For the sake of this series I was checking up on the status of Kentucky Route Zero - still no news about that fifth act, alas, despite a tentative and apparently way too optimistic 2019 release date - and instead discovered that another episodic adventure game I'd forgotten about had finally completed its five-episode arc earlier this year. Odysseus Kosmos and His Robot Quest, a sci-fi game with mysteries like Outer Wilds but unlike Outer Wilds did not crash and delete all my saves, is a classic 2D pixel-based graphic adventure game with some tricky puzzles and quality writing with a story that riffs just a little bit on the movies Solaris and Interstellar. (Here is my original rundown of its first two episodes, and this review will look at the series as a whole.)
The titular Odysseus Kosmos is a crewmember of the USS San Francisco and the ship's engineer, which is why he was left behind when the rest of the crew took a shuttle to a nearby exoplanet orbiting a supermassive black hole. If you've seen Interstellar, or just know anything about black holes, the time dilation of this planet compared to the one currently experienced by those on the ship - orbiting a slightly more distant planet for reasons not elaborated - means that far more time is passing for Odysseus than for the intrepid away team. It's been seven years since the shuttle left by the time the game starts, and Odysseus would be beside himself with concern for his fellow crew if he wasn't so bored - as the sole human on board, he's taken to playing mind games with his robotic companion Barton Quest and overeating - and when the game begins he's patching up the ship with whatever tools are handy, in true resourceful adventure game hero style. Then the maybe-not-all-in-his-head hallucinations of a young woman begin...
I've played a number of adventure games where you're the sole survivor of a space voyage (for all you know, at least) and must first spend time contending with the Apollo 13-esque life-or-death mechanical issues that abound in space travel before settling down with the deeper and less urgent mysteries that arise when trapped in a bucket halfway across the galaxy and are slowly going stir crazy. That was the case with Subnautica - a game that spent far more time forcing the player to attend to their basic survival needs than allowing you to go off and explore the fascinating xenoarcheology and alien pathogen plot points - as well as the likes of Mission Critical, going even further back. I'm regretful that I originally had to bounce from Odysseus Kosmos just as the aforementioned Solaris business started to kick off, as the first two chapters were all that were available at the time. Since it's been a spell, I started over, so here's a recap of the first episode:
Episode 1 of any serial adventure game is required to do a lot of the expositional heavy lifting, though there's thankfully little you need to understand going in and there's enough optional lore in the ubiquitous computer terminals to answer any questions about the set-up. The bulk of Episode 1's tasks resume after Odysseus realizes the extent of the ship's disrepair, due to a malfunction in the computer that detects malfunctions. Through this process we learn more about the two main characters, about the layout of the ship and the purpose of its chambers, and about Odysseus's strengths as a character and his sanity-stretching predicament. It's also made evident that, although it's usually binary-choice-dependent story-heavy adventure games that become five-part series such was the case for The Walking Dead or Life is Strange, Odysseus Kosmos's aspirations are closer to that of Wadjet Eye's: to revisit a period of classic 2D point-and-click adventures where inventory puzzles and experimentation are the order of the day. Not to say there won't be more story beats later, but when your protagonist is a sardonic space engineer with a MacGyver knack for improvisation, your game should ideally play to that virtue.
Later episodes start taking some interesting narrative detours. For instance, the second episode begins with a protracted flashback to Odysseus's childhood, where he plays pirates and hide and seek with his younger brother Sam, but something's off: a model of the San Francisco is in the boys' hideout, despite the fact it won't be built until Odysseus is in his adult years; there are trees and greenery in the flashback, even though global warming - which has become so severe it's simply referred to as "The Warming" - has driven the less heat-resistant flora and fauna to extinction; and finally, the same odd woman who appeared to Odysseus at the end of episode 1 appears here also. This is where the game starts flexing the aforementioned Solaris muscles, and it becomes a recurring pattern throughout the later episodes, in addition to goals involving fixing whatever is causing the engineering crisis of the moment. The third episode switches control to Barton throughout, who doesn't necessarily play differently than Odysseus (besides being able to go outside) but offers a fresh perspective and also starts a second story thread about certain truths about the mission that he is privy to and Odysseus is somehow not. Episode 3 also introduces the other crew members, sorta, by allowing Barton to access their rooms for plot-vital items. Each has a diary too, though they're fairly cryptic given what we think we know about the ship, the crew, and the mission. Beyond that, we're in the Shymalan Twist Zone and I daren't say more.
A curious but decidedly beneficial facet of this serial format is that each episode is required to use the same setting - there's no getting off the San Francisco, except in flashbacks - but the game prioritizes different areas for each episode, eliminating those that have no purpose for the immediate scenario and occasionally introducing new rooms on the ship we've had no reason to visit before. That might mean losing access to the laboratory area for the third and fifth episodes, or never visiting the crew quarters and the hallway that contains them before the third, since Odysseus only has access to his own - instead, the door that leads off to the crew quarters had always taken the player directly to Odysseus's cabin, since there's no point adding anywhere else. Thus, after the full run you can mentally map the full layout of the ship, but you only ever see a truncated version in any single episode. Recurring items, likewise, will randomly appear across the ship as they get misplaced by Odysseus or Barton, and finding them again is like a little boost of familiarity even if their role ends up being different. It's a smart way to be economical with the game's limited art assets as well as being convenient to the player by removing surplus elements like inconsequential rooms that will only prove to be red herrings or dead air if left in, dragging out the puzzles longer than they need to be.
The game also has a hint system for the truly lost in space, where Odysseus might suddenly remember that there's a useful item for the task at hand in a different area of the ship, but it'll always fixate on one specific goal even when you might have multiple objectives to deal with. Taking the above crewmember cabins as an example: in each room there's a cardkey to find, and a separate set of puzzles for each, but the hint system will only give you the same hint for one of them until you've completed it rather than cycle through hints for the other unsolved cabin puzzles. It's not necessarily a bad thing - best to stay focused on one task at a time - though it did feel a little limited.
Though I liked the backgrounds, the game can be rough around the edges visually - some movement animations tend to have characters float around when trying to move any direction besides horizontally, and there's copious artifacting especially around text - and the puzzles aren't always the most intuitive, even when there are hints available. For example, a puzzle that included a hint about using a certain person's lab coat wasn't easy to figure out, given that said lab coat actually belonged to someone else. The script is generally fine but for a few typos and instances where it feels like a sentence fragment was clipped off the end, and the game's moody synth theme fits the atmosphere but its lyrics aren't all that easy to understand - both results of a game originally written in a foreign language (Russian), I suspect (at least there's no voiced dialogue for the devs to worry about; just Banjo-Kazooie/Simlish noises).
I also had some considerable difficulty progressing through the final two chapters: it felt like the puzzles were written to be far more obtuse than they were before, and ditto to understanding the characters' motivations which made it challenging to intuitively know what I should even be doing next, and I can't shake the feeling that it might've been a deliberate ramping up of difficulty that didn't quite pan out the way the developer hoped. Increasing difficulty in an adventure game always seems to boil down to making the game less enjoyable to play, either because the inventory puzzles now require larger leaps of logic to solve or because the Layton-style instance puzzles - the game has a variant of that water jug puzzle from Die Hard With a Vengeance, which always makes me smile - become trickier to execute (and thus more of an unnecessary roadblock). Odysseus Kosmos - whether it intended to make the game more challenging or not as it moved towards its finale - falls into this trap. Many video game genres benefit from a steady difficulty curve, but a purely narrative-driven genre like this that relies on intuitive solutions to puzzles is not one of those. It'd be like a visual novel choosing to be "more difficult" by turning the lights off so you can't read.
