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Hugh Likes Video Games: Octopath Traveller

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Octopath Traveller
Developed by Acquire
Published by Square Enix
Nintendo Switch

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The Skinny: This retro-styled JRPG creates a miniature clockwork world to explore.

I love me some Old School Japanese Role Playing Games. As a kid, I looked on with envy as my friends talked about the then mind-blowing scope of Dragon Warrior, and the Unprecedented drama of Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. When I grew older and had the means to play them myself, I lost myself in their fast maps and intricate mechanical systems. But trends come and go in gaming, and while these classics are remembered fondly, they just don’t make them anymore.
Except, of course, when they do. Octopath Traveller is a return to subgenre form, complete with pixelated sprites and tangled leveling systems. But it brings a lot of new stuff to the table as well.
The player chooses their starting character from a cast of eight protagonists, from erudite but occasionally naive scholar Cyrus to cynical thief Therion. After playing through the character’s ‘Chapter’ you leave your starting town and recruit the other characters, and play their stories as well. While you can have up to four characters in your party, each character’s story plays out as though they were alone, although you can access character asides where the others will give that character advice, or other dialog that doesn’t impact the scene.
Octopath Traveller is a remarkable success in so many ways. The visuals, a mix of pixel art and modern particle effects serve to create the illusion of a miniature world on the switch’s screen. Sand, snow and water all sparkle, and shimmer on the screen, creating not exactly realism, but an almost tactile effect. The locations look like vastly complex models. The music is gorgeous and cleverly constructed. The writing is smart, engaging, and doesn’t suffer from the bowdlerization so often present in 90’s translations. Combat is strategic and tricky. It is a joy to play.
But as much fun as it is, the game never quite breaks its illusions. The systems never let the player forget that it is a game. Its use of story as another system is interesting, and fun for me, but I found myself wishing that the characters had a bit more interaction with one another. If I have a Healer in my party, why can’t he heal the Cleric’s ill adoptive father? If another character is looking for a criminal, why can’t the Thief use their contacts to speed the process along? These barriers were a distraction to me at times.
Also, having one character that never left the party made them way more powerful than anybody else. There didn’t seem to be a reason to alway have them in the group, and by the end there was a huge gap. These are both aspects I hope they address in any potential sequels.
Octopath Traveller is an incredible JRPG experience for Nintendo Switch that is both full of warm, gooey nostalgia, and genuinely unlike anything else out there. If you have a Nintendo Switch and a hundred hours to spare, this is a must play.

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Hugh Likes Video Games: Donut County

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Donut County
Created by Ben Esposito
Published by Annapurna Interactive
Played on PS4

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The Skinny: A charming and funny story-heavy puzzle game about stealing garbage.

The raccoons run Donut County. In a physics puzzle game that homages Katamari Damacy and is almost as strange, You play as BK, Donut County Delivery Raccoon, but your real job is stealing all the town’s garbage (and people, buildings, and geographical features) for the nefarious Trash King.
Each small, self-contained level puts you in the driver’s seat of a hole, which like in Katamari, starts out small and gets bigger the more stuff you grab. Each level has its own mechanical puzzle, from destroying an amusement park to making soup. All of these mechanics are intuitive and fun to use, if a bit on the easy side.
Controls on the PS4 used the buttons and analog stick. It is also available on Steam and Apple devices, and it feels like the game was meant to be played on a touchscreen. Not that it plays badly, in fact, just the opposite. The hole feels a little too responsive to the analog stick, and I was left wondering if playing with touch controls would’ve been a greater challenge.
The story is light-hearted and fun with a large cast of different denizens to hassle and eventually capture. The first half of the game is a sort of trial, as each of the town’s residents relate how BK stole all their stuff and trapped them underground, and then BK’s friend and coworker Mara figuring out how to fix everything. The visuals have a very PS2-era quality to them, but the designs are cute and the whole game is fairly attractive, even with blocky polygons. The soundtrack, by Daniel Koestner with Ben Esposito, is very chill and relaxing. This is a great game to unwind with.
While it isn’t the most taxing puzzle game I’ve played this year, Donut County is a great puzzle game to play with your kids, or to relax with. You can find it on Steam, the Playstation Store, or the Apple Store.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Night in the Woods

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Night in the Woods
Created by Infinite Fall
Published by Finji
Played on Nintendo Switch

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The Skinny: A brilliantly designed existential horror game

Night in the Woods is a game that struck very close to home for me. It is about a girl who returns to her dying hill town after dropping out of college and discovers that the home she left has changed. And there’s something in the woods at night…
An indie game that was originally published thanks to a 2012 Kickstarter, NitW has the most effective and well-crafted atmospheres I’ve seen in a long time. And considering that this is a 2-D point and click adventure game with some light platforming elements staring cartoon animals, that is really saying something. But the visuals are so on-point in this game, and they are propped up by witty, charming dialog that is the most natural I’ve seen in a long time. If you can’t fall in love with Mae, Gregg, Angus and Bea by the end of their adventure, I’m not sure you have a heart.
The mechanics of the world reinforce this. Following the story, most of the player’s decisions involve choosing which characters to follow, and talking to everyone. There are a lot of dialog options, and while they don’t seem to effect the story much, they do a great job of revealing character, and lead to so many rewarding character moments, they are worth replaying for them alone. The platforming in this game also feels really good, and walking around on the power lines feels transgressive in a way that reinforces character, and leads to lots of cool exploration and interaction moments, like finding hidden musicians and secret rooms. Going too much further into this game will ruin it, but let me suffice to say that everything in this game works together in a way that makes it more than the sum of its parts.
One of the reasons that his game struck me so profoundly, in addition to the fact that the writing is excellent, the art is eye-catching and endearing, and the mechanics just feel good, is that this is a story that happened to me. Not the mysterious disappearances and hostile forces bits, but I didn’t do so well my first year of college, and had to return to my own rustbelt hometown after a year away.
Mae’s reasons for leaving college and coming home aren’t made fully explicit until the end of the game, but I already understood them, because her experience was so similar to mine. I never hit anyone with a bat, but I felt so many of the same things she did, and playing this game gave me a bit of catharsis for those old wounds.
Night in the Woods is less a horror game than an existential horror game, and you can find it on Steam and the usual consoles. These versions also include Longest Night and Lost Constellation, two microgames the team made as Kickstarter bonuses and to test game elements. The whole package is wonderful, and this game is well worth your timeand attention. And Gregg rulz, OK?

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.

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.

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