Klonoa had a nice resurgence in appreciation last year with remasters of his most beloved Playstation adventures, but his other journeys remain in the past and are more likely to be forgotten. Some might not be familiar with them, but there were three GBA games, a volleyball game(!), and Moonlight Museum. The "2" might make this a bit surprising, but not only was Moonlight Museum developed alongside Klonoa 2, it actually came out before it, making it the actual second Klonoa game! The lack of a 2 in its title is justified, though, because Moonlight Museum tells a smaller scale and lighter story while also being a shift in overall design philosophy compared to its predecessor and where 2 would end up going with its increased focus on "action" and setpiece-esque levels.
Klonoa has always had navigation-focused puzzles and a lean towards thoughtful and "slower" gameplay compared to something like a Mario, but Moonlight Museum really takes it to the next level. Gone are the boss fights and 3D visuals. The music is significantly more limited and the Wahoos are crispier and crunchier than any piece of fried chicken you can find. The story is still there, but it's more abstract and philosophical, focusing on the relationship between dreams and art instead of a more straightforward "save the day" narrative. Ultimately, it's all about the puzzles pretty much all the time and the lack of audiovisual splendor might disappoint people coming off of the beautiful console games, but if you take this game as it is and let it do its own thing, you'll be rewarded with a very well designed and complete experience.
Every level tasks you with collecting three star pieces, which are scattered about the level and hidden behind puzzles to solve. Many of these puzzles, especially early on, can just be a matter of finding a way to jump high enough like how you would in the original game, whether it be with enemies or blocks, but if there's one thing this game excels at, it's making use of every little thing it has hidden up its sleeve to concoct expansive puzzles. Every world introduces some kind of new gimmick to make things trickier, such as wind currents that always blow you upward unless they're blocked, blocks that can be pushed but not picked up, and explosive enemies that blow up on a timer once picked up. The game also makes use of the Wonderswan's form factor to make some stages horizontally or vertically oriented. This doesn't significantly change the gameplay, but the choice is utilized to gently accentuate the level design in effective ways. If a level has a lot of vertical movement, it'll probably make you hold the Wonderswan vertically, which lends itself to a more comfortable perspective for what's on offer. Each world builds up the complexity surrounding each of these mechanics I mentioned in a natural way so that the early levels are easy, but the later ones require a full understanding of all your options.
For example, throwing an explosive guy and letting the timer tick down is easy, but what if you have two with different timers? Can you juggle those timers with having to move them across the room and into specific locations that may require navigating past wind currents or lining up blocks? What about having to do that while spiked enemies try to get in your way? If the explosion doesn't reach your target, can you set up arrow blocks to redirect the explosion while also making sure to do it in time? I probably don't need to belabor the point any further, it should be obvious by now that these puzzles can get devious! Don't let that scare you too much, though, because the nastiest tricks are reserved for the EX stages, which are unlocked after finishing the game.
The EX stages really expect you to think outside the box when they're not introducing challenging platforming sequences with high stakes; one particular moment requires you to take advantage of a specific (physics, I guess?) interaction that's never necessary to acknowledge beyond an exclamation of "oh, neat" otherwise! Normally, Klonoa can't grab things if he's in a narrow corridor because of how he holds things above his head, but if you grab an enemy and then quickly move into the corridor before the animation completes and moves the enemy above Klonoa, the enemy will be squished down and allow you to carry it in the narrow corridor. When the game asked me to do this to get a bomb through a corridor with spikes preventing me from just throwing it through, you can probably imagine that this took me a while to figure out!
Even when Moonlight Museum is at its most challenging and mentally taxing, it never gets frustrating because of how concisely and smoothly designed it is. Levels are never too big and Klonoa's immediately available verbs are limited enough that the range of actions you can take never feels too overwhelming. Levels have a linear, guided flow to them that allow the player to easily tell if they missed something. If they get to the exit without having all three stars, they know exactly what they missed, and the 30 crystals per stage that can be used to unlock gallery images are often used in ways that guide the player to points of interest or extra areas that offer more challenging optional puzzles. Lives and health are generously placed and there aren't any time limits given to clear stages, so you can take as long as you need to pick up what the developers were putting down. Like I said, this game is all about the puzzles, and every single choice made ensures that those puzzles are engaging without being intimidating.
It's so remarkable how consistent this game is that it bears repeating; the difficulty moves at the exact perfect pace so that every mechanic is given enough time to breathe, levels are always around the same length and never overstay their welcome, and just the right number of elements exist to make puzzles varied and interesting without being too overwhelming or tedious. There's even a convenient retry option that'll reset any room! Two of the GBA games, Empire of Dreams and Dream Champ Tournament, build upon this game's formula and add back things like boss fights and those hoverboarding sections, but I still think there's something to be said about this one's admirable level of focus. Like the many great puzzlers on the Game Boy, this game has very specific ideas that it wants to express to the player, and everything in the game is focused on doing just that. There aren't any wild swings here, nothing to distract from the gameplay loop, and those who love spectacle might find it to be a bit "bland", but if you're feeling what Namco was feeling and want to see the brain-teasing fundamentals of Klonoa pushed further than they've been, you'll love getting absorbed into Moonlight Museum and will appreciate the artistry on offer.
It shouldn't be possible to sleep on a Sonic game considering that the blue hedgehog and whether or not he was "ever good" feels like the most prominent and endlessly regurgitated topic amongst YouTubers and the internet at large, but I really think the series' Game Gear output is hugely overlooked in both its quality and its creativity. They did an excellent job adapting the 16-bit formula through Sonic 1, 2, Chaos, and Triple Trouble, but even after they nailed that down, they didn't hesitate to get weird with the very concept of Sonic. Sonic Drift 1+2 are pretty bog standard kart racers (I like 'em), but putting Sonic in a kart instead of making him run is inherently kinda weird, isn't it? Sonic R "fixes" that (I unironically love Sonic R), but that's a story for another day. There was Tails' Sky Patrol, an auto scrolling flying game that played nothing like a typical Sonic and only had Tails as a playable character. "What would Sonic be like without Sonic?" is what they were putting down here, and this wasn't the last time they'd interrogate the series' core identity. Sonic Labyrinth, a much maligned game from what I've seen, is more of a puzzle-like game that asks the incredibly bold question of, "what if Sonic was slow?". Seems like a downright heretical thing to ask, but Tails Adventure goes even further by bundling this and the previous question together:
"What if Sonic didn't have Sonic and was also slow?"
It turns out that such a question makes for a really impressive and enjoyable Metroidvania!
The Game Gear was more or less on its way out in 1995, which led to some really impressive games coming out around then and Tails Adventure really makes a statement with its scope. The other Sonic games tended to have runtimes of an hour or less, but this game gives you over 10 areas to explore and find and enough to do within then that you can easily get 4 hours or more out of it if you're thorough! I'm not normally one to give much credence at all to game length, but you really didn't see this kind of thing on the Game Gear much beyond RPGs, so I can't help but be impressed. These areas are pretty huge, too, oftentimes requiring multiple trips to find everything within them. They even brought the submarine back from Triple Trouble and gave it its own batch of items to use and nonlinear areas to traverse. Sometimes you'll find a cave you didn't know existed by exploring a new route with a different weapon and sometimes you'll stumble upon a boss entirely by accident. It's the kind of game that has me constantly going "how did they do this!?" and helps to validate my feelings towards the Game Gear as something that's far better than people often give it credit for nowadays.
You only get two buttons on the Game Gear (not counting start or the d-pad), but Tails Adventure gives you over 20 items and lets you swap between four at a time! Sure, this means you have to pause to swap items and can't bring everything with you, but it makes exploration a joy because you never know what you're going to get, especially since they were clever enough to make every item box look the same and hide the surprise every time. Sometimes, you get a new bomb or weapon that lets you get past things you previously couldn't, but other times, you get something that's just fun to have. The radio is technically "useless", but it lets you change the music in any level to any song from the game's soundtrack, which is pretty neat! Though they aren't in the game, you can get items that let you pull a trick out of Sonic and Knuckles' arsenals. Getting up close in this game isn't usually a good idea, but hey, seeing Tails punch like Knuckles does is pretty cute!
The premise of the game itself also feels like a stride towards wanting to make Sonic into something bigger than it was narratively in the video game space. Later games in the series like Sonic Adventure and Sonic Frontiers have Tails struggle with the idea of remaining in Sonic's shadow and earning the confidence needed to become the hero, but here he was cleaning up messes all by himself back in 1995! Making Tails slow seems like a weird choice, but I love how it gives him an identity that isn't just "Sonic but you can fly". Tails has always been the smart one of the group and the pacing of the game and the tools you use leverage his specialty, which is something that I feel like some of the other games forget about his character. He's an inventor, so instead of brute forcing or speeding past everything, you find new solutions to new problems by finding new things to use. Enemies are threats that you have to approach with the right tool from the right position. You're not barreling through foes, but instead calculating the best angle to throw bombs from. Your little robot friend can even be used to scout ahead and see what threats await you in the distance. Said robot is utilized for a whole bunch of puzzles as well since it can get into areas Tails can't due to its small size. You also have to earn the ability to fly for longer periods of time and take more hits by finding more Chaos Emeralds, which feels like a subtle way of showing the player Tails' increased confidence and skills as the adventure goes on. It's a solitary adventure so Tails doesn't have anyone to bounce ideas off of and it doesn't spell anything out, but because of its quieter and slower nature, the gameplay manages to convey a story of Tails gradually rising up to a challenge that only he can handle. It's nice when Sonic games take themselves seriously and try to grow their characters, you know?
I've always had a soft spot for this one since I had it when I was young, but I'm very pleased to see it's even better than I remembered it being. Aside from some underwhelming final bosses, it's a consistently compelling adventure that grows on you more and more as you keep unraveling its mysteries and discover just how deep it goes. I tend to find myself fatigued with the Metroidvania genre nowadays, but I guess all it takes to bring me back in is an unexpected spin on two formulas combined into one!
Sometimes, you just have to appreciate a well-oiled machine, and Nobody Saves the World is exactly that. It's a game that reveals its entire hand to you in little more than an hour's time, but it's also a clever game that finds a way to make its transparency work in its favor. Though its presentation is very much modern (as long as you don't mind characters that are adorably and intentionally kind of hideous), its focus on maintaining an extremely consistent gameplay loop feels delightfully old school. You could easily call it a one trick pony, but it's a dang good trick!
The story provides a sufficiently interesting mystery to explore, has charming characters with humor that generally lands and visuals that do an excellent job of depicting genuinely disgusting things as a way of portraying a world covered in a calamity that seeks to warp it into something unhabitable. Ultimately, though, the crux of this game, what makes it truly stand out, lies with its transformation system and how everything you do feeds into it and other aspects of the game simultaneously. Your character is capable of using multiple transformations that allow him to take specific forms for the matter at hand. To give a few examples, you can become a knight and fight at close range, you can try becoming a mermaid to travel across water and find different approaches, or you can just turn into a slug and shoot tears from a distance while your sliminess slows your foes down. You can even become an egg and roll around if that's your thing! Combat on its own isn't particularly deep, with a basic attack and three skills being all you get per form, but the sheer flexibility you have in choosing your skills is what keeps things interesting.
As you use transformations and satisfy goals such as "kill x using this skill y number of times", you'll gain experience for that form that feeds into its rank. Ranking up gets you new skills that can be used on any form you have, which naturally leads to some wonderful combinations. Sick of having to turn around to use the Horse's kick attack? Give it the Ranger's arrow attacks and you won't have to bother! Want the minion-heavy Magician to get even more minions than just his rabbits and tigers? Give him the Zombie's ability to infect people and you'll be running with a small army of zombies in no time! Even with just three skills, the amount of options you have really adds so much room to express yourself and find creative solutions to the game's many quests.
Instead of grinding experience or brute forcing things with a single build, you're meant to shift around constantly and try new things. If you ever struggle with a quest, you probably have a skill that'll secretly turn it into a cinch! Those aforementioned challenges serve as a wonderfully elegant way of teaching players about potential combinations, too, which is very helpful for those not accustomed to the particular logic that "Job System" games run on. To give an example, one of the slug's challenges asks you to poison enemies using your basic tear attack. By dedicating one of your four passive skills slots to the Ranger's poison accumulation ability in order to solve this "puzzle", you'll end up learning that poison works extremely well on rapid fire attacks in the process. It's really a stroke of absolute genius how well this system works in both educating the player and providing them a canvas with which to express themselves however they please!
