Friday 23 December 2022

Jitsu Squad Review (Switch)

 Jitsu Squad continues the recent revival of the scrolling beat’em up on Switch with frenetic and colourful approach to walking right and smacking people. The plot is as simple as always with these games with the four heroes having to stop a demon from getting hold of a magical stone which will of course grant it god like power.

The game has a Saturday morning cartoon look about it with bright colours and character designs that wouldn’t out of place in the brash world of the nineties. If you didn’t know better you could certainly see this being a spinoff from one of the many TV shows of the time, most of which spawned their own scrolling beat’em ups.

There aren’t a huge number of levels but each is distinctive from the last and they have their own sets of enemies to pummel with suitably large bosses at the end. And the amount of enemies is really something with the screen almost completely filling at times. It does get chaotic, especially in multiplayer, and we’ve seen reports of performance problems on Switch but we didn’t come across too many instances that let the game down.

With all these enemies to hit, it’s a good thing you have a decent array of moves to do it with. Much of the time you’ll be bashing away at the attack button but you gain new moves as you progress by collecting scrolls and there is also a throw and block button. Blocking can also lead to counter attacks with almost all enemy moves reversible. When things get really crowded you’ve also got the special move button which is effectively a smart bomb of sorts. Each of the four characters also has their own style and move set ranging from the standard tropes of quick ninja to strong tank.

Overall, Jitsu Squad is a fun addition to the ranks of the scrolling beat’em up. Very few games in the genre such a wide-ranging move set and the diversity in the characters is also fun. It is a very short game though and there’s little to do once you’ve been through it a couple of times. While many will be drawn to the Turtles and Streets of Rages of this world this is certainly well worth checking out and fans of the genre will likely have a blast with it.

Overall 7/10

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Intrepid Izzy Review (Switch)

If there’s one genre that the Switch is not lacking in, it’s Metroidvania clones. At this point there must be hundreds of them. But the thing is, most of them are actually very good. Now here’s another one to add to the list with Intrepid Izzy moving over from Dreamcast and taking a slightly more physical approach to the platforming and exploration.

Izzy plays out in much the same format as every other game in the genre. You explore, find new skills and then unlock new areas to continue your adventure. There’s a host of arcade style mini games to distract you as well, but basically you know what you are getting. If there is a more direct comparison to be drawn then it’s with the Shantae series, as the look and feel of Izzy feel closest to it.

It’s certainly a colourful game with bold and bright colours used to create the various environments. Each area is distinctive from the last in terms of both environment design and enemies with the snowy landscape reached via boat being a particular highlight with the constant falling snow. Combat is also satisfying with Izzy punching, kicking and throwing the occasional Street Fighter-esque fireball to dispatch enemies.

If there is a criticism, it’s that the visual style verges a little too close to looking like a flash game. While everything is colourful and the environments look nice, the characters are generic and lack personality.

Overall, there isn’t a massive amount to say about Interpid Izzy. It’s well put together and solid but it is going to struggle to stand out from the masses of Metroidvania style games out there already. If it had arrived earlier in the life of the console (or genre), it would likely make a far bigger splash as there’s nothing wrong here and those who can’t get enough will be well served. It just lacks that something to differentiate it.

Overall 6/10

Monday 19 December 2022

Video Game Fables: Arena DLC

If you wanted a bit more of Momiji’s charming cut-out Video Game Fables, maybe this will do it. It’s not quite what you’d expect, which is very much in keeping with the rest of VGF. An arena mode seems like a bit of low-hanging fruit, but there’s enough twists here to make it a decent bolt-on, complimenting the main game well. A bit extra for existing players, and a bit of extra fat to appeal to prospective players.

The intrepid trio are back with their cheery bickering, those cut-out scamps, and can now (after a certain point in the main story) enter the arena. I very much enjoy the pallid Concierge who is a great guide to the new area. Rather than be a wave-based or boss-rush setup, the arena has limits on XP and progression through cups, so there are more choices here than just a series of standard fights taken out of context. In fact, there’s a sort of Running Man thing going on, where the fighting is observed on a TV show by the Nightmare Dimension.

You’ll encounter some familiar faces along the way and it provides an alternative angle to the original take on RPG combat that VGF had going for it. I didn’t stay too long with it, personally, as the story and design is what kept me interested in the core game, and new stickers are not my bag. This is, however, thoughtful DLC which works real nice. If you fancy a bit more of Tator, Aru and Nate, then this will be a cheery time.

Overall 6/10

Monday 12 December 2022

Before We Leave Review (Switch)

“War. War never changes”, so goes the intro to many a Fallout game. Before We Leave’s opening shares some common ground with the venerable RPG series - a post-apocalyptic world left barren for years, the survivors of war emerging from bunkers to reclaim the land and rebuild society – but that’s about it. Balancing Monkey Games’ take on a ravaged Earth is a much more optimistic take on the setting.

A 4X title with the aim of being relaxing, cosy and hopeful, it charges you with nurturing your Peeps as they emerge bleary-eyed into a planet reclaimed by nature. Some remnants of the past remain; old wooden power generators, rusting hulks, old ships – just enough resource to get society up and running, with the ultimate aim being to colonise islands, and eventually venture to the stars to establish colonies on other planets. The relaxing angle comes from the fact there’s no violence. You won’t find any mutants or roving Mad Max-style gangs here. The biggest issues you face are pollution, the happiness of your Peeps, and the potential to stymie your advancement through poor planning.

If you’ve played any 4X game such as Civilization you’ll know what to expect here, tech trees, hex tiles, and the satisfaction of rebuilding society. And for the most part, it sets out what it aims for. There’s a pleasure to be had in taking your Peeps from basic huts and chopping down trees to researching shipping, colonising islands, then working up to learning how to repair and launch a space shuttle, all without being constantly hassled by roving hoards looking to raze your buildings to the ground and decimate your population.

However, the game comes with its own stresses. Your Peeps aren’t unfeeling pawns, they have thoughts and emotions. Build an iron mine too close to accommodation or highly populated areas and your workers will be unhappy with the pollution. They also grumble about lack of food (which is fair, I suppose), poor clothing, lack of workers and other factors within the player’s control add to the mix. This (depending on your management style) takes away from the chilled nature of Before We Leave, as you shuffle buildings around or build more forests to try to negate some of the pollution. You start managing the shipping lanes to move resources between islands to ensure no-one goes hungry, or to ensure there’s enough of the correct types of research to advance to the next discovery. Of course, you could just as easily think your workers should suck it up, and proceed in gathering all the resources you can, ignoring their concerns and keeping things ticking along.

The presentation is nice, giving you a globe to work on rather then a top-down or isometric view common with the genre, and the game runs smoothly to begin with. As more buildings are erected and ships move between ports, the auto-resolution drops to accommodate the action (at least it does in handheld mode on the Switch), making things blurry for a while. You’re able to adjust the zoom to get up close to your Peeps, and the interface is decent, too. The whole thing is initially daunting, with so many icons and tips appearing on screen, but a decent tutorial (that leads into the main game) does a decent job of explaining everything.