All in all, though, I enjoyed my time with Odysseus Kosmos. Retro adventure games like this, when treated with the right amount of modern quality-of-life features to assuage the usual moon logic frustration, can be a lot of fun and are still a solid method through which to deliver a compelling story in the video game medium with the possibility of sardonic asides and other incidental silliness thrown in for color. I have a soft spot for any fiction that deals with the dichotomy of tedium and wonder that space travel inspires, and I liked this game's characters and the way it slowly builds up its mysteries throughout its five episode arc. A satisfying enough throwback, if not perhaps one special enough to stay on my 2019 GOTY list for long (if it even counts, that is; the first episode released back in December 2017).
I was trying to keep this list of last-minute GOTY potentials somewhat low-key and under-the-radar, if only because I happened upon most of this feature's hit list while they were heavily discounted in the autumn sales (or free, in some cases), but Outer Wilds was the exception that proved the rule. I knew a game that was this dense with mysteries to solve would be impossible to appreciate post-GOTY talks from the site, given how much the staff in general seemed to enjoy it and how often it'll no doubt come up in all the most spoilerish categories - Best Story, Best Moment, and the top ten Best Games in general - so it felt like the one game this year you either had to see for yourself first or be prepared to start tactically skipping around the GOTY podcasts whenever it came up.
Outer Wilds puts you in the boots of a newly trained space pilot, ready to fly a rickety spacecraft into the local cluster of planets to slake your own curiosity about what's out there. On the way to grab your launch codes from the nearby observatory, an alien artifact comes to life and triggers a sudden influx of past memories, from the moment you awoke to your time spent wandering around the village talking to NPCs and exploring tutorial areas that teach you how zero-G movement works, how to fly the ship, how to parse the ancient alien text dotted around the system with a newly invented translation device, and how to use the "Signalscope" to pick up distant frequencies. After that, you take your first few steps on a planet of your choice when you see the sun suddenly go supernova. Kinda hard to miss that huge ball of light imploding and then exploding with tremendous force; enough to wipe out everything in the system, including you and your ship. That's when you awake back at the starting campfire and realize you're in a temporal loop, no doubt precipitated by the artifact, and may be the only one capable of preventing the end of everything you've ever known. Oddly enough, and this might be an element of the game's easygoing sense of humor, but neither you nor the people you talk to about the stellar apocalypse and strange temporal loop seem all that nonplussed about it.
The game is presented in a first-person format both in and out of the ship, and the effect of climbing into the ship, sitting in the cockpit, and launching off towards the infinite horizon is seamless. While the celestial bodies have gravity and you and your ship are heavily affected by same - trying to land on a station orbiting the sun becomes a little tricky given the gravity well the star presents - reaching escape velocity on any planet is effortless, and it's a cinch to patch up your ship if your landing was a little rough. Though superficially similar, the game isn't interested in throwing too many Kerbal Space Program astronautical rules and mechanics at you; the crux of the game revolves more around the cosmic enigmata it has built up and wants you to unravel. If flying the ship required all the requisite checks and careful maneuvering of real space travel, after all, you'd probably still be calculating fuel consumption ratios as the star explodes.
Story wise, the game gives you little direction save for a few threads and rumors. As you explore more of your planet and the many others out there, you find more threads and more questions, and might even start discovering connections between them. You'll also intuit that every planet is undergoing some dramatic process as time moves forward, possibly but not obviously related to the imminent destruction of the star. Being on the right planet at the right time becomes a greater factor to uncovering its mysteries, and a Ship's Log - oddly, one of the few things unaffected by the time loops - records every little piece of information you've found, from observable phenomena to NPC dialogue hints to revelations gleaned from ancient alien messages. Towards the end of my session I had over a dozen possible threads to follow up on, some of which required quick timing as their trails would soon become inaccessible due to one reason or another - an example being twin planets locked in a mutual orbit where the sand from one is getting sucked up by the other, the former becoming more accessible as the sand clears away from the alien ruins while the latter becomes less accessible as the sand buries everything. If anything, I was spoiled for choice as to where to go next, and I hadn't even touched down on a couple of the further out planetoids to see what seeds of a mystery I could collect from a cursory glance.
And then the game crashed.
And then the game corrupted the save.
And so I'm presently filling out an online form to get a refund. I'm not sure what Sony's policy is for those, whether they do something like Steam where a certain hourly usage amount negates the warranty so to speak, but this is entirely unacceptable for a released product and has completely eliminated any desire to keep playing. To build up that network of information nodes drawn from every corner of the system only to have it all wiped out in a second, and knowing that if it happened once it could easily happen again... Nah. Nope. Nuh-uh, not in my lifetime. It wouldn't have been my GOTY at any rate; just an intriguing curio placed halfway down the top ten and eventually dropping off entirely after more catch-up gaming over the subsequent decade, and at this point I'm not even all that bothered if the GOTY talks do end up spoiling every last twist. I got enough of the gist in my brief time with the game, and I've seen what it does done better in other games (Majora's Mask, Gregory Horror Show, and The Sexy Brutale for the time loop puzzles and No Man's Sky for the rapid on/off-planet space travel). Kind of a sour note upon which to end my peregrinations of the Hearthian skies, but apparently that's how it goes when you put out a barely functional port. Won't be buying another game (relatively) new for a very long time, that much is certain.
Pikuniku is a chill game perfect for those of a young age or who don't play a lot of games; however, even though I'm neither of those things, I found it to be a very personable piece of fluff. The game's designers seemed to draw from Keita Takahashi's or Tsutomu Kouno's works, especially with the character designs and pastel palettes but in general with the friendly tone and easygoing level of difficulty, as well as something like Amanita's Chuchel in which it rewards mechanical experimentation - like seeing what you can kick - with some silliness and sardonic humor. Like Portal 2, the game's content is split into two equally lengthy modes: a single-player adventure that has a story to follow and NPCs to talk to, and a co-op mode which is strictly a series of two-person platforming challenges using the mechanics you'd theoretically already learned from the single-player. Even with my dabbling in the co-op, though, I don't think you'll be too lost if you decide to head there first with a companion in tow.
For its single-player adventure mode, Pikuniku divides its time between platforming challenges and adventure game puzzles; neither are particularly difficult, and the tougher platforming is usually relegated to optional side-areas. Platforming might involve pushing boxes around so you can jump on them or activate switches, looking for semi-hidden passages (there's a telltale zig-zag pattern that you start to intuitively look out for), swinging on hooks, kicking down fragile walls, and so forth. The titular protagonist (well, one of them) can also tuck in its legs to assume a ball form that is quicker on the ground and also smaller, allowing them to squeeze through gaps. A little tutorial area at the start imparts about 80% of everything you need to know going forward.
The adventure game stuff, meanwhile, generally boils down to using the right hat for the immediate task - you have one that lets you draw on things, for example, and another that produces water to grow plants - and you rarely have to move too far or use much brainpower to figure out what you need to do next. There's a handful of minor mini-games also, like a "baskickball" game where you try to defeat a useless CPU opponent by scoring baskets with your feet, or a dancing rhythm game. Though there are a few explormer characteristics - the world's open enough after the first few chapters and there's places you can go if you come back with the right item or ability - there's no big interconnected map and little reason to go off the story's critical path except for a few inconsequential bonus items like little 3D trophies of the game's characters or new costumes to wear.
Honestly, after the surprisingly involved Horace and the brain-scrambling Baba is You, the brisk and simple Pikuniku was something of a palate cleanser. It's not a game that will demand a great deal from anyone, but is more inclined to deliver a delightful time with charming dialogue, visuals, music, and a cute, round-edged world of low-key frivolity. It plays like one of those gateway games you'd use to finally get a partner or offspring into your hobby, and the world can't have enough of those. Ultimately it wasn't really for me and that's OK. I've got a lot more 2019 games to get through yet for this feature, after all.
