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Hugh Likes Video Games: Unpacking

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Unpacking
Developed by Witchbeam
Published by Humble Games
Played on PC as a part of Xbox Game Pass

The Skinny – A relaxing game about stressful life events.

Unpacking is a relaxing, low-stress pixel art game about a stressful real-world activity: Moving. Each level consists of a number of boxes to unpack in increasingly large spaces. You start in a child’s bedroom and eventually have to unpack a whole house’s worth of possessions. Almost Tetris-like, the challenge is in finding the right place for every object, and making them fit in a limited space.Each object is a detailed isometric pixel sprite, which lends the game a bright and charming air. But the sound design is where the game really shines. There are unique, realistic sound effects for every individual item in the game. Placing a mug on a counter and opening a drawer sounds incredible in high-def. Which feels odd to say in a game review, but here we are. Sure, you don’t punch aliens or soar through the air on an airship, but did you hear the way that towel sounds when you fold it and put it on a shelf? The sound effect for when you fold up an empty cardboard box is the best dopamine hit I’ve gotten in a while from a game.I guess it’s a sign that I’m growing up. Which is fitting, as this is very much a game about transitioning through life. You follow a woman through multiple moves, from her first bedroom to her first college dorm, and beyond. Each level is framed as a page in a photo album, and completing the level gives you a line of text from the unnamed character as she thinks about that day.The objects are all suitably varied based on the rooms, and while it is a challenge to make them all fit, there isn’t really a score or a timer to beat. Certain combinations or placement of objects reward you with stickers which double as achievements, but there’s not much else other than that. There are some lovely hints of storytelling through the objects themselves, though. We get hints of who this person is, and what their life is like what her hobbies are, and how her life changes from move to move over the years. Crayons give way to fancy pens and to a drawing tablet as she grows up and pursues an art career. A cane and a wrist brace appear among the objects as time goes by. A photograph of two people has a pin placed through the one figure’s face following a breakup.Unpacking is a delightful and relaxing puzzle experience. It is available for PC and major consoles.

Hugh Likes Video Games: The Solitaire Conspiracy

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The Solitaire Conspiracy: A Mike Bithell Short
Developed by Bithell Games
Published by Ant Workshop
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: A tense, techno-espionage thrill built from a deck of cards.
Mike Bithell has some brilliant thoughts on game design and post/transhumanism. He’s also known for his tight, compact game design, compressing his point-of-view into tiny games. He made his mark with indie storytelling platformer Thomas Was Alone and cemented it with the robot detective game Subsurface Circular. His recent project The Solitaire Conspiracy mixes intense spy thriller action with an unlikely gameplay mechanic: a game of solitaire.
 Players fill the shoes of Spymaster, an analyst candidate tapped to save a shadowy spy network when a supervillain locks them out of their coordination software, C.A.R.D.S. Working with the last remaining analyst, it’s your job to coordinate scattered spy crews and get everything up and running, but in the world of spycraft, nobody can be trusted. 
 As you play through missions and rank up, you gain access to colorful crews of operatives, each with their own suit and special abilities. Face cards represent not only the faction but individual members of the team, and placing active cards uses their team power. This can be things like shuffling a stack or redistributing a suit or moving a card of a specific value or suit around. They are powerful twists on the game, but in fitting the theme, they can hinder you as much as help.
 The UX is where the game really shines, with the board appearing as a virtual space lit in the slick blacks and scintillating neon of a cyberpunk wonderland. The design made it a bit difficult to read at times, especially playing in handheld mode on the Switch. Fortunately, there is a zoom feature that makes everything a bit bigger and easier to see. The cool sci-fi colors, along with the pounding, synth-filled soundtrack, lends a tension to the game that traditional solitaire lacks. Missions add both flavor and drama to the gameplay. I frequently found myself playing just one more mission to reach the next rank and advance the story, or get the report on a thrilling mission.
 The Solitaire Conspiracy is a masterclass in design and proves that engaging storytelling and slick aesthetics can spice up even the most mundane gameplay mechanics. Like most Bithell games, there are only a few hours of the main story here, but they’re a thrill ride. The Solitaire Conspiracy is available for download from Steam, the Nintendo eShop, and the Xbox game store.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Eastward

