PC: Valiant Hearts – The Great War (review)

Release date: November 2014

Developer: Ubisoft

Format: Digital download (Windows)

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

Price: ~$20 AUD

Focusing on World War I, Valiant Hearts starts in 1914 after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated, leading the Austro-Hungary Empire to declare war on Serbia, which in turns gets Germany and Russia involved. Separated from his wife and child, German citizen Karl is deported from France and drafted into the German army, while his father-in-law, Emile, is drafted into the French army. After his unit is wiped out, Emile is captured by the Germans and held at the camp of Baron Von Dorf, who is obsessed with wiping out his enemies with any advanced weapons he can find.

After Emile (and Karl, who was also stationed in Baron Von Dorf’s camp) manage to get away, these characters are joined at different points throughout the war by Freddie, an American who has volunteered for the French army after his wife was killed in a German bombing raid; Anna, a veterinary student working as a nurse and trying to find her father, who was kidnapped by Baron Von Dorf and forced to design advanced weapons; and Walt, a Doberman Pinscher from the German Army. The action switches between the four human characters, often accompanied by the dog who helps them reach items or places they couldn’t get to themselves.

Though it covers some of the important conflicts in World War I, the game does take some liberties with the story. For example, Baron Von Dorf is such an over-the-top caricature villain it’s hard to take seriously, especially when he’s cackling at you as you lob sticks of dynamite at him while he’s trying to ram you with his tank. That being said, these flashes of humour are welcome in a game that deals with the darkness of war. The final chapter is particularly harrowing, with an emotional ending that hits like a punch in the guts.

Though there are some minor platforming elements in Valiant Hearts, it’s largely a puzzle game. The interaction options are pretty simple but the game still utilises them in a variety of interesting ways. A lot of the puzzles involve searching for objects needed to progress, whether it be parts to operate some machinery or an item needed by another character, who will often give you another helpful item in exchange. Sometimes you need to line up some pipes in order for water to flow through to where it’s needed, or dig up hidden items with a shovel. Even though it’s a war game, there isn’t a whole lot of violence required from your characters; aside from the occasional need to clobber an enemy soldier on the head to knock them out, usually you’ll defeat them by throwing items to distract them or just by sneaking past and avoiding them entirely.

The puzzles are never really challenging to solve, though I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. With the focus on the emotion and atmosphere of the game, I think getting stuck on a tricky puzzle would pull you out of it too much and break the story’s momentum. The game offers hints if you do happen to get stuck. There are also more action-oriented sequences, which are a nice fast-paced change; in some scenes, you have to steer a car through obstacles like explosives, other cars and gunfire from planes, while in others you’re dodging mortars or enemy soldiers on the battlefield.

Some of the puzzles involve ‘quick time’ or rhythm-based mini-games, and this was an aspect I found a little tedious after a while. I tend to find games that require me to ‘press a button in time with a sound or image’ don’t really add anything to the gameplay. In fact, there didn’t even seem to be any consequences for completely screwing it up (as I did in one scene when I was distracted by a family member). Luckily there weren’t too many of these.

While Valiant Hearts‘ soundtrack included some familiar classical pieces (like Flight of the Bumblebee and the Can Can), but there were also a number of original tracks, and these were perfectly suited to the scenes they accompanied, from sad, haunting piano melodies to dramatic and upbeat full orchestral pieces. Most of the ‘dialogue’ is just nonsense grunts and gasps, though the cutscenes are properly voiced by a narrator or by character voice actors. In spite of these vocal limitations, the personalities of the characters are still unique and endearing and you genuinely want them to get through the war unharmed. The art style was also beautiful, but even though it’s somewhat cartoonish, it still conveys the horror and brutality of the war.

