Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

[contains minor spoilers]

Inti Creates's output can vary wildly from game to game, making them a difficult developer for me to articulate my feelings on. I love love love their Mega Man games (9 is my favorite in the series), but found myself disappointed by the Gunvolt duology, and left sadly lukewarm on a title that I should by all accounts love: Blaster Master Zero. That's why upon hearing that Inti Creates was developing a retro classicvania prequel to Igarashi's Bloodstained, I wasn't champing at the bit to play it—for all I knew, it could be another lackluster platformer like Mighty Gunvolt.

It wasn't though; Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is the best Castlevania knock-off I've ever played.

Granted, there aren't a lot of classicvania games that I know of—there's like, 8-Eyes, Holy Diver, Curse of Issyos, and... that's it? Maaaaybe Volgarr the Viking? So perhaps a more glowing appraisal would be to say that Bloodstained is in the running for being one of the best Castlevania games. And I don't make that statement lightly—to me, Castlevania is perhaps the strongest non-Nintendo franchise out there (well, that's older than the Xbox 360). I should confess that a big reason for this is because I'm irresistibly drawn towards platformers more than any other genre, but nevertheless, I've yet to find a (non-Nintendo) platforming series with better level design across the board.

Coupled with the rocky history of modern Inti Creates, you can imagine my surprise when Curse of the Moon demonstrably proved that it understood what made Castlevania tick. There's multiple characters with distinct playstyles, powerful subweapons, optional shortcuts, stages dripping in atmosphere, and even the option to turn off mid-air direction changes. The caveat here is that Curse understands Castlevania primarily because... it is Castlevania, at least to some extent. There are lamps that drop hearts, angled stairways, a dagger-chucking lady with a whip, and certain enemies feel lifted from an abandoned Castlevania project—I mean c'mon, there's even a hallway with medusa heads and axe armors!

But the similarities never become grating largely because there are so few Castlevania-likes out there. The aforementioned Stage 5 tribute comes off as endearing and respectful too, a nod to its forebearers without being a soulless reproduction. Curse of the Moon seeks more to use the Castlevania blueprint as a springboard for its own clever ideas, like how it spreads Simon Belmont's subweapon repertoire across multiple characters, or how it swaps out the bone pillar for an archer that quickly fires three arrows. In fact the entire project is a delectable mix of reverence and ambition, feeling less like a bonus reward for kickstarters and more like the vampire-slaying dream project of someone at Inti Creates.

There's a lot that I admire about the design of this game, so I'll try to keep it brief. The most overarcing piece of praise I can offer is that the game lets playstyle dictate difficulty. Though I personally feel the game is still too easy for its own good (Shovel Knight is harder), there are ways to hamper yourself on a playthrough, like refusing to use certain weapons, taking the main route through a stage, or skipping out on recruitable characters. Trying to get through the game with solely Zangetsu and his starting loadout is a fitting task for Castlevania veterans, so it's cool that the difficulty of the game can range wildly between "anyone can do this" to "enjoy restarting half the level if you get hit four times!"

While Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon has a really solid first playthrough, there's also two additional NG+ modes that add some neat tweaks, the most welcome being a new final stage & boss. The game looks great, with backgrounds being rarely cluttered or overdone (the foreground of Stage 6 is pretty ugly but I think that's by intention). The music is absolutely fantastic and has some phenomenally uplifting tunes that you can't help but nod your head to. There's some great gameplay sections that boast both smart enemy placement and a clever platforming challenge—Stage 7 in particular bursting with these devious designs (love that bouncing sprite enemy!) Lastly, not only are the characters extremely well balanced, but switching between them is instantaneous, so you're motivated to try each one out and discover how best to use them. And game over only occurs when you've lost all four, so even when your main damage dealer bites the dust, you still have a chance to pull off a heroic upset.

The single complaint I have to levy against Curse of the Moon is that the bosses lean too much on memorization rather than reflex. "Bosses" can feel like a silly thing to focus on in video games sometimes, but in more simple challenge-oriented games, they can often be the piece de resistance that pushes the player's limits, tasking them to out-think and outmaneuver a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Curse doesn't really aim for that however, even on its hardest difficulty; nearly every boss has a repeatable pattern you can learn which will allow you to defeat them without taking a single hit. Castlevania bosses aren't super intricate, but the randomness of their attack patterns coupled with the inflexible controls made for stressful duels that were a blast to scrape by on the skin of your teeth. Outside of a 1-2 fights in this game, the luster of perilous combat is unfortunately lost once you remember what your foe will do next.

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is the real deal. It has a retro playstyle and feel, but is not held down by the archaic philosophy of its forefathers—it plays like a new Castelvania without being as mercilessly punishing. The attacks feel great, the enemies are creative, the music is energizing, and there's a variety of ways to make it through the game, whether it be in the stage itself or by bypassing (or murdering) one of your allies. It's a short game too, which should satisfy the desires of anyone that's nostalgic for the 8-bit aesthetics but doesn't have the time to spend suffering through trial and error. It pleases me to end to see Inti Creates do justice not only to Mega Man, but Castlevania as well—bravo!

Monday, October 29, 2018

Momodora II - Thoughts

There's a small, quiet quaintness to Momodora II that I... well, had been expecting, having played the first Momodora only a day prior. Like its humble predecessor, Momodora II is a cute, free, pixel-based platformer that can be completed in a single sitting, but there's a big difference this time around—the world has opened up! No longer will you find yourself hopping down ledges you can no longer climb back up, or missing collectible goodies—the world is your oyster!... even if that oyster is fairly small.

