Mento's Month: September 2019

Finally, we're back to temperate weather and games regularly coming out again. All hail the end of summer's tyranny for another year. Of course, that just means everyone's now busier than ever.

It's at this point where I start to think about what the year's been like in terms of game releases, as we edge ever closer to GOTY season. 2017 set a prohibitively high bar for the next few years to follow, one I suspect won't be surpassed until the new consoles show up sometime next year (we have confirmation on one of those now, at least). There is a hope that a 2020 deadline for the PS4/XB1 generation will cause every game developer to put out whatever it is they're working on so they can free up room for all the new devkits and projects for the generation to come, producing a massive glut of new releases to see off this generation in high spirits, but past experience teaches us that the inverse is probably true: game releases for this gen will continue to taper off as everyone makes the switch and holds their tongues about what they're working on next until we get those big E3 (well, it's probably not an E3 matter any more) console reveals and launch game line-ups.

To see if this trend tracks, the following are three statistical rundowns for 2017, 2018, and 2019, respectively, in which I've noted down how many games I've played and how many more I intend to play before I'm satisfied enough to put a big tick next to the year in question. Should give you some idea whether or not there's a drought going on.

  • 2017: Played (56), To Play (18).
  • 2018: Played (19), To Play (31).
  • 2019: Played (3), To Play (33*). (* = so far.)

Now, 2019 isn't over yet, and the Indie sphere is prone to dropping delightful surprises on us, so I'll be revising these stats again closer to New Year's Eve. Even so, it's looking like this year will be a little more sparse compared to 2018, which in turn was a pale shadow of the bounties 2017 had to provide. Not that it bothers me too much - adding those last three numbers together gives you some idea of how much I have left on my plate - but it does feel like the tide receding just before the tsunami hits. Exciting times are coming, but perhaps not for another year at least.

Anyway, getting back to September 2019...

Indie Games of the Month

September comprised the 136-139 entries of Indie Game of the Week, outlined below:

Songbringer (IGotW 136) is a game I wanted to like, and fully expected to given its premise of a silly Legend of Zelda ersatz set on a mysterious alien planet, but between the visually unappealing look and unintuitive UI and the procgen/roguelite factors involved it grated on me every second I played it. I didn't mind the humor, which is usually the first thing to grind my gears if done incorrectly, but resurrecting the obtuseness of the original LoZ and making it all randomized on top of that besides created an ugly, confusing world I had no affinity for and no desire to keep exploring.

Glass Masquerade 2 somehow makes staring at a bunch of broken, sharp pieces of glass relaxing.
Glass Masquerade 2 somehow makes staring at a bunch of broken, sharp pieces of glass relaxing.

Victor Vran (IGotW 137) was like Aarklash from a few months ago in that it closely resembled some bigger PC games I'd played in the past but due to necessity had to streamline a lot, changing the dynamic completely to compensate in such a way that the result felt refreshing and new. Sort of like being in the kitchen and wanting to make an omelette before realizing you were out of eggs, and managing to improvise a meal with what you did have that ended up being pretty interesting on top of being delicious. Vran doesn't have anything like the crazy skill trees or deep loot variation that a modern loot RPG would have (like, say, Borderlands 3 or Path of Exile) but makes up for it with an emphasis on maneuvering and cooldown abilities that turns it into a satisfying hybrid of RPG and a dual-stick action game.

Pocket Kingdom (IGotW 138) is a micro-sized spacewhipper that goes the pacifist route, instead creating challenges in the form of puzzle rooms that you have figure out the correct route through. This might mean pushing blocks, redirecting lasers, wrapping around the screen, or using a handful of tools you acquire throughout the game to make progress. An instant fast-travel system to any screen in the game made backtracking a breeze, and it was full of cool Fez-like secrets to uncover. A very slight game but a total package nonetheless.

Glass Masquerade 2: Illusions (IGotW 139) is the sequel to a delightful jigsaw puzzle game I played last year in which you had to assemble stained glass ornaments from a jumble of glass shards of various shapes and sizes. Illusions felt a bit limited in scope and ideas compared to its forebear, doubling-down on the same basic blueprint (every puzzle had a circular frame) and the same theme (supernatural weirdness) throughout. These unfortunate developments weren't enough to compromise the franchise's core strengths, however, and so I recommend it (almost) as highly as its antecedent.

