Spider-Man: Far From Home Review – 7.5/10

What I like about the MCU Spider-Man is that both Marvel and the character himself are aware of his actual position on the superhero totem pole. In general, I like Spider-Man. I have been a fan since I was a kid. I’ve played many of his games, watched multiple cartoon series, and seen three different actors portray Peter Parker, my favorite Spider person, across 10 different live action films. But I do not love Spider-Man. He is a great character. This is fact. But he is not as great as everyone seems to give him credit for. He’s relatable, sort of, and I think that’s why he’s such a fan favorite. But in the grand scheme of the Marvel universe he’s not nearly as powerful, intelligent, or important as he’s often given credit for. If anything, I’d say a great many of his greatest moments happened more as a response to fandom than as organic character developments that warranted the fandom. But there’s no way to prove that one way or the other so I guess it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is fully aware that he’s not nearly as great, qualified, or important as everyone else seems to think he is. And this is true both for the viewers and within the MCU itself. That’s probably the main takeaway I got from Spider-Man: Far From Home, and I liked that aspect a lot.

What I loved about Spider-Man: Homecoming was the human aspect. But more specifically, the youth aspect. This version of Peter Parker is a 16 year old kid who genuinely thinks like a 16 year old kid. He wants to hang out with his friends. He wants to have a girlfriend. He wants to protect his Aunt and make sure she’s safe, both from monsters and from interested men. The hero aspect of his life isn’t the most important part of the character. It’s not even who he really wants to be. It’s a responsibility that’s forced onto him, which is a great way to paint the character. Because “with great power comes great responsibility”. That’s the point of the character. He doesn’t want to foil alien tech heists, fight aliens, or stop petty criminals. He has to. It’s his responsibility as a person with super powers. But he just wants to be a 16 year old kid. That’s who Peter Parker is. And while Tom Holland is not my favorite Peter Parker, this version of the character is my favorite version because of how well and realistically written it is. It is the most human Spider-Man I’ve ever seen depicted in live action and Far From Home does a great job of continuing this character’s story.

Tom Holland (Finalized)

I was worried about how Far From Home was going to follow Avengers: Endgame. Just about every movie in the MCU tries to top its direct predecessor film. That’s always been the idea. Bigger, better, and more impressive from one film to the next. With the exception of the Ant-Man films, pretty much every MCU movie actively tried to top the last one and usually did. At least in terms of stakes if nothing else. But we spent 10 years building to Avengers: Endgame. There was absolutely no way a solo film about a 16 year old kid was going to top that. Especially not one with Mysterio headlining as a not villain in the ads. So I had a lot of concerns going into this movie. Thankfully Marvel was not only aware of my concerns but used them to their advantage.

Far From Home followed Endgame perfectly because it actively goes out of its way to reference Endgame and let you know that we’re no longer playing at Thanos level stakes. It’s comedic. It’s personal. The scales and stakes are small. It’s simply not a story about an Infinity War class threat. It’s about healing from the many losses incurred during the Infinity War. And laughter is the best medicine after all.

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The movie does a lot of bits that are just there to make you laugh. They talk about what happened when everyone came back from the snap and it’s hilarious. They talk about how half the world didn’t age for five years so now everyone’s age is off. There’s an entire subplot about Ned’s romance life that is just hysterical. This is the stuff that a 16 year old kid would be thinking about, superhero or not. Really the actual stakes of the film aren’t even that big to begin with, similar to with Vulture in Homecoming. Yes the bad guy getting away with it would have been terrible. Yes the possible long term repercussions if Spider-Man didn’t do his job would have been a net negative. But the world wasn’t/isn’t going to end. In fact, I’d argue that Far From Home ending with the bad guy getting his way might actually have been better for the planet’s overall defenses in the long term. In any case, the stakes are pretty small. Not Ant-Man small, but small. And that’s a good thing in the case of these Spider-Man films.

Story wise, Far From Home was as good palate cleanser. It rebooted the audience back to the Iron Man one days where people were just kind of doing their own things and dealing with personal villain problems with no big picture to worry about. Yet at the same time, this movie does acknowledge that the good old days can never truly return. I’d say this movie had probably the most plot significant post credits scene of any MCU film to date. It literally affects the way you view every single MCU film except for The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 3, and maybe Captain America: Civil War. It also possibly teases the focal point of the next phase of MCU plots.

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Not only was Far From Home well written, but it was also well acted. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio was great. The character was different from the comics in a number of ways but extremely realistic and relatable. Not only did I believe that character but I sympathized with him quite a bit. As with Homecoming, the students, none of which are actually minors in real life, are extremely believable. Watching Far From Home reminded me a lot of what it was like to be a kid. The crushes, the romantic plans, the conflicts with other boys, the jealousy, and a general lack of assurance that anything you decide to do is actually the correct decision. These are the types of characters that make sense in the world of a 16 year old Spider-Man.

Visually speaking, this movie was great. The effects were top notch while also being very self-aware about the fact that they’re all fictional. The movie has many moments referencing the PS4 game, Marvel’s Spider-Man (2018), by Insomniac Games. It all comes together rather nicely to let the viewer know that not everything has to be so serious. Some things can just be fun and imaginative for the sake of being entertaining in a world constantly plagued by politics, misinformation, and greed. In my opinion, this is the entire point of the movie. It’s referencing the current issues of our reality by portraying those same problems in a post Thanos snap world.