My goodness, this game. It's hard to know where to start. What I can tell you is that this game is extremely British and extremely 30-something-year-old British at that. Rare that I feel so seen by a game; the last one steeped in this much '80s British gaming paraphernalia was probably Lumo back in 2016. Horace is, nominally, about a little yellow robot who learns how to become a real boy, albeit with a few hurdles and mishaps along the way. The story begins small enough as Horace ingratiates himself with his adoptive family and learns what it means to walk, talk, and appreciate video games, before the tale soon segues into a massive global war that has left the United Kingdom (the game's setting (mostly)) devastated, and then continues to escalate and make many wild detours from there. With so many plot turns and surprises, I'd be loath to say any more about where it goes.
Horace is chiefly a 2D platformer, with the unnamed robot protagonist - you'd assume his name was Horace given it's the name of the game and the name stamped on his delivery box, but he's only ever referred to as "The Robot" - modified in such a way to have "infinite lives" by his benevolent creator and father figure, whom is only ever called the Old Man. For the majority of its length the game is strictly linear: you move from one area to the next, dying dozens of times to the game's many single-screen platforming challenges, until eventually story cutscenes take over for a while and you end up somewhere different with a new objective. The game is very story-dense considering its genre; I'd liken it to last year's Iconoclasts with the way it combines a very arcade-y style of action game with a narratively complex plot with a huge cast of characters, each with their own arcs, and many dramatic twists and tragedies. Often you might find yourself pushing through an overbearing challenge just to see where the story might head next. For a long spell around the two-thirds mark the game becomes a honest-to-Robot-Jesus (who is in this game, incidentally) explormer complete with regular post-boss traversal upgrades and an auto-map filling in rooms of an enormous interconnected mansion.
One meaningful aspect of the game is the Robot's impulsive decision to "collect a million things" as his life's work, after he asks what his purpose is and is told it must be an answer he finds himself, with most areas of the game filled with a certain number of "junk" items to pick up (some of which aren't junk at all and can be sold for a lot of cash). The pause menu will tell you how much junk is left in the immediate area, assuaging the slightly more obsessive collectors among us, and even the broken and useless items can be sold for a little bit of money which can then be put towards upgrades. Having all these collectibles, and a means to always know how many you have left, added a lot of extra little risk vs. reward targets to chase after, making the tough platforming even more so as I invariably made my way over to all the flashing piles of detritus before moving on. I'm a sucker for collectibles, so you better believe I earned that requisite million before the game was over. (I realize that sounds like a lot of items to collect, but there are a few rare trash objects that are worth several hundreds and thousands apiece.)
Graphically, it's a great deal of pixel art, but it's very good pixel art. The artist has a knack for drawing faces which leads to a lot of recognizable cameos throughout, and there's a huge number of enemy sprites, detailed backgrounds, and other art assets that evidently took some time to create. The music is mostly chiptune renditions of famous classical music, though there's a few original tracks in there too. It sounds fine and is worked into the scenes germanely, but it's not like I haven't heard Danse Macabre or Für Elise a hundred times before. The voice acting is exclusive to one character - The Robot, who is narrating his life from some time in the future - and it all sounds like one of those monotone text-to-speech machines with a slight southern English accent, though its deadpan delivery lends itself well to a few of the fish-out-of-water jokes early on.
I realize this is a trite thing to say about a game starring a literal tin man, but Horace has a lot of heart. So much heart, in fact, that I'm willing to overlook a great deal. The core platforming gameplay is competent with some neat features you don't normally see in Indie games of this genre - the ability to walk on walls and ceilings, defying gravity, as well as the usual bevy of explormer upgrades - but Horace isn't exactly well-optimized for weaker machines and the framerate can be just tragic in some densely populated areas. Other sections, like the dream sequences where you fly through rings, was for me a glitchy mess that was impossible to visually parse. The platforming can also be slippery and there's a lot of weird hitbox problems - I'd regularly die crashing through brick walls because the game detected I was standing where it thought a wall was and gave me the "stuck in geometry" insta-kill - and the many, many times it tries to stretch its creative muscles with something a little different (shoot 'em ups, 3D runners, driving sequences, FPSes, and many other arcade parodies) it was a little more "miss" than "hit." Yet for as frustrated as I could get with Horace between its very harsh challenge level and no shortage of bugs both visual and gameplay-related, and the aforementioned slowdown issues, I found it impossible to stay mad at a game this ambitious and personal. I think it could be 2019's Deadly Premonition or Undertale, purely in the sense that while it certainly won't be for everyone it took a very determined individual (or two, in Horace's case) a very long time to make a very specific type of game that epitomized everything that was important to them, with the hope that it would find others and resonate with them just as strongly. It did for me.
While I leave you with that unsteady recommendation to check the game out for yourselves, and that you probably won't see half the bugs I did if you have a half-decent rig that doesn't shriek in terror and hide behind the sofa whenever it's required to run anything polygonal, I also wanted to peel back the curtain and demonstrate the many times I felt the game was either speaking directly to me, was doing something lovably overambitious, or was so wildly, blissfully out of its gourd. I'd consider the following screenshot gallery packed with minor spoilers, if only in the sense that I'm potentially ruining surprises for anyone curious enough to check out the game themselves, so I've placed them all inside a spoiler-block. If you need a little more convincing, though, be sure give them a look.
(And hey, on the off chance Dan Ryckert's skimming through this wondering if he should've played a little more after the Quick Look, I should mention that Horace had a very inspirational Ric Flair quote to impart.)
Completed: 01/12 (sorta - there are more stages but I've seen an ending).
Review is Start. Baba is You is one of those deceptively complex puzzle games that beguiles you with its cutesy, child-like whimsy before locking the door, filling the room with a mysterious gas, and letting you know in no uncertain terms that you're in for a world of brain-hurt. I was initially going to give Baba is You a miss because it combines two of my least favorite puzzle game genres: Sokoban, the ancient art of pushing boxes into corners and trapping them forever and rueing that you even bothered to wake up that day, and those intricate programming/assembly puzzles where success is contingent on memorizing a bunch of rules and figuring out how and when to bend or break them. The former's been around for literal decades, while the latter's only come into its own in the past few years with the works of Zachtronics and Tomorrow Corp's Human Resource Machine. Certain large-scale factory games like Factorio and Satisfactory also have an element of this, where a complex array of zig-zagging assembly lines can only work if the coding behind it is solid.
Baba is You isn't quite as demanding as all that though, for as tough as its puzzles can be. For one, you're only ever dealing with a handful of clauses and booleans to futz around with, limiting the number of possible combinations to the extent that you could always potentially luck upon the right solution, or at least that first challenging step from which you can intuit the rest. The rules are also simple Noun is Noun or Noun is Adjective for the most part, though the game eventually starts throwing in operators like "and," "has," "on," and others. However, it only introduces one operator/noun at a time across its many worlds and stages, usually starting with a simple tutorial to teach you all (well, some) of what you'll need to know about this new aspect going forward. The game wisely has something of an open-world approach, with multiple worlds and multiple levels in those worlds becoming accessible concurrently: it's best to go in order, as you'll find new worlds incorporate most or all of those introduced in the previous, but the level of freedom means you can bail on one stage causing your brain to overheat and cool down with others for a while. There are also tricks to learn and shortcuts to take that you'll glean upon over time, and coming back to tricky levels armed with that knowledge can make them far more approachable. It's not unlike Thekla's The Witness in that regard.
Presently I'm powering (if by "powering" I mean "staring dumbfounded and occasionally sobbing quietly") my way through the final handful of worlds, having already seen the "normal ending" of the game. I've experimented with the absolute dumbest ideas I can conceive more times than I can count, and on at least half of those occasion it's proven to be the correct solution. The operators and nouns available are so carefully chosen that none of them are ever there by accident, which in turn gives you an inkling of what you might be missing. Keep running past that one "and" function you don't know what to do with? Well, it's gotta be there for a reason. However, some puzzles are straight up evil with the amount of necessary steps involved, and others make you feel like you've somehow broken the game before you realize it's exactly what the developers intended. I've heard that you could hypothetically beat any Baba is You stage within a minute if you know exactly where to go and what to do, but I swear there are times where I've been steadily working my way through a single stage for half an hour before finally getting that sweet "Congratulations!" screen wipe. Baba is You is at least smart enough to give the players an unlimited undo button for these longer instances, but then I couldn't imagine wanting to play the game without it.
