Nintendo Switch: Splatoon 2 (review)

Release date: July 2017

Developer: Nintendo

Format: Digital download (eShop) and physical cart

Other platforms: NA

Price: ~$75 AUD

I loved the first Splatoon on the Wii U, so the news we’d be getting a sequel just over two years later on Nintendo’s next console was very welcome indeed.

Structurally, Splatoon 2 is more or less the same as its predecessor; though it does include a single player campaign, the focus is on multiplayer modes. Once again, you start off with a little tutorial area that teaches you the controls before arriving in Inkopolis, the game’s hub world. You can access the shops to buy new gear and weapons from here, as well as the single player and multiplayer campaigns (these can also be accessed from the menu without having to walk around).

If you go to the little arcade machines on the right of the square, you can play a few little minigames. I didn’t spend a lot of time with them but the one I played with was some sort of rhythm game.

Many of the weapons will be familiar to those who played the first game, such as the rollers, the brushes and of course the standard gun and sniping weapons, but there are some new ones like the Splat Dualies and the Sloshers. Your selection is limited when you first start the game but as you level up, you unlock the ability to purchase different types of weapons, each of which has its own secondary and special weapons attached. The different clothing you can buy comes with different skills with slots to unlock further skills by leveling up in multiplayer, like faster run speed, quicker special attack recharge and more economical ink usages for your weapons. It’s well worth buying different gear and unlocking the skills as they can make a huge difference to your effectiveness in the match.

Multiplayer
The main multiplayer modes that were in the first game return for the sequel; Turf War has two teams of four competing to see who can cover the largest area with their team’s ink in three minutes. This mode is open as soon as you start the game. Once you hit level 10, you unlock Ranked Battles, which include three other modes: Splat Zones, where each team must compete to see who can hold a specific area of the map for the longest; Rainmaker, where teams battle to take possession of the powerful Rainmaker weapon and carry it to the enemy’s base; and Tower Control, where you take over a tower in the centre so it moves towards the enemy’s base as long as one of your team is standing on it. Each match lasts for three minutes, which is great for those who only have a short time to play on their break at work or before they go to bed. It also means that losing doesn’t feel too frustrating (most of the time) because you haven’t sacrificed that much time.

In addition to the competitive multiplayer modes above, Splatoon 2 also introduces a cooperative multiplayer mode, Salmon Run, which can be played online with randoms or in local or online teams with your friends. You get put into teams of four and sent to an island where you must collect a certain quota of Golden Eggs through three waves or rounds. These Golden Eggs are harvested by killing the variety of Boss Salmonids that will come ashore and try to make things difficult for you, along with the hordes of smaller Salmonids which are easier to kill but can still catch you off guard in large enough numbers. Some of these Boss Salmonids are relatively easy to kill but others are challenging and can take a concerted team effort to take down. In addition, the landscape sometimes changes between waves, with the tide rising or falling or night plunging the island into darkness. Sometimes a player will get swarmed by glowflies and this poor player will be targeted by Salmonids. If a player is killed, they can only be revived by another player hitting them with ink, but if all three players are wiped out, it’s game over (however any knocked-out players will respawn at the start of each new wave).

The huge variation in difficulty between games – and even between waves within one game – means you always have to be on your toes. As you win more games, your pay grade goes up and you start getting more difficult missions on average. However, if you keep losing games, your pay grade drops. You also don’t get to choose your weapon; instead, you are randomly allocated one at the start of each wave from the four that are available in that Salmon Run window. Unfortunately, Salmon Run is not accessible at all times (except in local multiplayer) unlike the other modes. I’m not exactly sure what the pattern is but it seems to run every second day or so, for about 10-12 hours. I’m not really sure why they couldn’t just have it always available like the other modes as it’s probably the best (in my view) mode in the game.

Sadly, a lot of the online issues from the first game have carried over into the sequel. While the number of disconnect errors I’ve experienced seems to have been drastically reduced, I still found myself frequently getting stuck waiting in lobbies for several minutes as the game searched for new players and kept resetting the timer. I always found that if the lobby wasn’t full within about 30 seconds, I would eventually get kicked out because not enough players joined the battle, so it was frustrating to have to sit there for ages because there’s no option to exit and just look for another one.

Disconnections from other players are also a huge issue. It doesn’t bother me too much in Turf War (though it’s still frustrating) but in Ranked Battles where wins and losses affect your rank, it’s unfair to be penalised for something beyond your control, especially when it happens several matches in a row. I found it particularly infuriating in Salmon Run, since these games last longer and require more effort. While you can usually manage a Salmon Run game with three people IF you get lucky and get an easy round, it’s pretty much impossible with only two players. Several times when I was playing, one or two players disconnected between the lobby and the first wave, so as soon as I spawned with only one other player beside me, I knew I had no chance. As I mentioned above, your pay grade drops as you lose Salmon Run games, and I really think that Nintendo should have included some sort of failsafe so that if you lose a game after having players disconnect, your pay grade doesn’t drop.

