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Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania – The Dracula X Chronicles

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Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles
Published by Konami
Originally for PSP, Played on PS Vita

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The Skinny: Old School Difficulty meets mid-2000’s 3D backgrounds

Welcome to Dracula Season! With the release of Castlevania Requiem for the PS4 last week, I felt a hankering to dig into the classic games included, Symphony of the Night and Rondo of Blood. But they were both part of an earlier collection, The Dracula X Chronicles for Playstation Portable. But rather than a collection, they were unlockable bonus content in one of the most difficult games in a notoriously punishing franchise.
Dracula X is a faithful remake of Rondo of Blood using 3D Polygonal graphics instead of sprites. The models look very good, and are quite detailed, but they still feel a bit dated by modern standards. The game retains every controller-snapping bit of difficulty from the original, which came out for the PC Engine console and was not previously released outside of Japan and is one of the hardest entries in a game series known for its brutal challenge.
By finding special items hidden in the remake, players can unlock both the original Rondo of Blood in all it’s 16-bit pixelated glory, and its sequel, the breakout Playstation hit Symphony of the Night. And while these aren’ just laying out in the open (they’re found on hidden stages in somewhat more difficult paths) A few minutes of googling should help you reach them if you’re only really here for the original, which for the PSP is priced less than Requiem.
Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles retains all of the charm as well as the extreme challenge of the 1993 original. You can find it in the Playstation store if you have a PSP or Vita laying around.

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Hugh Likes Video Games: Stardew Valley

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Stardew Valley
Developed by ConcernedApe
Published by Chucklefish
Played on Nintendo Switch

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The Skinny: “Harvest Moon” all grown up.

“Stardew Valley” is a retro-style farming life simulator made by indie developer ConcernedApe, the one-man studio of Eric Barone, in tribute to “Harvest Moon.” As in the original, they player is tasked with rebuilding their grandfather’s dilapidated old farm in an isolated rural community. Like in “Harvest Moon,” there are a lot of different activities you can do throughout the game, from growing crops and raising livestock to fishing, gathering, mining, and developing relationships with the town citizens. But the game builds on these mechanics and interrogates them in unexpected modern ways.
The player is given their farm in a letter in a cut scene at the beginning of the game, prompting them to quit their job at soulless mega-corporation Joja to pursue a new life in Stardew Valley. But the company has already gotten in a foothold in your new town, in the form of Jojamart, a supermarket that is already squeezing out the local general store. It is up to the player to decide if they want to help Joja take over and turn Stardew Valley into a Joja distribution center, or to drive them off by rebuilding the town’s dilapidated Community Center. Like most of the choices in the game, there is a decision that feels better, but it isn’t quite so black and white. Rebuilding the Center requires delivering a mountain of specific items, while siding with Joja is easier and allows the player the freedom to play however they want.
Rather than just settling in to the fantasy of small-town life, Barone has very thoughtfully examined the issues impacting rural life today and incorporated them into the game. Most NPCs are friendly, but some are hostile and distrustful of outsiders. Depression, substance abuse, and financial hardship and broken homes all play into their stories. Also, the player can choose their farmer’s appearance and gender, and can date and marry NPC’s of either gender, which feels to me like a huge step over “Harvest Moon’s” marriage options, and a natural way to include LGBTQ players.
“Stardew Valley” is one of those games that you will either hate, or will entirely absorb you as you try and delve into all the town’s secrets, find every hidden relationship cutscene, and work to raise the best crops. There are only a few things that bother me about it. One is that trees, rocks and other liter are constantly regenerating on my farm. I feel like I’m spending as much time chopping down the multiplying pine trees as I am watering and planting. The other is that the games doesn’t have a way to buy multiple items at once, a real oversight when I’m buy seeds for huge fields, or trying to buy enough hay to see my cows through the winter. This might not have been a big problem on PC, but on console, having to rapid-fire hit a button is a needless irritation.
“Stardew Valley” is available on Steam and for most major consoles. I played on the Nintendo Switch and I could hardly put it down. It is a perfect chill game for these long autumn nights.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Foul Play

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Foul Play
Published by Devolver Digital
Developed by Mediatonic
Played on PS Vita

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The Skinny: A clever little belt-scrolling brawler disguised as a stage play.

