Earthbound Review

EarthBound-Ness-in-OnettAfter having recently rediscovered my love of Ness in Super Smash Bros, it got me thinking back to last year when I first got to play this classic SNES game courtesy of a virtual console release on the Wii U. Published by Nintendo and written by Shigesato Itoi, Earthbound is the cult classic second title in the Mother series and, sadly, the only one to be released outside of Japan. It’s a whimsical tale of adventure that deftly manages to blend a colourful world with some surprisingly dark themes that will keep you thinking long after the credits have rolled.

Set in the world of Eagleland, Earthbound is still very unique due to it being set in a modern and realistic world. Instead of caves and dungeons, you’ll be traversing maze-like convenience stores and banks. This isn’t to say that Earthbound does not have any fantastical elements, but the way they are handled are unique and often comically postmodern in nature. Players take control of a young boy called Ness who is awoken one night by the sound of a meteor that has crashed nearby. Upon inspecting the meteor, Ness finds a talking bee called Buzz Buzz who tells him of a terrible future in which a tyrannical alien called Giygas reigns. Ness, armed with an ability called PSI, is tasked with changing this apocalyptic future and sets out on a journey which sees him encountering other children who with similar abilities.

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It’s amazing how this set of sprites has more personality than most modern videogame characters

Earthbound only gets weirder as the story progresses, with each quirky town inhabiting wonderfully witty characters and numerous bonkers quests. Each area is a treasure trove of the weird and wonderful; there’s Onett, Ness’ hometown which has been overrun by a street gang called the Sharks; Threed, a rundown city that has a serious problems with the ghosts and ghouls that have taken up residence; and then there’s Fourside, a New York inspired metropolis that houses an illusory neon world called Moonside. You’ll fight cults, save the love interest, cross swamps and deserts, pursue your abominable next door neighbor and journey towards one of the darkest final boss battles in gaming history. To delve any further would ruin the beauty of Earthbound, simply because one of the game’s biggest strengths lies in the moment of euphoria when you piece together all of the eccentric mysteries that reside in each town.

Graphically and musically, Earthbound still holds up extremely well. The sprites have an exuberant sense of personality with a pastel colour pallet that gives everything a clean and solid look. Characters are expressive and extremely likeable whilst enemies vary between cute, weird and menacing. Battles also take place in a unique psychedelic background that suits the weird and colourful nature of the game impeccably. Similarly, the music of Earthbound holds up just as well, with a lot of futuristic beeps and bloops interwoven throughout each song. The soothing music gives off a strong sense of hope and wonder, towns are given an almost childish tone to them through the hilarious music associated with shops and hotels, and then dangerous moments really ramp up the tension with some disconcerting ambient sounds. Don’t even get me started on the amazing piece of music that plays once you reach each “Your Sanctuary” location, it’s simply beautiful. Battles vary in music depending on the opponent but every piece suits each enemy perfectly; aliens are given futuristic sounding themes whilst feral dogs are given a more innocent and zany piece of music. The sheer amount of musical content of the game helps to combat the usual tiring sounds of RPG’s, which skilfully manage to keep the soundtrack unique and fresh even in this day and age.

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Every battle takes place in an all consuming psychedelic background

In terms of gameplay, Earthbound is a very much a typical RPG, but instead of swords and staves you’ll be wielding baseball bats and toy guns. Magic is also replaced by an ability called PSI which is split into various categories such as assist PSI, which can be used to cure status ailments or erecting shields; offense PSI, abilities mainly used by heroine Paula which have the ability to devastate enemies; and recover PSI, typical healing spells that are mostly used by Ness and, the unfortunately named prince, Poo. Jeff is a very different party member to the rest as he cannot use any PSI spells, but he does have access to some powerful items, as well as the handy ability to craft other special items that can be used in battle. Something unique that the game does is the introduction of a rolling HP counter, an addition that brings a surprising dynamic to battles when on the verge of death. Even if the character has been dealt a fatal blow, recovery items and PSI can be used to save that character from death before the counter rolls down to zero.