Before We Leave is a hopeful, positive take on the 4X genre. A (mostly) relaxing way to while away a few hours and is a great match for the Switch. It could do with a little more polish though, as some of the tutorials could be a little more explicit in their instruction, and I’m sure that on one playthrough I wasn’t given a power source to repair meaning I couldn’t leave my first island. That said, there’s still enough here to warrant a look for those wanting to advance civilisation in snippets, and for anyone in the mood for a non-violent strategy title (space whales notwithstanding. It’ll make sense when you play it). Before We Leave goes to show that war may never change, but what might happen if society can.


Monday 5 December 2022

Lunistice Review (Switch)

Every generation has that special moment in their life, a little slice of time that they fondly recall. For most, it probably coincides with their teenage years. For me, it was the mid-to-late nineties; Britpop, cult TV, leaving school for college and the arrival of 3D games. As is perhaps normal for people around my age, I still think the nineties was only about ten years ago, so it’s nice to play Lunistice, since it feels like a forgotten PS1 title.

Playing as Hana the Tanuki, the aim is to reach the end of each level while collecting origami cranes and avoiding (or taking out) enemies. The game is so focussed on gameplay that there’s very little in the way of cutscenes (a brief one at the beginning and another at the end). This pared-back design initially made me feel as if something was missing, but as I progressed through the levels I began to fall under its spell. This is a pure 3D platformer from the Crash Bandicoot/Sonic Adventure camp; full 3D movement but exploration is limited to the odd branching path here and there.

Adding to the nostalgia is the design; low poly models and textures nail the PS1/Saturn aesthetic. Were it not for the silky-smooth movement and long draw distances you could swear you were playing a port from the days of Nights into Dreams or Pandemonium, and an optional CRT filter adds to the nostalgia. The pace at which the game moves when grinding a rail evokes memories of Sonic’s glory days. This is all accompanied with suitably jaunty music throughout.

Platforming is the main pull of the game, with a series of small ledges, huge drops, rails to grind and a sense of inertia to contend with, the enemies are really a secondary through, another hindrance to trip you up. While Hana’s fast and floaty to control at first, trial and error helps the player get some idea of how to fine tune her jumps and nail the landing. The addition of an almost obligatory double jump (and even a triple jump with the use of a spin attack) helps negotiate the game’s trickier later levels.

The levels are well thought out, and feel fine tuned. The player is rarely able to cheat the game as distances have been planned with a very specific jump combo in mind (my fifty plus attempts on certain sections towards the end verifies this), but should Hana plummet into the abyss she’s whisked back to the last checkpoint, which is normally near enough to feel fair, but far enough apart to add a sense of dread at having to traverse a particularly painful section for the umpteenth time. There are enemies, too, although not wave upon wave. They tend to occupy platforms to need to lad on, or block your jump from one ledge to another. There aren’t any boss battles, so you just have a few basic types of foes to deal with. A little more variety in enemy design would have been nice, but being their presence is mainly to add a little life to levels it’s hardly a damning criticism of the game.

Lunistice is a pleasant surprise. I must admit I knew nothing of it until I started it up, and I’m glad I didn’t, as I had no expectations going into it. It’s a game I didn’t realise I wanted to play, and thanks to its tight design and limited number of levels, it probably took me a couple of hours to play through from beginning to end. I feel there’s some items I missed, so it’s likely I’ll replay it to see what else it has to offer, but it ultimately it gave me those same nostalgia vibes I get when I fire up the PlayStation Classic. Even though I’m in my forties, my waistline is larger and my hairline has vanished, I’m briefly transported back ten years (give or take) to the late nineties.


Wednesday 30 November 2022

Orbital Bullet Review (Switch)


Another day and another Rogue-like arrives. But just when you think you’ve seen everything, something new appears to show there is still life in the genre. Orbital Bullet takes the action platformer approach to the live, die, repeat mantra and is far more frenetic and intense than your average Rogue title.

The concept is simple, you choose one of four classes and try and blast your way around an enclosed arena in the form of a ring. Once the ring is clear of enemies you hit the L button and zoom round and to the next one to repeat the process again. Occasionally, you get to stop and buy supplies and boost your skills or jump to a boss ring, but the gameplay loop remains the same pretty much throughout. Once the boss arena is completed you get the choice of moving to a new planet which brings a graphical change and a new set of enemies to blast.

And what a loop it is. Pounding music, a frantic pace and not a second to breath permeates the entire experience of an Orbital Bullet run through. It’s akin to someone taking Black Future 88 (what do you mean you haven’t played it?) and fusing it with some kind of side scrolling Tempest game. Add a sprinkling of Resogun and you’ve got it.

You’ll have access to a ton of weapons, with more continually unlocking and a grid of skills and buffs that you can unlock at the end of each run. This of course means that the next time you play you’ll likely get a little bit further through the rings and pick up some more points to feed into your unlockable skills, and thus the loop continues.

There are of course secrets to uncover as well. You’ll often stumble upon rifts in the levels which can be passed through by sacrificing health or using unlock keys. These rift rings are filled with tough enemies but offer up big rewards for skilled players, often giving weapon unlocks or quantities of keys and other bonus items.

Your skill unlocks cover every aspect of play from adding more jumping ability and increasing speed to upping the level of weapon you start with and the timer on your combo counter. They come in two forms as well with a long-term permanent unlock system before each run allowing players some control over what they get next. In game you find computer terminals which add layers of buffs such as higher heath or more bounce damage. These in turn take in game points to unlock but only last the length of your run.

Weapon unlocking is even more complicated with blueprints needing to be found Initially then points needing to be spent to have the weapon created. You can also play a much longer game here by putting your points into the minimum and maximum level of weapons available throughout.

Overall, Orbital Bullet is successful in taking an oversaturated genre and somehow managing to carve out its own original niche within it. There isn’t really anything out there quite like it and it provides a thrilling and highly satisfying blasting experience. Initially it doesn’t feel like it has much depth but don’t be fooled, this is a devious and deep game which will require reflexes of a Jedi in order to defeat.

Overall 8/10


Monday 28 November 2022

Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Volume 2 Review (Switch)

Like the first Neo Geo Pocket Collection, Volume 2 brings another ten games to the Switch (Eleven if you count both versions of SNK VS. Capcom Card Fighters’ Clash). It means that around a quarter of all the games available on the system are now on Nintendo’s hybrid and we can only hope this continues. It also helps that there’s some really good games on here.

Like the first volume this collection brings together the individually released Pocket games from the year, compiles them and adds a host of others as well. We’ve had fewer individual releases this time around so it’s an enticing prospect even if you’ve already broken cover and purchased some of the games already.

Included are three sports games. Neogeo Cup 98 is an easily forgettable football game but the other two fare far better. Pocket Tennis is great and evokes memories of Super Tennis back on the SNES. We found ourselves losing far more time than we intended, and it works great for quick goes. Baseball Stars is also a lot of fun with each of the teams having unique stats and each area of the game being represented well. Both may not have warranted individual releases, but they are far more than just filler here.

