections don’t outstay their welcome. The boss fights (presented with Street Fighter-esque title cards) break up the chapters, giving the player a sense of progression. As does the simple upgrading system, providing a small amount of player choice. The aforementioned interrogation-gameplay duality, however, provides the most effective impact. The dialogue choices made in the interview impact the action, with little discernible hint at the effects of the different lines. Some make the game harder, some easier. All are amusing.

The voice-acting is superb, sending up all the stereotypes of the genre. There is something joyful to me about people putting on gravely, gruff-man voices for this amount of time. There is dedication here. The music is tightly wound and evokes just the right feel to remind you of levels from oh-so-many titles. Aesthetically, the design just works, it falls into place to feel nostalgic, but without the drawbacks, limitations and frustrations that playing the inspiration material sometime bring.

The last time I had this much fun with a parody game was Darkside Detective, and much like that sublime title, the balance between homage and nostalgia with the subversion and innovation make this a rare gem. This is goofing off at its most elegant.

Overall 9/10

Monday 11 October 2021

G-Darius HD Review (Switch)

We reviewed the excellent Dariusburst: Another Chronicle EX+ recently which proved to be a stunning and very welcome addition to the wealth of side scrolling shooters out there. Now Switch gamers can take a look at something from a little further back in the long running franchise with this arcade version of G-Darius.

The most notable thing to begin with is that this game isn’t meant to be running on dual monitors like it’s more recent entry in the series so you don’t get the small screen size which proved a controversial choice for Dariusburst. The visuals are rough around the edges though, taking on the polygon heavy style of the era. There is an HD port here but in reality it barely looks any different. So, unless you are a fan of the look of the 32-bit age then this may be too much for you to bear – which is a shame as beneath the look of the thing there is one hell of a blaster here.

The core Darius mechanics are still in place with the colour orb power up system working much the same as always. The key gimmick is that players can trap enemies with a kind of electric lasso and draw them back to their ship. Depending on the enemy captured these then add things to your ship such as extra blasters or a shield. This technique can also be used to counter the boss’s energy discharges leading to big scores. It’s a simple system but one that adds options to the players arsenal while encouraging experimentation and flexibility.

General level design is of a consistently high quality and each area is varied and packed full of things to blast. At a point in each level you also get the chance to choose two different routes through the game as well meaning replay value is massively increased as it’ll take  a while to see all the different variations on offer. The bosses are of course insanely awesome as always but then this is a Darius game so what else would you expect?

Another thing of note is that the slowdown from the original game is still present here. This is somewhat controversial as on one hand you might have expected this to be removed (especially in the HD version of the game), but on the other hand this was tried in other recent versions of the game and it could certainly be argued that they suffered massively in terms of how they played because of it.

Overall, it’s always good to see classic games like this make their way to new systems and new audiences. On the other hand we can certainly see how people not familiar with the game the first time round might not get into it. It’s certainly one for fans of the series and the original as this is very much the game you remember but we wouldn’t recommend it as the place to start for those looking to get into side scrolling shooters. Especially not when Dariusburst is sitting right next to it on the eshop with its crazy array of options modes and general flash.


Overall 7/10

Friday 8 October 2021

The Sega Master System Visual Compendium Review

While we have a pretty decent knowledge of all things retro there are always blind spots. Despite the fact we’ve gathered a modest Master System collection together it would be fair to say that we are far from experts when it comes to the console. This latest Bitmap Book seemed a perfect opportunity to remedy that. So with thoughts of Alex Kidd in our head it’s time to take a look back at the much underrated ‘other’ 8-bit console.

As is standard with the visual compendiums you get the usual high quality cover and slip case. This time the colour is black which means your book won’t visually match other compendiums you have but makes sense in the grander scheme of things. As usual, the cover features a host of characters from iconic games which hits the nostalgia button right from the start. The compendium also comes with a set of old style Red/Blue 3D glasses to view some of the pages with. It’s a nice touch that ties in with the Master Systems hit and miss attempts at playing with early 3D in some of its games. Sadly, we didn’t get much from the 3D effect when looking at the pages – but then this could be down to colour-blindness so your experience may differ.

