The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Thursday, November 18, 2021

An Appreciation of Pokémon, for the Series' 25th Anniversary

Back in January, in my 2020 Video Game Round-Up, I made a brief, non-indie game digression to talk about Pokémon, specifically the expansion content for Sword & Shield versions. I was a pretty big fan of both the Isle of Armor and Crown Tundra DLCs, but then again, I am also a much bigger fan of Generation VIII than most people. So, with new Pokémon games on the horizon (both the Generation IV remakes Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl later this month, and Pokémon Legends: Arceus in early 2022), plus the added context of a few other games I’ve been playing lately, I figured I would expand a little more on what I like about Gen VIII* and the series as a whole.

*I have no idea what the breakdown of the readership of Out of Left Field looks like, so for anyone who needs a quick primer on which years and games each generation refers to, the series’ Wikipedia page breaks it down in several ways.

It’s come up a few times here (most recently in that 2020 Round-Up, and as background for my review of the wonderful Lenna’s Inception*), but I am a huge fan of Pokémon, going all the way back to the days of Red and Blue. I started right when the Gen I games came to America, and have played every generation of games since then, as well as a number of spinoffs. And as you may have picked up from my discussion of glitch-hunting and such from the Lenna’s Inception article, I was reading different fan sites and forums about the series for a lot of that time as well.

*Speaking of, some good news on that front: Bytten Studio’s follow-up, the monster taming RPG Cassette Beasts, was picked up by publisher Raw Fury (they’ve published some solid titles; I believe I’ve mentioned Dandara and Townscaper here in the past) and will be coming to consoles as well as PC. I’m still super excited for this one!

I say all of that not as any sort of brag, but 1) to emphasize that the series means a lot to me; and 2) because I know my opinion on Sword & Shield is not at all common among fans, although it is partially the result of that long relationship with the games. There are a lot of changes Gen VIII brought that elicited fan ire, but one thing that stood out to me as I read a lot of it was how familiar it all seemed, usually in stark contrast with how it was presented.

Most of the things in Generation VIII that often got cited as “franchise ruining” felt a lot like reiterations of past changes and disagreements within the fanbase. Complaints about an incomplete Pokédex? Gen III received criticism at its launch when there was no ability to transfer your Pokémon from Gen II, and Gen V received similar criticism when it tried to focus on an entirely new set of monsters. Complaints about the graphics? Possibly even more common, from long standing complaints about the games remaining in an overhead, 2D spirited style, to complaints any time the games introduced-then-removed motion in battle sprites, to complaints the moment they switched to a 3D style, with an understated resurgence in opinions that they should just return to a 2D style (although I’ve even seen disagreements there on whether such a switch should be back to pixel art or to animations).*

*My own, long-held opinion on graphics in video games (in general, not just Pokémon) is that the industry as whole is way too concerned on graphical performance and “realism”, especially at the highest level, and that we have long passed the tipping point at which the effort and money still being dumped into achieving these things are not worth the marginally better visuals that result (especially given how many other aspects of the game could use that extra focus). The Pokémon games could do better here, of course, but their greatest constraint at this point is probably more related to short turnaround times for the developers, rather than any sort of commitment to a house art style or graphical engine on Game Freak’s part.

I could go on about the variety of complaints, but my larger point is that each of these complaints has existed before, usually across multiple generations, and it hasn’t stopped people from determining different entries are their personal favorite. Any belief that Gen VIII will break from this pattern strikes me as unlikely. And as long as the series remains committed to its aggressive release schedule (of new Generations every three years, with remakes and third versions or DLC in the intervening years), each new generation is going to be more iterative, with its own new flaws, failed experiments, and successes.