There are two quirky games on here as well with The King of Fighters Battle De Paradise providing a sort of weird board game version of the game and the notoriously quirky Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun also here. Unfortunately, both games are in Japanese (though the manuals have been translated). Both games are confusing enough without having to fight through a foreign language as well. Ganbare in particular has a fair amount of text so you’ll need to keep going back an forth to know what is going on. The game itself has a weird creature developing mini games which you can then play, and you have to effect his environment to keep him awake. Yes, it’s very strange.

Biomotor Unitron adds a much-welcomed RPG to the collection though in truth it’s quite average. It’s a bit Pokémon like but instead of creatures you are collecting resources for your robot. It’s solid but we can’t see many people seeing it through to the end. The previously released Mega Man Battle and Fighters is also included, (and not translated from Japanese), which provides two games which are effectively a succession of boss battles in a kind of basic fighting game. It’s fun, but nothing amazing and without the license would likely be forgotten.

What is a wonderful surprise is Puzzle Link 2. On the surface it seems like a sort of Magical Drop or Puzzle Bobble clone but that is not the case. You do have to match colours, but you do this by connecting them with pipes that you throw up the screen. It’s a fresh and clever take on the genre and one you’ll lose a lot of time to. Who knew Pipemania crossed with Magical Drop was the game we all needed?

The remaining two games have both been released separately. Big Bang Pro Wrestling has proved to be a really nice surprise. We had never even heard of it but it’s now up there with SNK vs Capcom: Card Fighters Clash as our most played NGP game. It plays well, it’s inventive, the graphics and sound are satisfying, and it uses the control scheme the best you can possibly expect for the system. There’s also a wide range of characters and match types to pick from.

SNK Vs, Capcom Card Fighters’ Clash is of course the headline act here with both versions of the games included and the English and Japanese language versions of both those games as well. The card battles themselves are deceptively complex. Battles play on out on a table where players can lay a maximum of three cards down. When played, cards add whatever special points they have to the players total and also present a battle point value to attack and defend with. The special points then allow for things like dual attacking and launching special abilities. Once cards are down players can either attack with them or hold them back to defend. Once an action has been taken the card in question is then frozen. This is important as you must weigh up how likely you are to be able to defend against incoming attacks and if an all-out strike by your team is worth leaving yourself defenceless for.

The key here is that you aren’t trying to eliminate all your opponent’s cards but instead knock down their health bar. If they are unable to block an incoming attack with a card the battle points value of the card will be removed from their total. Once it reaches zero, they lose. The same goes for you of course, so the balance between attack and defence is key. The only frustrating thing here is of course that there is always a certain random element to how cards come out so some games can be lost very early on with little the player can do about it. Of course, when you get hold of a few better cards to add into your deck this also works the other way as you can destroy your opponent very quickly if they start with a bad hand.

Overall, this second volume of Neo Pocket games has been put together very well. There’s enough here to warrant buying the whole package if you’ve already bought one or two of the other games and there is a good mix of different styles and genres. It also shows the handheld was far more than just mini versions of 2D fighters. If haven’t bought Card Fighters’ separately already this is pretty essential, and even if you have the other games are well worth playing. Let’s hope more collections appear in the future.

Overall 8/10

Wednesday 23 November 2022

Alwa's Awakening and Cathedral Cart Review (Evercade)

This is the second two cartridge game to come to the Evercade after the mix of Xenocrisis and Tanglewood. Considering that one worked out well it shows that with the right games the Evercade fan base are more than willing to buy in to carts with fewer games on. It certainly helps that both these games are published by Elden Pixels, purveyor of some of the finest retro themed fun out there.

The first title, Alwa’s Awakening is both a wonderful game and a wonderful achievement. It fits perfectly on the NES while also being modern and forward thinking in its design and play mechanics. There’s little doubt that if this had been released in the days of Nintendo’s flagship system then it would be sitting easily in the all the top 10 NES games lists across the internet. But it’s not just living off a nostalgic kick either as it can also go toe to toe with the many other Metroidvania titles out there and stand above most of them. Turning Alwa’s Awakening into a NES game was the best thing that ever happened to it as it really seems to have found its home now and having it accessible via the Evercade is a perfect match.

Alwa’s Awakening is basically a 2D Metroidvania adventure spread over a single interconnecting world. Our hero, Zoe, explores the region picking up spells and other magical objects which in turn then let’s her have access to more areas to explore. Zoe must enter dungeons, defeat boss monsters and then, of course, take on the big bad to save the land. You know how it goes.

Each region and area are easily identified and different looking and how the game has managed to be squeezed down into the limitations of a NES cartridge is absolutely astounding. Even walls of bricks or different woodland areas are distinctive from one another which really helps to keep the player engaged - and also works as a handy navigational aid.

Zoe has a handful of things to help her along the way which act as puzzle solving tools and weapons. As well as her standard staff which she can use to just bash things with there are three spells available which can be upgraded as you go. The first one you will find is the magic block which you can conjure to use to activate switches or give yourself a boost for jumping. Later you can also make it waterproof so that it can be used to travel across rivers.

Cathedral has the honour of being the first native Evercade game. This is a real milestone as it opens the door for other indie games and even exclusives to make their way to the system. It’s a magically realised adventure game filled with a feeling of mystery, joy and the urge to push ever onward that many players may not have felt for a very long time. It encapsulates what made 8-bit adventure games so good while also ironing out many of the issues that they were often hindered with. There’s also no noticeable difference between this and other versions of the game that we could see.

We love a good romp through titles like Wizards and Warriors and Battle of Olympus but Cathedral does it better. There may be hundreds of Metroidvania games out there but hardly any of them can hope to be as accomplished as this. It’s a classic and the new indie standard in the genre. It also manages to rocket to the top of the Evercade best games list effortlessly.

You start the game inside the mysterious old Cathedral of the games title with little understanding of what’s going on or what your mission is. Shortly after this you will escape and head to a nearby town. The town’s folk will help to fill you in on the games law and from there you undertake a vast adventure to defeat a particularly big bad in the best traditions of magic and fantasy.

The game throws you early on in terms of how it plays. Initially, we were pretty convinced what we had unearthed was effectively Shovel Knight the Metroidvania. The art style is similar and our hero knight can even do the Duck Tales bounce with his sword. The longer we played though the more we realised the game was very much its own beast and one that seems more influenced by Rare’s Wizards and Warriors trilogy on the NES (but much smoother in terms of how it plays).

It’s also fair to say that it took a few hours to get into. To begin with we found it difficult to judge the edges of platforms and the general inertia of the knight which had us falling to our death over and over. There are also some pretty heavy colour blind issues surrounding health bars and some on screen objects. But after finding a few items and giving the game some time everything simply clicked into place and all our initial problems just faded away.

Overall, these two games are more than worthy of sharing a cart together. If the system can keep putting out quality titles like this and making them more accessible then it might have really found a niche it can mine for years to come.

Game Rankings - 

Alwa’s Awakening 5/5

Cathedral 5/5

Monday 21 November 2022

From Space Review (Steam)


Review by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

From Space is a rather enjoyable action game with some odd elements making it up. With a stylised visual presentation, a deeper-than-you’d-expect role-playing system, and a surprising linear nature, there are more hits than misses, but still definitely some rough edges and issues needing to be addressed. At this stage, however, From Space did keep me engaged and having fun.

