Monday 29 May 2023

Velocity Noodle Review (Switch)

 

Written by Dan Gill

“Git gud”. This phrase has been mentioned by me in the past, as you find that in reviewing retro games (or at least new games styled on retro games), you need to tap into the skills you had when you were younger. You need to call on the resilience you had in your youth, a time where you likely had few games, and the ones you did were often as hard as nails. Some modern retro titles go as far as touting the difficulty of their game as a selling point, a way to appeal to the hardcore gamer, a way to weed out the posers and gamers raised on the handholding of modern titles. In the case of Velocity Noodle the blurb for the game even uses “git gud” in its sales pitch. Basically, if you’re coming into this game expecting anything other than a challenge, you’re in for a bad time.

Set in a neon-drenched cyberpunk city, your job is to deliver noodles as fast as you can. Well, that’s the McGuffin at least, really the aim is to get from the beginning of the level to the goal as quickly as you can. Awards are earned for beating set times, or by grabbing awkward to reach chopsticks hidden in each level. The usual platformer moves can be used (dash, double jumps), along with the use of your character’s sword to trip switches, grip walls and activate teleporters. Each ability is introduced to the game with a selection of levels to try them out and provides a decent amount of time for the player to pick things up before moving on. As the game progresses, you find yourself having to string moves together to navigate the Velocity Noodle’s tricky levels.

Velocity Noodle is tough, there’s no disputing that. Thankfully it feels like progress is achievable through perseverance, unlike other titles (I Wanna Be the Guy, for example) which veer towards the fury inspiring end of the spectrum. VN has led to a few grunts of frustration and bad language during my time with it, but I’ve generally been able to come back and make progress without flinging the Switch across the room in frustration. The most irritating moments tended to be when the game didn’t play fair. The controls don’t feel quite as tight as they should be, as often I’d try to dash slide through a narrow space only to be stopped by a wall due to the crouch not being picked up. I tried with a few different controllers using both digital and analogue, but it’s still a little hit-and-miss. Setting Y as the restart level button is also a strange move. The number of times I pressed it instead of dash (X) resulted in many cross words and lots of starting over.

The game’s most unfair sections come during chase levels. You spend the level being hounded by a drone which seems to behave quite randomly, and not being able to predict or easily dodge its movements often result in restarting the level over. It’s one thing to be stymied by your own lack of skill (something I’ll admit to), but the game cheating the player feels a little unfair. Add to this some slight slowdown/judder during some levels (at least in handheld mode), one can’t help but feel a little hard done by.

When it does work, Velocity Noodle is a lot of fun. It looks and sounds nice enough (although some items in the foreground aren’t always distinguishable from the background), and the in-game dialogue is mildly amusing. The satisfaction of stringing a combo together to traverse a tricky section feels good, and the game does make you want to return to make progress rather than put you off like some other games in the genre. Challenges and bonus levels await the hardcore, so there’s something for those that enjoy the pain. For the rest of us, there’s enough to enjoy without needing to put in hours of practice, just bring a little patience and you should do fine.

 Overall 7/10

Monday 22 May 2023

Saga of Sins Review (Switch)


 Written by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

 Something akin to those so numerous yet forgotten shareware games of yore, Saga of Sins is experimental and old, na├»ve, and knowing. Through its stylised weirdness and deliberate wayward steps, sadly the gameplay doesn’t hold enough holy water to reach much higher.

Sage of Sins is a platforming-schmup-puzzler, with most of its successes being located in the presentation and tone flesh rather than a loadbearing skeleton of enjoyable gameplay. I watched the trailer and was drawn to this immediately. Something so aesthetically jumbled, camp, and schlocky really appealed to me. You play a bizarrely accented returning crusader called Cecil who is tasked by his priest mentor, Ulric, to cleanse his home of Sinwell of sin. Cecil does this through entering the minds of the inhabitants of the accursed medieval village and completing the platforming or puzzle tasks that lie within. This has a Psychonauts flavour to it, so the inner worlds seem to match the sin or person. This set up, to me, was ridiculous, morally incongruent, and all the better for it. Why not. Sure. Cecil, fresh from the bloodshed of Acre with his incessant mewling inflection, takes this method of social renewal with almost no pushback. I love it, genuinely. This feels more akin to the cosmic pulp or exploitative horror that can seem so narratively irrational to those fed on strenuously homogenised writing. To cap all this off, the world has a spattering of strangely voiced cutscenes, is decked in a stained-glass style, but with so many artistic hands that this is a collage of forms. Humans and monsters have no consistent style, culminating in a sort of crass Hieronymus Bosch-using-Photoshop thing that summons that aforementioned shareware vibe. What I’m saying is, is that it takes me somewhen.

