Monday 27 May 2024

Planet of Lana Review (Switch)

 Written by Thomas G.J. Sharpe

Thankfully, this is not a terrifying vision of an entire global sphere populated by Lana Del Ray clones that sing interminably, this is another cinematic platformer, and a darn good one at that! Much of the early coverage of Planet of Lana focussed on the visuals, drawing slightly basic comparisons to Studio Ghibli. While this comparison is correct in level of finish, the three-and-a-bit hours I spent with the game belie an interesting style of its own, no less beautiful, and a brilliant blend of puzzle, platform, and story.

This short, but well-formed, adventure starts in the titular Lana’s village. A coastal accretion of shacks and huts, with a population living out quiet lives. You learn the controls following your sister around and discover a sad family history. Then, in timely fashion, robo-aliens start piling through the atmosphere and do a kidnap job on everyone, which the nimble Lana is able to evade. These charmingly designed robots leave Lana alone, save for a small black cat-like creature called Mui. This is Limbo and Abe’s Oddysee for fans of Journey in a Wind-Waker colour palette. I dunno, the comparisons are still slightly non-functional. I was reminded of Brothers, obliquely, with the twin dynamics of tragic-adventure and co-operative puzzles. Lana and Mui work together to traverse the landscape, tame wildlife, and trash robot invader plans.

Some shots are just for show. The camera pulls out as you chase Mui down, wider and wider, until there’s a boulder crammed in a leafy canyon. There’s a tree sticking out of the top. It’s just for effect, played slow and careful. Lana trudges across a desert, despondent and defeated, everything lost (but a set up for an exhilarating reversal before the climax). Wishfully Studios have crafted something that has less vicious edge than its most obvious ancestors, Limbo and Inside. There was a longing, or hope against hope, that came to me from the sublime Spiritfarer. Lana is just capable enough, but there is a lonely and dangerous quality to the game. In this is my only real gripe, that many of the puzzles were a frustratingly tightly timed series of actions. If you failed to pull it off, there was a little long to get back into it, and often some setting up or pre-positioning that became real old, real fast if you’re stuck. This is certainly a personal problem, as I have such low patience, and such I am not docking too many points off Planet of Lana. Most puzzle or platform players will find this fine to accommodate.

Of particular note is the music. The score is so deftly handled that there is a real built sense from the small, yet bustling village, the peace of a forest gravesite, and quiet childhood games, to the soaring chase scenes, tense stealth sections, and eventual sci-fi battle grandeur. The compositions are linked with recurring motifs and themes, perfectly placed. There’s horns and bleeps and pads and all sorts. Just a real joy to experience.

Planet of Lana lasts around three to four hours (I was closer to four, but after looking playtime up, most did it around three, so I just suck) and is a taut experience that blends the best of this genre together. Between its presentation and its gameplay, there is huge value in a small package. Its core strength is this brevity, as the formula would not, in this reviewer’s opinion, have lasted to five hours. The push-me-pull-you, stelf-jump-stelf pattern is deployed for the right amount of time to engage us in a well-crafted adventure story, and no more. Knowing when to stop is a real virtue in games. Wishfully have made something special, intimate, yet grand, that seems to fit in your pocket.

Overall 8/10

Monday 20 May 2024

PC Engine: The Box Art Collection Review


We’ve covered a number of Bitmap Books visual compendiums before but this the first time we’ve had the chance to look at one of the box art collections. There’s a couple more of these available as at present with both the Gameboy and Super Famicom represented but with the PC Engine not widely available over here it seemed like a far more interesting place to start.

The physical book itself is of unsurprisingly excellent quality. This is always the case with the Bitmap books we’ve looked at and it’s pleasing to see it continue. Paper is heavy and the front and back hard covers are manufactured well. The colours throughout the book are consistent and printed well, meaning each page looks as good as the last. The colour selection is also excellent and well thought out so that it complements the box art on each page.

Across 372 pages you get a well written foreword, a detailed history of the console and an interview with collector Lee Thacker. After that it’s pages and pages of glorious box art, screen shots and descriptions of the games. What is particularly interesting about this book is that it’s not likely to be as nostalgic for most who lived through the SNES Vs. Mega Drive days but if anything, it makes the games even more interesting.