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Eastward
Developed by Pixpil
Published by Chucklefish
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: An on-rails sci-fi story presented with a gorgeous pixelated aesthetic
Eastward is a beautifully rendered action RPG in pixelated graphics that doesn’t quite follow through on what it promises but is still a lot of fun. The game follows John and Sam, two refugees from a post-apocalyptic underground village as they travel by train on a quest to save the world and uncover the secrets of Sam’s burgeoning psychic powers. As they steam along, they fight their way through a series of linear, puzzle-filled dungeons and meet a huge cast of charming and wacky characters, but the chapter-based structure and frantic pace made the game feel a bit cramped and rushed.
 The game is broken into chapters, with the duo arriving in a new town, meeting the locals, and solving some dungeons before the plot pushes them back aboard their train to a new locale. The towns are probably the game’s best feature, with creatively designed and gorgeously rendered locations like a city built into the side of a dam and a film studio on rails filled with uplifted apes. Each is depicted with HD pixels in loving detail. The world is filled with faded advertisements and overgrown ruins. It is a testament to environmental design. I just wish I got to spend more time in each area before being pushed ahead. Towns are crammed full of mini-games, sidequests, and unique NPCs to talk to, and I always felt like I didn’t get enough time before being pushed ahead.
 The one mini-game that is always available is Earthborn, an in-world game that is a mix of turn-based RPG and rogue-like presented in a Gameboy aesthetic. It’s charming, and intersects with the story in interesting ways, but is ridiculously difficult.
 Dungeons are more linear than the sprawling towns and feature a mix of puzzle and combat. John has a variety of weapons that he gains over the adventure, starting with his trusty melee frying pan. Sam wields psychic energy to stun enemies or heal, but she can’t attack directly. Combat involves constantly switching between the two to keep hordes of enemies back in order to stay alive. Combat, which uses a Zelda-like formula, is clever, but fighting doesn’t feel as good as the puzzles.
 Eastward is a joy to look at and listen to, even if the gameplay isn’t quite as fun as the production. Still, it is well worth your time. You can pick up a digital copy via Steam or the Nintendo Switch eShop.

Hugh Likes Fiction: Elder Race

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Elder Race
Written by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Published by tor.com

The Skinny – A braided novella that plays well with two very different set of tropes.

Lynesse Fourth Daughter is a princess on a noble quest. Perhaps the queen forbid her to get involved, and she doesn’t really know what she’s doing, but she’s off to a good start. She’s even recruited the legendary sorcerer Nyrgoth Elder to her side. Except that ‘Nyrgoth’ is in fact Nyr Illim Tevitch, a shlubby, depressed anthropologist from Earth, who should be studying the regressed society of interstellar colonists instead of playing wizard. But the rest of his team headed back to Earth centuries ago, and he hasn’t heard anything from them. And he’s lonely and depressed. But everything should work out fine, right?
Elder Race mixes far-future science fiction with old school sword and sorcery. Author Adrian Tchaikovsky weaves a deft course between genre tropes and delivers a stunning gut-punch of a novella packed with complex characters.
The story is split between the points of view of the main characters, switching off between Lynesse and Nyr as they go to confront a ‘demon’ causing havoc on the planet’s surface. Nyr is sure that this is just another bit of old technology that’s gotten out of hand. Lyn is sure that the Ancient Sorcerer will have no problems dealing with evil magic, as he did centuries before, when her ancestor called him. Of course, they’re both super wrong.
One of my favorite tricks Tchaikovsky plays with in this story is in the use of language. Nyr is constantly frustrated by the fact that he can’t even confess that he’s a charlatan, because all of this post-Earth cultur’e’s words for ‘scientist’ are also cognates for ‘wizard.’ By shifting perspective, the reader gets to understand both characters better than they do each other. There is even a great sequence where their text appears side by side, and the reader sees the same story as Nyr means to tell it and as Lyn hears it.
Tchiakovsky takes a warrior princess and a displaced sci-fi crew member and puts them into what amounts to a comedy of manners, with each struggling to both use the other to their own ends, and to understand one another. It’s a clever little story, and it surprised and moved me more than I expected.
Elder Race is a delightful spec-fic gem of a novella, and I highly recommend picking it up, whether you’re a fan of quests or post-human existential angst, it’s a cocktail sure to delight the palate.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Wordle

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Wordle
 Created by Josh Wardle
 https://www.powerlanguage.co.uk/wordle/

⬜🟨🟨⬜🟨
🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩

The Skinny: You probably already played it today.

