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

Black Friday 2018

Do you hear that? That sound. It’s the sound of war slowly creeping towards us. The war for deals. Each year we commemorate this time of year with a battle. The battle to end all wallets. It’s a violent day. It’s a mad day. A black day. Black Friday!

When I look back at Black Friday 2017, I am not impressed. In fact, I flat out disappointed. I failed myself in battle last year. More accurately, the deals failed me. Of the list of 15 games I wanted to get during Black Friday deals last year, I only managed to get four of them. The deals just weren’t there. To this day, I’ve only managed to acquire six games from that list total. The prices for them simply will not drop by a reasonable amount. So there’s gonna be some repeats on this year’s list as well as new additions.

Black Friday 2017 Aftermath
Black Friday 2017

Last year I only wanted software, which is always my preference because hardware shopping can be even more troublesome than games. But this year I’m not so lucky. Along with a hefty list of games, I need two items of hardware as well. May the deal gods smile upon me in battle this year.

The rules of engagement, for those not aware, have not changed. There is a list of products I want for prices I have set based on a combination of factors. I will not go above my price range for any product. If I cannot find the deal, I simply take the L and continue waiting for that ideal price point. Once again, I recruit you into my deal force. I need you to help me find the deals I seek. If you see something on my list at or below the price I’ve listed available for online purchase, please, please, please take the time to leave a comment with a link or tweet me directly for me to see it even faster. And of course I shall I assist my comrades in arms as well. Link me your lists in the comments and if I see anything I’ll be sure to send you a link. So without further ado, here are my targets for Black Friday 2018.

Black Friday 2018
Black Friday 2018
  1. Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy (Nintendo Switch) – $20
  2. Injustice 2: Legendary Edition (PS4) – $20
  3. Cuphead (PC) – $10
  4. Assassin’s Creed: Origins Gold Edition (PS4 or PC) – $30
  5. Middle-earth: Shadow of War Definitive Edition (PS4 or PC) – $20
  6. South Park: The Fractured But Whole Gold Edition (PS4 or PC) – $30
  7. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (PS4 or PC) – $15
  8. Shaqfu (Nintendo Switch Physical) – $10
  9. Super Mario Party (Nintendo Switch) – $30
  10. Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise (PS4) – $20
  11. Shadow of the Tomb Raider Deluxe/Croft Edition (PS4 or PC) – $20
  12. Just Dance 2019 (Nintendo Switch) – $25
  13. Vampyr (PS4 or PC) – $15
  14. Unravel Two (PS4) – $5
  15. Shenmue 1&2 Bundle (PS4) – $15
  16. Sonic Mania Plus (Nintendo Switch) – $15
  17. Yakuza Kiwami 2 (PS4) – $20
  18. Nintendo Switch Bundle with Any Game – $200
  19. Garmin Vivosmart 4 or HR+ Fitness Watch – $90

Please note that while the platforms aren’t negotiable, the games can be in physical or digital form. They just have to be at or below the prices listed.

Black Friday 2018 Prices
Black Friday 2018 Prices

Probably the most important item on the list this year is the Nintendo Switch. It’s not for me. I already have one that I bought around Black Friday last year and I absolutely love it. It’s for my nephew. He’s 10 and I’d really like to be able to get him a console that he can enjoy with games appropriate for his age that are fun for the whole family. I’d like to be able to give him the best Christmas ever like when I was a kid and my parents got me a Nintendo 64.

As always, I have prepared a convenient graphic with target prices to make my list easier to reference for my comrades in arms. Save it, share, it, reference it, use it for yourself. Thank you in advance for helping your fellow gamer find and capture his prey. And as always, Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers out there. Happy Black Friday, and may the deals be ever in your favor!

 

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Gaming Photography – Mortal Kombat X

Time for another Gaming Photography Post. Recently I completed Mortal Kombat X on PC.

I have to say that this was a good Mortal Kombat game but I regret buying it for PC. There was content not included in the bundled version of the game on PC that was on console so I lost out because I wasn’t willing to pay extra for fighters like Jason and the Xenomorph. The game ran ok on my GTX 1080 but there were definitely some issues due to the way they ported the game. I actually had to look up how to fix a number of them because this is actually a widespread problem on the PC version that many people struggled with. But all in all it’s a nice looking game with a solid story mode.

So now I’d like to present my top 10 photos from Mortal Kombat X. This is the first AAA game I’ve done a Gaming Photography post for on PC so definitely let me know what you think about the picture quality. As always, I make it a point of only taking natural in game shots. I don’t use photo modes or alter the brightness/color settings except in special situations. I took my photos for this game through Steam‘s screenshot system. I also post them on my Twitter and Instagram often.

I opted to avoid using mostly special attack pics but there are a couple in there.

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*If you’d like to see the full resolution image please right click and press “view image”.

Please let me know what you think of my shots. Any feedback is appreciated because I would like to improve my gaming photography skills.

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Officially a True PC Gamer

Last time I posted about how I finally built my gaming PC, but one cannot truly call themselves a PC gamer and by extension a member of the PC Master Race until they have officially completed a game on their rig. Today I do declare my official membership.

I thought it was appropriate to bridge the gap between my pre-Master Race life as a gamer with my newfound gloriousness. So I decided that instead of my initially planned The Witcher 2 as my first PC game on my rig I would complete a game that I had started on my laptop but never finished. I chose Magrunner: Dark Pulse (2013) developed by Frogwares.

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I originally tried Magrunner back in 2013 as a demo on PS3. I very much enjoyed the demo. It was like Portal but with magnets. As a fan of level based puzzlers like Portal, I was very interested in playing through the whole game. But I did not want to pay the price they were charging on PS3. I can’t remember the exact price but currently on the PSN store it’s listed as $10 so let’s go with that because I defintely wouldn’t have paid that price. Months later the game was on sale on GOG.com for less than $5. I happily bought it and started it soon after.

I was happy playing Magrunner on my laptop. It wasn’t running perfectly but it was certainly playable. I did not regret the purchase and everything was going quite well. Then I got stuck. There are three types of getting stuck in a game. Not knowing what to do. Not being able to do something. And not being able to do something because of hardware. Often people make the excuse that they are experiencing the third scenario when really they’re experiencing the second. With the advent of YouTube, the first scenario ceased to be a valid reason to get stuck in any game for an extended period of time. I was experiencing the third scenario. This was because my gamepad was not properly syncing to my laptop so I had to program it by hand with MotionJoy to pretend to be a mouse. But the settings were not perfect. I also had minor lag because of a lack of RAM.

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Up until the point where I actually did get stuck, these hardware issues were not game breaking. I had to work harder, but the game never got impossible. Then I got to a puzzle that required the highest level of accuracy and speed. Having now completed the game, I will still hold that this particular puzzle was the hardest to execute in the game. It wasn’t the hardest to solve, but actually do it was much hard. I tried and I tried and I tried, but was never able to succeed. You are required to quickly shoot three targets while riding a moving platform in hopes of getting through the door on the other side within the time limit. It was a horrible experience. I just couldn’t do it with my system. Eventually I gave up.

Three years after that happened I finally built a PC and my gamepad works properly. As does my mouse, which I had to switch to occasionally while playing. I beat that puzzle I was stuck on so long in under five minutes. I went on to beat the rest of the game soon after.

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I’m so thankful that I was finally able to complete that game. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as gaming redemption. I have completed Magrunner: Dark Pulse and can now officially call my self a PC gamer. My rig has been christened. No longer will I be limited by technical limitations. No longer will I have to miss out on betas because my system can’t run them. Now I can and shall go on to play and beat countless PC games.

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