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Spider-Man: Far From Home is not the next Avengers: Endgame. It’s not trying to be and that’s a good thing. It’s just a nice movie about a 16 year old kid who just happens to be a superhero. It’s one of if not the most relatable film in the MCU because it’s simply about the struggle of balancing your life with your work and learning how to accept that responsibility without losing your personal life in the process. If you’re looking for the next epic MCU adventure, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for a respite from all the doom and gloom from the last several movies while still having some overall plot relevance, this is the perfect film to follow Avengers: Endgame.

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ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! Review – 8.8/10

When I was a young lad, back before the age of internet, always online, and microtransactions, we played many great games that made no sense but were tons of fun and super addictive in a healthy way. I can’t tell you why fat, Italian plumbers jumped on mushrooms or why blue hedgehogs felt compelled to collect golden rings, but I can tell you that the number of mushrooms I squashed and the number of rings I collected is much higher than the number of Fortnite bucks I’ve earned. One of my favorite games from my childhood was the original ToeJam & Earl (1991) for the Sega Genesis.

If I’m honest, I didn’t really understand the game as a kid. It was the original roguelike before that was an established genre. I played it often but never really knew what I was doing. I also don’t remember watching the opening movie so I don’t think I even knew what the premise of the game was back then. What I do remember is that it was one of the games that my father and uncles used to love to play and we all would play it together. I also loved the funky music and the fact that a character was named ToeJam, because that was and still is funny to me for some reason. So when I think about ToeJam & Earl, it’s always with great fondness. I eventually did go back and play the original game years later, actually watched the cutscenes, and completed it. I also completed the ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (2002) for the XBOX. I tried ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (1993) right after completing the first game, but I really didn’t like the different gameplay style. In any case, I have always cared a great deal about this franchise. That’s why I was ecstatic when I heard that someone was making a new installment after all these years. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to play a new ToeJam & Earl game in 2019. I kind of wish I had gotten the Switch version so I could round up my uncles and father and play it as a family once again.

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ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is both a sequel and a remake of the original game. It is important to understand this going in because it informs a number of design choices that people who aren’t familiar with the original game might not like or understand. As I said previously, it’s a roguelike but it has a number of conventions specific to this franchise and not much else. It’s also important to understand this in the context of judging it. If you’re looking at it strictly as a game being released in 2019, then it’s obviously not going to stand up to most if any top tier games being released today. Or at least that would be the case if we didn’t keep getting dumpster fire AAA releases like Fallout 76 and Anthem. But if we look at this in the context of recreating a game from 1991, then it’s one of the most true to form remakes I’ve ever seen not based on a game from the modern era. That’s the context within which I played and ultimately chose to review this game.

Assuming you have played or at least looked up some footage from the original game before starting Groove!, the  first thing you notice as soon as the opening cutscene starts is that the graphics are vastly improved but true to the original style. It’s like night and day even though they’re both flat environments pretending to have three dimensional qualities. This new game definitely has a bit more depth to it with things like hills and the ability to clearly see the previous level floating beneath the one you’re currently on, but it’s still the same 2D style used in the first game. The vibrant colors stand out so much in this game. Compared to original, it’s like you were looking at a dirty screen and someone finally cleaned it off. Everything is brighter and way more detailed, including ToeJam and Earl themselves. Plus there are a lot of display options. You can play full screen or windowed play in 18 different resolutions.

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There is a literal hoard of earthlings in this game to interact with, both evil and good. The movement is fluid and diverse for all of them. The playable characters move very smoothly as well. There’s no skipping or lost frame rate issues, even when playing with multiple players on or offline. Not only is the movement smooth, but it’s also well animated. What I like most about the game’s graphics is the amount of variety. 68 earthlings, 67 different types of presents, 25 stages with random layouts, nine playable characters, and even multiple environments from level to level. Many of these assets are interactive as well. Even the trees and bushes can be directly interacted with. And this is all randomly generated depending on which mode you’re playing. You do see some repetitive stuff such as enemy assets reskinned in different colors in later stages. But overall there’s a lot going on in Groove! and the game handles it perfectly.

The HUD is simple but effective. You have the level counter on the top center of the screen, which also notifies the player when a piece of the spaceship is on that level. In the bottom right you have the mini-map. With the rest of the HUD being in the bottom left, showing the character’s avatar, the XP bar, the HP bar, and the power up meter. In local coop mode, the HUD for the second player appears in the top left corner of the screen. When playing with four players, the HUDs are distributed to each corner of the screen when playing in a single screen and to the top left of each box when in split screen mode. What’s really nice is you can turn the map and HUD off if you want an extra challenge. You can also make the map larger at any time by holding the map button if you need to examine it in finer detail. But really the mini-map, assuming you have a large enough screen like I do on my PC, is quite adequate. It shows you locations for special things, the entire grid of the current level you’re on, and environmental landmarks such as desert or water. I never once needed to use the enlarge map function during play.

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The menus are done very nicely too. A much better, clearer font than was used in the original game. The manual, which is quite comprehensive, is broken up into clear sections with small blocks of text, making reading through the whole thing very easy to do. It’s not an overwhelmingly graphic intense game. It’s more like an art piece that combines the simplicity of the past with some of the benefits of modern graphic development to make something totally new and beautiful but still definitively retro in nature. You’re not getting the bare bones Sega Genesis graphics but you’re also not going too far and getting something odd looking like ToeJam & Earl III. Ultimately I think it’s a wonderful looking game that delivered exactly what it needed to visually.