As a result, in my opinion, the different entries are all fairly equal in quality, and your opinion of each entry will heavily come down on how much you liked or disliked the tweaks and fixes it brought in that specific iteration (as well as some degree of personal nostalgia). So, with that said, what personally do I look for in my own rankings? Generally, a decent number of new Pokémon, with preferably not too heavy a focus on legendaries.* A well-thought-out, engaging region to explore. Some interesting new features and quality of life improvements. An installment that mostly stands on its own, without leaning too hard on past games. A lot of these are kind of vague, but it’s really kind of a “know it when I see it” situation, rather than a hard-and-fast rubric, and I’m fine deviating from it to give extra credit for other aspects that each game does well.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Heaven's Vault: Exploring the Universe and Unlocking Its Mysteries via Word Puzzles

I feel like I’ve been focused lately, in addition to basics like the story or the gameplay, is how it feels to play a game, the experiences it instills in a player, sometimes even just random secondary connections to other things my mind draws. Like, Ikenfell was a fun fantasy RPG, but also a diorama, an intricately-constructed place and a complex portrayal of the residents. Chicory was an advanced coloring book, asking you to express yourself creatively in response to the story it was telling, but also a conversation about artistic creation. Monster Prom was a user-generated sitcom, somehow both comforting and unexpected. So the question then is: what is Heaven’s Vault? The obvious answer is something like a puzzle box, but that almost feels like it sells the game short; there’s so much more going on here, almost like a mini-history lesson or research session. And perhaps more interestingly for a video game (at least mechanically), for the main puzzle box comparison, it’s specifically a word puzzle that’s guarding the treasure within.

So let’s take it from the top: Heaven’s Vault is a game from developers Inkle Studios. Story-wise, it very fittingly combines the past and the present, as a game about doing archaeology across a federation of planets out in some galaxy far, far away (possibly also a long time ago, but we’ll get into that shortly). You play as Eliya Alasra, a historian at the University of Iox who is sent out by a shady administrator to search for a colleague who recently went missing while researching historical sites. The absentee researcher believed he found evidence of some sort of past disaster that could be returning to the Nebula soon, but also didn’t fill in the administration on what exactly he was doing or finding. All you have to go off of is original destination and his out-of-the-loop, former robotic assistant, Six.

It’s a great cold set-up, almost like a noir detective story crossed with an Indiana Jones film and set in space, one that immediately gives you narrative hooks and mysteries and strong characters to latch onto without giving away too much. And the ensuing game provides a lush backstory for both the characters and the world. The writers at Inkle have done a great job digging into all of it, and since the game is very open-ended and player-directed, you very likely will miss some of their hard work on your first playthrough; I certainly did. Thankfully, Heaven’s Vault allows you to carry through all your translation work into repeat playthroughs, and even gives you more complex and detailed writings to translate. You can get a pretty wide range of story beats depending on what all you know, what you can decipher, where you go, who you talk to, and whose trust you earn.

So that’s what we’re dealing with story-wise, but what about the gameplay? It’s an adventure game*, but it makes some key changes from the classics of the genre. First, the worlds in it are traversable, 3D-spaces, rather than 2D screens. You walk around these worlds talking to other people and looking for items, specifically archaeological artifacts.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Monster Prom and Monster Camp: Trying Something New & Offering October-Appropriate Wackiness

Today, we’ll be looking at some October-appropriate content: reviews of a video game series about monsters. Not, like, a spooky game about monsters though; I’m too much of a horror-wuss for that. Instead, it will be one about going on wild dates with them. But first, some set-up:

I need to be in the right mindset to tackle denser games, but those times don’t always correspond to the moments when I actually have the free time to play or write about video games. So I’ll usually keep something a little lighter in progress, a game that I can pop into and out of on the days where I’m not in the mood for the heavier stuff, or for when I’ve finished something big and am reflecting on the experience while deciding what to do next. I was looking for something to bridge the gap between Chicory and whatever the next big experience would be*, when I landed on Monster Prom.

*"The Next Big Experience" wound up being Heaven’s Vault, and there’s a reasonable chance something on that will be coming, if I ever get my thoughts in order.