Completing quests and form challenges also earns you experience for your general rank that serves as a base power level to be applied to any form as well as Stars, which are required to unlock the game's main dungeons. These requirements may feel a bit arbitrary at first, but they encourage you to engage with the game in all sorts of ways without forcing you to do dungeons that you may not want to do. Depending on how you play, you can knock out sidequests to get stars, you can just buy some using money, you can try out different forms and complete challenges, or you can discover optional demi-dungeons and complete those for stars. You wouldn't think the dungeons would be the lowlight of the game, but they kinda are, unfortunately. Each one features an incredibly inspired design (like entering through the mouth of a corrupted whale or a weird creature) and modifiers that limit or tweak every combatant's abilities/stats, but they never feature any interesting gimmicks or design twists within the dungeons themselves, ultimately resulting in dull corridors full of enemies you've already fought a bunch of times before. Boss fights are incredibly underwhelming across the board as well, usually consisting of a bigger version of an enemy you've fought combined with infinitely respawning allies. Main story dungeons have all the same issues alongside a restriction that prevents you from gaining experience inside of them at all, which feels like a somewhat bizarre choice. The idea is for you to "choose a build and rely on it for the challenge at hand", but considering how reliant the game is on that constant feedback loop of completing tasks and unlocking new tools to keep your attention, stripping that away just exposes the game's magic tricks in an unflattering way.
Nobody Saves the World is an interesting one to talk about because it feels like the kind of game where words are guaranteed to undersell it a bit. Unlocking forms and experimenting with them is an absolute joy, but it's also a fundamentally simple game to actually play, perhaps to a fault. With only a few buttons needed to control it and a dearth of interesting foes or dungeon threats to navigate around, its core gameplay loop can feel like something you'd mindlessly grind through in a free to play gacha mobile game or something, and it's honestly hard to deny that or defend it against skeptics. But if you're open-minded, this is the kind of game that you should really try for yourself and see if you have the kind of mindset that it needs to really thrive. Even if you lose interest in the gameplay, I feel like this one is a great case study in how to make interlocking systems successfully. It's truly commendable how DrinkBox made everything come together in a way that encourages any and every option you have, which is absolutely ideal for any kind of job system game. Definitely something to take note of if you're looking to develop a game like this! If you enjoy optimizing character builds, enjoy Gauntlet-esque mob clearing, using a variety of goofy looking characters, or just appreciate a constant drip feed of dopamine, you'll be impressed by how much this game can sink its claws into you and capture your heart.
This review contains spoilers
Let me make one thing clear right away: I love Xenoblade 1 and I love Xenoblade 2, I think they're both excellent games for different reasons. Based on that and the reviews/impressions that came out prior to release, I felt poised to adore 3 in much the same way. Its unique, intriguing concept of a world full of soldiers resigned to a 10 year or less lifespan, how it combines gameplay mechanics and visuals from both games within a single world, the introduction of a job system, all of these things sound like they should make for an absolute slam dunk. But once I got my hands on the game and put some time into it, the allure quickly started to dissipate. Xenoblade 3 feels like a strange, seemingly incoherent soup of a game that's just chock full of ideas of varying quantities and quality with no real strength or specialty to note. It has a lot of things that are tried and true within the Xeno franchise, whether that's huge areas to explore or a romance dynamic pretty much taken straight out of Xenogears, but it also makes other choices that feel nearly inexplicable and do nothing but weaken the experience. Most of what it does is at least OK, but it never aims for anything exceptional or ambitious. It may channel ideas from both games, but it feels like it's secretly trying to reject the heart and passion of 2 wholeheartedly because it dared to be more upbeat, despite its many, many strengths; this is a game that feels like it's trying very hard to be dark and serious and dour, almost as if the developers themselves started to agree with the internet about their previous game being bad. It's the fifth Xenoblade game (if you count 2's Torna expansion as its own game), but it feels like it's their first attempt in terms of polish and design sensibilities. Just goes to show you how ahead of the curve Xenoblade 1 was for its time, huh?
The story starts off so promising conceptually, but quickly gives way to a bounty of pacing and character issues. Within the first couple of chapters, you learn about the central conflict between the nations of Keves and Agnus, get a glimpse at the mechanisms and things that keep soldiers binded to their tragic fates, and you meet your six party members who start off as opponents but quickly become comrades based on the unique circumstances thrusted upon them. They encounter mysterious individuals both good and bad and they get granted the power of Ouroboros, which gives them the ability to merge together in pairs to become cool robot looking things with enough power to change the future of their world. They're also given a vague objective of heading to a city across the world, which makes for a good enough reason to travel the world at first but the game hangs on this objective for such an enormous period of time (especially if you do sidequests along the way, which you should) that it drags the story to an absolute crawl.
For about half of the game's chapters, you're mainly just running from point to point, following quest markers with only the occasional event of note to break things up. Some of these events are indeed climactic battles or notable plot revelations that the series always does well, but many of them are campfire conversations between two characters based on things that happened not long ago or things you probably already knew about the characters in question. Your characters act like they need to rest so often even after just a bit of travel that it gets a bit comical! Imagine the Heart-to-Heart conversations from the first two games if they made up most of the plot for the first half of the game and that's pretty much what's happening here. The problem I have with this is that such a focus on specific pairs during this portion of the story leads to what feels like a weak group dynamic later on. You get a feel for how the main pairings act together, but never how the less common ones do. I think Lanz and Mio interact with each other by themselves like, once in the entire game? Moments where the entire group feel equally involved in a given situation are also somewhat rare until the back half of the game, which makes it hard to get invested in their struggle since they never come together as a cohesive whole.
I see a ton of praise for this game's cast, and that's cool, but I personally don't really get it at all. I wish I did, and there are occasionally effective moments amongst the cast (the end of chapter 5 is so dang good that it feels like it came from a different game because no other moment comes remotely close), but I found myself not at all attached to the characters throughout and I think a big reason for that is the world itself. Because of the circumstances of the characters, being born only to fight with no real recreation or culture available to them beyond the rare bath or meal, they all come from the same backgrounds and can only offer extremely limited perspectives. Since they all have mostly shared general experiences, they can only react to other characters and situations in so many ways and the game itself can only present so many types of quests and conflicts because it has such a limited scope to pull from. The world of Aionios doesn't have conventional towns, surprises that aren't just high level monsters, or much in the way of natural beauty because it can't - its only purpose is to serve as a battlefield and the game commits to that angle to an impressively stubborn degree even if it means that the entire game suffers for it.
The cutscenes are long as you'd expect for a Xeno game and they drag mercilessly on most occasions due to a desire to be as subdued as possible, a huge downgrade in general expressiveness compared to the bombast of the prequels (probably in part due to how polarizing Xenoblade 2 was), or just because they're wholly predictable and focus on repeating the themes of the game. Noah tends to speak in such a slow and distracted sounding manner that every scene with him in it (which is most of them!) feels like it's 40 minutes longer than it needs to be. No matter if it's a sidequest or a main story moment, you can bet your arse that Eunie and/or Lanz are gonna say something sassy or react incredulously in response to whatever it is because they really don't have much to work with beyond that. You get occasional glimmers of other character traits - Lanz and Sena like to work out and put on a tough front to hide their insecurities, Taion shows traces of self-doubt despite his skills due to past failures, Mio tends to be reserved unless something really ticks her off - but the characters just feel so standoffish, awkward, and ultimately similar to each other that I found it nearly impossible to care because so little about them evolved over the course of the game.
When their big moments do come, they're always framed around the same thing, too - the death of another character, how it affected them, and how they cope with it. Now, that's by no means a weak angle to base a character's development on, but when it's the only trick in your bag, it gets boring and a bit silly real quick. Every member of the team has what is essentially the same exact backstory of tragically losing a friend who may or may not actually be dead - Joran for Lanz, Nimue for Taion, Shania for Sena, Miyabi for Mio, Crys for Noah, and, uh, Eunie for Eunie, I suppose - and this repetition gives way to the realization that the world building has essentially forced the writers into a corner. You never get particularly excited about any answers the game wants to give because you already have an idea of what that answer is going to be because the state of the world leaves no other possible answers (they're either dead, not dead if you do a sidequest, Moebius, or any combination of that every time). It's frustrating, but understandable if the writers were forced to commit to such a specific, narrow vision of the world for whatever reason; In a world where everyone is supposed to do nothing but fight for 10 years without having any other knowledge instilled upon them, the only real relationship characters can have prior to the events of the game is as comrades in arms, so I have to imagine trying to give six characters their own backstories with such limitations was a huge pain!
Even with how restrictive the scope of the game's world building is, it still finds a way to leave tons of unanswered questions and things that don't appear to make sense. Don't worry, I'm not going to get all CinemaSins up in here, but I've got some questions I need to put out there because they've been gnawing away at me for days after finishing: why don't Nopon need to play by any of the rules? What reason would anyone else have to partake in an economy if only Nopon should be educated on the concept? How and why does Riku have a special sword just laying around that solves every single problem the game throws at it and only gets questioned on it once? What's up with that one dude in a sidequest (Fili) that overtly hits on Mio, is he the only non-city person on Aionios to discover what horny is? I thought the bathhouse scene early on was supposed to establish that sexuality and attraction weren't things soldiers knew about in this world (aside from Noah and Mio because as the game says, they're "special"), but I guess there are exceptions? Why does Lanz's default class have a cool machine gun attachment thing in cutscenes that it can't do in actual battle? Why does Sena get an ascension side quest that isn't really even about her? You get the point; despite this being such a dull, dreary world with an initially straightforward conceit, it manages to find ways to instill doubt and mistrust in the player about how confidently it's handling itself. If you're going to make so many narrative and mechanical sacrifices for the sake of your particular world, you've gotta make sure that thing is airtight, and I never once felt convinced that it was worth all the compromises.
One way they try to circumvent the repetition amongst the cast is through the romance between Noah and Mio, but it just didn't work at all for me. Mio is a fine enough character, probably one of the best ones even, but Noah has the charisma of a wet paper bag and I found myself wishing that Mio was the team leader instead because she deserves better (her relationship with Sena is way more believable and fun to watch!). The idea behind Noah is actually extremely good on paper - as an offseer, someone meant to help the dead find peace, it would make sense that someone who's supposed to be empathetic would be the one to question the cruelty of the world and find a way to liberate its people. The problem is that it feels like you're just being told that while Noah contradicts the idea with his actions throughout. For someone who's supposed to be empathetic, he sure doesn't like to listen to people, his allies especially, the first example of this being when he decides to send off one of the members of Moebius for seemingly no reason beyond "that's what I do I guess" even though the idea visibly upsets his teammates. Even though it's established that Taion is the team tactician, Noah tends to ignore him in lieu of asserting his authority as the team leader, which everyone just kinda goes along with even if it's an obviously bad idea, the end of chapter 4 being a prime example of this. Another scene that ticked me off was one where Mio expresses concern about how she only has a month to live to Noah, only for him to brush it off in a ridiculous manner despite knowing how serious and important it is to her. She obviously gets upset, but really all that he gets for it is a light reprimanding from Sena because Mio's completely fine not long after.
This is probably part of why chapter 5 and 6 work so well for me - through the lens of another character tied to Noah, the game starts to interrogate his personality and push back a little on the idea that he's a righteous savior who shouldn't be questioned or doubted. You actually think about how the team has been going about their business and how little you truly know about the ethos and reasoning for your enemies' actions; for the first time, Moebius feels like a bit more than a group of clowns with cool armor and a battle theme that's way better than they deserve! Chapter 7 pretty much drops this character growth in lieu of having Noah essentially just restate the theme of the game over and over again (the other characters do this a bit too because their arcs are over and they don't have much else to lean on), but honestly, that's kind of an upgrade for me compared to how he was earlier! For what it's worth, I actually think chapter 7 and the ending are quite good and fit the story well overall, I just wish the story they were telling was more interesting in the first place.
Part of why I love the first two games (and X, though not quite as much) is because of how fun they are to play and explore, so I was ready to be fine with the underwhelming story and characters if the world was as captivating as in past games. Aionios, unfortunately, is a total bore to me and doesn't feel any different than what you'd see in a AAA Ubisoft game or something. Rather than going for the density, vibrancy, variety, and verticality of Xenoblade X and 2, 3 opts for size above all else. Every area of Aionios is, frankly, disgustingly huge, so much so that it can take 20 hours or more to comb a single one even somewhat thoroughly. When you're early on and everything is new and mysterious, this is incredibly exciting, but the more you play, the more it becomes a tremendous burden. Because the world is so huge, it can take far too long to travel anywhere even if you unlock any of the running speed boosts. A lot of the game's headlining areas are essentially just rehashes of locations from older games (intentionally so, I know) but inferior in every way; "Gaur Plains but not as good" and "Eryth Sea but so dang big you need a boat just to figure out there's still nothing cool in it" doesn't exactly inspire much in the way of emotion or imagination out of me! So much of the game is just empty space, collectibles that are rarely useful, and enemies not worth dealing with in most cases; if you're too high of a level for said enemies (and this will inevitably happen), they won't even bother to engage you, so the game feels more like a impromptu virtual zoo full of reused enemies instead of an exciting, hostile world to explore.