One thing I missed about the Wii U version was the ability to see the map for each stage at all times while you were playing. Though you can easily access it by hitting the X button, it still felt a bit cumbersome to me compared to just being able to look down and see how much ground you’d inked or to tap a player on the touch screen on the GamePad and superjump straight to them. Even though the Switch version wouldn’t be able to accommodate a separate screen, it would have been nice if they could at least provide a small map overlay in one corner or something.

Splatoon 2 also does not have an inbuilt voice chat function (though I maintain that a game like this doesn’t really need it, I feel like it would still be good to have the option there). There is a separate Nintendo app which allows voice chat but I haven’t downloaded it as I can’t really be bothered with it (and from what I’m hearing, it’s a bit of a train wreck anyway). You can also use the app to buy clothes with skills that are different to those you can buy in the shops, so it might be worth checking out for some people.

Single Player – Hero Mode
Disappointingly, the single player campaign’s story has been recycled from the first game: the Great Zapfish that powers Inkopolis (and all the smaller Zapfish) has been stolen by the Octarians, and it’s up to you to track them down and get them back. In addition, Callie – one of the Squid Sisters – has also vanished, leaving her sister Marie to enlist your help in finding her. I wasn’t expecting a particularly novel or complicated story but I had hoped there’d be a bit more variation from the first game. That being said, the level design is brilliant, with a wide variety of environments and platforming components ensuring that the game never feels stale. Some of the levels in Hero Mode are also used as stages in the multiplayer side of the game, but they have a whole different feel when you’re navigating them to take out Octolings and recover trapped Zapfish instead of just sloshing ink everywhere.

The campaign is also a bit longer than Splatoon‘s single player mode, clocking in at around 5-6 hours. However there are collectibles scattered throughout the levels and the game keeps records of which levels you’ve completed using each weapon – and there’s a larger variety of weapons than in the first game’s Hero Mode – so there is a fair bit of room to replay the single player campaign. You can unlock Hero versions of some weapons in the multiplayer shop once you beat every solo player level with that weapon, though aside from an aesthetic difference, the stats for each weapon are the same as the regular version, so this is probably only something completionists will see the value in doing. Especially since some levels were obviously designed with a particular weapon in mind, and completing it with a different weapon can be extremely difficult and frustrating.

Like its predecessor, Splatoon 2 released with three amiibo: Inkling Boy, Inkling Girl and Inkling Squid. This is the same as the first game’s initial amiibo, though this time the characters are different colours, and unlike Splatoon‘s green Inkling Squid, which was only available in a pack of three with the other two characters, Splatoon 2‘s purple Inkling Squid is available separately. The old Splatoon amiibo can be used alongside the newer ones in Splatoon 2 to unlock exclusive clothing and to store your favourite gear setups for you to scan and equip easily while in the lobby. However it’s worth noting that the Callie and Mario amiibo from the first game will only give you gear after you have beaten the solo player campaign. I haven’t bought the new amiibo yet but when I do, I’ll add them to the post.

Splatoon 2 is a must-buy title if you own a Nintendo Switch, even if you owned Splatoon on Wii U. Nintendo’s colourful shooter may have carried over most of the elements from the first game (including several of its problems), but the addition of Salmon Run, new maps and weapons and the ability to play this on the go make it well worth adding to your library.

Score:

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PS Vita: Lumines Electronic Symphony (review)

Release date: February 2012

Developer: Q Entertainment

Format: Digital download (PS Store) and physical cart

Other platforms: NA

Price: ~$23 AUD

While I enjoy puzzle games, I don’t tend to buy them often. Lumines Electronic Symphony was an impulse buy in EB Games when I was in there buying something for my 3DS; there were a number of preowned copies of Lumines on the clearance table marked down to $4 or something (I think they’re usually $10 now for a new copy, much cheaper than paying $23 from the PlayStation Store), so I decided to buy it mostly to help get rid of the ridiculous amount of loose change I had in my wallet at the time. I also figured it couldn’t hurt to expand my collection of Vita games a bit, since at the time I only had one or two others.

There are a few modes in Lumines Electronic Symphony. Stop Watch Mode gives the player a limited time to see how many blocks they can clear, while Duel Mode allows you to play against a friend (though this multiplayer is local only). Master Mode allows you to start at higher difficulties. Playlist allows you to arrange backgrounds and songs you have already unlocked into a custom order for you to play through. The Voyage mode is the main attraction, as there are no levels to beat; instead you play for as long as you want, until you either run out of room for more blocks or give up.

I hadn’t played any previous Lumines games when I went into this, so I expected it to be in the same vein as Tetris (I suppose most ‘falling block’ puzzle games get lumped into the same category). Lumines has square blocks falling from the top of the screen, which each quarter one of two colours. To clear them, you need to form squares or rectangles out of pieces of the same colour by moving and rotating the blocks, but they don’t disappear immediately; only once the constantly sweeping laser passes over them will they vanish. The panel on the left shows what blocks are on their way, while on the right you can see a running total of your play time, score, clear percentage and high score to beat. In addition to the standard blocks are chain blocks, which will clear any squares of the same colour you can connect it to, and shuffle blocks. Shuffle blocks will change around all the blocks already on the screen, which can be a help or a hindrance; if you have a good combo lined up, this will destroy it, but if you’re struggling with a screen quickly filling up with unmatched blocks, you might get lucky with the shuffle clearing out a lot of them for you and allowing for more combos.