Outside of battle, enemies can be approached before hand meaning you have some kind of input into how the start of the battle will unfold. Surprising enemies beforehand will give your team the first strike whilst allowing enemies to get the drop on you result in them getting the first wave of attacks. There’s even the handy little ability to defeat enemies on the spot should your characters levels be of a much higher number than your enemies. It also brings a few unique ideas such as the ability to call your father to save, as well as a bank account that has more money put into it as you beat more monsters; this money can then be retrieved from numerous cash machines scattered around the world.

Other than that, you’ll move about like typical in the genre, you’ll speak to town citizens for information, go shopping for weapons and items, and most likely get lost when trying to fathom where your next destination. That brings me onto the only negative of the game; Earthbound can be too obscure for its own good which makes progression a sometimes difficult affair. This is only made more frustrating by the slow pace of movement and counterintuitive menu system that requires a few too many clicks before speaking, swapping items and saving. Earthbound’s weird objectives and clunky menu might prove to be more taxing than the bosses of the game, but as long as you persevere and look for every clue, you’ll no doubt find a solution after a while.

Earthbound is a delightfully weird game that has a variety of interesting and dark themes lying under it’s childishly colourful surface. You start the game with a simple request that leads to a journey like no other, ending with a nightmarish last boss that will stay engraved in your mind forever. It’s a game about growing up, facing the hardships of life and making friends that will stand by your side to the very end. Even today it’s presentation, story and music are like no other in the medium and it’s a damn shame that the series is still as obscure as it is. To put it simply, if you have a Wii U then this game is a must have and a serious system seller for the ailing console. Earthbound is an unforgettable experience that will take any adult player back to the wonder of being a child; it’s a world where any meaningless thing has the capability of being an amazing and colourful adventure.

Even though obscurity and a slow pace slightly hinder Earthbound, this is a game packed with so many amazing ideas that it’s hard not to flow with the madness. It’s an experience that still remains unparalleled in any art form; not bad for a little RPG made 20 years ago.

Score: 9/10

 

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Hotline Miami Review

Hotline-Miami

With the recent release of Hotline Miami for the Playstation 4, I thought that now would be the perfect time to review this incredibly twisted tale of revenge, betrayal and violent retribution. Just to note that the game is also available for Windows, Playstation 3 and the Playstation Vita which are all more or less the same in each aspect.

With obvious influences from the 2011 film, Drive, Hotline Miami tells the story of a man known only as “Jacket” who is given assassination missions over his phone. These assassinations form the basis of each playable level which the player must complete a few of per chapter. Each chapter of the game is book-ended by a Lynchian segment in which “Jacket” is confronted by three masked figures who allude to a much more surreal story that the player must attempt to piece together. Tonally, the game is the perfect mixture of noir tropes and characters, surreal imagery and grimy violence, all of which manage to depict a detestably delectable world, not at all dissimilar to that of Frank Miller’s neo noir comic and film series, Sin City.

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Dozens of massacred bodies becomes a typical sight as you complete each level

The top down gameplay is the definition of brutal; nearly anything in each level has the capability to wound or kill your opponents. Doors can be strategically opened to daze enemies, weapons are strewn throughout the area to be used and thrown at the player’s disposal, and some enemies can even be used as shields and bargaining chips to get the upper hand on situations. Players can also choose a particular mask to wear before each level, which all have their own advantages such as making more guns appear or being able to take more than 2 bullets before death. The gameplay moves to a quick beat, with death resulting in an instant reappearance at the start of the area to try again. Death will be an exceedingly frequent affair for the player, but the brisk pace allows you to quickly study areas and evaluate enemy movements. No matter if you approach each level with a carefully formulated plan or a bullish sense of bloody carnage, Hotline Miami will reward the player when the level is completed with points allocated for every violent scenario you could possibly imagine.