As you make your way through the stages, you can find various objects (some in plain view, some well hidden) that give you interesting photos and facts about the time or locale you’re playing through. Though you can view them straight away if you want, it’s entirely optional; you can go through from from the menu at your leisure or ignore them completely if you just want to play through the game. I didn’t collect all of them – I’m generally not a person who has the time or energy to devote to ‘100%ing’ games – but the ones I did find were interesting to look through.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a thought-provoking journey through World War I that illustrates the horror of the fighting from a personal perspective while still being accessible to a wide audience, as well as providing an educational look at it for those who want it. It’s not a long game at 6 and a half hours or so, and it doesn’t offer much challenge or replay value, but it’s still worth your time and money.


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Nintendo Switch: Death Squared (review)

Release date: March 2017 (July 2017 on Nintendo Switch)

Developer: SMG Studio

Format: Digital download (eShop)

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

Price: $15 AUD

Disclaimer: I did not pay for this game; I received a free code for it on my Switch from one of the developers.

Death Squared is a physics-based, isometric puzzle game that can be played solo or co-op. It originally released on XBox One, PS4 and PC early this year, but eventually made its way to the Nintendo Switch a few months later. There are three modes to choose from: Story Mode, Party Mode and Vault Mode. Story Mode has 80 levels, which can be played either solo or with a second player. There are 40 levels in Party Mode, which is designed to be played with three or four people. Vault Mode – which can only be accessed once you’ve beaten the main game – contains about 30 levels that were considered too difficult to include in the other modes, with more levels apparently coming later as DLC.

The gameplay is deceptively simple; you take control of little robotic cubes and maneuver them through a series of self-contained stages to their corresponding coloured circular pad. It’s a straight-forward concept, but after you finish the first few ‘tutorial’ levels, you will find yourself having to actually think about how to successfully get your cubes through the stage without meeting an untimely end. Many levels include lasers that will destroy any cube that isn’t their corresponding colour, so you need to protect them by either pushing blocks in front of them or using that laser’s cube as a shield. Cubes can move through transparent blocks of their own colour, but will be blocked by transparent blocks of another colour. Stepping on buttons often rotates platforms or moves obstacles to clear a path, but it can also cause spikes to shoot up from the floor or down from the roof, or sweep other cubes off the map if they happen to be in the way of a moving platform’s new location. Sometimes even moving your cube along the stage will cause another part of the stage to move in response, so you really need to pay attention to where both cubes are at all times. In this regard, death is never really random; if something changes, it was set in motion by one of your cubes.

Luckily death doesn’t come with huge consequences, as it happens often. In fact, I felt like avoiding seeing your cube get blasted into oblivion often relied more on trial-and-error and luck than any real skill, as there are a number of hazards it’s impossible to know are there until the first time it annihilates your poor little cubes. It was frustrating enough to make it almost to the end of a level only to be killed, but especially frustrating when you were killed by something you couldn’t possibly have known was there. There are no checkpoints in the levels, so dying means having to start over, though the levels are usually short enough that you can get back to where you were within a minute or two at the most. Still, it did mean there was a genuine sense of satisfaction and accomplishment upon learning each level’s tricks and successfully making it to the end.

Throughout this single-player mode, a humourous commentary is provided in the form of banter between David, a scientist observing the cubes (ie. you) and remarking on their attempts to navigate the levels, and Iris, his AI partner, as well as some cool ‘system test’ loading screens between levels. Though puzzle games like this don’t really need a story, it is a nice touch, adding a sense of purpose to working your way through the puzzles. Occasionally David also decides to mess with the cubes, reversing your controls or making a number of copies of your cubes spawn on the stage. This made things quite interesting, but it seemed to happen very rarely, so it wasn’t something that became a nuisance in my view. At the end of each level, you also get feedback on the performance of each cube, based mainly on the number of times the cubes bit the dust.

When I played solo, I felt that it was a game better suited to bite-sized play sessions rather than being played for several hours straight. Though the level designs and mechanics are interesting and get increasingly more complex, the visual design doesn’t change a great deal throughout the game, so it can start to feel a little ‘samey’ after a while. That being said, this makes it a good choice for those looking for games they can pick up and play a few levels of during their break at work or on public transport.