As you play, you can also use your cleared blocks to contribute to clearing the World Block, a giant block to be cleared by all Lumines Electronic Symphony players. However, the World Block resets every 24 hours, so if it isn’t cleared by then, everyone has to start over. You can also see how you stack up against your friends on a leaderboard on the menu screen.

So far it probably sounds like a stock-standard puzzle game, but the music and visuals take Lumines Electronic Symphony from being a good block-matching game to a sensory feast. I should admit that I’m not generally a fan of electronic music; I don’t dislike it, I just don’t really listen to it. Even so, I still recognised several of the bands, including the Pet Shop Boys, Goldfrapp, and The Chemical Brothers, and once I stopped playing, I often had parts of the soundtrack stuck in my head. The music helps you slip into a zen mode while playing, and the transitions between tracks are seamless, whether they are fast-paced, upbeat tunes or slower, more relaxing melodies. This rise and fall helps to balance the frantic sections with calmer periods of respite, and it actually feels as if the music is responding to the speed at which you clear blocks. As the music changes, so do the backgrounds, which vary between subdued, muted images to bold, bright patterns, with the colours and designs of the blocks also changing to match their background. When I first started playing I worried that this might be distracting, but it doesn’t interfere with the gameplay in the slightest, and it helps to keep it feeling fresh and exciting even after playing for hours.

As you earn more experience points and level up, you unlock new skins (backgrounds) and music tracks, as well as new avatars. In most games, avatars serve only an aesthetic purpose, but in Lumines Electronic Symphony, each avatar has two special abilities linked to it (one for single player and one for multiplayer), which can be used when the gauge in your avatar fills up on the left of the puzzle screen. Some of these abilities include slowing the flow of falling blocks and changing the colour of blocks to make matching easier. These abilities can make the difference between crashing out at 1 hour or being able to go on to play for another few hours, so it’s definitely worth unlocking all the avatars you can and experimenting with their abilities to see which one you find most useful.

The only problem I had with the game was the use of touch controls, and it was a pretty minor problem. The Vita allows the use of the front screen to swipe and shuffle blocks, but this just felt cumbersome and was often difficult to do accurately once the game had sped up and blocks were falling thick and fast. Luckily, though, you can just use the physical buttons, D-Pad and/or thumb sticks to control things instead, which is much easier and more accurate. You can also tap the back screen to help charge your avatar’s special skill faster, but this quickly grows tiresome. Unless you’re competing to try to climb the leaderboards, it’s probably not worth bothering with.

Lumines Electronic Symphony is definitely worth buying if you have a Vita. With its fast-paced puzzle action and absorbing rhythmic soundtrack, it’s very easy to lose yourself in it for hours without realising. Yet if you want to just have a quick puzzle break during a TV commercial, you can do that too. The digital price is a bit hefty in my view but if you buy it in physical format, you can probably get it for less than the price of a fast food meal.

Score:

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Tokyo Treat – July 2017 Premium Box

Time for another Tokyo Treat box! I hadn’t had one for a few months but when I saw the abundance of chocolate and fruit-flavoured treats that would be in July’s box, I signed up again.

As usual, the box was packed to the brim, so let’s get stuck into it!

Dagashi Bag
First up is the Dagashi bag, which is apparently a relatively new addition to Tokyo Treat. Instead of getting a few set dagashi sweets, you get a little plastic bag with four or five random ones along with the rest of the Tokyo Treat goodies. It doesn’t actually say what each one is, but I’ll write them up as I eat them…

Not being able to read a single character of Japanese, I posted a picture of these on Twitter to ask if my followers knew what they were, so I was mostly informed before I started pigging out on them (thanks to HyperTigerXT and alpacawesome on Twitter for helping me out). Moving clockwise from the left, the white bag with Japanese characters on it contained little chunks of some crunchy, savoury thing which is apparently called mochi taro. These rice snacks tasted a bit like croutons; nothing earth shattering, but they were a nice snack (and for some reason there were two or three random peanuts in the packet as well…). The second thing, which had “Fruits Doughnuts” in English on the packet, was… Well, I don’t know what it was supposed to be, because it was melted and squashed beyond recognition. But when I opened it and started eating it, it was a tough gummy lolly with a sour taste, similar to those sour gummy worms. The packet with the little lizard critter on it contained small brown balls. From the drawing on the back of the packet, it seems that as you suck on them, they change colour to reveal their flavour; in my case, I got grape ones (they taste the same as grape Zappos I used to buy in high school). The long thin item on the right was Umaibo, which seemed like a long tube of Cheezel-textured substance with a strong savoury, slightly spicy flavour. Apparently it’s an octopus flavoured corn snack, which surprised me; I generally dislike seafood flavours, but this was really nice. Finally, the item in the bottom centre was a kind of scroll cake with butter cream flavouring. This one was a little disappointing. Not because it tasted bad, but because it didn’t taste like much of anything. The cake itself tasted like standard vanilla/plain cake, but there was hardly any of the cream filling, so while it was sweet, it wasn’t anything special.