The first thing I want to say about the gameplay is that it’s buttery smooth. I was surprised at how smooth the gameplay actually is. Even when using a controller, a DualShock 4 in my case, the input works perfectly. There’s no lag. No input issues. This game works. I was very happy with how it instantly accepted my controller and gave me no issues. Now the game will not revert back to keyboard automatically if your controller gets disconnected during play. My controller ran out of battery in the middle of a game while running away from a group of enemies and I couldn’t pick up with the keyboard. My guy just stopped moving until I got the controller plugged in. The game doesn’t even pause when this happens. And since you spawn in the same spot where you died, I just kept dying until I got the controller working again. A bit of an oversight on the developer’s part, but nothing game breaking and easily fixed with a patch. HumaNature Studios is also really responsive on Twitter and is actively seeking out and listening to feedback for future patches, so this issue may very well be fixed in the near future.

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The gameplay is quite simple in practice. You have to traverse 25 levels in search of 10 spaceship pieces, which are scattered randomly throughout the levels. The 10th piece is always on level 25, as stated in the manual. You traverse these levels by walking around each one trying to find an elevator. You can walk normally or sneak to avoid being seen by bad earthlings. Different presents can affect your movement as well. You also have the ability to swim through water but you can only swim for an amount of time corresponding to your current health. Meaning the larger your life bar, the longer you can swim when you’re at full health. You always start a new game with three lives but can earn more as rewards and through presents along the way. While traversing these levels you can collect money, presents, and food which also all incurs XP. Money is used to pay for services from good earthlings and to use certain items like parking meters. Presents, of which there are 67 different types, can do all sorts of things, both good and bad. They can do things like refill health, give you special powers like flight and better jumping, or reveal parts of the map. They can hurt you as well by doing things like dropping all your items, damaging you, and lowering your rank. Some presents are broken when you find them and have a chance of exploding when opened. You can also drop presents you don’t want.

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You can only carry a limited number of presents at a time based on the character you choose and your current rank. Food can either restore or remove life. Rotten food, which always looks like the same types of food, hurts you while all other food helps you. Different types of food give or take different amounts of health. You can also gain XP. XP is used to increase your rank. Increasing your rank increases your stats like the size of your life bar, walking speed, and number of presents you can carry. There are a total of six stats with each character having their own strengths and weaknesses. You always start at the bottom rank at the beginning of a new game and can work your way up 15 ranks. You don’t level up automatically. Once you’ve collected enough XP, which can be gotten in many different ways, you then have to find a “wiseman” and he will increase your rank free of charge. You don’t have to increase your rank to beat the game. As soon as you find all 10 pieces of the spaceship you’ve won.

The gameplay is very simple to understand but that doesn’t make it easy. The many different enemy earthlings can be quite tricky and they often congregate in groups. Some will chase you or hit you with status effects like freezing you in place. Some will even drop you down to lower levels. Sometimes you’ll intentionally have to jump off levels to get away from enemies, causing you to have to back track and make your way up again. The map for each level always starts off blind and then expands as you explore the level you’re on. Presents are important. It’s necessary to use them often but strategically. The presents do many different things, but many of them are not identified until you’ve used them once. This means every time you find a new type of present you risk it being a bad present if you haven’t already used it previously to identify it. There is also a good earthling you can pay money to identify presents for you. I’m not 100% sure if this is true, but it seems to me that presents you’ve identified in past games will be identified in all future games. But there are also enemies and bad presents that remove your present labels and I’m not sure if this carries over to future games. It’s definitely something that I need to confirm with more research. It could also very well be completely random from game to game.

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The gameplay is always the same but there are three difficulties that can be played across three modes. The “Fixed World” mode has the map stay relatively the same every game. This is a good mode to learn how to play the game once you’ve finished the tutorial. But the real challenge is when you hit “Random World” mode. This is the same gameplay but the layout of the levels changes every time. This is the roguelike experience that was spawned by the original game. There is also “Random World Hard” mode. At the start you only have Fixed World mode and then you have to reach level 10 to unlock Random World mode. But you don’t unlock Random World Hard mode until you complete a Random World run. The Hard mode is harder but not by a huge amount, in my opinion. There aren’t necessarily more enemies but they do more damage. There are also fewer presents around. Or at least that was my experience playing it. I played it in coop with a total of three players so maybe that affected the experience as well. We did manage to beat it though. You also have to take into account difficulty level and character. You can actually change your difficulty mid game whenever you want from the pause menu, but you can’t unlock prizes and achievements unless you’re in normal mode, which is considered the hardest of the three modes. Because of this, I never took the time to play in either of the two easier modes because that would be a complete waste of time. Each of the nine playable characters has their own stats, so it’s important to understand all six stats and choose the character that best fits your play style.

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There are also two mini-games that you play within the game as special occurrences. The Hyperfunk Zone is kind of like a Sonic the Hedgehog style special zone. It’s a 2D side scroller where you continuously run from left to right collecting items until you run out of time or hit an exit portal. There is an ending, and an achievement for reaching it, but it’s quite a ways forward so it’s hard to achieve. It’s fairly simple to play and only requires you to press one button to dodge past exit portals. If you time it wrong then you leave the Hyperfunk Zone before reaching the end. You can also run out of time but picking up clocks extends your time in the zone. When you enter the Hyperfunk zone during coop play, all players are transported there regardless of where they are on the map. Each player plays independently but the running pace is the same. That means if you have two players and one gets out the other player can continue and the player who is out has to wait for all other players to finish.