As a multiplayer game, however, it’s pretty easy to play Death Squared for an hour or two straight. There are 40 levels in Party Mode, designed for three or four players, and these levels are almost immediately more complex and challenging than the Story Mode levels. Having to manage four different cubes, with each potentially having the ability to kill everyone else with a single careless movement, requires a lot of communication and teamwork. The mechanics are essentially the same as in single-player, but dialed up a few notches, and I can guarantee there will be lots of screaming and swearing (and laughing) when someone moves at the wrong time and causes another cube to get blasted by a laser, or when the cube carrying all three other cubes accidentally falls off the edge of the level, sending everyone else plunging to their death. A lot of co-op games are good drunken party games, but I feel like playing this game drunk would probably just result in a lot of smashed controllers, as everyone really needs to concentrate to get through the levels. So if you’re at a party and everyone’s maggotted and wants to play a video game, fire up Super Smash Bros or something.

Unfortunately, Death Squared‘s co-op mode is local multiplayer only; you won’t be able to get online and play with your friends elsewhere. This might be cumbersome for those playing on PC or other consoles, but luckily with the Switch, you can take it with you anywhere for some impromptu, on-the-spot fun.

Most of the time, the fixed camera angle allows you to see the entirety of the level with no issues, but on a few occasions (mostly when playing Party Mode), I or someone else died simply because we couldn’t see a hazard or a hole in the floor behind another block or obstacle. This added to the occasional feeling of deaths being ‘cheap’ because you don’t know the danger is there until it kills you at least once. It would have been nice to have the option to adjust the camera angle (even if it was just panning side to side) when needed, though I’m not sure how it could be implemented when playing with more than one player (a solo player could simply use the L and R buttons to swivel the camera). It was a small gripe, but one that a few of my friends commented on when playing with four players.

Death Squared is a fun game in general, but it’s also good for those who aren’t normally gamers, or who might have limited dexterity in their hands. Each little cube robot is controlled by one JoyCon, but the only control you really need is the thumbstick, for directional movement. The other buttons just serve cosmetic purposes, like making the cubes dance or flash their lights. Since you basically only need your thumb to play this game, it meant that even my Nan (who has arthritis) could have a go. We played the first five or six Story Mode levels together. That being said, if someone is playing it for the first time, I’d recommend starting them off on the earlier stages, as the later levels can be pretty brutal.

Me and some friends playing Party Mode. (photo by Cathy Lim)

My Nan playing the tutorial level with one of the Switch JoyCons.

If you like physics-based puzzle games, Death Squared is well worth your money, and it feels especially suited for the Nintendo Switch, where you can either play it at home by yourself or gather some friends at your next social outing to play co-op. It strikes the right balance between being accessible to just about anyone and providing a genuine challenge, and it’s just damn good fun.


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Nintendo 3DS: Legend of Zelda – Oracle of Seasons (review)

Release date: October 2001 (GBC), May 2013 (eShop)

Developer: Nintendo, Capcom

Format: Digital download (eShop)

Other platforms: NA (originally released on Nintendo Game Boy Colour)

Price: $7.80 AUD

Back in 2001 Nintendo released two Zelda games for the Game Boy Colour: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. In 2013, they brought both games to the eShop for the 3DS. Since I loved them to bits as a teenager (they were my favourite GBC games), I bought both as soon as I got my 3DS. Though these games are now more than a decade old, I can honestly say they are among my favourite games on any system, and they stand the test of time to feel fresh and original even today. This review is only for Oracle of Seasons; I will review Oracle of Ages separately at a later date.

Oracle of Seasons begins with Link awakening in the land of Holodrum, where he is soon discovered by a woman with flaming red hair: Din. Din leads Link back to a campfire where they dance with her troupe. However, as they finish, the game’s antagonist – Onox, General of Darkness – shows up and reveals that Din is the Oracle of Seasons. Onox then kidnaps Din and submerges the Temple of Seasons below ground, throwing Holodrum’s seasons into chaos. Naturally it’s up to Link to restore order to the land by recovering the Essences of Nature from within the eight dungeons.