Melon Cream Soda Candy
These are solid candy balls that taste like melon as you suck them, but once you get to the centre they have a vanilla ice cream-flavoured filling. These were a nice sweet lolly.

One’s Bar Salty Vanilla Chocolate
Being a chocolate lover, this was one of the treats I was most looking forward two. Vanilla flavoured chocolate with added salt. I’m not a huge fan of salted caramel but I thought the salt might be an interesting contrast with the sweet vanilla. Unfortunately, the chocolate was pretty average. Firstly, when I opened the box, I was disappointed to discover that instead of being mostly full of chocolate, it only contained three individually wrapped sticks of chocolate that took up less than half the space in the box. The chocolate itself just tasted like Cadbury Dream (their white chocolate) that was getting close to its expiry date. The worst part was the oily-textured aftertaste it left. It takes a lot for me to dislike chocolate, but I definitely disliked this Salty Vanilla chocolate.

Crunchy Corn Snack
Often when you get something supposedly flavoured like another food, it’ll taste vaguely like that other food but not really. These corn snacks tasted EXACTLY like real corn. I wasn’t expecting to like them that much but they were really nice.

Savory Shrimp Rice Crackers
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy these, but they were really nice. Similar to the shrimp crackers you get with Chinese takeaway, these also had a slight barbecue flavour in addition to the savoury rice. You can buy similar rice cakes here up they’re usually just plain as far as I know.

Pikachu Shaped Chocolate Puff
Being a Pokemon nut and chocolate lover I was most looking forward to these. So I was pretty disappointed when I tried one and discovered that they’re almost tasteless. It was kind of like eating Cocoa-Pops that have been left out for a few days and gone stale. If I’d got an Eeveelution as the sticker that came in the box I might have forgiven them, but I didn’t… So I won’t. *pouts*

Awawawawa Puccho Ball – Soda
Similar to the melon candy above, these are solid candy balls with a soda flavour, though these also have a coating that fizzes up when you eat them, making it feel like you’re drinking a real carbonated drink. The centre contains some sort of cold gel. A refreshing summer lolly.

Mugikko Chocolate Barley Puffs
In the February Tokyo Treat box, I got rice puffs coated in pink strawberry chocolate as part of the Valentine’s Day theme. These are the same but with normal milk chocolate. They were quite nice, with the savoury rice puffs offsetting the sweet chocolate. Sadly the packets are quite small, though.

Mini Watermelon Choco Chips
One of the best treats in this month’s box. These cookies really do taste like watermelon, and though they had choc chips, they were only small and fairly scarce, so the chocolate didn’t overpower the watermelon. I just wish the packet was bigger (although then I would have felt even more guilty about gutsing the lot in one sitting).

Bourbon Petit Pineapple Biscuit
Tiny little biscuit sandwiches with a pineapple creme filling. The sweetness of the biscuits and the tartness of the pineapple was a nice combination, and the bite sized biscuits were small enough that it was easy to just keep eating them as if they were Maltesers (which is pretty much what I did, eating the entire packet in one sitting).

Summer Annual Coconut Pocky
I love Pocky in nearly all of its variations, and the coconut one is no different. The pretzel-like sticks are dipped in milk chocolate with dried coconut flakes. Like other Pocky, they’re extremely addictive.

Kiwi Fanta +E
I’m not a huge fan of kiwis so this was another item I went into with a bit of apprehension. But aside from the peach drink I got a few boxes ago, I think this might be my favourite Tokyo Treat drink. There’s a definite kiwi flavour there but the sweetness is not overpowering, and the fizziness makes it a nice refreshing summer drink (even though it’s winter here).

Shakable Magic Jelly
The DIY snacks in the last few Tokyo Treat boxes were nothing special, I thought, so I was happy to get one that was not only fun to make, but also tasty in my July box. You pour one sachet of powder into the plastic cup provided, add a lidful of water and then shake it until it turns to jelly. After waiting for it to settle, you add the second sachet of power and a little more water, which, when stirred, turns into a fizzy foam. The foam tasted almost exactly like the Wizz Fizz powder I got as a child (and which I believe you can still buy in supermarkets), while the jelly part had a sweeter, more lemonade-like taste.

Squishy Cat
The last item in my box was a little squishy cat. There are five colours available, and you can squash and knead the cat to relieve stress. I feel like a monster squashing something so adorable though :\

That’s it for this month’s Tokyo Treat. I will probably get next month’s as well since it has a few interesting things, so check back here in August for my write up of the August premium box!

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Nintendo Switch: Snake Pass (review)

Release date: March 2017

Developer: Sumo Digital

Format: Digital download (eShop)

Other platforms: PS4, XBox One, PC (Windows)

Price: $26 AUD

After the relatively lackluster launch lineup for the Nintendo Switch, a lot of people – myself included – were looking forward to something different to play during breaks from Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Snake Pass caught my eye as soon as I saw its first trailer, with the cute, cheerful characters and lush, vibrant environments making me nostalgic for 90s platformers like Donkey Kong 64 and Crash Bandicoot.

