This is one of the most creative and interesting shmups I've ever played! Radirgy is aesthetically immaculate, features a great soundtrack unlike anything I can think of in the genre, and even has a charmingly eccentric story about a girl who's allergic to electronic waves trying to save her dad from terrorists to boot. If you like the general energy and vibes of, say, Jet Set Radio, this is the closest thing to that in shmup form. This one doesn't seem to garner a whole lot of chatter nowadays based on the brief trawls through shmup communities I did, which is a shame because it really feels like it's one of a kind! Well, aside from its sequels that I haven't played yet, I assume...

The main hook of Radirgy's gameplay is how it completely changes and recontextualizes the purpose of the bomb. In most shmups, a bomb is a very limited resource that you either use to get out of a bad spot or hold onto if you get points for not using them. In Radirgy, your "bomb", the ABS Net, is more like a shield that you deploy as often as possible. By hitting enemies (preferably in their weak spots), you get juice, and then said juice fuels the ABS Net, which makes you temporarily invincible, grabs all on-screen items for you, increases your scoring multiplier, and still lets you build up more energy for the next ABS Net. This single mechanic turns Radirgy into the most frantic and aggressive shmup I've ever seen and it's an unbelievable sight to behold!

Once you get the hang of things, you'll be using your ADS net near constantly as you charge headfirst into enemies, chop them up, and keep pushing forward without hesitation. The game makes some masterful choices to complement this as well, such as letting you slash and shoot simultaneously and making it so contact with enemies doesn't hurt you. It sounds unintuitive if you're used to other shmups, but all of the design choices do an excellent job of communicating the correct way to play. Even for me, someone who has only been really getting into shmups seriously in recent years, I was extremely impressed by how enticing the act of practicing this game was despite its intimidating appearance. There are still loads of ridiculously elaborate bullet patterns that'll crush you dozens of times, make no mistake, but if you're good enough, you can plan to negate a whole lot of them, which is such an amazing feeling!

Even with a mechanic as powerful as the ABS Net, Radirgy is a ridiculously difficult game. It took me about seven hours of practice to beat it once on the default settings because the Gamecube version doesn't let you have infinite credits! Life extensions are a rare treat that have to be earned, bosses are frequent (especially from stage 3 onwards), and bullet patterns eventually become so absurd that the intention is as simple as "ABS Net or die unless you play these games for a living". The unlockable mode, Manpuku, lets you get higher scores, but forces you to do a 1CC! It's always fair and you'll always learn something new when you play, but it's undeniably an extremely harsh challenge and not what I'd call friendly for total newcomers or those without the drive to practice. ABS Net is a wonderful mechanic, but using it at a bad time can really sting if you leave yourself in a bad spot with no energy. To smartly prevent its difficulty from becoming tedious, Radirgy goes with a Caravan-style structure, which means that it's both scoring focused and short to finish. A playthrough, win or lose, is never going to take more than 30 minutes, which was so motivating for me. Sure, I kept dying and dying and dying, but the fact that jumping back in was so simple and quick made this game an obsession of mine for a whole week!

If you're like me and you went through a phase where you needed to be convinced of the "worthiness" of this genre (I was a dumb kid once, you know...), Radirgy is one of the best cases you can make for the diversity of the genre. It's incredibly elegant in its design, distinct and loud in its personality, and oh so exciting to play. ABS Net is legit one of the coolest mechanics I can think of in video games and I dearly want to see more games try a similar thing. I tried Radirgy on a whim not knowing what to expect and now I can safely say that it's one of my favorite shmups, right up there with the likes of Air Zonk and Mushihime-sama. If you've got the stomach for the challenge, I bet that this could become one of your favorites, too.

I'm sure you saw the five stars I gave this and thought to yourself, "man, this guy's either joking or super weird!". Well, I'm definitely weird, but I'm only partially joking! If we're being ~objective~, Faces of Evil is nowhere near a five star game, but get this: reviews aren't objective, they're windows into the hearts, brains, and souls of individuals, so expressing your emotions, no matter how "unusual" they may be, is where it's at! Faces of Evil is a game that has been there for me for years even though I never really got to play it until now. Many moons ago, I tried a CD-i emulator and not only did it not work well at all, it also had the audacity to try and get me to pay money! CD-i emulation is far from perfect even now, but it has come a long way, at least enough to allow me to find plenty of ways to appreciate it as much more than just the "failure" history considers it to be.