Even finding treasure is unfulfilling because it's the same thing every time - literally every single chest contains some combination of an accessory, money, Nopon coins, or these pesky gemstones that I never once used. I had 99 of every type of gemstone by the end of the game and I still have no idea what they do! You do get SP for improving your Ouroboros forms which is nice, but money is basically useless - if you're constantly finding accessories in chests because they're all the same, why would I ever need to buy anything? Normally, I soak in Xenoblade games for 100+ hours with glee, enjoying every morsel of content I can, but by the time I hit the halfway mark here, I was just so fed up with everything and wanted nothing more than to just get closer to the end of the game. Truly depressing stuff!
If there's one oasis in the desert that is exploring Xenoblade 3, it's the side quests. While they're not anything incredible and they often come in such big batches so as to cause burnout, they're easily the most enjoyable aspect of the game and one of the only things that actually feels like an improvement over the previous games. Xenoblade 2's quests had more interesting scenarios and characters, but they often made you jump through hoops or would hide additional steps only to spring them on you at the last second. 3's side quests provide fully voiced stories that tend to play out in a much more straightforward way that makes them feel like they're equally important to the main story. They suffer from Aionios being such a drag, as mentioned before, but the fact that they don't ask you to do a bunch of nonsense (aside from that one potato sidequest!) is very much appreciated. The heroes that they tend to revolve around are also generally more likeable than the main cast and serve as an additional party member that allows you more freedom in selecting jobs to master since they can cover any gaps you might have while granting you new jobs to use. They're considered optional content, but they tend to be more fulfilling than just exploring the world aimlessly, so they feel essential in terms of allowing you to actually engage with the game's mechanics to some degree while staving off all the repetition elsewhere.
The one major caveat (this game loves 'em, doesn't it?) is that completing quests grants you loads of bonus experience that can easily overlevel your team to an absurd degree should you choose to use it. In Xenoblade 2, I was able to use all my bonus experience without ever getting overleveled, but here the game doesn't feel like it was designed for the feature at all. If you use the resources you're given (you know, like you're supposed to in video games), you can get so powerful so quickly that most of the main story will just bend to your might instantly and entire stretches of the game will have no hostile enemies for you because they're so underleveled. It's kind of ridiculous how poorly balanced this game is, especially for a team that has gotten it (at least) reasonably right multiple times, and the one workaround (lowering your level) is locked to the postgame for some reason! I really don't understand what they were going for here at all; it is genuinely one of the most baffling things I've seen in a video game in quite some time!
At this point, after the disappointment of the exploration and story, all I could think is, "maybe the combat will grow to be amazing like in Xenoblade 2... right?" Well, it's not awful, I guess? A lot about it is still seriously lacking and feels like a downgrade compared to the previous games, though, which is a huge bummer. At its core, combat here is essentially a combination of 1 + 2: you have six arts that are on cooldown (and a talent one that gets used less often since it takes specific conditions to fill), auto attacks to shorten your cooldowns (if you're using an Agnus class), and a chain attack maneuver that's the key to getting anything done. You also have the new Ouroboros stuff, which is essentially a temporary super mode - build it up, fire off attacks with impunity, and repeat once you've built up juice for it again. The big draw here is supposed to be the job system, which should allow for infinitely more flexibility and creativity than the previous games, but the implementation is so unexciting and comes with so many caveats that it never justifies its presence. You see, with each job, you get like 4-5 arts (only three of which you can equip at a time), a couple of passive skills built in, three slots for passive skills pulled from other jobs, and then a selection of combat arts based on the other jobs you've learned arts from that get assigned to the other three slots on the left side of the screen. The idea here is that you use your class arts in conjunction with arts learned from other classes to deal more damage through fusion arts, which is when you use both arts simultaneously and combine their effects. There's a lot of problems here, though, that I'll go over because they really do go out of their way to interfere with the fun.
For starters, almost every single job plays exactly the same. Attackers rotate through their cooldowns and do positionals if they have them, healers do whatever until their heals are ready (which are now tiny as heck AoEs with invisible range that miss constantly or are circles the AI refuses to stay in, for some reason), and tanks basically do the same thing as attackers except their goal is to maintain aggro, which is just done through achieving high damage anyway. Since just about every class has the same general ideas for their arts (attacks, buffs, AoEs), mixing and matching skills between classes doesn't make them play any differently. The game is also weirdly precious about which arts can be carried between classes - Keves classes can only pick from Agnus classes' arts and vice versa. It reminds me of how Yakuza: Like a Dragon only lets you carry over like two specific moves from a class. You also can't even access the second half of a job's levels until you unlock them by doing a sidequest way later in the game! The thing that makes a job system fun is how many different and absurd options they open up, so it's surprising to me that games that want a piece of the job system pie somehow keep forgetting this by making everything so restrictive (you can't even equip three accessories until level 50!), especially when Bravely Default II showed everyone exactly how to do it right. The game also usually picks either the worst ones or the most boring ones to spread around too, so there's a bunch you'll never use because they do less damage than that one Flash Fencer move that's tremendously strong for some reason. A few jobs actually do try to make you play in slightly different ways - Signifier focuses on passing buffs to the team, Soulhacker can be built to be any of the three roles, and Yumsmith has a buff that encourages you to only attack while in effect circles - but the novelty of these is nowhere near enough to last for the entire game. I can't forget to mention that they actually expect you to re-fight every single unique monster you've ever fought to learn Soulhacker skills (and more to upgrade them into usefulness) since none of it is retroactive - that's just plain sadistic!
Even on hard mode, the combat is mostly about waiting for your arts to charge, doing fusion arts and/or art cancelling, using your Ouroboros form when it's at level 3, and then finishing with a chain attack if they're still not dead. The new chain attack system is kinda fun and extremely powerful, but it takes quite a long time to do and it overrides the current battle theme, so you're either making every fight feel exactly the same or you're intentionally restricting yourself just to desperately grasp onto any kind of variety. It's a lot of watching the same animations over and over again since fusion arts don't have any unique animations and just reuse the animation of the base class's arts. 3-4 moves and their respective animations per character are nowhere near enough to sustain a 100+ hour game! I suppose it's a good thing that combat can get pretty speedy when you know what you're doing, but it becomes quick to resolve not because you've gotten much better but because you're probably like 20-30 levels above the opposition and they can't do a thing to stop you.
I think what really helped in Xenoblade 1 and 2 is that every character felt unique while also having more to do than anyone in Xenoblade 3. Characters in the first game had 8 arts and each one had a defined role with further customization available. Shulk has his arts and then he unlocks a whole second batch with different applications whenever you use his talent art in battle, while Dunban can choose to sacrifice defense (and clothing!) to specialize in his evasion tanking abilities to an extreme degree. In Xenoblade 2, every character gets three blades, unique animations for every single weapon type (some of which are better than others, factoring into the strategy!), four arts per blade, pouch items that give personalized stat boosts, the ability to make auto attacks faster through animation cancelling, and there are both driver combos and blade combos with multiple combo routes for different effects. It was such an exquisite batch of combat mechanics that only got better and better over time, whereas Xenoblade 3's combat peaks very quickly and becomes so rote that I just auto battled everything I could after a certain point since hard mode did nothing to make things more interesting or strategic.
To add insult to injury, the game turns what should be such a simple thing (obtaining new jobs to play with) into a multi-step chore for no discernable reason. After completing one of the hero quests and unlocking a new job, you only get that job for one particular character to start. To give that job to other characters, you need to keep the one character with the job (and the hero if you want) in your party and fight with them until the other characters learn it. This process can take a really long time depending on what enemies you fight, though if you're able to find elite/unique monsters higher than you that you can actually beat, then you can get it done much faster. The big catch here is that characters won't earn any experience towards unlocking jobs if the level gap between them and their foes is more than 5 levels. This leaves me (and most people, probably) with one burning question:
What good does this process and restriction do anyone? Why not just give you the job for all characters at once so you can get to playing around and experimenting? Does anyone actually think to themselves, "No, I'd rather have to earn my reward multiple times even though I already went through a bunch of effort to earn it once"? If it wasn't for the internet being full of people who noticed this, how long would it take oblivious people to notice since the game doesn't tell you about this at all? Why punish your player in such a cruel way for engaging with the content that you keep putting in front of them? Even though this never really gave me much trouble because I knew to go after elites/uniques, I imagine this is such a nightmare for people who get overleveled without exploring too much and want to get the game over with and just the idea of it being there at all makes me mad. Imagine being stuck using Lanz's lousy starting class forever because the game refuses to let you learn a new tank because you decided you wanted to do sidequests that the developers went and made exactly for that purpose - now that's true horror!
Initially, I was going into this ramble of mine thinking that Xenoblade 3 was alright but heavily flawed. The more that I think about it, though, the more I realize that I just disliked it, honestly! Probably should have figured that out when I read this over and realized I had little nice to say, huh? I would go as far as to say it's one of the most underwhelming games I've ever looked forward to, at least on the same level as No More Heroes 3 which was my big disappointment of 2021. I tend to have a lot of weird, contrarian opinions compared to the majority of people (I swear it's not on purpose!), but it's hard to think of other games where I think so differently compared to the general consensus. People seem to be head over heels for this game, seeing it as a vast improvement, beautiful enough to make them cry, and the peak of the development team's craft, "the game they've always wanted to make", as I've seen it worded in a few places. I, uh, don't see that at all (no offense to anyone who likes 3, of course) and if you ask me, Xenoblade 2 was already that game! Xenoblade 3, to me, struggles to have anything interesting to say, prefers to taint the previous games in the trilogy with a story that doesn't feel like it needed to be told (seriously, why did they feel the need to fan the flames of the internet's hatred of Xenoblade 2 once again with that bizarre photo at the end?), it tries to make sure you've never doing anything too exciting or varied, and mostly spins its wheels as it has you going through an approximation of past Xenoblade experiences without any of the soul or passion. Even the music is completely unremarkable aside from a couple of the battle themes, which is such a shock coming from the previous games! To me, it just feels like a Xenoblade game without a cohesive vision beyond needing to make another one, and I sincerely hope that's not true nor do I even feel good about that insinuation in the first place. When Monolith Soft is firing on all cylinders, they can do truly incredible things, but if 3 is a sign of what's to come, I think this will have to be where I tap out even if it pains me to do so.
While this DLC did offer some fun, I gotta say... I came away a bit disappointed! Five years was a long time to wait, but that time obviously allowed the development team to perfect their artistic craft (while preventing crunch, which is important!) and make some of the finest animation ever seen in video games. However, to me, it feels like their desire to one-up the animation of the base game led to everything else getting neglected. This DLC has very little in the way of meaningful mechanical additions, does nothing to address (and even doubles down on!) some of Cuphead's weaknesses, and even its story veers too closely to that of the main game's with its "twist". The base game managed to strike an extremely skillful balance between its presentation and its gameplay, but here it feels like they leaned much harder towards style over substance. Cuphead is known first and foremost for how gorgeous it is, so I understand the impulse, but I can't help but feel disappointed with that choice considering how successors to games like Gunstar Heroes and Alien Soldier are so rare and difficult to get feeling mechanically right, which is something that the base game genuinely succeeded in doing. You could also just say that I'm being too harsh towards a DLC that they only charged $8 for and could have easily gotten away with charging more for, but hey, we like to have fun here, right?
The focal point of this DLC is the introduction of Ms. Chalice as a playable character, which sounded great on paper, but I found the execution to be surprisingly lacking. Cuphead and Mugman are identical, but Ms. Chalice feels superior in every way. She gets an extra hit point, she can double jump, she has a dodge roll with invincibility frames built in, her parry feels more reliable to do thanks to it being part of her dash instead of an additional button press mid-jump, and her specials are conveniently better suited for the new bosses too. The "catch" is supposed to be that using her requires you to reserve your charm slot for the Astral Cookie needed to summon her, but considering that every charm from the base game except the Smoke Bomb either kinda sucks or is partially built into Ms. Chalice anyway, this isn't actually a drawback at all! It definitely feels like they want you to play as Ms. Chalice exclusively, which is understandable since she's new, but this becomes a problem if you're playing in co-op. Since there's only one Astral Cookie, only one person gets to play as her, which means that only one person actually gets to experience one of the DLC's major selling points. It wouldn't have made sense for story reasons to have two Ms. Chalices running around, but I think it ultimately would have been to the game's benefit instead of making one person feel like they're having a compromised experience.
Another selling point of the DLC was the addition of new weapons and charms. This was something I was excited for since the weapons in the base game had some noticeable balance issues (like the Charge Shot being way better than everything else until they patched it later) and injecting some new options for playstyle variety is exactly what the base game needed. The selection of charms in the base game also felt very underwhelming and in need of some more appealing options beyond the Smoke Bomb, so the idea of fixing that was practically worth the $8 alone. That... did not work out here at all! Somehow, they managed to reintroduce the exact same issue through the new Crackshot weapon, which combines the tracking capabilities of the Chaser with the power of the Charge Shot to create something that's too good to pass up. Why bother with pesky things like swapping weapons based on the situation when you can just do more damage more quickly than any other weapon without having to worry about aiming? The other new weapons, Converge and Twist Up, are certainly good too, but they're not on the same level as the Crackshot. The Heart Ring is pretty good against certain bosses since you can accumulate extra health by parrying enough, but I just found myself relying on the Smoke Ball like I had been. You can still succeed just fine without the Crackshot if you want, but it was disappointing to see that the team made the same mistake again after 5 years and having already dealt with a similar problem not long after the game's original release.