The pixelated style adds to the gritty nature of the game, and creates a great deal of irony when considering just how gruesome some of these sights would look with realistic graphics. It also allows the game to use some interesting and startling imagery as the surrealism starts to weave it’s way into the plot. It evokes the sensibilities of when videogames were about dropping coins into an arcade machine and immersing yourself in world of desensitized madness. The music is as top notch as a game like this can be; violent club music rumbles in the background of the bloody encounters; experimental reggae stylishly oozes a sense of grim pleasure and belonging, in the filthy forgotten corners of the city; and a Drive-esqe piece of music adds a great sense of relief and hope when “Jacket” drives home through the sun soaked streets of Miami.

Hotline Miami is full of extra content that will keep you occupied for ages. Levels can be challenged again with new masks and available weapons, and there’s also secrets scattered around for you to find. There’s even a completely different scenario that can be played after the end credits, which helps to evolve the story into new and even more surreal areas. The sheer amount of content and gameplay options keeps Hotline Miami from ever getting too repetitive; a pitfall many indie games have fallen into in the past.

Hotline Miami is a brutal and unforgiving tale of the destruction of both body and mind. The gameplay is quick and fun with a wealth of content that will keep players coming back for more. It may be a little too violent and surreal for some people but there’s a definite method to the madness that will appeal to those who like a stealthy and action approach to their games. With a sequel on the way, now is the best time to experience the sheer insanity that is Hotline Miami.

Score: 8/10

 

Bravely Default Review

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Final Fantasy has fallen on hard times recently; the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy has proved to be controversial in both story and gameplay; Final Fantasy XIV originally launched to abysmal reviews; and Final Fantasy XV, announced over 8 years ago under a completely different title, is still missing in action. Although under a completely different moniker, Bravely Default shares a startling amount of tropes with the Final Fantasy series. White and black mages don their mysical garbs, players dash around the world map in a high powered airship, and four warriors find themselves tasked with restoring power to a set of magical crystals. What makes Bravely default so special though is that it clearly shows Square Enix has the ability to make great Final Fantasy games again.

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The hand drawn backgrounds are rich and enticing

Bravely Default depicts a world governed by four crystals that keep the elements in check. Something is amiss with the crystals though which is causing the world to slowly spiral out of control. Agnes Oblige, a young wind vestal who is responsible for looking after one of these crystals, takes it upon herself to reawaken these crystals in order to restore balance to the world. Along the way she encounters three individuals who’s fates will become closely connected to her own. This includes Tiz Arrior; a young man who’s life is turned upside down when his hometown is destroyed; Edea Lee, a knight who turns her back on her own country in order to help Agnes with her cause; and finally Ringabell, a flirtatious amnesiac who possesses a mysterious book containing details of the party’s future exploits. All of the characters are extremely likeable and fleshed out, bringing a layer of personality and dynamism to the game that is usually missing from the usual job based Final Fantasy titles. The same can’t be said for the voice acting which is pretty mediocre all round apart from a few notable exceptions. Edea and Ringabell are given some of the best lines of the game which are delivered very well, but unfortunately Agnes’ voice acting is woefully painful to listen to, which is a real shame given that most of the important events are based around her.

The story of Bravely Default is surprisingly dark, containing a great deal of twists and turns; some that will intrigue the player and some that will leave you scratching your head in disbelief. Regardless, many of the scenes are powerful and the overall scale of the game is incredibly grand. It also has a few lighthearted moments spread throughout that give the characters a great deal more likability, especially in the case of Edea and Ringabell who’s relationship is used to an often humorous effect. It’s this shifting tone that gives Bravely Default the much needed personality that has been lacking from recent Final Fantasy titles. This isn’t to say that the story is wholly successful, as the second half of the game takes a turn for the tedious that is obvious an effort to lengthen the story. It’s a poor decision on behalf of the designers, especially because most of the later content is recycled from the first half of the game.

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Spells and summons are a spectacle to watch

The graphics in Bravely Default are highly impressive, especially considering the fact that it’s limited to the weak architecture of the 3DS. The character artwork is striking but sometimes a little odd looking, due to the fact it blends chibi characteristics with realistic proportions. The creature design’s in battle are highly expressive and extremely varied with loads of different types for the player to marvel at. The world design is just as beautiful, with hand drawn backdrops (continue later)

The soundtrack is a strange mixture of celtic and rock which works surprisingly well given the world the game is taking place in. The battle theme is, as per usual, addictively catchy and the boss themes get the blood pumping for the long arduous battles. As said before, the only drawback from the sound design is the mixed voice acting that can sometimes detract from the quality of the character exposition.

