Finally Finished The Witcher 2

In 2013, I was in a really weird place in my life. Maybe the lowest I’ve been since I graduated college. I was living in a shitty town in a shitty state making pizza in a bar with a dual degree from an Ivy League university. No this isn’t the story of another failed liberal arts degree student. This is a story about love. My girlfriend, now wife, was attending graduate school in a small town I’d never heard of and I moved there with her to support her financially. What I wasn’t aware of when I agreed to move there was that there were no real businesses in that town except bars. I didn’t own a car at the time because we had moved there from abroad. And even if I had owned a car, we lived in a college dorm, provided by her graduate program, that charged a fortune for parking so owning a car in that scenario wasn’t really an option anyway. So I got the only local job I could find, which ended up being making pizza in a bar. I worked long hours, weekends, and was paid very little. But I did it because you gotta do what you gotta do.

At the time I owned a SONY Vaio laptop that was three or four years old. I had used it during college and couldn’t afford to replace it so I continued using it as my only computer option. It was good enough for basic things but it couldn’t run most games other than older emulators and indie titles. Some of my followers may remember my failed attempts to stream via that laptop back in those days. I spent most of my time gaming on my PS4 and Wii U and usually streamed via my PS4 directly to Twitch. I also recorded a lot of footage and uploaded it after the fact. My laptop could handle this. It just took a really long time to process the videos.

2020-04-16_0205_1During this time, a friend recommended that I try a game called The Witcher. It was a PC game made in 2007 by some Polish developer I had never heard of. I didn’t know a thing about the game. Today that seems ridiculous to say, but this was before The Witcher 3 was really being talked about. In fact, it was like right before. If you followed the company and the franchise, then you probably already knew about it and were looking forward to playing it. But if you weren’t already into the franchise then, like me, you probably knew nothing about it. And I’m someone who’s usually pretty knowledgeable about upcoming games even when I’m not looking to play them myself. I wasn’t really interested in playing The Witcher but both it and The Witcher 2 were on sale on GOG for like $4 together so I bought them more to appease my friend than out of any actual interest.

As with most games I buy, I didn’t end up playing The Witcher as soon as I bought it. A few weeks or maybe even months went by. Then suddenly The Witcher 3 began its mainstream marketing run. This was actually one of the last games I remember seeing commercials for on cable, because this was the last time in my life that I regularly watched cable TV. The game looked amazing. We know now that it was/is, but at the time the ads were the thing that really sold me. But I’m the type of person that needs to play all the games in a franchise in order. So my desire to play The Witcher 3 finally pushed me to start The Witcher.

2020-04-23_0147_1Thankfully my old laptop could run The Witcher. This shouldn’t be surprising because the game came out about three years before my laptop. I would call The Witcher the best bad game I’ve ever played. It can only be described as some of the best writing I’ve ever seen in a game coupled with some of the worst gameplay I’ve ever forced myself to slog through to the end. It’s not even accurate to call it a great game so much as a great experience. I absolutely hated actually playing it but I couldn’t get enough of the story, characters, and world. So when I finished it, I immediately knew that I was gonna play The Witcher 3 and literally loaded up The Witcher 2 as soon as the credits finished rolling. This is where my troubles really began.

The Witcher was released in 2007 and my laptop from 2010 could run it with little issue. Even though it wasn’t a gaming laptop, the leaps forward in technology over that three year gap made an office laptop viable for playing an old game. The Witcher 2 on the other hand was released in 2011. While it wasn’t released that far after my laptop, it was a modern game with hefty graphics for the time. Sadly my SONY Vaio just couldn’t hack it. Even at the lowest settings, I was not able to run The Witcher 2 smoothly. I was so depressed that I couldn’t play that game. At this point I no longer owned an XBOX 360 and for some stupid reason that was the only console the game was available on. I could have went out and bought a used one but I refused to go back to a console that had already broken down and been replaced on four separate occasions before I finally gave the system up for good. That meant that my only option was getting a new PC.

2020-04-23_0054_2It was at this moment that I finally decided to build my own PC. I had known multiple people in college who had built their own gaming desktops but the prospect of doing that always scared me. It seemed too difficult, too expensive, and too risky. But I decided that was as good a time as any because I really wanted to play The Witcher 2. The Witcher 3 was a non-issue because I could get that on PS4 if I wanted to. But I had to play The Witcher 2 first. I never do anything small. If I’m gonna do something, I’m gonna take it seriously from start to finish. I wasn’t just gonna build an OK PC that could barely run The Witcher 2. I was gonna build a hefty system that could easily tackle running The Witcher 3. It ultimately took me three years of studying, saving, and planning before I finally built my gaming desktop. By that time I had left that shitty state (and country at this point), moved back abroad, and had landed a job in the PC hardware industry. My passion for playing The Witcher 2 in many ways led me to where I am now.

I got the PC built but rather than play The Witcher 2 right off the bat I, like many gamers, got distracted by other titles. So the game I had built my PC to play got pushed aside for a long time. I’ve played countless games on my PC since then. If you watch my streams then you know some of the much more advanced games I’ve played on PC such as Watch Dogs 1 & 2, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, DOOM, Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, and the list goes on. I’m very happy with my PC and I’m proud of myself for the accomplishment it was to pay for and build it. But I didn’t actually end up starting The Witcher 2 till three years after it was built.

2020-05-10_2359_2Last month I finally started The Witcher 2, and last week I finally completed it. It took almost seven years of dedication to a single goal to reach this point. There were definitely distractions and roadblocks along the way, but I got here. It might not seem like the biggest accomplishment in the world, but to me it’s important. That’s why I felt it was necessary to document this moment here.

I committed to building a PC and playing The Witcher 2 in 2013. I finished The Witcher 2 on May 11th, 2020. And now I can finally play The Witcher 3. But I’ll probably put it off for like another three years because reasons.

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Rip & Terror

Recently I finished DOOM (2016) for the first time. I was not planning on playing it when it was originally announced, because it’s way out of my normal wheelhouse. Not only do I not like shooters for the most part, but I specifically hate FPS. I also tend to dislike Hellish/Satanist aesthetics in games, with some noteworthy exceptions such as the immaculate Dante’s Inferno (2010). So while highly praised by most, I was gonna pass. After many people recommended the game to me, I still wasn’t going to play it until they finally released a demo on PS4 sometime in like late 2018. I don’t know why the demo was released on PS4 so far after release, but this was the first time that I actually got to try the game hands on. While I’m not a fan of the genre, I immediately could tell this was a well-made game. That’s the mark of a truly good game. It’s when someone who isn’t a fan can play it and quickly tell that it’s a good game to a point where they want to play it even though they usually wouldn’t. After finishing this demo, I agreed to eventually purchase and play the game. Several months later, I was able to purchase it on Steam for $5. Then several months after that I finally decided to play it. I’ve actually been live streaming a let’s play of it, which you can check out here if interested.

Dante's InfernoMy reason for not usually wanting to play shooters is that I’m not a fan of guns. But I play many third person shooters anyway when they seem compelling. I’ve streamed many Ubisoft shooters such as Watch Dogs 1 & 2, Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, and The Division 2 as examples. My reason for not usually wanting to play FPS games is that I really dislike the first person view. I often find it disorienting and don’t like not being able to see my character. Especially when they look like a badass. That’s the main reason I’m appalled by games like Deus Ex. Why would I want to be a badass looking cyborg if I can’t see him in action? As with shooters in general, there are exceptions where I will play a game in first person, but these are much fewer and far between. This is especially true for FPS titles. I’d much rather play a first person RPG like Skyrim over a first person shooter. The last “full length” AAA FPS game I recall playing was Destiny (2014). So playing something like DOOM is extremely out of character for me. But as I said, exceptions do occasionally occur. DOOM being the most recent one.

I tend to dislike hellish themed games for similar reasons to why I hate zombie games. The subject matter calls back to internalized fears that stem all the way back to my childhood. It’s for this reason that I don’t play many Hellish themed games. Or at least not the Western/Bible inspired hell aesthetic anyway. I have no issue with demon filled games from Japan. I can’t wait to finally play Nioh 2. I also don’t have any issue with games like God of War, where you visit Hades. These alternate interpretations of the underworld do not instill any sort of fear within me and thus I have no problem playing them. Whereas the last game I played based on the Christian idea of Hell is probably Dante’s Inferno, which I played at release. And the last zombie game I played was probably The Last of Us Remastered in 2017. I guess you could also say The Last of Us – Left Behind DLC, which I finally played this year, if you want to be completely accurate. They’re just not games I play. To date I’ve never played or watched a single Resident Evil game or movie.

Nioh 2What I think is interesting about DOOM is that not only am I playing it, but I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying the gameplay. It’s quite good. I don’t really think I need to delve much further into this because I’ve already stated that the main reason I decided to play it was because the gameplay in the demo was so good. But what I think is more interesting is the fact that I don’t feel uncomfortable playing it aesthetic wise. As I said, Hellish games make me uncomfortable. The only times I generally allow myself to play them is when the graphics aren’t trying to be too realistic or when the gameplay is just too good to pass up. The latter was the case with both Dante’s Inferno and now DOOM. I went into the game expecting to be uncomfortable. One of the reasons I decided to stream it was that I’d not be playing it alone so I could distract myself from my discomfort with the aesthetic. But I haven’t really had any issues playing it. And I think the reason why is Doomguy.

