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

Monday 19 September 2022

Prinny Presents NIS Classics Volume 3 Review (Switch)

Somewhere out there will be someone who has finished everything NIS has ever put out. But it’s likely that most of you will have a gap somewhere in the company’s extensive back catalogue of 1000 hour games. The La Pucelle games fall into this category for us. When NIS was releasing everything in the West on the PS2 this one somehow slipped by, so we are pleased to see it return on the Switch.

La Pucelle Ragnarok is the game released on the PSP containing all the DLC and extra content that the version contained. Rhapsody A Musical Adventure is making its debut in the West and is basically NIS’ take on a Disney musical – and yes, it is hilarious.

A few may initially be put off by the fact that la Pucelle is one of the earlier releases from NIS. However, we had a different experience with it than we were expecting. There aren’t as many systems in place and it is a bit rough around the edges but the fact the game is stripped back compared to some of the ludicrously complex later entries in the DIsgaea series and titles like Makai Kingdom actually makes it a perfect entry point for newcomers and people looking for a place to dive into the companies output.

The characters and writing are up to the usual standard and both games are genuinely funny and twisted in the way only games from NIS can be. The main difference here from their other titles is that here you are focusing in on a couple of characters who will grow and level up over the course of the adventure. You can bolster your ranks by defeating monsters and converting them to your cause but most of the game is focused in on the characters you start with.

The mechanics will be familiar to those who have played Disgaea and the like, just a bit more stripped down. The turn-based strategy combat still unfolds on a grid where characters have a movement limit and then can choose which attacks to do and which direction to face. You also need to think about positioning to make sure you are being backed up by your surrounding characters as this gives bonuses and extra attacks to your team while also bolstering your defensive options. Leaving characters exposed on their own will see them eliminated quickly.

The key ‘gimmick’ is to do with the different coloured streams of elemental magic that round around the battle fields. These can create effects such giving bonuses to attacking or healing for both your team and the enemies and characters can stand in the streams to block and redirect them around. If you can get one of the streams to completely surround and area it can then be ‘purified’ which causes a huge chain reaction which damages enemies within the area and gives a massive bonus to the player.

The maps in Rhapsody seem somewhat smaller which does take away some of the tactical element as enemies and your team seem to be on top of each pretty much straight away. It is also somewhat easier than Ragnarok due to this as levels are much shorter.

Overall, we are really glad that NIS has decided to bring the La Pucelle games to the Switch. They are showing some age but we found it great to take a step back from the hundreds of systems that have been layered over the companies games year on year since this first released. The core story is good and the characters are likable and we found ourselves drawn to it for far longer than a lot of similar game the Switch has to offer. It’s a great place to start for those looking to get into the world of JRPG strategy games.

Overall 7/10

Monday 12 September 2022

Cursed to Golf Review (Switch)

Another day and another Indie Rogue-like appears. This one however is somewhat unique as it sees you as a golf player, struck down by lightning, needing to make it through 18 holes in order to escape from a cursed golf-based purgatory. While it takes the popular 2D platformer approach (but with golf?), we certainly haven’t played one like this before.

Awaking by the Eterni-Tee golf shop you are introduced to the spectre known as the Scotsman who explains the basics to you and that in order to escape, you’ll need to play a cursed and impossible 18 holes for all eternity. It’s a simple premise – complete each hole within par and if you fail you are dragged all the way back to the beginning hole, no matter how far along you are. It’s a good thing there’s a driving range to practice on.

Of course, these aren’t ordinary golf courses and are filled with traps, spikes, boxes of explosives and all manner of other things you’ll need to negotiate. Each course can be tackled in numerous ways and there are short cuts and teleporters all over the place. The Rogue element starts to kick in when you realise the courses are all remixed should you fail and need to start again. Later you’ll get the ability to set a checkpoint but even that only works for one death.

Along the way there are a number of things to help you. Within the courses there are totems which when struck add shots to your par counter, a golf based health pack if you will. There are also cards you can play which do everything from create multiple balls to turning your shot into a rocket. These cards can be picked up from the map screen or purchased from the shop in mystery packs and are vital to making any sort of substantial progress.

The holes themselves are fiendishly designed and you will see a change in environment as progress with areas like deserts providing extra sand traps for example. Each hole works as a kind of puzzle that players will need to check through for routes and totems in order to see the best way to progress. It’s just a shame that you’ll end up playing the first few areas much more than the later ones. The first time we got sent all the way back all we really wanted to do was go out and try the second areas courses again.

There are also boss battles of sorts where you must reach the hole before the guardian of the area. These are very tense and a highlight of the game. Here a new totem is added which when struck freezes the guardian for a turn, and you’ll need them. Once a boss is defeated, they remain so for future play throughs in a rare concession to giving the players a feint glimmer of relief.

Like most Rogue games the game will take time to click with most players. We found it was around round 6 where suddenly the games techniques clicked with us. From here we felt we had a good understanding of the three clubs, the need for cards and how to utilise the spin on the ball to make it change direction on the ground. Before that it really was a bit of a struggle.

There are some notable issues with the game though. First of all, trekking all the way back to hole 1 no matter how far through you are or what region you are in is a hard pill to swallow. Even Spelunky gives you short cuts to new areas but there’s no such option for players here. To compound this is the fact it takes a long time to get through holes. They are fairly lengthy and even fast forwarding, the number of animations you have to get through from setting, striking the ball, watching the ball, moving to the ball etc is just too much to keep things flowing quickly enough. When you start adding some issues with pixel placement of traps, more than once we have visually cleared a sand trap or made a ledge only for the ball to still fall foul due to the collision detection, it can put up quite a wall for players to try and break though.

Overall, Cursed to Golf is almost a very very good game. All the good stuff is here and all the minor issues with the game could be overlooked if there was of way of creating permanent shortcuts to the different areas. Of all the rogue games we have played this is one least suited to having to get through it all in one run as it takes so long to actually get through the holes. It’s fine to have it as an extra option but a simple permanent checkpoint in a couple of the areas would have turned this from a good game into an unmissable one. As it stands most players will likely give up long before the end.

Overall 7/10