The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Indie Game Recs: Sayonara Wild Hearts

2019 was a great year for video game soundtracks. I already covered the Crypt of the Necrodancer spinoff Cadence of Hyrule a few months ago. I also finally got around to trying Lumines Remastered, a puzzle game that also makes the soundtrack part of the gameplay, and enjoyed that (although not quite as much as Meteos). And while less integrated into the gameplay, the Pokémon series, which has always put out great soundtracks, hit their strongest one in a while (in my opinion) with Sword and Shield. Similarly with Waypoint, a company that always has good music, and their new game River City Girls (although it integrates into the game in a cute meta way when you fight the soundtrack vocalist as a character in the game). And this isn’t getting into a few other music games that I didn’t get around to, like Ape Out or Songbird Symphony.

We truly were spoiled this year, but for my money, none of them take home the Best Music of the Year award. That honor belongs to Simogo’s Sayonara Wild Hearts, a masterpiece of a game with an absolutely killer soundtrack courtesy of Daniel Olsén, Jonathan Eng, and Linnea Olsson. And thanks to that music, it was one of my favorite games of the year.

Sayonara Wild Hearts is a game that is both stunning in its ambitions, yet also incredibly straightforward in conception. You might be familiar with the idea of visual albums, musical albums with video aspects added to them. Simogo took that idea and extended that into their specialty of game design: what if that visual aspect was instead a series of video game levels that you played through? It would almost be shocking that the idea isn’t more common, until you remember that it requires the effort of making both an entire album and an entire video game, and keeping it all cohesive (although it would be amazing to see others attempt it!)

Like most concept albums, Sayonara has an overarching narrative, steeped in big, sweeping, metaphors and abstraction and with most of the specifics up to player interpretation. This tale focuses on a young girl who experiences a heart break so profound that it ties her to a cosmic struggle for universal harmony between the forces of good and evil, represented by tarot card arcana. Thus, she becomes The Fool, the masked, swashbuckling hero charged with fighting the representations of the evil arcana (who may or may not be representations of her former lovers).

That’s really the main framework of the story, with most of the details told via the level designs and songs for the player to pick up on and work into their understanding of the narrative. It really is impressive how much story you can draw out of the three aspects put together, given how little of it is made explicit, and it makes building a personal interpretation out of all of that extremely fun.

The levels each serve as sorts of "music videos", with your character constantly running through different absolutely gorgeous environments and picking up different heart icons to score points. The level design mentioned mostly comes through both the placement of collectibles and obstacles, which often serve as accents on the musical accompaniment in cute ways, and Sayonara's impeccable aesthetic sense. Each level is a tightly choreographed (sometimes-literal) ballet of motorcycle chases, fistfights, acrobatic stunts, and more, against backdrops like neon-technicolor cities and surreal forest-raves; the actions and environments become more building blocks setting up the game's story, open to their own interpretation. But even if they weren't, they'd all be beautiful enough to check out on their own.

The levels themselves are rather short, as they correspond directly to the songs. Most fall in the 1-2 minute range, with longer levels coming out to more of a traditional pop-song length (and usually serving as boss stages of sorts). And the game itself isn't too long, and can be completed in under an hour. Of course, that's not too much of a problem, since the game is at once an album and an arcade game. Each level is infinitely re-playable as you try and outdo your best score, and the game stays interesting for as long as you still enjoy the soundtrack. I've played through it essentially three times at this point just as a function of wanting to re-listen to it, and I can see myself continuing to do so.

And oh, that soundtrack! Olsén is a wizard with synths, with complex layers filling out lush orchestrations to further build out the worlds shown in the levels. They all feel so propulsive and energetic that I can't imagine them accompanying anything but The Fool's constant forward movement, and yet, all of them feel like they could just as equally serve as dance tracks. Laser Love might be my favorite such example.

The pop songs bring in Eng on lyrics, and he writes perfect mood pieces to underscore the actions on-screen. They walk the fine line of filling in details to make the songs reflect a distinct experience, while also remaining universal in the feelings they convey. And Olsson's vocals are just perfect, ethereal to match the surreal world of Wild Hearts while also carrying intense emotion, driving home the heartbreaks and triumphs. Her voice reminds me a lot of Lauren Mayberry (lead singer of CHVRCHES), which I mean as the highest praise. To get a picture of how it all comes together, just take a look at the first "boss level", Begin Again, a story of preparing to move past a doomed romance set to an extended chase scene through a town known as Hatehell Valley. That sort of heightened emotion is the backbone of Sayonara Wild Hearts, and it really sells every minute of it.