If you're familiar with YouTube Poops, I was the kind of dorky kid that chugged those things down real good. I would watch so many of them and I just couldn't get enough. Seeing these absolutely ridiculous looking takes on characters like Mario and Link that I had known for years always gave me a good laugh and it got to the point where friends and I will still break out random quotes from the poops and the actual source material alike. Even in their original poopless form, the cutscenes in the Mario and Zelda CD-i games are still hilarious! So hilarious, in fact, that a game released this year, Arzette: The Jewel of Faramore (made in part by the same person who made this remaster), used them as its most compelling hook! These cutscenes are truly special, but there are actual games beyond them. Said games have long been the butt of jokes by reviewers and YouTubers, but when you actually sit down with them, are they really so beyond redemption? It turns out the answer to that is no and we have Dopply to thank for making that conclusion easier than ever to come to.

The first two Zelda games for the CD-i (this one and Wand of Gamelon) play in a way that resembles Zelda II. This is a good thing because Zelda II is my favorite one! They're certainly not as tightly designed or challenging and magic isn't a thing, but the general skeleton is there, which is still appreciated. Speaking of skeletons, this game is still very much a Zelda game once you look past its legendary presentation. You go to various areas in the world, find items that let you explore new areas and defeat new foes, and you ultimately go on to defeat Ganon. You start off very weak and end up becoming a force of nature that can spam deadly ranged attacks, so even with the different style, that form of progression the series has always done well is still here. You get so strong that all it takes to defeat Ganon is throwing a book at him!

Even if the combat is simple, the variety of items you get is as satisfying as you'd expect. Some Zelda staples like bombs and the Power Glove are here, but there are some interesting new items mixed in. A rope lets you create spots to climb upward wherever you want, which can cleverly cut down on the game's tendency to want you to take the long way around things. Snowballs and Firestones replace arrows and magic, which might sound like a downgrade, but the sheer speed at which you can toss them (if you stock up) makes short work of any enemy. The winged helmet predates the Roc's Cape by several years with its ability to let you glide across gaps. Even though I've emphasized the power you can gain, Faces of Evil still finds ways of forcing you to be careful. The number of hearts you get for this adventure are extremely limited and the canteen only lets you carry one healing item, so this isn't a game where you can come rolling in with four fairies in bottles and effectively be invincible. Instant death pits litter most stages, which when combined with enemies that love to throw huge projectiles, can make finding your footing surprisingly difficult. It's not nearly as hard as Zelda II, but it still has some of that methodical swordplay that makes it work so well.

Perhaps moreso than several other Zelda games, the land of Koridai is legitimately strange and compelling to explore. Every single person you meet is some kind of freak that's way too eager to touch Link, creepily smile at him, or go on about some nonsense that the player won't have any context for right away. Except Morshu, that is; he's not a freak, he's a national treasure! This is the only Zelda game (well, and Wand of Gamelon) where encountering NPCs is just as fun as finding new items! The environments themselves are really interesting, too. There's a unique, hard to describe "lived in" nature to each level. Loads of detail can be seen in the backgrounds, especially when you enter buildings, which have all kinds of random little items in the background. It's maybe not what you'd call ~environmental storytelling~, but it gives every single screen a handcrafted, remarkably detailed feel, as if each one was an artist's canvas for them to do with as they please. Just the act of exploring is such a joy because you're guaranteed to see something you've truly never seen before, which is more than a lot of games can say.

It's worth quickly mentioning the upgrades that come with this remaster because they really do make a difference. Aside from expected niceties like enhanced image and music quality, the remaster has an added tutorial and an optional mode that includes some modern QoL like infinite lives and better checkpointing. If you're one of the rare folks who have mastered the original game, there's even a hard mode built in the image of the "Hero modes" added to official Zelda remasters. If you can beat that, you get an entirely new playable character complete with unique animations and spritework, which is a seriously delightful level of effort!