One of my favorite things in gaming is to see how a series changes from title to title, especially when it's being guided by a single author. Larger companies can tend to produce sequels that feel rote, predictable, and incremental, whereas the lone indie developer can (ostensibly) play with the formula however they wish. That's why Momodora's foray into the Metroidvania genre was kinda interesting, since it's structurally different and yet very recognizable—there's a noticeable through line from the arcadeyness of the first to the gentle exploration of the second. Whereas Castlevania experienced a staggering sideways leap from Rondo to Symphony, Momodora I to II feels like a very natural, forward progression for the series, almost as if rdein had been planning this since the beginning.

A lot of aspects have been improved: ranged attacks now run on a resource, there's more variety in the settings (every background isn't just rocks, hooray!), and the palette is much more pleasant. I appreciate the inclusion of an automap and adore that health upgrades come in the form of "love letters" (d'aww). The only drawbacks I can think of are that there are less weapons, the game is surprisingly easy despite being melee focused, and the soundtrack is lacking the engrossing melodies of the first Momodora. For some, the drawbacks will be worth it, especially since Momodora II feels significantly less like a Cave Story fan project and more like its own thing. Lastly, what continues to impress me the most about rdein—besides cobbling this together with the help of only a few friends—is his precious monster design. Despite foregoing the eyeball motif for the enemies, there's still a lot of cuties, like the foxes with their little lanterns and maids that sweep up skull-shaped dust clouds. It's probably what I'm looking forward to seeing the most with the other games in the series!

Though I enjoyed Momodora II for what it was, I don't have a strong preference for one game in the series over another. The first scratches a nice basic platforming itch, while the second is a delectable exploration-focused experience. The rub—at least for me—is that both games are content being appetizers, offering at most a 1.5 hour break for you to get lost in their bite-sized worlds. They're still fun and well made, but I couldn't help but want more rather than different coming off of the first Momodora—perhaps third time's a charm?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

"Greatness, from small beginnings" is the Latin phrased etched onto the ring that Nathan Drake keeps tied around his neck, and it's kind of amazing how fitting the adage is for the Uncharted series. Granted, Naughty Dog was far from being considered "small" in 2007, but Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is most definitely a humble outing compared to the ambitious heights its younger siblings would reach. It's also a... much worse game too. Yet there are glimmers of good ideas shining through the bedrock—it's just that you have to shoot like a bazillion guys to get to it.

Of the good ideas, two that Drake's Fortune possesses immediately spring to mind: technical verisimilitude and cinematic cutscenes. Both of these have been handily outdone by a sundry of contemporary titles, but I remember being fairly impressed with Drake's Fortune back in the day, particularly with the lush and dense greenery of Chapter 2. Likewise the dialogue, voice acting, and mocap has a very natural and cinematic feel to it. Sure, it's a bit jittery and exaggerated (no doubt due to Naughty Dog coming off fresh from the Jak series), but it doesn't take away from the simple fact that the game is nice to look at.

Unfortunately, "nice to look at" is where my plaudits end, as Drake's Fortune is hamstrung by how utterly restrictive the game is. Occasionally the game will attempt to mask it's linear nature, but the disguise is paper thin; most of the time you'll wander through corridor after corridor, shooting wave after wave of faceless baddies. There's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of structure—Vanquish is my favorite TPS and that game is corridor city—but Uncharted is at its strongest when it's adventurous like Indiana Jones, not oppressively violent like Rambo.

And the sense of adventure in Drake's Fortune is... fairly tame. It boasts a total of two similar islands for the player to explore, alternating between verdant exteriors and drab interiors. There's actually a wide range of settings the player gets to explore (monastery, city, cavern, nazi facility), but the restrained color palette and similarities between areas gives the impression that the player really isn't journeying all that much. I always feel that it's a bit unfair to compare entries in a series to those that come later, but it's impossible not to come out of Drake's Fortune underwhelmed after experiencing the world-hopping travelogue of... well, any of game in the franchise.

The combat stinks to high hell too. Enemies robotically pour into an area and can perform impossible maneuvers, like firing at you as they simultaneously move from cover away from you. There were multiple instances where I thought I had the drop on a foe, just for them to spin around like a sentry turret and 1-shot me with a shotgun or pistol. The variability in enemy accuracy and damage was all over the place on Hard, especially in encounters where you start by taking damage before you can even get into cover (like the aggravating final Chapter). I rarely felt I had any agency in turning the tide of battle; I was often pinned to a single piece of cover, tasked with dispatching a foe quickly or consuming a hail of bullets. There was no advanced planning or skillful flanking involved—if I lived I lived, if I died I died, and there wasn't really much I could do to tilt fate other than firing faster. And since combat takes up most of the game, Drake's Fortune can drag on and on.

The last thing I want to mention is that although I appreciate how the player is dropped into the game without narration, there are a number of story beats that fall flat because you haven't had time to invest yourself into the characters. Namely, the way Drake's Fortune plays around with Sully as a potential turncoat is... strange, because we've only traveled with him for a handful of chapters—there's no sense of betrayal if we barely know the guy! Likewise, all three of the villains feel as though they've manifested themselves out of thin air, and any betrayal and bickering that emerges elicits less of a "holy cow!" and more of an "... alright." Really, the only thing that still held up story-wise was Elena: she's confident, sassy, and fun to hang out with. Oh, and the line delivery on some of the jokes is fantastic too.

Throughout my revisit of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, only one section tickled my fancy: the labyrinthine vault with its myriad of false pathways. While running around and looking for ledges to grab onto, it struck me how infrequently the game lets you soak in a locale without the fear of getting murdered. There's like, the opening bit with Sully and... that's it? Most of the time you're just running to and fro, doing some mild platforming as a bridge between exhausting, drawn-out combat scenarios. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is by no means a bad game, but the journey is a lot more rocky than it initially lets on.