On the whole, I think Baba is You is delightful. I sometimes get wary with puzzle games that start easy and then suddenly catapult you into low orbit, like - say - the original Snakebird or Stephen's Sausage Roll, but Baba is You has proven to be just on my wavelength. Not insurmountably difficult, but certainly tricky enough to BSOD my bean for hours at a time. I'm sure it's working its way up to the point where I'll feel completely lost, but I've at least seen a substantial amount of the game's content and I appreciate how new wrinkles and mechanics are appearing all the time. A puzzle game can only ultimately be judged on two factors, assuming everything else (graphics, music, UI, accessibility, etc.) meets an acceptable level of competency: the gradient of that difficulty curve, and the variety of its content. Baba is You nails it by both criteria. Review is End.
Season's greetings! What season is it? Why, it's the season of freezin' (my ass off) squeezin' in last-minute Games of the Year! On this auspicious page of the calendar, we've all collectively chosen to praise and distinguish the excellent games released over the past eleven months, as well as collectively chosen to toss the ol' double deuce at those poor suckers launching their games in December. Better luck next year, dummies!
Sadly, due to my frugal nature I so rarely buy games new when I can just buy a dozen slightly dated ones and be set for an entire year. All the same, there comes a time and perhaps a brief impulse purchase spree or two where I find myself at the dawn of December with a handful of as-yet-untouched potential GOTY candidates. That's where Go! Go! GOTY! comes in: a sometimes-annual feature wherein I give some recent well-regarded games the treatment they deserve - feverishly powering through them, savoring nothing, and hurriedly summarizing them here without any deeper consideration or critique. Or copy-editing even. Surely a win-win scenario for both myself and my readers.
"The rules! Where are the rules?" you ask? Here you go, weirdo, whatever floatys your GOTYs:
We're recycling the format from 2017, which is to say that a new Go! Go! GOTY! blog will only appear once I've completed the game it pertains to (or at least played a sufficient amount to pass judgement).
The cut-off for this year will be the 20th of December. We'll undoubtedly be done long before that deadline unless the Cyber Monday sales work their dark magics on my already ailing wallet.
Finally, here's the fancy-prancy, hoity-toity box where I put all the blog entries:
November's been a relatively quiet month of releases, which is perhaps for the best because everyone seems to be in catch-up mode right now. Myself included, of course, as three of the four Indie Games of the Week+ (see below) were 2019 explormers I was curious about. My list is coming together nicely, though I'm still short of the ten I need (plus maybe a few extras) to put together a top ten list for the year that I'd be happy with. Next month will correct for that deficiency, as I've been spending the credit left over from birthday vouchers on some fodder for this year's returning Go! Go! GOTY! feature: a marathon sprint of contemporary GOTY candidates for the last leg of the year.
Beyond that, the past thirty days were as uneventful for me as it was for the game industry - give or take a Stadia launch - with most of my gaming time put towards both the very old (Bucketlog entries) and very new (IGotW). The calm before the storm, perhaps.
Indie Games of the Month
November comprised the 145-148 entries of Indie Game of the Week, outlined below:
Gato Roboto (IGotW 145) is the first and probably least consequential of the three 2019 explormers I played this month. To that effect, it reminded me of XeoDrifter: a game that was far too brief and surface-level to really justify its own existence, especially when the genre is already so well-represented and being constantly evolved by Indie developers. I don't mean to sound dismissive, but if I were to put together a book on the top 50 games of this very specific genre format drawing from just the last ten years of Indies alone I'm not sure Gato Roboto would make the cut. However, it plays well enough, the minimalist black & white is a strong look that we're seeing put to effective use more regularly, and all the kitty stuff is cute if you have whole YouTube playlists about feline antics, so it's not like it was a struggle to get through. Right level of challenge also; the bosses were a bit bullet sponge-y but not a one felt like a breeze or a sudden brick wall.
Bloodstained: Ritual of Night (IGotW 146) is the glorious return to the "IGAvania" blueprint that I think we were all hoping to see, warts and all. Koji Igarashi was careful not only to replicate the highlights of his gothic RPG explormers but to do so in a way that wouldn't alienate the many who dropped cash on Kickstarter to make this spiritual successor happen. We're in this odd and possibly detrimental era of game development - especially for this mid-tier where so much of the necessary capital is raised through crowdsourcing - where developers are cautious to play to the home crowd rather than a hypothetical wider audience. It's more important to dance with the ones what brought you, or bought you in this game's case, than it is to try to rock the boat with too many changes and innovations to entice those that left these games behind back in the PS1/GBA eras. All that said, I'm heartened that Igarashi hasn't missed a beat after his absence from game directing and there's fingerprints from so many other creators that are in lockstep with the man who helped define the explormer genre. The extraordinary level of customization with the game's hundreds of ability "shards" and weapons, though frequently broken as hell, is a lot of fun to tinker around with and I suspect the change to slightly iffy 3D graphics will be something the series eventually grows into.
Indivisible (IGotW 147) meanwhile, is taking after a few PS1 games of its own, albeit ones with a considerably smaller profile than Symphony of the Night. Valkyrie Profile is a highly idiosyncratic 2D RPG more revered for its graphics and sound than perhaps its convoluted game mechanics, which includes a revolving door of a party that the player has to disassemble and rebuild after each of the game's chapters, sending their best ringers off to fight for Valhalla. Indivisible is a little more fighter-heavy with its approach to VP's combat system of four characters that can be controlled simultaneously via individually binded face buttons, taking advantage of MvC-style lengthy combo chains and air juggles and perfect guards to keep enemies from retaliating with their otherwise lethal blows. The game is also seeped in the cultures of a dozen nations analogous to south/southwestern Asia, with the game's distinct art style benefiting from both that geographical background and from Lab Zero's typically excellent character designs and animations. Personally, I think I preferred the platforming - which is naturally supplemented by a dozen acquired skills that include the usual air dashes and double-jumps - that had the same acrobatic flow of something like the equally picturesque Ori and the Blind Forest. The combat and the very minor RPG aspects were a little undercooked in comparison, and while I certainly appreciate having almost twenty fighters to choose from I'm the type that tends to stick to what works unless I'm occasionally forced (or encouraged, by way of game-ified boons) to use characters I'm less familiar with. At the end of Indivisible, I'm not sure I ever tried half those characters, because I was more invested in exploring those maps than I was taking new souls into combat to see what they could do. Also, I really didn't care for the game's final stretch: the moment when it becomes apparent that the game had to hurry up its development to make its deadline is never a great one.
Gorogoa (IGotW 148) was selected because I've opted to move the remainder of my 2019 homework to a separate feature, leaving the IGotW to continue drawing from the wide catalog of excellent Indie games of yesteryear. A very late 2017 release that unfortunately meant it missed out on many GOTY accolades of its own, Gorogoa is a very attractive puzzle game that takes windows of various scenes and allows the player to pick them apart and find new routes and solutions from these new perspectives and filters. Each of its chapters revolve around the search for a special colored fruit, though the routes to get there are locked behind several layers of scene manipulation and viewpoint changes. It's nothing short of masterful the way the game plays around with these angles and scenes, and I missed noting it in the review but it plays like someone expanded the brilliantly imaginative opening montage of Satoshi Kon's Paprika into a full video game. That reason alone is enough to fall in love with its playful nature, for as serious as its themes of war and loss might otherwise be.