The overworld in Oracle of Seasons is huge. While many areas change to a different season every time Link visits, some areas are locked by default to a particular season, such as the Woods of Winter where it is always (you guessed it) winter.

To counter this seasonal chaos, Link needs the Rod of Seasons, which gives him the ability to summon each season at will. When you first get the Rod, you can only summon winter but as you progress, the Rod will be upgraded, allowing you to call any season.  The Rod is a core component of Oracle of Seasons’ gameplay, as the terrain changes depending on the season.

Eat your heart out, Vivaldi.

The changing seasons add an interesting puzzle-solving component to the game. For example, a lake that’s impassable in summer becomes frozen in winter, allowing you to walk across and access new areas, while in summer some bodies of water dry up, revealing hidden underground entrances. Giant flower bulbs are rock hard for most of the year, but in spring they open up and allow Link to use them to launch him high into the air to reach platforms he couldn’t get to otherwise.

As you journey through Holodrum, you’ll encounter some adorable and helpful animal companions. Moosh is a winged blue bear who can fly over large chasms. Dimitri is a friendly Dodongo (a lizard enemy in previous Zelda games) who can swim. Ricky is a boxing kangaroo who can jump over small gaps and packs a punch when fighting enemies. Eventually you get items that allow you to pass most obstacles without the skills of your animal companion, but at some point during your adventure, you’ll receive a special flute that can call one of the companions to you wherever you are. The flute you receive (and therefore the companion you can summon) vary depending on your actions, but by default, the companion you’ll become friends with in Oracle of Seasons is Ricky.

Riding around in a kangaroo’s pouch. Or, as we Australians like to call it, everyday transport.

There are lots of different enemies to fight in the world of Holodrum, and most (if not all) of them will be familiar to anyone who’s played previous Zelda games. Familiar faces include Like Likes, Moblins, Keese and Octoroks, and while most of these are easy to kill in one or two hits by mashing your Sword button at them, some enemies like Lynels and Ball & Chain Troopers can be difficult to attack and do a lot of damage to Link if they hit you.

At various points in the overworld, you will come across strange swirling portals. Jumping into one of these will take you to the subterranean realm of Subrosia, full of bubbling lava and inhabited by strange little hooded creatures. Down here the currency used is ore chunks, which, like rupees, can be found by harvesting grass or digging holes in the ground. At the Subrosian Market you can purchase some key quest items as well as Gasha Seeds, while at the Dance Hall you can take part in a dance contest to win a Boomerang and other random prizes (if you win enough times, you can also get Dimitri’s Flute if you haven’t already got another companion’s flute).


Plenty of familiar items from the series return in Oracle of Ages, along with a few new ones. Old favourites include Bombs, Sword and Shield, Slingshot, Roc’s Feather, Power Bracelet and Boomerang. Some items – like the Boomerang – are exclusive to Oracle of Seasons, such as Roc’s Cape (a powered up version of Roc’s feather which lets you fly rather than just jump over single-square gaps). Another item that doesn’t appear in Oracle of Ages is the Magnetic Gloves, which allows Link to pull light metallic objects towards him or draw himself towards heavy metallic objects.

The Seed Satchel allows Link to collect various seeds (which can later be used with the Slingshot). Seeds can be found by cutting grass or smashing pots but the easiest way to find them is to cut them from their respective Seed Trees. Ember Seeds can light torches and burn shrubs, while Pegasus Seeds make Link run faster and freeze enemies. The Gale Seeds are one of the most useful; once you get these, you can warp to any of the Seed Trees around the map, saving a lot of time walking between far-flung locations.