As for the bosses themselves, I found that none of them compared favorably to even the mid-tier stuff from the base game in terms of quality. Cuphead is a frantic game full of things to react to and patterns to analyze, but the bosses in this DLC feel downright incoherent at times. Because of how beautifully animated each boss is and how much effort was put into them, the bosses aren't so much an opponent to face as they are a scene to decipher. So many elements are at play all the time, from detailed, moving backgrounds to multiple bosses appearing at once and minions constantly showing up simultaneously alongside them, that it feels nearly impossible to understand what you're even looking at the first few times you try any boss. Eventually, you'll be able to parse the noise and realize that the bosses really aren't so bad, but at the same time, you'll also realize that they all rely on the same few dirty tricks that occasionally comprised the worst parts of the original game.
The fight against Glumstone the giant loves to obscure information from you in ways that don't feel intentional, like gnomes popping out at random and doing whatever attack they want to, the platforms always going up and down at the absolute worst time and not in a specific pattern, or even spawning gnomes behind background elements during the second part, making them nearly impossible to notice. Some of the other fights, like the ones against the Moonshine Mob, Esther Winchester, and the final boss have strange rules alongside the constant barrage of onscreen elements that either never leave or pop up and do whatever they want, making any misunderstandings or surprises harshly punishing. Why does touching the mob's gramophone (not its energy beams) hurt you? Why is the eagle that Esther employs during her first phase completely invincible unlike every other minion in the game? Why is the third phase of the final boss like five seconds long and almost completely non-threatening? It just feels like some choices were made because they looked really cool or because they didn't want certain animations interrupted, not because they had mechanical cohesion. I've always been the kind of guy who can play the ugliest game in the world if it's mechanically rich and I really don't place that much value in visuals most of the time in general, so I found this increased focus on the "rule of cool" to be frustrating. Games are ultimately a set of rules when you boil them down, so if those rules don't make sense, then the trust between you and the developers begins to break down, and nobody wants that.
The fight against the Howling Aces is notable in that it's pretty straightforward in comparison and actually chills out on the screen clutter, which is great until they decide to throw in a screen rotating gimmick that's deeply disorienting and serves as the only reason the fight is challenging at all. The weirdest part about it is that the gimmick is strangely lacking in confidence and handled in a sloppy fashion - pausing the game spoils the surprise because it lets you change the controls to a different scheme specifically for that section before you even get there. The problem is, how am I supposed to know what the options do without context? I know something about the fight is going to change, but how can I make an educated choice without any explanation for them? If you need to offer different control options just for a minute or two of your game because it might be frustrating or incomprehensible to players by default, maybe that part is worth reconsidering entirely then? Apparently, there's a trick that lets you avoid dealing with the screen rotations entirely, but said trick isn't likely to be found by most people naturally and still begs the question of why the gimmick is even there in the first place if they knew that avoiding it altogether would be the more appealing option to discover.
It's just weird, is all! The base game had such a wide swath of bosses that challenged you in different ways along with run and gun stages that tested different mechanical sensibilities. Some bosses were pretty basic, others challenged you by using the arena in different ways, parries felt more valuable, and there was even a boss rush with its own self contained progression mechanics. In the DLC, almost every boss is exactly the same mechanically to such a degree that it feels like they ran out of ideas on how to design bosses and challenge players - drown the screen in nonsense, distract the player with beautiful animations, spawn minions constantly from random parts of the screen, have at least one element remain on the screen to harass the player, and make some projectiles constantly vary in trajectory in unpredictable ways. Ironically, the most tightly designed and unique boss is hidden behind an elaborate optional puzzle that's not particularly well explained and has its solution randomized per save file. The boss is much closer to the strong design philosophy of the original game - it's more consistent in its patterns, it doesn't constantly move around the screen, it doesn't have any minions, and it has a unique mechanic that affects how you damage it without having to drastically change how you play the game. Solving this puzzle without any help and getting such a cool reward was my favorite part of the DLC and yet there's a good chance people missed out on it!
Aside from that boss and puzzle, the only other part of the DLC I particularly enjoyed was the King's Leap, a series of minibosses that challenge you to defeat them with only your parry ability. These bosses are bite sized compared to the regular ones, since they only have a few methods of attack and don't change phases, but not being able to pump them full of Crackshot for an easy win inherently makes them far more interesting. With such a limited arsenal (and no Smoke Ball!), you really need to familiarize yourself with how to avoid each attack, since these fights require a bit of stamina and patience to endure long enough. They're not all perfectly designed - the Knight is hell on earth until you figure out that you're supposed to stay near it, and the Rook feels so clearly designed for Ms. Chalice that playing as Cuphead during it felt like I was being mocked in comparison - but just having to think outside of the box and fight new bosses in new ways is exactly what I wanted from the DLC. The simplicity of their designs and their arenas does so much to make the action more readable and fair, so dying was rarely a displeasure. Having to coordinate with my co-op partner to decide which of us parries when and how to get around each attack was so much more satisfying than the "play this stage a dozen times until you figure out what randomly spawning thing out of the fifty different things onscreen is hitting you" design ethos of the rest of the DLC.
I suppose that's my personal issue with the DLC overall: after 5 years of waiting, I didn't just want "more Cuphead", I wanted some kind of evolution or twist on Cuphead that felt like a proper expansion. King's Leap and the graveyard puzzle were exactly the kinds of things I consider a worthy expansion to the high quality of the base game, so it was disappointing to me that most of the content wasn't that clever or enjoyable. This DLC didn't reignite my passion for the game, but instead made me question it more than I previously did, which does in fact wound me! I imagine this is going to be the last bit of Cuphead content for a very long time, so I hope the development team takes some time to really reevaluate what they want to do with the gameplay. To me, it feels like they were running out of ideas on how to add onto the existing Cuphead formula without just making it harder in ways that don't always feel fair, so maybe something more drastic is needed entirely. A new genre of gameplay, maybe a greater focus on different aspects like levels or the story and world itself, or heck, maybe even that Netflix show is closer to what they want going forward! Regardless, I really am curious to see what Studio MDHR does next, since they're clearly extremely talented individuals who have a lot to offer. I just think that, maybe, they need to decide whether or not they want to keep focusing so strongly on animation in their games and whether or not video games are the ideal avenue for their particular specialty in the first place. I wonder how that Netflix show is, now that I think about it...
Since Touhou Luna Nights was such a pleasant surprise, I figured Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth would be too. I recently watched the Record of Lodoss War anime from 1990 and quite enjoyed it for its beautiful animation and cozy fantasy storytelling that went on to influence loads of other Japanese works, so I was ready to roll with whatever Team Ladybug was offering. Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is the exact opposite experience of its source material - instead of being an impressive trendsetter, it follows in the footsteps of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night so precisely that it ends up feeling too derivative and lacking in ambition for its own good. It's a good game, but there's really nothing exceptional about it, and that's a shame considering how inspired and inventive Touhou Luna Nights was.
Using a similar premise to Luna Nights, Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth follows the story of Deedlit, everybody's favorite elven spellcaster, as she finds herself trapped inside a mysterious labyrinth. The game doesn't specifically call it a wonder labyrinth, but I certainly won't stop you from calling it that! Deedlit comes across her deceased lover Parn (this game takes place years after where the anime ends and high elves outlive humans) who is suddenly alive but unresponsive to her presence, which naturally has her questioning her current location and state of mind. Chasing down Parn and figuring out what's going on is her main goal, but along the way, she'll meet up with friends and foes from her past adventures.
While this game does absolutely nothing to bring people up to speed if they're unfamiliar with the source material, having that knowledge doesn't feel particularly valuable either. Most instances of dialogue in this game consist of Deedlit encountering characters who posit increasingly abstract and philosophical positions on life, death, regret, ambition, and other vague themes meant to make Deedlit doubt herself and her place in the world. That sounds compelling in theory, especially since Deedlit is likely the best choice to do a deeper character study on out of the anime's cast, but the writing just fails to make it interesting at all. Because of how often the game likes to repeat its core themes, every character eschews their personality from the anime in exchange for for being identical mouthpieces. There's no banter, no wit, no charm, and no surprises, just people going on and on about things that sometimes don't even feel coherent. The one exception to this is Woodchuck, who isn't involved in the story but gets his own gambling game in which he'll call you out and ban you temporarily if you try to reload when you lose! Knowing that the game takes place in an alternate realm where nobody is technically real gives something of an excuse for this, but it also makes the stakes feel low and it's hard to care even when villains who didn't survive the events of the anime get another chance to make an impression. Touhou Luna Nights didn't have particularly impressive dialogue by any means, but it had at least a bit of personality to it, something that I can't say the same about here, aside from Woodchuck, anyway.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: in this game, you'll be following a map as you explore areas, kill enemies, and find new weapons and abilities that help you traverse areas that you couldn't access previously. There are thankfully some wrinkles in the formula that we'll get to, but most of the game is extremely familiar if you've played Castlevania or any Metroidvania from the past decade. Not inherently a bad thing, but to belabor the point yet again, nothing here surprises or impresses. Weapons are mostly linear upgrades and generally handle the same (the greatswords being the only real exception with their overhead slash attack that's taken straight out of Castlevania: Aria/Dawn of Sorrow) and traversal upgrades consist of the usual double and super jumps. I understand a lot of people love this genre and the cozy familiarity that comes with it, but I've hit a point where I've played enough of them and it feels so oversaturated that I really need something compelling to hook me beyond good "game feel" or pretty graphics. Deedlit does have a couple of unusual ideas to help it stand out, but I wasn't a fan of either of them, generally finding that they detracted from the gameplay more than they added to it.
Alongside your melee weapons and special magic attacks that you can acquire by exploring (these work identically to the ones in Luna Nights, only not nearly as powerful), you also get a bow that obviously serves as an effective projectile attack. Different bows have different elements or projectiles spreads which is cool, but you'll typically use the strongest one regardless. Your Bow is also used to solve a variety of puzzles, which typically consist of reflecting arrows off of walls or shooting a gear enough times for it to turn and activate a contraption. It's a nice gesture to have something to do beyond fighting and platforming, but I found these sequences to be absolutely miserable roadblocks whenever they appeared. The problem is that the act of using your bow is made convoluted to a ridiculous degree. You can shoot straight, angle shots, stay fixed in place to aim more carefully, move while aiming, aim while floating, change directions while aiming, and you can even jump while aiming. Each action requires a different button or multiple buttons held down simultaneously while moving and doing other things, so to aim effectively at all, you need to fumble around the controller like you're playing a game of Twister with your fingers; it's wild how unintuitive it feels! Combine that with strange physics that make judging reflections difficult and make it so you can undo progress by shooting a gear in the ever so slightly wrong place and you have yourself a total nightmare. Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is mostly a cakewalk, but any section where I had to use the bow really tested my patience in a way that nothing else in the game (or Luna Nights) could compare to.
The other big mechanic of the game lies with the wind (Sylph) and fire (Salamander) familiars that Deedlit acquires early on. These familiars allow Deedlit to swap between these elements at will, granting her immunity to the selected element as well as some minor perks like being able to float. It's very much in the vein of something like Ikaruga, though nowhere near as intense. You're expected to make use of this mechanic constantly; getting kills and collecting cubes levels up each element, making them stronger and also allowing for constant health regeneration, but getting hit levels them down. It's an interesting idea that encourages proper defense like grazing in Luna Nights did and when you're on the ball, there is a thrill to deftly swapping elements to nullify even the scariest of projectiles. But that's really all there is to it for the entire game - damage negation and the occasional boost to your damage if you're hitting a weakness, and neither makes enough of a difference to demand mastery of the mechanics. Having more elements to play with that had more specific or interesting uses, say for better designed puzzles or other forms of exploration, would have done a lot to make the game more engaging. Beyond Oasis, for example, is a game that does a wonderful job of making its elemental summoning mechanic remain interesting throughout by challenging you in all sorts of ways beyond just combat, so the idea is clearly sound. The game has a whole system for exploiting elemental weaknesses too that's almost impossible to use - how am I supposed to exploit a dark weakness if I don't have a dark familiar? The answer Team Ladybug came to was "using one of like three weapons in the game or a sole magic spell", making the system feel like an incredibly obvious missed opportunity.
After loving Touhou Luna Nights, it's a bummer to be so down on this game by comparison, but I can't help but feel that Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth is a regression in nearly every way. If you put them side by side and asked me to tell you which one came first, I would have picked this game because it really feels like a first draft! It looks great and animates beautifully, the action feels competent enough, and some quality of life ideas like better warp and save point placement were implemented, but it otherwise does very little to try and raise the bar of the genre. Luna Nights combined the metroidvania essentials with a lot of innovative and fun ideas that encouraged player expression and overcoming intense foes, whereas Wonder labyrinth feels liked going through the motions as if you rented Castlevania Symphony of the Night for the 20th time. It's easy and short enough too that it feels like it's all too eager to be out of sight and out of mind, which lacks confidence in a surprising way. If metroidvanias are your comfort food, this will absolutely serve that purpose, but if you're looking for something that'll make a lasting impression, this ain't it - much like the labyrinth it takes place in, this game is ultimately one that faded from my memory as quickly as it came into my life.
