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Review – Blaster Master Zero (PC)

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Growing up in the 80s, my friends and I played a lot of NES games. One of our absolute favorites was Blaster master. It had a lot of unique elements to it for the time, specifically, the back and forth exploration of areas, and the cool car, which you could eject from. Though at the time there wasn’t a term for it, it was very much in the vein of Metroidvania games. Mostly open world exploration, returning to zones with new abilities and upgrades, all very much hallmarks of that type of game.

The series seemed to, not really go anywhere though. There were a few Game Boy games, and a PlayStation title, but not a lot of entries in the series, until recently, with the Blaster Master Zero series. The first game in the series is essentially a remake of the first, original Blaster Master game, though it adds quite a lot of new elements and story to help flesh things out.

It also adds in a lot of new modernization to the game, with the ability to save your game being the big one. The original Blaster Master was a lot of fun, but it was a little brutal with what was needed to complete it. You pretty much just had your 3 lives (or whatever) and had to do everything in one go. And while the game wasn’t super difficult, accomplishing that did get tricky. I think the farthest I ever got on the original game was like zone 4 or 5. The lives issue aside, it also meant doing it all in one sitting. So having save games in the new game, is a huge improvement.

But it’s not a straight remake, as mentioned. Many of the overhead on foot zones are more fleshed out, making that part of the game play more enjoyable. It was always kind of an annoying chore before. There are also some bosses that show up in the main world now as well, so you are not just limited to the car for travel and bosses on foot. The core plot is expanded, giving some reason and motivation to the existence of Sophia-3 (the car), beyond, “Some kid fell in a hole while chasing his frog”.

The best part though is that it still FEELS like the old titles. There is a slight floatyness to the car and a bit of clunkiness to the on foot areas that aren’t bad elements at all, but they do exist and help Blaster Mater “feel” like Blaster Master, and they are both very particular to this game series. It also helps to make the two different play modes seem different. The floay car makes sense since it tends to continue rolling slightly when stopping, which contrasts well with how the on foot hero plays, since he is just a dude in a suit.

It’s definitely a fun remake of the original game. It’s honestly more fun than the original since it’s removed a lot of the tedium. It has all the right feel for game play and design, even the newer areas, which makes it feel just right as an update to the original game.

Review – Seasons After Fall (PC)

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This is one of those games I picked up on a bit of a whim. It’s appropriately tagged as a Metroidvania title, which is no doubt my favorite type of game. The promos also look quite gorgeous in their art style. Which is always a big draw. Other than that, I didn’t really quite know what to expect out of this game.

Fortunately, I was not disappointed. Though there was something that surprised me a bit. Mostly that there are no enemies in this game at all. It’s entirely platform and puzzle based. You just, keep on trying to progress the game. That doesn’t keep it from being enjoyable, but I didn’t really expect that. That couple with the fantastic painting like art style really push this more into being an artsy puzzle game.

The basic premise here, you play as a Fox spirit, working to aid another spirit in restoring the powers of the four seasonal spirits and areas. There is a central hub and 4 areas that branch from it, but you also will need to revisit each branch a few times to complete the overall story.

The gimmick of the game play loop is that as you progress, you unlock the ability to toggle the seasons of the area you are in. Which chances each zone and opens up new areas. For example, turning things to spring, can cause plants to grow or water to fill in areas. Changing things to Winter can create snow balls that you can climb, allowing for the ability to reach higher areas.

The plot itself is pretty interesting and has a nice little twist to it, though I have to say I kind of saw it coming, so it’s not that twisty. The animation is very smooth and the little fox bobs around nicely and believably. The graphics are where this game really shines though. The entire game looks like a very lush hand drawn world, though everything in it moves nice and smoothly, it’s like being in the actual environment.

The puzzles are also interesting, and changing between seasons to solve them can be tricky but is enjoyable. There is a lot of fun lore going on here with a sort of whimsical folklore feel to it, revolving around the different seasons.

Overall, it’s a very enjoyable title for anyone looking for some relaxing, platform puzzler style game play.

Review – Dead Cells (PC)

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I have to full be upfront here. When I first started playing Dead Cells, I hated it. Well, I liked it, but grew to hate it. I reminds me a lot of Rogue Legacy in it’s presentation, but it’s quite a bit faster and more difficult than Rogue Legacy is. I really really liked Rogue Legacy. Dead Cells also feels a lot like a Metroidvania title, though many will argue it’s not really a Metroidvania game, it has a very similar gameplay feel, even if the actual loop is different.

It’s closer to being a Roguelike platform game than a Metroidvania game, I’ll accept that. You do revisit areas, but not out of necessity to collect missed items or areas by using new skills, a Metroidvania hallmark, but because in Dead Cells, you live, you die, you live again. Actually, I’m not even sure you’re ever really ever alive, or maybe just you’re never dead. Your ACTUAL character is basically just a big sort of, blobby fungus thing. You start the game and possess a body and go from there.