I could go on about this game for ages, but I really just want to treat it as a short but strong recommendation. So if any part of this review sounds interesting, definitely pick up Sayonara Wild Hearts. It really feels like a genuinely interesting burst of creativity and ideas, the start of something genuinely new, on top of just being a stellar pop album, and I love it for that.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Timespinner Is My Favorite Game of 2019 So Far

I suppose it's not too surprising that Timespinner is one of my favorite games of the year. After all, it has a lot in common with Iconoclasts, which was one of my favorite games from 2018: both are Metroidvanias designed largely by one person over several years with a focus on deeper, theme-heavy narrative, intricate world building, and a lovingly crafted set of characters. And there are even some overlaps in the themes Bodie Lee (the designer, artist, and programmer of Timespinner's Lunar Ray Games) and Joakim Sandberg (aka Konjak, the developer behind Iconoclasts) choose to focus on.

But the two spiral off beautifully into their own little corners, each exploring those story and game design choices separate, to the extent that they feel almost like counterpoints, and it makes me appreciate both of them even more. But we'll get into that more in a bit. Let's just start at the basics, though: Timespinner is a Metroidvania platformer from Lunar Ray Games released on most current systems (I personally played it on my Switch). The game tells the epic story of Lunais, a girl from a small, peaceful society that's constantly in fear of interstellar Lachiem Empire looming above them. When Lachiem finally makes their move, Lunais uses her people's ancient relic, the Timespinner, to travel through time and space in hopes to stop them before their attack ever begins. It's a good enough basic set-up for a large scale space opera story, but the story here goes deeper than just the surface-level details.

We'll come back to that in a minute, though, since it's getting into spoiler territory. Before doing that, let me hit the more general stuff. The gameplay here is all great; the movement feels as good as it should, and the RPG elements give a nice extra bit of complexity and a sense of progression. The world layout is some of my favorite as well; Timespinner does a good job at teasing you with locked doors to come back to, new abilities that open the world map, hints at secrets, and more. And the two overlaying maps, set across two vastly different time periods, do a nice job of lining up in ways that make you say "Ooooohh" and feel smart once you catch on to the clues it's laying down (both narratively and gameplay-wise).

The pixel art is just fantastic; it stands with the best of the best from the 16-bit era and takes me back to playing the Super Nintendo as a kid. The same goes for the music, really; if you played any sort of “epic” 16-bit RPG or Metroidvania, Timespinner learned from the best and perfectly recaptures that feeling. The characters and their designs all look great and I love them, but my favorite understated strength of the game’s art direction might be the world design.

The gameworld, as the same locations separated by centuries, are a good example of all the small bits that go into setting a scene. You’re initially set up in the modern, sterile, dystopian version of Lachiem, and every aspect of it contributes to that. The music is harsh, people are sparse, and dark machines hound you in mechanical corridors. Even relatively humane locales, like the library, still feel alienating in small ways.

Then, you get dropped back in the pastoral past, and even as a harsh, largely-unexplored planet with a technically-lower population, it just feels so much more welcoming. The game’s layout does a good job of allowing you to accidentally wander into places you’ve been before, and the transformation it takes to get to the bad future version is so shocking that it may take you a while to make the connection that you found an area you’ve been before (even when the landscape hasn’t been totally decimated).

Not every game can stir emotions this noticeable in me, but I found myself subconsciously attacking my to-do list with a heavy focus on the past because of the discomfort from the future world and the relative pleasantness of the past. And to avoid big spoilers, I’ll just say that one of the final sections in the game, set in the future world, maximizes this emotional tug, with a design that gave me the biggest sense of unease I’ve felt while exploring a game level since the True Lab section of Undertale. It’s a well-executed surprise, and I really wanted to get out of there as fast as I could.

Of course, while the art direction and design does a lot of that work, the writing carries a lot of weight here as well, and it might be my favorite part of Timespinner, the part that kept me up thinking about it in between play sessions, desperate to get back. Of course, digging into that will hit spoiler territory, so if you want to go in as blind as possible, know that I fully recommend this game if any part of this sounds interesting, and you can come back to read the rest of this once you try it for yourself.

If you want to go a little further though, I’ll keep things vague at first, to serve as a “themes to look for while you play”, but give another jumping off point when I get deep into specifics.

--spoiler break--

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Forget Genres, Cadence of Hyrule Seemlessly Mashes-Up Entire Series

I’ve been slowly working my way through some of the indie game backlog on my Switch, and wanted to do a few shorter reviews of games that especially jumped out at me, starting with something I hinted was coming in my last piece on video games: Brace Yourself Games’ Legend of Zelda spin-off, Cadence of Hyrule.

(The music is of course great, as both series are known for their soundtracks. So why not check out a sample as backing music while reading this review?