By this point, Wordle is a game that needs no introduction. But I am still coming across friends and relations puzzled by the towers of green and yellow blocks on their feeds. So I will make a brief introduction. Wordle began in 2019 as a sort of gift by Josh Wardle for his partner. Wardle, the designer of The Button and Place for Reddit, is known for his parasocial games. But Wordle is almost paradoxically enticing in its simplicity. There are no loot boxes to grind for. Nothing to subscribe to, no gatcha mechanic. Just a new five-letter word every day, and six guesses. The game didn’t even allow sharing until the feature was implemented towards the end of last year.
 But perhaps it is its simplicity that draws attention in 2022. It’s an echo of a simpler electronic age when the idea of meeting people in faraway places through a screen seemed like magic. In its way, Wordle is punk rock. It doesn’t need to be downloaded from an app store (although certainly, clones have popped up on all of them in the past few weeks.) It doesn’t have microtransactions and ads for the game don’t play 24/7 on YouTube. It’s just a quick little word game you can play every day and share your results.
 Wordle is a shared experience, and I think that’s key to its success. Having only one word a day, and knowing that everybody else posting their score had the same word, creates a feeling of connection, communication, and competition. That word took you six tries? You had that many correct letters on the first guess? The content is sharable and gets people talking. I like to look at people’s posted patterns and try and guess what words they use. Other users place a great value in getting the word in as few guesses as possible. Wordle is as much a game of deduction as wordplay. 
 With the New York Times’ Announcement that they have purchased Wordle in a seven-figure deal, the future of this little-game-that-could is uncertain. For now, the game is still hosted at the same site and is still free to play. But only time will tell if the paper’s acquisition will mark an end to the fad or elevate Wordle to the same level of cultural cachet as the crossword.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Toem

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Toem
Developed by Something We Made
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: A delightful little adventure about photography and community
Toem is a little gem of an indie adventure game about photography and perspective. This comforting little puzzle box is full of puzzles to solve, characters to help, and tiny locations to visit.
 Created by Swedish indie studio Something We Made, Toem only takes a few hours to play but is all about relaxation and comfort. Designed to be played in short bursts, it is the perfect game to wind down with at the end of the day or de-stress to over a coffee break as you take missions tracking down singing goats and finding the perfect spot to photograph a forest hotel.
 The game sets you in the shoes of a young photographer on an adventure to find the Toem, with no further explanation given. The tools at your disposal are your trusty camera and a very unusual public transit system that rewards public service with free rides. The game is divided into five zones, and at the start of each one, you’re given a public service card. As you explore a forest, a city, a seaside resort, and a mountain, you are given puzzles to solve in the form of requests of each area’s inhabitants. These can range from the simple, such as taking a photo of a requested subject, to the obtuse, such as recovering lost items or even restoring a power plant. After each puzzle, you are rewarded with a stamp on your card. Collect the requisite number of stamps, and you’re free to move along to the next area. But completionists will still have plenty of challenges to complete, animals to photograph, and hidden secrets to uncover beyond the game’s forgiving requirements.
 With one notable exception, Toem is presented in a charming black and white art style, and the small, isometric levels have a diorama-like quality. The characters are quirky, and a few of the puzzles are fiendishly clever, but I never felt stuck.
 Toem is a short and cozy experience that is perfect for unwinding by a roaring fire or relaxing with a hot cup of cocoa. If you’re looking for something to chill with at the end of the year, give this game a shot. Toem is available on PC from Steam and Epic, Nintendo Switch, and PS5.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Metroid Dread

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Metroid Dread
Developed by Mercury Steam
Published by Nintendo
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: Samus Aran is back, baby!