Hey Everybody, It's the Tuesday Slot

Build Me Up: Creation Games

Putting aside my usual weekly features for the month, I started September with this blog on creation games having been inspired by my Dragon Quest Builders playthrough. Using a series of building development "stages" as a framework, from levelling the extant detritus to laying foundations and walls to decorating and beautifying these spaces, I segued into exploring many other games that use creation and construction as their primary gameplay model. It brought me back to a time where I spent hundreds of hours working on my solid gold citadel in Terraria or the elaborate farm layouts in Stardew Valley, let alone the time spent dabbling in various game makers back when I designed games professionally.

Yakuza 0: Zeroing In On the Old and New

There was a lot about Yakuza 0 I wanted to discuss, and will do so more below, but I'm always looking for angles where I can talk about my experience from a relatively uncommon standpoint. In this case, Yakuza 0 is a game that many people have chosen as their gateway to the oft-acclaimed series - it was in some way deliberately designed to work as such, despite being a prequel - and I figured my evaluation as someone who had played all the games up to that point might be valuable to that audience, and also perhaps an audience who had lapsed on the franchise for a while and were curious about how the series had evolved in the interim. New developments like the various fighting styles the protagonists Kiryu and Majima could switch between, or the cabaret club and real estate business management, to even the greater role that the player's bank account has on the game: these all have a precedent, to varying extents, with what had already come before.

Bucketlog September: Kaeru no tame ni Kane wa Naru

My regular monthly piece on the games I've had sitting in my backlog for far longer than I care to admit hit a new record in September for oldest game: 1992's Kaeru no tame ni Kane wa Naru, or "For the Frog, the Bell Tolls," is a first-party Nintendo Game Boy title that dodged a localization but would become famous after the fact in Nintendo fan circles for how its engine was the basis for Link's Awakening: a beloved entry in the Legend of Zelda series that has only just been remade for Switch. I've been on a "hidden history of Nintendo" kick for a while, between researching and working on NES/SNES wiki pages to finally completing Mother 3 and Marvelous in recent months, and Kaeru no tame ni Kane wa Naru was simply the most recent step in that reflective journey. Now if only I could find and play a translated version of Captain Rainbow...

The Games of September

PictoQuest

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PictoQuest was an impulse buy shortly after it was released sometime in September, as I was curious what a hybrid of picross and an RPG might look like. Alas, like pig and elephant DNA, it just doesn't splice together as well as anyone might hope, or at least it didn't quite work with PictoQuest's interpretation. Picross, as I'm sure you're all aware, is a methodical and contemplative logic puzzle where you partially fill in rows of squares based on numerical clues in the margins to eventually create a pixel picture. For the RPG mechanics to work, PictoQuest looked to something like Puzzle Quest (which is a similar hybrid, but for RPGs and Match-3) and decided, perhaps impetuously, that harsh time limits were the answer.

For every "battle"-style puzzle (as opposed to treasure chest puzzles, for which you can take your time), the player would take damage if they took too long before completing a line. This changed the tactics from moving through the puzzles at your own pace to one where you'd keep a side-eye on the enemy attack timer (it's a gauge that slowly fills up underneath the enemy sprite) and then complete a row you already knew about to delay it a little while longer. So, an example of this would be starting on a 15x15 grid where one of the rows was a "15" clue. Picross vets would know to instantly fill that row in, since every square would need to be activated for that clue to be correct. However, this game trains you to leave those "easy" rows to fill in when it will make the most impact, which is to say just before the enemy strikes. It's a weird and counter-intuitive way to fill in the board, and I never fully got used to it. Fortunately, the game throws boons at you constantly by way of power-ups and health upgrades you can buy at the stores or win as prizes for successfully finishing tougher challenges that NPCs give you, like completing a grid without making a mistake; the only problem with these NPC challenges is that they always use puzzles you've already seen. Health ceases to be a concern when you have a stack of potions, and the consumable "spells" reveal large parts of the grid which makes completing them quickly more trivial than they should be.

I think PictoQuest was a noble attempt to merge two great tastes together, but the resulting flipper baby isn't quite what anyone really wanted. I think the best innovations in the picross sphere are those that take the game's mechanics into consideration and work towards expanding on them, rather than arbitrarily adding mechanics found in other genres irrespective of how well they may or may not integrate. Picross 3D is a great example of a successful evolution of the original picross format, as is introducing color as a variable or those mega-picross puzzles where you have to work on multiple segments of a much larger image. Still, points for trying something different, especially with how suitable (and competitively well-stocked) the Switch is for picross games.