On paper, Pupperazzi should have been the easiest slam dunk possible. Dogs rule, so a game about dogs should rule too. Developer Sundae Month wasn't able to make the play, however, because Pupperazzi stumbles hard. What should be a jolly time taking photos of dogs instead feels like filling out a rote checklist while covered in molasses. This doesn't appear to be the developer's first effort, but it sure feels like a first effort considering how hard it is just to move around comfortably. Combine unexciting gameplay with an aesthetic and tone that's a bit too twee for my tastes and you have my first (and hopefully only) disappointment of 2022.
Like the name implies, your job is to take photos of as many dogs as possible as they do various activities or interact with various items. Depending on the location you visit and the the time you choose to visit at, you'll encounter different dogs doing different things. That's all good and well on paper, but in execution it's all a bit too dull. This isn't a game that has any kind of challenge to it, and that can be ok under certain circumstances, but it also results in there being little motivation to take things seriously or try to do your best. Photos aren't graded and you have all the time in the world to do what you need to without pressure or stakes, so unless you're trying to get every achievement, there's no way to really improve or refine your photography skills in a way that feels meaningful. Taking photos in certain genres like artsy, sports, or fashion and then uploading them gets you followers, but these followers also don't really do much of anything. They're required to some degree for progression, but going the extra mile only gets you currency that can be used to buy additional camera lenses and film types. Maybe I'm just a moron, but I thought all of these filters and lenses made everything look terrible, so the only one I really got any use out of was the zoom lens for obvious reasons. The best part of the game is how cute the dogs are, so distorting the look for no reason just doesn't feel like a good reward.
Whenever you start a level, you're given a list of tasks to complete. These are mostly pretty straightforward, ranging from things like taking photos of dogs in a certain location to dressing them up in certain ways or even taking pictures of specific non-dog places and things. There's a good variety of objectives, some of which are pretty clever like finding a dog that's posing as the Loch Ness Monster, but some of them are either comically obtuse or don't work correctly at all. For example, a few missions ask you to take a "really good" picture using specific lenses or film. What's a "really good" picture, though? With no grading mechanics, all you can do is guess and hope the game agrees with you or isn't bugging out. It's kind of maddening! At one point, I got a task that involved some kind of elaborate riddle about the moon, a lighthouse, and multiple dogs, and I had zero idea what to do! But since the only reward for tasks is usually followers or currency, you can skip any mission with zero repercussions. This makes sense for a chill game like this, but it also means that there's nothing to really get the player invested either. Nothing you do technically matters or has consequences, so why even bother? Perhaps that's my old man brain taking, but Pupperazzi feels too much like a sandbox for my tastes. To its credit, this is a very accessible game with options that allow for anyone to easily play it (there's even a toggle to remove the cars in case they trigger someone's anxiety, which is a smart idea), so it's probably a better fit for someone not used to many video games and needs time to get acquainted with how they operate.
In an amusing twist, you play as a camera with legs and you can see that through your shadow and any selfies you might take. It's a pretty cute and clever idea, but navigating your literal camera man around feels unbelievably bad. By default, your turn speed is ridiculously slow and you speed up very quickly with just a bit of input. You can adjust look sensitivity as you'd expect, but it's hard to find a level that feels remotely alright since the slider doesn't appear to reflect reality. A couple of bumps jacks the speed up to wild degrees, and it's kind of strange in the first place considering no reflexes are required for this game. I want to say that you eventually get used to it, but you never do! The control scheme in general is quite weird as well and I was never quite able to get used to basic things like switching film or zooming in. Again, these quirks don't cause any real problems due to the lack of stakes, but it's hard to chill with a game that wants to be chill when it's fighting you every step of the way.
Beyond everything I've mentioned, the elephant in the room is just how bug-riddled Pupperazzi is. It might very well be one of the buggiest games I've ever played! I had visual glitches where the lighting went crazy, physics glitches where items and characters got stuck, AI glitches that made it so dogs just wouldn't interact with items, objective glitches that prevented me from completing tasks, and more. Worst of all, after I finished the game and went back to fill out the Dogpedia, I had a glitch occur that both crashed my game and corrupted my save! Even if DLC or patches come out that fix the game, I won't be able to try them out without deleting my save, and that really, really sucks. The game's lighthearted and goofy tone makes visual glitches easier to take in stride, but when they prevent me from playing the game, there's no choice but to emphasize how disruptive they can be.
Even though I tried this game out with nothing on the line thanks to Game Pass, I still found it very disappointing. Even with its short runtime of about 2 hours, Pupperazzi quickly wears on one's nerves. When the core gameplay is dull and the game is fighting you tooth and nail every step of the way through endless bugs and poor controls, cute dogs aren't going to be enough to salvage it. I'd really like for Sundae Month to revisit this concept with more polish and additional mechanics. I absolutely love the idea and photography games have done well in the indie scene recently, so they could potentially have a respectable hit on their hands with something that gets the time it needs to cook in the oven. Whether that potential ever gets realized or not, I can at least say one thing for certain: Yes, you can, in fact, pet the dogs in this video game.
When I picked up this game, I didn't really know what to expect. I don't know a thing about vocaloids or Touhou and I've never played previous iterations in arcades or on phones, so I was taking quite a risk. Even on sale, Groove Coaster cost me $35 with loads of DLC as an option too (the game is normally $50), which is way more than I typically pay for digital games!. Luckily, I found myself hooked in pretty quickly and grew to appreciate both its choice in music and its fast paced, extremely flashy gameplay. If you like rhythm games and want one that feels designed with controllers in mind, this is the one to go for.
Groove Coaster's gameplay is right in its name; your job is to follow your avatar of choice as it moves along a literal track and press buttons in time with the notes that appear. All you need are two buttons and two sticks, but the game gets a lot of mileage out of them. You'll be flicking and jiggling sticks, holding buttons, pushing/pressing in unison, and doing tons of tapping. It's frantic and intense in all the right ways while never feeling like it's going out of rhythm or isn't meant for a controller. As much as I like Taiko no Tatsujin (which is probably the closest rhythm game mechanically to this one), it never feels 100% right on a controller, so I was pleasantly surprised to see Groove Coaster feel so natural in comparison. The game does an excellent job of slowly doling out new notes over the course of each difficulty level, too. Easy mode only has you doing the most basic of notes and each step up adds some of the others in, giving you a natural curve where you get time to learn everything you need to know. You can also equip items to make things easier or harder, such as items that nullify a number of mistakes or give you more coins for missions at the cost of a stricter win condition. These items don't cost anything to use and they don't prevent you from getting S ranks or mission progress, so there's no reason to be shy about trying them.
Equally impressive are Groove Coaster's visuals, which are incredible to an almost unbelievable degree. Every single song has completely unique visuals, all of which tie into the song both thematically and mechanically. For example, the song "Lost Colors" starts you off with dull, colorless notes that gradually gain more colors as the song goes on. It's a great bit of visual storytelling in a genre that you wouldn't expect it from and it even bolsters the gameplay too. As much as they're out to blow your mind, the visuals are also out to kill you, and the game has no problem distracting you with flashing lights, images that obscure the track (the Misc genre tracks in particular love to do this), and sudden twists and turns that mess up your timing. It sounds like it'd be cheap and frustrating, but since you have plenty of leeway to succeed in a song and the game makes its intent obvious from the get-go, this instead just feels like a cheeky bit of fun and a clever way to challenge players.
Even with all its DLC, the base game still offers an impressive 100 songs, 29 of which are unlockable through some of the game's 300 missions. It's awesome to see this much unlockable content in a modern video game, but I wish the implementation of the missions was done in a way that felt more varied and interesting. Missions are completed through playing specific songs, completing multiple songs in a genre under certain conditions, or by simply buying your way past them with coins. This is all fine and good, but for whatever reason, the game loves to repeat objectives and genres for many of the unlockable songs specifically. Several of them are locked behind the "Complete 10 songs in the Original genre with a full chain" missions, which is obnoxious for multiple reasons. While a good batch of songs, there aren't that many songs in the Original genre, so you'll definitely be replaying those songs many times (I swear if I have to play Kimi no Starlight Road one more time!). The Misc genre also ends up in a similar situation where it gets reused for challenges constantly, except that genre has even fewer songs! It's a strange choice for sure and focusing on the missions means you'll have to neglect many other songs, so I recommend balancing out your playlist and taking breaks from missions every time they want you to play Link Link Fever yet again or whatever, just so you get to make use of that huge tracklist.
Full chains are a pain that can turn the experience from an immersive one to one that's the musical equivalent of a checklist, and that just plain stinks. You see, to get a full chain, you need to hit every single note in a song, including the "Ad-lib" notes that are completely invisible. You're meant to figure these out based on the rhythm of the song, but considering that a typical song has near or more than a thousand notes, it's very easy to miss them in the heat of the action. There's an item that makes them visible, but with that on, you can no longer use an item to nullify misses, meaning you need to be absolutely perfect. Unless you're really good at the game, you'll likely want to stick to Easy and Normal songs for full chains, which means even more repetition in that you'll be replaying the same songs on the same difficulties. Ad-libs are an interesting idea on paper and probably make more sense in the arcades as a way for skilled players to flaunt their knowledge, but at home, they just feel like someone slapped a collectahon checklist onto this rhythm game and I found myself wishing they weren't a thing.
With an impressive variety of songs, including picks from anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gurren Lagann, tons of Touhou remixes, as well as music from various Taito games like Darius, Bubble Bobble, and even Lufia 2, Groove Coaster feels like one of the best rhythm games in years. It plays fantastically, has what may be the best visuals to ever grace a game in the genre, and is chock full of content. The asking price is steep, but this is one that's still absolutely worth buying. I get the impression this game went somewhat under the radar and that's a shame considering how rare rhythm games tend to be nowadays. If you're like me and you wish the genre had more of a presence, check Groove Coaster out and you'll quickly learn that the genre still has life in it yet.
If you're like me, you like Space Invaders at least a little bit. Of course you do, it's a classic after all. But at the same time, you're terrible at it and you don't exactly LOVE it. It feels like it needs a little something extra, some more spice to put it one way. Space Invaders '95 is exactly what the doctor ordered - it takes the classic formula, moves it closer to the shoot 'em up conventions of the 90s, and adds in a boatload of charm through creative twists and a ridiculous cast of characters. Parodius is the most obvious comparison, but it's also like Galaga '88 and Donkey Kong '94 in that it expands upon its predecessor in bold ways while also respecting its legacy without abandoning the fundamentals that worked.
Instead of one ship, you now get a choice of several different ships with different pilots. Some of these are cameos from Taito characters like Kiki KaiKai's Sayo-chan and Darius' Silver Hawk, but others are original creations like a dog in a trash can and a sentient pile of poop. Each character gets a unique weapon that can also be charged for a more powerful shot as well as a similar counterpart for cooperative play. Not only does your character choice affect the gameplay, it also determines the dialogue that you'll see throughout the game. Characters will comment at the beginning and end of some areas, before boss fights, and when the player runs out of lives. Story isn't exactly much of a thing here, but the dialogue is so bizarre and strangely translated that there's a lot of joy to be had in seeing what each character has to say.
Much like Donkey Kong '94, the first level tries to trick you into thinking that this is just another game of Space Invaders, but that facade quickly gives way to a wacky cast of aliens. You'll encounter aliens with cartoonish proportions and faces, pig aliens, aliens that split in two or extend upon being shot, and aliens lounging at the beach, and even the spirits of dead aliens that possess furniture in a haunted house. The sheer variety of aliens to encounter turns Space Invaders '95 into a genuine spectacle that you'll want to push through just to see what happens next. The silly visuals aren't just for fun, but they also affect how Space Invaders is played. In the beach area, the aliens are so chill and so over the usual rules of the games that they no longer come at you in formation; instead, they fly all around the screen, using the tide and nearby sand and trees to take cover from your shots and come at you in trickier ways. In the haunted house level, you don't fight aliens but instead fight the furniture that their spirits possess, meaning that anything can happen from any direction. Plus, your shields can be covered by a tombstone-like object that shoots at you and it's a huge pain to deal with! Even with all these changes, the aliens can still cause you to lose by getting too close to the bottom of the screen, which fully resets the level if it happens, so it's a win condition for them that you desperately need to avoid at all times, just like in the original game. Therefore, you're still playing the original Space Invaders while playing '95; it's like two games in one! Bosses weaponize this fact in clever ways too, primarily by summoning aliens to distract you from their deadly attacks. At its best, Space Invaders '95 is a balancing act that keeps the action frantic at all times.