Underneath all this is a frustrating, sometimes enjoyable, mess of a game that just revels in it’s own weirdness. The core of the game will see Cecil jumping into the villager’s minds and then taking the form of one of four creatures at a time. You start as a werewolf thing that shoots a blue energy ball. The other three vary in their abilities, so you can revisit (unfortunately) the same awkward brain-levels and access different areas. A bit like in the Lego-whatever games where you take R2D2 to the Well of Souls to get Tom Riddle’s diary or something, because The Joker can’t do it (I don’t know, I mainly read non-fiction).

The platforming is at once twitchy and leaden, peppered with tonnes of insta-death moments. There are just enough save points to make this bearable, and the levels are thankfully quite short on the whole. There are big gulfs of quite laboured dialogue and narration that start off joyfully weird and outstay their welcome. I really enjoyed walking around Sinwell and would have much preferred a game to be made around this sort of “hub” world, than the platforming focus. There is obviously so much zeal and creativity from the devs that I’m actually a bit gutted that it didn’t work out for me.

There have been some key decisions in the design of Saga of Sins that just hobble it for me. I needed this thing to end, and was glad when it did, but I did a lot of chuckling and enjoyed it. I can’t recommend it, but I will say that it had some magic of an early 90’s demo. A great palette cleanser between serious games, perhaps? Approach with caution, but there is the spark of real weirdness under some unfortunate execution.

Overall 4/10

Wednesday 17 May 2023

Commodore 64: A Visual Compendium Review

 

Written by Dan Gill

The gaming scene in the UK back in the early 80s was very different to that of the USA. Market saturation and poor-quality releases led to the video game market dying, at least until Nintendo brought it back from the dead in 1985. In the UK you wouldn’t have noticed, as we had the holy trinity of the Spectrum, Amstrad CPC464 and the Commodore 64. Personally, I had the Commodore 16, a computer which was released after the Vic-20 and C64 but was never as popular as either due to its low-end performance. However, my cousins did have a C64, and every Saturday I’d go to theirs to experience the games my own computer couldn’t handle. Kane, Future Knight, Formula 1 Grand Prix, Beach Head... the list goes on. It was certainly an important computer for many, and the prolific game releases and ports courtesy of bedroom coders, talented artists and SID chip musicians matched with the affordable price of games made for a heady combination.

Putting my own nostalgic ramblings aside for a moment, I direct your attention to Commodore 64: A Visual Compendium, Bitmap Books’ chunky love letter to the beloved computer. If you’ve seen any of their other books (a few of which have already been reviewed on Retro101) you’ll know what to expect, and this release matches the high quality of the other titles in the “compendium” series. Over one hundred games feature, from stone-cold classics such as Turrican and Armalyte to later releases such as Mayhem in Monster Land, a lot of ground is covered, especially when you consider up to around 10,000 commercial games released for the system. While it would be nice to see Future Knight appear, there’s no way Bitmap would be able to cram so much in while keeping the art quality so high.

Most games have their art spread over two pages, giving it room to be fully appreciated by the reader, along with some sound bites from those that worked on the game, or opinions from a reviewer. Throughout my time with the book there have been many “I completely forgot about this one” or “ah yes, this is a classic” moments, and even the odd “how did this pass me by?”. Some developers and publishers have many titles feature (Epyx in particular), and while it would be nice if some lesser-known works appeared, these games really did define the machine, so their exclusion would be noticed. At just under five hundred pages, the book is already hefty. Any more pages and a lifting belt would be required.

Features appear throughout, be this in the form of interviews with key figures within the C64 scene, a look at retro magazines, along with some of the late, great Oliver Frey’s amazing artwork. These offer a little more insight into the work that went into the games, which is a nice touch for those who like a little flavour to accompany the eye candy. The book also looks at the demoscene, where coders, musicians and artists really pushed the limits of what the C64 was capable of. If you’ve read the review of Amiga: A Visual Compendium on this very site, you’ll already be aware of this reviewer’s appreciation of the scene and the effect it had on computing of the era. It’s as important to the machine as the games, even if the overlap between scene coders and game crackers often overlapped.

So, another triumph, then. Even though the C64 had a distinctive earthy colour palette and blocky graphics, Bitmap Books have managed to yet again collate some wonderful artwork and present it so beautifully that the graphics are appreciated rather than derided as old hat. It’s sure to hit fans of Commodore’s beige wonder with strong nostalgic flashbacks. The biggest criticism I can come up with is that it’s becoming harder and harder to find new ways to say good things about each new release Bitmap Books pass my way. The second gripe is that having looked through the book again and again, I’m urged to go back and play one of the featured games, which distracts me from my adult duties in favour of recapturing my misspent youth for a few minutes. Well, maybe one more go on Uridium won’t hurt...


