The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Friday, May 22, 2020

Quarantine Game Recs: A Fold Apart

My second quarantine game recommendation isn’t quite as long as my first one*, but then again, there’s not really a weird concept like “orphaned game mechanics” that I need to explain. Instead, A Fold Apart by Lightning Rod Games is a straightforward puzzle platformer that executes its simple yet complexly multilayered idea to perfection.

*Although in a lot of ways, One Step From Eden does feel kind of like the exact opposite of A Fold Apart; they just both execute their different visions extremely well.

It starts at the basic conceptual level; the game’s set up is that each level is a piece of paper, where you need to get your character from the starting point to the ending point. Your options to do so are limited, though: you can only walk your character along the path and conquer small height differences. To help cross larger obstacles, you can manipulate the level like an actual piece of paper (to the point where, when I got stuck, I could experiment with a real piece of paper to help me think through it) with various folds and flips. It feels like a simple and obvious idea, but I certainly don’t know of any other games that have tried it, and the puzzles get pretty tricky and creative.

And if it were just that, it would be a pretty solid game; a creative gameplay idea and well-built puzzles making good use of that idea are a strong core. Of course, you can also build off of it to something more, which is the route A Fold Apart takes. The entire game’s art style builds off this paper theme, using an art style that feels like a cross between papercraft art and Pixar-style computer animation, filled with strong, bright color palettes, and it’s extremely appealing to look at.

The story is what ties it all together, though. It’s an extremely intimate portrayal of a romantic couple (genders of your choosing) beginning a long-distance phase of their relationship, and you use the levels to walk them through all the issues that will come up. There’s the sanguine, outgoing teacher Red, and the more melancholic, studious Blue who accepts a prestigious one-year architectural opening some distance away. The pair continue with their normal conversations via messaging, but challenges that come with a lack of in-person contact and general uncertainty in their shared future casts serious questions about what would normally be minor aspects.

The writing is extremely solid in its application, presenting a realistic look at the challenges that arise. With only two characters to focus on, each one gets a lovingly detailed portrayal; you really get a sense for what makes these characters tick. And the disagreements that come up don’t feel at all contrived in the way that misunderstandings in relationships often can be in fiction.

Each set up gives you a clear sense of where the conflict will arise, thanks to your fleshed-out understanding of the characters’ desires and needs. You see a text that you know is well-intentioned, playful banter, and can tell how the sender meant it while viewing their side of the narrative. But you also know their partner’s unspoken insecurities through their levels and monologues, so the small remarks that will cut them the deepest and send them into a spiral instantly stand out in a way that will make you shudder a little as you read them, even before there’s time for the characters to react.

It really is a well-rendered portrait. After a while, it almost feels mean; I joked while in the moment that it felt like I was driving my protagonists to mental anguish just to play more puzzles. But it’s not just the desire for more levels that drives you forward, but also the hope that they’ll finally both be able to talk candidly about their fears and wants, and work to help each other through their current situation, hopefully reuniting in the end.

And of course, there’s all of the extra layers of meaning. Paper works as an apt metaphor for the two sides of the relationship, with the characters feeling on the same page in what they want but unable to see each other eye-to-eye. And there’s some flexibility involved to bridge that gap, bringing the two sides together; origami and papercraft really are perfect metaphors for the story, in addition to being a fun mechanic to play around with.

If there’s a downside, it’s that the game is a little on the short side, but better to leave you wanting more than overstay your welcome. So if any of this sounds interesting, I’d definitely recommend checking out A Fold Apart.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Quarantine Game Recs: One Step From Eden

I’ve been playing more video games than normal thanks to sheltering in place, and it makes for a good topic to discuss during times where many other things are cancelled, so I figured: why not write up recommendations for some of my favorite games I’ve played while in quarantine? Today’s entry is One Step From Eden by Thomas Moon Kang, a Kickstarter project that finally released in back March. So far, it’s been one of my favorite releases of 2020.

One thing I’ve thought about a decent amount is “orphaned” series and their gameplay; that is, major game series that try new game mechanics and formats, but later abandon them, meaning they just...aren’t seen again. Like, sure there are plenty of games where you play as Mario and run and jump on platforms. That will never change. But every now and then, those major series will try a spinoff or something, and those formats are less likely to stick.

For instance, I (like many other people) am a big fan of the first two Paper Mario games, spinoffs from the main Mario series. The second title was a nice expansion on the original entry, but from the third game on, Nintendo went in a radically different direction, and nothing since has really hit in the same way. Anyone wanting more of that was out of luck.

Sometimes with these orphaned spinoff series, if you’re lucky, you’ll see a revival, like Luigi’s Mansion, which took over a decade to release a second entry. Or maybe the company will make spiritual successors that are at least somewhat similar, like Sega moving on from Sonic Riders’ hoverboard racing games to more standard kart racer. But often, these ideas can also end up just as orphaned as smaller series; ask anyone still waiting for sequels to, say, Pokémon Snap or Diddy Kong Racing.

This has been one of the biggest areas for indie games to explore, in my opinion, since most of these ideas still have room to grow and explore. For instance, I’m partially convinced that the boom in 2-D Metroidvania indie titles is in part due to Nintendo’s seeming hesitance to continue the semititular series.* If Nintendo wasn’t sure where to go with new ideas for the series, plenty of other fans were ready to step in with their own interpretations. Other orphaned subseries and mechanics have seen their own revivals (for another example, the original Paper Mario’s influence lives on in titles like Underhero and Bug Fables).

*For reference, the last five 2-D Metroid games have been: 2017’s Samus Returns (a remake), 2010’s Other M, 2004’s Zero Mission (another remake), 2002’s Fusion, and 1994’s Super Metroid.
One game mechanic like this that I grew up with was Mega Man Battle Network’s battle system, where you moved your character around a grid throwing attacks at an opponent on the other side of the screen. It was really interesting, but when the series petered out shortly before the 2010s began, there really wasn’t anything to work with those ideas anymore, making it ripe for someone to take and re-invent.

And that’s where One Step From Eden comes into the picture. Taking inspiration from the old Battle Network series, it improves and expands on the battle system and transforms it into a wonderful new experience.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Building a Backyard Baseball 2020 Roster

It's a video game, so I'm linking to it here as well, but I wrote another modern re-imagining of the Backyard Baseball roster over at Hot Corner Harbor and The Crawfish Boxes. Go check it out!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

2019 Game Recommendation Round Up

Sure, it's early March, but I wanted to give stuff I played at the end of the year a chance, so here we are.

I wrote several things about video games I played in 2019 over the course of the year. There was my review of Alwa’s Awakening, a solid little Metroidvania title (and I’m excited for Eiden Pixel’s sequel, Alwa’s Legacy, which should be coming later this year). In other Metroidvania writing, I took more of a narrative approach in breaking down Lunar Ray Games’ Timespinner. I looked at Brace Yourself Games’ Crypt of the Necrodancer follow-up, Cadence of Hyrule. If you like music games like that, there was also my recent review of Simogo’s Sayonara Wild Hearts. And that’s not even counting my articles of things I played prior to 2019 that only went up this year, like my look at Wandersong, or my three-title look at genre mash-ups. (And even older than that, I wrote about A Hat in Time from Gears for Breakfast over two years ago, which came up again this year thanks to a new level releasing back in May and a new Nintendo Switch port dropping last October).

But that still only wound up being a small slice of things I played in 2019. So I wanted to do some quick wrap-ups on other good things I saw last year; maybe I’ll come back later and write more about one or more of these if the right idea takes me, but for now, I want to at least give them a shout-out.

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 Seamlessly 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.