The battle system is where this game shines though, taking the turn based battle system of Final Fantasy but adding it’s own titular actions to add a strong sense of dynamism to the proceedings. Battles are determined by BP which determined how many attacks you can deal per turn. By clicking the brave icon, you can use up to four attacks in a single turn but at the expense of going into negative BP territory which means the character must wait the allotted number of turns to attack again. The way to counterbalance this comes through the default command which causes the character to wait a turn and defend, thus giving them an extra turn for the next phase of battle. Regular battles can be breezed through quickly by using the brave commands, but it’s the boss battles where the battle system soars. You’ll find that discovering the right balance of attack and defense creates is key to winning against the difficult bosses in Bravely Default.

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There are a vast amount of jobs to find and use

The game also brings back the legendary job system of Final Fantasy, which includes the usual knight and mage jobs from Final Fantasy, as well as some new additions exclusive to Bravely Default. Much like Final Fantasy V, characters can dip and out of each job borrowing techniques and abilities from each one to use with their existing job. The costumes for each job are striking and typically grandiose, but with unique features for each character that help define their personality.

Bravely Default also has a few online touches courtesy of Nintendo Streetpass which can be used to rebuild Tiz’ hometown of Norende. This isn’t a purely superficial venture though, as taking the time to rebuild Norende can reward you with some very helpful items and attacks. There is also the option to buy some special potions that stop the flow of time mid battle, but these come at the cost of actual real world money instead of an in-game currency.

Bravely Default is a top notch RPG that manages to merge genre traditions with modern sensibilities. It takes the time to appease old school enthusiasts with a strategic battle system, whilst offering a fast paced and stylish presentation that will please modern gamers. It suffers a few unfortunate pitfalls along the way, but this is a journey of epic proportions that is definitely worth taking.

Score: 8/10

Hohokum Review

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The image above says it all about Hohokum; it’s an explosion of light, colours and striking imagery; a carnival of wackiness where the player is free to play and explore at their own will. As I was making my way through this game, I continued to ask myself what the hell I was doing and what it all contributed towards. Even now, this game doesn’t make all that much sense to me but if you want a joyous sense of fun and exploration then Hohokum has those qualities in spades.

The moment you start up the game you take control of a strange snake like eye creature (already weird), and navigate a blank grey area that it is up to you to bring colour back to. The X button allows you to dash at high speeds, circle slows you down for more precise movements, and square is used to interact with other creatures and perform special movements. From then on out you will navigate around an array of incredibly different areas that vary wildly in terms of style, tone and length. Other than a single challenge to sort out in the level, Hohokum has various eyes scattered throughout the stages that you must search out and open, in what seems to be the game’s own brand of optional secrets.

To be honest, I was struggling to recommend Hohokum to anybody for a good long while, simply because I just couldn’t make any sense of it all…but then I hit a particular level in which I was tasked with helping put a wedding back on track. I got the bride to the ceremony, gave glasses of wine to all the guests, and brought festivities to the occasion as I triggered fireworks in the sky. Then the next area brought a whole new set of challenges to explore, namely helping a vibrant city’s citizens to get a rollercoaster up and running again. Then the one after that sees a father and son bonding amongst a group of avid kite flyers who it was up to me to invigorate interest in. Hohokum isn’t trying to tell some grand story; it’s a game about helping the peaceful denizens of this world to triumph over their problems and challenges.

