Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review Shots: December 15, 2016

Hi there. We're rapidly approaching the end of the year, and I've got several blog entries in the works summarizing what I feel are the most remarkable gaming experiences of 2016. (I'll also be on the GameCritics Game of the Year podcast for the first time, which I'm very excited about). With that said, I wanted to do some year-end cleanup and quickly talk about a handful of games that I never formally voiced my opinions on throughout the year. I've dubbed this "Review Shots," and I think it'll become a regular thing for me.

Darkest Dungeon (PC)

This is one of my most-played games of 2016, clocking at well over a hundred hours (albeit often while listening to podcasts or binging TV shows with one eye, because that's the kind of game this is), and I've actually bought it twice, on PC after the PS4/Vita versions turned out less than ideal. You'd think I unabashedly love it and that it's a lock for my top ten, yet I've hit an unfortunate roadblock. This is a roguelike, turn-based dungeon crawler with Lovecraftian setting and a focus on your characters' mental well-being. It's deep, it's stylish, and it gets its hooks in you. But it's also damn brutal, and once the later dungeons are unlocked, getting a party wipe can be utter hell, since raising a new party for prime-level questing takes hours of questing. It's discouraging, and a way to bypass more of that early-level grinding would make the endgame stuff more enticing. I've had a great time with the game and highly recommend it, but I can't say for certain that I'll ever see all of it. 8/10

Furi (PC)

Here's an odd one. Furi is basically a feature-length boss rush, a character action game that divides its time between frantic swordplay and bullet-hell schmupping, and consists of nothing but boss battles as the lead character kills the prison guards holding him captive. It's actually full of design choices that I would loathe in games where bosses comprised only a fraction of the playtime, like multiple phases (as in, say, five or six per battle) and pattern memorization. Plus, the dodge function, key to survival in many cases, has an infuriating delay that forced me into many restarts. I didn't enjoy Furi. Yet there's something about its style, openly inspired by the very strange works of Grasshopper and Platinum, that kept me going. It's got a great eye for empowering moment (even when you'll be restarting a lot), and the amazing soundtrack, by a collecting of house artists, almost gives Furi the pulse of a rhythm game. Plus, the story actually goes somewhere interesting! Honest! 6/10

Song of the Deep (PC)

Why the hell does this game exist? It was developed by Insomniac, the AAA development team responsible for franchises like Resistance and Ratchet & Clank. They have the kinds of resources most smaller developers would kill for, and here they are, making the sort of vaguely quaint Metroid knockoff that'd barely inspire attention if a first-time dev churned it out (minus the production values, which are admittedly lovely). Even the novelty of setting a game like this underwater, with players in control of a submarine, was already done earlier this year in The Aquatic Adventure of the Last Human (which I also didn't like, though that one at least took some chances). Even as someone who's always on the lookout for a solid Metroidvania, this one's been too generic to keep me interested. I hope Insomniac got this all out of their system and goes back to using the tremendous power they have more productively. 4/10

Severed (Vita)

Dungeon crawlers are typically the sort of thing I can only play with one eye while marathoning a TV show, but developer DrinkBox Studios pulled all of the right tricks in making Severed more accessible to me: removing unnecessary grinding, shaving the campaign length to a lean eight hours, giving the combat a more interactive and frenetic nature (thanks to the Vita's touch screen), basing the whole thing around a Metroid-like upgrade-based progression system, and infusing the whole package with the sharp visual style that was a hallmark of the studio's previous release, Guacamelee. That game made my Game of the Year list, and I suspect Severed will, too. It's one of the few games for which I've bothered to earn a platinum trophy, and a perfect fit for the Vita, given its smooth combination of tradition and touch screen controls. Terrific release; DrinkBox Studios is officially on my "check out everything these folks make" list. 9/10

Reigns (PC/Android)

Another game I liked so much that I purchased it twice, after realizing that the game would be a much better fit on my fit. It controls, after all, like Tinder, as the players are simply tasked with swiping left or right as they're confronted with yes-or-no questions while reigning as a medieval monarch. It's simple and delightful, boosted by both its strong (yet also concise) writing and the surprising amount of depth involved as players are forced to balance the four pillars of the state (church, population, military, and treasury) without any of them either collapsing or becoming too powerful. Also, the game actually has an overarching story! I love Reigns, though it admittedly lost a few points when I learned that an game called Sort the Court did something awfully similar first but never quite caught on the way this one did. 8/10

Mirror's Edge Catalyst (PC)

I actually kind of hate the original Mirror's Edge. The controls never once felt comfortable to me (first-person parkour platforming is a very tricky thing to pull off), and the game's ultra-linear structure never gave the mechanics room to breathe. Moving the franchise to a sandbox setting makes total sense to me, and Catalyst actually feels a lot more responsive this time; I'm wondering if playing on mouse and keyboard helps, as being able to easily control where you're looking is a big advantage in these free-running scenarios. So the parkour's actually something of a thrill for once, but EA DICE is struggling to give this series a backbone. The story, characters and world are all still pretty much negligible, and the campaign pretty much just amount to a series of fetch quests and time trials while the important stuff is handled by people who can do more than just run really fast. It's a step in the right direction, but Catalyst is still little more than a very pretty, slightly above-average sandbox release. 6/10

Let It Die (PS4)

Grasshopper Manufacture, that weirdo studio headed by Suda51, recently surprised us with the late-year release of a free-to-play title called Let It Die. It's a roguelike dungeon-crawler with Souls-esque combat, set in a post-apocalyptic world where people wear traffic cones on their heads and murder each other with improvised weaponry. Pretty basic stuff, though injected with trademark Grasshopper strangeness; your guide, for instance, is a skateboarding Mexican grim reaper who calls you "Senpai." I kinda wish the combat was deeper, though Let It Die deserves kudos for being perhaps the first game in history to actually handle weapon degradation well -- most weapons only last for a handful of fights, but drops are so frequent that one of the game's hooks is constantly having to experiment with new arms combinations. Not one of Grasshopper's best games, and certainly not one of their most unique, but it's an addictive enough game, and you can't argue with free. 7/10

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