“Foul Play” is an innovative and clever brawler for one or two players that does a lot with limited resources. You play as Baron Dashforth, a British gentleman and daemonologist. But the game doesn’t have you delving tombs and fighting monsters directly. Instead, it is set as a play, with Dashforth recounting his adventures to an audience. This is the key mechanic of the game, as the audience acts as your life bar. If you don’t keep them happy, it’s curtains.
Dashforth, and his 2p sidekick Scrapwick, don’t have life bars at all. Instead, the audience excitement meter hangs at the top of the screen. You keep them interested by racking up combos and executing advanced moves, which are unlocked as ‘acts’ of the play are completed. This leads to a fairly forgiving system. The player doesn’t have to worry about finding food or other power-ups in the environment. If they are flagging, all they need to do is get back in the fight and keep hitting square to build your meter back up.
The combat itself is rather button-mashy and the bosses especially are rather healthy, so it takes a good many wallops with your can to bring them down. But the game’s visual flair carries the day. Sets fly in and out on pulleys, actors’ faces are visible beneath monstrous costumes, and we regularly see extras attempting to stealthily exit after they’ve been ‘defeated,’ not to mention the occasional stage crew taking their break next to the wrong backdrop. It keeps the game light and engaging.
“Foul Play” leans in to Cosmic Horror but tries to keep things lighthearted. I haven’t finished the game, but so far it lampoons but steers clear of most of the unfortunate pitfalls of the genre. I’m looking at you here, Lovecraft. Dashforth present themselves as heroic experts in the dark corners of the world, but there isn’t much lionizing of the British Empire, and we’re constantly reminded that we only have the baron’s word for it.
If you’re looking for an old-school button masher that does something a bit more than ‘punch all the dudes to the right of you until your girlfriend falls out’ “Foul Play” is a good place to start. Also, for the rest of September, Playstation Plus subscribers can download it for PS4 and PS Vita for free. You can’t beat a deal like that.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Dead Cells

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Dead Cells
Published by Motion Twin
Played on Nintendo Switch

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The Skinny – A challenging Rogue-Light platformer that respects its roots.

Dead Cells is a Rouge-Light action platformer in the mould of Castlevania, and while it nails the atmosphere, and critics aren’t wrong, this indie Switch game reminded me a lot more of early classics like Castlevania III and Rondo of Blood than Symphony of the Night and its descendants.
The game nails the spooky atmosphere, set on a crumbling prison island suffering under a despotic tyrant and a mysterious plague. The player controls a characters called ‘The Prisoner’ who, due to his understanding of alchemy, cannot die, and is attempting his escape. Each death sends him back to the beginning of the game to try again. Between levels, the player can spend special drops called Cells on unlocking randomly generated weapons, increasing the player’s ability to carry potions, or other goodies.
The levels themselves are randomly generated and huge with some parameters. They each have an overall design structure, and have multiple paths that are gated behind runes you unlock by beating certain bosses. Because you are always moving forward, these alternate paths unlock on subsequent attempts. It’s an elegant use of the rogue-like structure, making some abilities random while also giving the player a sense of progression.
The stylish pixel art and maze-like levels are fun, and the combat feels is fast paced and challenging. Some of the really good items between levels cost a lot of souls to unlock, but you’ll be dying plenty of deaths, so it doesn’t feel like the player will miss anything by winning too quickly.
Dead Cells is a tough-as-nails, tongue-in-cheek Rouge-Light action platformer. you can play it on Steam or the major home console of your choice. It does some fun things with the subgenre and looks gorgeous, and if like me, you are still smarting from the lack of new Castlevanias, it makes for an engaging and addictive substitute.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Subsurface Circular

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Subsurface Circular
Developed by Mike Bithell
Published by Anthill Games
Nintendo Switch

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The Skinny – A short but satisfying trip.

Subsurface Circular is an old-school concept in some flashy new clothes. Quintessentially at text adventure, players assume the role of a detective that works on a subway train for robots, the eponymous Subsurface Circular. When the character goes off-programming to help a Tek (the game’s term for Asimo-like sentient humanoid robots) You’ll question passengers to get to the bottom of a mystery at the heart of your unnamed future city.
Gameplay consists entirely of text boxes and dialog choices as you try and get to solve the case, as well as a few simple puzzles the game puts in your path. The train car and its riders are lovingly rendered in high def, and the game uses the Switch’s gyroscope to let you look around a bit, but it is all just set dressing for the text, as shiny and gorgeous as it looks.
The plot is certainly engaging, but Bithell released it as a part of a series of ‘shorts,’ and it is quite short. Even taking a leisurely pace, the game can easily be finished in a two-hour sitting. It is quite forgiving with the puzzles, and while you can make choices, they don’t seem to have much impact on the game, or create much in the way of replay value. While the economy of the resources is quite clever, I would have liked to have solved a few more mysteries, but the game is propelled by its plot to a quick end.
There is a quite cool Easter egg for fans of Bithell’s award-winning “Thomas Was Alone,” which I won’t spoil here, and the Teks are all both convincingly human and utterly alien looking. They’re breathtaking to watch. There is also a clever bit of design where the soundtrack to each chapter is provided by Teks wearing earphones, their too-loud music pushing out into the car alongside atmospheric sounds of air brakes and sliding doors.
At around five dollars, “Subsurface Circular” is well worth the price tag for an evening of Robot Noire on the loop line. It is available for Nintendo Switch as well as Steam and IOS devices.