A new feature exclusive to the Oracle games is the Gasha Seeds. Found in chests around the world, they can be planted in soft soil and will eventually mature into a tree with a Gasha Nut. Cutting it down will reveal the contents; sometimes it’ll just be rupees or other everyday items, but if you’re lucky it will be a ring. You can’t do anything with it at first, but once you take it to Vasu the Jeweller, he’ll appraise it for a small fee and tell you what the ring does. Some rings are relatively useless or will only be helpful in a (very) few specific situations, but many give you advantages like increased weapon damage, faster swim speed or less damage taken from certain enemies. It’s definitely worth growing Gasha Seeds when you find them as equipping the right ring can make things that much easier.

No Zelda game would be complete without dungeons, and Oracle of Seasons has plenty. The eight dungeons in this game are full of puzzles, and though some have obvious solutions, some will probably have you stumped at least for a little while. As usual you’ll have to search for small keys to open various doors along the way, as well as the all-important Boss Key. As well as the enemies, there are often dangerous traps throughout the dungeons, and most dungeons have at least one area that involves 2D platforming, which can require fairly well-honed reflexes.

At about the halfway point in each dungeon, you’ll be faced with a Mini Boss, with a final Boss waiting at the end of the dungeon. While some of them are relatively easy to beat and can be taken down in under a minute, some require careful strategy and the use of particular items (in many cases, the item will be one you have found in that dungeon). Sometimes you’ll need to shoot a Boss’s weak point with your Slingshot, while other Boss Fights will have heavy items you need to pick up and throw with your Power Bracelet. Some of the Bosses can do a lot of damage with one attack and these attacks can be hard to avoid, so taking them down can be a real challenge.

Like most of the older Zelda games, Oracle of Seasons is primarily a top-down game, though some small sections consist of 2D-platforming. It’s not a short game – from memory it took me about 20-25 hours to finish – but it never felt like a drag. Another bonus is that once you finish this game, you can continue the story in Oracle of Ages. After you beat the final boss, you’ll be given a password that you can enter at the start of Oracle of Ages, which, in addition to opening up more NPC encounters and quests, you’ll also get access to more boss battles and a scene with Princess Zelda, which is essentially the ‘true’ endings of both games. Likewise after you beat Oracle of Seasons, you can enter the password in Oracle of Ages and play that one with added content.

Even with the limited graphics of the Game Boy Colour era, Oracle of Ages is still a beautiful game. Aside from the gorgeously rendered cut scenes, the environments themselves are bursting with colour, which is emphasised all the more when you travel between locations with different seasons. Some of the music is also familiar from older Zelda games, while other tunes are new. Being a Game Boy Colour game, the music isn’t particularly complex, but the melodies are usually pleasant enough to listen to (even if they might start to feel a bit samey by the time you’re close to finishing the game).

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons was an amazing game in 2001 and it’s still amazing in 2017. Even if you already played it on the Game Boy Colour, it’s worth getting again on the 3DS because it still has the same magic it did 16 years ago. If you never got to play it back in the day, you need to pick it up as soon as you can. This (along with Oracle of Ages) is not only one of the best Zelda games, it’s one of the best games in general.


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Nintendo 3DS: New Super Mario Bros 2 (review)

Release date: August 2012

Developer: Nintendo

Format: Digital download (eShop) and physical cart

Other platforms: NA

Price: ~$50 AUD

I didn’t get my 3DS until the console had been out for around 2 years (I got the XL console in late 2013), but one of the first games I bought was New Super Mario Bros 2. The story in Mario games is usually about as substantial as arguments against same-sex marriage, but from a gameplay perspective, they’re usually among the best platformers you can find; if you have a Nintendo console, it’s almost legally required that you will also have any Mario platforming games that have released on that console.

NSMB2 certainly doesn’t do anything dramatic on the story front. After coming back from a coin-collecting adventure, Mario and Luigi are just in time to see Peach abducted by the Koopalings. Naturally they mustachioed duo set off to rescue her, fighting Koopalings (and, of course, Bowser at the end) along the way.