It’s important that I really make clear how I couldn’t quite get what this game was until I was well on my way. The premise is a simple alien invasion story, there seemed to be some player roles that I could switch between on the fly, and the aliens were a blast to blast. So far, so good. Something just didn’t click into place for me in the first couple of hours of playing. You’re popped into this nicely presented world. Almost tilt-shift, diorama style overhead view, where you play a little bobble-headed “specialist”. You move through the areas in quite a linear way, clearing objectives that usually branch from a character you meet in a safe-zone, or hub area. I expected that I’d just sort of jog about, clear the aliens out of the ruined environments, and satisfy the needs of survivors.

The action is fun. A range of neon alien critters are poised to stop your objectives of saving people, finding objects, or getting access to important infrastructure to the survivors. That isn’t, however, all. There is a character perk system, an equipment upgrade system (paid for by little pink orbs you gain from dispatchin’ E.T.), inventory management, two different item slots to utilise, and four different specialists to choose from. Already I wondered the impact of choosing particular weapons to upgrade; would they carry on between specialists? Are there going to be enough uses for the environmental items like the barbed wire spools to justify taking up a space in my inventory? Why is there not a pause while I am single-player? I felt that as soon as I started a fun little action game, it had spread out into a buffet of different systems that I didn’t expect to keep track of, or maybe felt out of place in what seemed like an arcadey-blaster.

The missions often required me to clear an area, or deliver an NPC unharmed to the next safe-zone in the process. These layers provide an unexpected depth to the proceedings which on one hand really worked for me to make the combat more contemplative, but at the same time, sucked some of the fun out of it. Other issues, such as path-finding with NPCs (or them being equipped with suicide-inducing toxic-waste launching guns) made unwanted distractions. Simply, I could see there was a great alien shooter with some interesting role-playing mechanisms, but I was being asked to do things which compromised the action. Another example is the way that aliens sometimes spawn in at random as if air-dropped from the sky. While this sort of makes sense that aliens would “beam down” or some-such, it lost the infestation, Earth-occupation vibe.

The guns can sometimes feel really great. There are some superb feeling heavy weapons, a chunky gun turret deployable, some crazy spool-up lightning weapons, or (if you’re feeling dangerous) those toxic-goo launchers. Other weapons feel underwhelming, especially shotguns. There is a lack of effect in some areas, where the mobs feel like sponges that don’t react, or status effects such as shock seem not to matter. I guess I’m saying I felt I wasn’t getting enough information fed-back about the weapon choices. Throwables such as Molotov’s or grenades have an intuitive feel, and react nicely to the environment. Conversely, some vertical sections were troublesome for the projectile weapons as stairs would inhibit shots as height is awkwardly calculated into the shot.

The linear nature of the levels was a nice surprise as I could roam around and find all the hidden bits and scrounge all the alien gizzards for upgrading. There are optional side-quests, and even sort of fetch quests that take the form of that coke mission from Left 4 Dead 2. This is a strangely linear game, where you meet a lot of characters but get little sense of anything broadly important. I began also to question the “specialist” choice, as it felt worked at odds with a perk and upgrade system. Why not just let me find guns to work on the workbenches with and develop my own character? If I wanted a heavy gunner, let me pick stats, perks, and upgrade a heavy gun? So, I stuck with the heavy gunner and didn’t really try out the others after a while.

And after a while, I found I was having a good time! There is a good balance of the ammunition as I often found the aliens soaked up enough for me to run low, if not out and have to melee attack. The environments wind out in interesting and thoughtful ways; there are all manner of places decked out with loving detail. The aliens themselves are joyfully designed, boasting neon cartoony menace (this made up for a lot as I personally loathe the human character designs, especially the eyes). Moving into a slower, more considered action-RPG was the shift I needed to make to get into From Space.

There have been a lot of patches since I played it for review. These have addressed a great many things, and a great many things which are quite integral. With more work, more balance, From Space could be a fantastic group shooter, with an unexpected amount of depth. Despite a great number of issues left to address, it has charm and strong action in it’s current state. I hope the developers continue to improve and I’m sure they will find a loving audience for it.

Overall 6/10

Friday 18 November 2022

Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration Review (Switch)

Atari are certainly trying to make an impact with their 50th anniversary celebrations. First, we had the WarioWare like Atari Mania and now they have released this collection of a significant portion of the companies back catalogue spanning the decades.

Right from the off you can tell care and attention has been put into this. There is an absolute ton of materials captured here. Flyers, adverts, videos, specifications, interviews. On and on it goes spanning game after game and decade after decade. It’s handy then that you can view everything in a sort of virtual timeline.

Broken in five sections, you can trace along the history of Atari and play the games that pop up as well as reading all the supporting materials. It helps make the wealth of information manageable to get through while also looking incredibly cool. Of course, if you want to dive straight into the games there’s the option to just have them listed by console.

The list of games and consoles is exhaustive, starting with Arcade games and the 2600, it runs all the way through to the ill-fated and underrated Jaguar and takes in the 5200, 7800, 800 and Lynx along the way. When it comes to the game selection though, despite there being so many titles here, there are still some disappointing omissions. This is most likely due to licensing but even then, away from Star Wars, Aliens and E.T there’s still some games which have appeared recently elsewhere that don’t make the list.

Most of the key arcade games are here so if you know what you are getting from Missile Command, Asteroids and Centipede you won’t be disappointed. The selection of arcade games is extensive and there’s even a completed prototype in Akka Arrh to try out. Many of the console games included are repeated versions of these games through the years so it’s nice to be able to trace them back to the source and see how they have been converted.

The 2600 will be a struggle for a lot of modern gamers to go back to as it’s very basic but you’ll certainly not be wanting for titles. The key games such as Adventure, Sword Quest and the massively impressive Solaris are here but some key prototypes such as Aqua Adventure are not, which is strange as it’s on the Atari Evercade cart. The 5200 fares better, but only has fives games included. Millipede, Missile Command and Super Breakout are games that appear multiple times across the collection but Bounty Bob Strikes Back and Star Raiders are a welcome addition.

The 7800 has seven games included but in terms of iconic non-arcade games the two key ones are here. Ninja Golf, a weird cross between golf and Kung Fu, and Dark Chambers, a sort of gauntlet clone, are both excellent and well worth spending some time with. Again, there’s a strange omission in the protype of Dessert Falcon. Five 800 games round off the numbered Atari machine offerings with a couple of fun platformers and more arcade conversions.

Sadly, the iconic Lynx is the most badly served of the machines on the collection. Much of the back catalogue is owned by a third party which means the systems best games such as Chips Challenge and Blue Lightning are nowhere to be seen. Instead, we get a disappointing five games of which only Scrapyard Dog and the dual cart of Asteroids and Missile Command really stand out. Hopefully something could be sorted out with regards to this in future with some kind of DLC. If not, then get yourself an Evercade and dive into the two carts dedicated to the system on there.