Doom Screenshot 2020.03.30 - 18.43.34.68In general, there are two main types of protagonists in any sort of narrative driven game focused on violence as the main form of gameplay. There are of course occasionally exceptions, but for the most part you’re always either the underdog or the badass. The underdog is not qualified to be in the situation he/she has been thrown into. They get placed in a conflict they didn’t really want to be in and then sort of luck and hard work their way through to the end. Nathan Drake, modern Lara Croft, and Joel all exemplify this underdog persona. It doesn’t matter how many adventures they’ve been on or what they’ve already accomplished. They always seem to be up against overwhelming odds with little chance of succeeding/surviving. But with brains, a can-do attitude, and luck they somehow make it to the end alive. The badass is unsurprisingly the polar opposite. This character is always the go to person for the task. They’re over qualified for whatever the problem is and no one believes they can’t actually complete the task given to them except the villain, for obvious reasons. This is how protagonists like Kratos, Master Chief, and Doomguy are characterized in their games. They’re revered and downright feared by almost everyone they come into contact with. Their reputations precede them, and rightly so. Take just about any super successful story driven AAA franchise and the main protagonist usually falls into one of these two archetypes.

 

Episode - Screenshot 2018-05-04 22-48-07You never see a game where you’re just some average cop, solider, or agent who’s qualified but not the ideal choice. It’s either a highly decorated person or a rookie who literally just started. This is done intentionally in order to set the tone of the game. The developers either want you to feel unqualified so victory seems so much bigger at the end. Or they want you to feel overly qualified so they can give you lots of awesome weapons and moves without having to justify them narratively. But there’s also an experiential aspect to these types of characterizations. The underdog instills a sense of fear in the player. As you’re being told you shouldn’t be there and you have no chance, you feel inadequate as the person controlling that avatar. Conversely, as you’re being told you’re a badass and this mission shouldn’t be a problem, you feel confident that you can get it done as the person controlling the avatar. And very few avatars are built up to be as badass as Doomguy.

I think the reason I haven’t been uncomfortable playing DOOM is that the persona of the Doom Slayer, or Doomguy as I will continue to call him, is just so epic. It’s a man that’s so badass and powerful that the demons in Hell literally set up monuments in memory of his legend. He’s said to be a man that was so angry at the demons of Hell that he was granted immortality by the Seraphim (angels) in order to fight eternally against the demons and take revenge for whatever wrong they did him. How can you be scared when the enemy is literally afraid of you as part of the canon? And it’s not just in the canon but in the gameplay. On more than one occasion I’ve seen demons of multiple types try to run away from me during combat. Doomguy is the epitome of the epic declaration “I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me.” And that level of confidence and badassery is transferred to the player.

Doom-Glory-KillI’ve beaten Demon’s Souls, all three Dark Souls games, and Bloodborne. Yet every time I go to start another From Software soulslike title I’m intimidated. It’s not because I don’t think I can beat it, because I have more than enough proof to know that I can. I’m intimidated because the game presents itself as being more than the player can handle. The motto is literally “Prepare to Die”. The game chops your comfort and confidence down from the start. DOOM does the exact opposite. It actively builds the player up from the very beginning to feel like you can achieve anything and already have. And as such you can stroll into Hell by choice, rip and tear through demons twice your size, and then stroll back out at your leisure. Because you’re Doomguy.

The positive psychology in the presentation of a game is not something I’ve thought much about before playing DOOM. The negative psychology I’ve thought about many times. It’s fairly obvious how it works and how effective it is. Because the player almost always goes into a game with a natural inferiority to begin with. I’m not a super solider, monster hunter, or Dhovakin. I’m just a guy that plays a lot of video games. So it’s fairly easy for the developer to make me feel unqualified for the challenge to begin with. This is how most zombie games are presented. You’re always a normal guy with at best a bit of cop training plunged into an undead nightmare. Even the zombie games where you’re not an amateur still pretty much make you an average guy with a bit of experience at most. You’re never an otherworldly epic badass seasoned by a mountain of corpses beneath your feet. That’s because zombie games are always framed as survival games. You’re always trying to survive an apocalypse. From a narrative standpoint that makes sense because zombies always bring about a dystopian reality in narratives. But that doesn’t mean it has to necessarily be that way.

Resident Evil ProtagonistsI don’t like zombie games but I would probably enjoy one that presented itself like DOOM. Rather than a random gym teacher or beat cop, make the protagonist a complete over the top badass. Not a wannabe badass with a motorcycle and a sob story but an actual balls to the wall, no strings attached badass. I don’t want to fear Mr. X. I want Mr. X to shit his pants when he sees me. Give me a game that frames the protagonist like the Doom Slayer at the beginning of DOOM Eternal. Make the humans more afraid to piss me off than they are of the zombies. Give me epic armor and crazy badass weapons. Don ‘t set me in a world with zombies. Set the zombies in a world with me. I’d probably enjoy that zombie game.

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GOG Galaxy 2.0 Beta Review

I’m a big fan of GOG and have been for many years. They’re actually my favorite storefront to buy PC games from. Though their selection is limited compared to Steam and other PC game distributors, I try to buy from them wherever applicable. One of the main reasons I really liked them when I first found out about them was how convenient their distribution system was. There was no launcher. You just went to their site and downloaded the entire DRM free game you purchased directly to be used offline. For me, this was always a better, more convenient option than Steam. Some years later, they released the GOG Galaxy launcher, which I was against at first because it meant having to have yet another launcher and that suddenly DRM was slowly, and sadly, becoming a thing for GOG. Make no mistake, requiring a launcher to access your games is a form of DRM. Having to login to access your games is a form of DRM. Eventually I gave in and started using GOG Galaxy. It’s good as far as launchers go, but there’s nothing particularly better about it compared to other launchers.

In the time since installing GOG Galaxy 1.0, I have had to add a number of additional game launchers to my system. Uplay, Origin, Bethesda, Epic Games Store, and so on. Every publisher has decided they need their own launcher now. I’m not one of those people who gets angry at companies for not putting their games on Steam. I understand their desire to want to make more money and spend less of it distributing their games. But like with TV streaming services today, there’s a point where there’s just too many entities offering what is essentially the same service with disjointed content. This is what first attracted me to GOG Galaxy 2.0.

LibraryGOG Galaxy 2.0 offers a simple value proposition: manage all your games in one place. It’s a launcher that allows you to see and manage all your games, including those you have on PS4 and XB1, in one organized collection. Honestly it sounded too good to be true when I first heard about it. While simple from a technological standpoint, I didn’t see how GOG, or really any company, would deliver something that actually connects all the games I have, except for those on Nintendo Switch, in one convenient location with user data and preferences from that many separate launchers and two non-PC gaming platforms. So I jumped at the chance to download the beta build as soon as I saw the announcement. I’ve now spent a fair amount of time using the launcher and thought it would be beneficial to write a review of my experiences.

The first thing I want to say is that GOG Galaxy 2.0 (GG2) absolutely delivers. I can honestly say that this is the last launcher I will ever use for my normal day to day gaming needs. That being said, there are a number of caveats which sadly still requires me to make use of other launchers to get the full spectrum of PC gaming and management services I require for all my PC gaming needs. The second thing I want to say is that this is absolutely still a beta build and while I have been using it as my go to launcher, it has a number of bugs and fixes that need to be made. It lags at times when trying to apply tags to games from the grid view. It even crashed once and made me have to restart my whole system.

General Activity Feed.pngIn practice, GG2 is basically Facebook for your games via other game launchers. I say that intentionally with all the good and bad that comes with the Facebook platform. The way it works is that you manually connect each launcher you have installed on your system into GG2’s interface by logging into each launcher via GG2. You can connect or disconnect launchers/services you have connected at any time. To me there does seem to be a level of security risk with linking and logging into all your platforms at the same time and handing that login information to GOG. But you make the same sort of decisions with connecting your social media to your phone every day. I will also acknowledge that each launcher you connect has you login to the launcher’s official login window as opposed to a special GOG one so maybe they aren’t actually being given your login information directly. You can’t actually buy any games, other than from the GOG store, in GG2. In fact, you can’t even access stores from other launchers from within GG2. It’s strictly a platform for managing your games while replacing GOG Galaxy 1.0 for GOG related purchases and gaming.

What GG2 actually does is import your library page from each connected launcher, along with whatever play progress data it can find, and mashes all those libraries together in a single, convenient UI. The launcher separates each connected platform via convenient tabs, but the default page shows you your entire collection of games as one massive list. It can be viewed in either grid view with imported cover images for most games, or list view which shows the name and platform each game comes from. When you choose a specific launcher tab it just filters the same view to that one platform’s games.

PlayStation GameI was quite impressed with the amount of information GG2 imported for each game from each platform. It shows all your achievements/trophies, the date they were acquired, and your play activity for each game. As a note though, it only tracks data from PS4 on for PlayStation and GOG data after a certain year, when I guess they officially started tracking play data for users. Many of my games have no data shown. It imports your friends list from each platform and shows you a comparison of how you’ve done compared to your friends in each specific game. On the subject of friends lists, there’s a feed on the right of the launcher that shows friend activity across all platforms in real time, organized by platform. In one convenient location I’m able to see which of my friends are online in Uplay, PSN, Steam, and so on all at the same time. I’m able to see what games they’re playing and what they’re accomplishing in real time with time stamps. Even though the feed isn’t interactive, it’s super convenient when trying to pick which game to play, if you’re looking for a multiplayer experience. You can also hide/show the feed with a single button on the UI. The add friends and chat functions only work for GOG friends though.

Missing Covers PSNIt needs to be said that GG2 is still limited in what it can actually do in reference to non-GOG games. As the other launchers aren’t actually ceding control to GOG, you can’t directly launch games from GG2. When you press play on any PC game a login window for that game’s launcher will pop up before you can actually play the game. Even if you’ve told GG2 to remember your login information for all platforms, you will still have to manually login to each game’s perspective platform every time. Launch a Steam game, you have to go through the entire Steam login process. Launch a Uplay game, you still have to go through the entire Uplay login process. What GG2 is doing is essentially creating desktop shortcuts for all your games and organizing them into a single unified and curated list for you. I will say though that there are a number of bugs, as this is a beta. For instance, not all my games showed up. Sometimes they show up and then other times they don’t. Often a specific connected account disconnects the next time I load up the application and I have to reconnect it. Thankfully though, when this happens my tagging/filtering options remain intact.