One of my earlier favorite pickups for the Switch was BYG’s original Crypt of the Necrodancer, a game I had heard a lot of good things about but never gotten around to trying. It went on sale on the Switch, so I decided to finally try it out on a whim. And I wound up getting a lot playtime out of it! I had always been sort of iffy on dungeon crawler and roguelike/roguelite games for various reasons, but Crypt took the best parts of those two genres and used them to balance each other out, all set to a banging soundtrack that made it an even more interesting rhythm game.

Giving each move in the dungeon crawler the strict time limit of a beat in a song kept you from overthinking and over-optimizing every move, and tying the dungeon sizes to the length of songs kept them from becoming too sprawling or overwhelming and made the threat of having to start over not feel completely dispiriting. Conversely, the rogue-lite elements mean you get to try different styles of play rather than just following your optimized plan, and there’s only minimal planning you even could do before tackling each level, plus the music helped to telegraph enemy attack patterns so that you learn how to navigate each world quicker. On the whole, it was a really neat little system.

Meanwhile, I’ve written before about my love for The Legend of Zelda series, especially the 2D entries. I’m always excited for more entries into whatever-that-genre-is-called (maybe I’ll tackle that issue another day), but tying it to Crypt of the Necrodancer’s systems posed some interesting clashes. Legend of Zelda isn’t really known for small procedurally-generated worlds, or for losing all your gear regularly and starting over, or for randomization, or for strict rules on movement, or any number of other things that could have tripped up the developers. When the game was first announced, all of those questions and more made it seem interesting, but like something that would be more of a novelty, something like a new Crypt of the Necrodancer but with Link plopped in as in Soul Calibur II, or a Zelda spin-off with added focus on music instead of, say, multiplayer.

Instead, though, Brace Yourself Games hit the perfect balance of the two; Cadence of Hyrule feels like both a Zelda game and a Crypt sequel, with enough new ideas brought to the table to make it not feel like it solely belongs to one series or the other. Areas were the two might have clashed have been reconciled in ways that keep them feeling true to both games. It really is a hybrid of the two series, which on the whole makes it feel like a new and exciting experience.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Atlantis and Treasure Planet Would Make Good Live-Action Remakes

I’ve had some thoughts about Disney’s recent live action remakes, so I figured now would be as good a time as any to write them up since The Lion King just came out recently and we’re coming off a four month stretch that saw three total release (and with two more coming in the next four months).

I have my issues with them, I guess. I usually get around to seeing them eventually, but none of them really strikes me as substantially better than the original. Maybe The Jungle Book, since it seemed to have more of a unified through-line the original? But the original was never one of my favorites growing up, so I haven’t seen it in years and might be remembering things incorrectly.

Really, I just don’t have strong feelings about any of them so far. But I know they’re going to keep coming since they make so much money, so I figured I’d throw in my two cents on what I would do, for at least a little bit (since that will clearly influence Disney CEOs and make them restructure all of their plans).

And really, my two cents boil down to “make live action versions of Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire”. And yeah, some of this is that those movies were two of my favorites growing up. But there are plenty of reasons I think remaking these two films specifically would be a good move outside of my personal nostalgia poisoning.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

A Study in Video Game Genre Mash-Ups: Indie Game Recs

For most of what I can remember while growing up playing video games, it felt like the idea of mashing up distinct genres into a single game was somewhat frowned upon. And that’s not entirely unfair, in all honesty. Some larger studios especially often take a “throw it all in” approach that can leave titles feeling like a collection of unfocused or half-baked ideas. And even if they are pulled off somewhat well, it can still feel really confusing for players as to why, say, a Sonic the Hedgehog game needed a fishing game mode that clashes pretty severely with the main gameplay.

But just like every other design decision that a game studio can make, it’s just another tool in the toolbox, and it can be done well! The answer to those two problems seems pretty obvious, in retrospect: limit your focus to just what you feel you can do well, and only include the new elements if you can find a natural way to connect it to the game’s main idea. I want to focus today on some of the different approaches that games can take to pull off a natural feeling genre mash-up, specifically through the lens of a couple of indie games that have managed to walk that tightrope and come out of the experience with some brilliant games.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Alwa's Awakening Is a Solid Little Indie Metroidvania

My last few indie game reviews have been really, really big, in different ways, touching on big, thematic stuff and more in-depth analysis. But doing only deep dives on the best of the best is exhausting and limiting, in a lot of ways, and I think there are also a lot of smaller titles that are incredibly solid and deserve love and attention, too, even if they aren’t in my running for whatever the video game equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzers would be.

So this one is more in the vein of my Blossom Tales review, which is fitting since there are quite a few similarities. Alwa’s Awakening, by first-time developer Elden Pixels, is an incredibly well-designed little throwback number that has clearly learned from the best. An 8-bit Metroidvania/platformer that feels like the perfect distillation of the genre, playing it on my Switch made me feel a connection with my younger self hunched over my Game Boy, while at the same time feeling like it’s own distinct unique thing rather than a recreation of a specific classic.