My life-long love of the Metroid series began with Metroid II on the clunky, grayscale Game Boy. It was the first video game I bought with my own money, or close enough. I had won a gift card to the mall in a school raffle. I’ve had a soft spot for the taciturn and mysterious bounty hunter ever since. But after the series pivoted into Metroid Prime, I had all but given up hope of seeing a brand-new 2D Metroid. I expected the four games in the series to remain relics of the past, fondly remembered and imitated by indie devs, but a part of history.
I was pleasantly surprised by the announcement of Metroid Dread if a little skeptical. I needn’t have worried, and perhaps should have seen it coming. Created by Mercury Steam, the studio which created the 2017 remake Metroid II: Samus Returns, the fifth game in the series is a return to form.
The gameplay feels much more modern, but still in line with older games. Samus moves with more fluidity and grace than her previous entries, the melee counter returns in a much more satisfying form, and her new slide move is fun to use. She has an agility that feels more akin to her movement in Smash Bros. than Super Metroid. But it works, and it makes exploring this huge new planet a delight. That momentum is also very important for the game’s other new enhancement: Stealth sequences!
Metroid Fusion toyed with the idea of stealth by introducing SA-X, a powerful enemy with all of Samus’s abilities that the player must avoid and hide from in scripted sequences. In Dread, Samus faces off against the E.M.M.I, nigh-indestructible scientific robots out of Boston Dynamics’ worst nightmares. They each have a specific area they patrol, and Samus must avoid and run from them until she can find a way to stop them. Overall, these sequences are a lot of fun but require a level of precision that leads to frustration at times.
This demand for precision also extends to the boss encounters. Bosses are varied and wonderfully gross in their designs. An early encounter has you fighting a big mutant scorpion thing standing on jutting rib bones. Each encounter requires not only precise timing but a keen eye. Each boss has patterns and weaknesses more akin to Zelda’s bosses than Metroid, and each has a melee vulnerability that leads to a sort of quick-time event where they are vulnerable. While these sequences are cool and surprising, the bosses are very tough, and by the time I was facing them over and over again, I was sick of them. It is frustrating when you’re running through a boss for the fifth time because you haven’t fought it in the exact steps the game demands. Earlier game bosses were more tests of the player’s ability to explore and find hidden resources like missiles and energy tanks. Metroid Dread has a much softer focus on exploration.
The game’s zones are wonderfully designed, but the game is filled with one-way doors, drops that Samus can’t go back through without late-game upgrades and hidden pits. I felt a bit herded at times, and discouraged from really exploring at my own pace. While this preserves the game’s momentum and ensures you don’t get too lost, it loses the thrill of exploration for a more guided experience, and this lack of options extends to the game’s controls.
While Metroid Dread gives players a lot of tools to work with, there’s no way to adjust or experiment with your layout. Y shoots, ZL slides, and holding in the left joystick activates the speed boost. When it works, such as with the slide, movement and combat feel fluid and dynamic. When it doesn’t, and with the speed booster in particular, movement becomes a frustrating, emersion-breaking chore. Allowing players to map their buttons, or implementing any sort of accessibility options would have gone a long way to improving the game. The graphics were also gorgeous but occasionally a stumbling block for me. Metroid Dread looks fantastic, but it was designed with the OLED Switch in mind. I played it in handheld mode on my original Switch, and while it still looked great, there were a few sections where I wasn’t quite sure what was a foreground element and what was part of the background. I ran into a few literal walls that way, which is just embarrassing for a bounty hunter of Samus’s caliber. 
 Overall, Metroid Dread is a glorious return to 2D form for the series. It still innovates in all the right ways and brings back enough of the classic feel that it gets my hearty recommendation. While I wish it would get out of its own way at some points, it’s Samus’s biggest 2D adventure yet. While it doesn’t quite replace Super Metroid in my heart, this is still a brilliant entry in a series that doesn’t get enough love from Nintendo. This game is a Switch essential.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Castlevania Advance Collection

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Castlevania Advance Collection
Developed by M2
Published by Konami
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny: Dracula Season is back, baby!