From a security standpoint, this is a good way to do this. GG2 doesn’t actually have full access or control of your other accounts and thus if it was hacked, that wouldn’t necessarily allow the hacker to have access to all your games and account information. At the same time, it’s very inconvenient. Having all your games in one place with access via a single login regardless of where you purchased the games would be amazing, and GG2 almost gets there. Having to login again for that last step to actually play your games is depressing but ultimately manageable. Especially considering the time you saved by not having to open multiple launchers to figure out which game you want to play.

List SortingAs far as PlayStation and I assume XB1 titles, obviously you can’t play them from the launcher. GG2 simply says “launch this game from your console” when you click the play button for a console game. What would have been nice is at least being able to activate the app on console from your PC, but we’re not there yet apparently. It’s also important to mention that, at least for the PlayStation games since I don’t have an XB1, GG2 will only track games tied to your PSN account with a digital footprint. What this means is that all digital PS4 games, including ones you own but don’t have downloaded, will show up in your GG2 list under the PlayStation tab. But only PS4 games that you have actual progress in will show up when it comes to physical versions. I think this is because it’s using the trophy list to figure out which non-PC games you have.

I really like that GG2 shows when you own multiple versions of the same game on multiple platforms. It very clearly shows you how many versions you own, which platforms you own them on, and lets you select which version you’d like to interact with and check player data for. This is a clutch feature that I’m not sure I would have even thought about on my own. It’s not perfect at this point though as some games do show up twice in your list. I think it comes down to naming within each platform more than anything else. For instance, The TellTale Game of Thrones Season 1 game shows up twice in my list. One version on PS4 and the other on PC. But the one on PS4 is just called Game of Thrones while the one on PC is called Game of Thrones: A TellTale Series. So I think that’s why it happened. And yet it didn’t separate my three versions of Batman: Arkham Asylum, each with a slightly different name. In fact, it shows each slightly different name in the game’s main page when you click the versions owned tab. So it’s not an exact science at this point.

Multiple Versions OwnedWhat is actually much more useful and convenient than the tabs is the manual tagging and filtering system.  All your games on all platforms are shown together in one giant list as a default until you use the filters. GG2 gives you the ability to manually tag and filter all the games in your list in whatever way you want. You can also manually hide games from your list. The filtering system lets you use as many tags as you want concurrently to filter the list and tells you how many games using the tag(s) are currently hidden. As a bonus feature, you can click the notice and it will reveal the hidden games and hide the normally shown ones and then go back to normal when you click it again.

The filtering system is a feature I’ve had to do manually for years with folders on my PS4. It’s super convenient in GG2 and makes managing a combined list of more than 600 games much easier. I created three custom tags for filtering: Beaten, Backlog, and Trash. I tagged the games I have already completed with “Beaten”. This allowed me to filter out all the games I’ve finished when I’m trying to pick a new game to play. I tagged the games I actually would like to play from my collection with Backlog. This allows me to set apart games I would actually like to play at some point from the rest of the group, thus streamlining my decision making process. Finally, I tagged the games I would absolutely never play with Trash. My one complaint about the tagging system is that it has to be done manually one game at a time. You are unable to select and tag multiple games at once. This is a non-issue once you’ve gone through and gotten all your tagging done, but it’s hell when you go through and tag your entire collection the first time.

FiltersThere are also a number of small quality of life features that aren’t necessary but make for a way better experience. For instance, when you are scrolling through the grid and you click into a game’s page there’s a back button. Pressing it will take you back to the place in the list you were at when you clicked that specific game. You can give the games star ratings. You can look at your user data measured in daily, weekly, or monthly increments. There’s a general activity feed that shows everything you’ve done such as add games, get trophies/achievements, and play sessions. There are lots of little things like that which make for a great overall launcher experience.

My one big complaint, which doesn’t surprise me and I doubt it will ever be fixed, is that you can’t connect multiple accounts of the same platform. For instance, I have 2 PSN accounts and 2 Steam accounts. This is because I live in Asia but for the most part purchase games in American digital stores. Sometimes I’m forced to purchase a game through my Asian account(s) for various reasons. GG2 doesn’t account for this though so all my secondary account games are not shown in my collection. This is a problem easily fixed that will most likely never get added.

Store FeaturedOverall, I really like GOG Galaxy 2.0. It’s not a finished service yet, but as far as launchers are concerned, it’s the most convenient game organization and management tool I’ve ever seen. I wish I could connect my Switch account to it too. Even people who don’t use GOG can find a use for this if they’re buying their games on more than one launcher/platform. The organizational tools available make it a must for anyone with a large selection of games. I look forward to using the launch version of the software.

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Finally Dealt with the Devil (Cuphead Completed)

I’ve had a long and colorful relationship with the game Cuphead. I remember when it was first announced at E3 as an XB1 exclusive back in 2014. I was actually the person who started the wiki on IGN for Cuphead when I worked on their E3 wiki creation strike team. I knew from the first announcement that I wanted to play this game but I also feared that I never would because I was absolutely not going to buy an XB1, and I still haven’t. But thankfully Microsoft decided to port all their games to PC. That’s also how I finally got a copy of Sunset Overdrive, which I still need to play.

Before Cuphead was released on PC, people were already talking about it on XB1, and they were not happy. While the game was praised for both the art and gameplay, so many people took issue with both. The art angered people because of the racist history behind the style. And the gameplay angered people because it was considered too hard for many (noobs). Now I don’t actually agree with the idea that people shouldn’t be able to use this art style for non-race related projects, so I won’t get into that. But the gameplay thing was a real worry for me.

Cuphead Screenshot 2018.11.23 - 21.24.56.12I have never shied away from a game because it was too hard, provided it still felt balanced, but it can be quite intimidating to purposely walk into a game that everyone else is calling impossible. I still remember how much everyone was talking about Demon’s Souls when it first released. Even a GameStop clerk told me it was so hard that he had given up playing it. By the time I finally sat down to play it, I was horrified. Soulslike is now one of my favorite game genres. So I still wanted to play Cuphead, but I was really worried that I’d get stuck and not be able to finish it. The game happens to be in one of my worst performing genres, which worried me even more. People found the game so challenging that they petitioned for an easy mode to be added and the developers actually delivered one. It doesn’t allow you to finish the entire game, but it does let you reach the penultimate boss. To me, this entire thing was ludicrous, but it also made me want to play the game even more. The demand for an easy mode always motivates me to take an interest in a game. Not because I want to play on easy mode but because I want to prove that I don’t need to.

After several months of actively waiting for a price drop, having already waited years for the game release and then finally the PC port, I finally bought Cuphead. This was before the Switch version was announced or else I probably would have gotten it on that. When I first started the game, I was using a DualShock 4 controller. That and a Wii U Pro controller were my only viable options for playing on PC. I was not going to use a keyboard to play this type of game and at that point did not own an XB1 controller. So I went with the DS4 because it’s the controller I had the most experience with between the two options I had.

Cuphead Screenshot 2018.11.23 - 21.35.13.51I struggled so much to beat The Root Pack. This was the first boss I faced when I started Cuphead. It took me literal hours to finally beat that boss. I was shocked at how hard the game was for me. To get stuck on the first encounter in a game was an experience I’d never had before in more than 20 years of gaming.  I felt depressed. Maybe this game really was too hard for me and I actually needed to use the easy mode? But I refused. I would quit the game altogether before I would belittle myself to playing on easy mode.

After many hours of frustration, I finally defeated The Root Pack and went on to fight Ribby & Croaks. I could not beat them. I struggled and struggled for hours but I absolutely could not beat them. Ultimately I stopped playing the game altogether because I simply couldn’t move forward and refused to play the easy mode. I promised myself I would return to the game at some point but honestly I didn’t see the point when it was just too hard for me. I think I probably should have faced Goopy Le Grande instead of Ribby & Croaks second but that’s not what happened. I put the game in my start menu to remind me that I still needed to go back and beat it but I never actually attempted to because I knew I’d not be able to beat Ribby & Croaks.

Cuphead Screenshot 2019.09.05 - 18.49.56.44

It wasn’t until several months later that I finally returned to Cuphead. I had wanted an XB1 controller for PC gaming for some time, because it’s the only controller that consistently works properly with just about every PC game. But I didn’t technically need one because I had the ability to use any of my controllers on PC with an adapter I had purchased more than a year earlier. I just happened to luck into a free one that was being thrown out at my office. Ironically I had to spend more than the cost of a controller to buy a Bluetooth adapter and battery pack but I now had an XB1 controller for PC gaming. I decided to test it out with Cuphead since it’s one of the only games in my PC I could start without logging into Steam or another launcher and I was already familiar with the game so there wouldn’t be any delays to starting the test. I went right back into the Ribby & Croaks fight.

I did not defeat Ribby & Croaks immediately when trying the XB1 controller, but I did immediately realize that I was performing well enough to where beating them would be possible. After a few more tries and shaking the rust off, I defeated Ribby & Croaks and then went on to quickly defeat Goopy Le Grande, Cagney Carnation, and Hilda Berg. Suddenly I wasn’t just OK at Cuphead. I was good at it. I realized that the whole time it wasn’t my lack of skill that had made the game so hard. It was my lack of proper hardware. The game was literally made to be played on an XB1 controller and as soon as I corrected this issue I was zooming through the bosses. That’s not to imply that the game has to be played on an XB1 controller. My friend beat the whole thing with a keyboard, which I still think is ridiculous. But now I too was progressing through Cuphead at an appropriate rate, without using the easy mode.

Cuphead Screenshot 2019.09.03 - 08.51.31.50Though there were some bosses that were tough for a short while, in general I flew through the rest of the game. I played it sparingly over the course of several weeks, but basically no regular boss took me more than two hours to beat and most of them I cleared in under 30 minutes. I even managed to defeat Baroness Von Bon Bon on the first try. I got held up a bit at Carla Maria, which I think might be the hardest boss in the game other than maybe King Dice, but ultimately I reached the Devil.