Yakuza 0

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Hard to know what there's left for me to talk about here. The above blog covered most of the big new developments in Yakuza 0, and details of the plot or the individual substories would be robbing someone of something that they should experience first-hand if they haven't already (or via Beast in the East, if they prefer). I've been contemplating a "ranking of mini-games" for the Yakuza series, something I can't decide should be a list or a blog, as Yakuza's many mini-games - some one-offs, some series-wide - are worth a closer look because for many they're just something they might do once if it's involved in a substory or because they were curious enough to walk into the darts bar or a hostess club while passing.

The one Yakuza 0 newcomer that I've been wanting to talk about is the telephone club, though. I suppose this was a bigger thing in the 1980s where people were less savvy about catfishing, but the idea of these places were that you would get connected to a random member of the opposite sex (provided that was your preference; I can't imagine homosexuality was quite as accepted in Japan in the 1980s to the extent that there were businesses around to cater to them specifically) and chat them up, and then possibly make plans to meet at a love hotel somewhere if you really hit it off. I'm guessing meeting somebody you weren't expecting was a common misadventure with this conceit, because there's a possible seven results from the telephone club game and four of them could be considered a "negative" or "bad ending".

The game itself though, where you have to shoot at correct/complimentary responses while avoiding the non-sequiturs or insults, is both tricky and fun: fun to get right, but also fun to get wrong. You might not necessarily want to chase a woman off the line if they're someone you've yet to encounter (every result is a separate substory, including the bad ones, so completionists will want them all) but accidentally telling them you have a tiny dick or are twelve years old or that they should call you "Supreme Leader" instead of the flirtier "sweetheart" is never not funny. The mini-game even starts with a goof, as Kiryu wrenches the phone from its holder in an intensely badass motion only to gently place it to his ear and say "moshi moshi" in his stoic tone. If it weren't for the half-naked model in the background and the lascivious moaning noises, it'd come off like a particularly goofy game of Mystery Date ("you got the dud!" is unfortunately all too common here).

Anyway, that's just one way Yakuza 0 embraces its hornier self - it is definitely the thirstiest game in the Yakuza canon between this, the softcore porn videos, and the two Mr. Libidos - and revisits one of the many dubious business outlets of 1980s Kabukicho (the real-life Kamurocho). It's all about verisimilitude in the Yakuza universe, albeit heightened for comedic effect, and for that immersion factor it's worth getting on the phone to ask a sexy mystery woman about her baby ferrets at least once.

Other Distractions

Disenchantment (S1.5)

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I really wish I liked Disenchantment more. It had the potential to be to fantasy tropes what Futurama was to sci-fi, but something about the focus on serial storytelling or the minimization of brilliant recurring secondary characters puts it light years behind the excellent goofs and interplay of the Planet Express staff. It's also that I don't care about the young adult travails of Princess "Bean" Tiabeanie, the moodiness of Elfo that results from his unrequited crush, or the low-key jerkassery of Luci - all potential comedy vectors, all underutilized for the sake of more stories about twenty-something angst that I've long since left behind.

I get showrunner Josh Weinstein wanting to make Mission Hill again, but there's a reason that show only lasted one season: the problems of perennially broke youths isn't compelling enough as an animated sitcom hook without some great jokes and characterization to go with it, and that goes double when you're also squandering a setting AND a medium with so much potential for imaginative storytelling. Futurama wisely didn't make every episode about how Fry is a layabout bachelor with no career momentum; it was more often about weird alien blobs and black holes and biting satire on how much the 20th century sucked about preparing for the future. Disenchantment has the potential to explore some really cool fantasy ideas, and occasionally does, it just needs to stop convincing itself that the quotidian concerns of its youthful trio are anywhere near as interesting.

Sphere (1998)

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Though if we're talking legit disasters, Sphere was a potentially exciting sci-fi premise that was let down with some Hollywood script-writing where presumably as the star power and budget of the movie grew, the dumbing down of the material for the maximum amount of broad audience appeal quickly followed. Sphere's based on the Michael Crichton book of the same name, and while he's not one to let good science necessarily get in the way of a good story, he does make some amount of effort to keep his fantastical stories grounded in some manner of reality. The idea of procuring dinosaur DNA from prehistoric insects preserved in amber is dubious, but it's as good an excuse as any to have a bunch of dinosaurs running around eating people as the next stage in his "when theme parks go back" series (after Westworld).