Just in time for Halloween, M2 has released a new collection of Castlevania titles from the Gameboy Advance, and these 32-bit classics have never looked or played better.
The collection includes Circle of the Moon, Harmony of Dissonance, and Aria of Sorrow, all of which were originally released on the GBA, Super Nintendo’s Dracula X, and a nice horde of extras. Players can choose from the North American, Japanese, and European releases of each game, along with an art gallery, manuals, music players, and encyclopedias. Each game also includes a ‘gadget,’ a special tool added to help manage collectables that can be turned on or off.
The three GBA Castlevanias were all side-scrolling exploratory RPGs in the style of PS1’s Symphony of the Night. While not as beloved as that cult hit, the three games are each a gem, and being able to play them on major consoles or PC in one package is a nice bonus.
Circle of the Moon was a GBA launch title, and while it was impressive, the dark, intricate sprites were hard to see on the unlit screen, and progression relied on random item drops for the game’s card-based magic system. This is the game that benefits the most from this collection. The visuals look great on the Switch handheld screen, and the encyclopedia and added gadget make collecting card and health drops a much less frustrating process. While it’s no longer considered canon in the Castlevania series, CotM is still one of my favorites, and I’m glad it’s included here.
2002’s Harmony of Dissonance is a much more straightforward follow up to Symphony of the Night featuring a castle more reminiscent of the PS1 game, and a nimble, Alucard-like protagonist in Juste Belmont. This game had its visuals tuned for the darker, smaller screen, and the very complicated, labyrinthine double castle is trickier to navigate, but this was still a delight to return to, even if this is the game that gets the least out of the included extras and form factor.
Aria of Sorrow, the last GBA Castlevania game, is probably the star of the show here. Released later in the GBA’s life, Iga and his team at Konami created an incredibly atmospheric castle that doesn’t feel too big or too cramped, while delivering the most interesting story in the series by setting it in the far-off future date of 2035. Soma is a joy to play as, and his ability to collect and absorb the souls and abilities of enemies gives the game a lot of replay value. There’s just so much variety in what he can do that I really went digging to find all the souls I could.
Also included is Castlevania: Dracula X, a Super Nintendo not-quite-port of the Turbo Graphic CD game Rondo of Blood. Infamous for its extreme difficulty and removing most of Rondo’s innovations, cutscenes, and voice work, it’s technically a part of the collection, but mostly exists as an afterthought here. But it is included for completionists who want to butt their heads against quite possibly the most difficult final boos fight in the whole series.
Castlevania Advance Collection brings together three hand-held classics that hold up today. These were some of my favorite games on the GBA, and I’m thrilled to be able to still bring them with me on the Switch twenty years later. If you never tried these sprawling adventures back in the day, or if you’re just in the mood for something thematically appropriate but not too intense this Halloween, pick up for PC through Steam, or your modern console of choice.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Cozy Grove

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Cozy Grove
Developed by Spry Fox
Published by Quantum Theory Games
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny – What if Tom Nook was dead the whole time?

Cozy Grove is a chill game in the style of Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley that can best be described as a ‘chore simulator’ but that’s hardly a bad thing. Players are put in the boots of a novice Spirit Scout, sent to Cozy Grove to hone her skills and put the many ghosts haunting the island to rest. Also, the ghosts are anthropomorphic bears, because why not.
As you meet each ghost and learn a bit about their story, they will task you with quests, most of which involve gathering either specific items hidden on the island, or resources earned from fishing, mining, and other activities. Players can also commission and place decorations and raise plants and animals.
While this all will sound very familiar to players of the genre, the systems are well executed, and the hand-drawn art is charming. The island is rendered in muted black and white tones, but as ghosts have their daily needs fulfilled, the areas around them fill with color. These areas can be expanded using decoration in the game, making the game easier to see and giving it a real sense of progress.
Cozy Grove does require a great deal of patience, even for a game of this type. Items the characters need to complete the next part of their stories are often locked behind quests for other characters, or require high amounts of limited resources. Characters don’t give story missions every day, either. It can be frustrating to wait for a character to give you what you need for another part of the story. Especially if multiple other characters need something from them.
I played on the Nintendo Switch, but Cozy Grove feels like it was designed with tablets in mind. While the button controls are by no means bad, the game has a bit of trouble with targeting, and often selects the wrong object to interact with when using button controls. There is a ‘swap target’ that occasionally appears if the game is unsure where you are pointing, which somewhat resolves the issue, but it isn’t always there.
These are minor quibbles in what is an excellent, heartfelt, and charming little chill-out game. Cozy Grove is a perfect game to wake up with over coffee or unwind to after a long day The game is available on mobile, PC, and major consoles. If you have the time and inclination, it is a cozy goth delight.