The whole package really shows just how much respect Dopply has for the CD-i and its Zelda games. It's easy for people to take one look at the CD-i and dismiss it, but perspectives like this in which people truly take the time to examine the positives of what the platform was doing are so valuable. By being humble enough to not see it as something to "fix" from the ground up to prove a point but rather something to use as the basis for a creative experiment, Dopply has proven that there's legitimate beauty in what the CD-i was doing. Faces of Evil, whether it meant to or not (I'm sure it didn't), serves as an example of what Nintendo once was in the eyes of those who have seen them grow into the obnoxiously litigious behemoth that they are today. Nintendo used to have moments of experimentation, weirdness, and "mistakes" that they simply don't now. They're a megacorporation and megacorporations are not your friends, but they absolutely were "fun" in a way that they aren't now. Things like the live action Super Mario Bros. Movie, the Game Boy Printer, Mario Paint, ROB, the Virtual Boy, all have a raw creative energy that takes risks in ways that they wouldn't dare consider now. Faces of Evil is a way to tap back into that fun period of Nintendo history, that period where I consumed the heck out of YouTube Poops, and as short as said reminiscence may be, it's an opportunity that I find impossible to say no to.

This is solid DLC for a solid game! It's effectively just a sixth planet to add onto the main game's five, but what's here is probably some of the best combat and exploration in the entire package. The structure is exactly the same - find planet coins by completing quests, rescue sparks, fight in various battles - but as something intended to be played after completion of the main game, it's allowed to get a little spicier in places, which helps to stave off some of the repetition that comes with their penchant for reusing sidequest ideas.

In terms of exploration, it feels like this DLC goes for the same thing that God of War 2018 did (of all things), what with its combination of linear sections spread across a wide open hub area. To get you back in the swing of things (assuming you took a break after the main game), the DLC starts off mostly focused on getting you from battle to cutscene to battle for the first half or so. The hub area, once you reach it, is traversed entirely by boat and the linear sections mostly take place on little islands, which is part of what inspired the comparison in the first place! The story here isn't anything particularly different from what was there previously and the dialogue still tends to be more miss than hit, but the beauty of the space you inhabit helps to compensate. Due to the influence of the Darkmess, the Melodic Gardens combines naturalistic forest beauty with quiet tension, taking your expectations of a bright, noisy wonderland and flipping it on its head. In fact, I'm surprised how many reviews seemingly missed the intention behind the Gardens' relative silence!

The Last Spark Hunter picks up where the main game left off mechanically and though it doesn't directly import your save (your skins carry over, which is nice, I guess), it starts you at the previous max level of 30 regardless and raises the bar to 40. Not only does this let you resume using your previous strategies, it also lets you further maximize the devastation your characters can inflict (my Rabbid Mario/Rabbid Rosalina/Edge team still feels busted as heck!) and keep the base game's mostly well-balanced difficulty intact. It's a shame there aren't any new playable characters or abilities here and none of the new Sparks are particularly notable, but the two new enemy types are solid additions.

The Golem is a bulky melee fighter that respawns after death unless you dash its core, encouraging you to be aggressive and make use of dashing if you somehow haven't been doing so by now. Seriously, building characters (Edge especially) around frequent dashing turns this into a whole different and much more fun game! The Fieldbreakers are polar opposites and much more challenging to deal with; they prefer to shoot lob shots from afar and spew damaging goop everywhere, which can tick away significant chunks of health every time you move or dash through it. In tandem, the two can command you to dash or fail, all the while punishing you for doing so, creating a synergistic combo that a lot of the base game enemies never had. Though it's unfortunate that these are the only new additions and a lot of repetition still rears its head, the mission design does a great job of offering the depth you're probably looking for.

All new objectives are introduced here, such as having to open cages containing Rabbids, carrying Melospheres safely back to the starting point while watching their tiny amount of health, or having to get to the end of a stage while an invincible King Bob-omb chases you. The king makes for a quality boss fight every time he appears, challenging you to manage his smaller bombs to use as a way of breaking his shield or pushing switches spread around a disadvantageous (to you) circular map to make him vulnerable. The hardest map, a level 40 survival challenge, pelts you with an unbelievable number of foes while giving you a small space to work with, resulting in the most butt-clenching mission of the entire game. In general, I think the map design of this DLC does a really good job of creating scenarios that apply pressure on the player and test your ability to survive through more creative means than just relying on cover. There wasn't a single mission I found to be boring here and while I never really got stuck, I had to think harder than at any point prior, which did even more than I expected to alleviate the burnout I felt after getting through the very tedious and rote 5th planet in the base game.