It took me about three hours to defeat the Devil. He wasn’t hard to figure out. Just hard to fight without taking stray hits. But eventually I defeated him. It was so satisfying to finally beat Cuphead. And it made me feel great to not have had to use the easy mode. It almost feels like a chapter of my life has closed. I’ve spent five years wanting to beat that game.

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Cuphead was fun. It was challenging, but not in a stupid way. Really the boss fights were just as much about thought as they were reflexes. Each one was a bit of a puzzle. Choosing the correct approach with the right weapons, special ability, and charm made the difference between winning and losing. Yes you did have to be able to jump and move dynamically and quickly, but this was only a part of the boss fights as a whole.  And of course, the art was beautiful. I would absolutely play a sequel. Now that I’ve completed Cuphead, I’ve removed it from my start menu. The delight in not being reminded that I might be a noob in disguise is a great feeling. Now to find a new game to casually torture myself over. I’m thinking Dead Cells next.

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Gamescom 2019

This year was my first time ever attending Gamescom. I would like to thank Ubisoft for inviting me to attend the event as a contestant in the Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle Grand Championship. While I was extremely depressed to have lost in the first round, and even more so to have lost because of a single error in an otherwise flawlessly executed match, I am still happy to have been given the opportunity to participate and attending Gamescom was amazing. I also want to acknowledge that the main reason my experience at Gamescom was so good was that Ubisoft was gracious enough to provide me with an exhibitor’s ticket. This allowed me special access and privileges that normal attendees just didn’t have, which in turn allowed me to try out way more games than probably anyone else.

Over the course of the show I was able to try/experience 22 different unreleased games that are mainstream and some additional indies which I won’t take the time to talk about in this post for the sake of time. I truly believe that other than press I played more mainstream games at Gamescom than anyone else. An exhibitor ticket gave me early access every day which meant I could skip at least one to two lines a day. For example, the lines for FFVII Remake and Marvel’s Avengers were right next to each other in the Square Enix booth. Both consistently had lines of at least 2.5 hours every day of the show. But I was able to enter the show floor an hour early every day. So one of those days I talked one of the Square Enix team members into letting me try Marvel’s Avengers before the official opening time. This allowed me to then be one of the first in line for FFVII Remake right after, allowing me to try two of the biggest games being demoed at Gamescom this year in under 30 minutes of actual show time. That was literally record breaking. And because there was no line at the Square Enix demo for Trials of Mana remake, because everyone was trying it at the Nintendo booth, I was able to try that game right after FFVII Remake. So I managed to try three mainstream titles within the first official hour of one of the days at Gamescom. I used similar tactics throughout the week in order to try literally every game at the show I wanted to try. The only two games of note that I didn’t try were Borderlands 3 and Control. I honestly didn’t want to try either, but after having read the reviews for Control, I do wish I had tried that game and could have if I had wanted to take the time during the show.

 

Gamescom Entrance

This was my first time visiting Germany and I really enjoyed it. Cologne is a great city and I could definitely live there. It’s a beautiful and large but still kind of quaint place with culture and character. And German people are so nice. That being said, German gamers suck. I’m sorry, and I know that’s a wide brush to paint with, but I have to say that of all the gaming and tech related events I’ve been to in three different regions (Asia, NA, EU) of the world, the Gamescom attendees, most of which were native Germans, were the worst, most selfish, and unprofessional people I’ve ever interacted with in a setting like this. And that’s saying a lot. I’m not talking about the staff. Save for a few exceptions, they were great. I’m talking about the people attending the event. So many selfish assholes. They can’t wait in lines like adults. They have little to no concept of what’s appropriate in a crowded public setting. And worst of all they defend each other’s bad behavior even when they aren’t actually guilty of said behavior themselves. I won’t go into specific details of the various ridiculous occurrences I experienced and witnessed, but for such a large event with literally thousands of visitors, I expected better from the attendees. The behavior I saw at Gamescom does not happen at Taipei Game Show. It does not happen at CES. I haven’t been to every gaming event in the world so I can’t say for sure if this was an isolated occurrence or not, but in my experience, German gamers need to grow up. And I’m speaking as a 30 year old man who waited four hours to try Iron Man VR.

This was a gaming event so of course we need to talk about swag. You know me. I’m all about that free stuff at events. I have to say that for quantity, Gamescom was not the best swag event I’ve been to. I make much better hauls at Computex each year. But I’ll also say that with so many more people and much longer lines in a way it’s possible that I just wasn’t able to access as much swag as there actually was. I’ll also say that the giveaways at Gamescom were top notch, but giveaways don’t really count as swag because not everyone can get them just from waiting in line. For example, I got four shirts (Watch Dogs Legion, Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, Everspace 2, and Biomutant). But of those four only one of them was given out for waiting in line to try a game (Biomutant). The other three were special privilege acquisitions. The Everspace 2 one I got for work related reasons and the two Ubisoft ones I happened to catch when they were thrown out into the crowd during presentations. That means really only one shirt was available as actual swag in my whole haul. I got 11 pins, which is awesome because I actually collect them. But two of them I paid for and one was another instance of a work related acquisition. So really I got only eight pins as swag, three of which were from Nintendo (Link’s Awakening, Luigi’s Mansion 3, and Pokémon: Sword & Shield). The three Nintendo ones weren’t even available until later in the week so if you tried those games earlier then you couldn’t get those pins. In my case I went back to the Link’s Awakening booth, because I tried that on the first day, and begged them for a pin later in the week. I managed to get two hats and a visor as actual swag. But the visor was a disappointment because it was for Cyberpunk 2077 and I really just expected better swag from CD Projekt Red for that game. I wanted a Cyberpunk 2077 shirt so badly. So all in all the swag was average at best for both quantity and quality.

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Now I want to take the time to give single paragraph reviews of each of the noteworthy games I tried at Gamescom. So pretty much the rest of this post will be games coverage. It is a lot to read, but like I said, I played a lot of games. I have listed the titles in bold so you can skip over the ones you aren’t interested in. Games are not listed in any particular order.

Trials of Mana HD Remake (Nintendo Switch)

This was awesome. I never played the original Mana series but I was considering buying Collection of Mana for Nintendo Switch. Now I’m definitely going to wait for them to remake the other two games in this style and then just buy a collection of the remade versions. Trials of Mana looks beautiful and plays so smoothly. For a remake of a classic game, it does not feel super retro. It’s nearly a normal action RPG. The combat was good, the real time party system worked well, and the boss fight at the end of the demo was exciting, challenging, and yet still well balanced. Highly recommend picking it up if you’re interested in this classic series and I hope we see the whole collection soon.

FFVII Remake (PS4)

My gosh this game plays well. I have been avidly opposed to this remake ever since they announced that they were changing the gameplay and making it episodic. But I will give credit where credit is due and admit that this gameplay is otherworldly. It is so revolutionary for the franchise and extremely well made. Even playing it in German felt great. I hate that I’m going to buy this game, but I am going to buy this game. The gameplay alone made sure of that. It’s a real time action RPG with the ATB system from FFXIII being used to implement the turn based feel from the original FFVII without slowing the gameplay down to the point of breaking your groove. It’s hard to even explain because I’ve never seen anything like it before. And the graphics are just phenomenal but that should surprise no one at this point. One thing I will say though is that the gameplay shown was used for multiple characters (Cloud and Barret), which leads me even more to ask what the point of episodes is because the original sell was that the episodes would essentially be different games telling one coherent story. That’s not what I was getting from this gameplay. This system can and will almost certainly be used across all characters so there’s really no justification to break this into episodes because the story aspect can easily shift between cutscenes. Changing your walking avatar from Cloud to another character is not a justification to sell a separate game if they’re going to be part of the same party anyway. In any case, based on what I played this is a must play.

 Marvel’s Avengers (PS4)

This game got a lot of flak after the E3 announcement and I really don’t know why. Visually, the demo I played did have some issues. It was mostly hair that I had problems with. Everything else was fine for an alpha build. It played smoothly, the controls didn’t lag, and I didn’t get any dropped frames. It’s a pretty standard brawler done in the spirit of the Arkham games. But each of the playable characters has a slightly different move set and feel. Personally I liked Hulk and Thor the most because they felt the most appropriate for the gameplay with Captain America in a close third. Black Widow was only featured in a boss fight so while she did work appropriately, I can’t speak to how she wields in normal combat scenarios. The demo was very linear with each character merging into the next one to tell a whole story, but I don’t have a problem with linear games. If the gameplay is good and the story is coherent while having enough length to justify $60+, I’m absolutely fine with a linear story. But the attendant informed me that the final product will be way less linear than the demo I played. I liked it and I’ll definitely pick it up.

Monkey King: Hero is Back (PC)

This game is trash. Which really depressed me because I love the Monkey King character and stories and was super excited to try this game. I didn’t even know about it until I saw the banner at Gamescom. I had high hopes because the character and settling are great for a game, but this was executed poorly. The gameplay isn’t necessarily stiff, but it definitely isn’t smooth either. The graphics are tolerable for the sake of the animated film it’s based on, but they aren’t good. The thing that angered me most was ladder transitions. To climb from one floor to another, even when it’s all part of the same interactive area, you have to wait for an animation clip rather than just climb the damn ladders. This is not acceptable in 2019. Especially not from the company that helped produce games like The Wonderful 101 and Final Fantasy XV. This demo was just unacceptably bad and I’m really, really depressed about it.