Hugh Likes Video Games: Dragon Quest II

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Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line
Published by Square Enix
Played on Nintendo Switch

The Skinny – A flawed but still-fun classic

Last week, Dragon Quest celebrated its 35th-anniversary last week, and I have been playing through the second entry in the venerable series to celebrate. While the game has a lot of rough edges, the Switch port still largely holds up.
Originally released in 1987 in Japan and 1990 in North America, Dragon Quest II is a continuation and expansion of the original Japanese role-playing game. In the first adventure, a lone knight, who is the descendant of a great hero, saves a kingdom from an evil wizard, who is also a dragon. The sequel picks up the story a century later, with three of that hero’s descendants picking up the family trade and taking out Hargon, a malevolent priest bringing about the end of the world. While this is still a primitive example of a console RPG, it does mark some notable firsts for the genre. The player starts out controlling a single hero, but picks up two companions along the way, making it the first JRPG with a party. Your party doesn’t quite have defined classes per sei, but each character plays a little different, with the Prince of Midenhall playing the role of a warrior with high attack and defense, but no access to magic, while the Princess of Moonbrook can cast powerful spells but can’t wield swords or wear heavy armor. The Prince of Cannock is a bit in the middle, with some access to both.
You also get a boat to explore a wider world, which includes a simplified and smaller version of the world map from Dragon Quest! While there is a pretty big (for the time) world to explore full of towns to visit and dungeons to delve into, the story isn’t very complex by today’s standards. There are plenty of clever secrets and things to uncover, such as a hidden slot machine minigame, but the plot is your basic quest to go find the big bad and put your sword through him.
The Switch port carries on from a long line of ports and remakes that have incrementally improved the game over the years, from the Super Famicom to Game Boy to Wii and up through mobile phones. This is definitely a game that is in no danger of ever going ‘out of print.’ Naturally, the graphics and sound have been upgraded, and the game looks fabulous, with highly detailed and colorful sprites, although there isn’t much animation in the game, with battle scenes still being fought against still images. But even if they don’t animate, Akira Toriyama’s designs really pop in HD. And Koichi Sugiyama’s orchestral score sounds great.
The gameplay is pretty relaxing, with turn-based combat and simple puzzles that are usually resolved by finding the right NPC or using the correct item based on their clues. You don’t always have full control over actions in battle, as enemies appear in groups and you can’t select individual monsters if they’re in a crowd. But the AI has been improved over the years, and the game tends to deal out damage in an optimal way for the player. While the monsters are fun to look at, combat can get pretty repetitive, though. Developers hadn’t quite worked out the curve for adding bosses, and you won’t see very many until the last castle.
The only thing that hasn’t been improved from the original, and is still the biggest drawback, are the dungeons. The towers and caves in the game are long and very maze-like, with lots of frustrating traps that just serve to prolong the game without being much fun. The cave that leads to the final dungeon, in particular, has a set of very nasty trap floors that force you to begin again from the entrance, with random encounters hitting you every few steps. It’s not the most engaging design, and I had to put the game down a couple of times and play something else.
With those drawbacks aside, Dragon Quest II: Luminaries of the Legendary Line is a classic that further defined an emerging genre. Plus, it is on sale right now as a part of Dragon Quest’s anniversary, so curious gamers can experience this historic gem for cheap on the Nintendo Switch eshop or IOS and Android app stores.

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