Each page of box art follows the same layout. You get the cover shot of the game, a selection of smaller screen shots underneath and then an explanation of the game followed by a short breakdown of how the artwork is set out. You also get information such as the year the game released, developer and the type of PC Engine game it was such as CD or card. It’s everything you need to set you off on a journey looking for hundreds of games you’ve probably not played before. There’s a very handy index at back which helpfully lists every title covered as well to aid in this process.

As most of the book is full of the box art you aren’t getting the level of history and analysis present in some of Bitmaps other books but then it’s pretty clear from the title what the aim is. What is clear though is that every single game has been given the respect and care it deserves. With books like this it’s vital to spark a curiosity in the reader and in that respect, it can’t really do anything more. Just try to keep off eBay for a few days after reading it at least.

Overall, the PC Engine: Box Art Collection is a great new addition to Bitmap Books already impressive lineup. In many ways it’s the perfect console to pick as it will draw in a crowd who will likely be looking to discover something new. The start of the book gives enough background to give you an understanding of the systems place and the presentation of everything else is consistently excellent. In terms of the box art and visual compendium releases from Bitmap, this is undoubtedly one of the best and highly recommended.


Store link -

*Picture from Bitmap Books website.

Monday 13 May 2024

Contra: Operation Galuga Review (Switch)

It’s been a very long time since we’ve had a decent Contra game on any system. Contra 4 on the DS was ok but had its issues and before that you are looking at Contra: Shattered Soldier on the PS2 which was solid enough. However, because of the awesome Konami Contra collection already available on multiple formats any new game in the series really has its work cut out. Operation Galuga at least gives it an honourable try.

It’s important to note we are reviewing Contra after it has received a few key updates. We’ve noted reviews saying the framerate is choppy and highlighting a number of other performance issues. In our experience these seem to have been ironed out. Even playing in handheld mode we didn’t notice any juddering, slowdown or framerate drops. Everything in terms of performance now seems to be absolutely fine.

The game follows the standard Contra template of side scrolling blaster action. Most of the levels see you starting at the left of the level and charging through, continually blasting everything in your path. You’ll ascend and descend as well and occasionally ride bikes or other vehicles but basically you run, blast, and jump and try not to die.

There are a few difficult settings to help with staying alive with players able to turn the series trademark one hit kill system into a more forgiving life bar. Even with players able to take more than one hit the game is crushingly difficult. Further help can be gained by using credits gathered in game to add extra lives and abilities but expect death to be a common occurrence. Just make sure to keep an eye out of weapon pick ups along the way as your standard blaster is basically useless. 

The biggest problem with any Contra game outside of the 16-bit eras has been the level design and it’s fair to say that Operation Galuga starts slowly. Indeed, we were a bit bored over the first few levels but then things really begin to kick in. An excellent level set on a moving train, followed by a level where the player is under constant harassment while trying to hang from platforms, begins to conjure memories of the glory days of Super Contra and Hard Cops, in moments at least.

The game has various modes of play with a story mode backed up by an arcade and a challenge mode. The story is pretty much nonsense and the plot made little impact on us but it acts a fun way to unlock new characters which can then be used in the other modes. Each of the characters also have a special move such as a dash or grappling hook, as well as using weapons in slightly different ways so there is a point to playing through and unlocking things as it's far more than just a change in character skin.

While Contra: Operation Galuga, is certainly the best Contra game since the classic period it still can’t really hold a candle either the Super Nintendo or Mega Drive versions of game. That of course would be fine, except that both of those games are available on the Switch in the Konami collection. There’s also Blazing Chrome to consider which plays off the nostalgic elements of the series almost perfectly, and arguably better than this.

If you’ve played and blasted through the collection, then this certainly warms up into a decent blaster of a game. It’s great fun in parts and some of the levels are really well designed, it's just not a classic. Fans shouldn’t be disappointed though once they get through the early stages.

Overall 8/10

Monday 6 May 2024

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron Review (Switch)

 Written by Thomas G.J Sharpe

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

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

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

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

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

Overall 6/10