The Last Spark Hunter is a straightforward DLC, but it's exactly the kind of thing anyone who enjoyed Sparks of Hope should check out. It feels a lot like the expansion packs of yore in that it gives you more of the thing you liked with no "catch" beyond a slightly trickier level of difficulty. From the sounds of it (I haven't played the original Mario + Rabbids), this isn't nearly as ambitious as the Donkey Kong DLC that game had, but I still very much appreciate the effort made in putting this out. They mention multiple times that this takes place after the 5th planet but before the final battle, so it almost feels like they're saying that this was originally meant to be the 5th planet and this DLC is something of an apology tour they had to squeeze in where they finally made good on their promise instead of scrapping the whole thing. Since that's the read I'm going with, I'm gonna go ahead and say that the apology is accepted!

It's a shame Sonic Dream Team is exclusive to Apple Arcade because I think it may be the best 3D Sonic since, like, Unleashed! Dropped seemingly out of nowhere with a different team backing it, it'd be understandable to be skeptical of its approach. Even though Apple Arcade doesn't allow for microtransactions, that doesn't stop some games from incorporating ill-fitting "long-term engagement" mechanics that can drag down an otherwise clean experience. Air Twister is good, but I don't know if anyone's wanting to play it for 100 hours! Despite the format, Dream Team feels far more like a console Sonic game than it does a mobile one, only more polished, concise, and focused on what it wants to be.

Ostensibly, you could lump this game in with the "Boost Games" of the series and that would make perfect sense. You do a lot of boosting, after all. But I think that'd be selling it short. You see, what makes Dream Team cool is that it understands that Sonic isn't actually about going fast 100% of the time and never has been! Dream Team isn't a slow game and much of the level design still does consist of straight corridors to pass through, but anyone familiar with the series will immediately notice that the boost feels slower, your max speed without it even moreso, and that your boost gauge is pretty small as well. This might seem ridiculous, but it's actually a very smart decision that turns Dream Team into a more exploratory game, giving it a more distinct identity that even channels a tiny bit of that Adventure magic.

Dream Team is structured a lot like Sonic Colors, or so I hear since I haven't played that one yet. You get one juicy main mission and several smaller missions in each level in a zone. The main mission has all the trappings you'd expect, including various collectables, new interactions with the environment, and branching paths that you can experiment with on subsequent runs. The level design is overall on the simple side, resulting in quite an easy game that finishes up right as it runs out of tricks, but I found that there was a lot to appreciate despite that. I think my biggest gripe with modern Sonic game design is how inefficient it is. Each level probably took weeks of hard work and skill to craft, but then you blast through them in a minute (because they're under the impression that speed is all people want from Sonic) and never think about them again unless you're a completionist or a speedrunner. It just feels bad and wasteful to have so much detail and care put into them only for it to be over so quickly, you know?

That's why Dream Team's approach is so refreshing. Sure, the levels still aren't gigantic, but you have actual incentive to stop and look around now. There are a lot of pretty details stuffed into the level design, whether that be background elements, some of the best visuals I've seen in a mobile game, or clever platform arrangements designed to teach players valuable lessons, and the number of branching paths and rail-heavy design probably allows for some neat timesavers on subsequent runs, so you can still get some of those speedrun thrills anyway. Some levels have you searching around for keys in a way that's reminiscent of emerald hunting in Adventure 1+2 (albeit much simpler). The collectibles are very well hidden and encourage you to make use of different characters, which in turn allows for an even greater appreciation of the level designers' craft. The sub-missions do a great job of tipping the player off to these things since they take place in bite-sized chunks of the main levels. If you play through a level first as, say, Sonic, then when a mission makes you play as Knuckles instead, you'll get to see an entirely new path with new challenges. Instead of rail grinding, maybe you're climbing on a moving wall and dodging hazards, or if you're playing as Tails, maybe you get to do a prolonged flight sequence where precision suddenly matters a whole lot. Amy, Cream, and Rouge are here, too, and it's great to have such a big roster in a modern Sonic game, but they're identical to Sonic/Tails/Knuckles in functionality, which is unfortunate. Cheese can't even be used as a weapon like in Sonic Advance 2, which kills a lot of the fun of Cream's return for me. It's not as robust as the Adventure games (I really miss finding permanent upgrades), but it's a step back towards that direction, and at this point, even a slight whiff of Adventure is enough to give me the vapors.