Of course, that nostalgic feel makes sense; Elden Pixels really feels like they’ve taken an old-school approach to designing things here. There was definite attention paid to focusing the game on specific set of elements the designers wanted to include and an emphasis on refining them, rather than letting the scope of things sprawl out of control. The player character only has two abilities in the start of the game, a jump and a staff attack, and every ability that you unlock over the course of the game is a spell that you cast with that staff attack. Not only that, but the game decides to pare that spell list to just three, with improvements to those three being the late-game finds that finally open up the entire map to you. There's a beauty in that level of straightforwardness.

And there’s a deeper deliberateness in all of that. It becomes very clear what types of abilities you’re going to be finding, as you come across areas of the map that are clearly kept inches out of your reach. Every challenge feels like a puzzle that you can solve if you just piece it all together, whether it’s dead ends that clearly just need one more tool, or learning the trick to spotting fake walls, or even finding ideal strategies for toppling bosses.

There are other nice things about their world design besides just the puzzle aspects, too. The different sections of the map are distinct enough in their design to stick in your mind and make it easy to remember spots to return to later. And the map is a very solid example of Metroidvania game design; secret tunnels connect you to areas you didn’t know would come back up, branching paths make you feel clever when you find them and explore them fully, everything is connected enough that it doesn’t take too long to get anywhere from any of the warp points which makes jumping between areas to further explore not a problem, and all of that good stuff.

Too many games in this genre stray into making things too linear, but Alwa’s Awakening has the good sense to leave things open and let you explore at your own pace with only general checkpoints for you to go towards at your leisure. You can poke into various parts of the map pretty early, a nice preview for what’s coming and a good way to get a sense of how things are laid out, and most of them have secrets to reach even if you can’t do much else yet. It’s all appropriately twisty and turny, and you can really jump ahead at your own pace in some areas (sometimes with ways forward that are clever enough that you feel like you may have accidentally broken the sequence the designers intended, even when it is all part of the plan).

The non-gameplay elements are all solid as well, if a little basic. Most of the character designs are lovable, if a little basic (particularly main character Zoe). Most of the story elements are pretty standard, but there are enough interesting hooks in everything that it certainly feels like the team is capable of more with more time, resources, and experience. The interludes in towns or up mountains add some nice variety from the dungeons and tunnels that make up the rest of the world, and again, with more time, I’m sure Elden Pixels would come up with a host of more interesting locals and characters to populate them.

The makers clearly studied their fundamentals of game design from the best, especially of the Game Boy/NES era, and applied that to creating their own vision of that style. All in all, it was enough to keep me coming back for ten hours or so in an attempt to find every secret and still leave me wanting more, which is always a positive experience. The things Alwa’s Awakening is good at are enough to grab your interest, and even it’s weakest points are never weak enough to make you feel like the game is missing out on anything. I look forward to seeing where Elden Pixels goes from here.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Wandersong, a Groundbreaking Musical Video Game, Is One of 2018's Best

One of my favorite games of 2018 was Wandersong*, and I wanted to write something about it for a while, but wow was it difficult to come up with something that didn’t just devolve into gushing praise.

*note: I played the Nintendo Switch version, but it’s also available on PlayStation 4 and PC/Mac via Steam.

Not that gushing praise wouldn’t be merited; the game is beautiful in every capacity, and the team of Greg Lobanov (creator), A Shell in the Pit (music), and Em Halberstadt (sound) deserves all of the compliments. Everything clicked with me. The game looks beautiful, with a strong art direction full of bold colors and a look that brings to mind construction paper and Paper Mario. The writing and story is fantastic, and full of probably my favorite cast of characters I’ve seen; even random townspeople stick in the mind, and the main cast are all incredibly endearing. And man oh man, the music.

I mean, the game is called Wandersong, so of course the music had to be good. But it really is something else. The soundtrack is, naturally, amazing, and I’ve been listening to it on repeat since even before I finished the game. It’s loaded with memorable tunes, and so many are tied to key moments in the game that instantly call them to mind when you here them. It’s a perfect synergy.

It’s more than that, though; everything in the game revolves around music, from the biggest story themes to the smallest game mechanics. It’s a level of focus that many games don’t have, especially games in the rhythm/music genre. Every action in the game more complicated than basic moving in a 2D space (basically left/right/jump) is undertaken using the singing wheel that serves as the game’s main mechanic. Puzzles to cross large gaps or scale large heights? Casting magic spells? Dialogue with non-player characters? Encounters with large monsters? Every one of them, you use the wheel to get the Bard to sing, and the Bard’s music in turn interacts with the game environment in some way to meet the challenge.