It's important to remember that Space Invaders '95 is an arcade game though, so expect to die many times while you learn the levels. Some onslaughts can feel a bit cheap the first time you encounter them and depending on your character choice, you might not feel like your weaponry is up to the task. Luckily, you can continue as much as you like by pumping credits in, and you can even change characters if you find yours isn't cutting it. It's also a pretty short experience that doesn't last more than an hour, so it never overstays its welcome. In a lot of ways, Space Invaders '95 really is the perfect arcade experience - it's incredibly charming with some flashiness, it's easy to pick up but takes skill to master, and it's quick enough to be something you can pull out whenever you want. Whether you like Space Invaders, shoot 'em ups, or both, this game is one you should absolutely try as one of Taito's many classics that are woefully underdiscussed nowadays.
Elden Ring requires no introduction. In fact, I bet other people have already used this kind of introduction to mention the lack of needing an introduction! But that's for good reason - Elden Ring has sold millions of copies, has been the talk of gaming circles everywhere since its release, and is the newest in a long line of proven bangers by From Software, so it's unsurprising to see all this hype. Perhaps predictably, it lives up to the hype and provides an experience that'll probably make GOTYs for 2022 the easiest they've been in a long time.
Elden Ring sticks very close to the Souls formula - you play as a character who rises from a pitiful weakling to someone capable of reshaping the world in their image and you do that through leveling up, finding your weapon(s) of choice, calling upon others (if you want), and smacking around freaky monsters as you frantically roll around to avoid attacks. At first, Elden Ring wasn't particularly exciting to me because it just seemed like more of the same. Sekiro was a refreshing, exhilarating ride whereas Dark Souls 3, while good, felt like From Software was beginning to run out of ideas. As someone who enjoys Metal Wolf Chaos for more than its memes, who found comfort in Enchanted Arms because it was the first JRPG I had on the Xbox 360, and as someone who started getting into Armored Core a few years ago, I have mixed feelings about From Software's direction. The Souls games are fantastic, but there's something bittersweet about seeing a company that used to be so experimental becoming so mainstream and content to stick to one specific formula. Luckily for me, the shakeups provided through Elden Ring make the formula feel a whole lot more refreshing and ambitious. Once I got my hands on it in the closed beta, my concerns were quickly assuaged.
Elden Ring feels like a proper culmination of From Software's work since Demon's Souls (aside from Deracine, anyway). You can dual wield weapons like in Dark Souls 2, you have unique skills for each weapon and have to balance two types of flasks like in Dark Souls 3, combat is fast and furious like in Bloodborne, and you can jump and use stealth like in Sekiro. On their own, these elements aren't anything unexpected from video games, but putting them all together in one place does wonders for Elden Ring's combat. Having so many options available at any moment gives you more ways to approach any given situation and the game is built to encourage this while disassuading the R1 spam that could carry you through the original Dark Souls with the right build. Jumping attacks are extremely deadly and can turn the tide of a fight in an instant if they stagger the foe. Ashes of War (weapon arts) are far more powerful than they were in Dark Souls 3 and can do things like buff your character, deal devastating AoE attacks, and even provide new evasive maneuvers. There are new options too, like the ability to craft usable items and summon NPC monsters to help you out. Not only is it fun to fight alongside monsters and bosses that once gave you trouble, these characters are tremendously strong and can make a boss fight go from very hard to pretty easy just because of their ability to hog the boss's attention. The myriad bosses you'll encounter are designed around the bevy of options as well and expect you to try different things rather than relying on the same strategy for 100 hours.
While I would say Elden Ring is probably the easiest game in the Souls legacy, its bosses still have plenty of mean tricks like lengthy combos, delayed strikes, surprise reinforcements, and powerful long range magic. Because of the sheer number of bosses, you're bound to encounter something that has the upper hand over your chosen playstyle. I've seen a lot of people complain about getting stonewalled by some of the endgame bosses, claiming that they need to be nerfed or that they're unfair. In reality, the solution has been right in front of them all this time: pop into that inventory full of dozens upon dozens of weapons and spells and try something different! You don't have to stick with the greatsword you got in the first hour of the game and you don't need to pretend that using magic or summons is "cheating". More than ever before, Elden Ring is designed as a game that facilitates flexibility while also demanding it of players. It's not a coincidence that the item required to reset your character's stats is very easy to come by and unlocking the ability to do so is connected to a boss virtually every player will encounter at some point. Demon's Souls was 13 years ago, it's time to let go of some of those old habits and embrace change!
Fighting a boss that's too hard to approach? Don't bother and just shoot them from afar instead! Can't roll through someone's 8-hit combo? Pump up your endurance, grab a greatshield, and block your way through it. Need to kill a boss faster to reduce the odds of it using a certain attack? Focus on strength or dex, dual wield your favorite weapon type, enchant them with bleeding capabilities, and watch that boss melt in seconds. Admittedly, it's not a foolproof system considering upgrade materials are hard to come by for significant portions of the game and upgrades make a huge difference in weapon performance, but the sheer amount of possible weapons and builds available is no less exciting and the game does a fantastic job of making you jealous and curious enough to experiment even with weapons that aren't upgraded yet. This is also the rare game that makes crafting both quick to do and actually feel experimental instead of formulaic. I hate crafting systems, but for most of the game, I found myself gathering materials to stay stocked up on throwing knives and fire pots with nary an objection. Those items are the real deal and they saved me multiple times! Nearly every area you explore will reward you with a new weapon or spell at some point, and seeing so many cool, creative weapons that I could use made me indecisive in a way that I never am. I set foot into Elden Ring expecting to do a dual wielding setup the whole way through, and I mostly did, but the way I went about doing that was far more dynamic than I anticipated.
To give you an idea of my journey, I used two curved swords with a shield for tougher foes for a while, but then I shifted over to rapiers once I got a cool one from a quest. It didn't take long for me to find a badass greatspear enchanted with the power of madness, so I immediately adjusted for that. Madness doesn't seem to work well on enemies, however, so I bounced between things like fists, claws, greatswords, and even whips for a little bit. Eventually, I got some twinblades and fell in love with their moveset and mostly settled on those with a bit of faith magic and a backup crossbow, but I did end up playing through the entirety of the Mountaintops of the Giants and most of the endgame with a purely faith-based build because I really wanted to shoot lasers with my eyes. Every time you find something cool, it's From Software's way of telling you to give in to temptation and dig deeper into their sandbox of a world. The unfortunate reuse of many bosses, including some notable or story-relevant ones (Godefroy? Really now?) is the most disappointing aspect of Elden Ring, but it's at least partially counteracted by the fact that their potential drops are always unique. You might have to fight the Crucible Knight what feels like 20 times, but at least he drops awesome stuff almost every time! By stubbornly sticking to one specific playstyle, you're denying yourself the joy of constant dopamine hits forged with the greatest of care by From Software. The world is designed in such a way that everyone's journey will be different even if they start off the same way, both through the places they choose to go and what they decide to pull from their ever growing toolbox.
Elden Ring is the game that feels like the purest, most complete expression of From Software's ideology. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki has been on the record multiple times as saying that he doesn't think an easy mode suits his games because he wants a shared experience amongst players. Some people may try to refute this by claiming his philosophy is inherently flawed because nobody is the same and thus cannot have a 100% shared experience, but that's not what he's saying; his philosophy is akin to older games you'd see on, say, the NES, in which the game is a strict set of rules taken as is. The game is the same every time with no way to change its variables outside of cheat devices or romhacks. This creates a particular, increasingly rare experience that starts everybody out in the same place and asks them to forge a path in any way they can think of. Some people will tackle the challenge head on, others will give up, some will ask around for advice and eventually overcome the challenge, more sociable individuals will enlist others to do it for them, and a crafty few will create trainers or hacks to bend the game to their will. Though everyone is different and it's not likely everyone will be able to or want to handle the tasks ahead of them, the challenge, the set of rules that they are given is the same and a shared experience is born.
It's not a design philosophy that every game should follow, but as someone who still regularly plays and enjoys older video games, I'm very glad to see this particular type of game design still exists in some capacity through games like Elden Ring, which inherits this old school mentality and executes it with an elegance like little else. The world that From Software has crafted is immensely mysterious, captivatingly beautiful, contains a whole bunch of weirdos with ulterior motives, and is chock full of dangers and treasures alike, but no matter who you are or how you like to play, Elden Ring only has one question it's interested in asking - given this world and its inhabitants, how will you survive and reshape the world?
I've always thought of Rainbow Islands as a bizarre sequel living in the shadow of an arcade classic. Everybody knows Bubble Bobble is a great co-op game with single screen levels in which you encase monsters in bubbles so you can pop them. Rainbow Islands, in a way, is the exact opposite. Rather than remaining on a single screen, you climb your way up increasingly tall levels, and instead of having to trap enemies, you either shoot them for a direct kill or crush them with your rainbows from above. You also can't play it with two people simultaneously, which seems like a huge downgrade at first glance. But after giving Rainbow Islands more time than I did back when the NES was contemporary, I found that it faithfully picks up where Bubble Bobble left off in terms of its creativity and how it gets so much mileage out of simple game mechanics. Fear not, for Rainbow Islands is absolutely a worthy sequel.
It's worth noting that there are actually two NES versions, the US/Japan release that does more of its own thing and the European release that sticks closer to the arcade version. The US/Japan version replaces one of the worlds with one that's themed around Kiki KaiKai (aka Pocky & Rocky), so that made it an easy choice for me!
As mentioned before, your one and only option (aside from jumping, anyway) is the ability to create rainbows in front of you. These are used to defeat enemies and can also serve as makeshift staircases, allowing you to climb upwards in an arc. You can't jump on them without them crashing down, which is something that you'll be making use of a lot, but it means that you can't use them as traditional platforms. Therefore, you need to be careful with how you use them, since it's easy to slide off of rainbows or accidentally walk into an enemy. This unique projectile takes getting used to and the difficulty curve thankfully takes this into account.
The first few worlds are easy enough, featuring slow enemies and plenty of platforms to give you enough time to learn how setting up rainbows should be done. Later worlds become pretty merciless though, as per Bubble Bobble tradition, and the game starts taking away platforms and expects you to deal with fast foes that shoot projectiles en masse. The endgame feels a bit too harsh and the overly long levels combined with limited continues can cause unneeded stress, but this is ultimately a game that can be mastered and doing so comes with noticeable results. Once you've gotten comfortable with rainbows, you can set up multi-kills, blaze through levels quickly, and make it impossible for foes to approach. It's really satisfying to get the hang of this game's unique mechanics, and much like fellow NES classic Bionic Commando, this is a game where I went from not really getting it to fully grasping just how clever it is by the time I was done.
It wouldn't be a game in the Bubble Bobble series without an incredibly elaborate, entirely hidden system for power-ups and other items, and Rainbow Islands delivers in spades. Killing enemies gets you power-ups, but what exactly determines what you get felt all but random to me. According to various online resources, every 3rd kill is supposed to get you a power-up from a fixed sequence, all of which make Bubby a much more capable fighter, but I found myself never able to follow that sequence consistently. Sometimes I'd get some of the more powerful items like the potions and tiaras that make short work of enemies, but oftentimes I'd either get items I already had or the diamonds that you need for the true ending (not a bad thing!). There's a crystal ball item that's required to see the bosses of worlds 5-7 and it doesn't sound like it should be too rare to come by, but I had no clue how to get it to appear and experimenting didn't really help. I did it in world 6, but for worlds 5 and 7, I had to fight invisible bosses. An interesting idea to be sure, but not exactly one I'd call fun! You lose your power-ups should you die, and you'll definitely die, so learning how exactly this convoluted system works isn't necessarily useful or additive to the experience unless you're looking to get an impressive score.
The most important items are the seven colored diamonds that need to be collected in each world. They match the colors of the rainbow and the ones you get are supposedly determined by where on the screen you kill an enemy, which isn't something I even knew about until after I beat the game. Diamonds will primarily be generated when crushing enemies with rainbows, so going for them adds a satisfying layer of complexity that requires you to set up kills more carefully. Anybody can fire rainbows indiscriminately, but only those who know how to maneuver and patiently create the necessary moments will reap the rewards. Collecting all 7 in a world gets you one of the 7 huge diamonds needed for the true ending and 8th world, so they'd be very much worth it just for that, but they come with additional benefits too.
If you obtain the huge diamond, you'll be given the opportunity to either get a free power-up from one of two treasure chests or to speak with a NPC. The NPCs don't always have useful information, but what they have to say can sometimes be amusing enough that it's worth sacrificing a power-up for. In one world, a NPC talks about how he was a hero until he fell victim to his vices and couldn't support his family anymore, and in another world, you get to see Bubby cure Bobby's sudden bout of vampirism by breathing garlic into his face. The game also gets weirdly horny at times and Bubby is way too eager to flirt with every girl he meets despite having a girlfriend and looking like he's 5 years old. It's really something else! If you manage to collect the 7 colored diamonds in ROYGBIV order, you not only get the above perks, you also get the chance to skip the boss fight (if you want) and a special item that permanently improves Bubby in some way. It's cool that playing the game extra carefully and extra well is rewarded in such a significant way, and while none of those power-ups are needed, they're worthwhile rewards nonetheless and I'm sure speedrunners appreciate being able to skip bosses too. The bosses aren't bad or anything, but most of them come down to just moving and shooting while you avoid their large sprites, so being able to skip them to preserve lives once their novelty has worn thin might actually be for the best.