Interestingly, someone has finally got the Jaguar emulator running properly and nine games are included here. Sadly, a lot of the systems best games where licensed FPS’ such as Alien Vs. Predator and Doom so don’t appear here. Fear not though because amid the mediocrity are two excellent games. Missile Command 3D is a great update on the classic formula and will cost you a small fortune to find the original. Tempest 2000 is one of the best games ever and there is an argument to be made that it’s worth buying the collection based on its inclusion alone. The trippy, psychedelic shooter is a work of genius from the mind of Jeff Minter and an update that eclipses the original arcade game in every single way. It’s utterly brilliant and an essential experience for everyone.

Along with the retro goodness there are also six reimagined versions of the games included. These aren’t the recent separate releases but seemingly exclusives to this collection. There’s a 3D version of Haunted House that works quite well and an update to Super Breakout. The long lost fourth game in the Swordquest series is also here along with a four-player tank game and a super neon version of Yars’ Revenge. VCTR-SCTR rounds out the games and is a fun mix of vector graphics-based games such as Tempest, Lunar Lander and Asteroids.

Overall, Atari 50 is a remarkable collection. There are some omissions, but it seems like everything that could be included has been and the fact the extra mile has been walked to get the Jaguar games up and running shows it’s a project that has been taken seriously. The museum content is excellent and the whole things acts as an interactive guide to one of gaming’s most iconic companies. There’s always going to be something missing for someone, but Tempest 2000 is here and that should be enough to make even the most disappointed of gamers happy.

Overall 8/10

Wednesday 16 November 2022

80 Days/Overboard Review (Switch)

Inkle have been charming the gaming world now for a long time, but we are embarrassed to say that this is the first time we have come across their releases. You can now get two of their best games in one physical package, so it seemed like the perfect time to finally dive into their world of choose you own adventure like games.

We don’t normally get on well with virtual novel type games but there’s something different about these. It helps that both games are fairly short. Also, we found that there was a lot for the player to think about and do amidst the blocks of text. The two games are also remarkably different in how they play out which is something we weren’t expecting.

80 Days is the longer and more in depth of the two games and loosely follows the story of Jules Verne’s novel ‘Around the World in 80 Days’. Playing the role of Mr Fogg’s gentleman’s gentleman you are tasked with packing for and planning your trip around the globe. At each new destination you have the opportunity to buy and trade at the markets and explore to find new routes and events. It starts out fairly easy but when your funds are running low or you’ve hit a major hump in the road (such as being thrown off a train by an angry waiter), it starts to get tense as you scramble to get back on track as the continually ticking clock winds down in the background.

There is a lot of text to get through here though. It seems a bit of a missed opportunity to have an around the world adventure that takes in so many different locations and not have at least a few great visuals to go with them. The words are great of course, but there really should be a bit more to look at as well. If Pirates! Back in the 80’s could do it then we can certainly do it in the modern day.

To keep things interesting, there are around 120 different cities to visit and numerous ways to get around. There are also a few random elements which move around objects and events so each time you play the game shouldn’t be the same as the last. It’ll take you between two and three hours to complete your quest so this adds a good level of replayability.

Overboard, is quite a different prospect. Here you play a woman who at the start of the game kills her husband by throwing him off a cruise ship. You then have eight hours to get away with it before you dock in New York. One play through takes about thirty minutes but again, each time you play characters and events change and a continual list of tasks and mysteries get added to draw you back in.

There’s more to look at here and much less text. Most of the game playing out as brief conversations with the cast of colourful characters aboard the ship. It has less depth and scope than 80 Days but works to compliment it well as a quick adventure between treks around the globe.

Overall, we had a really good time with both these games. They sit somewhere between a point and click adventure and a visual novel and both games are well worth playing multiple times. We suspect this will start a bit of a love affair between ourselves and inkle’s titles and we can’t wait to see what other adventures await.

Overall 8/10


We receive no commission from store links -

Monday 14 November 2022

Go Straight: The Ultimate Guide To Side-Scrolling Beat-'Em-Ups

We’ve never had a Bitmap book come through the door we didn’t like. When this heavy tome arrived focused on side scrolling beat‘em ups we were immediately transported back to the arcades of old. Perhaps of all the books the team have released this has the potential to hit the nostalgia gland more than any other with the genre having many games that never made it to home releases.

Across the 456 pages it’s pretty much guaranteed you are going to find a ton of game you won’t have played, or perhaps even heard of, as the book covers games from all over the place. It’s set out into different decades running from 1980 all the way up to recent releases in 2021. The whole thing starts with a foreword from Renegade creator Yoshihisa Kishimoto followed by an informative and entertaining look at what makes a game fall into the genre. During this afterword section you also get the first of many double foldout pages.

In a visual representation of a side scroller, many of the articles about key games unfold to effectively create a four-page layout. This starts with Streets of Rage which is used to display a numbered scene from the game which acts as your guide to the key ingredients of the genre. The fold out pages are double sided as well so there’s no wasted space here.

Starting in the 1980’s with Kung Fu Master the amount of information you get on the games is massively impressive. For instance, Double Dragon has six pages dedicated to it covering development, gameplay, ports and classic moments. More obscure games get less or are reduced to split pages, but this certainly feels exhaustive in terms of the games featured and it’s hard to see what else could have been put in (even the notorious Bebe’s Kids is here). The big licenses are all in here as well, screenshots and all, so expect to see Turtles, Simpsons and even Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.

There is a decent selection of screen shots and some full-page pictures but there is also a lot of text here so it’s certainly not just a coffee table book to flick through nonchalantly. The research and dedication required to get all this information together is impressive and everything is interesting and will likely send you off hunting for more than a few of the games. The fact each decade comes with a written introduction to the development of the games and market during that period is further proof that these books will likely end up on some kind of historical game development course in the future. There’s certainly enough to take you from knowing nothing to having a huge knowledge of both the titles and genre through the ages.

Overall, Go straight is an exceptional book. It’s perfect to dip into to look for your favourite game or read from front to back to get a detailed overview of pretty much every title in the genre. It’s logically organised which makes finding things easy and the intros to each decade are great encapsulations of the time they look at. Much like the Point and Click Adventure book before it, this is a real highlight in an already packed and impressive back catalogue from Bitmap books. Utterly essential for all retro fans.



Friday 11 November 2022

The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow Review (Steam)


It is warming to see point and clicks still burbling along, and even more heartening to see them being chucked around with some degree of excitement. The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow had a trailer that was almost specifically targeted for my tastes. Folk horror, period English setting, that look, sinister synth soundtrack. It looked great, and for the most part did not disappoint. Hob’s Barrow manages to capture something really special in its narrative, aesthetic, and pace, that makes up for sort of light puzzle experience.

You play as Thomasina Bateman, a barrow archaeologist whose skepticism drives much of the story forward. Much seems to be reminiscent of Lovecraft here; a protagonist who is steadfast in a no-nonsense scientific empiricism, slowly broken down by the relentless inexplicability of other-worldly horror. There is also something similar to Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space here; a subterranean mystery that has seeped up to the surface to ruin lives and challenge sense. To describe Thomasina in more relevant terms, she felt like a wonderful, charismatic mash-up of both Indiana Jones and Sophia Hapgood from The Fate of Atlantis. Through her, you interact with a bevy of Derbyshire (presumably) characters. A luddite local resistant to the new railway connection; a sad but well-meaning drunk somewhat lost in his own tangled memories; a chirpy, unconcerned barman; a stoic, restrained blacksmith. They’re all fully voiced superbly and uniquely, especially notable as it is largely a Yorkshire accent being used.