Sphere, meanwhile, promises a more cerebral approach to first contact with aliens with its crew of scientists exploring a massive aircraft wreck at the bottom of the ocean that's inexplicably several centuries old, but becomes a goofy supernatural thriller instead. I've always loved any 2001-style sci-fi story where humans meet our cosmic neighbors in the most bizarre conditions possible, or one where there's the mystery of an eerily empty spaceship to solve, but they have a nasty habit of turning into schlocky pablum as soon as the writers suspect the audience is bored with asking questions. It happened to Sunshine too. That some big alien sphere gives everyone superpowers and then a bunch of jellyfish somehow murders Queen Latifah through her deep sea EVA suit isn't quite delivering on the promises of that tense first hour of government conspiracies and unknown alien craft exploration. At least the central performances were good; Sharon Stone probably doesn't get enough credit for her less flattering roles.

Looking Ahead

We're kinda already a week and change into October, but let's see what the schedules have for us anyway:

  • October 1st saw the release of the remake of YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of this World, one of those little bits of Japanese video game history that occasionally make their way over here. I don't know a lot about the game, it being a Japan-only PC98/Saturn visual novel originally, but it's well regarded in VN circles and I'm sure a lot of recent western converts will be curious to try it out. Certainly seems like a better use of your time than that regrettable KFC joke dating game. We'll also see 80 Days on Switch: a game based on the globe-hopping novel that guest contributors to Giant Bomb's GOTY season seemed to really like when it hit iOS a few years ago. I've been looking for a way to play it since.
  • October 8th is when the storm (and also this blog) hits with the releases of Concrete Genie, Trine 4: The Nightmare Prince, Indivisible, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, and John Wick Hex. I'm particularly psyched about a new Trine getting back into that inimitable groove, and it feels like I've been following Indivisible - an Indie RPG with great artwork very obviously styled on the Valkyrie Profile games from Tri-Ace - for years. The Sideway/Magic Pengel fun of Concrete Genie, a licensed stealth game from Bithell Games, and a solid Donkey Kong Country Returns-style sequel for Yooka-Laylee are all enticing prospects also.
  • October 10th will see the release of Valfaris, which is another tough heavy metal-themed 2D action game from the Slain: Back from Hell guys, only now closer to Heavy Metal the movie with its glam metal sci-fi trappings. I'm definitely curious about it, and would like to see it in action, but I suspect I'll be holding off on it for a while. At least until after I've played Slain.
  • October 16th brings us Little Town Hero, a name I'm still getting used to. It's the GameFreak RPG that was previously just known as "Town," and looks to have some kind of village development mechanic in addition to a barebones RPG combat engine where your townspeople can help out. It's been a while since I cared about Pokémon, but GameFreak is a solid Nintendo-affiliated developer that's made some fun side-stuff in the past, and I'm sure this one will boast a high level of quality. I mean, they have all that money...
  • October 18th sees the release of Ring Fit Adventure, which gets my coveted Schadenfreude Award in the category of "games I want to watch Giant Bomb attempt to play". Feels like they're not on camera doing weird motion control nonsense nearly as much these days, so if they can tire themselves out pulling a stupid plastic ring to and fro it should make for some good internet TV.
  • October 22nd is when I'm made to feel guilty that I've made zero progress in the Kiseki/Trails games over the past few years, as the localization of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III comes to PS4 and Steam. I'm all the way back over here with Trails in the Sky Second Chapter (which, for the record, is the second episode of the sixth Legend of Heroes game, while Cold Steel III is the third part of the eighth Legend of Heroes game - it's a super easy franchise to follow, as you can plainly see). Still, the continued overseas success of Falcom warms the cockles of my heart and I'm sure I can pencil this particular release in for a 2024 playthrough at the earliest.
  • October 25th, in addition to being my birthday, is also the day we get The Outer Worlds - the new Fallout-styled CRPG from Obsidian Entertainment. Now, I'm not suggesting you should all pool your cash together and buy me it as a gift, but I'm also not not saying that. Oct 25 is also when the new season of BoJack Horseman lands, so I'm set either way.
  • October 29th presents a trilogy of partying down, between the release of the Yakuza 4 Remaster (for those who have already bought the remastered trilogy), the apparently white hot sexiness of Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout (boy are perverts going to be disappointed when they find out it's a cute little game about owning an alchemy store), and the new booze 'em up horror game from the Oxenfree devs, Afterparty, starring friend of the site Janina Gavankar.
  • It figures that the game I'm psyched about most (well, on the same level as The Outer Worlds, perhaps) also arrives right at the end of the month. Still, October 31st is the perfect date to release what will no doubt be the scariest game ever made: Luigi's Mansion 3. Obviously I stan Gooigi, but I'm also happy that the game is returning back to its original format after the irksome stops-and-starts business of Dark Moon, and appears to have a huge amount of varied content to work through. I hope they don't skimp on the secrets and surprises either.
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