Asterix & Obelix XXL 3 – The Crystal Menhir (PC)

I actually only just found out about XXL 3 about two weeks before Gamescom. And honestly I only found out about XXL 2 a couple months before that. I used to watch this cartoon as a kid and play some of the games so I was really happy that they’re still making them and that I could try the newest one at Gamescom. This is by no means a AAA title, but it’s quite fun. I played it solo but you can play it with two player co-op. It’s a well-made top down brawler. A bit repetitive but not bad. Some of the puzzles, if they can be called that, are more annoying jump challenges than actual puzzles but nothing game breaking. It’s really more something you play because you’re a fan of the franchise than because it’s a great game. But if you liked the previous games then this one definitely won’t disappoint.

Link’s Awakening HD Remake (Nintendo Switch)

This was phenomenal. I waited three hours to play it and I don’t regret it. It’s beautiful, the gameplay is smooth, and it’s fun. I never finished the original Link’s Awakening but I will definitely be buying and beating this. Even playing it in German, which I don’t read, in no way turned me off the game. It’s just good. It’s not worth $60. That I will say. For $30, this would be a no brainer purchase. But at full AAA price, I’m gonna wait for a Black Friday deal. But it’s definitely a must play for me.

Doom Eternal (Google Stadia)

There are two main reasons that I wanted to play Doom Eternal on Stadia. The first was that I didn’t want to wait three hours to try Doom Eternal and the second was that I really wanted to try Stadia but the only other game they had available to try was Mortal Kombat 11, which I’ve already played on PS4, so it seemed like a waste of time to try that one. I will admit however that playing a game I had already played and comparing it to Stadia probably would have given me a more legitimate ability to judge the platform in a single 15 minute demo.

Stadia runs fine. What I mean by that is I was able to play Doom Eternal comfortably with no lag, frame rate drops, or any legitimate gameplay issues. The game ran adequately. Now I’m not 100% sure on the setup they actually had because they had a controller and other cables running into a table and then a laptop with nothing on the screen except the Stadia logo sitting next to a monitor, which the game was running on. So the implication was that you were dual monitoring a laptop and running Doom Eternal via Stadia on the monitor while playing with a wired controller, but I have no actual proof of that because they didn’t present the setup to me. They just sat me down, handed me a controller and declared it was Doom Eternal on Stadia. So I believe that’s what I was experiencing, but take this with a grain of salt because there’s no evidence to suggest that this was actually the case. The one negative I will say about Stadia is that the graphics don’t hold up. Playing Doom on my regular PS4 looks better than Doom Eternal on Stadia. The game looked acceptable but not beautiful. If you’re used to high spec PC gaming with a 1080 or more card, which I am, Stadia doesn’t hold up. It runs fine, but it’s not the perfectly crisp HD picture hard core PC Master Race gamers are used to. It’s more like playing games on a PS3. Looks and runs fine, but doesn’t hold up to current high graphics standards. So if you are a minimum spec gamer, it’s probably fine for you. But if you are a 120 FPS, 2080ti, 4K gamer, then you will absolutely not be able to play games on Stadia in its current form.

Doom Eternal was great. And that should surprise no one. It’s the same formula as Doom, and that’s a good thing, because the formula works. Even on the lacking graphics of Stadia, I was having a blast playing it. If you liked Doom, you’re going to like Doom Eternal. Enough said.

Ghost Recon: Breakpoint (PC)

I don’t think I’ve played a game since Destiny that required team work as much as Ghost Recon: Breakpoint. This was a demo where you were forced to play on a squad of four and it was tough. Granted the other players were native German speakers and I speak maybe four words of German, but we were all experienced gamers and we struggled. We failed (all four dead at once) multiple times. The game is hard but fair. We had to learn how to work together and be more conservative, but once we did that, we got through it. A big part of the game is fighting drones and robot type enemies. This is where the game gets really difficult because they don’t go down like people. But they mow you down easy. The game works well and looks great. My only real complaint about the gameplay is that you still can’t button to cover like in The Division. Like with Ghost Recon: Wildlands, you just sort of naturally flow in and out of cover as you move. I think intentional cover would improve the gameplay but many would probably argue that it would make it too easy. But in my opinion if being able to cover in a shooter makes the game too easy or less enjoyable, then it’s probably not a good game to begin with. I think Breakpoint would play just fine with button press cover and cover to cover movement. But in general it’s a great game that I’ll definitely be playing, so I can take on the Punisher.

Cyberpunk 2077 (Non-playable Gameplay Presentation)

Sadly I did not get to play Cyberpunk 2077, but the experience of seeing a narrated presentation was extremely informative and valuable. This presentation featured a person playing the game live while a presenter narrated the action. The focus of this presentation was to show how the character development system affects gameplay with what they refer to as a “fluid class system”. Essentially you don’t have classes. You just have skills which you level up with points gained through xp. The two builds they showed were one focused on hacking and the other focused on strength. The way they presented this was very effective because they showed the same mission twice done with these two different builds. The hacker build was much more about stealth and using your skills to clear obstacles and take out enemies strategically, with little direct combat. The strength build just ran in and destroyed everything directly. The best example of comparison between these two builds was during a fight sequence with several enemies and a turret near the middle of the room. The hacker hacked the turret and let it do the work for him, while the strength build used a human shield to get close to the turret and then ripped it out of its stand and used it as a mini-gun. Both approaches were amazing and I’m honestly not sure which one I would prefer to play. They said you could build however you wanted and potentially have features from both builds but they did not answer how much available xp there was in the game in order to reach both these builds simultaneously.

While I still would prefer the game in third person, watching this presentation convinced me that I could probably enjoy playing it in first person as well. The driving did go to third person though so I really hope a patch or mod is coming.

The Surge 2 (PC)

I was really excited to play this. I have The Surge but haven’t actually finished it yet. I do plan on getting it done though. I really like this IP because it plays like a stripped down Dark Souls set in the future instead of the past. I was really depressed that I didn’t get into The Surge 2 closed beta but finding out I could try it at Gamescom made me really happy. Now let me say that the Deep Silver booth sucked. The line for The Surge 2 was never long, but took forever. I waited 45 minutes and didn’t move an inch. I asked multiple employees why it was taking so long and no one could give me an answer other than “I don’t know.” I finally stepped out of line and was considering giving up on getting to try it at all. The only reason I got to play it was that a friend found a fast pass and gave it to me because he didn’t know the studio. While the booth was badly managed, the game is awesome. It plays really well. I especially liked that at the start of this game you don’t have a rig so you have to work your way through learning the combat without power and then once you’ve started to really get it you find a rig and get a real boost of power. It’s a great storytelling mechanic. That being said, it’s kind of a turn off if you don’t will your way through that opening phase of the game. Before you get your rig, you can’t even dodge. And you feel those limitations. But once you get a hang of the combat and then get a rig, it’s so gratifying. I also liked that you start off the game with a sort of boxing gloves type weapon. You get these metal fist covers that allow you to fight against opponents in rigs. I actually hope that in the later game you get supped up fist weapons and can fight boxing style because it works really well. But if you’re not getting weapons grade damage, it’s just not worth it once you get a rig. In general, the game plays great and looks decent enough. There’s also a more human focused story with real conversations and dialog options. The first game put you in a world of mostly robots. This game seems to put you in a world of mostly people after the robots revolted and were finally beaten back. I can’t wait to play the final version.

As a bonus, there was a boss in the demo and for defeating it during the 20 minute trial period, I was given a steel-book case for The Surge. This was an awesome surprise that I absolutely was not expecting. And since I own the physical version of the first game that makes it even better.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot (PC)

Sadly I did not like this demo. The controls were a bit overwhelming to learn in a 15 minute session. There’s actually a lot going on. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it means there’s depth to the game. It’s an open world with a battle mode which is initialized when you make contact with enemies that are seen on the map. This is all fine. The boss battles are slightly different from regular battles but not by too much. This is also fine. There’s a lot going on in this world. Lots of NPCs to interact with. Sidequests all over the place. Other characters that team up with you and travel the map with you depending on what part of the story you’re in. This is all good stuff. What isn’t good is how much crap is on the screen at one time. There’s so much going on and it’s all on screen at once. Beacons for objectives, a large HUD, NPC dialog boxes in the distance, floating collectibles, and just lots of general clutter. It’s so hard to focus on playing the game with so much on screen information pulling you out of the experience. Like imagine if in Assassin’s Creed the gameplay looked like the map. If all those objectives, side events, mini-games, challenges, treasure chests, and other map icons were all on the screen constantly while trying to play the game. Now imagine that on a screen of less than 27 inches. It would be a nightmare to play. That’s how this game plays. I hope you can turn a lot of that stuff off in menus because if you can’t it’s just too much junk on screen at one time.

Medievil (PS4)

Great remake. Absolutely buying this. It plays well. It looks good. It sounds good. I never played this as a kid, but I was aware of it and I’m so glad they made a good remake. For the most part, it’s challenging yet fair. The controls are accessible and run smoothly. It’s just a really well made remake. My only complaint, which I assume was present in the original game as well, was the resource management mechanics. Like you start off with a sword that I don’t believe can break. But you can pick up other weapons. But when you do you lose your sword. Yet those other weapons can break. So ultimately I got to the boss in the demo and my weapon broke and I was expected to fight the boss with no actual weapon other than my useless bone arm, which also removes the ability to use your shield. Even when I died, I respawned with no weapon. I found this to be a very annoying and unbalanced mechanic. But otherwise it’s a great game that I’ll definitely buy.

Concrete Genie (PS4)

I hate to say it, but this game is not good. The controls are trash. The painting mechanics are not intuitive at all. Making creatures isn’t nearly as accessible or effective as you want it to be. It just does not play well. And I didn’t even get to any of the evil monster sequences. The demo was extremely boring in that all you had to do was find light bulbs hidden around the town and paint them to turn them on. But even this simple task was so tedious with the broken controls. The graphics are OK but not as good as the ads made them seem like they would be. I was originally excited with the initial reveal but now it’s a hard pass for me.