The core of the Dream Team experience is extremely focused and polished, but as you look at the more fringe and inconsistent elements of the game, you do begin to see some room for improvement. The boss fights are conceptually really solid and always a spectacle, but they're very easy to beat and don't offer any kind of incentive to replay them, which feels like a bit of a waste. I really enjoyed seeing how different each one was (though I do wonder if making the final boss into a prolonged level instead of a fight was the right choice...) and it's easy to imagine ways to spice them up, so having them be such a miniscule part of the experience is surprising. The collectibles are inherently fun to collect because the act of playing the game is fun, but I do wish the rewards were more interesting. A majority of the missions need to be completed just to reach the end of the game, but the rewards for the entirely optional blue rings are just Smash Bros-style trophies without the cute descriptions and history lessons those had. I agree with the idea of the journey being more important than the destination, especially since the plot here isn't particularly notable, but it'd be nice if they greased my palms a little bit, you know?

Sonic Dream Team is still a quick playthrough like most modern Sonic games, but it manages to feel a lot more substantial and confident than some of the recent ones have. It avoids rehashing the same 2D era levels for tired "nostalgia" ploys (Scrambled Shores rules because it's not just Green Hill Zone for once), it isn't afraid to try new things here and there, and it doesn't hesitate to make Sonic's ensemble cast have a meaningful presence, all of which is immensely appreciated as a long-time Sonic enjoyer. I've been very pleased with the direction of the series in recent years, between Frontiers placing Sonic in a wholly new context and The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog realizing that there's a lot of value in these characters and leveraging that, and Dream Team continues this positive trend by finally trying a different approach to 3D Sonic level design while still using a familiar foundation. I really hope Sega Hardlight gets another shot at something like this on a larger scale platform because I think they could make some of the best games the series has ever seen if they're given the chance to improve upon this idea. Hopefully, this game gets ported/expanded upon for modern platforms so that others can see how Sonic can be and should be so much more than just going fast.

More often than not, the Shinobi series liked to jump around and try different things instead of finding its footing with truly iterative sequels (ever play The Cyber Shinobi or Shinobi Legions? The latter is better than it looks, promise!), so Shadow Dancer is all the more valuable for that reason. It was the one time they looked back at what they had accomplished and said, "how can we directly improve upon this?" Revenge of Shinobi to Shinobi III and the PS2 Shinobi to Nightshade could be argued to be iterative sequels, but in my mind, they make different enough choices that there's just enough riskiness in the design so that they're not totally iterative. If you like the original Shinobi, I'd be incredibly surprised if you didn't like Shadow Dancer, and if you ask me, it's a straight improvement upon the original arcade classic.

One thing worth noting is that the arcade version of Shadow Dancer is a different game from the Genesis version. The Genesis version is probably a bit superior overall, I'd say, but they're close enough in quality that playing both is my recommendation. There aren't all that many Shinobi-likes running around, so why not enjoy both?

Shadow Dancer really isn't much different from Shinobi, but the things it adds make a notable difference, the main one being the addition of a dog companion. Not only is that inherently cool because it's a dog, it adds a really nice layer of strategy that the game takes full advantage of. Your canine friend can be sicced on an enemy to stun them and leave them open to attack. This is great for reducing the amount of attacks coming your way if you need to handle a pincer situation or if you're not quite sure how to get past a trigger happy enemy. It's not a foolproof thing, though, because the dog can be hit by enemies and rendered unusable for just long enough that his absence will get you killed. Thus, you need to know what enemies to sicc him on and when to keep him at your side for something that might come up later. Enemies that use guns are a prime target if they're not crouching, whereas enemies with shields will usually knock him away before he can do anything. He's an unlimited resource, but not one that's without flaws, lending Shadow Dancer an interesting ebb and flow that gives it an identity when compared to the original game.

Shinobi, like Rolling Thunder before it, is all about approaching an engagement from the right angle or with the right timing. Combat itself is little more than just pressing the button because you and everyone else are taken out in a single hit, but how you choose to start the battle is the difference between cleanly surviving or ending up in an unavoidable deathtrap. Shadow Dancer uses the addition of the dog to provide new kinds of situations that strongly encourage a calculated approach. A lot of the level design is even more vertically oriented than in the original, which leads to plenty of situations where the enemy has the high ground or you're "forced" to step down into an obvious trap. Normally, these situations could be cheap, but having your dog friend lets you get the jump on them in ways not possible. That risk is ever present, though - what if you use the dog to get past the next segment only for the next one to throw a jumpscare at you that would be way easier if he wasn't on cooldown? Well, that's where the game's place as an arcade title comes into play; you're gonna die, you're gonna have to learn where enemy placements are, but once you do, you really can take out every single foe with surgical precision and the exact right allocation of resources just like a ninja should.