The second mini-game is kind of like Guitar Hero but with buttons. You have to press corresponding buttons to a beat as they move down the screen. It works OK but the timing isn’t as clear as Guitar Hero and the feedback isn’t there with vibrations or anything so you tend to be too early or late sometimes because your eyes don’t agree with the beat, even though it looks like you were on time. This mini-game is played solo directly on the map so playing doesn’t affect other players during coop.

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Groove! supports both local and online cooperative play. When playing in coop mode, only one person has to be in normal difficulty to unlock prizes at the end. This is really convenient for when playing with younger children or amateur gamers. You can enjoy the game with them while allowing them to play at an easier difficulty without losing out on prizes. Local coop supports up to four players. Each HUD is added to another corner of the screen and the screen splits for local coop so having more than four players would get way too cluttered. Online coop, which doesn’t split the screen, also supports up to four players. You don’t actually see the HUDs for other players in online coop so technically there’s no reason it couldn’t support more, but four is the maximum and honestly that’s enough for the size and scope of this game.

I really like the way the coop works because it’s not limiting like most coop games. You are playing the same game on the same map, but you can work fairly independently of each other. You have your own lives and life bars, money, and presents. But present effects are shared. Or at least some of them are like invisibility. It didn’t seem like physical enhancement presents are shared like wings or rocket boots. When one player runs out of lives they become a ghost and can take a life from another player if that other player agrees to give one up. All players show up on the mini-map so you know where you are in proximity to each other. But if one of you falls down to the previous level the other player isn’t affected. The one limitation is that players can only progress to unvisited floors together. This means that if one player reaches the elevator to the next floor first then they have to wait for the other player(s) before they can progress to the next level, even if that player has fallen down to a previous level. Thankfully though, you are immune from all damage when inside the elevator so you don’t have to worry about dying while waiting for other players to get there. Even the fake elevators give you immunity when waiting for other players in them because they don’t reveal themselves to be fake until all players have entered them.

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During local coop, the game will instantly switch between shared and split screens depending on how close players are to each other. It will also split the screen if one of the players accesses the present or pause menu. The other players are unaffected. The screen splitting is dynamic so it constantly changes back and forth. It’s a horizontal split for two players, a horizontal and a vertical split for three players, and a 2×2 split for four players, all of which work fine for this gameplay. You do need a large enough monitor to play comfortably with that many players though. I can’t imagine trying to play this with four player split screen on the Switch handheld mode screen. The split can be set to dynamic or fixed. Dynamic means the screen will split based on location. The player farthest north on the map will inhabit the top screen in the event of a split. Fixed means the same player, player one, will always be on the top, or top left in the case of four players, whenever the game splits the screen regardless of your specific location on the map. This can be toggled in the pause menu at any time. There is a teleport option in coop mode that allows a player to join the rest of the group instantly but I haven’t figured out exactly what prompts this yet. I think it’s when all but one character is in the elevator waiting to move on to the next level, but I couldn’t recreate this in all situations.

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During coop there is a quick chat function which is fairly easy to use. It’s all preloaded text based comments that appear over the speaking character’s head. These can be used, whether online or offline, to give other players information like where to go or that you’re waiting for them. There is also a verbal cue to tell the other player(s) to look, but that’s only in local coop. In online coop, when characters are near each other, you can see the message appear over the speaking character’s head. When not near each other the message shows up at the bottom of the screen with the avatar of the character/player speaking. In local coop the quick chat message always appears over the speaking character’s head, requiring other players to look at that player’s screen if they’re not near each other and thus in shared screen view.

The drop in and out nature of the gameplay works really well for casual and serious play. Even the online allows people to drop in and out at a whim without ending the game. You can create private and public lobbies and jump into and out of games of any difficulty, including those you haven’t unlocked yet, easily. It will also let you continue if you jump into a game and then the original host leaves for whatever reason. The only issue I experienced with the online was once I joined a game and got all the way to the end but then it disconnected me before I got to claim the prizes. I’m also not entirely sure if players can boot you or not when you join their games so that may be what happened. Normally when you get to the end of an online game, even when you joined late, you get to claim the prizes as you normally would. You do not however, unlock Random World Hard mode by completing it online. You just get the achievement and the prizes but it remains locked in your game until you complete the Random World mode first.

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Overall, the gameplay is quite good. There are a few minor issues that one might consider bugs, but I’ve yet to witness anything game breaking. The gameplay is challenging but fair. There are definitely some balance issues from character to character though. ToeJam is way superior to Earl for example because of his much faster movement speed. There is also some sort of issue I can’t quite figure out where certain player combinations are forced in coop. Like when you try to join a game certain characters will be locked other than the character the host is already using. I’m not sure why this is. It may just be a bug because in local coop I can select any combination of characters I want including both retro and modern ToeJam & Earl at the same time. In any case, it’s a really fun game and I look forward to spending more time with it.