I lied earlier about November being quiet; I and many others spent the first week of this month either running or moderating the annual Extra Life streams that stretch out over many concurrent hours and days. Because of that, last month's Bucketlog entry extended almost halfway into November, and while G-Craft's first game in its contiguous SRPG series was relatively short as PS1-era RPGs go, it wasn't exactly something that I could complete overnight. Arc the Lad is one of many games from the PS1/PS2 era that feels "forgotten" to someone like me: not just in the sense that it's been around two decades since they all came out and the memories have faded, but because the cost-to-revenue ratio involved in translating RPGs to Europe where FIGS meant four times as much work as a North American localization and so were left out of the European marketplace. As such, there's a lot of PS1/PS2 RPGs that I never saw and have been curious about ever since.
Arc the Lad - which eventually did make its way to Europe, debuting here with its fourth entry Twilight of the Spirits - is fairly rudimentary as SRPGs go, and could easily be mistaken for a SNES game were it not for its 32-bit sprite scaling tech and interstitial FMV cutscenes. I liked it, as it followed my preferred Vandal Hearts style of SRPG where you have a consistent party of clearly defined characters that all have plot armor, but it had a surprising amount of table-setting for future entries that left players with a number of loose threads as well as an oddly lop-sided ratio of optional content over story-critical maps to pad out its runtime. A bit on the rough side, but I appreciated how these odd design decisions helped define its unusual status as a game specifically built to be the first part of a grander story arc. I'll hopefully play its sequel before too long.
Figuring I didn't want to be caught flat-footed again like I was with Arc the Lad, I got this month's Bucketlog entry out of the way earlier than usual, going even further back in time to a game that not too long ago celebrated its thirty-second birthday. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is a known quantity to so many that I was afraid that I'd find nothing to cover in a review that wasn't already common knowledge. Notorious for being the black sheep of the Zelda franchise, back while it was still finding its way with its first sequel, Zelda II is distinct for being the only wholly side-scrolling Zelda game (besides when Link's running around on the overworld map) and for being the only Zelda game to strictly qualify as an RPG, if only barely. It's my view that RPGs probably need more than just occasional stat increases from earning XP, maybe more in the way of an armor or weapon upgrade system (Zelda II lacks both, unlike its sequels), but grinding and building up those numbers plays a much larger role here than it would in any future Zelda game.
While many of the game's criticisms don't stand up - I value the game more for its big changes than others might, perhaps because I've played every other Zelda and sometimes have trouble telling them apart - the matter of its insane difficulty level is still a sore point. While I somehow missed the fact that you respawn outside the final Palace if you game over, rather than all the way back at Zelda's temple at the start of the game, the final gauntlet to get there and then to get all the way through that final palace to the Contra bullet hell Thunderbird boss are still both cheap with their falling deaths and relentless high-challenge enemy encounters. Not for those who have grown soft on the conveniences and compensations of modern game design, myself sadly included.
Kingdom Hearts III has the unenviable task of incorporating a number of Disney and Pixar properties into its narrative, and with each property the game designers have to figure out how best to generate conflict within this world between the heroes and the game's nebulous "Heartless" foes, how best for that world's characters to befriend and interact with Sora and his friends, and how best to create compelling level design with the settings and scenes available. It's a process that ends up being a little hit and miss, depending on the reverence to the source and the suitability of the property in question. As with my Bosswatch series for Soulslikes, which narrowed its focus towards what I consider to be the most critical aspect of those games, Kingdom Hearts in the Right Place seeks to rank each world that appeared in Kingdom Hearts III by how effectively they were turned into Kingdom Hearts levels. That might mean critiquing the decision to hew close to their movie's events or opting to create a specific story more germane for Kingdom Hearts, how the environments and the characters of the movie(s) were "Hearts-ified" to suit their new medium, and whether or not it all worked from a pure gameplay perspective.
Hardcore fans and detractors alike tend to focus a lot on Kingdom Hearts' completely nonsense overarching story about Nobodies and keyblades and people with Xes in their names and the power of friendship, which has grown to unmanageable proportions after so many side-games and interquels, but the true heart (as it were) of the franchise has always been visiting and spending time immersed in those movie worlds. Even if you're not a huge Disney fan, the sheer diversity of visual styles and themes presented by that wide a range of movies can make for a game with an incredible degree of artistic and mechanical freedom. At least, ideally. The actual result is usually a little more hit and miss, as the above ranked list can attest.
As with any Super Smash Bros., I skip right past the multiplayer and dig into the single-player content. There are fewer multi-focused games that still take the time to recognize its single-player quotient, and I'm grateful Super Smash Bros. Ultimate continues the SSB trend of giving solo players a huge adventure mode and a massive number of collectibles to find or earn. Ultimate's masterstroke is in how it creates these bespoke fight challenges for each of its "spirits": a replacement for trophies that are closer to Brawl's stickers, in how they can be equipped for passive boosts. For example, a challenge for the Poppy Bros. Jr. spirit - that bomb-tossing rascal from the Kirby series - might involve fighting a CPU Young Link who spams a strengthened down+special move (the bomb, naturally).
It's incredible how the resourceful designers behind the spirit battles managed to find so many apposite scenarios for the game's 1000+ spirits, drawing from the game's admittedly huge amount of characters (74 not including DLC, which might be a non-MUGEN record), items, stages, special rules and conditions, and support trophies. Unlike Super Mario Maker 2, which they appear to have already bailed on, Nintendo is constantly giving the Ultimate audience additional little boosts of content. As of writing, for instance, there are four Resident Evil characters up for grabs. I'm not the biggest fan of "games as a service" because I'm someone who tries to get in a wide range of gaming experiences every year, bouncing between dozens of complete games rather than sticking to one or two regularly updated ones, but I have to admit the way Nintendo continues to support their game with new content while not-so-subtly advertising upcoming Switch ports and new releases works a treat for both them and us. There are the overpriced DLC characters too, of course, but I'm fine ignoring those. (Well, until they decide to add Ys's Adol the Red to Smash, at which point all bets are off.)
Smash is still Smash at the end of the day; it's not a franchise that sees a lot of growth, and that was made evident by how they named the last two releases. Smash "For Wii U and 3DS" is about as non-committal a title as you're likely to see, analogous to calling Ultimate "that one you can play on the Switch". From what I can tell about Ultimate and its post-launch longevity, the goal maybe wasn't to say that this is all the Smash we're ever getting because Masahiro Sakurai has been running on fumes for years and might collapse into a cloud of sparkly dust at any moment, but to create an "ever-game" that Nintendo can keep incrementing upon until they determine that the series is no longer profitable. That they deliberately planned for five DLC characters for its season pass, only to announce later that they're going to keep them coming long after the mysterious fifth DLC person (or thing, maybe) is announced and released, suggests that they're only going to be done with Smash Ultimate once everyone else is. Smash is popular enough in fighting competitions like EVO that I'm not sure that day will ever arrive, at least not until Nintendo remembers they're a hardware company and decides to come out with a "New Switch" and will eventually need a Smash Bros. game to go with it, along with a new Zelda and a new Mario Kart and a new everything else.
Anyway, Smash is fun and I keep popping back in for those new spirit events - I already collected all the ones that came with the game - so here's to who knows how many more years of Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, may it live forever. Just let Sakurai sleep in his own house occasionally, all right Ninty?
It's wild to think December was once the busiest time of the year for new releases with everyone rushing to get their games out before the holidays, because these days it feels like the big publishers see the end of the year looming and decide to punt their upcoming blockbusters to the following Spring instead. Some part of me knows that the GOTY season is all BS - if a publisher digs hard enough they can find at least one site willing to drop a GOTY accolade for their game thus giving them all the justification they need to bring out a DLC-festooned "GOTY Edition" the following year, and the rest of us just uses GOTY as an excuse to loudly argue because we didn't get enough of that around the Thanksgiving table already - and yet it feels like the entire industry has shifted its release windows around to accommodate the award season.