Dreams (PS4)

I’m actually very interested in this. Writing about it is difficult because they didn’t demo the creator mode. What they showed were creations that were already active for you to play. And they were all so different. There was shmup flyer, a puzzle platformer, a soccer type game, a 3D point and click, and other genres. So many different types of games seem to be possible in Dreams. But because I didn’t see the creator mode I don’t know how hard it is to do any of that. If I’m honest, I’m not super interested in playing other people’s creations. I’m interested in creating my own games. The marketing makes it seem like this is totally easy to do. But that sounds improbable. It’s hard enough to make a good level in Super Mario Maker 2 and that’s built on a grid with pre-made assets. I’ll keep an eye out for this but I can’t really say if it’s good or bad at this time. All I can say is that it seems possible for people to create entire games. Now the question becomes will they be compensated for their hard work in the event that someone creates something actually worth talking about. Because the stuff I saw easily bested many indies you can find on Steam.

Biomutant (PC)

I was really excited for this when I first heard about it, and then it got delayed for like over a year. So I was happy to wait in line for about 90 minutes to try it. And it was worth it. The graphics are kind of weird. It’s like an adult cartoon. Not bad, but also not particularly good. Because the level of violence isn’t super cartoony, so it could have been more graphic. But the animal characters also make sense in a less gory tone. So it’s kind of in limbo visually. But the gameplay is superb. It’s fluid, well balanced, easy to pick up, and just really fun. I genuinely enjoyed every fight in the demo from start to finish. It also has different types of physical weapons. I started off with a saw blade, which was great, and then got a rocket punch glove, which was also great. It’s a must play for me.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 (Nintendo Switch)

I haven’t actually played any of the previous games, but I was very interested in this one after the E3 reveal. The gameplay was much harder than I imagined it would be. But not hard in the sense that the gameplay is hard. More in that the controls are very unruly. Even a friend who had played the previous games said it didn’t feel the same as the older ones. The mechanic for weakening ghosts so you can slam them wasn’t clear to me but I sort of figured it out through playing. The bigger issue though was the rotation. You can’t just turn in the direction you push the stick like in a normal Mario game. You have to actually spin around in a circle going in either direction. So if an enemy appears behind you, you can’t just instantly point towards them and attack them. You have to take the time to spin all the way around and then line up your attack. And aim matters in this game a lot. You can and do miss often. Especially in the boss fight included in the demo where you’re facing a ghost riding a horse. The graphics were great. And the concepts of the gameplay were quite good. But the controls just were not good for me. I’m still interested but I want normal Nintendo platformer directional movement. I do acknowledge though that this isn’t a platformer, but the rotating does not work well.

Darksiders Genesis (PC)

I was not happy about this game going into the demo at all. I like this franchise. I like the 3D action hack-n-slash Darksiders games. So when they announced a top down dungeon crawler in the style of Gauntlet: Dark Legacy instead of a sequel starring the fourth horseman, I was not happy. I only took the time to try the demo because I felt like it was something my readers would care about. While I still am not happy that this is the next game in the franchise, I must admit that Genesis is extremely well made. It plays so well for that genre. Maybe the best in the genre I’ve played. I genuinely enjoyed playing it. I wasn’t super enthusiastic about the text based story, but the gameplay is excellent. It’s smooth. You can swap between horsemen easily when playing in single player. The attacks work effectively and fluidly. It’s fairly well balanced. Even the boss fight in the demo was great. I’m not saying I’m going to buy this, but if some friends wanted to play it, I’d be totally in for it.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics (PC)

I’m an OG The Dark Crystal fan. I watched that movie on VHS so many times I’m surprised the tape didn’t break. So all they really had to say to me was The Dark Crystal game and I was interested. I played an alpha build and I got what they were doing. It was very similar to like a Fire Emblem or Banner Saga type game. But it was buggy. Again, alpha build, so that’s fine. I got the gist of what they were trying to do and I guess it works. I don’t love the graphics, but it is based on a Jim Henson puppet movie, so I don’t necessarily think the graphics are inappropriate. But at the same time, I don’t necessarily need graphics to be era appropriate to adapt a show/movie to a game. Like I get why Stranger Things: The Game looks the way it does but I don’t want it to look the way it does. I would have been much happier with just a higher visual quality game, 80’s themed or otherwise. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics certainly looks better than Stranger Things: The Game though. It’s a game I’ll continue to look into but at this point I’m not sold on the gameplay or the graphics. It does appear to be very story intensive though, which I consider a good thing.

Death Stranding (Non-playable Gameplay Presentation)

*This video is more useful than the waste of time that was the Death Stranding “presentation” I attended at the Gamescom booth.

Screw Kojima. Screw Death Stranding. And screw that garbage presentation. The line was nonsensical and the presentation was trash. I’m not even going to discuss what was presented, because you’ve already seen it. They literally made us wait in a line to sit in a dark room on shitty box stools to watch four trailers that had already been made available online at the start of Gamescom. I could have taken that time to try another game such as Control or Borderlands 3 and would have if I had known this presentation wasn’t going to actually be a presentation. I thought it was going to be like the Cyberpunk 2077 presentation where a person who worked on the game was going to show gameplay or at least footage and talk about it. Maybe even answer some questions. No one was even in the room during the presentation other than viewers. They just marched us in there, pressed play, left, and then kicked us out after the four trailers had finished rolling. Absolutely ridiculous waste of my time.

Iron Man VR (PSVR)

I waited four hours to play this which was much too long. But I do consider this demo proof of concept. It was hard to control and the graphics weren’t as clear as I wanted. But I do think that may have just been the way the headset was put on me because even Astro Bot Rescue Mission was way clearer when I tried that earlier this year. I could barely hear the sound. Again, I consider this a setup issue rather than a software issue. But the gameplay worked, even though it was hard to control. I felt like Iron Man. Like it felt real. The demo started with me flying over water and I genuinely thought I was going to fall into the water at one point at the start of the demo when I was still learning the controls. It’s not so good that I’m going to rush out and buy PSVR. But with some tuning to the flying and combat controls that game could be one of the most satisfying VR games made to date. If you have PSVR, definitely keep an eye on this one.

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 (Nintendo Switch)

I have Mario & Sonic at the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games (Wii U) and haven’t gotten any of the other games in this series. I honestly only got it because it came with a Wiimote for less than the price of buying a Wiimote on its own. This latest installment looks really good, but it’s really hard to play. I’ll admit that the directions being in German were a big factor here, but the point is that a number of the events aren’t intuitive. Some games were. I particularly liked the archery game. But the surfing game was impossibly hard to figure out how to do tricks. I was only able to try a limited number of events in the game, but it was a fair amount of them. What I really liked conceptually was that you could also play Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 1964. This was a mode where the graphics were all retro and the gameplay was made to simulate old school NES limitations. It’s a fun idea, but a lot of those events are even harder than the 2020 games. This game isn’t really my cup of tea, but if you liked the previous ones then this one seems like it won’t under deliver the same sort of experience.

Pokémon Sword and Shield (Nintendo Switch)

The line for this game was consistently ridiculous every single day of Gamescom. The only reason I got to play it was that on the last day of Gamescom, using my exhibitor ticket access, I went there at 8:20 AM and was first in line. I waited 40 minutes to be the first person to play the game that day. And it was worth it. Now honestly this was a garbage demo. I wanted to explore the world and catch Pokémon. The demo took place solely in a single gym, had me battle a few trainers, solve a puzzle, and almost complete the gym leader battle. I say almost because it cut out before I could deal the killing blow. But it felt so good. It made me feel like a kid again playing Red and Blue. It plays like any other Pokémon game. The formula works and need not change. But I’ll definitely be buying both Sword and Shield. I did get to try out the Dynamax mechanic. It was fun but not nearly as effective as I’d like because ultimately when used against another Dynamax Pokémon it just becomes a normal battle. The one thing about the demo that I both liked and disliked at the same time was that it gave me all three starters in my team. That’s not going to happen in the real game. Because it never does. I loved being able to try them all out and I did. I purposely changed Pokémon unnecessarily just to try all six that were available in the demo. And I want them all. But we all know the only way I’m actually going to get them all is to get both games and borrow a second Switch to trade Pokémon with myself. For sure going to buy both games though.

So that ends my Gamescom 2019 coverage. I know this was a long post, but like I said, I played more games than anyone else at the show outside of press. And I didn’t even include any of the smaller indie titles I tried. If you have any additional questions about Gamescom, the tournament, or specific games I tried, please let me know in the comments.

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RAD Closed Beta Review

Last week I had the opportunity to participate in the closed beta for RAD by Double Fine Productions. The first time I heard about this game was when it was teased for the Nintendo Switch in the Nindies Showcase back in March. But this closed beta was actually for PC. I wanted to give my thoughts on this current build of the game for those thinking about buying it.

The first thing I’ll say about RAD is that if I was going to buy it I would certainly choose the Nintendo Switch version, assuming they don’t add an online multiplayer component, which I actually really think they should for this particular game. The game is much more suited to a controller and mobile play than desktop gaming. It’s a roguelike dungeon crawler with perma-death mechanics. It actually reminded me a lot of Let it Die. I tried it with both a Dualshock 4 and a Wii U Pro controller. I have to say that I liked the Wii U Pro a lot better than the Dualshock 4 for this game, but a big part of that was because I couldn’t remap the buttons. The game says you can remap the buttons but the feature wouldn’t work for me with either of the two controllers I tried. While this didn’t make the game unplayable, it certainly was inconvenient. The default button map isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just not ideal for me. Being able to remap the buttons on my controller would improve my gameplay performance considerably, in my opinion. To clarify, I was able to remap my primary mutations between three specified buttons in game, but not remap the entire control scheme like I wanted to.