Each iteration through the game, the levels are the same, but the layout is randomized. The route is also somewhat randomized, in that you can often choose where to go next. The choice can come at a trade off though, as the game gives bonus rewards for speed. Your equipment is also randomized. You get an assortment of initial drops to choose from and enemies drop items, but the secondary abilities and stats are all randomized out.

Between lives, you can unlock some permanent perks though. Which will help with progression as things get more and more difficult. This is where my chief problem with this game WAS. I’ll address it, but I do want to emphasize the “was”. The progression, really does not keep pace with the skill leaps on each stage. And dying at certain point in each run can mean losing any chance of progressing your ability at all, which results in a LOT of repetition and feeling of going nowhere. The ability to unlock skills only comes at the end of a stage. There is also a larger upgrade option for drops that only occurs every few stages. When you die, you lose all of your collected souls, which are used for upgrades.

You can unlock the ability to keep some of them, but it’s such a small amount it’s almost worthless. It also means the only incentive you have to spend early on, is on the ability to save souls between lives. So you never actually GET stronger for a while. It also doesn’t help that some of the unlockable items are kind of worthless and only serve to pollute the potential pool of drops.

After throwing myself against the first boss a few dozen times, then the stage that comes after the first boss, I completely shelved this game. It was fun, but not, THAT fun, to play essentially the same 2 levels over and over endlessly for a minuscule boost in power.

The game was eventually patched to add a difficulty adjustment slider, which brought me back and suddenly, the game was super enjoyable. Funny enough, this isn’t the first game this sort of thing happened to me with, Control did the same thing with the same results. Some of the more “hardcore” people complained, but it really doesn’t affect anyone else to play on an easier difficulty.

With the new ability to slide things to be less brutally difficult, the game was suddenly incredibly enjoyable. It meant going much farther long, beating more bosses and the game, and actually being able to progress along with unlocks. This also meant that the progression system was meaningful and the difficulty could be raised a bit as things became too easy. It honestly felt a lot more how the game was meant to be played.

Gameplay aside, the graphics use an interesting dense pixelated style that, despite it’s pixelatedness, really shows off all of the motion and environment well. Everything stands out well and looks pretty nice, in a slightly gross and morbid sort of way. The enemy variety is alright as well, each zone has it’s own sort of stable of enemies that show up, though some of them do get repeated.

There are also some more difficult enemies that only show up on higher difficulty levels. In addition to the difficulty sliders added in the mentioned patch, the game itself has a mechanism to increase the overall difficulty based on how many times the final boss is defeated. In order to unlock the “true ending”, the final boss must be defeated several times on increasing difficulty levels.

There are also several mini games and additional time attack modes that can be played for some extra challenge if that’s your jam.

The core gameplay loop is still a bit repetitive, and there is a lot of repeating each level, which may not be for everyone. There is still some trickiness to the difficulty as well, even on “easy mode”, which can be a turn off. Still, it’s a fun and fast platformer that plays a lot like traditional Castlevania/Metroidvania types in it’s mechanics.

Review – Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (GBA)

Konami – GBA- 1 Player

Itching for more Game Boy Castlevania action after completing Circle of the Moon, I set out to find a copy of the Castlevania Double Pack.  This is a repackaging of Harmony of Dissonance and Aria of Sorrow onto one Game Boy Advance cart.  Both games are complete and there isn’t any extras so I’lm just going to review them as separate games.

Since Harmony comes first in release order, I’ll start with it.  It is however the third game I played through.  I started it second but after about five minutes of play I couldn’t stand it and decided to give Aria of Sorrow a go.  I can’t really place why, but I just don’t care much for this game.  One major gripe is the controls.  Most Symphony style Castlevania games have a “Back dash” button.  This one has a “Dash Left” and “Dash Right” via the L and R buttons.  While this almost seems intuitive since it means always dashing in one direction, when you’re used to always dashing backwards with one button no matter which direction your sprite is facing, it becomes a problem.

That seems a bit confusing.  Ok, traditionally, if you’re facing “left” and press “back dash”, you slide backwards, to the right.  This is regardless of which button is assigned to back dash.  With the new system, if you’re facing left, and press the L button, you dash forward, press the R button and dash backwards, if you’re facing right, L makes you dash backwards, and R makes you dash forwards.  Anyway, it really screws with your head when you’re just trying to dash somewhere and you keep changing direction.

The next issue is the graphics.  They are just plain huge and ugly.  They tried to make them colorful and flashy but it just ends up being kind of a mess.  Also, many of the enemies have different looks than one might expect them to.  First rule of sequels, if you’re recycling enemies, make them resemble the same type of enemy from previous games.  You can update the look somewhat but a previously fat heavily armored “Armor” enemy shouldn’t suddenly be tall and lanky.