For one reason or another, December's become a frigid wasteland of releases to befit the snowy season, though there's a handful of notable releases still left in 2019:
December 3rd is perhaps the last "big" release day of the year, with the long-awaited XCOM successor Phoenix Point, the localization of the SaGa reboot SaGa: Scarlet Grace - Ambitions, and the apparently not terrible but still not great Terminator: Resistance. For ports we have Halo: Reach on PC, Neverwinter Nights EE for Switch (to join all the Infinity Engine remasters out this year), and Blair Witch for PS4. Life is Strange also completes its second season, making it eligible for a bunch of weepy "Best Game Story of 2019" approbations. Out of all those, I'm only all that interested in Phoenix Point and Life is Strange 2, though as always I'm deeply curious about any new SaGa game - a curiosity that cost me dearly with the last reboot, 2003's Unlimited SaGa, which was also unlimited garbage.
December 5th sees the release of two potentially exciting RPGs: Darksiders Genesis and Star Ocean: First Departure R. The former is a top-down RPG based in the Darksiders heavy metal multiverse starring the fourth and last to be seen Horseman, "Strife," who appears to shoot people rather than hit them with a giant rectangular sword. It's being made by Airship Syndicate, behind the excellent if repetitive Battle Chasers: Nightwar, and looks to drop the action-adventure pretensions for full Diablo style crowd control and loot management. Could be a better direction for the series than Darksiders III was, though they're treating it as a side-game for now. Star Ocean: First Departure R, meanwhile, is a Capcom-esque "HD remaster of a reboot" - the PSP reboot of the first Star Ocean, to be precise. Could be the gateway I need to try to get back into that series, after bouncing from both Till The End of Time (the third one) and The Last Hope (the fourth one, and I see what they did there).
December 10th has an even more exciting surprise: the final two free DLC campaigns for Shovel Knight. They include Shovel Knight: King of Cards, a single-player adventure with the supercilious King Knight, and the multiplayer brawler Shovel Knight Showdown. I liked the cute Plague Knight campaign just fine, but the Specter Knight campaign - Specter of Torment - was one of my favorite games in 2017 (no mean feat given how packed that year was) and expectations are high for round three. The title of King of Cards had me worried that there would be a strong Slay the Spire/SteamWorld Quest turn-based card-playing aspect, very much not my thing, though recent gameplay trailers instead paint a game closer to the original Shovel Knight - now with Wario Land-style shoulder charges! - with an optional Triple Triad-esque card game thrown in for color. If all of King Knight's quests simply boiled down to hunting rare cards to make himself look better during card game (k)night at the local tavern, I'd be so into that. Either way, I'm grateful to Yacht Club Games for this late-year gift. Fans of something more modern-looking can enjoy the new MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries or a PC port of the pur-port-edly excellent Dragon Quest Builders 2.
December 11th (or maybe the 4th?) delivers the first of what will be several games based on World of Darkness tabletop universe, and specifically the Vampire: The Masquerade campaign setting. Vampire: The Masquerade – Coteries of New York looks to strip a lot of the role-playing aspects out for a pure narrative adventure game, of the Telltale and DONTNOD vein where there's a bunch of impactful decisions to direct the plot. Don't know much about it yet, but the story and character interactions were the highlight of Troika's flawed but compelling Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, so here's hoping Coteries of New York benefits from that purer narrative focus. Those of us who like getting our hands bloody with character builds and RPG mechanics will have to wait until Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 drops sometime in 2020.
December 17th will finally introduce a troubled world to its potential cure: Wattam, the newest typically bizarre social experiment from Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi. I'm not yet sure if it'll have more "game" in it than his last game, Noby Noby Boy, but I'm hoping for a series of little social interaction puzzles - perhaps like those in the cute if basic Doki-Doki Universe - that, if not challenging, will at least prove to be delightful. Hard to stay mad at Takahashi, even after buying a PS3 game that amounted to little more than eating people and pooping them out at great speed (which got surprisingly old fast).
Before the December rush starts and I brute force my way through a stack of 2019 games for last minute GOTY entries, I wanted to take a brief break with something relaxing and contemplative. If Gorogoa is anything, it's unhurried; sometimes it pays to take things easy and look at the problem from a different angle. That's explicitly the crux of the game's puzzles too, as you work with perspectives and various layers of a scene in order to build a path to success.
Gorogoa is about a studious young boy who identifies a colorful dragon-like monster stomping through his town. He knows how to defeat it from his books - collect five special colored fruit into a bowl, which will repel the creature - but beyond picking out a bowl from his family's closet he's unsure how to proceed. That's where the player comes in, picking apart scenes by using a two-by-two grid to reconfigure layouts, or create additional layers that can be stacked on top of one another to create new gateways or new areas to explore. In addition to moving around geographically in the game's vaguely Middle Eastern setting, the player also moves forward through time, seeing the same young boy in various stages of his life, almost always on crutches or in a wheelchair. Evidently his battle will cost him dearly, though we're left to ponder how it will happen and if we're capable of stopping it in time. The five collectible items also provide the game's structure, as the quest for each one invariably becomes its own chapter in the story.
It's hard to describe the metaphysical brilliance of Gorogoa without seeing it in motion, and given the dialogue and text-free story it's working with it's a very visual game top to bottom (or left to right, as the case sometimes is). The destination is often evident enough, as is where the player must start as the young boy stands expectantly with a bowl ready for you to guide him. The journey, however, might take the player through one daydream, and then through a framed picture of a temple in the daydream, and then through a pattern on the wall of the temple in the picture in that daydream. Additional panels will break off into their own scenes, and you'll occasionally have obvious empty shapes that are meant to be placed on top other scenes to create a new composition. It's sort of like a game where you're charting a route through a Photoshop image, taking a path through each of the separated layers. Again, it's much easier to see the game in motion to understand what's going on, though even with that intuitive comprehension of what the game's doing the puzzles are rarely ever straightforward or simple.
As if to assuage the inevitable beanfreaking that these circuitous puzzle solutions might cause, the game is surprisingly chill given its themes of war and destruction. Even though you get a small window each into scene - by necessity, as they're each meant to take up only a quarter of the working area with up to three others - the player is able to at any time "blow up" the panel they're tapping on to see more of the detailed artwork or animations within. The Arabian/Indian/Middle-Eastern aesthetics come from a culture I'm not too familiar with (though I did just come from another game, Indivisible, that drew a lot of artistic inspiration from that part of the world also) but is rendered in beautiful detail here, and the surrealism of the game's mechanics are reflected well in the animations and art of these little scenes and windows.
The game's on the short side, which didn't surprise me given the clear amount of resources put into its presentation, but in that brief time makes you really turn those mental gears to make any headway - especially after the first couple of collectibles have been found. Though there's a limited number of scenes and hotspots to draw from in each chapter, there's an intimidating degree of convolution that starts to hurt your head after a while, albeit in an entirely positive way. It's sort of like collapsing after a full workout and discovering that the muscles that hurt the most were the ones you didn't even know you had. There's a mix of lateral thinking and spatial awareness utilized by Gorogoa's brainteasers that you rarely see in this or any other medium, and I'm struggling to recall a game that so expertly played with the malleable limits of reality in this fashion since 2013's non-Euclidean nightmare Antichamber. Just the sort of (legal) cerebral stimulant I was looking for as we start 2019's final descent into GOTY mania.
Welcome to the Bucketlog! It's going to be 2019's year-long blog series, focusing on games I've been meaning to play since forever. I've put together a list derived from a mix of systems, genres, and vintages because it's starting to look like 2019 might be the first "lean" year for games in a spell (though time will tell whether that pans out to be true) and I figured this would be a fine opportunity to finally tick off a few items I've had on my various backlog lists/spreadsheets for longer than I'd care to admit.
Time from Release to Completion: Thirty-two years, ten months, and twelve days.