Comparisons with Donkey Kong seem a bit inevitable when you consider that Snake Pass‘s music was composed by David Wise who worked on most of the iconic music from the Donkey Kong series. Having played Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze a few years earlier, I was especially reminded of its chilled out soundtrack, as Snake Pass‘s music has a similar vibe.

There’s not much of a story in Snake Pass, but the game doesn’t really suffer for not having it. You control a snake called Noodle as he travels through 15 levels with the help of his hummingbird companion, Doodle. Controlling Noodle takes a lot of getting used to, as you really have to think like a snake. If you just push the thumbstick forward, you won’t get anywhere in a hurry; instead, you have to make him slither from side to side like a real snake in order to build up speed, and though you can raise Noodle’s head to climb over low obstacles, most climbing requires Noodle to wrap around various bamboo structures. Playing as a snake is definitely a novelty, and the developers have really got the gravity and physics of how a snake moves and acts right (apparently the guy who came up with the idea used to have a pet snake, which explains why the movements look and feel so natural). It may be unforgiving, but it’s certainly realistic.

Some areas also see Noodle swimming underwater or having to unlock obstacles by pushing a ball into a slot or by moving a lever or spinning a turnstile. All of these mechanics are introduced relatively early in the game and aside from taking place in increasingly treacherous environments, they don’t really evolve as you progress. Though I suppose control options are going to be limited for a character that has no arms or legs.

There is no jumping in Snake Pass, and no enemies to fight. The lack of combat makes it a fairly relaxing puzzle-platformer for the most part (at least in the early levels), though it is possible to die if you fall off the stage or land in a pit of spikes or lava. This makes the challenge ramp up significantly in later levels, as some of the collectibles required to progress are positioned in hard-to-reach areas where a single mistake can result in fatal falls.

There are three sorts of collectibles in Snake Pass. First are the three brightly coloured shapes, keys that must be collected to open the gate before you can move on to the next level. Next there are the numerous blue bubbles. Finally, there are five gold coins in each level, and these coins are by far the most challenging to collect. If you only collect the three gate keys, you can probably finish the game in about 4 hours, but if you’re aiming for 100% completion it will take double that, at least. Aside from that 100% completion, there seems to be very little reward for collecting the bubbles and coins, and – as I’ll go into below – the game frustrated me enough that I was content to just get the three gate keys and go on to the next level.

As much as I was charmed by Noodle and his colourful world, I still had a few gripes with the game. The first was with the camera; as in many Nintendo 64 3D platformers, the camera would quite often choose the least helpful angle it could, obscuring my view as I tried to slither up a tricky structure of bamboo poles. Moving the camera is easy enough with the right thumbstick, but this means taking your thumb off the A button, which is not ideal if you’re trying to climb vertically (there were times I felt like I could have used a third thumb). I died a number of times simply because I couldn’t see what I was doing, and either took my thumb off A to move the camera (resulting in Noodle letting go and falling to his death) or because I tried to navigate the obstacle effectively blind and unsurprisingly was unable to do so. The ‘helpful’ hummingbird was not always helpful, either, often either refusing to lift my tail when I pressed the button to call him, or lifting it and then dropping it without me asking him to, usually at the most inconvenient time.

Several sections require Noodle to coil and slither around intricate bamboo structures in order to reach high platforms. This means wrapping tightly around the bamboo by making relatively small motions with the control stick. Unfortunately, whether Noodle wraps around or just flings himself out in that general direction seems to be purely down to luck, so expect to have to to climb the same section repeatedly because Noodle fell off the structure for no reason. You can use the left trigger button to grip tightly, but this, too, seemed a bit hit-and-miss. Combined with a sudden difficulty spike about a third/half of the way into the game, this created an extremely frustrating experience at times (I’m not the sort of person to throw my controller when I lose my temper but Snake Pass certainly challenged me in that regard). It also annoyed me that checkpoints weren’t placed after more of the difficult sections, as it meant that falling or dying at a particular point often forced you to repeat two or three gruelling climbs rather than just one.

Though Snake Pass is a relatively short game, it still offers plenty of depth and challenge to those who want it, and its pick-up-and-play structure makes it particularly suited to the Nintendo Switch’s portability. The experience was marred at times by an uncooperative camera and a disobedient hummingbird, and the difficulty spike in the middle part of the game felt a little extreme, but I still had some fun with Snake Pass, even if sometimes the controls made it more frustrating than it needed to be. If you’re desperate for a new game to play, I’d recommend giving Snake Pass a go, but if you still have plenty of other games to get through first, maybe wait for it to go on sale.

Score:

 

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Nintendo DS: Professor Layton and the Curious Village (review)

Release date: April 2008

Developer: Level 5

Format: Physical cart

Other platforms: NA

Price: ~$20 AUD

Though I played a lot of puzzle games as a child, I lost interest in them as an adult. I had heard a lot of people in various gaming sites and forums praising the Professor Layton series, but I still wasn’t motivated to actually try one. Then I was in Target one day and saw several games marked down for clearance, including Professor Layton and the Curious Village for $5. I decided to pick it up along with whatever new-release game I was buying at the time.