There are 8 regular worlds in this game (with some requiring the player to find a secret exit in a world in a different level), plus a ninth world that can only be unlocked after finding 90 Star Coins.

The World designs follow a similar aesthetic to those in previous Mario games, ie. World 1 is green and lush, World 2 is a desert, World 3 is tropical, World 4 is snow and so on. Within these worlds, the level designs are just as inventive and charming as we’ve come to expect from the franchise, with the early levels starting out quite easy and becoming genuinely challenging in the later worlds. The bright and colourful graphics are a joy to look at, with the art style making even underground levels look vibrant. The music is cheerful and upbeat, though some of it sounded familiar; many tracks are probably revamped tracks from earlier Mario games.

Like New Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo DS, NSMB2 gives you a progress bar on the bottom screen, showing how far you are through the level as well as how many lives and coins etc you have. It also shows how many of the three Star Coins in each level you have collected. Some of these Star Coins are easy to find and get, but some require precise timing and deft platforming skills to obtain, while others are so far off the beaten path it’s a challenge to even find them. This is an aspect of modern Mario games that I really like, as it lets the player choose whether they just want to get through the levels, or if they want to really push themselves and see how many Star Coins they can get.

This game puts a huge focus on collecting gold coins, which are so plentiful Mario usually can’t even turn around without running into some. One of the new power-ups – a Gold Flower – turns Mario into gold, and any breakable blocks he shoots turn into coins. Occasionally a gold coin block will appear over Mario while you’re playing, and if you jump up and hit it, Mario will wear it like a hat, with coins flying out of it as he runs along. Since you get an extra life with every 100 coins collected (as is the case in most Mario games), you’ll practically be shitting 1-Ups by the time you get to the end of World 2.

Coin Rush mode lets you play through 3 randomly selected courses to collect as many coins as you can (with Star and Moon coins increasing your total further), but you only have one life, and there’s a strict time limit. It’s a fun mode to play around with, especially for those who like to challenge themselves to beat their personal best scores. On this note, there are some extra Coin Rush courses available as paid DLC, but I didn’t bother buying any of them. A co-op mode is also available and is essentially the same as the single-player mode, but players can choose whether to be Mario or Luigi. Again, I didn’t bother trying this out as aside from Super Mario 3D World, I tend to prefer playing most platform games solo.

Many regular power-ups from the series make a comeback in NSMB2, including Super Leaves, Fire Flowers, Mini Mushrooms and Mega Mushrooms. The Gold Flower and Mega Mushrooms make it pretty easy to get through the rest of the level, especially Mega Mushrooms, which result in Mario Godzilla-ing his way through anything in his path, including blocks, enemies and pipes. It’d be easy for these sort of gimmicks to feel overpowered, but they are thankfully spread pretty thin; on average, I think they only pop up once in each world, so they never wear out their welcome. I also like how if you pick up one of the ‘standard’ power ups (eg. Super Mushrooms, Super Leaves or Fire Flowers) while you’re already powered up, the game lets you keep one of them as a spare, which you can activate by tapping it on the bottom screen.

The Invincibility Leaf also makes a return, appearing in a block at the beginning of a level if the player loses five lives in a row in that level. This turns Mario into White Raccoon Mario and makes him impervious to enemy attacks and fire, though he will still die if he falls into lava, purple slime or a bottomless pit. It’s a good option for younger or less experienced players who are having trouble getting through the level, or for lazy bums like me who want to get all the Star Coins and are sick of getting killed by random enemies because they were so busy focusing on getting the coin. Using it is completely optional – if you don’t want it, don’t bother hitting the block. However, if a level has a secret exit, you will not be able to unlock it unless you complete it without using the Invincibility Leaf.