The greatest compliment I can give to Groove! in terms of writing is that it has any at all. Most roguelikes have little to no story for some reason. This game has a full story as well as in game dialog. It’s not a fully immersive, plot focused game by any means. But the fact that HumaNature Studios took the time to actually flesh out an entire narrative is a treat in and of itself. It’s a simple story that’s comprised of only two simple cutscenes and some in game dialog, but it still bookends the gameplay experience in a way that offers the player a reason to start and closure at the end. Really that’s all a game like this needs. The in game dialog is funny and there’s quite a lot of it. It takes place on the elevator rides between levels as well as during gameplay. It changes depending on how many players are in the game and who they are. Even with only one player there is still elevator dialog. It’s mostly funny comments about the game itself. Speech bubbles are also used during gameplay to tell the player things like when you’ve reached your maximum number of presents. At the same time that this happens, audible speech is used by the characters to clue you in when a speech bubble appears. There’s not much in the game as far as writing is concerned, but I’m happy with what was included. As a side note, this game has possibly the most comprehensive in game manual I’ve seen for any indie game ever. It’s split into 12 sections and has a ton of information. Taking the time to read through all of it before actually playing will help you considerably. It’s also important to note that the game can be played in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and/or Portuguese.

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As this is a ToeJam & Earl game, the music is not only important but top shelf. By my count, there are 32 songs in the game. You can actually access all of these in the credits whenever you want. The music is of course quite funky, as it should be. The sound effects and voice acting are good too. Very responsive with no lag and high quality. I was also very happy with the sound mixing. The sound effects are not drowned out by the music. You can set the volume levels of the music and effects separately in increments of 5 from 0 to 100. I keep them both at 100 and it sounds fine. I really don’t have any complaints about the sound in this game and I don’t think anything else needs to be said about it. It does not disappoint.

There’s a surprisingly large amount of replay value in this game. And not just because it has random world generation and three difficulty levels. That plays a factor, as does the fact that there are nine playable characters, three of which have to be unlocked. But really there is just a ton of content to unlock and interact with. Groove! has 49 achievements and 41 unlockable rewards, each having a different effect on the gameplay. Plus you can play with other people both on and offline. There’s just a lot to do if you really want to get your money’s worth. A single game takes about one to two hours maximum depending on the difficulty you’re playing at and your pace. At $20 I think the price is OK but not amazing. You definitely can get 20 hours out of this game if you want to do everything. But if you’re just playing to complete each difficulty once then it’s a four – six hour game at best. So either make of it what you will or wait for a discount. $10 would be more than fair for this game. I give it an A+ for replay value.

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It’s quite a mazing to be reviewing a ToeJam & Earl game in 2019 unironically. It took a long time to get this project started and then another four or so years to get it released after the Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded. HumaNature Studios definitely delivered. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is exactly what it needed to be. It has a few small bugs but really it’s a perfect recreation of the original game with modern conveniences and improvements added in a non-invasive way. I really can’t speak highly enough of this game. I definitely recommend it for people who like games that are just fun. It’s not too challenging. It’s not too intricate and doesn’t require a huge time commitment. It’s just a fun experience worth having and sharing with other people. And that’s really what ToeJam & Earl was always meant to be.

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Devotion Review – 6.9/10 (But definitely worth playing.)

Red Candle Games is a small Taiwanese studio that focuses specifically on producing games that present realistic depictions of Taiwanese culture and beliefs in a narrative focused structure while applying elements of horror. What is so interesting about their games though is that the horror aspects, like everything else in them, are not original concepts. They are realistic depictions of actual Taiwanese beliefs. That’s one of the main reasons their games are so interesting to play and why they appeal to such a diverse audience within Taiwan. Their first game, Detention, appealed to people of all walks of life and ages in Taiwan. It was an excellent 2D point and click that also managed to be quite scary. Now they’ve released their second game, Devotion, and it’s being met with similar appeal. Already there are reviews and videos of the game all over the Taiwanese internet not just from gamers but from a completely random assortment of Taiwanese citizens. This is because once again they have managed to capture an eerily realistic snapshot of Taiwanese life and culture. Even as an African American living in Taiwan and ultimately experiencing the culture as an outsider, I was extremely impressed with how well the game depicts Taiwan. So before getting into the real meat and potatoes of the game review, know that as cultural snapshots of Taiwan both Detention and Devotion are top notch experiences that are informative, entertaining (for horror fans), and highly accurate.

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Gameplay (Left) – My actual tile (Right)

Devotion is a first person walking simulator style game that takes place in a single apartment building located in, I believe, Taipei. The bulk of the game takes place in a single two bedroom apartment but there are a few sequences that have the player explore other parts of the building as well as fantasy locales for sequences taking place in the spirit realm. The graphics are an incredible step up from their previous game. This is a highly detailed 3D environment that takes place across multiple time periods and realms of reality. While it is still an indie game, the visual quality rivals that of some low to mid-tier AAA titles. The atmosphere is a mixture of vibrant hues and gloomy shadows. As the story takes place across several years of a family’s life, there are many ups and downs depicted in the same 3D space. Some moments are happy and inviting while others are scary and induce paranoia within the player. What’s truly impressive about the graphics is just how realistic they are.