The story starts with Professor Layton and his assistant, Luke, driving to the small town of St. Mystere after receiving a letter from Lady Dahlia. Dahlia’s husband, the recently deceased Baron Augustus Reinhold, wrote in his will that his fortune would go to whoever solved the mystery of the Golden Apple; while many have tried, no one has yet succeeded. Not long after Layton and Luke start investigating, however, another member of the Baron’s family is murdered, and the duo soon discover that the Golden Apple is only the beginning of their mystery. I will admit that I went in expecting to be underwhelmed, but it’s actually an engaging story, and the personalities of the different characters make you care what happens to them.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village is also beautifully presented in a charming cartoon style, with completely animated and voiced cut scenes delivering the story in between puzzles and exploration. This is surprising and impressive compared to a lot of other DS games, and these high production values make the story even more interesting. I also quite liked the music, though it did get repetitive after a while; I would have liked to see a greater variety of tracks included.

So, what’s the actual gameplay like? Exploring the town and its surrounds is essentially a point-and-click adventure, where you touch arrows on the screen to move into different areas. In each scene, different characters and objects can be interacted with; some people will only give you information to progress the story if you can solve a puzzle for them (everyone in Professor Layton games loves puzzles), while other objects might yield optional puzzles. You can also find Hint Coins hidden in some places, which are useful for when you get stuck on a puzzle.

The puzzles themselves are where the game really shines. There are many different types of puzzles, from slider puzzles (rearranging components to fit into a particular shape) to logic puzzles to mathematical puzzles. Each puzzle has a value in “picarats”, which in most cases decreases by 10% the first two times you get the puzzle wrong (the penalty is higher for multiple choice puzzles). Also, some puzzles can’t really be answered ‘incorrectly’ as they require you to move things around to achieve a certain objective (such as arranging items to fit within a particular shape). The picarats don’t seem to have any purpose other than indicating the difficulty of the puzzle, so losing them isn’t really a big deal. If you get stuck on a puzzle, you can quit it with no penalty and come back to it later, though there are some puzzles that are required before you can progress.

While some puzzles are easy and have obvious answers, some are incredibly difficult and even when you do work out the solution, it sometimes seems down to luck more than anything. There were a handful that I had to look up online, and my response when I saw the answer was to scratch my head and mutter, “huh?” Then again, I suppose it caters to different ways of thinking, so what seems ridiculous to me may be quite obvious to someone else.

In addition to the puzzles, there are also a few other mini-games to solve throughout the adventure. When completing puzzles, you will sometimes be rewarded with a gizmo, a portrait piece or furniture. Furniture can be used to decorate Layton and Luke’s rooms at the inn to make them happy, while portrait pieces can be assembled to complete a painting. The gizmos can be assembled to create a little robot dog who can sniff out Hint Coins or puzzles you might otherwise miss. These mini-games are completely optional.

I would definitely recommend picking up Professor Layton and the Curious Village if you find it, especially since it can be found so cheaply now. The beautifully presented story and the huge variety of puzzles will appeal to people of all ages. Just be prepared to have to go online to look up a puzzle solution every now and then, and some players may prefer to play with the volume off once the music becomes too repetitive.

Score:

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Nintendo 3DS: Ever Oasis (review)

Release date: June 2017

Developer: Grezzo

Format: Digital download (eShop) and physical cart

Other platforms: NA

Price: ~$50 AUD

My undying love for Fantasy Life is no secret, and the fact that the ‘sequel’ is only a mobile game rather than a fully-fledged 3DS game is something I’m still bitter about. When Ever Oasis was announced at last year’s E3, it looked like it would at least help me scratch the cute RPG itch.

The story opens in your older brother’s oasis, where he tells you about some of the skills it takes to be an oasis chief. Not long after, your brother and his oasis are swallowed up by Chaos, though he manages to send you to safety with his magic before he bites the dust. Upon awakening, you meet Esna, a water sprite, who helps you to create your very own oasis. From this point on, you expand your oasis by getting more residents to move in, gardening crops and and setting up shops for your residents, growing crops and holding festivals to attract more visitors. In addition to running your oasis, you also need to fight off the odd Chaos attack on your oasis, as well as travelling in search of a way to defeat Chaos for good.

Characters you meet in the field or in dungeons will eventually visit your oasis, and provided certain requests are met (they may want a certain item or a particular shop) they will become a resident. Once this happens, you can help them set up Bloom Booths, where they can sell materials you give them to visitors in order to earn you Dewadems, the game’s currency. These characters will usually also tell you about another character they saw on their adventures, hinting at another person who will come to our oasis once you find them and talk to them. You need to make sure you keep the shop-keepers well-stocked with materials (which can be found by harvesting crops, gathering items in the field and by defeating enemies) as if they sell out, their happiness drops and they can’t earn you any Dewadems. Having to run around visiting each shop to refill their wares can be time consuming, but luckily a character eventually moves in who does all this for you once you indicate what materials need to be given to which Bloom Booth owner. You can also assign characters to take over gardening (as long as they’re not running a Bloom Booth) – meaning you can just hand over the seeds and collect the crops rather than having to plant and tend to them yourself – and exploring, allowing the characters to go out into the field and level up while they bring back various materials depending on where you send them.

