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What a damn good time! Despite being a lifelong Mario fan, similarly to 3D entries between 64 and 3D Land, I've never really dabbled my toes too deep into the series' RPGs. Briefly played Partners in Time and got at least some ways into Bowser's Inside Story, but I've never touched a Paper Mario that wasn't Super for about an hour, and unfortunately Mario RPG befell the same fate when I picked it up on the Virtual Console around 2010.
So I finally decided to get off my ass and finish it! Kinda in part due to the remake coming down the pipeline, but I was gonna play it at some point regardless. And yeah, it's a solid time! Need more RPGs that're in the ballpark of 15-20 hours sometimes, especially coming off of so much time spent with the likes of Xenoblade and SMT Nocturne the last few years.
In fact, with its short length and fairly simple and forgiving gameplay, I'd honestly recommend Mario RPG as a good starting point for anyone interested in dipping their feet into the genre, especially if they're already a Mario fan to bein with. Its battle system is standard turnbased fare, just now with Action Commands to get extra damage out of attacks, or to take less from being hit yourself. Beyond that, there's really nothing too complex at all; equipment is as simple as it gets with only 3 slots, a weapon, armour and accessory. Outside of a few boss fights that rack things up, the game's not too hard, and probably won't require you to grind too much either. I mean, I didn't need to, but I also had the Lazy Shell on Peach by endgame and was using her purely for healing and revives, so I might be biased. Though, those coming from more difficult RPG titles might not gel with it quite as well with its generally lower difficulty, but that'll naturally vary on a person by person basis. Those more experienced with the genre will probably get a greater challenge of the game's aggressively small inventory system, which I was constantly needing to juggle items from by the end of the game. You're only given about 20 slots, and damn is it annoying when you run out. Hoping the remake gives us more, but we'll have to wait and see.
Another reason I'd be quick to recommend Mario RPG to an RPG newbie who just enjoys the funny wahoo man, however, is because the overworld is basically like playing a traditional Mario game from an isometric perspective! There's no random battles, so those annoyed by their presence in games like Final Fantasy or Pokemon don't have to worry about that, and there's a fair bit of platforming, too! Though, not always to the game's benefit, as a few sections definitely get hindered by the occasionally questionable camera angles, but it's never enough to be too big a pain. Certainly better than something like Sonic 3D Blast, that's for sure.
Plus, there's a ton of that Mario charm crammed in for fans of the franchise, from the extended cast getting some really strong moments, to points where Mario has to pantomime as other characters in order to retell the events he's been through. For my dumb ass, the comedic peak of the game are those moments where people are like "I mean is this guy really Mario?" and then see him literally just jump and react like he just cured cancer, showed them undeniable proof of the existence of Jesus Christ and fucked their wife at the same time. Great stuff, and the incredibly simple plot is held up by some stellar character interactions across the board.
Visually and musically, it's also great! Sure, the artstyle might be dated to some, especially given the game's pushing its mid-20s, but I still think it has a really unique charm to it that, while it doesn't hold up quite as well as the Donkey Kong Country games, I still greatly appreciate! If anything, I think the upcoming remake loses a bit of the charm by overhauling the game's visuals with the more modern Mario look, rather than a direct translation of the SNES artstyle, if that makes sense. Mario and co look great, the world looks great, it's pretty great overall.
And man, that soundtrack. Yoko Shimomura just doesn't miss, as so many of the tracks are absolutely fantastic. From the peppy regular battle theme, various overworld tracks feeling adventerous or treacherous depending on their atmosphere, it's all excellent stuff; an easy listen if you're ever in the mood. I just wish it didn't throw the same feeling Katamari Damacy did, where I'm constantly going, "Hey, I heard this in that Youtube video I watched! Oh, GigaBoots used this song in this podcast!", cause goddamn it happened a lot.
Overall though, simple as it may be, damn is Mario RPG a solid time! Not the most mechanically or story rich of the genre, but a fun time from start to finish, and one I can easily recommend. Bring on the remake, Nintendo!