Boss and Mini-Boss fights in NSMB2 don’t do much to take up the formula; you work out their weak point (whether it be stomping on their head or using their own weapon against them) and then hit them that way three times. Once you do work out what sort of attacks they’re weak against, taking them down is usually doable within a fairly short time. As well as the Bosses and Mini Bosses, some worlds also have a Ghost House, where Mario is pursued through a haunted castle by a Giant Boo, along with other smaller creepy enemies. These levels focus less on platforming and a bit more on puzzle-solving, and they’re an interesting change from the standard levels.

It’s worth noting that the game does not save automatically after you finish every level; instead, it just saves after you beat one of the Boss or Mini-Boss stages. Those who have played other Super Mario Bros games are most likely aware of this, but if you’re new to the series or you’ve mostly been playing other game that do autosave, you might be caught out by this (as I was, losing progress in two levels because I didn’t realise it hadn’t saved before I turned off my 3DS to go to class). Luckily there’s a Quick Save option, so as long as you remember to use it, you can save as soon as you emerge from any level and then exit the game if you need to.

New Super Mario Bros 2 might not be a particularly challenging or ground-breaking entry in the Mario franchise, but it’s still a fun game in its own right, and it’s hard to find much to complain about. A rushed playthrough will take about 5-6 hours, but this will be greatly extended if you decide to collect all the Star and Moon coins. If you’ve recently played another 2D Mario game, you might want to take a break before getting this one so it doesn’t feel like more of the same, but otherwise if you’re in the mood for a good handheld side-scrolling platformer, NSMB2 is a worthy addition to your games library.


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Nintendo 3DS: Mario Kart 7 (review)

Release date: December 2011

Developer: Nintendo, Retro Studios

Format: Digital download (eShop) and physical cart

Other platforms: NA

Price: ~$50 AUD

Though I had a Nintendo 64 back in the day, one of the games all my friends had but I didn’t was Mario Kart 64 (I had Diddy Kong Racing instead, which IMHO was just as good and I’ve always been disappointed it never got any sequels). I also had Mario Kart DS, but for some reason I never got around to playing much of it. Other than that, I never really played a lot of racing games (I’ve always been more into RPGs and platformers), so I wasn’t going to bother getting Mario Kart 7. After joining a local Nintendo 3DS meetup group where most of the other members had the game, I figured I might as well get it too, so I didn’t have to rely on Download Play.

For those who have played any Mario Kart game before, this handheld iteration will feel familiar in a lot of ways. There are 8 Cups to choose from, each with 4 tracks, giving a total of 32 tracks. 16 of these are remakes of tracks from earlier games in the series, while 16 are completely new. Not all of these tracks are unlocked to start with, but as you race through the Cups against the other CPU players, you’ll eventually be able to access the extra tracks.

Between the old and the new courses, there’s a wide variety of track designs, and they are all memorable and fun, from the dense foliage of DK Jungle to the neon lights of Koopa City to the colourful but challenging Rainbow Road. The music in each course complements the environment design nicely, and the upbeat melodies provide an extra push to put in your best effort. In addition to items and speed boosters, tracks are peppered with various obstacles and enemies, which keeps you on your toes; you don’t just have to keep an eye on the other racers, you also need to be wary of the course itself. Most tracks have hidden paths which can shave seconds off your time, but some are tricky to access and can cost you time if you don’t manage to pull it off.

At the start of the game you have access to 8 characters, with another 8 being unlockable by completing the various cups in 150cc. Completing all cups in any class will also allow you to use your Mii character as a racer. Also, while older games in the series made you pick from a set of pre-designed karts, you can now customise your own vehicle, choosing a body, tyres and a hang-glider. The variety available when you start the game is quite limited, but as you play through the game and collect coins during your races, you’ll be able to unlock more vehicle parts.

