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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

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:

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Halfway Through 2021, Sill No Other Game Than Ikenfell I’d Rather Be Recommending

On some level, it was probably overdetermined that I would like Ikenfell. The basic pitch, a turn-based RPG about students at a magic university solving mysteries, is extremely my jam. I dug the art style and snippets of music I got from trailers. And there were some good indications that I would vibe with the approach, seeing as the game’s creator, Chevy Ray Johnston, is close friends and ex-roommates with Greg Lobanov and Maddie Thorson, both of whom made games that I loved and already wrote about (specifically, Wandersong and Celeste).*

*In fact, I think that one of them mentioning Ikenfell somewhere might have been where I first heard about it, while researching things for one of those earlier articles? Either way, Wandersong includes small cameos of characters from both of the other games as well, and Johnston recently announced they were working with Extremely OK Games on the team’s next game, the recently-announced Earthblade (source).

But I didn’t just like it, it more than surpassed my high expectations. Happy Ray Games’ Ikenfell is probably my favorite game of the year, at the halfway point.*

*Yes, it technically came out at the end of last year, but time is fake and I can’t always play things right away.

So let’s go back and take it from the top. Ikenfell begins with a girl named Maritte, who’s lost in the woods as she searches for the titular magic school. Her older sister, Safina, is a star pupil of the institution who has totally vanished off the face of the earth while doing off-semester research there, and Maritte is determined to figure out what’s going on. Unfortunately, Maritte is not magical, and clashes with the school’s various magical defenses to keep out Ordinaries… until she suddenly shoots a fireball, ancient magic that none of the school’s guardians even recognize. With this, she is allowed to pass with the warning that something major is afoot, and Maritte is certain that her sister’s disappearance is connected.
 

Monday, June 7, 2021

Monster Sanctuary Review: Mazes and Monsters and Min-Maxing, Oh My...

A little while ago, I began breaking down some of the video games from my 2020 Wrap-Up, offering a fuller appraisal of Phoenotopia: Awakening. Today, we’re hitting a second game from that year-end review, as I go more in depth on Moi Rai Games’ Monster Sanctuary.

For those who didn’t read the blurb for it in the Wrap-Up, the basic pitch for Monster Sanctuary is that it combines two fairly distinct game genres, something that I’ve written about here a few times. In this case, the two genres are Metroidvanias (another thing I’ve covered a lot) and Monster Taming* games (something that I haven’t covered, but which is exactly what it sounds like: think things like Pokémon, that involve collecting and/or training monsters).

*I’ve usually heard this term used, but it’s probably also worth noting that Steam uses the tag “Creature Collector” for this genre. I’m sure there are multiple other terms that people use as well, but these are the main ones that I’ll be sticking with.

This is a really novel combination, from what I can tell, which is actually kind of weird. Those two elements have always seemed like natural matches, in my mind. Growing up playing the 2D Pokémon games, they struck me in a lot of ways like the 2D Zelda games, just with HMs like Cut and Surf replacing Link’s equipment. And those 2D Zelda games and their genre-mates, at their best, seemed a lot like Metroidvanias that you controlled on a different axis. Think about it; they’d plop you down in an overworld with arbitrary obstacles, which you could overcome as you explored and found new gear and found secret branches to new areas… Pokémon quit never went that far, using its obstacles as plain roadblocks along a linear path. But they could have, if they wanted to, as could any aspiring game developer.