Recruiting new residents forms a substantial part of the game as it’s the only way to level up your oasis, and some of the later story requests require you to have your oasis at a certain level or have a certain number of residents. Also, the more residents you have and the happier they are, the more your HP increases by when you travel into the field. Though all the characters are cute and have their own personalities, the constant pattern of ‘find a character, have them visit your oasis, fetch them an item/build them a shop and have them move in’ grew a bit tedious after a while. Also, if you take on a quest while you have another quest active, the first quest gets cancelled, meaning that even if you go to where the item you’re supposed to find is, it won’t be there (surely you should still be able to go and get the item and give it to the character later). I played a lot of this game in short bursts between working on my thesis; resident-hunting for hours on end would have bored me, but taking a break every now and then to recruit another character or two and explore another cave on my to-do list was quite enjoyable and kept it from becoming an unpleasant chore. Once a character has moved in, you don’t really get much in the way of interaction beyond “thanks for restocking my shop!” so it can be hard to remember who’s who after a while.

When you’re not growing your oasis and talking to the residents, you’ll be venturing out through the desert, into various caves, dungeons and other settlements. You can take residents into the field with you, and this is another reason it’s worth collecting as many as you can; each character has a particular skill, and many items can only be obtained using that skills. The dungeons have various puzzles that can only be solved by certain characters. For example, some dungeons have flowers that allow a character to paraglide over large gaps, while others might have switches hidden under heavy pieces of damaged artifacts, which can only be moved by a character with a long staff. Early dungeons usually only required one skill at a time but in later dungeons, you really needed to work together with your party members to solve complex, multi-faceted puzzles, which made things interesting.

While it was never really difficult to work out what needed to be done, it was frustrating to get half way into a dungeon only to find that I couldn’t progress further because I didn’t have the right character skill. As you can only take two residents with you at once, the fact that some dungeons required three or four (or more) skills to solve all the puzzles, access all the areas and gather all materials meant that I kept having to warp back to the oasis, change my party and then warp back. Luckily warp points are provided fairly liberally in the dungeons, and if you use the Aqua Gate, you can go back to the Oasis and then return via the Aqua Gate to the exact point you warped from, but it interrupted the flow and I did feel like it was drawing out the game for no good reason. Another design choice I found odd was waiting to level up characters until they returned to the oasis; why couldn’t they level up in real time in the field as they actually earn the experience?

The desert areas and dungeons are filled with a variety of smallish enemies, most of which are pretty easy to kill, though some can present a little challenge (especially if you don’t have a character whose weapon is particularly effective against that enemy). For the most part, your other party members move and attack fairly naturally in real-time combat, and you can switch between them at any time. The problem is that ‘friendly fire’ is a thing, and since the party members often won’t wait for you to get out of the way before they start attacking an enemy, prepare to find yourself getting shot and hit a lot. This doesn’t seem to do any damage, but it does stun you briefly. There were numerous times I took damage from enemies simply because my party mates kept attacking me and preventing me from avoiding the enemy attack. Though it may be more ‘realistic’, it was frustrating, particularly in a game that seems aimed more at a younger audience.

Travelling through the dungeons is usually pretty easy as most enemies can either be bypassed and ignored completely or can be defeated with little effort. However some enemies are strong enough to pose a challenge, especially when several of them attack you at once. Ever Oasis is pretty forgiving if you die though; you can revive on the spot once, and as you complete some of the story quests, you earn more chances to revive. If you’ve used up all your revives, you can either load your last save or return to the last warp point you used. A boss enemy awaits at the end of each dungeon, and though these have a high HP and take a while to defeat, it always feels more like a war of attrition rather than a display of skill. The boss’s attack pattern usually changes very little throughout the fight, so it’s basically a matter of getting in close and whaling on its weak point until it gears up for its attack, and then running away and staying out of range until it’s finished. Rinse and repeat. That’s not to say it wasn’t still fun, but I would have liked to see the enemy attacks evolve a little more as you got their health down.

Though weapons and clothing can be purchased from merchants or Bloom Booths, most of the better weapons and accessories can only really be obtained by Synthesising materials at the Synthesis Tree in your house. As you level up your oasis, talk to new people and obtain new materials, you will receive recipes to create new items. Accessories like rings and bracelets can give you a defense boost, while weapons generally have attack boosts in addition to other effects, which helps you defeat enemies much more quickly. It’s worth making up a variety of weapons, as different races of characters can only wield certain types; for example, only the tall, slender Drauk can use the long staff weapons. You can also make clothes and hats, though these seem to be for aesthetic purposes only; they don’t have any stats attached to them. The customisation options in Ever Oasis are fairly limited compared to other RPGs, which disappointed me a little, as did the method for Synthesising items. I enjoyed Fantasy Life‘s various mini-games for crafting different things, but here you just select the item you want to make and it happens automatically (provided you have the required materials). Some may like this simpler, more streamlined approach, but I thought it was worth mentioning as a heads-up for those who love playing with different sets of armour and stats and so on. You also need to change characters’ weapons at the Oasis – you can’t do it in the field – and each character can only have one weapon, so it’s best to equip powerful new weapons to the relevant characters as soon as you get them so you don’t find yourself underpowered in the field.