Store link - https://www.bitmapbooks.com/en-mu/products/commodore-64-a-visual-compendium-expanded-edition?gclid=CjwKCAjw1t2pBhAFEiwA_-A-NANgErzKxz37y3a2XVk5p7RtoGhlIgAdiB8N1nX0P4YLv8UTHaMeDBoCf6YQAvD_BwE

Monday 15 May 2023

Teslagrad 2 Review (Switch)

We’ve covered the original Teslagrad on just about every format imaginable and it speaks volumes that with each new release it has dragged us back into its world. When Teslagrad 2 was announced we were excited and then when it dropped out of the blue on the digital stores a frenzied panic ensued to get hold of a copy. We are pleased to say straight from the start that if you liked the original game then you’ll love this one too. The wider gaming community though better get ready because this is one tough cookie.

The plot follows a girl named Lumina who can wield the powers of magnetism. Her airship crash lands in the remote Wyrmheim and she must embark on an adventure to explore a giant tower with the hope of being reunited with her family. The plot remains fairly in the background of Teslagrad 2, it’s there if you want to dig into it through a series of illustrations and videos and there are a few cut scenes but mainly you’ll be focusing on the platforming and puzzles.

As you would expect it looks gorgeous. One of the strengths of the original game was that it looked like a sort of illustrated cartoon, and this is no different. It really draws you into the harsh environment well and after about an hour we had taken so many screenshots the folder needed clearing out. The characters are also better integrated into the environments than with the first game. In the original, moving characters often looked like they were sort of gliding along the landscape. This has been addressed here and makes the whole thing seem more tangible and solid. It also helps with collision detection and ability to judge the blink jumping.

Lumina has a host of moves and skills at her disposal which continually expand as you progress. The first of these is the iconic blink jump from the first game. This sees our heroine teleport forward a certain distance. It was a completely integral feature of the original and while it does feature heavily here you also have a lot of other toys to play with. These include slide boots which zoom you along the floor (and double as a way to get you around the castle quickly), a magnetic aura which sticks you to things and activates platforms and a downward spike dive which can be used smash through breakable floors. Later you’ll also get a magnetic throwing axe which you can cause all sorts of chaos with.

It may sound strange, but another improvement is the edges of platforms. There were far too many instances where you just couldn’t seem to grab onto things before. That is no longer the case which is helpful in a game as challenging as this. Checkpointing is also much better with players often popping back to just before the tricky section they just died on. It can be a bit annoying with boss battles as there are a few unskippable cut scenes and animations you’ll be seeing a fair few times but generally it is a huge improvement. Anyone who has reached ‘that’ section in the first Teslagrad will know what we mean.

Although much has been improved there are still frustrations. An early one for us was an electric moose boss that halted our progress for well over an hour and there are one too many situations where it seems you just can’t get out the way and death is inevitable. Most of the bosses though are very well designed and require creative thought to overcome. An electric snake is a particular highlight which walked the line between frustration and satisfaction well, providing an exciting encounter without hindering our progress for hours.

We also ran into some technical stutters through one section of the game which kept stalling it. Not ideal for a precision platformer. This only seemed to effect one specific part based around a long upward tube though and when we were anywhere else the issue resolved itself. It’s also something the team are aware of so it could well be patched out.

Overall, Teslagrad 2 is a fun and energetic platformer that fans of the original will love and most newcomers would probably be best starting with. Most of the flaws of the original game have been ironed out and there are a host of cool new toys to play around with. A few sticking points that stopped our progress aside, we absolutely loved our time with the game.

Overall 8/10

Monday 8 May 2023

Lunark Review (Switch)

 

Written by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

As cinematic platformers are on the re-ascendant it is heartening to me to see a developer making the case for the vital fibres of the genre. Flashback, Prince of Persia, and Abe’s Oddysee are all sort of the organs of Lunark, and it works out like a great slice of uncompromising pie.

The scene of this CINEMATIC platformer is sadly the weakest part of Lunark. The story is Deus Ex: Human Revolution adapted for a 90’s Saturday morning children’s cartoon. You play Leo, who is a peppy courier with a slight otherness to him, marking him against the human characters (like Jensen’s nano-guts), who has his very own guiding tech-mentor Gideon (like the fella with the office and the goatee). Things go chaotic at Gideon’s robot factory, however, and Leo is going to have to find out who’s behind it all. There are many locations to visit from futuristic city skylines to dank caverns, with a fun conspiracy narrative that won’t stretch your brain too much.