Sonic Frontiers was a game I came away from in 2022 feeling pretty good on, all things considered. Maybe it was a combination of losing my job and being in the process of being massively let down by Bayonetta 3 within a short span of time before release that helped soften my viewpoint on it, but in spite of all its issues; from pop-in, a mediocre at best combat system and clumsy Cyberspace stages, I was overall feeling pretty optimistic about the series going forward; something I haven't felt since Sonic Generations, 11 years(!) prior.
So, the game getting a steady string of additional content, completely free of charge, was an incredibly nice surprise, with the final update promising new story, and playable characters. That's the one that caught everybody's eyes, marking the first time someone other than Sonic has been playable in a 3D title since Sonic 06, over 15 years ago. On top of that, it also meant the chance to fix the game's clearly rushed and limp conclusion, so this was only looking to be a net positive for the game on the whole. I was going in expecting that it'd be the push Sonic Frontiers needed to jump from a 7 to an 8.
If the already dry finale of the game was outright replaced by this, in a similar vein to the reworked Metal Sonic fight in Sonic Mania, I'd retroactively drop Sonic Frontiers' score to a 5, maybe even lower.
But let's start with the positives! We do, in fact, have Amy, Knuckles and Tails playable again in full 3D, and they're generally pretty fun! Being able to glide along massive swafts of the overworld as Knuckles is something I thought of from the day Frontiers launched, so seeing it become a reality is really nice, despite the second long delay on every single instance of activation. There's some fun movement options to be had with each cast member, they all have unique puzzles littered throughout the environment, and there's a fair bit to grab from each of their skill trees. The trio all play a bit similarly, but there's some fun to be had, especially with Tails' ability to get the Tornado Walker from SA2.
Honestly, my biggest issues come from the fact that the main campaign just doesn't give you nearly enough time with them. The game's constantly swapping you off of each of them after only a few story beats, forbidding you from swapping freely until the very tail end, and the game's upgrade system gets completely flipped around so levelling the cast up is way more of a slog. I was hoping that it'd just carry over the EXP you had as Sonic, but you're flat zero from the jump and have to find a specific Koco to earn your EXP in what feels like a pointless extra step. The map's also not full out at all by default, meaning that all three of the cast were sat on a whopping level 1 power and defence from beginning to end, because I had no idea where the fucking Koco to upgrade them was. Shame, but what's here is generally pretty alright, aside from the fact you need to unlock the Cyloop and basic melee attack option for every character for some insane reason. I also yearn to play the whole cast in the rest of the game's islands and the Cyberspace stages, because them being locked to the singular island provided feels so limiting, but it wouldn't be a Sonic game if I didn't have that "Maybe next time..." thought in my head.
And in the most bass-ackwards way possible, the Cyberspace stages ended up being a genuine highlight! Didn't wind up uncovering all of them, but from those I played, they're all original levels (design wise, aesthetically we're still on Green Hill, Chemical Plant, Sky Sanctuary and recoloured Speed Highway tile sets), and they're really fun challenges. Having the spin dash unlocked from the offset makes for a lot of fun speedrun skip opportunities, and while these aren't on the same level as a really good Unleashed, Colours, or Generations stage... these are good enough for now. Some weird level design, but they feel like the Unleashed DLC in terms of being designed to push players to the limits. They're also clearly designed more around using the spin dash, and one of them even gives you the traditional boost, allowing you to plow through enemies. That stage is probably the single best to come out of Cyberspace's entire catalogue, for my money.
Though, the challenges genuinely gave me PTSD to the nightmare hellscape of platinuming Sonic Forces, with the inclusion of moon rings and numbered rings, and some of the stages have you racing a holographic Tails to serve as a glorified staff ghost. Kind of a weird shakeup from the original Cyberspace stages, and most of them feel at odds with the designs therein, but having a super tough staff ghost in a Sonic game is something I can jive with.
But then you get to the real trials and tribulations of the environmental puzzles. There's some annoying ones throughout the new cast members, with one particular section as Tails walling me off for an hour because I didn't have his weird cyloop projectile upgrade. The earliest one I ran into with Knuckles, involving laser grids mere inches apart, and bullets that send you meteoring down into a bottomless pit, requires his Cyloop punch upgrade, and I'm sure plenty of other players have had similar instances of trying to circumvent the challenge for minutes at a time to no avail.