I think it was Dan Ryckert who discussed playing through Zelda II for the first time a few months or maybe even a few years ago now, intimating that he didn't really consider himself a true Zelda aficionado until he'd seen every one of them through. I was mildly perplexed while listening to the Beastcast episode where he made his case, wondering how he could've avoided it for this long. Black sheep status aside, surely everyone of a certain late-millennial age group who fell in love with Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past either spent a whole summer trying to figure Zelda II out or at least booted it up on an emulator out of curiosity. Then, just a few days ago, I watched the first part of "Kacho" Shinya Arino's Zelda II playthrough on GameCenter CX and realized, "oh hell, I don't recognize any of this." I guess I've never seen it through either. So here I am, following in Dan Ryckert's footsteps: something both my parole officer and cardiologist have cautioned against several times.
So what's it like playing Zelda II in 2019? Well, as you might assume, it's a mix of respect for what the genius designers at Nintendo pulled off in 1987 given the limited resources and relatively primitive game design theorem of the late '80s combined with a strong abhorrence towards what often felt like a vindictive level of difficulty. I'll expatiate on both those talking points in due time, but on the whole there was a long string of incremental discoveries and victories punctuated with moments of sheer despair after I once again ran out of lives and was dumped unceremoniously back into Zelda's temple, where the eponymous princess soundly slept through all my anguished conniptions. Progress in Zelda II is hard-fought and that much more valuable as a result: each new cleared dungeon, each new learned spell, each new acquired level-up - while my progress in geographical terms was always tentative at best, these milestones were permanent. When I next awoke in Zelda's dungeon after one too many tumbles off a bridge or an ass-whupping from those indomitable Blue Iron Knuckles (I guess there's a difference between Iron Knuckles and Darknuts?), I felt heartened by the assurance that I was slightly better off for the next run. That you eventually acquire the means to break through roadblocks led to recovering your overworld progress that much faster, and perhaps ceases to be much of an issue at that point.
There's not a whole lot else I can say about Zelda II's basics that aren't already common knowledge. It's the first - and presently only - Zelda game to use a standard XP system, points of which are rewarded for defeating enemies as well as collecting "P-Bags". These bags can drop from enemies but are also found littered around dungeons (named Palaces in Z2) and in hidey-holes in the overworld, similar to the well-hidden Pieces of Heart in other Zelda games. A notable characteristic of these naturally occurring P-Bags is that they only appear once, and your XP resets after every game over, so while you could still theoretically max out from regular exploration and grinding enemies the benefits of these particular bags can be lost to you forever. A number of times I'd found a few and been close to a new level, suddenly deciding to go full-on turtle defense in case I died and wasted them. For the most part, though, you gain levels pretty easily - tougher enemies start dropping them in the hundreds, and you also gain an automatic level-up after completing a Palace - so it was one of those mechanics that generated more anxiety than it perhaps warranted. The game's also fully a side-scroller, as opposed to the occasional underground side-scrolling areas in the first Legend of Zelda, and so the Palaces have been designed around elevators which can be driven between multiple floors and may have multiple (well, two: left and right) exits at each stop. The dungeons are actually a little easier to navigate as a result of this narrowing of dimensions, at least in theory because the game quickly compromises this advantage by ensuring that the player is never given a map. In fact, there's no overworld map either: I figure Miyamoto or one of his staff figured it'd be closer to the reality of forging your own path ahead in the wilderness if you also had to play amateur cartographer via some graph paper and a ruler. The conceit of the designers wanting you to make your own map (or just buy the next Nintendo Power; I'm sure they wouldn't mind that) rang especially true for the game's two - two! - overworld maze sections, each of which had plenty of hidden pitfalls and enemy encounters to struggle through.
It's a little tough to rate Zelda II's innovations for two reasons: the first is that no other Zelda game would follow the blueprint of this one, not even in a loving nostalgic throwback way like A Link Between Worlds was for A Link to the Past. Whatever Zelda did differently here clearly didn't jibe with the extant Zelda fandom, because hardly any of it survived save perhaps a few enemy types and, of course, the town names that were later repurposed to be the names of the six sages of Ocarina of Time (I think in the confused chronology of the Zelda timeline, these towns were in fact named for the sages instead). Besides the XP system, there's also the combat engine that supplemented Link's standard sword and shield - both of which he starts with and never upgrades, so either the Master Sword and Hylian Shield were just lying in Zelda's temple somewhere or this is an older Link from the first game - with up-stab and down-stab attacks, which are a great deal of fun even if an annoying amount of enemies seem to be immune to them. The only time I've seen those moves reused were for Link's Super Smash Bros. appearances, and are also a big part of the reason he's my main in those games. Few characters dominate the airspace like that guy. The magic system with its gauge and variable cost spells, though, was something they brought back for future Zelda games; though they were thankfully less contingent to certain puzzles, which sucked when your progress was impeded by a necessary spell you no longer had the MP to cast.
The other reason it's tough to rate what Zelda II does new is because it was following the example of a bunch of other side-scrolling dungeon crawlers I've yet to check out. I was going to double-barrel this entry with Hudson's Faxanadu: while Faxanadu was released a few months after Zelda II, both games take after Falcom's action-RPG Xanadu, upon which Faxanadu is largely based. Falcom's earliest RPGs have always felt like proto-Zeldas in some respects, and I was hoping to get a better sense of where Zelda II's new perspective and mechanics came from by scoping the competition as it were, but... nah. Zelda II took a lot out of me, and I've got a backlog of GOTY contenders to work through in the coming weeks. Certainly going to put a pin it for later though, especially after the great time I had with the (considerably more modern) Xanadu Next back in June.
So I now find my way back around to the final talking point from before, which neatly dovetails with my opinion on whether the game has truly held up. Honestly, the "Nintendo Hard" difficulty really did it for me in the end. I refused to use save states except for areas that flirted with cheap falling deaths - getting knocked into a pit by some floating medusa head motherfucker was all too common - but I couldn't escape it when it came to the final gauntlet. In order to reach and complete the game's seventh and final dungeon - the immense Great Palace - you first have to take a winding mountain road around the overworld. This path has no fewer than six fixed encounters, all of which are filled with tough floating enemies and as many lava pits for them to knock you down into. Even if you somehow avoid that fate, though, you get so worn down by all these encounters that you're in a sorry state by the time you reach the Palace itself. At that juncture, you then have to pass through twenty-odd rooms (though it's probably around a dozen if you take the direct route) with some of the toughest enemies in the game - the Red and Blue "Fokkas" are aptly-named - and then take on the game's two toughest boss fights in a row. Zelda II had its rough patches throughout the game - particularly the remote palaces where your mana, health, and lives count would all be exhausted before you could finish them - but this last gauntlet was overwhelming to the extent that it'd take a superhuman effort or many, many failed tries to navigate through it. Maybe that speaks to how inured I've become to the softer, more player-friendly games of the modern age that I can't muster the skill level to tackle a NES game on its own terms any more, but considering the difficulty curve had been manageable up to that point I have to wonder what possessed the designers to go full Jigsaw for that final stretch of deathtraps.
In a modern light, I don't think Zelda II's commonly reviled problems are all that significant as detractors. The magic system was a little undercooked, with certain utility spells being way too expensive considering their paramountcy to progress, but I liked the way the game would set up these side-quests for the towns where the reward was a critical spell, and the way it would find frequent outlets for these spells to uncover the way to secrets. The jump spell is only strictly necessary for one or two high walls, but continued to be useful throughout the game for unreachable items and against certain aerial enemy types. The very first spell, Shield, was indispensable for boss and sub-boss fights, provided you had enough MP left to cast it. Obviously the Heal spell was the most vital, though unsurprisingly also the most expensive. The combat could be mashy but the intelligence of the enemies, particularly the humanoid ones like Iron Knuckles and Dairas, made every fight with them tense as they'd block your blows while retaliating with their own for you to quickly deflect or avoid. And like I said before, that dichotomy of ephemeral and permanent progress - where devastating game overs were frequent but rarely ever meant a complete erasure of all forward momentum - had the same hardscrabble appeal as a modern roguelite that keeps at least some enduring remnant of the previous run. Just don't expect to finish Zelda II unless you have a lot of patience, a lot of skill, or a lot of not-giving-an-eff when it comes to abusing modern amenities like save states.
