Monday 28 August 2023

Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragon Review (Switch)

The Double Dragon franchise has certainly been trying to get back into the mainstream mindset of gamers during the last few years. We’ve had the awesome Double Dragon Neon and more traditional Double Dragon 4 as well as several Technos carts on the Evercade and a collection on the Switch. Double Dragon Gaiden is the first of these games to try and mix the up the formula though.

As a result, Gaiden has a more cartoon look to it, closer to the recent Teenage Ninja Turtles game or Scott Pilgrim than what you might normally associate with the franchise. Initially, it’s a bit off putting but soon settles into the madness of the game and fits the overall chaotic style well.

Along with the change in how the game looks extra elements have been added into the core gameplay. The first thing you’ll notice is that a tag team system is in play. You pick two from an initial four characters (more can be unlocked with collectable tokens), with each having their own styles and moves. During play your partner can be tagged in to extend combos or simply give your other character a rest from being pummelled. As well as this, each character also has three special moves which can be used when a meter is filled. Hitting enough enemies with these creates health drops and they prove key to getting through the game.

The next big change is the addition of a few rogue-like elements. You initially have four stages to pick from. Each area has a different theme and boss and can be tackled in any order. However, each level you complete adds another section to the next. So, the first area you take on will lead you straight to the boss, but the next will add another stage and mini boss in between, and then the next area will have two stages and two mini bosses etc. It’s an interesting approach and one that adds some variety to multiple play throughs as it’ll take a good few runs to see everything the game has to offer.

At the end of each area you can buy upgrades with the money collected from bashing the various goons along the way. These range from power ups to specific moves, new skills, tokens or simply taking the money. It’s important to consider what best fits your characters needs as the game gets rough late in the day. Any tokens you collect along the way can be sused to unlock extra features and the boss characters as playable as well, each of which dramatically alters your way of playing.

Overall, Double Dragon Gaiden is a departure from the normal format we have come to expect from the franchise but it’s one that works. If there are any small complaints, it’s that the game can become repetitive at times as it takes a while to get through each run. Over use of the special moves is also an issue as really the best way to get through each level is just to spam and recharge them via enemy take downs. That said this is a vibrant and fun take on Double Dragon and it’s certainly worth checking out for scrolling fighter fans or fans of the franchise in general.

Overall 8/10

Monday 21 August 2023

Testament: The Order of High Human Review (Steam)

Written by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

While I have a fondness for mid-market, smaller scale titles, Testament falls a little limp in too many places for me to be able to recommend it. As an action game, it feels light and low on impact. As a story, I was left a bit underwhelmed too often. The stealth elements are hard to engage with. The RPG systems a bit arbitrary. Yet, it does have some good, even great aspects to it. So, I am more sad than incredulous at Testament.

As I try to get my thoughts straight about what Testament is, it occurs to me that it’s a good demonstration why I feel it falls short. I should start with things I’m sure of, however, and say that it is a first-person, action-adventure in a dark fantasy setting. Looking at the developer, Fairyship Games, website, and the website for Testament itself, this seems to be an attempt to create a series of games about the land of Tessara with all these odd moving parts. There’re divine lords, orc-like humanoids, more recognisable animalia, and strange unnatural aberrations, as well as different spiritual powers and sects. It washed over me, but it’s spirited enough and done with some degree of enthusiasm and conviction. It very rarely, however, made too much sense. You play as Aran (a sort of gruff fallen angel-lord type; bit earnest, bit vague) who has lost his powers and has been captured by a talking tree. I felt there might be a creepy woodland vibe for the whole game, but it shifts about to different locales.

The visuals are great. Not amazingly cohesive, but it has an atmosphere. There’s a tonne of slick wetness, bloom and brightness going on. Very flashy use of effects. I enjoyed the dingy caves and manky woods, more than the temples and mountains. Visually, the GUI and HUD are ugly, and break the gains of the nice art and design, sadly.

Similarly, the writing plays coy and vague, wasting any good ideas hiding in the world. Throwing around unestablished lore and world-building with no context. With little or no connection, sympathy, information, or motivation to be or help, at least, Aran move forward on his quest, I hoped to find fun in the gameplay and have the story be a bumbling side-dish. Your daily bread is first person action, mostly swords and arrows. These both feel damp and too light when executed and when they land. With little feedback, it did dirty on some good, fun villain designs. I rarely felt weight or result of action. Stealth can be employed to clear areas of enemies, but it becomes a bit of a guessing game with hard to ascertain distances of awareness and sloppy AI.

A real shock here, for me, was that one of the more enjoyable parts of Testament were platforming sections. What’s that? First-person platforming sections? No, I’m not a High Human (yuk yuk). There are some genuinely creative platforming sections with some interesting environmental puzzles. No, it doesn’t feel as good as Dying Light or Mirror’s Edge or something like that, but for a game that has so much spaghetti thrown at the wall, this one of the bits that has stuck.

Progression is blocked by bosses that what you might expect. A bigger, tougher version of a mob, or a big creature. These were mostly frustrating, exposing some of the lack of interaction between stamina, energy, health, and attack styles systems. The challenge is in the wrong place; rather than feeling as if I was losing a skill battle, I felt like I’d been given poorly optimised tools to do the job with.

As I trundled through Testament, I did lose interest I’m afraid and did fail to finish. A final criticism is the length, which is a co-morbidity of the pacing of the story. It struggled to move me to investment, as there was only so long I could be sort of into it. The world looks fun and there is something lurking back there, but too many dull systems amounted to a misfire here. I hope that the dev looks to tighten the focus of any future titles. Testament could have been a quite engaging action story if it were half the time and markedly less flabby.