Thomasina’s arrival in the town, with this population of variously mysterious individuals, is spurred on by an invitation to excavate Hob’s Barrow. The farmer on who’s land it is situated, however, won’t grant you permission to dig it up. This, amongst many other obstacles, must be overcome to reveal the story. The locations are vivid, in a classic style. Especially noteworthy is the town square at night, which aches and creaks with atmosphere, with the fog fighting the glow from the pub’s window. Navigation across the locations is easy and accessible, as is all the user-interface. There’s even a fast-travel system, which is quite fortuitous as some progress is made really by checking out all the locations to see if something has changed. This is one of my few gripes with Hob’s Barrow, as I felt like I needed to run the list of places rather than solve anything. The developers do emphasise that this is a narrative-driven adventure, so I understand that the puzzlin’ might be a bit “lite” for some.

Much of the point and click puzzling is immediately quite straightforward. If you have the items, they are rational and fitting solutions which drive the plot forward. I never felt like I was doing something absurd (aside from the more supernatural settings, where it is understandably reality-bending). I had a couple of stumbling blocks, but it turned out I just hadn’t checked out an area.

Barrow is a short game but has enough time and space to do what it needs to. You may well spot the trajectory of some of the story beats if you’re familiar with folk horror, or creepy Victorian stuff, but despite its clear influences, the journey to the outcomes is really something special. The time spent in the dialogues is a joy, the music is eerie, the cutscenes are sublimely weird, and there are just enough puzzles to keep you engaged.

I have since found some more work by the developer that I can’t wait to play. While I would have loved to have had a deeper point and click experience, this just speaks to how much I loved being in the village of Bewlay with Thomasina. The attention given to some folklore is brilliant, and there is even a goat that felt like a nod to Broken Sword. At the close of the game, I was hoping that Cloak and Dagger Games make some sort of point and click version of Turn of the Screw or Hardy’s Desperate Remedies. They’ve got the eye for this sort of atmosphere, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Overall 8/10

Monday 7 November 2022

Warhammer 40,000: Shootas, Blood and Teeth Review (Switch)

There have been many games based on the Games Workshops dark vision of the future over the years, but as far as we can remember this is the first time we’ve had one in the form of a side scrolling shooter. It’s also one of the few times where the Space Marines aren’t the main focus of the game. Instead, this time you get to play as an Ork and unleash a much more visceral type of brutality on the Hive city of Luteus Prime.

The game has a fun and crazy tone to it which suits the Orks and a lovely hand drawn art style that puts across the 40K world in a way not really seen before. There are a few issues with the amounts of browns, reds and greens on display which make it a little difficult to see what’s happening when in handheld mode but overall, it works. The beautiful, animated cut scenes are also absolutely outstanding.

The action is full on and unrelenting and sits somewhere between Bro Force and Huntdown in terms of pace. There’s also a choice of different characters to pick from and a ton of different weapons to find and unlock in order to customise your Ork and commit the exact type of destruction you want. The weapons pack a real punch as well with some excellent sound work and visual feedback that makes them feel impactful and solid.

Initially we found the controls very mixed up in terms of layout but there is a customisation option so everyone should be able to find a set up that works for them. You can also play through the game in Co-op but this is unfortunately one of the areas that the Switch begins to struggle with. As you progress and it becomes more and more chaotic the frame rate really begins to take a dive.

Performance becomes very juddery and characters even teleport at times which is not great for a game based around fast paced blasting. We never got to the point where is completely stalled our progress, but the game did continually feel off and unstable to the point it stopped being fun in busy sections.

If you can put up with that though there are a ton of 40K main stays to blast and batter your way through. These include other Orks, Imperial Guard (including taking on both a Lemon Russ and a Baneblade), and if you delve deep enough into the Hive you’ll find a good old Genestealer cult awaiting you. All of which are drawn beautifully and behave differently enough to provide a good amount of variety.

Overall, Shootas, Blood and Teeth is a patch way from being an excellent side scrolling blaster. Everything about it works in terms of the feel and look but it is just continually stalled by poor performance. It seems the Switch version is the only one affected by these issues currently so unless you specifically want it handheld it may be worth looking to one of the other versions. That said, it’s never a complete disaster, so Switch gamers looking for a fun (if juddery), single player experience will find a lot to like here.

Overall 7/10

We receive no commission from store links:

Vanilla version:


Collector's edition:

Monday 31 October 2022

Lego Brick Tales Review (Switch)

It seems strange that over the years very few Lego games have been focused on the core building aspect of the little plastic blocks. Lego Brick Tales is looking to change that without relinquishing the story aspect completely.

Here, we effectively have an original, non-licensed based, Lego adventure which is more heavily based around puzzle solving than any of the game in the franchise previously. You play a Lego Minifigure who is tasked with helping his grandfather rebuild a run-down amusement park. In order to do this, you have to go into different themed biomes and find magic crystals.

The biomes are themed around locations such as desserts, jungles and Medieval castles and you make your way through them by talking to other minifigures and solving their problems through building things. The first jungle biome isn’t the best, but things do pick up considerably once you move on from there with the game mostly staying on the right side of being fun. Just expect to be building a lot of bridges.

The building aspect can best be described as working functionally. When you must build something, you are moved to a self-contained space with all the shapes available to you set out on the floor and an allotted space set up for you to build within. Along with this you’ll get key instructions such as ‘place pot on top’ or ‘use three elements’, but for the most part you are free to use the pieces how you see fit. There are a couple of occasions where the instructions aren’t particularly clear but on the whole, nothing is too obscure and while bridges do pop up a little too often, you’ll also be building working machinery and other things to keep it interesting.

The biggest barrier to your building is the control scheme. No matter how many hours we put in, it never became anything other than a bit awkward. Though the team are continuing to look at this and further patches are incoming. A Switch control scheme is never going to match that of a human hand but again, we did get used to it and after getting through the first biome it rarely caused enough of an irritation to stop us completing the builds.

Like a lot of the Lego games there is also this relentless sense of fun and creativity that runs through it. It’s just wonderfully charming to the point that when you hit one of the bits that doesn’t quite work it’s easily overlooked because two seconds later, you’ll be talking to a Lego ghost or collecting Lego hermit crabs and it’s impossible to stay frustrated.

Overall, this is a good attempt at trying to merge the idea of free brick building with something story based that isn’t attached to a major license. It is a bit rough around the edges but the key elements such as the charm and feel of a Lego world are present and once you have got used to its quirks there is a lot of enjoyment to be had.


Monday 24 October 2022

Atari Mania Review (Switch)


With the 50th anniversary of Atari upon us the company is celebrating it’s back catalogue with a host of new versions of classic games, retro collections and this little oddity which aims to tap into the market in between Warioware releases. It’s certainly a creative thing to do and one we’ve seen surprisingly under utilised outside of Nintendo and Atari certainly has a large enough back catalogue to potentially pull it off.