Also what’s up with Juste’s constant glow.  He’s also too huge for the screen.  Actually it’s possible he’s not any larger than our other protagonists but I just found he seems slightly too large, especially for the small GBA screen.

Anyway, this game uses a new magic system as well.  You gain magic books based on elemental properties as you progress.  These books combine with your traditional sub weapons (knife, axe etc) to create a more powerful “Item Crush” style attack.  The problem with this system is that you’re limited to one type of sub item at a time.  Finding the better items isn’t always easy and occasionally you can accidentally pick up another item and loose your useful one.  The result is that you’ll pretty much just end up using one or two of these abilities ever (generally the most useful are the rotating shield ones).

Also, your only weapon is the whip.  While this was also true in CotM, it would have been nice to see the return of Symphony’s multi weapon system.  Instead of new weapons, you equip your whip with various stones to give it additional powers.  Essentially it makes the whip a little stronger.

The primary saving grace for this game is the plot, which is actually pretty decent, even if it does come off as a rehash of Castlevania 2.  There is a bit of a twist fairly early in the game involving the castle itself that is pretty well done.  Also the plot points surrounding Maxim are rather intrigue, though really obvious once you realize what’s going on.

As far as new school Castlevania goes, I’m going to have to rank this one at the bottom of the barrel.  It’s fun for many of the reasons Symphony and Circle were fun, but at the same time it all around feels like a huge rip off from lots of previous Castlevania games.  While I wouldn’t go out of my way to find a copy of this game, if you can get the Double Pack with Aria then it’s well worth it.

Review – Castlevania: Circle of the Moon (GBA)

Konami – GBA – 1 Player

Castlevania is a game series I haven’t always cared much for. The early games were just plain too difficult for my tastes. If I was going to play a tough platform game I’d play something fun and fast like Blaster Master or Ninja Gaiden. After many recommendations I picked up a copy of Symphony of the Night. It languished for years, un-played, on my game shelf. I’d never been a big fan of the whole “horror/gothic” thing, why would I want to play a game full of it?

I then of course played Symphony and loved every minute of it. This sort of side scrolling action game just isn’t made anymore on these next-gen systems. It’s all about 3D! Sadly, Symphony left me wanting more. Armed with my trusty Game Boy Advance, I managed to find more with Castlevania: Circle of the Moon. 2D is all but dead on the home console but it’s still pushing it self out on the Portable system.

Fortunately, Konami realized the popularity of the new format used in Symphony and continued the new exploration and RPG style elements from SotN into its Game Boy series of Castlevania games. This installment takes us back to the whip thrashing heroes of the older games with out hero, Nathan Belmont, err… Nathan Graves. Nathan sets out with his companions Morris and Hugh Baldwin (No relation to the actor) to slay the newly resurrected Dracula. There’s pretty much only one staple for the Castlevania series, and that’s the fact that Dracula is always pulling the strings SOMEHOW and is pretty much always the final boss. If you didn’t finish by killing Dracula, you’re probably not done yet or you got a “bad ending”.

Gameplay is pretty comparable to Symphony. In this game you’re stuck with using the whip for the entire game however. To help out though you collect DSS (Duel Setup System) cards. These cards are themed around mythical animals and gods and are combined for varying themed effects. For example, combining a Flame based Salamander card with the whip enhancing Mercury card will give you a flaming whip. The Earth based Golum card with Mercury gives an longer earth based whip. At the same time combining either of these animal cards with say, the Jupiter based recovery card will cause Fire or Earth damage to heal you. Only two cards, one from each set, can be used at a time though so you’ll find yourself often switching and strategizing. The cards are obtained randomly from enemies and can be a bit of a challenge to collect.

Still, you’ll end up using the same half dozen combinations for most of the game. A lot of them are mostly useless, especially the projectiles and special whips. I found only the Earth whip to be of any true use since it has a longer reach. This lets you hit many enemies before they get too close and start attacking. Hit, not kill, mind you. Most of the enemies take about twice as many hits as should really be necessary to kill them. I find the hits tended to decrease by one for each level gained but near the end of the game the experience necessary to level becomes astronomically too high. I believe while I was “power leveling” I figured up having to pass through the entire Coliseum bonus areas (filled with the toughest monsters) something like 2-3 times before gaining a level. This is not a small task and the Coliseum enemies are tough and give more exp than normal enemies. Still, with a few DSS exploits the final boss was still relatively easy to defeat at my finishing level.

At least there is a fair variety of enemies to keep you entertained in your times of leveling need. Even basic color swaps (like the armors) have completely different attack patterns. The castle is also expansive and varied enough to keep things interesting the whole trip through. You’ll do some backtracking, but it’s backtracking that makes some level of sense.

In comparison to Symphony of the Night, which is a game that all three GBA Castlevania games try to emulate to varying degrees, I’d say it’s a decent follow-up. It’s not quite as polished overall but it has its own merits and methods. A game doesn’t have to be an exact copy of its great predecessor in order to be worthwhile.