Most of the Mario Kart items we’ve all come to know and love are back in their little ? boxes, just waiting to be picked up and used against your enemies. There are Mushrooms and Stars (which give you a speed boost or make you invincible, respectively), Shells (including the dreaded Blue Shell) and Bloopers, Lightning Bolts and Bullet Bills, giving you a good variety of offensive weapons. This game also introduces a few new items, such as the Fire Flower (which allows you to shoot fireballs at other racers), the Super Leaf (which gives your kart a tail that can be used to collect coins or whip nearby enemies) and the Lucky 7, which gives the player 7 items (including mushroom, star and shells) that rotate around their kart. As with the Blue Shell, though, you generally won’t get the Lucky 7 unless you’re doing quite badly in the race, but it does provide some more balance for less experienced players to catch up.

It’s worth pointing out that the game is pretty well-balanced in terms of difficulty and fairness, for the most part. The 50cc tracks are very easy (almost ridiculously so), while the 150cc tracks pose a decent challenge and the enemy CPU racers actually make you work for that coveted 1st place finish. Item distribution also strikes a happy medium; though sometimes I did get slowed down by attacks from other racers, I was just as often able to get ahead after launching attacks of my own. There were a few times I was in 1st place through a whole race only to get hit by several Blue Shells and a Lightning Bolt near the end and come 4th or 5th instead, but it happened infrequently enough that it didn’t really feel unfair (unlike in some other Mario Kart games).

One new feature in Mario Kart 7 is the 1st person racing view. Simply by hitting Up on the D-pad, you can switch your view from the standard 3rd person to right behind the wheel. You also have the choice of controlling it with the circle pad or by tilting the system and using its gyroscopic controls. I didn’t really use it much as I like the 3rd person view but I know a lot of people would love the 1st person option.

Other new features include the hang-gliders and propellers. Many of the levels feature sections where the player is launched into the air and has to glide over gaps or obstacles, with the hang-glider opening up automatically once the player is airborne. Unlike in previous games, where going into the water would result in the player going out of bounds and losing several seconds while waiting to be lifted back onto the track, underwater sections are included in several tracks, with the exhaust pipes on the car turning into a propeller.

In addition to the standard Grand Prix mode, Time Trials allows you to race against the Ghost of your fastest time for each course, or to exchange Ghosts with other players through the Nintendo Network. There is also a Vs mode, where players can choose everything from the order of tracks to the specifications of the CPU players’ carts, but this is only available in Multiplayer Mode.

Mario Kart 7 includes two Battle modes, with the option of fighting in two teams of four or just going up against all players in a free-for-all. Balloon Burst starts all players off with three balloons, and you have 2 minutes to pop as many enemy balloons as you can using items found in the arena while trying to keep your own balloons intact; players who lose all three balloons get half of their points deducted. I was a bit disappointed that it didn’t use the same system as older Mario Kart battles, where once you lost your three balloons, you were out. I suppose the new system is aimed more at younger players who might get frustrated if they kept getting knocked out of the game early. Coin Battle matches also last for 2 minutes but players need to collect as many coins as they can (up to a maximum of ten), with the player who has the most at the end winning.

Multiplayer is where this game really shines, especially if you can play Local Multiplayer with your friends. When I go to meetups with the rest of my Nintendo 3DS-owning friends, we almost always end up playing Mario Kart 7, and there’s always laughing and swearing as we get more and more hyped up throughout the races. Though Single Player is fun, I felt that the solo campaign was a bit short, and once I’d completed all the Cups in most of the classes and unlocked several vehicle parts for each category, I didn’t feel a huge incentive to keep playing unless it was with my friends. Though I didn’t play a lot of Mario Kart DS, I do remember that it had a fun Missions mode, where you had to complete specific tasks while racing, but there’s nothing like that in Mario Kart 7. That being said, those who love racing games will find plenty to keep them entertained in this game.

If you have a Nintendo 3DS, Mario Kart 7 is a must have title. The Single Player mode may be a bit short for some, but it’s a great game for those who do a lot of Multiplayer gaming. While the Download Play mode has its limitations, it still allows you to enjoy some racing fun with friends who don’t own the game.


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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.

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.


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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.


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