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The main selling point of RAD’s gameplay is the mutation, or “RAD”, system.  Each time you play the game you start as a normal kid with limited abilities. All you can do is walk around, swing a weapon, the default being a baseball bat, jump, ground pound from the air, and dodge roll. That’s the basic essence of the game. You move through procedurally generated areas that work just like floors in any roguelike swinging a bat until you die. I say procedurally generated because that’s what’s being reported, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see a lot of repeated areas. Not entire floor layout, but specific sections of maps seemed to be repeats. Maybe it’s procedurally generating a set of fixed islands, as all the levels are made up of disconnected island structures that are reached via bridges and warp points.

Your goal is to survive as long as you can and get past as many floors as possible, with each floor ending with a boss fight of some sort. There is an endpoint that you can reach, but I’m not sure if it’s a fixed or random number of stages that have to be beaten to reach it. I only reached the end once during the beta. It showed me one of multiple endings. You can also find and consume items to refill health or boost performance. Pretty standard roguelike fare. What makes the gameplay interesting is the leveling system. You do not level up in the traditional way where you get more HP and stronger attacks. Instead you gain mutations that grant you special abilities. These can be anything. I don’t for sure know the total number of possible mutations but according to the compendium in the game’s pause screen there are a total of 87.

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Primary mutations are active abilities that you use. Secondary mutations are passive buffs. Both are key to surviving. Your XP bar fills as you kill enemies. Every time it fills, you get another primary mutation. You can have a maximum of three primary mutations at one time. Each primary mutation is linked to a single button press. Once you’ve acquired three primary mutations filling up the XP bar causes them to develop further. The gain additional characteristics that enhance their usefulness. For instance, there’s a mutation that gives you ranged physical attack. When you level it up again the range increases by a considerable amount. Each time you level up after acquiring three primary mutations, a single mutation develops at a time going in order from left to right. Meaning that if your first mutation is at+1 and your second and third are at +0 then your second mutation will develop to +1 the next time you fill the XP bar again.

These mutations can be anything. I was very surprised at the variety of different capabilities players can get, and according to the compendium I’ve barely scratched the surface. Some of the things I gained the ability to do were short term flight, spawn mutant clone babies to fight enemies for me, throw my arm like a boomerang, enslave enemies for short periods of time, and protrude spikes from my body causing a lot of damage. The mutations were interesting, highly different from one another, and for the most part, easy to use. According to the compendium, there appears to be 56 total primary mutations. Though there are quite a few mutations available, I’ve already seen mutations repeated multiple times, having not yet gotten them all. In fact, there was one time where I got two of the same three mutations that I had gotten the round right before. There are also special landmarks in the game that replace one of your primary mutations with a random new one. You do not have to interact with these if you don’t want to and you can’t choose which of your mutations is changed.

20190526094238_1Secondary mutations may actually be more important than primary ones. These are not acquired through filling the XP bar. You get these by finding special mutation landmarks that automatically grant you an additional secondary mutation. The most I got at one time was eight, with all being constantly active for the duration of the round. I don’t know what the maximum number of active secondary mutations is or if there even is one. These buffs are just as varied as the primary mutations. Some of the ones I got were immunity to fire, longer range projectile attacks, an extra shield against toxic attacks, and increased movement speed. If you can find enough secondary mutations and manage to get the right primary mutations, all of which appear to be random, you can get some really strong builds. There appears to be 31 secondary mutations. These I did see repeat between playthroughs and they weren’t always useful or at least not at the time they were acquired. For instance, there’s a secondary mutation for improved range attacks. But often I’d get this when I didn’t have any ranged attack mutations active so it was a useless buff.

What’s very interesting is the fact that some secondary mutations are negative. I got one that made it so you couldn’t see where you’ve already been on the map. While this was annoying in practical terms, I like the fact that you can get negative mutations. Plot wise that makes perfect sense because it’s ridiculous to think that all mutations would be beneficial. While mutations of both types are meant to be considered and used individually, it’s the art of using them together that makes for truly effective play. Without a doubt the best run I’ve had was only possible because I was able to use my mutations as a collective. This includes both primary and secondary mutations. I had one primary mutation that gave me drastically higher and longer jumps, one that gave me a charge attack, and one that extended spike out of my body in mulitple directions for massive damage. By using the charge attack while jumping I was able to jump over groups of enemies. While directly above enemies I would use the spike mutation and damage them as I sailed right past them, inflicting damage and quickly escaping the line of fire. I was able to use this on pretty much ever type of enemy including bosses. When coupled with the various secondary mutations I had such as ground fire immunity, toxic pool immunity, and faster movement, I was able to inflict continuous combos and avoid pretty much all damage in most cases.

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The gameplay is very smooth. While I wanted to remap the controls, they were fairly accessible and easy to understand. It’s really just learning to use the mutations effectively that has any sort of learning curve, and it’s not a big one. While RAD is perma-death for mutations, it does have a few long term unlockable upgrades. Your main weapon can be changed every time you go back to the base, which you can do between levels and at the beginning of every new round. New weapons can be unlocked as a reward for certain achievements. I was only able to unlock two additional weapons so far but both were noticeably stronger than the previous one I was using. You can also unlock quirks. These are permanent buffs that you equip from the character selection screen at the beginning of each round. You can only equip one at a time. The only one I’ve unlocked so far grants a fire shield for one of your hearts. Another important long term mechanic is money. Money can be used to purchase a variety of things each round such as health restoring items, keys, and access to special mutations. These items disappear when you die. But you can bank money between levels so that if you don’t want to spend it at that moment you can bank it and then access it again later at the base. Vendors appear all over the levels but they all sell different things from round to round and don’t appear in the same locations.

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There are quite a few items in this game with many different uses. This is where the luck component of the game comes in. In my best round I just happened to find multiple instant mutation items in the first level. This allowed me to develop a full set of attacks much earlier than you normally can. This increased combat ability so early in the round allowed me to accomplish so much more than I had in previous rounds. Up until that round I’d never beaten one of the main bosses. In that round I easily brought down two before getting tired and saving the game to continue later.

I’d say the gameplay works rather well overall, but I did encounter a number of bugs. While it’s not a genre I tend to favor, I did find RAD enjoyable in small doses. Thankfully you can save and continue games later. Rounds can be long if you can survive, but they can also be short. My longest round so far lasted more than two hours and was the only one where I reached an ending. I encountered two serious bugs that affected gameplay. The first was that I wasn’t able to claim the heart extension reward after the second major boss I defeated. While this wasn’t game breaking, it was very annoying and got me really angry. Like with Zelda games, defeating a boss fight nets you a heart extension. The place where it dropped when I beat the second boss was under his corpse, which never disappeared unlike with previous enemies, including the first boss I defeated. The game would not let me pick it up no matter how hard I tried. The second was that the game completely crashed on me once. I don’t know what caused it, but thankfully the game let me continue on the stage where the game crashed. I assume it’s an autosave feature.

20190526095022_1Visually, RAD is about what I’d expect from a top down roguelike. The camera is above and at a slight angle from the player. It’s about the same view as that in Bastion or Hyper Light Drifter. While it’s certainly not AAA quality graphics, it’s fairly decent looking for a roguelike game. It’s not trying to look realistic and thus uses a very animated style but with a large amount of detail. Lots of little things come together to make something fun and child friendly, but certainly not childish. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia filled with debris from multiple past civilizations, a number of highly differentiated enemies, and lots of plant fauna. But the real depth is in the small details. The rust on burned out cars. Tufts of grass scattered throughout a sandy wasteland or cracked roads and abandoned construction zones. Wooden planks placed over gaps as makeshift bridges. It’s these little things that set the tone of the world and they do an excellent job.

What I really appreciated most about the graphics was the mutations. As your character mutates, his/her physical form can change drastically in a plethora of ways. This is important for the tone and gameplay. Your physical appearance changes based on the mutations you unlock, ultimately connecting the player with each specific round on a more personal level than in many other roguelikes I’ve played. Enemies too come in mutated forms. You can find more than one version of an enemy as you progress forward. Obvious details like size and color differ between different versions of enemies. But also finer details like spikes can differ between different versions of the same creature. I also think it’s important to note that I never made it past the third level so I actually expect a great deal more in variation between enemies and types of enemies than I was able to access during the beta. But to be fair, the compendium only lists a total of 38 enemies, of which I’ve already found 17, and seven bosses, of which I’ve only faced one so far. So maybe there’s not as much variation as I hope as far as enemies are concerned.

20190526094256_1The HUD is simple, intuitive, and spacious. Across the top of the screen you will find the XP bar with HP, in the form of sectioned hearts, directly under it on the left side of the screen. On the right side of the screen under the XP bar, you will find the current level map and your counts for money and keys. I’m really happy with the map. It’s simple yet effective. It shows the nearby surrounding area and moves around the map as you do. But what works best with this map is how it tracks your past movements. The map is dark gray by default. As you walk in any direction, light gray is added to the map, exemplifying your specific movements. This makes keeping track of how much of the current level, or even just current room, you’ve already explored so much easier to manage and cuts the time to find the next place to go down considerably. The map also shows any items currently waiting to be picked up, since they never disappear, which is a good thing. You can only carry one item at a time as a default and then at least one more as a benefit from a secondary mutation. Currently carried items are shown below the HP meter. The bottom of the screen shows your mutations with primary mutations being in the bottom left and secondary mutations being in the bottom middle. I also really like that the HUD shows you which button to push for each mutation and items at all times without looking cluttered or ugly.

While I’d never say that RAD is worth buying just because of the graphics, they are absolutely not a hindrance. Double Fine has certainly made better looking games in the past, but this project looks exactly the way it should for what it is.