Hugh Likes Video Game: Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
Published by Nintendo
Played on Nintendo Switch

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The Skinny: I don’t know what to tell you. if you haven’t heard of it by now. It’s really good.

So, yeah, Zelda Breath of the Wild has been out for a year, and praise has been heaped upon it. And it is well deserved. Like most of the core Nintendo franchises, Zelda games tend to iterate on a formula. Installments have stayed closer or farther from this formula, but in general, the pattern of travel around a persistent map and complete X number of elemental dungeons before fighting Gannon persists. Breath of the Wild reduces the dungeon count and instead focuses a bit more on the sprawling map, that is none-the-less filled with things to do.
Zelda BotW takes several design cues from Western RPGs like The Elder Scrolls in that there is always something interesting around the next corner. It also follows the design choices of A Link Between Worlds in that it gives the player his tools up front, and lets them tackle the game’s challenges as they wish, although there does feel like an ideal path.
While the game doesn’t offer the robust character development you typically see in Western RPGs, it does have a huge map full of things to do. Breath of the Wild replaces the hidden heart containers from previous games with Shrines, little formalized puzzle rooms scattered throughout the map, which also function as fast-travel points after you activate them. There are lots of mountains to climb, stuff to collect, and monsters to fight, and it rarely feels like a chore.
The four main quests do feel somewhat repetitive, as they each have the same basic structure, although the design for the dungeon-sized Divine Beasts are quite cool. The game has a very aggressive weapon and shield durability system, which will mean you will be spending a lot of time collecting replacement swords rather than relying on the familiar Master Sword. Fortunately, there is a huge variety of new ones to collect, so it does add some variety to the experience.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a huge, beautiful adventure with a new surprise over every ridge. It brings back a refreshing sense of freedom to the series, and is a must-play, in my opinion. You can find it for the Nintendo Switch and the Nintendo Wii-U.

Hugh Likes Video Games – Fire Emblem Heroes

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Fire Emblem Heroes
Published by Nintendo
Played on AndroidSQ_SmartDevice_FireEmblemHeroes

The Skinny – Fire Emblem Heroes is a slimmed down but still surprisingly deep mobile version of Nintendo’s long-running tactical RPG.

Strategy RPG’s have a tendency towards being overwrought. With huge casts, complicated game systems, and drawn-out battles, they are considered investments in time and attention, and, indeed, their most ardent fans wouldn’t have it any other way. This is why I was slightly dubious when I heard Nintendo was bringing their Fire Emblem series to IOS and Android phones. But Nintendo has done an excellent job of threading the needle between shallow nostalgia bomb and dense war simulator with aplomb.

The story is pretty paper-thin, mostly just an excuse to bring the different games in the franchise together, but it does well enough. The game takes place in the kingdom of Askr, a land blessed with portals to other worlds. The player is the latest such recruit in Askr’s somewhat endless war against their neighbors, the evil empire of Embla. The royals of Askr wear white and value friendship, the Emblians all wear black and have emotional problems, etc. etc. Both sides have put heroes from these other worlds, which align with the various games in the Fire Emblem series, under contract to fight on their side, and the only way for them to be set free is to be defeated on the battlefield. The story is a bit slight, but I personally find the idea that all these characters are appearing because its in their contract a fantastic, if probably unintentional, meta-joke at the heart of the game.
The combat itself is fast-paced and shrinks down elegantly. The vast swaths of movement the regular series is known for are shrunk down to just a few spaces, and your army is reduced to teams of four, although you can fairly easily swap out teams or team members from your roster. The roster itself is a typical sort of random card pack selecting you see in many free-to-play mobile games, but ‘Heroes’ gives you plenty of currency to fill out your army without resorting to converting your real-life cash to orbs. Combat relies on the traditional Fire Emblem sword-axe-spear battle system, but new players shouldn’t have any trouble picking it up. It strips the system down to manageability, but still provides enough expanded difficulty modes, asynchronous multiplayer, and challenge modes for veteran players.
Although the story mode is paper-thin and incredibly anime, the art assets look great, and scale well. Fire Emblem Heroes might not be the next revolution in game design, but its a great way to pass the time if you’re looking for something a bit different than the run-of-the-mill puzzle game. You can find it for free in the IOS or Google Play app stores.

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