Aside from expanding your oasis and so on, there’s very little story aside from ‘hunt down these three magic artifacts we need to stop Chaos’. Depending on how much you rush through it, the main story will take you about 20 hours to finish. After you have done this, you can keep playing to level up your oasis further and collect more residents (if you haven’t already maxed them out), but this is a path that will probably only appeal to those who have to 100% complete every game. I have enjoyed my time with the game and felt like it was a nice way to wind down in the evenings, and there were times where I got absorbed into the game enough that I lost a few hours. However, I don’t really have any desire to go back and keep playing now that I’ve finished the main story quests.

Ever Oasis is a fun fantasy adventure RPG that will probably appeal more to younger players. It’s full of cute characters and there’s a lot of satisfaction to be found in gathering more residents and leveling up your oasis, but the repetitive nature of many of the quests and lack of any real challenge will probably not keep older or more experienced gamers playing for long after the end story credits roll. It’s worth picking up if you just want a fairly relaxing pick-up-and-play time-waster, but if you’re after something with a bit more depth, Ever Oasis isn’t really for you.

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PC: Limbo (review)

Release date: July 2010

Developer: Playdead

Format: Digital download (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux)

Other platforms: PS3, PS4, PS Vita, XBox 360, XBox One, iOS, Android

Price: ~$10 AUD

One of the first games I got on PC was Limbo. Though I played it not long after I got it, I never got around to doing a review, and since I don’t have any reviews of PC games on this blog yet, I thought this could be one to start filling the gaps with.

When you first start up the game, there are no cut scenes to tell you what’s going on, no backstory to explain why you’ve ended up where you are. You wake up in a dark forest, with your sister missing. Once you set off to look for her, you encounter very few other life forms, and they are not friendly.

Even though the main character is a young child, Limbo is really not a kids’ game. You will die more often than Kenny dies in South Park, and in an increasingly horrific variety of ways, yet the deaths are never comedic or humorous. Each time you see the child impaled, crushed, electrocuted, drowned or decapitated, it’s always shocking and upsetting, even though the gore is relatively subdued to to the graphics style. The sections where you get chased by a large spider early in the game create a genuine sense of fear and anxiety for the young boy, yet for me, the creepy, murderous children you encounter later seemed even more terrifying (I dislike children in general, though, so that probably doesn’t help).

For the most part, the game is a fairly linear puzzle-platformer; you move from left to right, avoiding traps and solving puzzles as you go. The early puzzles are not really difficult, and the first half of the game seems to have a greater focus on avoiding enemies than puzzle-solving, but while the number of enemy encounters drops off significantly in the second half, the puzzles at this stage require a bit of thought to work out how to solve them. There will be a lot of hidden traps that kill you before you even know they’re there when you first try to pass them. This could be frustrating, but Limbo is quite forgiving, with checkpoints scattered frequently throughout the chapters; when you die, it never takes more than a minute or so to get back to where you were when you were killed. Though you can run and jump, climb and push or pull objects, you can’t actually fight or defend yourself, so survival hinges on avoiding and/or disarming threats before they can take you out. There’s also a decent variety among the puzzles, so you never really feel like you’re having to do the same thing over and over.

One of the things I loved most about Limbo was its atmosphere. You might think that a purely black and white colour scheme might get boring to look at after a while, but the subtle mist and film grain effects only enhance the sense of foreboding and loneliness as you make your way from the forest in the early part of the game to the abandoned industrial areas later in the game. There’s very little music in Limbo; aside from a few brief melodies or heavy crashing notes that tie into what’s happening to your character, most of the background noise is just ambient sounds like insects or a soft breeze. Not only does this add to the sense of dread and menace, some of the puzzles require you to listen carefully for sounds that give you hints of how to proceed or dangers that might be waiting ahead.

Limbo is a fairly short game; it took me about 4 and a half hours to complete, though if I’d not rushed in so many sections (and therefore hadn’t died so often) I probably could have beaten it faster. But short games can be a refreshing change from 50+ hour RPGs, and given the dark and depressing nature of Limbo, I think it would have overstayed its welcome (at least for me) if it was much longer. The ending arrives abruptly and it’s a little ambiguous (though in keeping with the tone of the game overall, it doesn’t appear to be a happy ending).

I don’t know how much the game cost when it came out (I think someone may have actually gifted it to me) but these days the standard price on Steam seems to be about $10, and it often goes on sale for a lot less than that. This deceptively simple-looking game is one of the most memorable games I’ve played, and I’d definitely recommend it for those who want something to scare them.

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Note: Some screenshots used in this post were provided by Monty and Eric from the Video Games FTW group on Facebook, as I had lost some of my original screenshots when moving computers.

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