20190526003003_1The audio is solid in this game. It’s clear and quite detailed. Steps make a sound that changes based on the material you’re walking on for example. All effects are laid onto the gameplay perfectly. There’s no lag between the audio and the action. And each action has a matching effect. That includes the abilities gained from mutations. The overall mix of sound is great at default with everything set to 100. But you can control master volume, music volume, sound effects volume, voice volume, and ambient volume all separately and customize their mix levels from 1 to 100. I don’t know if I’ve played another game with five separate audio channels available to the player for mix customization. The one thing I did notice was that sometimes the music stops playing during normal activity. I don’t know if this was a bug or intentional, but I’ve seen it in numerous other games so I don’t assume it wasn’t supposed to happen.

RAD actually does have quite a bit of writing, both plot and dialog wise, as well as a ton of narrative commentary. The beta gives a lot of plot information right from the start. In my experience, roguelikes can go one of two ways when it comes to writing. Sometimes the plot is super important but delivered subtly once you’ve seen the opening sequence. Other times there’s a really flashy opening that makes you think the game is plot heavy but really it’s just for foundational reasons and then basically disappears once the game actually starts. I want to say this is the former, but really it’s a combination of both. This is kind of the issue with roguelikes though. When you can’t continue from where you died but the plot is contingent on getting farther into the game, there’s a good chance the player may never reach the end of the plot. Thankfully I was able to see one of the nine endings, but honestly the only plot given is the opening and the post final boss closing. Everything in between is just lore and world building, which is fine but it’s not necessarily accurate to call this a plot focused game.

20190526151414_1The game starts off by establishing that the world has suffered not one but two apocalypses and that you’re one of the few remaining survivors. As with most post-apocalyptic dungeon crawlers, you’re tasked with journeying into the wastelands for resources to aid your community. That’s the general plot, but it’s not lazily done. The game starts off with an opening cutscene to establish the setting, as well as an additional cutscene to specifically explain how you were chosen and how things work/will work in the game, as well as why. As you make your way through levels, you find artifacts that are accompanied by narrators, both a male and female used randomly, giving more details about the history of the world. In this way you get a lot of story, but not much development of the current plot. The game doesn’t do much in the way of discussing the future other than the initial establishing cutscene and the ending(s). The game’s compendium says eight possible endings are available but when I got one it said 1/9. At this point I can’t say for sure one way or the other. I don’t know how each of the endings compare, but the ending I got was kind of inconclusive. I was able to reach the ending after defeating three major bosses.

RAD has a lot of lore and written info in the compendium. This guidebook expands as you find and unlock more things. It gives you the ability to read about pretty much everything in the game including mutations, enemies, weapons, artifacts, and the endings you’ve seen. It will even replay narrations for you. It’s nice to see this level of documentation provided for interested players in a roguelike of this kind.

20190526094243_1There are also NPCs that talk to you. Many can be found in the base. Some of them say things that actually affect the game, but mostly it’s just décor. Most of them are scattered throughout the levels though. Some of these won’t talk to you, but many will. There are shop keepers, treasure hunters looking after chests, and random communities just hanging out. I found a hidden community of mutants just trying to avoid being ridiculed by normal looking people. I also found a cult waiting for their god to send them message through a projector screen hooked to an antenna. Some of the NPCs will even ask you to do small tasks that net money.

Some of the best writing in the game is the narrative commentary. The male narrator comments on what’s happening in the game sparingly. When you get a new mutation, he says it in a celebratory Halo style “Double Kill” voice. But that’s just one of the moments when commentary occurs. My favorite piece of commentary was when I switched to the stronger weapon I unlocked. The narrator screamed out “Chicken shit!” and it was subtitled on screen. This made me laugh really hard. Overall, the writing I witnessed was fairly good for a roguelike. But I’d have to reach later levels before I can accurately quantify its value and impact on the gameplay experience as a whole.

20190526101228_1As this is a roguelike, it’s inherently built for replay. But there are also a number of features that add legitimate replay value. As mentioned, there are several mutations, all of which have been quite interesting to try out so far. There’s also the fact that the mix of mutations you get is always different from previous plays. There are also a lot of things to unlock. Additional mutations, additional playable characters, and additional weapons are all available to unlock. There seems to be a total of eight playable characters. In the beta I’ve only managed to unlock four so far. I have yet to notice any performance based differences between them. There appears to be six unlockable weapons but I’ve only gotten one of them at this point. There are also 37 achievements for RAD on Steam and eight possible endings. The game also has daily challenges with special completion conditions tied to an online leaderboard. There’s a fair amount of stuff to do and reasons to keep playing the game. And with the procedurally generated levels, it will take quite a while before you get bored with the levels. I don’t know what the release price will be yet but if they manage to keep it to no more than $15 then I think RAD could absolutely be considered worth buying.

As this is a beta review, feedback to the developer is just as important as presenting the project to gamers considering buying the final release version. So let me clearly define what I’d like to see changed/added in the final version of RAD.

20190526161253_11. Continue by Stage

As this is a procedurally generated roguelike dungeon crawler, perma-death is kind of a given for the genre. Personally I’ve never liked that. I understand it, but I think it’s unnecessary. The important difference here though is that when you play a game like Overture, there’s no story. So it doesn’t really matter if you have to start over every time because you’re not really building towards anything. But when a game has a plot, which RAD does, albeit a small one, then being able to finish that story needs to be at least in the realm of possibility for a majority of normal players. Now I only had to clear like six levels to reach an ending. But that’s still six levels that not everyone will be able to beat consecutively. My point is that there needs to be an efficient way for bottom to mid-tier players to reach all the endings without having to take the time to get Dark Souls good. For me, the simplest solution is that you should be able to continue a new round at the farthest stage you’ve reached or at least at milestone stages such as after main bosses.

2. Button Mapping for Controllers

As with all games in 2019, you should be able to customize the button map to suit your needs on any controller you choose to play with. This should be the standard for any game released today. As I said, RAD appears to have this function, but it wasn’t working properly for me in the beta on either a DualShock 4 or a Wii U Pro Controller.

20190526150552_13. Primary Mutations Replay

The game appears to have 56 primary mutations. I’ve unlocked just a small sample of those so far. Some of them I really liked and others not so much. I found all of them to be quite creative though. At some point, the player should be able to gain some control over the mutations they’re getting in a round. Like once you’ve unlocked so many mutations it should give you the ability to start with a certain mutation of your choice or at least prioritize which ones you get. The randomness is part of the game’s shtick and that’s fine but once the player has put in enough hours to unlock all the mutations, they’ll then have a number of them they’ll want to avoid and others they prefer. And since the game requires you to start from scratch every time, getting to the ending will require you to get the right set of mutations to suit your style of play. But at random that won’t happen very often. Granting some level of control to the player would make a huge difference both for progress and enjoyment. This should not be made available to the player early on in the game though.

4. Cooperative Play

It’s very rare that I ask for multiplayer in a game. But RAD just makes sense to have a coop mode. Whether it’s local or online, I think this game would be so much fun to play with other people. In a way it kind of works like ToeJam & Earl, which absolutely doesn’t require other players to enjoy, but is enhanced by the ability to do so. As I was playing it, I was reminded a lot of games like Gauntlet and Metal Slug. The ability to play this cooperatively with friends could be really fun.

20190526153251_15. Lock-On Feature

This is your standard roguelike design where you’re looking at the game from a top down third person view. Enemies can come at you from any direction and you often face many at once. Currently you just attack in a direction by either looking in that direction for close range attacks and/or using the right stick to aim in that direction for ranged attacks. As with any multiple enemy scenario, prioritizing enemies in a specific order is key. But all this has to be done manually in RAD because you can’t lock on to enemies. There should be some way to lock on to a specific enemy to help you keep track of them in group scenarios and make aiming ranged attacks more effective.

6. Full Store in Base

Within the levels there are stores scattered about that carry random items. This system works fine. But the store in the base, which you can potentially visit every time you complete a level, is trash. When you first start the game, it only sells one lousy key which you don’t even really need because you can find them or buy them from most vendors in the levels. The base store should carry all available items in the game. Or at least the ones you’ve already found during play. There are key items that can totally change the outcome, such as an extra life item that I’ve only seen in one store and couldn’t afford at the time. The base store should carry everything, or at least more than just a single, fairly useless key. The game does imply that the store will grow as certain conditions are met but how and to what extent I haven’t figured out yet. By the time I finished playing the beta, two additional items were added to the store. It seems to me that you expand the store by making purchases.

20190526100709_17. Dynamic Item Consumption

You can hold one item at a time as a default and gain the ability to hold an additional item with a secondary mutation. But you can’t control the order in which you use those items. You have to consume the first item you picked up before you can consume the second one. This is super inconvenient and comes up very often because the second item slot mutation comes up a decent amount of the time. Different items do different things, as per usual. The most common difference is the amount of health restored by healing items. Some items restore a full heart while others restore more than that. So if you have an item that restores one heart in your first slot, an item that restores two hearts in your second slot, and you’re missing two hearts from your HP you have to waste the first item to fully restore your health. Because you wouldn’t be able to use the item that restore two hearts until you’ve used the item that only restores one. Now yes you could just wait until you’ve lost that heart again, but there’s a delay to use items when not standing still so if you need to restore health during combat this could be the death of you. You should be able to use whichever item you’re carrying in whatever order you want. Even a rotate slots system would be better than the current system.

 

In general, I was very happy with this beta. I found RAD to be much more enjoyable than I thought I would after seeing the announcement trailer. It’s not the next big thing or Cuphead class indie, but it is a fun little roguelike that actually has some long term goals and reasons to keep playing. There seems to be an actual plot to discover, which matters to players like me. The gameplay is accessible but constantly changing based on the mutations you unlock in a particular round. While it wasn’t a perfect game, this beta build is pretty far along. While I did have a few issues it ran well for the most part. No lagging or other game breaking problems other than the one crash which cost me just a few minutes because I was able to continue the round from the main menu when I reloaded the game. The game has a few bugs, as I mentioned, and can still be improved but it already works quite well and it’s fun to play. I need to see a release price before I can make a final judgement but I could see RAD doing well for what it’s trying to be.

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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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