Rainbow Islands feels like a celebration of Taito at times and I really appreciate how it goes about doing that. Worlds 5-8 are all dedicated to themes based on other Taito games. World 5 is based on Arkanoid and replicates the audiovisual experience by removing the music and having the sounds of the blocks constantly echo throughout the stages. World 6 not only takes the yokai from Kiki KaiKai, it also provides renditions of its music and even recreates the final boss within the context of Rainbow Islands. World 7 is themed around Darius, so it naturally has enemies that favor projectiles. Best of all, its boss encounter uses the same "A huge battleship is approaching fast!" warning screen to introduce the fight, which brought a smile to my face. The final world is based on the original Bubble Bobble and plays its iconic theme as you deal with familiar foes. Taito has such a fun and memorable catalog of franchises, so it's nice to see them flaunt it here in such a creative and high effort way.
Though it may be needlessly obtuse and punishing at times, Rainbow Islands is a joyous game that has no problem standing alongside its predecessor. It's easy to see why it was a hit in its time, between its easy to learn yet hard to master mechanics and its colorful presentation, and those factors are why it still holds up so well today. This is a game that rewards practice and mastery like any good game of this vintage should and it does so in a way that allows you to learn something new with every play session. Whether you like Bubble Bobble or not, you should absolutely try this game and give it a chance to allow its best qualities to shine like a rainbow.
While I didn't hate my time with it, No More Heroes 3 was profoundly disappointing to me. The original game blew my mind back in 2008 and quickly became one of my favorites. Its unusual grindhouse-esque vibes and cheeky sense of humor made for an experience unlike anything I had seen. Everything about it felt comedic yet deeply unsettling with plenty to say both about its atypical protagonist and video games as a whole. It played well too, with flashy combat that looked amazing and felt great once you got the hang of it. NMH2 wasn't far behind it in overall quality either and I absolutely loved it for its improved combat, excellent soundtrack and (slightly) heightened stakes. These games (along with Killer7) were my introduction to Suda51 and Grasshopper, and for a minute there, I was starting to think they were infallible. Shadows of the Damned proved this wrong pretty quickly, but it was still a decent enough game and removed from the expectations that come with a sequel like this. NMH3 feels like it was compromised in every aspect of its design (in part due to reasons beyond the team's control, like covid) and struggles to have anything interesting to say, leaving me with only a void in my heart and thoughts that I still have a hard time putting into words.
Travis Strikes Again certainly had interesting things to say about Suda51's career as well as the industry in general, but playing it was an absolute nightmare of tedium that legitimately strained my eyes. A lot of its choices did not jive with me at all, but I was hopeful it was just an experiment of sorts and NMH3 would veer closer to the first two games. Turns out, I was half right - NMH3 plays very much like the first two and is a more enjoyable experience than TSA by default for it, but everything else about it picks up exactly where TSA left off, much to my chagrin.
TSA served up a significant transformation of Travis' character. Rather than the sociopathic yet oddly likeable killer we had come to know, he had become more of a recluse, intentionally hiding away from society to play video games in the woods. While a sensible enough change considering all he's been through and the end of his arc in NMH2, he felt like he had become a completely different person so suddenly, less of an individual and more of a mouthpiece for Suda51's views and experience with video games and the industry he works in. This isn't inherently a bad thing and considering how many people seem to consider TSA the best entry nowadays, it seems to have resonated with its target audience, but I found this change to be mostly insufferable. Part of what made the first two games so memorable to me was how bizarre yet driven in personal ways everyone was. Watching Travis bicker and interact with similarly deranged people, some of which simply enjoyed the thrill of the kill and others who were more nuanced, made for entertainment that was like watching reality TV - you know everyone involved kinda sucks, but that's what makes it so fun! But here, Travis is so far removed from all of that and it just makes him boring by comparison. The game is so fixated on video games that you generally know what's coming and what he's going to say based on the environment alone. It reminds me of Eat Lead if anyone remembers that game - a game that just reeks with "how do you do, fellow kids?" energy. It's a weird choice to me because prior to this I wouldn't have questioned Suda's love for the medium at any point, so I don't really understand why the game was so insistent on trying to relate to me through video game references instead of through the perspective and experiences specific to the character I had grown to love.
I bring this all up because NMH3 takes this and amps it up further. TSA Travis at least had his moments of introspection and intrigue, but NMH3 Travis is all figured out. He loves video games and Takashi Miike films and he'll let you know about it constantly. He grew up with a video game he has a personal connection to called Deathman (just like you, a person who probably likes video games!). He's essentially a rich superhero with access to advanced tech like Iron Man and everybody loves him and lives with him now. It is a "proper" conclusion to his arc in that he has come a long way since his early days and learned a lot, but it's also a far less interesting conclusion that feels surprisingly normal coming from a team that tends to do anything but. Celebrated, 100% competent heroes like this are a dime a dozen in video games, so it was a shame to see Travis become someone far less interesting than he once was even if he is a better person for it.
This kind of treatment technically extends to the rest of the cast as well. Much ado was made about Bad Girl and Shinobu returning in TSA, but here they're sidelined until the end immediately. Badman gets even less time in the spotlight (for a good reason, admittedly) and Sylvia is mostly reserved for a lingering plot thread/recurring joke that never gets resolved in a satisfying way. Henry is a completely different person now and goes from a perfect foil to Travis to a brief, purely antagonistic force that ushers in the most nonsensical portion of the game. Naomi is a tree now, for some reason? At least Jeane the cat gets a new, extremely deep voice that's pretty hilarious; they're probably the most entertaining character in the game now! But beyond that, the characters we've come to know over multiple games are at their least nuanced and likeable here, and considering that this may be the last NMH game ever, that's a huge bummer.
The new characters vary in quality to dramatic degrees. Some characters, like new antagonist Fu, get plenty of time to showboat and do ridiculous things that make them fit right in (though he also gets what might be one of the worst boss fights in recent memory, what a tragedy!), whereas other characters get a scene or two at most or remain mostly unexplained to those not familiar with Suda51's older work. The majority of the alien bosses you fight are some of the dullest foes Grasshopper has presented - most of them are unceremoniously killed in a cutscene or have little of interest to say when you do actually get to fight them. It's telling that the best boss fight by far is the one that's a direct callback to NMH2! There are attempts to make the player see the aliens from Fu's perspective as he bonds with them one last time before their battles with Travis, but these rarely make a lasting impact because of how disposable they end up feeling. It's a noble attempt though and is the only aspect of the game that feels like a proper commentary on a greater theme (the power of friendship vs trusting only yourself and how Travis and Fu represent this) instead of Suda51 just reminding you of what he likes again and again.
Among the game's many polarizing elements is its presentation. The previous games, even TSA, had style in spades, but NMH3 is much shakier. In some places, such as the anime-style intro and ending used for each chapter, the game looks gorgeous, but when actually playing the game, specifically while in the open world, it may very well be one of the ugliest games I've ever seen. Bringing back the open world was a controversial idea considering how it wasn't super well received in NMH1, but theoretically it would have been possible to expand upon it and make it more compelling and fully featured. That... absolutely did not happen here. The open world in NMH3 is probably the most unenjoyable open world I've ever participated in and I found it had absolutely nothing to offer me. Likely due to a combination of budget, time, and covid, the world looks completely unfinished, consisting mostly of empty space, some cats and scorpions to find, aliens that give you t-shirts, and some of the most bright, eyesearingly white buildings I've ever seen. It got to the point that I had to keep my trips in the first part of the open world short because my eyes couldn't handle looking at it! There are some things you can do for cash like various minigames, but once you've got some ranking fights and required qualifier battles under your belt, you'll never need the money they can provide. The minigames honestly aren't bad this time around, it'd just be nice if they were more worthwhile in terms of rewards. Luckily, none of the other areas are as blindingly white as the first one, so I was able to explore them more, but they all fail to impress, with the last two being particularly dumbfounding.
One of them is called "Call of Battle", which as the name implies is a cheeky reference to Call of Duty, I guess. Except that... there's no joke and it has no reason to be here or fit in with the rest of the world? It just looks like a brown war-torn wasteland with ruined buildings, people walking around as if nothing's weird about it, and nothing else of note. It even has a weird grainy CRT filter on the screen whenever you're there, which is such a weird place to go with the idea. Call of Duty games were on older consoles like the PS2, sure, but does anyone actually think of Call of Duty when they think of CRTs? It feels wildly out of touch and random in a way that's almost embarrassing to witness and I constantly found myself wishing that I didn't have to be there.
The other one that really stood out was Neo Brazil. With a name like that, I was expecting some kind of cool futuristic city, but instead I got a flat white plain with a few buildings and some grass on it. It legitimately feels like someone had just started a new project in whatever their program of choice is but had to save it and ship it out before they could finish. This is the last area you see before the final one, too, so it's a hell of a way to fail to impress players with your late-game! It's staggering just how empty and lifeless it is, so much so that I'm wondering if there's some kind of joke I'm missing. Is this a weird jab at Brazil, a reference to yet another anime, or is it exactly what I think it is and covid just hit this game extremely hard? Who knows!
The one part of NMH3 that doesn't feel like a pure downgrade is the combat. It's essentially a continuation of NMH2 that exchanges some of its depth for accessibility and speed. You unfortunately only get one beam katana this time around, stance changing is gone, and you can't punch people to break their guard, but combos now flow more easily from the start thanks to weak/strong attacks having clear, specific combos. Perfect dodging works much more consistently now and the death glove from TSA returns to give you four special attacks on a cooldown. Each one is really useful, ranging from a drop kick to a continuous area of effect that can be placed down to damage foes further as you wail on them. The slash reels return and activate a bevy of random effects that feel too rigged in the player's favor this time around. I was surprised how often I was getting tremendous power boosts and super modes in the middle of boss fights - it made several of them a total joke! The best part of all is that the enemy variety is by far at its best this time around. The game shows its hand too fast and reveals every type surprisingly quickly, but each one fights in pretty different ways; some types prefer to snipe from afar whereas others will rush at you relentlessly or use unique gimmicks like shields that require different approaches. I really missed the bloodcurdling screams that came with fighting normal people in the first two games, but considering how many games neglect and underestimate the importance of enemy variety, seeing it here was very much appreciated. This is also the one part of the game that actually looks and feels good to play, since the excessive particle effects and loud beam katana sounds are back once again to make combat as flashy and impactful as it should be.
Even with all its improvements, combat eventually wears thin thanks to the open world structure. Instead of unique levels tied to each boss, you just have to find copy-pasted battle arenas to fight enemies in until you're allowed to challenge the boss. While the levels in the previous games could run far too long for their own good, completely removing them wasn't the solution. Now, it just feels like you never get a break from the open world grind. What you do at the start is what you're doing at the end, and Travis' arsenal isn't big enough to keep these fights interesting forever. There's incentive to fight enemies multiple times to afford stat upgrades and get materials for chips that can be equipped, but at least on the game's default difficulty, you really don't need to engage with these systems much at all. Stat boosts are obviously good, but some of the moves you can learn are either superfluous or flat out interfere with your usual combo structure. I found a few chips that didn't have drawbacks and had no trouble holding onto those the entire game. Making your postgame content of sorts a grind to get better gear so you can re-fight things you've already fought isn't exactly a compelling way to extend playtime for me and probably many other people, if I had to guess.
In case it wasn't obvious by now, I found No More Heroes 3 to be thoroughly underwhelming. Though its combat is good and the soundtrack, while not up to the standards of the first two games, is pretty decent, everything else was a significant step down. The story is the weakest I've ever seen from a Grasshopper game and it completely fails to do anything interesting or emotional with its characters. Instead of making this a properly satisfying conclusion to a series more than a decade old, it insists upon providing rote, neverending winks towards its audience along with an almost cringeworthy amount of Takashi Miike fanboying and expects you to accept it without question and believe it's leading up to something. Even the finale is mired in wacky, random video game references that hog the air in the room and a cliffhanger tease that sounds way better than the story we actually got! While I can certainly respect personal passion projects from creative, interesting individuals, this one somehow feels too personal and indulgent, to the point where it forgets that there are people out there who aren't necessarily interested in hearing about its creator's every little interest. This game is a Q&A session between Suda and his diehard fans first and foremost, not the story of the weirdo assassin clawing his way to the top that I fell in love with. I can't help but wonder and become wistful over what could have been if the game had more time in the oven, zero interference from covid, and more visible signs of other creative voices involved in its production. What was once one of the games I was most excited for in the history of my entire time with the medium ended up leaving me feeling frustrated and retrospectively uninterested in exploring the rest of a catalog I was once really interested in doing so. For 15 hours, I waited for the one ridiculous moment, the one laugh out loud joke, the one exhilarating boss fight that would have brought me back to the wonder I felt in 2008 all over again, but that moment never came.