Monster Prom, for the unfamiliar, is a visual novel from a few years ago by developer Beautiful Glitch. Late last year it got a follow-up, Monster Camp, which uses the same base set-up for a whole bunch of new scenarios with different characters. And a big part of what makes the game unique, as it even markets, is that it’s a competitive dating sim; you can compete against your friends, both going about your life as a monster student talking to potential romantic interests while trying to block your friends from getting the stats or interactions they need to succeed.*

*Although you can also both win, if you play your cards right; but you’ll likely get in each other’s way at least once, even if you’re pursuing different partners. Also, you can also absolutely play it as a single player, taking a Solitaire-style “beat the game” approach. It’s surprisingly difficult, in this regard! I failed at least as often as I succeeded, and you definitely need to strategize to pull off a successful run (particularly in the sequel, which feels even tougher).
As you might guess by that set up, it’s a game that prioritizes replayability even more highly than most other dating sims, with a focus on shorter run times and tons of potential routes and events within each route. If you wanted to slam even more buzzword genres onto it, I suppose you could even call it a roguelike dating sim. I’ve stated before that it’s hard to tell whether a video game’s idea is totally unique, as so much of making a game is iteration and mutating other interesting ideas, and there’s hardly any sort of online compendium tracking the introduction and evolution of every different mechanic and story element (even before getting into how fuzzy those distinctions can get). Even still, my efforts to find other multiplayer or roguelike visual novels and dating sims mostly came up empty (I got a small few for the latter, but most of them seemed very different from the Monster series at best).

It also helps that the game itself is a lot of fun to play, even over dozens of replays. Monster Prom has a madcap, manic approach to its writing; dozens of recognizable school set-ups are distorted through the monster world, which is governed by an “everything can and will go awry in the most disastrous fashion” logic. Skipping class somehow leads to forming a crime ring, sneaking in to change a grade leads to a coup plot on the Water Polo team, the party after school leads to summoning demons to spice things up, stuff like that (and the game is more than happy to get dark in its craziness; they are all monsters, after all). Monster Camp draws things out a little bit, keeping the absurdity but wrapping it in more long-form scenarios that often start in ridiculousness and spiral from there. It’s not a huge difference, but it is noticeable enough to give them each their own distinct energies even as they both run headfirst into outright silliness.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Music Monday: Summer 2021 Playlist

Labor Day weekend traditionally marks the end of summer, and since I’m on top of things this year, it means that I actually planned ahead and got my annual Summer Playlist of the Year ready for it. Like in years past, I tried to keep it to more recent releases, although since I don’t hear everything the minute that it comes out, there are a few songs from 2020 or earlier as well, but it is generally stuff that I listened to this summer specifically. In addition to the playlist, I’ve also included a few stray thoughts about some of the songs and albums I included. The full listing in text is also at the end of the list.

[Spotify Link]

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Chicory: A Colorful Tale is a Stellar Follow-Up to Wandersong (in a few ways!)

Two and a half years ago, I wrote about Wandersong, a wonderful little 2D platformer by developer Greg Lobanov that wound up being one of my favorite games of 2018.* I’ve been anxiously awaiting to see what he did next since then, and what was next finally arrived this year in the form of Chicory: A Colorful Tale. After nearly three years of anticipation building, I’m glad to say that Chicory more than lives up to the high bar of its predecessor, and it too will definitely stand as one of my favorite games of the year!

*Which is saying something, considering some of the other quality games I played that year, like Iconoclasts and Celeste.

Let’s start with the basics: Chicory is the second of the two Top-Down A-A games that I mentioned a few articles ago. To give a very general story pitch: You play as Pizza*, a janitor and aspiring artist in the world of the Picnic Province. The appearance of the region is normally defined by the local Wielder, who uses a magic paintbrush to color in the world. However, the current Wielder, Chicory, has gone missing right when all of the world’s color has suddenly vanished. With no other obvious solution in sight, Pizza takes up the brush and travels around the land, filling in everything and solving various citizen’s problems that have cropped up from the explosion of monochrome.

*The name is player-inputted, but Pizza is both what I used and the apparent default name; everyone in the game is named after food of some sort. Also, all of the characters are anthropomorphic animals, with Pizza of course being the dog in the title art.