The game starts in suitably quirky fashion with you taking control of the caretaker of the Atari Museum. You can explore the museum which acts as the games small overworld area. Here you collect items that help you solve puzzles and sweep up messes. As you progress through the puzzles, you’ll open more areas and it’s here where you engage with the various challenges as the dreaded dead pixels start appearing and mutating and warping the classic games held within.

The set up is very much the same as Warioware in that you must undertake a number of challenges within a strict time limit before facing off against a boss at the end. The challenges are all based around classic Atari games such as Millipede, Breakout and Haunted House, but they become intwined and mutated as you progress.

For instance, you might be playing as the paddle from Breakout in Millipede and trying to hit it with a ball or playing as the bad guy in Yar’s Revenge and trying to survive being blasted. It’s all very creative and the mix ups all work very well. That is, in terms of ideas at least as some of the games have loose controls that makes the experience much more difficult than it should be. Anything with the breakout paddle is especially susceptible to this as it moves in such a strange way it can be incredibly tough to pass even early challenges.

Most of the games work well, but it becomes frustrating when you are eleven of twelve games into a sequence to then be hit with a run of titles difficult to control which quickly sees you fail the sequence. As the game is fairly small it means players may find themselves stuck very quickly as they continually come up against a sequence of games they can’t get through. Practice does of course help but there is a big difference between a display of skill and fighting the games controls.

The controls really are the biggest issue with the game as everything else is excellently put together. There’s classic box art and manuals to find and unlock and the overworld puzzle aspect works well to keep everything connected. The plot is wonderfully crazy as well and adds another level of fun to everything going on.

Overall, this is a creative and inventive game that uses the back catalogue of one of gaming’s oldest companies in new and fun ways. It’s a certainly charming and people old enough to remember experiencing the titles it features will get a warm nostalgia buzz. But it really needs to have its controls refined for some of the games as too often what should be a fun distraction turns to frustration.

Overall 6/10

Monday 17 October 2022

Shovel Knight Dig Review (Steam)


Review by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

It seemed inevitable, prefigured, or maybe just good ol’, home-farmed, shruggy-shouldered bad luck, that my down cursor key on my Logitech G213 keyboard (the closest I ever want to get to any sort of “gamer” designed peripheral) decided to become 50% less responsive. Being someone that avoids controllers as much as possible, it had to be Yacht Club/Nitrome’s downward themed Shovel Knight that I was meant to be playing. Shovel Knight Dig joins a small, but compelling, coterie of games that plunge down ‘tward the core like in that film where a group of scientists go to the centre of the earth to restart it with nukes, but the name escapes me.

Dig is on one hand really familiar territory. Blue Knight is back with his sort of unflappable-yet-flailing charm. The moveset is pretty much the same, as it has been, since Shovel of Hope, but there’s an emphasis on the digging (deeply unsurprising). You’re urged downward, making the most of Blue’s Duck Tails-esque pogo-shovel jump attack. Enough is changed by this 90-degree clockwise spin rotate, to give a fun, if short, addition to the series. Unlike Downwell, for instance, you are not in free fall. And unlike Raising Hell, you’re not going up. There is still a “room” quality to the progression. You go down, dig, collect loot, traverse environmental traps, shovel enemies, and that’s about it. Occasionally there are bosses to cap off sections, where you get a choice of two paths. Also, shops to change your loadout and thus alter your stats, help to give some purpose to the greed.

It is important to stress that this has rogue-lite elements to it. A persistent hub area with a host of wonderfully realised characters (by far, to me, the crowning glory of the series is the character design, animation, and writing). You collect armour sets, trade in gems for relics, and therefore have some control over your gameplay feel. This is, admittedly, quite thin, as the level traversal is the real loop here. And by loop, yeah, you go back into the hole in the ground caused by the schemes of (checks notes) Drill Knight, to pursue him and your pilfered loot, over and over until you get to the end. I haven’t gotten to the end, but all reports I have read seem to suggest a reasonably short experience of around five hours if you slightly backseated a 100% completion of collectibles, and were any good at it. I, for one, am not enhanced in my ability to play platformers whichever way the action in the game is moving toward, be it down, up, or the traditional right.

I cannot comment on other versions or platforms, but the PC version (with a controller) was responsive, looked great, and sounded superb. Another highlight of this series is the music, and this is no exception. Shovel Knight has consistently managed to find that sweet spot of nostalgia and newness, evoking something at once familiar and yet not tired, or second-hand. With a toe dipped into the one-more-round paddling pool, there is a different motivation than a traditional level-beating goal. It puts a lot of the load onto the satisfaction of competency through iteration. If you must repeat sections (however differently randomised) you get a keen sense of your change as a player. Part of my love of Hades for instance, was the creeping skill wall. The risk is, perhaps, how this sense of progression is felt by the player, and those permanent upgrades do help, but sometimes short play time can do it too. I will see where the load shifts to, or whether the pursuit of collectibles rears its strange head.

All in all, Dig is as consistent, enjoyable, and effective as ever. I consider these games to be a part of the high-water mark of the new platforming set. With the exemplary visual design, they’re not afraid to try these twists, like Pocket Dungeon, to capture a whole new way to engage with their gorgeous world and loveable characters.

Overall 8/10

Monday 10 October 2022

Return to Monkey Island Review (Switch)

It still seems barely believable that this game actually exists. As long time Monkey island fans we have played through the original four games, the two remakes and even the episodic series, so to have another full entry arrive is as wonderful as it is surprising. Even when we were reviewing Thimbleweed Park and Broken Age it never really even crossed our minds that a new Monkey island would even be possible at some point in the future. But here we are. No pressure on the team then!

For those new to the series, the games follow Guybrush Threepwood, a wimpy aspiring pirate who continually clashes with the ghost pirate LeChuck as he searches for the Secret of Monkey Island. The opening menu will get you up to date as it gives you access to a scrap book where players can have the previous four main Monkey Island games explained to them through a host of amusing anecdotes told by Guybrush.

After choosing to play on hard or casual (which removes key chains in the puzzles that need to be solved), you’ll be thrown into the game seemingly at the end of the Monkey Island 2. After a genius resolution on how that game ends you’ll then embark on your new quest in what is about as traditional a point and click adventure as you can get these days.

In terms of the new graphics style it has a paper/card element to the design which is similar to something like Tearaway or a sort of digital pop up book. It works really well and adds to the feel of an old tale being told with players sort of moving through the pages. It also helps to make the environments looks absolutely stunning at times.

Presentation mimics much of the original games with it playing out over what essential amounts to a 2D set of screens. Each screen has point of interest for you to interact with and you can select these by pushing the analogue stick or have Guybrush walk close to them in order for them to highlight.

Puzzles are solved by finding and combining objects and then taking them to where they need to be used. An early example of this is needing to get hold of a key to open a door. Here you’ll need to find a magnifying glass to read the lock serial number then take the number to a lock smith to have them make you a new key. Exactly how many steps each puzzle has depends on if you are playing on casual or hard.