Though it got a decent amount of attention in 2021, part of me still feels like Scarlet Nexus was underestimated. Bandai Namco makes a lot of stuff that immediately appeals to me, and Scarlet Nexus is perhaps one of the best examples. A flashy as heck "Brainpunk" world with intense action RPG combat that takes a few notes from character action games (or whatever you wanna call them), likeable characters, intricate (albeit imperfect) storytelling, and a soundtrack that vibes like few others have recently makes for a game that I knew I'd love. A lot of people seem to write their stuff off as "too anime" or whatever nonsense, but ignore those claims: Scarlet Nexus is an excellent game that deserves to stand tall with the best 2021 has to offer.
The game starts off with a relatively straightforward premise not unlike something like Neon Genesis Evangelion (teens with special abilities are enlisted to fight against an otherworldly threat) that quickly escalates into something broader. Within the first few chapters, important characters are killed, the main antagonist makes (some of) his intentions strangely obvious, tons of exposition and worldbuilding is done, time travel becomes a factor, and plenty of conflicts are stirred up. It's a really exciting, fast-paced intro in a genre that isn't necessarily known for them, though such breakneck pacing can make it hard to keep up. This extends throughout the game and the main story never really slows down. Later exposition dumps can be overwhelming and the game doesn't always space them out so well, but the emotion is there and the ideas presented are strong enough that you'll likely walk away with a good impression overall. Special mention goes out to one particular use of time travel in the game that I don't know I've seen before - I won't spoil it, but damn if it isn't a wildly elaborate way to get what you want!
The story is also reliant upon the perspective of its two protagonists, Yuito Sumeragi and Kasane Randall. You can select one of them as your main character and that'll determine the viewpoint of certain cutscenes, the team that'll accompany you for most of the game, and a bit of unique content here and there. It's a really cool idea and I was excited to see how different the two playthroughs would feel, but it only really succeeds in the gameplay department. Having to practice with two wildly different fighting styles gives you an appreciation for what they can do - Kasane can keep foes stunlocked and at bay with her range from the start, whereas Yuito is more of a late bloomer, starting off a bit hard to use but becoming a veritable human blender by the end. Having to fight with different teammates is an educational experience that teaches you how to best use their powers. Kasane's team generally has powers that make it easy to press the advantage and ensnare enemies in her attacks, whereas Yuito's team is best suited to helping him actually approach foes to make use of his already dominant offense. However, the story changes between routes are disappointingly minor. All of the major content is shared between characters, so you'll be repeating most of the game just to see the occasional different morsel, and these differences dry up entirely once you approach the endgame. Considering that these unique bits really don't add a ton to the story, it's hard to justify a second playthrough (at least right away) specifically for the story content. At the very least, it's worth it for the segments where the two teams fight - the sheer emotion of both sides coming through, the intensity of the mechanics hitting a high, and the amazing track that plays culminate in moments that are masterstroke boss fights.
Combat in Scarlet Nexus is some of the most thrilling I've seen in a while. Using a combination of melee attacks and psychokinetic abilities, you can do flashy combos, powerful charge attacks, and manipulate the environment to your advantage. Your weapon does the most damage in most cases once it's upgraded, but throwing stuff at enemies is the best way to stun them and reduce their break gauge, allowing for an instant kill or high damage using a brain crush. The amount of objects to throw is always significant and certain ones result in unique quick time events of sorts that reward you with more powerful attacks. Slamming a giant truck into things never gets old! Scarlet Nexus has some character action elements, but it is very much an action RPG first and foremost. Equipment and stats are a significant factor as is using the right attacks or elements to hit enemy weaknesses. You're also very much reliant on your team that can provide you with special powers temporarily. Some of these give your weapon an element like fire or electricity, some influence your movement through slowing time or teleportation, and others like duplication supplement your offense in interesting ways. It can be a lot to take in and the game introduces new mechanics every so often for a good chunk of the game, but mastering combat is very rewarding. Combat is also supplemented by a wonderful soundtrack in each area that changes depending on whether or not you're in combat. When you're in the zone and the music is pulsating with intense electronic energy, it really makes the experience come together as something that feels truly, genuinely cool.
Outside of combat, intermission segments give you a chance to chill out and vibe with your team by giving them gifts (which decorate the hub permanently, it's really neat!) or hearing what they have to say in bond episodes. By improving your friendship through gifts and combat, your teammates will open up to you, telling you their life stories and seeking your help in improving them. This is where a majority of the game's character development lies, so it's an optional thing that kinda feels mandatory. These episodes are well worth it though and feature compelling arcs unique to each protagonist due to their differing relationships with each character. For example, the mysterious, oftentimes obnoxiously indirect Kagero tries to be something of a father figure to Kasane for personal reasons, whereas his relationship with Yuito is far more fragile as a result of his dangerous line of work forever changing Yuito's life. Shiden is an absolute asshole to both characters due to his inferiority complex, but as her teammate, Kasane takes more time to understand where he comes from whereas Yuito finds it harder to break the ice because of his privileged background as part of the Sumeragi family. Every bond episode is notable and compelling and you're likely to think very differently of each character by the time you're done. These scenes can get incredibly long though, so having to do four or more in between every chapter can get tedious fast. These segments actually take up a significant amount of the play time if you want them to and that can often be detrimental to the game's pacing. The stories here are interesting and give a lot of extra life to an already exuberant cast, but it'd be nice if they were spread out a bit more or were perhaps more consistently interactive. It's a similar problem to Tales of Arise - the actual quality of the writing is very solid, it's just the lack of space between so much of it makes it feel worse than it actually is.
Scarlet Nexus is easily one of the best games of 2021. Everything about it comes together in a package that's both incredibly cool and substantial, featuring stories and characters with relatable themes like finding your place in the world and learning to trust others that you likely won't forget. Combat is satisfyingly deep and only grows moreso with time, making you feel like a pro as you eradicate foes with the power of teamwork and public transit. If the pacing was better, namely with less exposition dumped all in one scene, more spread out bond episodes, and some of the later levels cut down slightly, it'd probably be a perfect game for me! If you enjoy action RPGs and want something that feels familiar in its coziness yet fresh in its action packed execution, don't sleep on this one.
This one isn't really a full game but is rather a bonus that was given out through assorted 1994 Hudson Soft events. It's a multiplayer only sampler of Bomberman '94 that replaces Bomberman with Kabuki Danjirou from the Tengai Makyou series. Aside from this change and the ability to play 5 stages instead of 1 with a cheat code, it's basically identical to the Special Version of Bomberman '94 that was given out the previous year for the same purpose.
There's not really much point in playing it now, but it's certainly an interesting bit of history at the very least!
You ever play a game that's so close to greatness but just barely misses the mark? That's Xeno Crisis for me - on one hand, it's a fantastic tribute to the Neo Geo in the form of an arcade twin-stick shooter with tight action and gorgeous visuals. On the other hand, it succumbs to popular indie trends that do it no justice, seemingly shoehorning in roguelike elements that are seldom additive to the experience.
If you've played the likes of Smash TV or Robotron 2084, you know exactly what to expect here. Using a variety of guns, grenades and a powerful but risky melee attack, you have to rip and tear your way through seven levels chock full of alien monstrosities. At the macro level, there really isn't much that Xeno Crisis does wrong; some enemies take too many hits and stage 3 just sucks because of its reliance on enemies that burrow underground and waste your time, but otherwise Xeno Crisis is one heck of an adrenaline rush. Your default gun feels amazing and remains effective throughout the entire game, and every melee kill you earn feels sufficiently meaty. The risk/reward balance for using melee attacks is very finely tuned too; melee attacks instantly take out most foes, so if you're willing to risk getting hit, you can immediately take out enemies before they even start moving and shooting. Some levels are so overwhelming with their hordes of foes that this tactic becomes regularly valuable and worth pursuing, encouraging players to get good at dodging and relying on their peripheral vision. Other gun pickups are unfortunately on a timer, leading to situations where you get them with no enemies to use them on, but the majority of them are powerful assets that give you a chance to go hog wild for a bit, empowering the player in times of, well, crisis.
Shooting hordes grants you dog tags that can be used to buy upgrades in between levels. These include the likes of health/speed/attack boosts as well as increased grenade and ammo (yes, ammo, more on that later) capacity. There's even a niche upgrade in the form of the gas mask that protects you from poisonous gas, something's that's only useful in stages 3 and 5 but is extremely so in those two cases. This system provides a small but enjoyable way to give each run a different approach. You can go all in on attack to make the start easier, you can buff speed to make sure your runs go cleanly, or you can save for the gas mask and make your life easier later. You can eventually afford everything if you're thorough enough, but this little bit of decision making turns Xeno Crisis into a game that's more thoughtful than the average game of this ilk.
The game is also a visual treat full of massive bosses that play as well as they look. Each boss has very fair, understandable attack patterns and are reasonable to defeat even with the default gun. Curiously, level 3 doesn't have a boss fight which is a shame considering it's the one in most desperate need of something to break up its monotony.
It's unfortunate that Xeno Crisis wasn't actually a Neo Geo or Mega Drive game released in the appropriate time period, because I probably would have been able to leave it at this and give it 4-5 stars as a classic of its era. But since it was created in the age of modern indies, where so many games need to pull from popular trends to get any kind of attention, Xeno Crisis has ideas that unfortunately do it no favors. Primarily, most aspects of the game are randomized, from parts of the level design to item drops, and that randomless leads to frustration in short order. Games like this are at their best when mastered by a player who knows everything about the game, but with randomness injected, all of the skill in the world can't save you from a streak of bad luck. Everything that drops from enemies is randomized each run. What that means is it's possible that a player who takes occasional hits but otherwise does well will slowly bleed out in one run thanks to a lack of health drops, but in other runs will be able to get far because they got lucky. This same player might blaze through a boss because a weapon dropped mid-fight, but then their next run might leave them to dry wondering why they're doing so much worse. Normally in a game like this, you'd be able to focus purely on getting better and eliminating those mistakes, but knowing that you could luck out at any point leads to sloppiness and reliance on hoping for the best. It promotes bad habits that just make for a less fun game and your victories hardly feel earned because of it.
Worst of all, your basic gun runs on limited ammo and after it's depleted, you have to scramble to grab the ammo crate that, you guessed it, spawns in a random location. Oftentimes this won't be a problem, but those few times where it gets you killed will forever stick in your head and keep you up at night. Many foes take dozens of bullets to kill, so even with a fully upgraded gun, you'll be running out of ammo constantly. Knowing that every time you run out of ammo you're rolling the dice with your life is something that'll chew away at your confidence in short order, which is a terrifying prospect in a game that's as hard as Xeno Crisis.
The icing on the cake is something you'll be familiar with if you followed the game after its release and it's hard not to agree with the majority consensus on it: to see the game's proper ending and actually fight the final boss, you need to finish it without dying once. Naturally, such a Herculean task was criticized by most people who played the game, since such a requirement isn't made (fully) clear until you've failed to meet it at the game's end. The brief story segments in between levels hint at the fact that there's something suspicious about the elixir you use for your equivalent of extra lives, but there's no way to know that using even one will make the game's ending as unsatisfying as possible. Missing out on a bit of story wouldn't have mattered to me, but not getting to fight the final boss is a punishment that I couldn't get over, so I kept playing the game until I eventually nailed it. Turns out, the final boss isn't even all that exciting and it's easier than the level that immediately precedes it!
While the idea of making your extra lives punish you later on for story reasons is an interesting and subversive one, it takes away from the fun of the gameplay. 1CCs should come because a player enjoys the game enough to strive for them, not because they need to do it to get some kind of resolution. The randomization only makes this task worse and it eroded my goodwill away with every subsequent run. Xeno Crisis should have been a game about the journey and not the destination, but by making the carrot on the stick so needlessly harsh and placed in the perfect spot to maximize frustration, it makes peoples' experience with the game one that ends on a sour note they won't soon forget.
I sincerely hope Bitmap Bureau gives a sequel a shot someday. If they remove the randomness and reconsider the ending trickery, I may very well be there day 1! It's a testament to how good Xeno Crisis plays that I didn't immediately drop it as soon as it started asking something ridiculous from me. It was an experience that started off wonderful and gradually wore down my patience and goodwill, each run ending with a lack of drops or a mistake at the end of a hour long run causing me to lean ever so closer to quitting. A non-insignificant amount of each run being spent on stage 3 sure didn't help either! I'm glad I didn't quit and was able to finish it, but I wish my time with it ended on a high note that properly summarized the joy of the experience instead of something that I and others will mostly remember for how mean it was out of nowhere in a game that's otherwise so fun and welcoming.