Overall 5/10

Monday 14 August 2023

Garlic Review (Switch)

We’ve said this before, but the Switch is absolutely stocked full of hardcore platformers for people looking to speed run their way through hell. As such, it takes a lot to stand out. We hadn’t heard much about Garlic but after a few minutes we knew this was something special.

Garlic certainly is another of the hardcore platformer brigade, but it has a very different feel than pretty much all the others out there. Much of this comes from the games offbeat humour and it’s unique look. Away from the standard pixel art approach most of these games take, Garlic looks like something that should be running on the BBC Micro and as such has a completely different feel than pretty much everything else in the genre. The simple colour palette and clear visual style is excellent and works perfectly.

Happily, it may look like a BBC Micro game but it runs a hell of a lot smoother than most of the platformers on the system. Your garlic headed guy zips around flawlessly and at a tremendous pace, which is handy as the levels are tough to say the least. You only have a few moves at your disposal, but they allow you to overcome the many obstacles you’ll face. Your main skill set is tied into your super meter. This continually recharges and when full allows you to zoom forward or upwards and can be utilised while jumping or falling. This acts as your main device to get you around the many dangers you face and is also your way of damaging enemies. You can also cling to walls for a limited period.

Though Garlic may be tough it rarely asks you to do anything twice due to an excellent checkpoint system. These come in two forms depending on the level you are in. Some levels are longer scrolling sections and these often have the standard checkpoint flag situated somewhere within them. About ninety percent of the time this will be exactly where you want it to be after short but tough sections. On other levels Garlic takes another inspiration from its retro past and saves when you leave a screen. A lot of the levels take the single screen approach and don’t scroll. This helps frame single screen puzzles for players to overcome before moving onto the next with the confidence that you won’t need to repeat anything if you die. There’s some clever level design which utilises this single screen approach as well which shows real creative thought.

Aside from the main 2D platforming, Garlic also throws a number of mini games at you which brings out a lot of the games weird humour. For instance, the first mini game has you walking into the screen trying to avoid treading on dog poo while a later one has you queuing up waiting to play on an arcade machine while you get increasingly frustrated.

Overall, Garlic is a wonderful surprise. It’s one of the most creative, smooth and accomplished platformers of this type we have ever played. It seems destined to be overlooked as there's very little hype around it but this is crazy as it’s a genuine classic. We absolutely loved playing through Garlic from start to finish. Yes, it is tough but the fact the checkpoints work so well means you are always making small progress and it keeps unnecessary frustration as bay. It’s unique look perfectly hits the nostalgic vein and does so in a different way to pretty much everything else. We can’t recommend this enough, it’s a retro inspired indie classic.

Overall 10/10

Monday 7 August 2023

PixelJunk Scrappers Deluxe Review (Switch)

Everyone’s favourite innovative PS3 indie developer has finally released another game on the Switch. It may not be the collection of its first games we are all clambering for but anything from the PixelJunk team is more than welcome. We’ve covered the beautiful PixelJunk Eden 2 before and Monster 2 is also out on the Switch but Scrappers sees the team move into yet another genre – the scrolling beat’em up.

Scrappers has players take control of a robot who is tasked with collecting rubbish and fighting off electronic thugs in world where humans have long since become extinct. Up to four players can play at once and there is both local and online play available. The game scrolls left to right with players needing to pickup and stack trash in a big pile which they then carry to a rubbish truck that rolls along continually. The higher the stack the harder it is to keep the balance and the more you throw in the truck at once the higher your score is. While doing this, thugs will come out and try and beat you up. You of course need to hit them first with a host of weapons ranging from baseball bats to chainsaws.

Single players are helped by a little robot helper who zooms around picking up rubbish for you and throwing it to you. In truth there is little to substitute for a team of humans but it does make single player seem less lonely. Along with the scoring and fighting dynamic there are also level challenges to complete which give you medals. These start with your basic score attacks but branch out to finding hidden objects and defeating enemies in certain ways. Any challenges beaten unlock medals which are needed to progress. Unfortunately, this is one of the problems with the game as the medal requirements are quite challenging meaning it’s likely you’ll be playing the same levels over and over before you can progress to the next.

As you progress through the levels you can unlock more characters and weapons which can be permanently purchased between levels. You can also customise pretty much everything on your truck from the wheels to the number plate. These changes are cosmetic only but if your dream is to design your own rubbish truck then you need look no further.

As great as the idea of Scrappers is there are a few problems that get in the way of the fun. First of all, the game really is difficult if you are playing solo and it’s tricky to get near the higher end of the score challenges. It’s also the sort of game that would work best with you all zipping around the screen picking up trash and fending off enemies. But the pace of the game is fairly slow which makes it kind of plod along. This becomes even more noticeable when you are repeating stages for the fourth or fifth time in order to meet the requisite medal unlocks to reach the next area. Simply put, it's not manic enough for either a puzzle or beat’em up game and that is a real shame.

Overall, Scrappers has the classic PixelJunk DNA running through it but it’s not up there with the studios best. The mixing of the score attack, puzzle and beat’em up elements together is initially intriguing but it never really gels in the way you would hope. PixelJunk fans will be able to look past this and see the attempted innovation, but this may just be to far out there for a more general appeal. In multiplayer things improve immeasurably but this isn’t a game many will see through to the end on their own.

Overall 6/10