Clearly, there’s a lot more going on there, and I’ll touch on some of that later, but for the spoiler-light section, this will do. Greg Lobanov has once again recruited a great team this time around to help him make the game, one almost twice as big as the Wandersong team. Em Halberstadt returns on Sound Design (which looks like it was a lot of fun). Meanwhile, award-winning composer Lena Raine takes over the music, while Alexis Dean-Jones and Madeline Berger provide the game’s art.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos Is My Best Surprise for 2021's First Half

Today, we’re going to focus on something a little smaller than a candidate for my Game of the Year title, something more in line with “a really nice surprise”. I hadn’t heard anything about Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos, the new game of developer duo Heliocentric Studios. But it popped up in my attention, and it looked solid. And as an extra bonus, it was published by Team17.

I don’t talk about publishers a lot here, because I write about video games mostly as a fan rather than any sort of professional, and I’m not as clear on all that they do for a game compared to, say, developers. But one thing I understand that they can do, especially in the realm of indie games, is curation: looking for promising games and giving them resources and attention. And in that regard, Team17 is doing pretty good! I’ve played and enjoyed a number of their titles, and even covered a decent number of them here too: Yoku’s Island ExpressMonster SanctuaryGoing Under, Overcooked 1 and 2, the Yooka-Laylee games, Automachef… I don’t necessarily love everything they publish, but even the things that aren’t up my alley tend to be pretty high quality.

So when I see something they release, I’ll definitely take a second look if it catches my eye. Which is how I stumbled upon Rogue Heroes. My love of Top Down A-A games is pretty well established at this point, so seeing a game in that style published by Team 17 was clearly an interesting hook to draw me in. One short demo later, and I was all-in on the experience.

Let’s back out a bit: what is the general pitch for Ruins of Tasos? Well, it clearly draws heavily from the original, 2D Zelda games. Especially A Link to the Past, which serves as the template for a lot of its appearance. But on top of Rogue Heroes looking to A Link to the Past for its aesthetic, of all of the indie Top-Down A-A games I’ve tried, Rogue Heroes also feels the closest to ALttP from a gameplay standpoint as well. And as someone who absolutely loved A Link to the Past growing up, I can’t say I’m opposed to the decision to use it as a basis.

The main concern in such decisions would normally be that the newer game just feels like a shallow imitation, but that doesn’t end up happening here, as Heliocentric Studios had a ton of ideas for new things to add to the classic formula. The end effect is weird, but enjoyable. If you ever tried playing or looking for fan mods of games, it has a similar feel to stumbling on an especially extensive rework of an older title, like someone started with A Link to the Past, but completely remade the map, and then had an idea for a new mechanic or item to implement, which gave them ideas for new locations on the map, which then inspired another system to add, which led to another map rework, and back and forth and back and forth, until you’re years later and the resulting game has gone through a number of versions and feels as much something new as it does the original base game. And if you’ve never had that experience, it can be a fun one, seeing something familiar given such a big rework that it’s almost unrecognizable.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Naming the 2D Zelda Genre

I’m already in the planning stages for my next two video game reviews (no idea how long those will take, unfortunately), but they both have a commonality that I wanted to address. Something that I thought that I could discuss in an aside, as it’s a topic that I’ve mentioned before, but which kept ballooning in length, to the point where it seemed like it might just be for the best to spin it out into its own piece. And that topic is their genre.

Some of my favorite games growing up were the 2D Zelda games, and that’s something that’s persisted throughout my life. Although you might have already known that. After all, I’ve covered plenty of games of that style as well: Lenna’s InceptionCadence of HyruleBlossom TalesKamikoReverie, Sparklite, Moonlighter, arguably Ms. Director and Princess Remedy… The point is, this is a genre that means a lot to me, and I play a lot of games like it.

I also have no idea what to call it. For some reason, there just wasn’t ever a standardized name for it that cropped up in game discussion circles, so every time I want to write about it, I have to take a long time spelling out what I have in mind, and it kind of bugs me. So let’s try and fix that; sure, it might not catch on in wide use or anything, but at least in the future, I’ll be able to just drop the name and link to this article as an explanation.

But getting a name that’s just right is difficult. So let’s run through some ideas to see if any could work, and what they might leave out: