The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Monday, March 1, 2021

Phoenotopia: Awakening is a Great Game, and an Even Greater Experience

Today, we return to focus on a game that I first mentioned back in my 2020 year-end roundup, Phoenotopia: Awakening, by developer Cape Cosmic.

I knew very little about Phoenotopia (pronounced “FEE-no-topia”, like “Phoenix”) going in. I first saw it when it popped up on the “Upcoming Games” section of the Nintendo Switch eShop last year, and unlike some other indie games, it hadn’t been released on other platforms yet (it was released on Steam finally earlier this year). But something about it drew me in. It looked beautiful, rendered in gorgeous pixel art with beautifully-detailed backdrops, and the story promised some sort of mystery set in an expansive world. Compared to a lot of other game releases, there just wasn’t a lot to go on pre-release, but I was intrigued, and picked it up pretty quickly after it came out.

And what I found was pretty incredible! In fact, it went on to become one of my most-played games of the year. So, what exactly is it? Well, that’s hard to describe briefly, so bear with me for a second.

Phoenotopia: Awakening actually has a pretty substantial history that I wasn’t aware of until after I started playing it and looked around even more. It was largely the project of a single person, developer Quang “Quells” Tran, and was preceded by another game simply called Phoenotopia, which was uploaded to Newgrounds back in 2014. Awakening is something between a remake and improvement of the original game that was worked on for the next six years, expanding on and changing around various things as needed, until it was something new and substantially bigger, with only a general outline of the plot in common.

With all of that real-world background out of the way, we can move on to the story itself. In the distant future, humanity’s ever-escalating wars and weaponry eventually destroyed a lot of the Earth’s surface, driving humans underground. After centuries below ground, humans eventually re-emerged to find that the planet had recovered enough to sustain life once more. Society began to reform, and hundreds of years after that, there are once again towns and nations in a world that’s largely medieval-style agrarian towns, but with a number of technologies from the modern day around helping everyone out.

That’s all just the opening text scroll establishing the world. The story in question follows a teenager named Gail, from the quiet farming town of Panselo. After retreating into the nearby forest to round up the local children for dinner, the group witnesses a UFO visit the town. After rushing back, they find the entire town empty, with the only clue being some machinery from space they found in the forest after it fell to earth the previous day. As the eldest remaining person from Panselo, Gail sets off across the continent in search of anyone who can help them find their missing neighbors.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

2020 Video Game Recommendation Roundup

I did a lot more writing on video games in 2020 than I have in the past, which was a nice goal that I had wanted to hit for a while. But it still didn’t cover all of the interesting things that I played this year. So, to that end, here’s my annual “Everything Else that I Wanted to Talk About” video games post. But first, if you missed it, here’s everything from this past year that already got its own post:

One Step from Eden (Thomas Moon Kang)-A roguelike, deckbuilding action game about colorful characters traversing an ambiguous apocalypse landscape that takes the long-discarded battle style of Megaman Battle Network and refines it to perfection. If I were doing rankings for this group, this would probably be the runner-up.

A Fold Apart (Lightning Rod Games)-A cute little puzzle platformer that sees you guiding a long-distance couple through their relationship challenges made physical.

Super Mega Baseball 3 (Metalhead Software)-The new edition of my favorite baseball game right now, now with a franchise mode!

Underhero (Paper Castle Games)-You play as a video game minion who has accidentally defeated the hero too early, and is now torn between listening to the hero’s talking sword, who’s pushing you to take up his mission, and your boss, the big bad, who seems to be planning more than he’s letting on. A fun platformer RPG, especially recommended for fans of the classic Paper Mario entries.

Murder by Numbers (Mediatonic)-A fun little detective visual novel starring a ‘90s TV detective moonlighting as a real detective and her amnesiac robot friend, where you find clues by solving picross puzzles.

Yooka-Laylee (Playtonic Games), plus A Hat in Time DLC levels (Gears for Breakfast)-The new Hat in Time levels make an already great game even better. Yooka-Laylee didn’t quite reach those heights, but it’s still a solid entry in the canon of 3D Platformers.

Lenna’s Inception (Bytten Studio)-Probably my game of the year. A 2D Zelda-style roguelike that shuffles the map and dungeons every time you play it, telling the story of a schoolteacher trying to save her students from an otherworldly force that is slowly tearing apart her world. If I were doing rankings for this group, this one would take Game of the Year.

With those out of the way, let move on to everything else:

Monday, September 28, 2020

Music Monday: Summer 2020 Playlist

It's been a while since my last playlist, but as I mentioned recently, there's been a lot of good music released lately, so I feel like this would be a good time for a comeback. Not everything on it technically came out this year since I can't listen to everything the exact moment it comes out (although I did keep it entirely to at least "modern" acts), but it is at least all stuff that I've been listening to over the spring and summer, and this is as much a time capsule for me to look back on as anything else, so it makes the cut. I've also included a few thoughts about some of the songs included below.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Lenna's Inception Is One of the Best Games of 2020

Let’s start by getting right to the point. Playing Lenna’s Inception by Bytten Studio has been my favorite game experience of the year, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you’re at all a fan of 2D Zelda games and games like them; or enjoy things like Undertale and their style of storytelling, meta-awareness and genre commentary, and decision making, I cannot recommend this highly enough. It’s still only for computers rather than consoles at this point, but it is on both Steam and, and like with Underhero, it was a part of the massive Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality from earlier this year, so once again, if you contributed to that, you already have it!
I want to give people the chance to go into the experience mostly blind, as I did, because while I think learning spoilers doesn’t necessarily ruin a work of fiction, in retrospect, this is one game that I really did appreciate going in knowing relatively little other than “it’s good”. So I’ll set a warning for “minimal spoilers”, for things that you might not get out of a trailer but would get with a little bit of playtime (you know, things that are okay to read if you aren’t the type to rush out and make purchases based on my word alone), and a later one for “maximal spoilers” that discuss late-game developments (you should definitely avoid them to not ruin the surprise, and I’ll just casually reference things like you have a working knowledge of the game, so they may not even make sense anyway).
Let’s just start with the basics: in gameplay, Lenna’s Inception is a top-down, 2D action-adventure game in the vein of classic Legend of Zelda games*, with the added twist of being procedurally generated. I think it does this very well, and if your major concern in looking for games to play is how it feels to play, know that everything it needs to do to work succeeds in spades.
*Side note: I’ve never really liked this genre name, as it’s sort of vague and doesn’t do as good of a job at quickly explaining the style in a way that other genre names do, for a few reasons. And it feels like there are more of them than there used to be, between things like Blossom Tales, Reverie, and Sparklite, so a better name would be helpful. Maybe I’ll tackle this issue in its own article eventually, but for now, I’ll make do with what we have.
Story-wise, the setup is a bit of a send-up of the classic Zelda formula. You play as Lenna, local schoolteacher in the Kingdom of [randomized name that also serves as the seed for how your world is laid out, which is a nice touch]. One day, she steps outside of her classroom for a moment, and finds that she is unable to return because her school has become a garbled mess of glitched-out pixels (another homage, this one to the other big story inspiration, but I’ll get to that later). You seek out local hero-of-legend Lance to help return things to normal, but in typical meta-storytelling/parody tradition, things immediately go sideways, and Lenna has to take action into her own hands.

--minimal spoilers warning--

Monday, August 10, 2020

Quarantine Music Recs: SUPERBLOOM by MisterWives

I've mostly stuck to recommending video games for these quarantined times, but there's been a plethora of good music coming out these last few months as well. Maybe I'll release a short summer playlist at some point, but in the meantime, I want to give a short shout-out to one of the albums I've really liked.

MisterWives has always released music that reminds me of summer (I even included "Chasing This" from their last album on my 2017 Summer Playlist). Three years later, and they've finally released their third album, SUPERBLOOM, and it's looking like a strong contender for my Album of the Summer (which is saying a lot, given how much I've liked new entries from some of my other favorite acts, like The Naked and Famous, Neon Trees, The Midnight, Carly Rae Jepsen...).

Some of it is that MisterWives is always great at producing bright and exciting pop jams, and SUPERBLOOM definitely has its share of those, between songs like "love me true" and the title track. But there's also a deep tinge of sadness to the whole thing, which makes the whole thing feel especially well-suited to this summer, in particular.

The entire thing is pretty clearly framed around a recent break up, but entirely in retrospect. The first song on the album is literally "the end", and it moves on from there, nineteen full tracks of moving on from massive heartbreak. And consequently, the emotional arc of it is a little less straightforward. This isn't working through the five stages of grief; this is starting from the perspective of someone who is already at the acceptance stage of things, and moving on from there.

That’s not to say it’s not also still sad, or that the sadness of the breakup isn’t there, it’s just that the focus is more about moving on, processing your feelings, and trying to stay positive. The knowledge of the breakup adds a tinge of sadness to things, but it’s also framed positively, and it does feel like there’s growth over the course of the album.

It probably also helps that SUPERBLOOM covers a lot of ground; the whole thing is 19 tracks. It never feels too long, though, coming in at just over an hour despite the sheer volume of songs. And most of those are MisterWives’ usual brand of energetic, uplifting pop, which keeps the pace up.

Also notably, it feels like the musical equivalent of “pitching backwards”; rather than save most of the more downtempo songs for the back-half of the album like pop records usually do, they’re more to the front-middle here, which gives things a shot in the arm at the halfway through. And the last quarter in particular has four of my favorite songs on the album (“decide to be happy”, “muse”, plus the aforementioned “love me true” and “SUPERBLOOM”), which makes for a big bang to close out on.

Like I said, there’s been a lot of good music I’ve been listening to this summer, and maybe I’ll do a fuller playlist post later on going more in depth. And maybe my opinion will change with more listens, but for now, nothing this summer has hit me as hard as SUPERBLOOM.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

More 3D Platformer Design: Yooka-Laylee & A Return to A Hat in Time

It’s been a while since my last article on 3D Platformers, one where I looked at the level design of Gears for Breakfast’s wonderful A Hat in Time. Since then, they’ve released two new worlds as downloadable content, “The Arctic Cruise” and “Nyakuza Metro”, and finally been ported to the Switch. I recently decided to replay the game, including the new content, and at more or less the same time, I finally got around to trying Playtonic Games’ Yooka-Laylee (which, for those not in the know, first got note for being a spiritual successor to the Banjo-Kazooie series from the Nintendo 64, made by many alumni from those titles). Playing them back to back gave me a lot of thoughts on both, and 3D platformers on the whole, so it seemed like a good time to revisit my last article.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Quarantine Game Recs: Murder By Numbers

I’ve written before about my interest in video games that mash-up different genres and the interesting results that it can yield. Today’s mini-recommendation revisits that topic, with Murder by Numbers by developers Mediatonic (another title that I played on Switch, with a PC version available on Steam as well).

I haven’t covered it as much as some other things, but I’m a huge fan of Picross/Nonagram games. My gold standard for the series has long been Jupiter’s Picross S, which are sort of the platonic ideal of the format. The user interface is intuitive, there are a variety of modes and extra features, the puzzles are solid, and generally, they’re just all around well-executed games.

But they’re also extremely straightforward: if you want no-frills logic puzzles, you get no-frills logic puzzles. Granted, that’s not nothing! Plenty of other games try to offer that same thing, but don’t produce a Picross experience that’s as well-polished as Jupiter’s games. But it seems like something that one could easily build upon by combining it with something more than just super-refined Picross gameplay. I’ve seen a few games attempt that, but so far, Murder By Numbers is by far my favorite implementation of that idea.

The idea is pretty simple, although there are a few clever touches that add to the overall game. It’s a combination of mystery visual novels and adventure games with Picross puzzles, where one of your (amateur) detectives is a robot with a faulty visual processor. You look in the field for clues that serve as your items to use, but the robot needs to “decipher” what it’s seeing, by way of you solving the puzzle. It’s a really elegant explanation on a lot of levels (“Why do I need to “solve” the thing I’m looking at? Why is it so blocky?” etc.).

Of course, the biggest of those levels that it succeeds is the most basic one as well. It’s not really a secret that many detective games have a pretty major flaw, in that an investigation is a massive, open-ended thing, and it’s hard to map that onto a full range of choices for the player, particularly in a way that doesn’t also guide them to an answer.* It’s not something that totally ruins the genre, but it is a notable quirk that regularly pops up. I don’t know that Murder by Numbers totally solves that issue; it is entirely possible for you to figure out the solution to a case well before your detectives do, for instance.

*For those wishing for a more in-depth look at this and how other games have tackled it (to varying success), Game Makers’ Toolkit of course has a good episode on the issue.

But I do think it does a few things to help cover this issue. Part of it is, of course, going for a narrative justification. Honor and S.C.O.U.T., the detective duo of the game, are amateurs tackling a whodunit out of necessity rather than any sort of training or interest, and you’re very clearly guiding around these existing characters rather than inserting yourself into the player character role. That narrative justification… doesn’t totally solve or excuse the issue, but it does prime the player to be a little more receptive of things

The other trick, though, is more interesting, I think. Essentially, Murder By Numbers presents the player with in-game actions that operate on a symbolic level for the thing they’re standing in for, sort of like a Metaphorical Mechanic. For example, whodunit stories operate on some level with logical deduction; you take the separate pieces you have, fit them together based on what you know, and slowly, the explanation takes shape.

And that’s why Picross puzzles make for a genius stand-in, as a game mechanic: it’s a literal example of the same process. The puzzles give you a grid and a set of numbers telling you how many of the squares need to be filled in, and whether there are any gaps between them. Slowly by surely, you use logic to fill in squares and mark out gaps in some lines, which gives you a rough outline, which you can then use to get a more defined picture in other lines, and so on, a feedback loop based on all of the random data you’re presented at the start.

There are other ways the game’s systems line up with detective stories, too. For example, you find the evidence puzzles by doing sweeps of the crime scene visually, with a sensor indicating whether you’re close. And 100% completion of the game relies on finding every clue. So thoroughness is rewarded, and the easiest way to ensure that thoroughness is developing a systematic, comprehensive search of each scene, and being sure to check those scenes regularly to see if new context has made any new clues stand out. It might sound exhausting, but the developers did a good job of balancing things, so no one scene is too overwhelming in size, and there are also additional UI tells you come to expect to let you know when you’re done with a region. Once again, being able to observe the small details as a detective would is a plus.

There are other nice things about combining the two styles of games, too. Tying the puzzles to a story progression allows for a nice sense of forward progress that some purer Picross games lack. Sometimes, when playing the latter, I’ll find myself zoning out and just doing puzzle after puzzle, even when I’m no longer in the mood to keep playing them, just because the end of one puzzle and the start of the next can just bleed into each other, one endless string of filling out rows and columns. I never had that in Murder By Numbers, as there’s a pretty clear ebb and flow to the scenes that makes it clear when you can take a break and come back later.

It also helps that the non-Picross half of the game is a good, pulpy whodunit mystery serial of a visual novel that can stand on its own. The setup is simple: S.C.O.U.T. is a robot who wakes up in a Hollywood dump with no memories. He seeks out Honor, co-star of a popular network murder mystery series, thinking she’s a real detective who can help him rather than an actor. But the pair suddenly ends up being forced into solving real murder mysteries when Honor’s showrunner inexplicably fires her and immediately turns up dead.

The game is pretty clearly modeled after the type of show Honor stars in, subdivived into four episodes where the duo of new partners show up at places just after some murder has taken place and deciding to find clues and question suspects to piece together what happened (as well as find a few other clues pointing to a larger overall mystery). I don’t know that it will win over non-fans of the genre, but if you like this type of story, Murder By Numbers knows what it’s doing and executes the style well.

It helps that the character design and art direction are both pretty strong as well, with a distinctive cartoon style and a nice blend of archetypes and characters quirks for the former, and a period 1990s aesthetic that’s apparent yet tastefully understated for the latter. The music also leans into that era, with a smooth jazz-inspired soundtrack that’s a little cheesy, but I still appreciated it (especially in the context of soundtracks for other Picross games or similar titles, which often get repetitive much quicker than this one).

In all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Murder By Numbers. The game ends on a sequel hook, and its genre and episodic format would make it well suited to more entries, so I would be excited to see this become a recurring series. It’s certainly a bright spot amongst the sea of Picross video games out there, and worth checking out.