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Gameplay (Left) – My actual door (Right)

As someone who actually lives in an apartment in Taiwan, playing Devotion is a very unique experience. I wasn’t aware of just how similar most apartments are in Taiwan before I played this game, but apparently they’re all pretty much the same, otherwise Red Candle Games must have snuck into my apartment for inspiration. So many small details about the game’s setting are pulled right out of my apartment. The entire time I was playing the game, my girlfriend kept commenting on all the objects that look exactly the same. From the floor tiles, to the doorbell, to the doors, to the kitchen, it’s all a bit too real. This is especially stressful when playing a horror game because it’s just too easy to place yourself within the game when it looks almost exactly like the place you actually live in. I think this is one of the main reasons so many people in Taiwan are taken with the game. It would probably be too uncomfortable of an experience to play this game in VR for me because I might end up trapped in an Inception like state of confusion about reality.

Gameplay wise, it’s a slow paced walking simulator that focuses on developing the story and atmosphere rather than on exciting gameplay mechanics. You move, look around, and click on things to interact with them. Occasionally you are required to use a few other buttons to do specific things like pull up your item menu or complete a specific active task for effect, but mostly it’s just looking around and discovering things. There is a single chase sequence that requires you to quickly run through a maze of hallways. This is the only part of the game where you can die, which I did several times. The game quickly reloads to the start of that sequence and has you try again until you’ve finally succeeded. Though this one sequence is different from the entire rest of the game’s gameplay it works just fine and requires little to no adjustment from normal play. Honestly I could have used a few more sequences of this nature to make the overall experience more exciting and increase the fear factor.

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A large part of the gameplay involves reading. There are 33 different documents to find, many of which contain clues that help you figure out how to progress forward. I don’t believe you need to find all of them to complete the game, because there is a trophy/achievement for doing so and not all of them reference specific actions you need to complete. The bulk of them provide you with background information about the narrative as well as culturally specific traditions and legends. As this is a point and click, reading and interpreting clues is paramount to reaching the end. Chances are you will get stuck and have to look over things more than one time before you realize what the game expects you to do. I ran into this situation about midway through the game. This was not an issue of language limitations, as all the text is in English and the dialog, though in Chinese, is all subtitled in English. The roadblock I ran into was cultural. You had to complete a ritual that was probably fairly obvious to most traditional Taiwanese citizens, but as an African American I knew nothing about it. It was only after reading through all the documents I collected along the way that I found the clue I needed to solve the puzzle. Though it can be frustrating while playing, I really like this type of system because it really forces you to use your skills of observation and interpretation to solve puzzles rather than just handing you the answers to move forward. Chances are you will end returning to each of the available time periods more than once before you find and figure out everything you need to finish the game.

While the gameplay is fairly basic at a mechanical level, I highly recommend that you use a keyboard and mouse if playing on PC, which I was. The game supports multiple controller types but the amount of lag when using a controller with the default settings is unbearable. I tried both a Dualshock 4 and a Wii U Pro Controller and both performed unacceptably. The walking movement is laggy and looking around is extremely inconsistent as well. But as soon as I switched to a keyboard and mouse the controls were flawless. Movement is smooth and quick to respond. Commands are highly responsive with pretty much no input lag. You do have the ability to try to change the sensitivity of the controller to make it run better, but not to the standard that it should be running at. I was able to clean up the movement considerably but there was still quite a bit of lag and the movement kept stopping abruptly after raising the sensitivity to account for the lag. You just need to use a keyboard and mouse to play this on PC. At least until some patches are added. Really the only performance problem I had once I gave up on using a controller was that the game crashed once near the end. A simple restart of the application solved the problem and no other ones ever occurred. And with the game’s auto-saving function I lost a maximum of maybe 2 minutes of progress with the restart. The game is also broken up into chapters so you can easily backtrack without having to lose too much progress. You can also use this function post-game to replay specific sequences.

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There are only a few sequences where the gameplay is slightly different from the general experience. The chase scene that I mentioned previously, a few mini-game style moments involving some puzzles, and a storybook fantasy sequence that plays like a platformer. All in all, the gameplay was exactly what it needed to be, but I do feel like there could have been more sequences outside of the traditional point and click mechanics of the normal gameplay.

As with Detention, the writing in Devotion is very personal and culturally specific. The game follows a family, mostly through the eyes of the father but sometimes from the daughter’s perspective as well. The story mixes elements of horror, mystery, and drama to touch on serious themes including parenting, religion, financial insecurity, marriage, and ultimately guilt. Much of the plot is steeped in metaphors and cultural references that don’t all necessarily translate to the larger world. I was lucky enough to be able to play through the whole game alongside a Taiwanese person to explain things to me. While this lack of cultural understanding will absolutely not hinder your ability to complete the game, there are definitely some parts of the narrative that you most likely won’t understand or be able to relate to directly depending on your cultural and religious background. The ending is a good example of this. It’s sort of abrupt and not clear what actually happened. But my girlfriend explained to me that if you read the Chinese text of the game that it’s much more obvious what actually occurred. I won’t spoil that here though. In a way it’s not necessarily a problem for the ending to be vague as the game touches on supernatural themes anyway that can be left up to interpretation by each individual player.

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I was happy with the way the story was presented, but ultimately it was a hollow overall experience for me compared to Detention. The buildup is really good and the atmosphere is very scary. Within the first 10 minutes of the game my girlfriend and I literally jumped out of our seats and yelled because of a specific occurrence. This, along with much of the marketing materials pre-release, led me to believe that this was going to be a true horror game. Sadly it wasn’t. There are a few horror sequences, and they are done fairly well, but the bulk of the game is not scary. Instead the atmosphere is used to make the player expect something scary to happen but that rarely happens throughout the course of the game. The rest of the game is more sad and introspective than terrifying. And that’s not a problem, or at least it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t been misled into believing I was about to play a horror game. So while the writing was in no way bad, it also lacked the impact I wanted it to have. It was very similar to playing Gone Home (2013), where the game comes off like a haunted house horror game but is really just an emotional journey about the main character’s family problems and learning to accept reality. I would love to see these same visual assets reused to make a proper horror game.