The puzzles throughout are of an excellent standard and carry on the tradition of players needing to think outside the box but not descending into the trope of needing to try everything in your inventory on everything else in the hope that something works. There is a kind of strange logic that runs through the game (and the series), and it remains consistent throughout.

Much of the early part of the game will be familiar to long time fans as many of the locations from the first game are back with the initial section set exclusively on Melee island. It’s great to see the original screens recreated here and a fair few of the jokes play on what has or hasn’t changed. While the game is welcoming to new fans there is certainly a lot to be gained from being familiar with the other games as well as nostalgia plays a big part in much of the dialogue.

Overall, Return to Monkey Island is better than we could have ever hoped for. It can happily sit alongside the other games in the series and may have hopefully shown there is life to get another game or two going, or at least get the HD remakes on the Switch. It’s an essential experience for those who have grown up with the series, but it is also welcoming to newcomers and will likely create a lot of new fans as well. Maybe there isn’t anything here quit as genius as insult sword fighting but the writing is great, the puzzles are clever and the audio work is second to none.

Overall 8/10

Monday 3 October 2022

ScourgeBringer Review (Switch)

Review by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

We each have our own requirements for the one-more-try. Achievement hunting, mastery, speed, a desire to be in the game world just a bit more. ScourgeBringer scratches my particular itches. A beautifully drawn up world, with a characterful character, satisfying controls, and pacing that urges you on with thoughtful progression. ScourgeBringer has been added to my own personal faves of the genre, which admittedly is a bloated sac these days. HadesIsaacCaveblazers, FTL, Nuclear Throne and Risk of Rain refuse to be uninstalled from my library. ScourgeBringer is now inducted into this pantheon of effective and satisfying rogues.

A dotty story that centres around a planetary cataclysm caused by a portal-dimensional-hellmouth thing spurs our warrior protagonist to find the source. The prologue is lovingly depicted, and gives a compelling enough backstory skeleton to dangle world-flesh on. Within the crawlin’ thru’ rooms gameplay, a more Enter The Gungeon vibe appears with characters trapped in the interior portal world; shopkeepers bartering in life-blood, or the ersatz currency, with little relationships. Also, an old guide style character who sits in the hub area where you can access the bestiary and upgrade your passive abilities.

In the tried and tested way, when you are defeated you return to the hub and begin again to progress deeper into the mob infested world. Each area, with its own scenic flavour, has a grid of rooms (not very maze-like), with special rooms and regular “battle” rooms, leading to a boss room. As Kyhra, you wield a sword and a ranged weapon, the latter of which can be swapped out for other types. There is a simplicity in the set up that makes this game far more pick-up-and-play than, in particular, Nuclear Throne and Enter The Gungeon, which can baffle the player until you experiment at length. Perhaps, though we don’t have much variety on this end which can feel a touch dry, as this is not at the forefront of the primary loop.

The game, at its slicey-shooty heart, is slicin’ and shootin’. ScourgeBringer shines in its control response. It is succinct and direct, giving a great connection to Kyhra’s action for the player. Concurrently the player feels powerful, yet responsible. To summon the feeling of Doom (2016), would be one way to describe it. Continually, the combat feels that you’re just hanging in there, just about made that move. The immediacy is compelling and addictive. The dynamic music absolutely slaps as well (incidentally very reminiscent of Mick Gordon’s Doom masterwork), whirring up when with enemies, and slipping back to give some sensory respite. A lot is done with a little.

There is an ability tree that you slowly unlock by collecting the ominously labelled Judge Blood. This gives you access to new stat buffs, but also new combos. This blossoms into a modest, but easy to remember move set that feels intuitive. Your smash (essentially a stun in its unevolved form) adapts into a way to deflect back enemy fire, for instance. These small tweaks and additions as you play run after run keep you involved in the arms and progression race. There is also a neat feature where the difficulty is adaptive. Again, keeping you just on the side of challenging.

It is telling that negatives or gripes come down to non-deal-breakers. Some hit-boxes for projectiles felt unfair to me. Maybe there are some telegraphing issues with enemy attacks. Are there a couple too many rooms in this area or that? Could that be solved with a sprinkling of secret rooms I have to bust in to?

These are gripes with more in-common with musings on design choices. Simply put, ScourgeBringer is tight, defined, beautiful, satisfying, and exciting. A great step up from the already fantastic Neurovoider. Heartily recommend.

Overall 9/10

Monday 26 September 2022

Video Game Fables Review (Steam)

Review by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

Video Game Fables is a one-man love-letter to the feeling of RPGs. The whole sensory experience of playing RPGs, more specifically, but through a thoroughly active mind. Fun and accessible, but oddly deep in its own way, Fables makes sense if you know its references, but also if you don’t.

The game had me in the, admittedly, overlong, and over explain-y opening where Aru, the protagonist princess, turns her flat character model and gets through the bars of a prison cell she has been trapped in. Matt Sharp has a great eye for the deadpan, solid dialogue, and comic timing. The plot is essentially an elongated satire of RPGs but performs a bit like Undertale but without the lachrymosity. A motley crew of heroes go on an adventure populated by twisted stereotypes, who seem deeply underwhelming to the disaffected Princess Aru. The set up is at once familiar, yet at once sent up in all the right ways. Side characters are overblown, villains limp and cliché. There is an open-world, Pokémon feel crushed into Zelda presented in a thousand different ways.

Random encounters with mobs are announced with a Final Fantasy swirl, and a novel timeline system for combat adds a visual spin on the familiar. Skyboxes jar with horizons, unshaded assets, and dizzying patterns sort of supercharge the gameplay loops that otherwise might feel too familiar. Purchasing equipment, monitoring stats, and upgrading characters is all present, but dusted with this ever-present charm. There is that feeling of knowing what the developer feels. A bit like they’re nudging you going, “you know that thing in these games where…” or just revelling in some of the dumb things we all know and love. I saw an even dumber cactus than Cactuar. Or did I just imagine it?

Further, the gameplay is as itchy and restless as the soundtrack. Occasionally a rail shooter, sometimes a platformer, sometimes a sort of flying game? Sure, I rather despise platforming, and this was no exception, but it was gone fast and gave me something else to mess about with. A box of toys or hanging out with a young child that ends up making your day. This is that feeling that Fables manages to evoke. There’s no Squall whining about being talked about in the third person here. Or no orphans from Candlekeep making everyone a bit sad. While there’s place for those stories and characters in gaming of course, it’s nice to see a title be joyous.

The central premise of a video game world devoid of adventure, soaked in knowingness, is bang on the money. I couldn’t help but think of a conceptual dual in No Players Online, which was set in an abandoned first-person shooter. They’re both critically weird games and celebrate the feeling that these virtual places have. Fables pulled me back to some of the best times I’ve had on my Gameboy playing Pokémon Red, and getting angry at Mario 64, and even my more recent addictions like Darkest Dungeon.

In-amongst all the whizzing and whirring, shifting and swapping that Fables does, there are weaknesses. Some sections of play feel better than others, and there’s the odd frustrating segment. It is to its overall effect that the kudos must go. A real holistic game with all the right feels in all the right places.

Overall 8/10