The book follows the now proven route in terms of content. You get the usual excellent intro full of information to both make you an instant expert and also pique your interest into what’s to come and an excellent selection of interviews from developers and industry veterans of the time such as Mutsuhiro Fuji and Steve Hanawa. The games are mainly presented with a single, well chosen, screen shot spread over two pages with decent amount of text to give further information about the game. 

Where this book does differ from other visual compendiums we have seen is in that some games have extra sections attached to them which fold out. This normally takes the form of level maps showing a large area of the selected game. These also come with extra written content as well as an added bonus. It’s a really nice touch that makes the compendium stand out and offers up a great physical Easter egg of sorts.

Away from the individual games there is also a host of excellent pictures of Master System peripherals sprinkled throughout and some features which focus on certain parts of the catalogue such arcade games and a section dedicated to different parts of the hardware – the photographs of which are absolutely sublime. There is also a section dedicated to the box art from different regions which showcases some of the best designs of the time so get ready to look at a lot of white square covered boxes.

Perhaps most interesting though is the section dedicated to the Master System release in Brazil. This covers a lot of the regions exclusive game and gives a good insight into the history surrounding the whole operation. Just try and resist looking for those games on Ebay or you may have a small cardiac event.

Overall, The Master System Visual Compendium is up to the same high standards of Bitmap Books other releases. We felt that this book in particular gave us a real urge to go and find a lot of these games and add them to our collection. As we weren’t experts on the console in the first place we found it a great way to get a detailed overview of the interesting and diverse back catalogue and also the systems place in the market in term of historical context. We may not have known much about the life of the Master System before this but after reading through we certainly love it more than ever.

*picture taken from the Bitmap Books website.

Monday 4 October 2021

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron Review (Steam)

Written by Thomas G.J Sharpe

Wise-crackin’ angels vaguely playing out a mangle of lesser-known Judeo-Christian texts? Sursum corda! You got it! And somehow, wherever I looked for information on El Shaddai, it was sprinkled in the risky words “cult classic”. Sadly, I simply do not see it.

This is pitched as a third-person action game (feat. Mild platforming) with some other bold claims than it’s cultish-classicism; “deeply artistic”, “outstanding aesthetics” and “exceptional setting”. Shaddai is proud of its design, and in a way, it probably still stands out after 10 years. It is “unique”, but I find it hard to apply “artistic” in the way I feel that the marketing wants me to feel about it. Stylistic might be better; it is an interesting blend of crisp, heavenly brightness with piercing colours that provide a jarring, otherworldliness, or even between-worldliness to it. In this way, Shaddai puts a lot of burden on the visual adornments to hook us in.

But it falls apart as soon as you squint past the divine rendering and play the game after a run of bargain-basement story-telling cinematics (these pop up constantly throughout the game, never once being interesting, tense, moving, funny or any such thing). You play as Enoch (quick search… ancestor of Noah… wrote a bunch of guff about demons and monsters to make ancient people (and the modern day credulous) terrified of everything) who is writing a bunch of stuff out in a bunch of books and is led by Lucifer (who has a cell-phone which he uses to smart-talk Yahweh on) to defeat seven fallen angels who have confused reality on Earth. Or something.

And I mean, or something. Because, despite the interest I personally have in the development of superstitious cults, like Christianity, this is not a compelling interpretation. Primarily, as the player never once cares about the fate of Enoch himself. He is devoid of sympathy and interest, there is no character arc to speak of. His struggles against amusingly designed enemies and bosses with his divine weapon-stick (looks like that awful company Tesla designed a Bat’Leth) are without risk. Not just in a narrative, conceptual sense either. The combat is, at best, functional. There is little to no development beyond a couple of mild combos. If you consider that Bayonetta was released two years prior to this, it really shows its weaknesses.

On the more positive side, yes, this is an interestingly designed game, and the mixture of 2D platforming into the 3rd person action is a nice idea. It never quite translates, however, going no deeper than mild changes of perspective and settings, thinking aesthetic abstraction is enough to win the day. It simply is not enough for me. For a game to not excite me that has as it’s primary game loop as hack-n-slash action, is shocking. Again, I just do not see the appeal. Neither fantastic enough, thrilling enough to inspire anything in me more than a resounding, Godly, meh.

Overall 5/10