Because I was much more focused on reading subtitles and documents as well as searching for clues, I feel like the sound didn’t have the impact on me it probably could have had while I was playing. There are some great sound effects at times such as the use of knocking on doors to clue you in on where you should be going next. The sound quality of the voice acting was quite good, even if I couldn’t understand it directly. The music, though few and far between, was effective and really helped bring the daughter character to life.  Overall, the sound quality was quite good, but my need to focus on reading detracted from my ability to focus on and ultimately appreciate it. It’s important to note that you could technically play through the whole game with the sound off but you would lose out on the full impact of the voice acting, the music used as part of the narrative, and some of the of the better sound effects.

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I can’t really say that there’s any reason to replay Devotion more than once. You can easily get 100% completion in the first playthrough and if you miss anything it’s easy to load one of the chapters and backtrack to the achievement(s) you missed. This is ultimately how I got the only achievement I missed during my first playthrough. And the chapter load took me right to where I needed to get to complete that achievement. So while the first playthrough is quite good, I really can’t say that there is any real replay value in this game. I have already heard rumors that extra content will be added though. The whole game can be beaten in under 4 hours so I gotta say that the $17 price tag is a bit too steep. It’s definitely worth playing and can be beaten to a 100% completion in one sitting, which I did. But my advice is to wait for a price drop.

While I liked Detention more overall, Devotion was a great step up quality wise for Red Candle Games. The jump in graphics between the two games was mind blowing. The writing, though not as scary, was just as culturally significant and impactful while remaining a personal narrative about specific characters in the world. And the narrative is totally believable. The supernatural stuff is of course open for interpretation but the real life events could be about pretty much any Taiwanese family. The gameplay works, but they really need get the controller performance up to snuff. I’m kind of curious to see how the game will perform on other platforms when it’s inevitably ported like Detention was. While I gave it a 6.9, let me be clear in saying that this score is not because the game isn’t good. It’s because it has issues with controller play, no replay value, and a fairly high opening price point for the amount of actual gameplay. The score is in no way meant to present the game as a bad gameplay experience. I simply can’t in good conscience score it higher with those issues. If the game was at say $5, had more achievements, and no controller issues, we’re looking at something around an 8/10 rating. At the end of the day, I encourage you to try Devotion. It’s an interesting experience that’s much different from the walking simulators and point and clicks you see from Western developers. It’s a solid second installment for the company and certainly worth your time.

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Ode to a Backpack

More than 20 years ago, when I was just a boy, my parents bought me a backpack. I was going to attend a church camp in the summer and they required all students to bring a backpack. My mother didn’t want me to use my school back pack so she decided that I needed one specifically for activities. It was a simple all black Everest brand backpack. It had two pockets in the front, one smaller pouch behind those, two netted side pockets, and then the main pouch. Even by today’s standards, it was a pretty nice simple back pack. Today you can’t even find a four compartment backpack from them on their site or Amazon that still falls within the normal backpack category. What I did not know then was that this backpack would be my closest companion for two straight decades.

Old Faithful

If backpacks could talk, the story mine would tell would be more interesting than the lives of most people. It has been to multiple states including CA, IL, WI, PA, TX, MI, NC, AZ, CO, NV, FL, AL, and NY. It has been to and lived in multiple countries including the USA, France, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Taiwan. It’s transported thousands of dollars in products like laptops, gaming systems, mp3 players, and countless articles of clothing. It’s aided in crimes like transporting illegally obtained alcohol (past cops), smuggling alcohol into college dorms for underage drinking, and pirating digital content. It’s been used regularly in multiple jobs, been to countless theme parks and tourist attractions, and has traveled more than 100 miles by bike and on foot. It’s truly lived an amazing life for a backpack and I’m surprised it’s lasted this long.

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Sadly, my backpack is ready to retire. I honestly thought this day would come sooner and I’ve been worried about it for several years. The inner lining is pretty much gone, the main zipper has bunches of threads caught in it, and it only has two of its six original zipper pulls. But it stuck it out for a very long time. And honestly it could last even longer if not for the weather here in Taiwan. After so much wear and tear, the main seam finally popped and the hole is slowly growing as more and more of it opens. I could try to patch it but the threads are already pulled so much that it would be cheaper and less time consuming to just buy another back pack. And with the amount of rain we get here having holes, even when patched, is no bueno. But this back pack has been so good to me for so long that I felt it needed a proper memorial in the form of this blog post.

Holes

I’ve had this back pack longer than most of my friends. My relationship with this backpack is four times longer than the one I have with the woman I will most likely end up marrying. It’s been with me through thick and then. I’ve been homeless with it. I’ve traveled around the world with it. It’s been with me through multiple relationships, jobs, and adventures. I can honestly say that if I had to choose between saving my backpack and a complete stranger I’d have to think about it.