Rather than a beige-yellow-black cyberpunk murk, however, there are colours and adventure and boldness to Lunarks design. Having said that, there is a bit of a spattering of design styles on show here, which is jarring. There is beautiful, serious rotoscope cinematics (a la Flashback), with bold and blocky character portraits that take many styles. The occasional 3D model, lovingly frosted into abrasively large pixel form, work well, while some characters seem too small to make sense of. It is an odd presentation that I never quite got on with, but I do like the boldness of this game’s look.

To keep track; bold presentation, meek writing. So, the gameplay has to make up the mark and then some. And it does, for me. Lacking the fluidity of Conrad’s movements in Flashback, Leo is more noticeably taking a slot at a time on the ground. There is a plodding, but via this, thoughtful pace. Each little section can be tackled like a sequence of movements and actions that, if you get wrong, you soon learn costs you quite dearly. I bucked my ideas up and paid attention to jumps, ledges, enemy patterns, and obstacles, after Leo kept meeting his demise. At times this can feel quite punishing due to the distance of respawn points varying from quite close to too-far-to-be-enjoyable. You’ll get into the groove, or you’ll bounce off, probably, as the story isn’t quite compelling enough to drive it alone. Combat is inevitably pulled into this steadier flow too, where you have to fall into view of a drone or wee monster at the right time to get to cover, or get your shots off. There is a lot of timing and a lot of learning which movement keys to get in the right time, and during which cycle of movement. The difficulty curve isn’t that steep, but make sure you take your time.

I ended up enjoying the considered pace. There are very mild collectible-side-quest-NPC gewgaws to indulge in. The fact there was such a small amount of these felt like a song from a simpler time (I am currently playing through all the Assassin’s Creed games, so I’m generating a deep hatred for any collectible clutter like some gaming Marie Kondo). In fact, all of Lunark speaks from a different place. There is a lack of cynicism, a straight-forwardness, and a clarity of purpose that works. This is a tight and specific game, that speaks to an older time.

Much like point and click adventure games spawned new game types, the cinematic platformer was eaten by its own offspring (see Fade to Black) that pushed for greater excitement, embraced new visual angles, and sped up and up. These two genres are seeing a resurgence at the moment, and Lunark holds a particular spot with an entertaining game, that serves both something old and something new confidently and with a keen sense of joy.


Overall 8/10

Monday 1 May 2023

The Library of Babel Review (Switch)

Styles of games always seem to run in cycles. Rogue likes, Metroidvanias, side scrolling brawlers etc. have all had their own revivals and now it seems is the age of the cinematic platformer. The pillars of the genre (Another World and Flashback) are already widely available on a host of systems but now we are starting to get games influenced by them and aimed at a new audience. Lunark is one and The Library of Babel is another.

The game is inspired by a short story by Jorge Luis Borges and deals with the idea that humanity has been long extinct. Intelligent robots now rule the earth, which has largely rewilded. Everything is harmonious until a library is discovered with everything that ever has or ever will be written inside it. This causes chaos as cults and revolutionaries start to rise. Amidst this backdrop you are sent to investigate a murder. There is also a heavy Apocalypse Now vibe that flows throughout.

The first thing that hits you is just how absolutely stunning the game looks. Every scene is gorgeous, and this is some of the finest artwork we have seen. All the areas have their own personality with jungles teeming with life and settlements buzzing with a mixture of neon and nature. The only minor complaint is that the game is often very dark and it can be difficult to see things at times. There’s also a lot of hidden passages and areas which don’t really have any visual ques to them so you’ll spend a lot of time crawling around on your knees by corners just on the off chance that there may be something there.

The story is strong and conjures the atmosphere of a noir-esque detective investigation quite well. There’s also a ton of characters to interact with and they all tend to be both interesting and well written in terms of dialogue that they dish out. This helps to keeps players engaged and keeps the plot interesting.

Gameplay is fairly straight forward and essential boils down to wandering around, jumping and crawling. A lot of the puzzles come down to finding an item and taking it to somewhere else, triggering switches or pushing boxes. This can become a bit dull at times, especially when you are trying to trigger switches in dangerous areas and keep getting killed. This is alleviated a bit by the fact that any doors opened, or key items gathered do stay in place when you respawn after death.

There is also a lot of wandering around back and forth. There are teleport points but sometimes you can get stuck in the dreaded ‘not really sure what I should be doing’ zone which can be frustrating. There is both a quest log and a map to help you out, but they aren’t the best. At one point we knew the name of the place we were meant to be going but couldn’t work out where it was on the map. Some people may see this as part of the investigation but for others it will become a drag as details are vague, especially if you come back to the game after a few days.

Overall, The Library of Babel is an interesting and engaging game, when it works. We enjoyed our time with it, but you can’t get away from the fact that there are long periods of time that can be a bit dull and directionless. If you can push through this though this is destined to become a bit of a hidden gem and it has clearly been crafted with real care and attention.

 Overall 7/10