But the absolute worst is when the game throws you back in control of Sonic, and asks you to repeat the Rhea Island tower climbing if it was designed to be babby's first kaizo Mario 64 rom hack. From this point on, Sonic Frontiers' difficulty spikes like the dev team were having a bad day and one guy took people criticising the game for being too easy way, way too close to heart. Some genuinely tense platforming that's absolutely undermined by horrible design. Ever wanted to Cyloop on a one square big platform while avoiding two boost pads that'll send you flying off? How about having to fling the camera around mid jump in order to see where you're going, or making incredibly tight jumps onto rails? No? Too bad! Activating easy mode adds a few bandaids over a shotgun wound, by sprinkling a few balloons throughout, but it's also worth noting that a few homing attack points don't respawn if you fall, so it sure is a matter of one step forward and another step back.
And then there's the challenges on the top of each tower, brief combat encounters where Sonic is set to Level 1 and you need to handle fights in specific ways. Half of them are just basic punch-ups with regular Guardians, and the others are incredibly annoying, especially the encounter with the game's ever frustrating shielded enemies. And THEN the game tells you to go fuck yourself, having you fight Giganto, Wyvern and Knight, one after another, from climbing sequence to climax, with Sonic's stats all at level 1, so you do chip damage and only hold 400 rings. Oh, and you get zero rings between fights, and the game decides to only just now change the parry to be a traditional parry, rather than the "Hold forever and win" that anyone who's played the game would've grown accustomed to. A huge middle finger to balancing, and I'd genuinely be shocked if it was playtested at all.
I know you're probably thinking something along the lines of, "Oh, so it sucks because it's hard, then?", and no, that's not what I'm saying at all. Plenty of my favourite games of all time provide a good challenge, but it's a matter of balancing a scaling difficulty. Sonic Frontiers' entire main campaign is a brisk jog; I don't doubt many people found it too easy, but I don't mind an easy time as long as the game is fun. The Final Horizon's an incredibly obnoxious difficulty spike in its current state. It's not a fun challenge that makes you satisfied upon completing it, it's a constant stream of unfun bullshit, and one that I almost feel like the devs are going to have to address ASAP if they want any attempt at salvaging this entire expansion.
The final boss isn't worth all the hassle, either, with an incredibly asinine series of conditions to be met mid-fight, lest you be locked into a constant loop of the bastard healing his entire health bar. I had to actively consult the internet partway through, because the game goes about blocking your progression in incredibly aggrivating ways. One of which involves hitting RB, a button entirely reserved for Sonic quickly moving to the right, to target a separate part of the boss's body, which the game makes zero attempt to inform you of in any capacity, in order to stop him infinitely healing. Combined with constant camera issues throughout plaguing the entire battle, it's almost depressing how badly the climax fails on a gameplay front. And it stinks, because there's some genuinely hype moments! I don't know if I got off lucky or not, but some of the music synced absolutely perfectly with some of the cutscenes, and the climax would've had me losing my shit with hype if it weren't for the depressingly flat gameplay that accompanied it absolutely draining my hype to the point I couldn't even muster a smile.
The worst thing I can say about Final Horizon is that it brings out the worst of Sonic Frontiers, so far out of the honeymoon phase at that. The combat and traversal are both at their absolute worst, and that's the exact opposite of how it should be. It absolutely sucks that this is the note Sonic Frontiers has to go out on, at least for the foreseeable future. Maybe they'll patch it up in a week to be less bullshit, and Kishimoto will make a public apology for everything, but for right now? This is one of the biggest letdowns of the whole year for me, and that's including losing a job I was just getting to enjoy after only 3 days of working there. But, would it really be a Sonic hype cycle without a smattering of disappointment somewhere? Sonic Superstars launches in just about 2 weeks. God, I hope it'll be a nice helping of mouthwash after this and Origins Plus.
Also shoutouts to Sega for conveniently killing off Hyenas, that weird ass hero shooter, and laying off a ton of their staff on the same day this released. Real classy, this is the kind of shit people joke about Nintendo doing all the time, but you don't see anyone kicking in Sega's door about it.