Hohokum also has a tremendous amount of interactivity, with everything in the world reacting to you in some shape or form. Stars twinkle the moment you touch them, plants bloom to life in a burst of colour, and citizens latch onto you when you pass them. Everything feels as if it is a living breathing part of the world which does a great job of immersing you even further. The graphics, although simple, are colourful and expressive, helping to depict a wild world full of endless possibilities. The music also deserves a special mention as well, as it fits the tone of the game perfectly. Each area starts off incredibly calm and soothing, but as you explore more of the terrain and discover more creatures the music builds to an almost anthemic crescendo. The game just feels more alive because of all these elements working together. After a while, you really do begin to feel like a part of this strange yet wonderful ecosystem.

Hohokum stands out amongst Sony’s fast growing crowd of digital titles. It’s a bright and colourful never ending story of a strange and surreal world that yearns to be explored. It makes absolutely no sense but that’s all part of the fun, and if you let go of any preconceptions and give this game a chance, you’ll find yourself fully immersed in its beautiful playground for weeks to come.

Score: 8/10

Fez review

I’m a bit late to the party with this review, since Fez has been out a fair few years now on a multitude of different platforms. The game gained much notoriety due to its infamous developer Phil Fish who is known for his rather outspoken comments on the gaming industry, even going as far as to cancel Fez 2 due to personal criticism from numerous gaming sites. Regardless of all this though Fez stands as an amazing triumph and a sterling contribution to the industry, and if this is truly Fish’s only notable game then he should be extremely proud.

Fez doesn’t have much story to speak of and is much more focused on exploration and wonder. The player takes control of Gomez who gains possession of a fez hat that gives him the power to the shift his two dimension world in three dimensional ways. With the revelation that the world around him is slowly being swallowed by a vortex Gomez is tasked, by a floating entity called Dot, with finding special cubes that can save the world. This is pretty much it for the story, but Fez probably wouldn’t be as great a game if it was bogged down by an unnecessary plot line. It gets to the action fast and introduces the central concept early on, thus allowing the player to explore the world almost immediately without any hassle.

Fez’s graphics have a definite charm to them evoking the pixelated visual style of the SNES era. Gomez is an adorable character to control and surprisingly expressive in his movements. Each world that the player explores is extremely varied and different ranging from peaceful, breezy villages to rain soaked ruins. What makes the game’s visuals especially notable is the fact every 2D landscape is actually part of a larger 3D world that can all be fully explored. It makes, what would otherwise be a charming looking 2D platformer, a surprisingly meaty experience that has obviously had a lot of careful planning and detail meticulously added to it. Much like the graphics Fez’s music evokes the chiptune style music of the SNES days. Each accompanying piece of music is often soft and mellow, easily fitting the style of the game very well. The synthesised sound effects are just as fitting as well; Gomez’s feet plonk down on the floor with a cute squelch, Thunder claps ominously in the background of an intimidating area,and birds tweet innocently in the more calming levels.

As said before Fez is centered around a surprisingly simple concept of shifting the world around you in order to progress forward. With a tap of the L and R buttons you can turn the world by 90 degrees, essentially allowing you to explore four 2D maps per area. Its an extremely interesting idea that is fully exploited throughout the game’s roughly five hour campaign. Fez has no combat to speak of, and instead chooses to focus solely on puzzle solving and exploration; a risky move for most games but Fez definitely has the sheer amount of depth to back it up. Beyond that, the purpose of the game is to collect cubes which can either be found in full by solving puzzles, or in tiny pieces which can be formed into a full cube by collecting an allotted amount. There are also various treasure chests, secret rooms and gaming homages to be found that can keep you playing for many more hours. If the game suffers from anything at all, it would be that it can be a little vague and tough at times which will probably be a large detraction for more inexperienced game players. Players who are up for the challenge though, will find a deep and rewarding experience that heeds back to the mystery and wonder of the glory days of 2D platformers (just with a 3D twist).

Fez is a satisfyingly rewarding game that runs with its central concept to the end credits. Charming and challenging throughout; Fez will occupy you for hours and keep you coming back for more until you’ve discovered every secret it has to offer. Evoking the joy of simple exploration that is often lost in Videogames today, Fez is a game that stands tall amongst a slog of blockbuster title that struggle to innovate. It proves what a simple concept can do when explored thoroughly, and thrives because of it.

Score: 9/10