Beyond that, Shadow Dancer plays it faithful. You've got four areas, including caves, an airport, a bridge, and sewers, boss fights, and a between level minigame that feels like it's impossible even though it surely isn't. The aesthetics are totally on point, as you'd expect from a Sega game, so much so that there's graffiti on one of the walls that literally says "Sega Aesthetics"! There's a dark, grungy vibe to Shadow Dancer that's far removed from Sega's blue skies reputation, but it really works for creating an atmosphere of tension, one where you never quite know what's going to jump out at you. The bosses are an interesting batch, too, the most notable of which being a robot train thing and the final boss, who summons these weird, tiny floating ninjas at you? It's very strange and actually made me laugh out loud the first time I saw it, I'll admit, but when she drops the act and comes at you herself, it goes from funny to nightmarishly difficult!

Shadow Dancer is everything good about the original Shinobi and more. The dog adds a lot, the level design is even more thoughtful, the visuals are improved, the new power-ups instill even more variety, and the difficulty is more reasonable. They even cut out the "preventing continues during the last boss without warning" thing that nobody likes! Though Shadow Dancer ultimately wasn't the future of the series and isn't on the level of Revenge or Shinobi III, it's still a quality game worth running through at least once. There are different schools of design one can apply to Shinobi, all of which proved to be successful in their own ways, so having a "definitive" version of the original style in the form of both Shadow Dancer games is a very nice thing to have. Even if you prefer the later Shinobi games, heck, especially if you do, you should really give this one a try to get a better idea of how the series became successful in the first place. Sometimes, it takes thoughtful iteration on something to understand what choices are timeless and which ones need to evolve with the times before you can really go wild with future ideas. You gotta practice your dancing before you can become a master, after all!

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Congo's Caper. If you subscribe to numbers, it's like the most 6/10 or 7/10 game that ever was, but I like the cut of its jib. It's competent and fun, but to most people, there's really nothing exceptional about it. It's a quick playthrough, mostly reasonable aside from a couple of bosses and weird tricks thrown in, the music doesn't particularly stand out, it has some hit detection that's so out of wack that it feels like it was left in there as a prank, and a lot of its ideas and themes are relatively tame or taken straight out of its precedessor, Joe & Mac. The cavemen brothers and their adventures, while not memed upon relentlessly the way Bubsy is nowadays, don't have a ton of people really going to bat for them. I think they're considered good enough games (right?) and the first one even got a remake last year, but you aren't exactly getting YouTube videos about how they're "the best 2D platformers you haven't played" recommended in your feed or whatever either, you know? I've always had a pretty big soft spot for the Joe & Mac series as a whole, having played through them multiple times growing up even when Mario and Sonic were at my disposal, but I never did manage to finish Congo's Caper until now.

I think I might know why that is now. Congo's Caper has a more bizarre difficulty curve than I realized and one heck of an early game filter! Everything's pretty tame at first; you move, you smack guys with your club, hitting them into blocks can break them, and you can jump normally or extra high if you want. There's also a run button that's surprisingly not required during any of the game's chase sequences, but is required during its incredibly cruel Mega Man-esque "blocks that vanish and reappear" sequence. For the first few levels, the game provides a pretty gentle introduction that works well as a way to get used to all the basics. The way health works is probably the most interesting mechanic of the game and is something you'll probably rub up against a short way into the game. You lose a life after two hits, but getting hit once changes you from a blue-haired caveboy to a monkey, which in turn restricts the range of your attacks because of your tiny baby monkey arms. The smaller size should be something you can leverage to your advantage, but the game's, let's say, iffy hitboxes prevent that from working as you'd expect. It's interesting to have a mechanical punishment here and not just a cosmetic one like being reduced to your boxers in Ghosts 'n Goblins, so it's an idea I certainly respect. If you start losing in Congo's Caper, you can lose hard, but if you start winning, the game suddenly becomes very generous.