I realize the IGotW feature is in a little bit of a rut here, with yet another explormer with heavy RPG elements that spent a long time bouncing around Kickstarter. It's Indivisible from Lab Zero Games (the Skullgirls people); an RPG that is overtly riffing on tri-Ace's Valkyrie Profile but also subtly on Konami's Suikoden. Indivisible follows impetuous axe-girl Ajna as she chases after the despotic monster who burned down her village; however, this is only the first act in what emerges as a classic JRPG conflict for the sake of the very world. Ajna has the distinctive ability to "absorb" friendly fighters and summon them for combat, allowing them to chill in her "inner realm" (not a euphemism) in the meantime. The game splits its time between platforming sections, where you're controlling just Ajna as she climbs walls, slides under gaps, and learns new abilities that expand her traversal capabilities further, and in battles where she and three companions quickly demolish enemy encounters with a real-time/turn-based hybrid combat system.
Let's focus on the combat first. The player's party is arranged in a diamond formation so that each individual fighter corresponds to a face button on the DualShock/XBox controller, and that button is used to both attack and defend (when the enemy is attacking). Defending works like the Mario RPGs, where holding the defense button mitigates some damage and holding it right at the moment the enemy strikes mitigates even more. Attacking is closer to Valkyrie Profile - the main similarity the two games share, in conjunction with the way other fighters just hang out inside the heroine's head - or Project X Zone, where it's not just about unloading attacks when they become available but harmonizing with your other fighters to create effective combo chains. Indivisible goes one step beyond VP by having separate attack functions depending on whether you're pressing that character's attack button while holding up or down (or neither, i.e. "neutral"). A mage, therefore, might have a fireball attack on neutral but could use the up+attack function for a party buff and down+attack for a heal. Each character has a different assortment of abilities, often meant be to complementary with other skills they possess or those of their party members. It's... a lot. Especially when you factor in how many characters this game has: though you can only roll with a party of four at any given moment, including the compulsory inclusion of the protagonist, I currently have at least ten companions with me and I'm sure that's not all of them.
In that regard, it can be said that the game can feel a little overwhelming, especially early on. Though in some ways far more simple than most turn-based RPGs - characters only have three attacks, everyone heals back to full automatically after battle, and there's no equipment or skill trees to be concerned about - the number of companions and the way their abilities complement each other as a unit makes it tricky to figure out which assortment works best for the player's style. There's also the matter of proper attack timing: you're essentially creating fighter game combos (the team repurposing their experience with Skullgirls to an extent) with four separate characters with twelve distinct actions between them, figuring out how best to send an enemy into the air to juggle them without ground-based attacks whiffing, or how to quickly demolish a guard stance with an up+attack/down+attack combo (I think the idea being that you can't block high and low at the same time) before laying in the damage before that enemy can rally and put up their barrier again. It sounds more complex than it actually is though, because by using the same characters regularly you get a feel for how and when they should strike. That the game keeps throwing more characters at you is where it starts to feel a little much again. However, in spite of this, encounters have been relatively breezy to get through; while enemies hit very hard if you aren't blocking, there's a way for the protagonist to easily heal and resurrect the party early on, and most enemies telegraph way ahead of time who they're about to hit. It's no big ask to have them defending in preparation, though obviously a little tougher to get that perfect guard timing down with each new enemy type. I've had a few party wipeouts with some bossfights, but I wouldn't say I was struggling at any point. That you respawn instantly at checkpoints, which are also plentiful, helps considerably.
Then there's the platforming. Ajna controls well enough and while I've only acquired a few new traversal upgrades, they've already immensely when covering new ground. Ajna starts with an infinite wall jump, and she can later use an axe as a makeshift foothold to make climbing even easier. A high-powered dash not only smashes through certain obstacles, but greatly expedites your passage across level terrain and will even count as a pre-emptive hit on wandering enemies if they happen to be in the way. I just acquired something akin to a high jump (though it's only slightly higher than normal) and am looking forward to gathering more. The map is doing a fine job logging where I cannot yet go - barriers I have the right ability to surpass are indicated as such with an appropriate icon, while those for which I lack the ability have a question mark - as well as keeping track of quest sponsors and destinations. I'd say the platforming makes up a significant amount of the gameplay, at around a 60/40 split with the combat, though obviously the latter is where most of the game's mechanical focus is concentrated.
Indivisible's art design is top notch. The excellent character designs and animations of Skullgirls are equally at the forefront here, and the whole game world is roughly analogous to the continent of Asia: Ajna and her village invoke India, as do the game's early antagonists; the climactic Mt. Sumeru and its protectors have a distinct Nepalese or Tibetan feel; the hub-like port city of Port Maerifa suggests an Arabian background; and early impressions of the kingdom of Tai Krung hints at a steampunk variation of China. Half of the cultures depicted are very rarely seen in video games, at least outside of single stages within the Tomb Raiders and Uncharteds (which are only ever as respectful as "nice stuff you guys have, don't mind if I do"), and the variation in colorful styles only enhances the art direction further. It's well voice-acted on the whole too, with actors specifically chosen to match the real life equivalent ethnicities of their characters. RPGs regularly draw from exotic locales and customs for their distinctive worldbuilding, but rarely with this level of detail. It's a shame most of it is purely aesthetic; the game doesn't do a whole lot of optional lore gathering outside of story cutscenes and conversations. I did like how some of the monsters were drawn from all across Asia as well, including a favorite of mine: the unsettling Malay vampire penanggalan.
While my playthrough is dogged by a nagging feeling that I could be combo-ing better or working on a more palatable party composition, on the whole I'm greatly enjoying both sides of Indivisible's platforming/RPG dynamic. I always appreciate when Indie RPG developers take after the lesser known or more ambitious RPGs of my childhood (fine, late teens if we're talking PS1) like Valkyrie Profile or Suikoden. The latter's influences are a little more muted, but are most apparent when, in addition to new fighters, you also find yourself absorbing NPCs who provide services like upgrading, hints on future destinations, to playing selected tunes from the soundtrack. The number "108" also appears frequently, most prominently in the game's achievements, which is an important figure for any Suikoden fan. As I stated the game's RPG elements are more downplayed than they might initially seem; characters gain levels regularly but this only seems to bump up their HP and damage output slightly. The bigger evolutions come through finding well-hidden and out-of-reach collectibles called "ringsels": a certain number of which expands the amount of times your characters can attack in one turn, or can be put towards making defensive plays even more effective. These upgrades make a huge change to your combat prowess, but the combat's been approachable enough that they aren't strictly necessary if backtracking to earlier areas with new abilities isn't your deal. I both like and am made slightly anxious by the vast number of characters that can join the party, as each offers a unique method of playing them that takes some acclimatization, but too much choice is hardly a negative.
I'm around the halfway point of Indivisible as I write this and plan to stick with it for the long haul, curious about the way the game has suddenly opened up to allow for multiple destinations while suggesting that progress in each will be incremental as I bounce between them with newly acquired skills. I haven't seen a whole lot written about the game since its release last month, but I think it'll appeal most to those who sit on that rare Venn diagram overlap of fighter fanatics who love to spend hours "in the lab" with team compositions and combo mix-ups, and explormer stans who enjoy a well-annotated map of barrier puzzles to solve later on with the right tools.
: 3 out of 5. (Downgraded from 4 because of the rushed final chapter and terrible end boss fight.)