Substitue

It’s been a great run, but all good things must come to an end. The hard part now is replacing such a backpack effectively. I own other backpacks I’ve acquired in one way or another over the years but none of them can replace this one. They’re either too big and bulky or too small and fragile. I need something at the same normal size with the same quality, which is much harder to find in today’s cheap mass produced production system. And it needs to have just as many pockets. I’ve been using a temporary backpack I already owned of similar size and style, but it doesn’t compare. The pockets are all in the wrong places, it’s of a cheaper overall quality, and it’s a pull string and buckle main pocket instead of a zipper, which I hate. And already the buckle is giving me problems after just three days of use because of low quality workmanship. I’ll have to explore the markets of Taipei and find a replacement backpack worthy of the mantle. I don’t know how long it will take, but I won’t rush the decision and I’ll spare no expense. Well maybe that’s not entirely true, but I am willing to spend a decent amount of money for a solid backpack to replace this one. I don’t want to have to replace it for at least another 20 years. To that end I say farewell backpack. Thank you for your service, loyalty, and strength. Good night sweet prince. I bid you adieu.

New Hotness

*After writing, but before publishing this piece I was able to find a new backpack that met all my conditions. All black, has the two front pockets, a smaller pouch, and main pouch, zippers with pulls, and two netted sides. It also has some amenities old faithful didn’t like a laptop pocket inside the main pouch. I’ll probably use for my Switch though. Plus I was able to find it for a very fair $13.41 including taxes. Hopefully this is the last post like this I make for another 20 years.

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Nintendo Switch IS for Families

This week is/was Chinese New Year/Lunar New Year depending on what type of Asian you are/know. In America that doesn’t mean much. At most you go to dinner at a Chinese restaurant or possibly cook dinner at home and maybe a few relatives and friends come for the meal. Here in Taiwan that means no work for a week, multiple family gatherings, and buying gifts for people ranging from your girlfriend’s grandmother to your land lord because you just kind of have to do it. So I really didn’t have time to delve into any serious topics for my blog this week and haven’t beaten anything recently to do a Gaming Photography post because I happen to be playing both Final Fantasy VII and Super Ghouls’n Ghosts currently, both of which are nothing but long, drawn out headaches. Granted Super Ghouls’n Ghosts isn’t supposed to take more than 90 minutes but it absolutely is because it’s the most unfair, bullshit game ever made and if the SNES Classic didn’t have save states I would surely never be able to beat it. I’m currently stuck on the boss of the game. So it seemed easier for me to write a short anecdote about a gaming moment that happened to me this week rather than try to do something serious.

At one of the multiple Chinese New Year gatherings I attended this week I was asked to bring my Nintendo Switch. For me this was a special occurrence because I had yet to actually take my Switch anywhere. Since I got it in November, I have used it quite a bit but not once had I played it portable or taken it anywhere else. It’s been a dedicated home console just like my PS4. So I was kind of excited to see how the whole experience would be.

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All this plus an extra Joy-Con set and Grip and Cartridge Case.

The first thing I’ll say is that this is the easiest home console to transport I’ve ever owned. Packing it up, including the dock, into the official carrying case is a breeze. It’s such a fast, easy, and efficient process. I was able to fit the console, dock, four joy cons, two joycon grips, a cartridge case, and the necessary wires all in the very compact carrying case from Hori. I can definitely see myself taking the full console setup to other places in the future simply because of how easy it is to do.

This gathering consisted of about 15 people, including me. All 15 people enjoyed the Switch. Not all 15 actively held a controller, but everyone present enjoyed seeing it in action and watching the various hands on participants play the games I had. We only played the local multiplayer games I have, which consists of Just Dance 2018, Overcooked, Snipperclips, Super Bomberman R, and ARMS. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe would have been a perfect game to have present but I refuse to rebuy a game I already own on the Wii U.

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Just Dance was the most fun for the people present. Even the older adults gave it a try and got really competitive. My girlfriend’s parents even challenged us to a couple’s dance off, which was absolutely hilarious. People were recording various members of the family playing and there were even bets placed on who would get the best score. Of course I got first place in every round, except for one where my girlfriend managed to sneak by me.

Super Bomberman R was a big hit because it, more than any other game, bridged the age gap between all the people present. Local PVP Bomberman has existed since 1983, meaning that just about everyone present with any gaming experience had played it at some point. Even my girlfriend’s dad was totally into it and actually quite good because the rules of engagement have changed very little in the more than three decades that people have been playing Bomberman PVP.

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Overcooked and Snipperclips are both hilarious and nightmarishly difficult to play when you can’t communicate well in the same language. I have all the knowledge and experience but can’t speak Chinese which made coordinating three other people to be able to complete team based challenges super irritating and nearly impossible with some levels of Overcooked. It also doesn’t help that my girlfriend finds both games super irritating in general because she hates teamwork based games. Or at least playing them with me . . .

All in all, I was very impressed with how the Switch performed at a family event. It was convenient, inclusive, entertaining, and versatile. I absolutely don’t believe that the same amount of fun could have been had with either a PS4 or an XB1. And it certainly wouldn’t have been as convenient or efficient as far as space and setup time for either of those two consoles. So if you don’t have a Switch and you do want something to use with other people in person, I highly recommend it for people of any age group. It definitely did exactly what I needed it to do in this scenario.

Happy Chinese New Year!

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As always, thanks for reading. Please take the time to follow my blog, leave a comment, and check out some of my other channels if you enjoyed what you read.