Shortly after the first few stages, you encounter a T-Rex boss just like Joe & Mac. It's no big deal and before long you end up inside of it, clubbing your way through its body. At the end of the road, though, is one seriously nasty boss: the devil-looking guy that kidnaps Congo's girlfriend and kicks off the events of the game. It's cool that they pull a fake climax so soon and the imminent difficulty fits the storytelling, but man is this guy just too much for such an early appearance! His attacks are super quick, the narrow arena makes it nearly impossible to avoid any of his attacks, and his health bar is absolutely gigantic, taking way too many hits to defeat (a problem all the bosses have, unfortunately). Only being able to take two hits makes this hard enough, but fighting this guy safely in your monkey form feels practically impossible. So what's a gamer looking to game to do about all this?

If you search around each level, you can find red orbs that'll bring you back to your human form. That's great, but if you can collect three of them as a human, you get rewarded with a "super" form that serves as a tremendous buff. Not only does it allow you to take three hits before going back to normal (making it an impressive five hits before you die!), you also get expanded attack range and an incredibly high jump that's so high it can actually be detrimental in certain environments. If you can keep this form going, something that's not too hard to do as long as you're thorough and careful, the game becomes significantly easier. Any orbs you collect at full health in this form give you extra lives, so you can stockpile a huge amount really easily! This mechanic serves as the part that gives Congo's Caper a proper skill ceiling to hit and reasons to master its gameplay. The game loves to surprise you with sudden peaks like this one boss, so you're meant to use the easier levels to stockpile as much as you can to prepare for these moments. Get to the boss as your super form and while it's still not easy, you at least have the tools to immediately meet him in the air and interrupt his attacks while also tanking some hits as needed.

I'm pretty sure younger me never made it past this guy (it took several tries even now!), which is a shame because this is where Congo's Caper gets more interesting with its level designs. For the next four areas, which are ruled over by a pirate, a tech guy, a sorcerer, and a ninja, you get to choose which order you tackle them in. The order doesn't matter at all, but you at least get to have some control over the rest of the difficulty curve. The ninja's levels feature tight spaces and platforming challenges. The pirate levels focus on water navigation, including an interesting endurance challenge where you have to avoid lightning strikes in a rising and sinking body of water by watching for the signs of where the strikes will hit next, kinda similar to what Donkey Kong Country 3 would do later. The tech guy's levels revolve around avoiding lava and choosing from multiple tiered paths to decide what the best course of action is like some kinda wise guy. The sorcerer's levels are perhaps the most interesting of all, featuring a gimmick where killed enemies come back as ghosts that harass you, encouraging you to avoid violence wherever possible. While it's never groundbreaking stuff, Congo's Caper comes alive once you get past that needlessly painful introduction. This is a solid set of ideas that keeps the level varied while also playing into the identities of the characters involved with them. Granted, the game does have a very frustrating final boss that basically requires you to harness the game's bad hitboxes as an advantage to use against it, but until then, it's smooth sailing!

I think I like Congo's Caper precisely because of how transparent it is. You know right away what you're getting and even if what you're getting is rocky at times, it's still exactly what you're looking for if you're interested in a platform that's a step or two removed from the obvious mainstream stuff. Platformers of this vintage go down real easy as something to do in between all these huge modern games and I found it really refreshing to finally see everything it had to offer and learn how to play it effectively. I dunno what it is about "B/C-tier" 2D platformers of the 90s, but I can always count on them to be a good time even if they're not the absolute peak of the craft. It's all too common that you see games like this dismissed as "not as good as Mario" or "just another Mario clone", but I think that's a disservice to other 2D platformers. Even if you don't think they're as good as Mario, they're doing something different and that's very important for the growth and expansion of any genre!

I don't think Congo's Caper is gonna overtake most Mario games (I do like it better than the first New Super Mario Bros., though...), but I really enjoy its take on the genre and with the prehistoric kings of the genre, Bonk and Adventure Island, being entirely absent from Nintendo Switch Online, Congo's Caper is doing us all a solid by filling in for them in the meantime. Cavemen were a real thing in video games at one point, I'll have you know! "Charm" is a nebulous thing to define and can often feel like an easy way to lavish praise on something, but we're only human and sometimes something just works for you. There's no shame in admitting that even if you don't have the words to elegantly express why. I'm trying my best here, but I dunno if "elegant" is the word I'd use to describe my little ramble here! I really like the way this game looks, I like how it's almost perfectly paced, I appreciate how it puts a spin on the usual power-up system, and I enjoy its cast of goofy little characters. Congo's Caper just works for me, you dig?

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:

Why?

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.