Indie developed action games are a weird beast. For every Assault Spy or Aztez, games that show that even minuscule teams with budgets of half a Happy Meal and a dream, can make combat every bit as satisfying and enjoyable as your Devil May Crys, Ninja Gaidens and Bayonettas, you've got RWBY Grimm Eclipse, Mitsurugi Kamui Hikae, and Ultra Age.
At its core, Ultra Age is a competent enough core of an action game, surrounded by a hellscape nightmare of RPG mechanics that feels like it was made explicitly to spite me. On its face, the combat is okay at best. There's some decent variety between weapons and move sets, even though the light-heavy dial combo strings mesh together a fair bit. But the combat overall feels incredibly weightless in both animation and sound design. Combined with the constant enemy habits of attacking offscreen with little to no buildup, as well as a seeming lack of invincibility frames after taking damage, and you've got gameplay that's way more annoying in the most important moments than it is fun. But that's not even the worst of it.
Let's get this out of the way first and foremost; I hate RPG mechanics in action games. This isn't a slight against action RPGs, not in the slightest. I love Xenoblade, I love Dragon's Dogma, and I'm sure I'll love Kingdom Hearts, Nier, and FF16 when the time comes to give them their dues. What I mean when I say I hate RPG mechanics in action games, is that I hate when they're hastily stapled onto the core of an action game for no real rhyme or reason. God Of War 2018 added armour and RPG stat buffs, Bayonetta 3 added skill trees in place of its original, traditional move list unlocking, Gungrave G.O.R.E piled on pointless stat increases upon most of its individual moves, and Ultra Age... Jesus Christ.
Ultra Age features weapon durability, in an action game, for some ungodly reason. It's annoying in combat, where every hit you land brings down your total durability, obviously. In a cue seemingly taken from Nero's Devil Breakers in Devil May Cry 5, you can at least pop them when their durability is low enough to get one last burst attack out of it, which is real neat, but the inclusion of a system like this in an action game is completely pointless at best and an active intrusion at worst. But it's out of combat where the mechanic's true ugly face is shown. Enemy drops are completely RNG, meaning you might get that weapon you're running low on, or you might get the same two weapons you've already hit the cap on because the game doesn't remove them from the drop pool after the fact.
Your weapon also durability doesn't regenerate upon death, meaning that if you keep losing to a specific boss fight from the midgame that doesn't give you any way of getting new weapon drops aside from backtracking through the empty desert area, you could potentially wind up in a dead game if everything shatters on you. and the game's focus on certain weapons exclusively breaking the defenses on certain enemy types means that losing a weapon can be the difference between a fast and enjoyable battle, or a glacial slog. It's DmC's already horrendous colour-coded enemy mechanic, now mixed with the RNG of whether you'll even be able to get the weapon you need at all.
But out of combat, you need to grab materials in order to gain extra durability to each weapon, as well as swapping out your current buff gems. This means, not running over the items from the enemies you killed, which the game does for the currency you get, but slowing right down and holding the B button for a second to pick it up. It's pace breaking as hell, even if I understand that it's done for the purpose of not overwriting your current gems accidentally. And that's on top of skill trees that include upgrades to critical hits and durability. The long and short of this entire section is that I wish RPG elements would fuck off out of my action games.
What doesn't help the game is the boss fights, which only further compound my issues. Absolute damage sponges that aren't satisfying to fight and only bring out the worst of the game's lack of telegraphing and camera issues. The final stretch of the game, requiring you to go through multiple mazes before allowing you another shot at two bosses you already fought before as well as the penultimate boss was an almost mindnumbing experience, and easily the low point of an already aggrivating game.
In all honesty, it kinda feels bad having to come down this hard on Ultra Age. It's made by a small team who were clearly passionate about what they were making. Hell, I dug a lot of its si-fi aesthetics. But goddamn, the game's potential is absolutely crushed by its almost reluctance to just be a traditional action game, and that fucking stinks. I can stomach some RPG mechanics, but when they start getting to be a major interference with the game, on top of a dozen other issues? It all gets a bit too much. Dial the RPG mechanics way the fuck back, give us a saucier combat system with less damage sponge bosses and off-screen enemy attacks, and we might be in for a good sequel, but who knows when or even if that day'll ever come.